Issue #9 "Companies that I write about act more like nation-states"
A conversation with Casey Newton of Platformer.
Composite by Yarden Haddi
After seven years at The Verge, technology reporter Casey Newton has made the bold decision to pursue his own venture: a newsletter called Platformer. The focus, as he describes it, is on big tech and democracy. And it’s being published via Substack where a growing number of big names in the industry are turning to in order to build and manage their own reader following. Perspectivves caught up with Casey to find out why he made the move to independent journalism, his mission to continue holding powerful social media companies accountable, and whether he thinks Mark Zuckerberg can redeem himself.
Yarden: First of all, we heard that you recently announced your departure from The Verge to start your own newsletter. We welcome you to Substack, and while we aren't paid by them, we really enjoy the service and the platform it gives us. What do you think will be different now that you are running your own independent publication?
Casey: A lot of things [laughs]. I need an accountant now. At The Verge, my colleague Zoë Schiffer helped me put together the previous iteration of my newsletter, which is called The Interface. She would write up all the links that I would find throughout the day and that would save me a couple of hours that I put into reporting and writing. Now I am doing all of that myself. There are good things about that though; it means that I’m reading more and more closely. The biggest change is that I have to be a salesman now. I have to promote Platformer, I have to get people to subscribe and I am now totally dependent on reader revenue and that’s a real change for me. The big question is will it work?
Ziv: The move to independent journalism has got to be scary. Do you agree?
Casey: Yeah, but at the same time I had been a journalist working for a publication since 2002 and that comes with its own set of risks. You’re always dependent on how the ad market is doing. Or, if your company is owned by private equity, [you have to consider] the profit margin that they are demanding and the cut that they insist on. And so I think being a journalist in the United States just has precarity built into it. One of the reasons why I wanted to go independent was to see whether I could figure out a more sustainable path forward, not just for myself, but for other folks who are thinking about making a similar move. Hopefully, we can bring back some of the journalism jobs that we’ve lost [in the industry].
Yarden: Your move to Platformer sparked a lot of talk within the industry. Do you think that this trend of journalists going independent is marking the end of the traditional news publication?
Casey: We know that there are two models for journalism that work really well. One is a giant newsroom like that of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, supported by a mix of advertising revenue and subscription revenue. You also have the giant scaled-up, ad-supported web businesses like The Verge. That is also working really well. But at the same time, we’ve lost over 10,000 jobs in the United States in journalism, this year alone, and it seems clear that we need to try something else. And while all of those trends have been unfolding, we’ve seen the rise of the influencer. One of the bets that I’m making is that the influencer economy is going to have some sort of intersection with journalism and people who are able to build a large following on one platform may be able to translate it into a full-time job doing their own thing. I think there is still a lot of stuff that we have to figure out along the way but if we can my hope is that it creates a viable third path for some folks who want to do journalism.
Ziv: As a reporter in Silicon Valley, you’ve seen a lot of startups come and go. Quibi is a good example of a company that has created a lot of hype only to underdeliver. What do you make of that?
Casey: You know, if you raise a billion dollars you can create a lot of hype and that’s what they did. I think there were folks, myself included, who pretty early on were skeptical of Quibi because very little about what they were saying was adding up. They wanted to translate Hollywood movies for mobile phones and the truth is that Netflix had already done that. The video market is insanely competitive. There’s already more stuff on YouTube than any of us can watch in one lifetime. So if the team at Quibi was going to succeed, they were going to have to come out of the gate with something that really turned into a water cooler show. They were going to need their version of The Mandalorian. They were going to need their House of Cards and, ultimately, they just didn’t have it. I think that if they had had a better show, they probably would have had an easier first six months.
Ziv: So you believed that Quibi was set up for failure?
Casey: The truth is, I thought it was going to be a massive failure. But then I caught myself and thought about all of the times that I had predicted other things that would fail that had actually succeeded such as the Nintendo Switch. Once quarantine started, I thought about how a lot of people would be sitting around at home and that maybe they would have time to watch Quibi, but my initial suspicion was correct. It was a flop.
Yarden: We’re living in a time where you’ve got billionaires controlling these large tech companies. I’ve read that the GDP of California, for example, is higher than that of some countries. What power do tech journalists like yourself have in influencing these monopolies and the powerful executives that run them?
