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Thought Starters

Thought starters: gatekeepers, the spread of Covid-19 and the growth of ecommerce

Coronavirus lockdown and the American elections are dominating the headlines and these are some of the stories that have caught my attention recently.

There were rumours circulating on social media that there was a large story about to land that would seriously damage American presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign. Ben Smith reports on how the Donald Trump’s campaign tired and failed to seed the story with the Wall Street Journal and sees it as a strong argument for the continuing role of journalists as gatekeepers:

The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.

England is heading into lockdown after some dangerous procrastination on the part of the government. El Pais’ data visualisations provide a handy review of the imporance of social distancing:

For more coronavirus related visualisations, check out the New York Times’ look at how face masks reduce the spread of the pandemic:

One of the more thoughtful commentators on how to slow the growth of the coronavirus pandemic was sociologist Zeynep Tufekci. As attention moves to the Amercian elections, her analysis on the limitations of election forecasting provides a useful antidote to some of the wilder predictions:

This is where weather and electoral forecasts start to differ. For weather, we have fundamentals — advanced science on how atmospheric dynamics work — and years of detailed, day-by-day, even hour-by-hour data from a vast number of observation stations. For elections, we simply do not have anything near that kind of knowledge or data. While we have some theories on what influences voters, we have no fine-grained understanding of why people vote the way they do, and what polling data we have is relatively sparse.

Benedict Evans looks at some of the implications of recent changes in the retail landscape catalysed by the coronavirus pandemic. These changes aren’t just limited to the retail sector with flow on effects in the shape of our urban landscape and in how brands develop relationships with consumers:

Physical retail itself has been a ‘boiling frog’ for 20 years. Every year ecommerce gets a little bigger and the problem gets a little worse, but the growth in any given year was never big enough for people to panic, and you could always tell yourself that sure, people would buy that other industry’s product online, but not yours. I think we all now understand that anyone will buy anything online, given the right experience, and if your retail model is based on being an end-point to a logistics chain then you have an existential problem. 

For more of Benedict Evans with co-host Toni Cowan-Brown, check out Another Podcast, looking at tech’s impact on society we live in.

I remember fondly trips to Amsterdam’s supermarkets some years ago where conveyor belts would swallow up used packaging, providing consumers with a credit and brands with their packaging for reuse. Trips to Britain’s supermarkets even now feel like a step back with their tendency to wrap everything in plastic and limited attempts to close the loop. It’s no surprise to find UK near the top of the podium when it comes to the use of plastics according to reports in The Guardian:

Music is one of those passions I’ve held close to me through the years. My music collection started as CDs, flirted with MiniDiscs and migrated with time to MP3/AAC/FLAC. The impending demise of Google Play has seen me scrabbling towards Double Twist’s CloudPlayer but I’ve always been fascinated by people’s obsession with vinyl. The format struck me as a retrograde step but there’s a lot to be said for a record’s role as a cherishable artifact in your hand. I enjoyed Adam Gonsalves’ descriptions of the ups and downs of vinyl for the listener:

The vinyl LP is a format based on technology that hasn’t evolved much over the last six decades: in some ways, it’s the audio equivalent of driving a Ford Pilot. Sonically, vinyl has both strengths and weaknesses compared to digital files, just as movie buffs have argued over the pros and cons of 35mm film against 4K digital.

Header image: Mural by Iker Muro in Stratford, London for London Mural Fest

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Thought Starters

Thought Starters: innovation, unicorns and a critical look at the sharing economy

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

Matt Ridley focuses on the forces that drive innovation forward, describing it as a more organic and chaotic environment that isn’t something that governments can readily turn on or off:

“The implications of this new way of seeing technology—as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge—are startling. People are pawns in a process. We ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa. Short of bumping off half the population, there is little that we can do to stop it from happening, and even that might not work.”

