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One of the things that I am obsessed with is whether our current state of the art is immutable.
Are Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and other tech giants invincible? Will they forever take up a large chunk of our attention and money, affect the way economies and labor markets work, and affect what people believe in? Or is there room for others?
One way to examine these questions is to look at tech copycats. If we do, I’ll see a glimmer of hope.
This story begins with TikTok. It’s a rare example of an internet property that got huge and didn’t belong to any American tech star. It belongs to … a very large Chinese internet conglomerate called ByteDance. But that is still considered different.
There are many concerns about TikTok, including what it does to people’s personal information.
However, TikTok’s popularity shows that it is still possible for a fresh faced internet star to break through.
With every success there is inevitable rip-off. Tech news agency The Information recently wrote about one of China’s internet superpowers, Tencent, who tried and largely failed to copy Douyin, ByteDance’s version of TikTok in China.
The effort included Tencent’s widespread WeChat app, which requires employees to use the company’s Douyin mimick when sending virtual envelopes of money, a common practice around the New Year celebrations. It’s not clear if WeChat’s arm twisting worked.
Both YouTube and Instagram (owned by Facebook) have launched their own TikTok-like apps. My co-workers wrote last year about how much they didn’t like the Instagram version of Reels. It’s hard to tell how Reels is doing, but it hasn’t taken over the internet yet.
But a second-class product – maybe even a bad one – means no fate. A powerful company can make a product a hit by sheer willpower, willingness to spend money like crazy, and repeated exposure to millions of people.
According to Slack, the workplace chat app, Microsoft has tried to do this with its Slack-like software. And that’s exactly what Facebook did with its “Stories” video and photo montage feature, which was copied from Snapchat.
Sometimes copycats in technology succeed – just look at Microsoft Windows, the iPhone, or the Facebook social network. (Sometimes the rip-offs are also way better than the original.)
But it doesn’t always work. Tencent’s WeChat is an inescapable force on the Chinese internet, but its popularity hasn’t led to the success of the company’s Douyin clone. For now.
We’ve seen before that big leaps in technology can topple industrial titans like cell phone pioneer Nokia. But boy, it sure feels like the tech giants today are so ingrained, so good at what they do – and maybe adept at turning the game to their advantage – that they just can’t be beaten.
It would be better for all of us if Big Tech were not an absolute and invulnerable force. I will see the wobbling of TikTok’s clones as a sign that big tech can still fail.
Facebook can’t admit how Facebook works
Fast catching up process: There was a worldwide mini freakout last month when WhatsApp informed people of new steps that forced WhatsApp users to hand over their personal information to Facebook, which owns the app.
WhatsApp hasn’t actually changed that much, but the communication was terrible. And it was a moment for people to think about something they may not have had before: Facebook is already collecting a lot of information about what people are doing on WhatsApp.
In response to the drama, Facebook and WhatsApp said they would pause and think about people’s criticism. WhatsApp replied on Thursday. It was better, but still not quite right.
WhatsApp keeps saying what it doesn’t have to do with people’s personal information – that messages are encrypted so that no one can see their contents, and that WhatsApp won’t give your phone number to companies. But WhatsApp still doesn’t say what it does with people’s personal information.
The simple talk is that Facebook collects information when people use non-Facebook apps on their phones. The company reaps people’s physical location even when they’re not using Facebook. It tracks people you weren’t friends with, all the websites you visit, and your contacts. Many of us understand this, even if we don’t want to acknowledge all the bloody details.
Most of Facebook’s data collections also apply to WhatsApp, although Facebook states that WhatsApp contacts are not shared with Facebook.
Why can’t WhatsApp just say all of this?
Here’s the basic problem, I think: the people on Facebook aren’t willing to be honest about how Facebook works.
When people freak out about privacy on WhatsApp and Facebook, they often think that they want privacy from Facebook and its data monitoring machine. Facebook can’t give them that. As the communication from WhatsApp shows, Facebook won’t even say out loud what the problem is.
Before we go …
Protect or activate people from surveillance? The software company Oracle offered to help with the purchase of TikTok and to prevent data from possibly flowing to Chinese authorities. However, The Intercept writes that Oracle has also marketed its own software for Chinese authorities to collect and analyze more data on their citizens.
Would you like to read how farmers chop their tractors ?! (They do.) The bigger point on this Vice Article is that companies like John Deere use software locks to make it impossible to fix our own things. Apple does that too.
Garfield is the soul of the internet: The orange cartoon cat has inspired many clever Internet remixes, writes an avowed Garfield fan, Dan Brooks, for the New York Times Magazine. There are Garfield cartoons with Garfield removed and panels created by artificial intelligence with the characters as twitching mollusks.
Meet Elizabeth Ann, the first successfully cloned black-footed ferret. She is extremely cute and may show the way to save species from extinction. (The article also mentions a cloned horse named Kurt.)
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