Casey: I think that the role of the press is to serve as a check on power of all kinds whether it’s being wielded by a powerful politician or a company. Since I started covering business, businesses have become more powerful than ever. The companies that I write about like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter start to act more like nation-states than traditional companies. Facebook has more than three billion users. That’s not a company in the way that we traditionally think of it. And so it’s our job [as tech journalists] to understand how they work, to understand their decision-making, and to push back when we see obvious examples of unfairness or injustice. I spent a lot of last year writing about the lives of Facebook content moderators in the United States, many of whom were developing post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions because of the content that they were viewing on the job. Many of them were not getting anything close to adequate healthcare and their salaries were insanely low given the risk that they were taking. After I wrote that story, the platforms implemented a bunch of changes. The job is still very difficult and I hear from moderators all the time, but Facebook wound up settling with them for $52-million dollars in the United States. And so now, anyone who has ever moderated for Facebook is going to get a $1,000 cheque. I’m not saying that my stories are the reason that that happened, but I do think that they drew a lot of attention to that issue and they catalyzed an international conversation about what Facebook owes its moderators. So I think those are the places where I try to put myself. I try to find obvious examples of injustices or unfairness and try to put pressure on the companies to do the right thing. I’m fortunate in that I have CEOs and other members of executive teams of the companies that I cover who are reading Platformer every day. They are interacting with me and telling me what they think about it. That puts me in a position where I can kind of keep nudging them towards what I think is a better version of the future.
Ziv: One of the things we’ve seen Facebook do recently is banning Holocaust denial content or content that distorts the truth about it. Why did it take so long to get to this point?
Casey: In the United States, there has been this tradition of allowing Holocaust denial and other offensive forms of speech. The reason it has been allowed is as a sort of signal to say that we believe in freedom so strongly in this country that we will let you do this abhorrent thing. In our country, it’s more important that everyone is free than everyone saying nice things all the time. And that was the view that held sway inside of Facebook for a long time. There was a big controversy about it in 2009 and they were able to kind of weather it. Then the CEO of the company, Mark Zuckerberg, restated the company’s opinion about it in 2018 on a podcast and it triggered this fresh wave of controversy. However, they started to notice something over the past couple of years, which was a huge surge in antisemitism in the United States and around the world. They started looking at the data and, of course, it is the case that some of these antisemites are meeting on Facebook. They are being recommended to join antisemitic Facebook groups by algorithms that don’t understand what they are recommending. I think that Facebook began to feel complicit in the spread of antisemitism and that’s why they had to act. That’s the main thing that makes social media platforms different from other speech forums, right? If I walk into a shopping mall and I make an antisemitic remark, the people immediately around me are going to hear it but the mall itself is not going to hand me a megaphone to share it with everybody else who’s shopping. Whatever you say on Facebook could be shared with thousands or even millions of people. A big part of my writing over the past several years has been trying to get Facebook to reckon with that responsibility.
Yarden: What do you see coming down the tube after Facebook and Twitter?
Casey: Tik Tok is what turned out to be after Facebook and Twitter. We’ll see if it can continue to stay alive, but one of the reasons I love covering social networks is that there is always something new around the corner. There’s some new creative tool, there’s some new feature that captures people's imagination and lets them express themselves in a new way. Tik Tok did a lot of really brilliant things like their Duet feature, which allows you to remix other people’s videos and turn them into comedy sketches. The really hard thing is to predict, in advance, what is going to come after Tik Tok. Every day, people are e-mailing me, tweeting me, and DMing me about their new social thing and my rule of thumb is that I won’t write about it until I hear about it from someone who doesn’t work there. The easiest thing in the world is to design a new social network, the hard thing is to get people to actually use it. People are busy. There’s already so much stuff that they can do on their phones. So you have to have a real insight into human behaviour in order to cause a shift like that.
Ziv: Do you think that Mark Zuckerberg can redeem himself?
Casey: I guess the question is: to who? I think a lot of people have written him off completely. A lot of people think of Facebook as an evil force in the world and because he is the CEO they see him as a bad person. At the same time, you look at his philanthropy. He spent $400-million towards trying to protect the integrity of this election, which is maybe more than our congress has spent. I don’t think I am a very good reporter if I just show up every day trying to tell you who is good or bad in a moral sense, although I do try to have a moral dimension to my writing because that is why the writing matters. I am just someone who views this as all very complicated. I think Zuckerberg’s trajectory may look more like that of Bill Gates than anyone else. Bill Gates was pretty hated while he was the CEO of Microsoft during a really tumultuous time. A point came where he stepped away from Microsoft and devoted himself to philanthropy full-time and now I think most people have a pretty positive feeling about Bill Gates. So if I had to guess, I would say that Zuckerberg’s long-term public opinion trajectory looks like that.
Ziv: What kinds of stories are you looking to dig into with Platformer over the next several months?
Casey: Right now we’ve got an absolutely crucial election underway in the U.S. and the president has already said that he will not accept a losing result. That puts an immense amount of pressure on platforms and it’s not clear how they should handle it and so that’s issue number one for me. How are platforms dealing with this election? What will they do in the aftermath of that election? If there is violence, to what extent will they be used to further the causes of violent people? This is absolutely the biggest test that platforms have ever had to face in their short existence and so I think that this next month is going to be maybe the most fascinating and most unsettling period in my time covering this beat.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
About the creators:
Yarden Haddi: Student of the Image Arts Centre at Ryerson University.
Ziv Haddi: Graduate of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western University. A former intern at 680 News at Rogers Media and q on CBC Radio. Currently, he produces a current affairs program on Zoomer Radio.