Mike Isaac

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My feeling about Facebook has long been that it’s the McDonald’s of communication—cheap, easy and bad for you—but that may not be fair to the Golden Arches. The fast-food chain will gladly pour sludge in your aortic valves in exchange for a modest fee, but it’s main interest is not in sizing you up, surveilling you and selling your attention to anyone with money to spend, be they capitalists or Nazis or the Kremlin. Mark Zuckerberg may see his “nation” of users as the next step in global comity, but it’s instead just a mirror, a magnifier, held up to this menacing American moment, with strong supporting roles for Putin thugs and all manner of chaos agents.

Eric Schmidt once called the Internet the “largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.” That’s what it still is, despite Zuckerberg wanting us to believe the his enormous piece of the real estate is a bright, welcoming place for the whole family. Facebook and Google were in the news today again for all the wrong reasons. In the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, both companies were used to spread “hoaxes, completely unverified rumors, failed witch hunts, and blatant falsehoods.” Algorithms were again insufficient.

Many of us have looked at Zuckerberg’s 2017 “listening tour,” his manifesto and his hiring of a former Hillary Clinton pollster as perhaps a prelude to a Presidential run, but it could be that he fears his empire walls have begun to crumble. A legal and political reckoning will come for what went on during the 2016 election, and depending on the severity of what’s learned, oversight could be on the table for communications platforms like Facebook and Google and Twitter, which may not be too big to fail but too big to succeed.

Two excerpts follow.


In a New York essay by Max Read:

Nowhere was this confusion about Facebook’s and Zuckerberg’s role in public life more in evidence than in the rumors that the CEO was planning to run for president. Every year, Zuckerberg takes on a “personal challenge,” a sort of billionaire-scale New Year’s resolution, about which he posts updates to his Facebook page. For most Facebook users, these meticulously constructed and assiduously managed challenges are the only access they’ll ever have to Zuckerberg’s otherwise highly private personal life. Thousands of people cluster in the comments under his status updates like crowds loitering outside Buckingham Palace, praising the CEO, encouraging him in his progress, and drawing portraits of his likeness.

This year, Zuckerberg’s challenge has been to meet people in all the states of the U.S. that he hadn’t yet visited. His first stop, in January, was Texas; since then, he’s been to 24 other states. Zuckerberg has adamantly denied that the trips are a trial run for the campaign trail, and, having spoken with many of the people he’s met with over the course of his ­journeys—not to mention stern Facebook publicists — I tend to believe him. He limits his tour activity to interactions in private groups or unannounced visits — no speeches, no barnstorms, no baby-kissing. He’s issued no policy prescriptions and inserted himself into political debates rarely and in limited ways. And yet, the road trip sure looks like a campaign — or at least the sort of “listening tour” that politicians sometimes stage to convince voters, before even announcing, that their hearts are in the right place.

To some extent, of course, the media curiosity is his own fault. (After all, he did choose to be professionally photographed while eating fried food and staring intently at machinery.) But it’s hard for me not to think that the incessant speculation is a function of our own incomplete view of Facebook. The Zuckerberg-for-president interpretation of his project understands Facebook as a large, well-known company, from which a top executive might reasonably launch a political career within the recognizable political framework of the U.S. electoral process.

But if Facebook is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere company, surely his trip is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere presidential run. Maybe he’s doing research and development, reverse-­engineering social bonds to understand how Facebook might better facilitate them. Maybe Facebook is a church and Zuckerberg is offering his benedictions. Maybe Facebook is a state within a state and Zuckerberg is inspecting its boundaries. Maybe Facebook is an emerging political community and Zuckerberg is cultivating his constituents. Maybe Facebook is a surveillance state and Zuckerberg a dictator undertaking a propaganda tour. Maybe Facebook is a dual power — a network overlaid across the U.S., parallel to and in competition with the government to fulfill civic functions — and Zuckerberg is securing his command. Maybe Facebook is border control between the analog and the digital and Zuckerberg is inspecting one side for holes. Maybe Facebook is a fleet of alien spaceships that have colonized the globe and Zuckerberg is the viceroy trying to win over his new subjects.

Or maybe it’s as simple as this: If you run a business and want to improve it, you need to spend time talking to your customers. If you’ve created a hybrid state–church–­railroad–mall–alien colony and want to understand, or expand, it, you need to spend time with your hybrid citizen-believer-passenger-customer-­subjects.•

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In Read’s analysis, there’s also this passage: “The nightmare possibility is that the money was spent strategically in an effort to selectively target swing voters with specific interests in important electoral districts — white working-class Obama voters in Michigan who’d joined anti-immigrant Facebook groups, say — pushing divisive issues that encouraged or discouraged certain voting patterns.” Each day, this possibility becomes more likely a plausibility.

