The Great Trending Topics Debacle

Facebook officially killed the Trending Topics program.  It may have been the most foolhardy decision they have made recently (which is amidst a fair share of recent foolhardy steps).

Facebook (through Mark Zuckerberg) famously crystalized the prevalent Silicon Valley thinking into a quotable slogan: Move Fast and Break Things.

Of course, the impetus behind the worldview was that smart, young companies iterate and get products into the market before the competition. It was a reaction to long lead times that didn’t match customers’ expectations.

If it failed, it failedAnd the thinking likely went: if we fail, well, it just means we gotta do something else. But Facebook moved too often, too quickly, without thinking about the macro impact.

Exhibit A: Trending Topics. Facebook had always tried to be more than just the engine where people meet and share information. So it tried to add a layer of news gathering and news promotion. It has always wanted to dabble in media. By thrusting editorial decision-making on this massive platform – the largest collection of humans we have ever seen – it took an engineering approach to a decidedly human problem. The world is a mass of information and no one necessarily agrees to decide to prioritize what is the most important.

That, of course, was a simplistic world view. The arena of editorial decisions is not a place for a multi-billion-dollar company that just wants to keep the peace and count the advertising dollars. Traditional media outlets understand that they can’t appeal to everyone and most don’t try. They also have tend to have years upon years editorial experience that realize it’s not some simple task.

Trending topics is the quintessential example of the Facebookian worldview of “most fast and break things”. People want their news on the Facebook “homepage” – let’s deliver it them. If people don’t like it, we can just quietly remove it. But it didn’t have the experience, patience, and, especially, forethought to make this a successful endeavor. Well, it failed.

And it didn’t just fail. It tarnished Facebook’s image, caused incalculable hours of headaches away from its core mission, and has further jeopardized its relationship with the conservative audience.

Maybe all the planning in the world would haven’t saved trending topics, but I’m pretty sure they’ll put in the prep work the next time they want to do something like this.


We Go Back

That meal kit startups are having some issues might come to some as a surprise.

Most people who have tried the kits appreciate the simplicity and the convenience of not thinking about their meals. Until the convenience feels stifling and the simplicity feels like a negative instead of a positive. People then yearn for the bounty of the supermarkets where you can go thinking you’re buying ground beef for hamburgers and end up with the ingredients for a lentil soup.

We tend to think of the unwritten future as progress, but it’s not so simple. We bend, we go back. This can be a cause for optimism (a rethinking of social media’s overextended social graphs may lead us to smaller, more intense relationship spheres) and pessimism (the rattail white nationalists feeling it’s once again comfortable to express their views in public).

Anything and everything are ascendant; until it is not. Some people think Donald Trump’s crony capitalism will bring about a socialist revolution, mostly because capitalism can, should, and will expand to such great influence that it collapses under its own weight. The theory is called accelerationism.

This may seem like it makes the future difficult to predict, but the blueprint is there. Nothing marches inexorably towards total usage, power or influence.

The US’ standing in the world is waning. So will Facebook. Neither Conservatism nor Liberalism knows what it is anymore. Theology is running laps around science. It’s best to assume whatever is good and popular now will eventually become bad and fringe. You can’t change the past, but why would you bother. It’ll catch up to you soon enough.


Pizza Parties and Other Important Matters

I’m trying to square Papa John’s logic that the furor around the NFL protests is driving down its sales (Pizza Hut says sales are great; we’re still waiting for Taco Town’s quarterly earnings call to see what they say)

Papa John’s certainly should have pull with the NFL; they are the league’s official pizza and their ongoing campaigns with retired NFL star Peyton Manning brings them even closer to the orbit of the football-watching public.
But Papa John’s doesn’t make it clear WHY sales are down? Are people boycotting sponsors too? While that is a usual tactic (to force corporations – in this case the NFL – to accede to a movement’s goals, it rarely has a material effect. And I had not previously seen any specific Papa John’s boycotts.
Ratings are down, yes; and some studies point to the protests as a partial reason. But overall TV viewership is down (+/- 5%) – and it is more significantly down as a whole than football. And is logical. People want to watch anything on their own schedule; live sports is one of the few things that people still make appointment viewing.
But that decline in viewership is unlikely to produce huge depression in the addressable audience.
Do the (small amount relatively speaking of) people who previously watched the NFL who have boycotted it also index high in Papa John’s customer base?
Or is it more likely that Papa Johns has fallen behind the innovations of its competitors Pizza Hut and Dominos? If we’re to take the pizzas on equal quality footing (I plead ignorance as a New Yorker; I do not wish to find out which is currently the best pizza of that dominant trio).
Dominos has taken a HBR case study approach to its advertising – eviscerating its past self to make its current version palatable. It is also known for being an innovator in technological developments – it’s the 10 year anniversary of None Pizza with Left Beef, after all.
Pizza Hut is in the midst of a major technological leap forward (or so it claims) through advanced heating mechanisms
Papa Johns, on the other hand, is known for its ubiquitous ads with Peyton Manning, who, again, is retired. No new advancements, save for limited edition topping styles. The pizza is the same. The tech is the same. The ordering is more or less the same.
While it is not like Papa Johns has avoided the tech revolution, they always seem a step behind. Is that the missing ingredient? I’m not sure, but it’s as plausible as (slightly) worse ratings.