25 February 2021

Li’s Newsletter: “Building the Middle Class of the Creator Economy”

Ever since Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson first published his “Long Tail” theory in 2004, the idea has been endlessly reinforced, contradicted, and debated. He argued that the internet’s removal of physical limitations (local audiences, scarce shelf space) would empower niche products and creators to flourish.

In the search category, the phenomenon has proven true: Google has revealed that on a daily basis, 15% of all queries have never been searched before, a figure that has remained stable since 2013.

But for content platforms, the move to digital content hasn’t been correlated with a burgeoning long tail: the top creators are massively successful, while long-tail creators are barely getting by. On Spotify, for instance, the top 43,000 artists—roughly 1.4% of those on the platform—pull in 90% of royalties and make, on average, $22,395 per artist per quarter. The rest of its 3 million creators, or 98.6% of its artists, made just $36 per artist per quarter.

A 1981 paper by Sherwin Rosen, an economist at the University of Chicago, offers a prescient explanation of how the “superstar phenomenon” would become more pronounced as a result of technology. Rosen argued that in markets with heterogeneous providers, like most creator economies, success accrues disproportionately to those on top: lesser talent often is a poor substitute for greater talent […] hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance. This phenomenon is further exacerbated by technology which lowers distribution costs: the best performers in a given field are freed from physical constraints like the size of concert halls—and can address an unlimited market and reap a greater share of revenue.

Li Jin

Interesting topic, followed up with many good proposals for combating this concentration at the top of the creator economy. This issue is equivalent to income inequality in a national economy, and some of the solutions are similar: a better distribution of incomes by platforms, including decoupling creator payouts from audience demographic, diversifying the sources of revenue and creating passive income opportunities. Other measures remind me of the roles of music labels for musicians, subsidizing artists’ early steps with advances and providing support and guidance at the start of their careers. Financial incentives for people looking to become creators may be one of the most important steps, as it allows newcomers to focus on developing their products instead of constantly worrying about income.

ProPublica: “The Big Thaw: How Russia could dominate a Warming World”

A great transformation is underway in the eastern half of Russia. For centuries the vast majority of the land has been impossible to farm; only the southernmost stretches along the Chinese and Mongolian borders, including around Dimitrovo, have been temperate enough to offer workable soil. But as the climate has begun to warm, the land — and the prospect for cultivating it — has begun to improve. Twenty years ago, Dima says, the spring thaw came in May, but now the ground is bare by April; rainstorms now come stronger and wetter. Across Eastern Russia, wild forests, swamps and grasslands are slowly being transformed into orderly grids of soybeans, corn and wheat. It’s a process that is likely to accelerate: Russia hopes to seize on the warming temperatures and longer growing seasons brought by climate change to refashion itself as one of the planet’s largest producers of food.

The lyrics to Russia’s modern anthem suggest that at least some of its leaders have anticipated this moment: Wide spaces for dreams and for living are opened for us by the coming years. As if to fulfill that vision — and perhaps with the expectation of needing more land to execute his climate ambitions — Vladimir Putin declared in 2013 that the remaking of Russia’s East is our national priority for the entire 21st century, and that the goals that have to be attained are unprecedented in their scope. In laying out that ambition, he surely had history in mind. There was the outpost Russia built at the Sea of Okhotsk in the 1700s; efforts to drive out Chinese settlers of the Qing dynasty in the 1800s; the founding of the Jewish Autonomous Region, which ultimately brought as many as 40,000 Yiddish-speaking Jews to the area around Birobidzhan, in 1934; and even the longstanding banishment of workers and prisoners alike to Siberia and the Far East under Stalin and afterward.

Abrahm Lustgarten

While most countries are bracing for the damaging effects of global warming, or are already struggling with extreme heat or extreme cold events, Russia is making long-term plans to benefit from this warming trend. It controls after all the largest land area in the world and one of the least populated, which could become a prime destination for tens of millions of climate refugees in coming decades, and a huge food producer for those staying behind. The thinning ice in the Arctic is already allowing icebreakers to sail the Northern Sea Route in the middle of winter, opening huge commercial opportunities for Russian ports in the far north. In upcoming negotiations to agree upon global mitigation measures and stricter targets for emissions, Russia may prove the most stubborn opposer of coordinated actions.

24 February 2021

Wired UK: “Facebook’s Australia news ban is the best decision it’s ever made”

But there’s a trickier tangle that taxation alone won’t unpick. For many, Facebook and Google are part of the mythical “open web” – one where hyperlinks can be freely posted on any website. That makes sense on, say, Wikipedia, but it does not make sense on Facebook and Google which, despite their scale and mission statements, are essentially closed advertising ecosystems. Sure, news organisations can choose to post articles and videos on Facebook. And in return, people on Facebook may play those videos and click on those links. Rarely, they might click on an advert on the news organisation’s website or pay to subscribe to that publication. Or, if you’re the Epoch Times, you can game Facebook’s engagement algorithm to transform yourself from a low-budget far-right newspaper founded by an obscure Chinese spiritual movement into one of the most-read publications on the planet. If Facebook prioritised social wellbeing over engagement, this wouldn’t have happened.

