Nilay Patel on Facebook’s Reckoning With Reality—And the Metaverse-Size Problems Yet to Come – Vanity Fair

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The early 2010s were a great time to be a tech blog: The digital media industry was still reasonably flush with hope, and Silicon Valley remained something of an exciting curiosity worth geeking out over. This was back when Gizmodo leaked the iPhone 4 prototype (courtesy of a forgetful bar patron in Redwood City); back when the biggest news out of F8 was the launch of something called “the Timeline” (which TechCrunch noted “looks a bit like a really nice Tumblr blog”). So when top Engadget editors quit the AOL-backed (lol) tech site to launch The Verge in 2011, no one could have guessed it was basically going to be the last new tech blog as we knew it.
One decade later, The Verge has not only managed to stay successful and relevant, but the parent company it originally launched under—Vox Media—has matured into a digital media player itself, or at least the only one that’s ever bought a whole entire magazine. Meanwhile, The Verge has stayed the course, cranking out gadget reviews, a Pulitzer-nominated feature, and, of course, the elusive Facebook scoop.
On the eve of The Verge’s 10th anniversary, Vanity Fair spoke with editor in chief Nilay Patel about the way tech coverage (and the public’s expectations for it) has changed in the last decade, especially in regard to a certain social media network in the news recently…
It’s been a week since we first started officially hearing about the Facebook Papers, but there’s still so much coming out. Has there been anything in the papers so far that’s surprised you?
The most surprising thing is that so many of our assumptions are true. We can imagine how these companies operate—the bureaucracy of a hundred-thousand-person company that has deep political interest from players across the spectrum, from multiple countries across the world. What the papers have conclusively demonstrated is that one, most of those assumptions are true.
And two, inside of Facebook, there is an enormous amount of dissent. Facebook has internal corporate values, so it’s strange for all those people who go to Facebook, take the orientation and are told how to behave at work, and then ship something that actively cuts against those values. What the papers have shown us is that they know it. I don’t think there’s a lot of earth-shattering scoops in there, but the overwhelming outcome of the work that’s being done with the papers is to put together a meticulous theory of the case of why Facebook has gone astray.
Looking back at Facebook’s trajectory, does it seem like this was always going to be the inevitable conclusion for the company?
This moment is one that any good monopolist from history would have absolutely managed to head off at the pass. If you look at all of the cell carriers, they are all monopolies or duopolies; there isn’t a lot of competition. But the reason they don’t take the hits is because they are perceived as national champions, right? AT&T and Verizon hold themselves up as winning a race for 5G. They have deeply enmeshed themselves in the government; they lobby all the time. Other telecom firms have figured this out.
Facebook has held itself apart. That distance has always meant that this moment for them is inevitable. They had a lack of understanding of how the other enormous power in this country—the government—might seek to reassert itself, and how that process might get used by whistleblowers or by other people who wish to make change.
I think it’s hitting them like a truck. Now they’re spending a lot of money lobbying and are putting up the ads that say, we welcome regulation.
Let’s zoom out to the bigger picture around tech and media from the past decade. How has coverage evolved from, like, its early, breathless gadget-review days?
I think we’re a little past breathless gadget reviews, but at the same time, we’re still heavily invested in reviews because they offer us a kind of power and control over a story. We can take everything Apple has done with the App Store and antitrust and photo scanning, and then we can look at their phone and say, “This is a nine.” That connection has been an enormous force of our authority. I cannot think of another part of media where the loop gets closed like that, except for sports, right? You can cover teams all day, but at the end of the day, someone’s going to win. At the end of the day in tech, they’re gonna ship a product and it’s good or not.
I think reviews of the products these companies actually make are gaining in importance because you’re surrounded by them and the marketing noise all day. Authoritative review, for us, is going to be critically important. It feeds the journalism. Because when we do the investigative journalism and the big features, we’re not confused about how the products work.
Has the subject-source relationship changed, do you think? Has one side taken more power?
We live in the age of going direct: CEOs starting their own marketing channels, companies doing their own Clubhouse, venture capital firms starting media organizations. And that’s fine. Because, for example, I host a podcast where I interview executives every week, and they keep coming. It’s not like they’re fading away—they want to be on the show.
I think skeptical voices who understand what they’re doing and don’t think they should all be in jail—which is the perspective of a lot of other organizations—it allows me to challenge them. But it also allows them to say, we stood up to scrutiny. Most of these folks are type A, competitive people. They are not avoiding challenges. They just want to be challenged in a way that they perceive as fair.
If you can create a place where you can say, I disagree with you, or I think you’ve made a huge mistake—which is a thing I say on the show all the time—but it’s coming from a place of, like, intellectual understanding, I don’t think that subject-source relationship is changing very much. The basics are still there. We’ve been very fortunate to work with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher for many years. If I’ve learned anything from them, it’s that.
There’s actually a kind of double-sided relationship that any digital outlet—a tech outlet—has with tech companies like Facebook, because you’re not only covering them as a subject. You’re also dependent on them as platforms for readership, right? What’s that been like?
One thing that is true about the Verge newsroom is that, in a decade, we have never put page views in front of our reporters. We barely show them metrics. The reason we decided not to do that early—and this is some deep Verge history—is because when we first started, we had a deal with Yahoo. Every now and again, Yahoo would send us a flood of traffic, and we couldn’t figure out why. So we started making a list of stories that would get Yahoo traffic, and we realized that the algorithm loves stories about fish.
