Idée Fixe Interlude #18

The US elections have passed, but it's not over just yet.

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I’m Toni Cowan-Brown and each week I share with you insights from tech, politics, and pop culture that matter and dominate our minds. I’ve also added a section on the latest in the F1 2020 season. And each month I dig into one specific idea that is particularly top of mind. 🧠

Idée Fixe Interlude 🧠

Now that the US elections are behind us, I thought that for the next idée fixe, I would do a deep-dive into the technology that powers our elections and political parties. As well as have a look that the changes that have happened to the way in which we interact with politics. Until then, here’s what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to lately.

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First up.

I had the pleasure of talking with John Saddington about the things I’ve learned this year whilst co-producing and co-hosting two podcasts. I share the tech stack I use for recording, editing, hosting, and distribution. We also talk about the importance of community and what it means to be an expert in today’s world.

One of the things I’ve tried to convey with this newsletter is this concept of needing to understanding multiple spaces simultaneously and breaking down the imaginary walls we’ve created to compartmentalize each space. In the 20th century, you can’t really be an expert in one field, such as politics for example, without being an expert in other fields, such as technology because all these fields are affecting each other every day. For example, sports are increasingly going to be political, politics is increasingly going to be about technology, technology is increasingly going to be about policy and regulations…

Being able to understand multiple areas and stakeholders is hugely valuable in today’s world where all areas seem to be converging — tech and politics, tech and policy, politics and pop-culture, etc.

What I’m reading.

⚖️ Why Obama Fears for Our Democracy. 📱 Did Facebook and Twitter’s election defenses work? Tuesday’s hearing could hold the answers. ⚽️ And an old story that was shared with me recently that I thought worth sharing here - They game, now ours. 📈 The Age of Infinite Leverage. 💰This interesting thread from sari Azout about the evolution from working for gig money to wealth accumulation driven by network effects. 🐦 Quote Tweets Have Turned Us All Into Jerks. 🦈 Another great piece from my co-host on Another Podcast, Benedict Evans - Are you a seal?

Politics 🗳️

The machinery of American democracy worked this year. (NYT Magazine, November 2020)

In tomorrow’s episode of Unapologetic Women, Sorcha and I talk about some of the post-election content that might have been missed seeing as the US 2020 elections saga isn’t quite over.

This NYT Magazine piece is the ode to mail-in ballots that I had been wishing for, and I’m not even joking here. I don’t think we truly understand what goes into counting votes in a democracy. This year, roughly 60 million people cast their ballot by mailing it in or dropping it off at an official drop box. In doing so, Americans doubled “previous totals and contributing to what is likely to be the highest turnout rate since 1900” and as numerous cries were made from Trump and co about election fraud and stolen votes, it feels important to share just how impressive of a process ballot-counting actually is.

Meet the One-Woman Newsroom That Live-Tweeted Georgia’s Biggest Election Story (Mother Jones, November 2020)

Late last week, the unexpected happened. After days of ballot counting, Donald Trump’s lead in Republican-dominated Georgia was dwindling. As Thursday night fell on the East Coast, the eyes of the state, and then the nation, turned to Clayton County, a liberal region of around 300,000 people on the south side of Atlanta, where votes were still being tabulated. Night turned to early morning, and in a squat concrete building aptly nicknamed “The Bunker,” the state of Georgia officially turned blue.

This is a brilliant interview with Robin Kemp, who lost her job earlier this year when she was working at a local newspaper and then chronicled every update coming out of Clayton for almost 24 hours straight. In doing so, she provided almost real-time coverage from the area as the votes were being counted. Her initial goal of documenting the process turned into something quite different and it’s certainly worth a read.

Technology 📱

Only consumer-visible startups automatically attract haters (Twitter thread from Paul Graham, November 2020)

This tweet from Paul Graham is spot on. As soon as something grows it attracts skepticism and haters. I saw this first hand with a TikTok video of mine that garnered 150K+ views, as soon as it passed a certain threshold, the haters walked in almost immediately.

However, with B2C companies providing a service that customers are paying for, it has far less to do with the size of their consumer base in my opinion and far more to do with the fact that almost all tech companies take too long before they set-up a proper customer support process and prioritise hiring people to properly support their customer base. Yes, I will be wowed by your technology but I’ll stick around for the support that I get. What was missing for me in this tweet, is the understanding that proper customer support is crucial at every stage of a company cycle. And yet far too often that support is non-existent - especially for the standard customer base (i.e. non Enterprise).

