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quibi

Quibi is the blockbuster streaming video service that you probably never heard of.

There is one big idea behind Quibi: that you want to watch small up-to–10 minute video shows on your phone.

Yeah, me neither.

And as it turns out, that’s most people’s reaction.

The weird name is a contraction of Quick Bites.

Like Netflix only shorter

Quibi’s founders hoped it would be to short form video what Netflix is to video. Early on in the project the founders suggested Quibi would become a verb, the way Google is sometimes used.

It exists as a phone app, the kind that you load and then start paying a monthly subscription. The official price in the US is on a par with the cost of Netflix. You can pay less and get ads served up with your video clips. I’m amazed anyone would pay US$5 for such a service with advertising. But… Americans.

There’s a gimmick or special feature: You can watch everything in portrait or landscape mode on your phone, the app moves seamlessly between the two.

Well the people behind Quibi think that will pull in the punters.

There are dramas, documentaries, talk shows even movies served up in small ten minute segments.

Wall-to-wall celebrities

One key is that almost everything features famous actors or other well known performers. It comes with high production values and wall-to-wall celebrities.

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman started Quibi. Katzenberg is a film producer and was a founder of Dreamworks. Whitman was the former Hewlett-Packard CEO.

So far Quibi has spectacularly missed its targets. The goal was to get 7.5 million subscribers in the first year. At the moment it looks like it will get around 2 million at the end of its first year.

The 7.5 million target was fairly modest. Netflix has more than 180 million subscribers.

Now the US media is already writing Quibi’s obituary.

Quibi says it failed to meet targets because of the pandemic. But that’s odd because sales of other streaming video services have surged in that time.

Quibi crowded out

It is more likely that the quick bite format isn’t enough to grab audiences. Attention spans may be dropping, but it seems few people are willing to pay a Netflix-like price to fill in the odd spare moments of their lives with yet more video content.

There is an abundance of free, short-form video content. YouTube has more than you could ever watch. That doesn’t help Quibi.

The most likely way out of the dead end that Quibi has found itself in is for the service to switch to a more Netflix-style format. That means longer shows and putting the app on devices other than cellphones.

Although that is now a crowded space, there is still potential for a service with the right content.

Facebook CEO Zuckerberg

From yesterday 400 high profile brands including Coca-Cola and Starbucks pulled advertising from Facebook.

The month-long Stop hate for profit campaign wants Facebook to do a better job of dealing with hate speech, bigotry, racism, anti-semitism and calls for violence.

Some of the advertisers are also worried about Facebook’s promotion of wild conspiracy theories.

Facebook pushback

Other social media sites have faced similar advertiser pushback. But the focus a the moment is very much on Facebook which seems unwilling to tackle hate speech and far right extremism.

Stop hate for profit is a response to calls from civil right groups. Campaigners and members of the public have contacted brands when their advertising appears next to extremist material asking if they endorse the content.

Things moved up a gear following the George Floyd killing, the subsequent protests and the fast growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Among others things the advertisers want Facebook to give refunds to companies whose ads show up next to hate speech and other offensive comment.

Responsibility

They also want Facebook to take responsibility when people experience severe harassment online. This includes letting them speak to a Facebook employee. At the moment Facebook makes it hard for victims to contact the company.

According to media reports there were last minute talks between Facebook and large advertisers taking part in the campaign.

It turns our Facebook refused to budge, all the company would do was point at its recent press statements.

Now the boycott is underway there are calls for a new meeting. Apparently the advertisers have asked for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to face up to the meeting. It is clear that he calls the shots on these matters.

Facebook says Zuckerberg will attend a meeting next week.

It may not be conciliatory.

In a leaked address to Facebook staff Zuckerberg says: “We’re not going to change our policies or approach on anything because of a threat to a small percent of our revenue, or to any percent of our revenue.”

He went on to say: “…my guess is all of these advertisers will be back on the platform soon enough”.

Policy

Facebook has made some recent changes in policy. It says it plans to label content in the same way that Twitter has started doing. But it hasn’t said when it will do this.

It also says it uses artificial intelligence to remove hate speech. The implication in this language is that the AI is already working. Yet there seems little has changed in practice.

Zuckerberg’s confidence that Facebook can ride out the boycott isn’t just chest thumping. Social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are now the preferred route for big advertisers to reach mass markets. It has replaced TV advertising.

Dependency

Some of the biggest advertisers use Facebook to build their brand. Little long-term harm is done if branding stops for a month. Others sell direct. If they don’t advertise, their revenue dries up. A month of low revenue during a global pandemic that is already depressing sales would be hard to stomach.

What about Zuckerberg’s claim the boycott only affects a small percent of revenue?

Last year Facebook took $70 billion in advertising. About 20 percent of that comes from the top 100 advertisers. This group doesn’t necessarily align with the boycotters.