Activate provide a valuable look at the intersection of media and technology, focusing on the evolution of media usage, mobile messaging, audio, television and mobile apps. Good overview of how the landscape is likely to evolve over the next year:

Benedict Evans and Steven Sinofsky explore how smartphones represent the latest format in computers evolution, expanding technologies reach and ask what might be next in this cycle:

Wall Street Journal’s data visualisation (click through for the interactive version) makes apparent the massive growth in valuation of various venture funded startups over the last two years…exciting but also scarey:

Companies valued at $1 billion or more by venture-capital firms

The rapid growth of various unicorns has not come without its critics. Airbnb has accelerated the process of gentrification as property developers shift their focus from local residents to visiting tourists in markets already dealing with shortages of affordable housing. Steven Hill states:

“In a tight housing market, rent-controlled apartments are prey for what we might call “slamlords,” who promote condo conversions or renovations that would justify massive rent increases. Airbnb provides another layer—a powerful financial incentive as well as a technique for landlords to convert their apartment buildings into tourist hotels.”

Zeynep Tufekci looks more broadly at startups associated with the ‘sharing economy’, characterising them as fueling a growing gap  between the winners and losers in our current labour market:

“It sounds great, except for the ugly reality which lurks under the proliferation of “uber for…”s: the calcification of the two-tiered system between the overworked who need and can afford the “uber for…”s and the underpaid who are stuck in its 1099 economy of unstable, low wages.”

For the moment, the impact of the “gig economy” might be overstated. Figures from America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics points to self employment as actually decreasing in recent years (although that’s not to say this trend will continue):

The Self Employment Rate in the US

The majority of developed market economies are facing the challenge of an aging population as fertility rates decline so it’s interesting to look at those countries with large young populations with China and India standing out. A closer look at the statistics by John Poole reveals some more unsettling truths with China “missing” about 24 million girls between the ages of 0 and 19:

Half the world's teens live in these 7 countries
Countries with the largest teen populations

Climate change is reshaping our planet and forcing many indigenous ecosystems to adapt with a negative impact on our planet’s biodiversity. The effect on countries’ economies is more of a mixed bag according to Marshall Burke, Sol Hsiang, Ted Miguel’s forecast with winners and losers (click on the map for more detailed information). Whether such modelling can accurately accommodate all the different consequences of climate change remains to be seen:

Economic Impact of Climate Change on the World

The featured image is a mural by Italian artist Tellas in Shoreditch, London and published in StreetArtNews.

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Thought Starters

Thought Starters

A mixed collection of materials looking at societal trends and the impact of technology on the way we live.

The European Commission has released the Sixth Report on Economic, Social and Territorial Cohesion. The title might not roll off the tongue but it provides a broad range of European statistics including health outcomes, the environment, human development, demographics, crime, the economy and education among other things:

Change in Population The Economist has created an index of where the best country to be born is by looking at a range of quality of life indicators. Care to move to Switzerland?

Where to be born

Retale have pulled together an interactive infographic using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data to providers users with the opportunity to see how the activities of different audiences vary by demographic in the US:

Time Survey

JWTIntelligence has pulled together a report looking at changing family structures in the US. Among the trends highlighted is the evolving nature of the nuclear family, growth in solo living, multigenerational and silver families and the rise of friends as part of family type networks:

The Internet of Things has been getting a lot of attention from the technology sector. The Wall Street Journal looks to pour some cold water on things by pointing out the failure to institute common standards as providing devices interacting that aren’t from the same brand:

Without a common software standard, devices will remain locked into what the German industry experts calls “island solutions”– brands that have a portfolio of products that can talk with each other but won’t be compatible with other brands.

The number of apps available to smartphone and tablet consumers keeps on expanding, but the average consumer only users four according to research from Nielsen:

App Usage

The GlobalWebIndex continues to infographics providing a window into global consumers use of digital.  Recent releases have looked at where WhatsApp, Vine and Pinterest are making an impact:

WhatsApp

Zeynep Tufekci gives an impassioned defence of Twitter in its current form, pointing to the advantages of surfacing content by the human flock rather than an algorithm:

I honestly doubt that there is an algorithm in the world that can reliably surface such unexpected content, so well. An algorithm can perhaps surface guaranteed content, but it cannot surface unexpected, diverse and sometimes weird content exactly because of how algorithms work: they know what they already know. Yet, there is a vast amount of judgement and knowledge that is in the heads of Twitter users that the algorithm will inevitably flatten as it works from the data it has: past user behavior and metrics.