So—true story—on really slow Fridays, the tiny team of Verge people would all Google the words “fish technology,” and we would write stories about fish. And we would collect a flood of Yahoo traffic. We called them “Fish Fridays.” It was very funny; there’s a lot of hilarious stories on The Verge from that early period because of it. But we also learned we should not pay attention to where the traffic is coming from like this. This is a bad outcome.
I think every journalist fundamentally knows this. Data can only tell you about the past. And that’s all that Facebook has ever been—a narrowing. “Today Facebook is interested in cheese, and now a major American newsroom has a cheese vertical,” is a real thing that happened in our society. That’s weird! But I would challenge the entire media industry to think as deeply about its relationship to Google search as it does about the Facebook algorithm. There’s a lot of games being played with the architecture of the news.
What general blind spots do you think still exist for journalists on the tech beat?
We take a lot of things for granted. We assume things will always be the way they were, especially in tech. The Verge is older than Google Photos and Slack and Oculus V.R. We saw the very first Oculus prototype back when it was shown to us in a trailer in Las Vegas! Those things didn’t exist. But these companies are not forever. Their products are not forever. And our relationship to them is not necessarily forever.
Honestly, I’m quite relieved to be reminded of that.
Right? We assume that Slack and Zoom are going to be the way that we work forever. But they’re brand-new companies. The idea that Google and Facebook have a plan is, like, I don’t know! [Laughs]
One of my favorite memories of the past 10 years is the midperiod of Google, when it was so disorganized that we actually told one division of Google that another division was having an event on the same day. They didn’t know. We were the ones who told them. You get close to these huge companies—hundreds of thousands of people doing all kinds of things in all kinds of countries. And you realize they’re not single CEOs, they’re not three executives making decisions.
But I’m not saying that these companies shouldn’t get broken up. I actually think they should—it would be best for everyone, including their own executives. I think they might get a measure of peace. But I think the big blind spot we have is assuming that things are static in tech, when actually the story of the past 10 years is that things that look like institutions were created from nothing.
Do you think we’re living in an inflection point right now? I was reading the goodbye blog post you wrote back in 2011, when you were leaving Engadget. You wrote that you were looking for “the next beginning.” Is right now a kind of “next beginning” for tech overall?
I think it’s the beginning of a reckoning with how being this connected affects us and affects our lives. I don’t know that we have built the social systems or the political hierarchies to deal with it. I think that has huge repercussions, especially in a country with a First Amendment like ours. I’m not sure the government has the tools it might need, and I am extremely unsure the government should have those tools.
So I think this is the beginning of that: How connected should we be, and who should be the gatekeepers of that connection? How do we hold those gatekeepers in line? No one knows the answer. It is the central challenge of our time. The literal reckoning with the shape of society that absolute connection has brought us, is upon us. And it is nowhere close to the end.
Anything we can look forward to in the meantime?
These platforms are very busy just holding themselves together, but there’s all kinds of new ideas that, as we’ve seen, can collect capital very quickly, both cultural and actual capital. I don’t want to sit here and tell you that crypto’s going to change the world. [Laughs] But you just see that there’s more interest in things that are not these handful of wondering companies. There’s excitement and community being pointed at other things, and it all kind of seems silly, but there’s something there that is very vibrant and very real.
It has been a very platform-focused era. It reminds me of whatever that period was when every app was like, it’s Uber for this. Like that was all tech would ever be.
Right, but—Carlos Quintanilla wrote a great tweet about this—Uber was maybe the most important app in the history of the iPhone. It’s the first app that you pushed a button and something happened in the world. The mechanism by which something happened is problematic and exploitative, but before Uber, that idea did not exist at scale. Everything that was happening on the phone was inside your phone.
I think we still haven’t really taken it seriously that when you push buttons on your phone, things happen in the real world. We’ve had an entire presidency that is predicated on that. We have new members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who rose to prominence because they were able to push buttons on their phone better than other people. That connection? People see it now. This is what I mean when I say there’s a reckoning—that things happening on the phone is real life.
One more Facebook question. What’s the deal with the rebrand?
They want it to be about the metaverse, right? They’re really focused on Oculus and A.R. But A.R. is a really hard problem. If you step back to the beginning, you’ve gotta build the display that goes on your face that doesn’t make you look ridiculous. You have to find a way to power it; you have to put a battery on your body somewhere; you’ve gotta find a computer that’s fast enough to look at the world around you and put stuff on top that’s also small enough to run off the battery. Very challenging. But that’s just the tech problem.
Once you build it, who is going to augment reality? Who is in charge of that project? If I’m standing at the United States Capitol and you’re standing there, and we’re both looking at the Capitol, what are we seeing—what is the label on that building? Is it the “home of democracy,” or is it “where Donald Trump got screwed”? We’ll actually live in different realities.
Facebook is trying to pivot away from its Facebook problems, which is a content-moderation-at-scale problem. It might well be unsolvable. Meanwhile, they are still racing toward the hardest content moderation at scale that will ever exist: that you and I will live in different realities because we’re wearing headsets on our faces that present to us different realities in the same moment, in the same physical space.
God, that’s spooky.
I think about it all the time. Can I put a slightly upbeat note on this?
Please.
The flip side of that, if I had a pair of glasses that would just tell me everyone’s name, I would be the most powerful person in the world. I have a horrible memory for names and faces. I know I’ve lost opportunities because I’ve forgotten someone the second time. I would buy that in a heartbeat.
Oh, absolutely. I can’t imagine how useful that would be.
Just tell me people’s names! But to enable that, what do you have to build? A worldwide facial-recognition database. So maybe we should not have that technology.
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