As more people create their own independent one-woman companies, there will be an increasing need for infrastructure and tech support from those companies providing the tech stacks.

The Substackerati. Did a newsletter company create a more equitable media system—or replicate the flaws of the old one? (CJR, November 2020)

Talking of Substack (the tool I use to write and send this newsletter), this piece has been making the rounds and I imagine it was one of the pieces that prompted the above tweet.

For the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of discussions about the state of the media industry, the broken business model optimized for engagement, the benefits of working for yourself and monetizing newsletters, and what to do about content moderation. And Substack has positioned itself as a potential answer to many of the current failings and challenges within the media industry (but they don’t see themselves, thankfully, as the saviors of media). Rather, they have a focus on wanting to democratise this space by lowering the barrier to entry for publishers.

“Democratizing this subscription-based future will enable more writers to earn more money by writing about what truly matters. It puts the media’s destiny into the right hands.”

They have certainly gotten a lot of praise and interest in recent months (and rightly so), and with that, more scrutiny and questions about how they will handle things such as content moderation. This piece makes the case that maybe not much has changed with Substack, especially in terms of who is benefiting and winning from this new model.

After all, right now Substack is attracting (and heavily focused on) existing publishers with big audiences. It’s no secret that publishers with big audiences are more likely to have a paid newsletter, and Substack takes a percentage of this revenue which is a big part of their revenue model.

“But as you peruse the lists, something becomes clear: the most successful people on Substack are those who have already been well-served by existing media power structures. Most are white and male; several are conservative.” 

(Pop) Culture 🍿

Disappearing Tweets? Twitter Now Has a Feature for That (NYT, November 2020)

On Tuesday, if you were anywhere need your Twitter feed you will have noticed a new feature - fleets. Joshua Harris, a director of design at Twitter, explains - “We’ve learned that some people feel more comfortable joining conversations on Twitter with this ephemeral format, so what they’re saying lives just for a moment in time,”.

Beyond the feature itself, what’s interesting about fleets is why there is a desire (and sometimes even, the need) for such ephemeral content. And as Shira Ovide put it in Tuesday’s tech newsletter for the NYT:

all these copycat disappearing messages reveal something about our evolving attitude about digital life. They are a rejection of the concept of a permanent online archive […]

[…]But we know the dark side of having an online permanent record. Dumb stuff that people did as teenagers might lurk online and keep them from getting a job later.

Formula One 🏎

Hamilton seals historic 7th title with peerless wet-weather victory in Turkey (Formula 1, November 2020)

Last weekend’s race in Istanbul was unexpected and quite a treat - mostly because Hamilton did not start on pole position and absolutely had to work for his win and ultimately, his historic 7th title (and 94th win). Although it certainly wasn’t the toughest fight he’s been faced with in his career. Yet again, Hamilton proved that his consistency and focus on the track is was makes him so great at what he does.

Istanbul wasn’t all about Hamilton - we also had the 5th youngest pole-sitter with Lance Stroll on pole although it turned out not to be the best of days for Stroll, nor Red Bull for that matter. It was the first time we had Vettel this year on the podium (or so I believe) and Ferrari overall did pretty well, which was a welcomed change.

W Series to support F1 at eight races in 2021 (Formula 1, November 2020)

I for one, am absolutely thrilled for this as I hope this will drive more awareness and excitement around the W Series which so far hasn’t gathered as much attention as I would have liked - and I include myself here. I wish I was paying more attention to it.

W Series, the international single-seater motor racing championship for female drivers, will be on the support bill for eight Grands Prix in 2021 as part of a new partnership with Formula 1.

Although I will say that I know very little about the W Series drivers and more effort could be done in telling the individual stories of these incredible drivers. Maybe Drive To Survive Season 4 can include some footage and storytelling around the W Series?

You won't believe how Nike lost Steph to Under Armour (ESPN, March 2016)

An old story but a good one, and one worth remembering. It’s a story about the importance of paying attention to the details (and lack thereof) and what it takes to create long-lasting attention - something that all brands are eager for. Because the ‘desire to try something new’ is always just around the corner.

What few fans know is the backstory of all this -- how the most electric player in a generation slipped through the grasp of the most powerful sports apparel company in the world, and how Under Armour pulled off the marketing heist of the century.

Social Bubble - See what Twitter looks like to people on the other side of the political spectrum by switching to a different echo chamber.

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