As Twitter broadens its offering to partners by integrating ecommerce functionality with consumers’ Twitter stream with the  trialling of a Buy now button. Whilst the trial is relatively limited in scope at this stage, we can presumably expect to see it rolling out more widely soon:

Research from AOL Platforms points to Youtube as having an important role in introducing products and closing the sale when compared to other social media:

Purchase Funnel

Facebook’s quarterly earning figures released in July pointed to the company as doing a good job of growing its revenues. Analysis from Neustar suggests this position may well continue given that Facebook’s network offering is proving a leader in terms of reach efficiency and average cost although its position is trumped by ad exchanges in the quality of its audience:

Cost Index Online Advertising

Facebook is looking to be more sensitive to consumers’ privacy concerns with the  launch of its  Privacy Checkup to help users better manage their privacy settings:

A report from PageFair points to a 69% increase in the number of consumers using adblock software in the US, raising concerns that online media may be increasingly threatened by declining ad revenues.

Adobe recently released its U.S. Mobile Benchmark Report providing a range of charts shedding light on how users and marketers are taking advantage of mobile. Among the interesting statistics is the use of GPS location data and use of beacon technology:

Location Data

Another interesting data point to emerge from the Adobe presentation is the flatlining of tablet’s share of page views. This provides further ammunition to some commentators’ arguments that tablets are getting squeezed between phablets (smartphones with screen size between 5.01 to 6.9 inches diagonally) and PCs:

Tablet vs Mobile Usage

The growing importance of phablets is given further credence by Flurry’s recently released figures which point to growing market share and TECHnalysis Research’s forecast for forecasted sales in the coming years:

Unit Forecast by Sales notebooks desktops tablets smartphones phablets
Unit Forecast by Sales notebooks desktops tablets smartphones phablets

Apple’s launch of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is likely to provide a boost to its smartphone marketshare.  Samsung on the other hand is likely to find itself increasingly squeezed between Apple above and a growing array of Chinese based manufacturers (Xiaomi, Lenovo, Huawei, Coolpad etc) at the mid to lower end:

Smartphone Market Share

Amazon’s Fire Phone was released with much fanfare in late July but the fact that it’s now dropped the price by $200 suggests it hasn’t been a winner among consumers.

Putting this all in perspective is Benedict Evans’ valuable blog post looking at Amazon’s failure to post a substantial profit despite its large revenues:

Amazon Revenue vs Income

Evans points to Amazon’s willingness to reinvest any potential profits back into the business. Some of these investments aren’t going to be an immediate success, but others such as the Kindle have enabled Amazon to gain a market leading position:

Amazon Profit Model

Reddit gets strongly criticised by T.C. Sottek following its failure to take action on the release of nude celebrity photos:

Reddit, he wrote, is “not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community.” So, then, what type of government is Reddit? It’s the kind any reasonable person would want to overthrow.

Tim Harford looks at how we can improve our forecasting, pointing to better understanding probabilistic reasoning, working collaboratively and being open minded as key contributors:

Masha Gessen looks at how the Russian population is being squeezed between declining birth rates and falling mortality rates, pointing towards a loss of hope as a key contributor:

If this is true—if Russians are dying for lack of hope, as they seem to be—then the question that is still looking for its researcher is, Why haven’t Russians experienced hope in the last quarter century? Or, more precisely in light of the grim continuity of Russian death, What happened to Russians over the course of the Soviet century that has rendered them incapable of hope?

The featured image at the top of the page is a PARKER by GoddoG and DelwooD in Biarritz and found on GoddoG’s Flickr stream.