For years it has been clear that the web, which has been shaped in Facebook and Google’s image, is in no way open. Facebook is not a social network. Google is not a search engine. They are an advertising duopoly. In the US, more than half of advertising spend now goes to big digital platforms. In the UK, Amazon, Facebook and Google account for almost 70 per cent of digital advertising spend. If Facebook doesn’t want news on its platform, that’s Facebook’s prerogative. If Google wants to hand giant wads of cash to Rupert Murdoch to secure deeply troubling pay-to-play deals, that’s Google’s prerogative. It’s an irresistible tug-of-war: there would be no Facebook or Google without the terabytes of stuff we shout into the void every hour of every day. And yet, without Facebook and Google, there would be no void to shout into.

James Temperton

Almost six months after issuing the threat, Facebook followed through and blocked links to Australian news sites, not only in the country, but globally. The decision was reversed this week, as the two sides continue to negotiate in the coming months.

23 February 2021

The New York Times: “Pfizer’s vaccine works well after one dose, and doesn’t always need ultracold storage”

Although regulators in the United States have held fast to the requirement that people receive two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine three weeks apart, the British government decided to prioritize giving as many people as possible an initial dose, allowing delays of up to 12 weeks before the second dose. The Israeli study could bolster arguments for emulating that approach in other countries.

Published in The Lancet on Thursday and drawing from a group of 9,100 Israeli health care workers, the study showed that Pfizer’s vaccine was 85 percent effective 15 to 28 days after receiving the first dose. Pfizer and BioNTech’s late-stage clinical trials, which enrolled 44,000 people, showed that the vaccine was 95 percent effective if two doses were given three weeks apart.

Katie Thomas

Another study being passed around as proof that regulators should delay the second vaccine dose to offer more people partial protection, because a single dose is supposedly enough. I have quickly skimmed through the study, but there are obviously several issues with this conclusion:

22 February 2021

The New York Times: “Apple TV was making a Show about Gawker. Then Tim Cook found out.”

Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services, who has been at the company since 1989, has told partners that the two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China, one creative figure who has worked with Apple told me. (BuzzFeed News first reported last year that Mr. Cue had instructed creators to avoid portraying China in a poor light.)

The Wall Street Journal also reported in 2018 that Mr. Cook personally killed a Dr. Dre biopic because there was too much violence and nudity, and that the company had asked the director M. Night Shyamalan to keep crucifixes off the walls in his thriller “Servant.”

And Apple’s willingness to sacrifice creative freedom for corporate risk management is still an outlier. None of my reporting suggests that Mr. Bezos is reaching into Amazon’s studio (or The Washington Post) to kill negative depictions of either e-commerce or the police, or that Mr. Stankey is ostentatiously slipping AT&T routers into “Lovecraft Country”. The question, of course, is how long, even at those companies, the old law will be suspended — that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Ben Smith

Apple has struggled for years with several TV initiatives, none of which have enjoyed the same success as many of its other products. This January, the company has further extended the Apple TV+ free trials until the end of July, a telling sign of lackluster consumer interest.

Politico: “US won’t share vaccine before all Americans receive shots, officials say”

The Biden administration won’t donate to poor countries any of the coronavirus vaccine doses the U.S. has purchased before most Americans are vaccinated, a senior administration official told reporters Thursday.

The comments come one day before Biden will join the G7 virtual meeting, where leaders of major industrialized nations are set to address anxiety over a global vaccine rollout that’s left behind poor countries.

President Joe Biden at the meeting — his first multilateral engagement since taking office — will announce the U.S. is directing $4 billion Congress allocated to Gavi in December to help procure coronavirus vaccines for poor countries, the senior official said.

Carmen Paun

The ‘America first’ mentality lives on, even after Trump is no longer US President. His executive order from December to prioritize domestic inoculations is still in place, and President Biden shows no intention of repelling it. The funding for Gavi was approved before Biden was sworn into office, so claiming merit for this measure is hypocritical at best, and inadequate at worst. This effective vaccine export ban in the US also raises the prospect that the US may refuse to release doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the European Union, because the company has insisted that the final manufacturing stages take place in the US.

20 February 2021

Reuters: “Police seize $60 million of bitcoin! Now, where’s the password?”

German prosecutors have confiscated more than 50 million euros ($60 million) worth of bitcoin from a fraudster. There’s only one problem: they can’t unlock the money because he won’t give them the password.

The man was sentenced to jail and has since served his term, maintaining his silence throughout while police made repeated failed efforts to crack the code to access more than 1,700 bitcoin, said a prosecutor in the Bavarian town of Kempten.

John O’Donnell

A hacker illegally mines Bitcoin by installing malware on more than 300.000 computers, gets caught and convicted, but the resulting coins are inaccessible because the authorities confiscated the wallet and the fraudster won’t disclose his password (if he even remembers it)… Apparently it’s a perfect standoff: if he tries to replicate the wallet, the authorities can watch it for withdrawals, so the thief can’t realistically recover his stashed treasure. Previously, German prosecutors have sold a small portion of this stolen wealth for around 500.000 Euro, money that went to the local budget, but the rest remains impossible to liquidate.