The opening of Mike Isaac and Scott Shane’s NYT piece “Facebook’s Russia-Linked Ads Came in Many Disguises,” which may be flawed only by using past tense in the title:

SAN FRANCISCO — The Russians who posed as Americans on Facebook last year tried on quite an array of disguises.

There was “Defend the 2nd,” a Facebook page for gun-rights supporters, festooned with firearms and tough rhetoric. There was a rainbow-hued page for gay rights activists, “LGBT United.” There was even a Facebook group for animal lovers with memes of adorable puppies that spread across the site with the help of paid ads.

Federal investigators and officials at Facebook now believe these groups and their pages were part of a highly coordinated disinformation campaign linked to the Internet Research Agency, a secretive company in St. Petersburg, Russia, known for spreading Kremlin-linked propaganda and fake news across the web. They were described to The New York Times by two people familiar with the social network and its ads who were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Under intensifying pressure from Congress and growing public outcry, Facebook on Monday turned over more than 3,000 of the Russia-linked advertisements from its site over to the Senate and House intelligence committees, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee. The material is part of an attempt to learn the depth of what investigators now believe was a sprawling foreign effort spanning years to interfere with the 2016 United States presidential election.

“We’re obviously deeply disturbed by this,” Joel Kaplan, Facebook vice president for United States public policy, said in an interview. “The ads and accounts we found appeared to amplify divisive political issues across the political spectrum,” including gun rights, gay rights issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.•

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That Mark Zuckerberg’s self-described religious conversion and his 50-states “listening tour” have been carefully managed, documented and publicized for public consumption is undeniable, but let’s not suppose that something so staged will be unsuccessful. After all, there’s never been a more obvious con man than Donald Trump, so let us never, ever again underestimate the propensity of Americans to be impressed by fabulously wealthy celebrities going through the motions. Enough of us assume they have to be brilliant and special. 

Maybe the founder of Facebook, the platform of choice for Alt-Reich enthusiasts, is really prepping for a 2020 Presidential run that will be aided by his media holdings–like Berlusconi minus all the fascinating bunga bunga?–or perhaps he’s just trying on a new style like when he was killing the animals he ate or being a proud Atheist or saying idiotic pseudo-philosophical about dying Africans. Sure, it’s possible he’s truly changed and grown, but real personal development is not usually connected to the end of a selfie stick.

Regardless, there are many Americans who’d be far better in the Oval Office and at least one who’s way worse.

From Mike Isaac of the New York Times:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In March, Mark Zuckerberg visited the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the site of a mass murder by a white supremacist.

Last month, he went to Dayton, Ohio, to sit down with recovering opioid addicts at a rehabilitation center.

And he spent an afternoon in Blanchardville, Wis., with Jed Gant, whose family has owned a dairy and beef cattle farm for six generations.

These were all stops along a road trip by Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, across the United States this year. His goal: to visit every state in the union and learn more about a sliver of the nearly two billion people who regularly use the social network.

On Thursday, in a commencement speech at Harvard, from which he dropped out in 2005, Mr. Zuckerberg discussed how his views on how people live and work with one another had broadened, partly as a result of what he has seen on the tour. He said he had come to realize that churches, civic centers and other organized meeting places are integral to building and maintaining a strong sense of community.

“As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me their lives could have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after-school program or somewhere to go,” said Mr. Zuckerberg, who also received an honorary doctoral degree at the ceremony. “I’ve met factory workers who know their old jobs aren’t coming back and are trying to find their place.”

To his critics, Mr. Zuckerberg’s road trip is a stunt and has taken on the trappings of a political campaign. His every pit stop — eating with a farming family in Ohio; feeding a baby calf at a farm in Wisconsin — has been artfully photographed and managed, and then posted to Mr. Zuckerberg’s Facebook page.

“He has all of the mechanics needed for a massive, well-staged media operation,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit media watchdog group. “Photographers, handlers, its size, scope and scale — all the ingredients are there. And he’s appearing in an environment where there’s no sole Democratic leader or counterbalance to Trump, who’s consuming all the oxygen in media.”

Mr. Zuckerberg has publicly denied that he is using the visits as a platform to run for public office.•

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An indicator of how far we’ve fallen and how much further we might plummet is a pair of really talented New York Times journalists having a casual conversation about Donald Trump potentially using the office of the Presidency to punish private companies that haven’t been “nice” to him and neither one mentioning how unethical that is and how chilling for a democracy. You could say perhaps that goes without saying, but it seems like we’ve already accepted what should never be acceptable.