It turns out that only three of Facebooks biggest advertisers have joined the boycott. The company says if all the top 100 advertisers joined, revenue would only drop 6 percent. There are around 400 boycotters, so a ballpark estimate says revenue will be down around 10 percent for one month. That’s likely to be around one percent of annual revenue.

On that basis Zuckerberg’s claim is probably right.

And yet there’s more to this than a small one-off revenue drop.

Turning point?

Some in the advertising sector see the campaign as a turning point. It hits Facebook where it hurts most. There could be more to come.

In the past Facebook has dealt with criticism of its failure to deal with extreme content in two ways. First, it issues press releases outlining the action it is taking. As we can see, this approach no longer cuts it with many critics. There’s been a lot of talk but little evidence of real change.

The other tactic has been to zero in on the most visible and offensive recent outrage and mop it out. That gets headlines and creates the impression the company is doing something.

This week it banned 220 members of the Boogaloo movement who advocate violence. The group overlaps with neo-nazis and white supremacists, but some members are gun lobbyists.

With anything involving business, it helps to follow the money trail. It turns out Facebook’s investors are relaxed about the boycott. On Friday the company’s share price dropped eight percent when the news first broke.

Earlier today the price had recovered. It was down about one percent on Thursday. Given the price fluctuates anyway, that indicates no one at Facebook anticipates much change.

At The Conversation Massey University lecturer Victoria Plekhanova writes: Google and Facebook pay way less tax in New Zealand than in Australia – and we’re paying the price.

She says:

While the internet has created new opportunities for media and audiences alike, those opportunities have come at a price. Traditional media organisations now compete with giant digital platforms, not only for the attention of readers, but also for the advertising revenue that was once their lifeblood.

Adding insult to injury, the digital platforms compete for audiences’ attention partly by distributing the news content that was first created and published by those now-struggling media organisations.

This not only damages the media and public discourse, it is harmful to taxpayers.

Plekhanova says Google paid A$426.5 million in Australian digital service tax in 2018. That’s 66.5 times the amount of tax paid in New Zealand: “Given the New Zealand economy is about a seventh the size of Australia’s, this is an extremely wide disparity”.

There are also rules forcing Google and Facebook to compensate publishers when they piggyback off their original content.

The idea of a digital service tax isn’t that unusual. Other countries have a similar tax.

All of this makes sense. We let the overseas media giants freeload here. Part of their income depends on services that have been provided by taxpayers. Some of that income even comes direct from government agencies which buys advertising on the two social media giants.

It amounts to a net transfer from the New Zealand taxpayer’s pocket to social media investors: some of the richest people in the world.

Ideally the OECD would deal with this problem. But that’s been a long time coming and the money continues to flow in one direction only.

Plekhanova comes unstuck when suggesting taxing or charging tech giants will help local media survive. The damage was done ages ago. Survival depends on more than taxing the giants and anyway, up to a point the main local media outlets depend on the tech giants to reach their audience.

So, yes, let’s tax Google and Facebook like countries tax extractive industries. And, at least, stop pour government money into their coffers. But let’s not kid ourselves this is going to fix our media problems.

 

According to Botsight, I am “almost certainly a bot”. Or at least my Twitter account is.

Botsight says it uses artificial intelligence to decide if there is a human or a bot behind a Twitter account. The software was developed by NortonLifeLock, which was formerly part of Symantec.

The goal is to help fight disinformation campaigns. It’s hard to argue with the sentiment behind this.

Botsight in a browser

You install Botsight as a browser extension. NortonLifeLock says it works with the major browsers. It turns out that mainly means Chrome. There’s no support for Safari and when I first tested the Firefox version that wasn’t delivering. These things happen with beta software. It’s no big deal.

Then, when Twitter is running in your browser, Botsight flags whether an account is likely to be human or a bot. You have to use the office Twitter website. A green flag shows an account that is likely to be human, red tells users to be wary.

The flags also show percentages. In my case the score is 80 percent, that’s enough for alarm bells to ring.

At Botsight says, I’m “almost certainly a bot”.

Botsight report

The developers say they collected terabytes of data then looked at a number of features to determine if an account is human or not. The software uses 20 factors to make this decision.

More AI nonsense

NortonLifeLock says its AI model detects bots with a high degree of accuracy. It’s a typical AI claim and like many of them, doesn’t stand up too well when tested in the real world.

No doubt a lot of Botsight readers who encounter my Twitter wit and wisdom will assume the worst.

It’s not going to happen, but that could be grounds for a defamation action. Sooner or later someone is going to sue a bot for character assassination.

Like it says at the top of the story I’m on the wrong side of this equation.

What gives?

I asked NortonLifeLock how come I’m identified as a bot. Daniel Kats, the principal researcher at NortonLifeLock Research Group says there are three main reasons.

The first is my Twitter handle: @billbennettnz.

Kats writes:

“The reporter’s handle is quite long, and contains many “bigrams” (groups of two characters) that are uncommon together. This is a sign of auto-generated handles (ex. lb, tn, nz). It’s also quite a long handle, which in our experience is common of bots.”