The excerpt:

Farhad Manjoo:

Amazon put out a statement promising to create 100,000 new full-time jobs in the United States over the next year and a half. The company did not mention Trump, but the statement seemed as if it was part of a pattern of corporations sending out good news to the incoming president. A half-dozen companies, including Ford and SoftBank, have promised to hire more American workers. As with the others, though, it’s not quite clear if Amazon’s promises are a deviation from its plans, or if it’s just pre-announcing growth that was already baked in.

Mike Isaac:

Is it cynical for me to say “the latter”? Seems like a pretty obvious way to curry favor with the new boss while just doing what you were already planning to do.

Farhad Manjoo:

Well, analysts also believe it’s the latter — Trump or no Trump, Amazon is growing really quickly, so it most likely had plans to hire all these people anyway. But Trump has had Amazon in his sights for a while; during the campaign he frequently threatened the company with antitrust action, often in response to critical coverage from The Washington Post, which Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns. In that light, Amazon’s job announcement is a savvy defense: Come after us and you’ll come after all these new jobs. Do you think it’s going to work?

Mike Issac:

Honestly, I’m not sure, but if experience tells us anything about Trump’s actions, it is this: Compliment the guy or win him over, and he’ll be your new best friend. Cross him, and prepare for a gnarly tweetstorm. He’s about as mercurial as a thermometer, so there’s no real road map for predicting his actions outside of seeing who has wooed him most recently.

Farhad Manjoo:


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Mike Nelson, sales director of Yahoo Inc., center left, and William J. Brodsky, president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, along with market-makers start trading of the Yahoo! stock at the exchange Tuesday, Sept. 9, 1997, in Chicago. The options exchange began trading Yahoo! options, which offers internet navigational service to internet users Tuesday. (AP Photo/Charles Bennett)

Technology companies can’t be all things to all people, but they can’t remain stagnant, either. Yahoo! began as a hand-made site, with the original surfers amassing information in a rudimentary way, in much the same sense that “computers” were once people, not machines. The erstwhile search giant was more a media company more than a technology one, though things didn’t have to stay that way. Jeff Bezos, after all, didn’t continue selling books from his garage. But the original ethos was never abandoned, and Yahoo! was lapped by other startups, most famously Google, which was started as an AI company. 

In his excellent “Week in Tech” conversation with fellow New York Times reporter Mike Isaac, Farhad Manjoo sums up better than anyone else has the reason for the fall of the Filo-Yang outfit. An excerpt:

I think Yahoo’s failure offers one lesson above all for tech companies: Invest in technology. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s one place where Yahoo totally missed the boat from the beginning. It started out in the 1990s as a guide to the web that was created by human beings. In other words, from its very inception, Yahoo was more of a media company than a tech company. And that origin story infected its culture — sure, it had lots of engineers and acquired lots of innovative tech, but at its core Yahoo never really saw itself as a company whose mission was to invent the next big thing.

Notice how today’s tech behemoths — Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook — offer a completely different outlook on the world. Each of these companies regards software and hardware as their essential areas of expertise, the basis from which they can spin out into so many different areas that are far beyond their primary businesses.

Yahoo never really got that, and so, when the tech world changed, it failed.•

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Every decade or so when the wounds heal and painful lessons are forgotten, venture capital will pour into food-delivery startups trying to execute the Web 1.0 business model of Urbanfetch and Kozmo.com, may they rest in peace.

It seems so simple since pizzerias have done it forever. But pizza shops are largely deeply rooted local businesses that know of a few good men (and women) to deliver their pies. Doing something on a far grander scale requires an abundance of drivers willing to make $5 a pop (plus tips) to deliver meals. And that’s just one problem with the system. Perhaps someday when they’re are plentiful driverless cars or delivery drones, the dream will be realized.

From Mike Isaac in the New York Times:

DoorDash, one of a multitude of start-ups with a mobile app that lets people order and get food sent to their doorsteps, relies on contract drivers like Brian Navarro to make the deliveries. The problem is that workers like Mr. Navarro don’t always stick around.

Mr. Navarro began driving for DoorDash and another delivery start-up, Postmates, in Los Angeles about four months ago. Mr. Navarro, 40, who previously drove for the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, said he had seen plenty of contractors quit DoorDash and other delivery companies during the time he has worked with them.

“Drivers do jump around,” Mr. Navarro said. “The general consensus is that drivers really only stick around for three to six months.”