I didn’t have much choice here. My given name includes that tricky LB combination. I doubt changing Bill to William would have made any difference.

There are a lot of other Bill Bennetts in the world. Others got to the obvious Twitter handles first. Mine tells people I’m in New Zealand. Trust me, the alternatives look more bot-like.

The only practical way to change this is to kill the account and start Twitter again from scratch. It is an option.

Following too many

Botsight’s second alarm is triggered by my follow to follower ratio. It turns out that following 2888 people is ’an usually high number, especially in relation to the number of followers”. Kats says it is no common for a human to follow that many others.

Well, that’s partly because I use Twitter to follow people who might be news sources.

The idea of letting bots or AI bot detectors dictate behaviour bothers me. Yet, if Botsight thinks I’m a bot, it’s possible other researchers and analytical tools looking at my account think so too. We can’t have that. Perhaps I should cull my follow list.

So, please don’t take offence if you’re unfollowed. I need to look more human. Only up to a point. On one level I don’t care what a piece of software thinks about me. On another, I get a fair bit of work come to me via the Twitter account so it may need a bit more care and attention.

Not enough likes

The third sign that I’m a bot is that my number of favourite is low. Favourite is the official Twitter terms for liking a tweet. Apparently I don’t do this as much as other humans.

On the other hand, I link to a lot of web posts. Linking lots and not favouriting much is, apparently, a sign of a bot.

The Botsight software could take note that I often get involved in discussion threads on Twitter. That’s something that a human would do, but would be beyond most bot accounts.

From the bot’s mouth:

Well, there you have it. I’m a bot. Perhaps that means I should put my freelance rates up.

Of course, any AI model is only as good as the assumptions that are fed into it. This is where lots of them fall down. We’ve all heard stories of AI recruitment tools or bank loan tools that discriminate against women or minorities. Bias is hard coded.

This is nothing like as bad. On a personal level I’m not unduly worried or offended by Botsight. Yet it does give an insight into the power and potential misuse or misinterpretation of AI analysis.

A week ago Catalyst Cloud launched a low-cost storage service. Or to be accurate its Object Storage service. You can see the full press release at Scoop.

The story didn’t get a run in any reputable New Zealand media.

Contrast this with the extensive coverage Microsoft got the following day when it announced it was opening a New Zealand cloud region.

The Microsoft story was everywhere. It popped up at Stuff, RNZ and Reseller News among others. There were overseas runs at TechCrunch, CRN and Computerworld.

The prime minister even talked about it on TV.

Big run

My point here isn’t about New Zealand media giving the overseas company a bigger run than the local company. Although that could be a story in its own right – see Comparing the stories below.

What the contrast between two stories show is how much damage the lack of local technology coverage does to New Zealand’s home grown technology sector.

No-one here has the resources to file a story that is, by local standards, somewhat significant.

No one is watching, does anyone care?

We no longer have a native technology press. It’s a situation which, presumably, will be worse again if or when Stuff is no longer operating as a separate entity.

Last month Bauer Media closed its New Zealand operation shutting off Peter Griffin’s excellent regular features in the Listener.

The most visible remaining NZ tech title, Reseller News, is run out of Australia, with a part time local reporter. The Herald, Stuff, RNZ and Newsroom all have the occasional story, but it is mainly sporadic and far from comprehensive coverage.

An exception would be Juha Saarinen’s regular Herald columns.

This web site is also sporadic. There are stories here, but they are written in between my paying journalism work. That means it can’t be timely.

There are a couple of other outlets, but the big picture is that New Zealand can no longer sustain a commercial tech publishing sector with the resources to cover stories like the Catalyst Cloud storage launch.

Filling the vacuum are many overseas sites. Whatever their merits, they are not going to zoom in on the activities of a local cloud provider.

Comparing the stories

There’s no question the arrival of a New Zealand Microsoft cloud region is the bigger news story. Microsoft is the world’s second largest cloud operator, it has many customers here and there is a pent-up demand for a world-scale cloud operator to open shop in New Zealand.

In contrast, the Catalyst story, is, in effect, not much more than a feature update.

There are interesting angles to the Catalyst story. The cost of its Object Storage is on a par with costs for world scale cloud operators. It costs three cents a month to store a gigabyte.

The ‘everything is stored in New Zealand’ angle would be important, but then it’s also an important part of Microsoft’s story. And, no doubt, Microsoft could make the same claim about only using renewable energy.

Uphill battle

What this illustrates is the uphill battle a company like Catalyst has to be heard above the noise.

It must be galling for people at Catalyst and other New Zealand technology companies to do something innovative like introducing low cost cloud storage only to wake the following day and see a rival’s news splashed around the place.

Longer term it is a worry. Wikipedia says:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a philosophical thought experiment that raises questions regarding observation and perception.

Tech companies need that observation and perception. New Zealand’s tech sector no longer has either.