That churn has become expensive for DoorDash. A large number of drivers left the start-up less than a year after they joined, according to two people who have seen the company’s driver data. DoorDash spends upward of $200 in recruitment and referral bonuses for some drivers, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details are confidential. Other delivery companies, like Postmates and Instacart, face similar retention challenges, these people said.•

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I put up a post last month about taxi commissions needing to compete with Uber at its own game, creating an app that will allow medallion owners and their drivers to offer customers the best of ridesharing (smartphone hailing, digital payments) without the negative (surge pricing, unethical business and labor practices), and it seems that NYC and Chicago were already thinking along those lines. Now it will come down to properly executing the system. From Mike Isaac at the New York Times:

“If you can’t beat them, join them.

Regulators in Chicago have approved a plan to create one or more applications that would allow users to hail taxis from any operators in the city, using a smartphone. In New York, a City Council member proposed a similar app on Monday that would let residents ‘e-hail’ any of the 20,000 cabs that circulate in the city on a daily basis.

It is a new tack for officials in the two cities, a reaction to the surging use of hail-a-ride apps like Uber and Lyft.

Regulators in New York have not yet voted on the bill on the e-hail app, which was first proposed by Benjamin Kallos, a councilman who represents the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island.

In Chicago, the plan to create such apps is part of the so-called Taxi Driver Fairness Reforms package, a plan backed by a taxi union and City Council members that would update regulations around taxi cab lease rates and violations like traffic tickets, among others. The city is expected to solicit third-party application developers to build the official app or set of apps. The City Council gave no further details on its selection criteria, nor did it give information on how the initiative would be financed.

‘These reforms represent what is necessary to further modernize this growing industry,’ Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, said in a statement.”


Jeff Bezos didn’t think the Washington Post is hopeless, not completely, so he decided to buy the company. In a piece by Mike Isaac of the New York Times, which is currently undergoing its latest wave of painful buyouts and layoffs, Bezos explains his reasoning:

“In his telling, which was one of the first candid interviews on the subject since he bought the paper for $250 million last year, Mr. Bezos was approached through an intermediary by Donald E. Graham, then the chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Company. Aside from his lack of expertise on the newspaper industry, Mr. Bezos was skeptical for other reasons.

‘I went through a few gates before deciding to buy The Post. Is it hopeless? I didn’t want to do it if it was,’ he said. ‘The Internet has radically disrupted traditional newspapers. The world is completely changed, and advertisers have tons of options on how to reach people in local areas.”

Mr. Bezos and the staff of The Post have their work cut out for them. As the newspaper industry undergoes significant change to cope with the rise of digital publishing, The Post has gone throughmultiple rounds of layoffs, and recently announced cuts to employees’ retirement benefits. Similar to The Post, The New York Times is currently going through a round of employee buyouts.

But Mr. Bezos was ultimately convinced that The Post, which he called a national institution, can be brought into the digital age by leveraging the technical expertise and knowledge that he has gained over his decades spent building Amazon into a global technology company.

‘I didn’t know anything about the newspaper business, but I did know something about the Internet,’ Mr. Bezos said. ‘That, combined with the financial runway that I can provide, is the reason why I bought The Post.’

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Despite employing some innovations that markedly improve commuter convenience–using a smartphone to hail a taxi, track it and pay for the ride–Uber seems to be the ickiest of the new Sharing Economy behemoths. It not only disrupts the livelihood of traditional drivers but squeezes its own operators and employs surge pricing when consumers are most vulnerable. Peter Thiel thinks it possible that the Silicon Valley business may be reckless enough to be the new Napster, driving itself out of business by flouting laws. But even though Sean Parker’s company was silenced, online sharing was the larger wave and unstoppable. It might be the same with Uber: The concern may not go forever, but what it represents won’t be stopped and will make things better and worse. From Mike Isaac at the New York Times:

“Uber, the smartphone-based hail-a-ride service, often claims it is cheaper than a ride in a taxi. It looks as if some Uber customers do not agree.

The company received an ‘F’ rating from the Better Business Bureau on Thursday, the lowest possible rating given by the organization.

The grade is based on, among other criteria, more than 90 Uber customer complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau over the last three years, most of them centering on Uber’s so-called surge pricing.

Customers still feel misinformed about how they are charged for their rides, according to complaints at the bureau’s website, and say they are not able to receive adequate customer service when they try to complain about their fares.

With its surge pricing, Uber’s temporarily increases fare prices anywhere from one and a half to 10 times the normal cost of taking an Uber ride, based on the demand for drivers. When many people in a particular area request Uber at the same time, for example, the price of rides in that area goes up.

‘I never knew about surcharges until after the fact and was unaware, confused and uninformed,’ one customer wrote on the bureau’s site.”

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