Celebrating Slow Progress — #101
It has taken the EU five years to get regulation in place for online platforms; now it's here.
This week, I achieved some things I've been working on for a while. Now, I am forcing myself to brag about them even though it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. YOLO.
On Monday, we submitted an application for funding for a Better Odds project from the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova.
And then, on Thursday, we communicated about the beta version of the Better Odds platform with a new website and some social media content.
It is not the moon landing, but it is still a significant achievement for a tiny start-up like ours.
While I don't believe in a big "launch" for a company like ours, because everything is continuously developed and improved, it still feels like an accomplishment.
We now have an MVP with concrete customer benefits. And now, we can set new goals and continue the work.
Out of these experiences came two learnings:
You could always do more. And if you don't actively decide where you draw the line for good enough, you will always feel you should have done more. But if the last 20% of perfect makes you slow, it might be better to aim at 80% and get it done.
Celebrate small victories, or you won't ever celebrate. Building a company is a huge undertaking, and it is easy to brush off early tasks as insignificant since they are so small compared to what you envision in the long term. But since your end goal gets bigger and bigger with each success, finishing tasks will never get you any closer.
Also, go to bed early. Spend time with people who matter. Be a nice person.
I hope you'll enjoy the reading!
The News Section
EU's Digital Services Act Brings Stricter Content Oversight to Large Online Platforms
Since this Friday, August 25, more than 40 major online companies, including Facebook, Google, and TikTok must better police the content they deliver due to new regulations from the European Union.
The Digital Services Act (DSA) is a groundbreaking law that applies to digital operations serving users within the EU, holding the platforms legally accountable for various content issues.
The DSA targets concerns such as fake news, manipulation of shoppers, Russian propaganda, and criminal activities, including child abuse. It covers both large and small operators, with the most strict responsibilities applying to designated "very large online platforms" (for example, Facebook and Amazon) and search engines (Google and Bing).
Non-compliance can lead to sanctions, including substantial fines, possibly in the hundreds of millions of euros, and a ban within the EU.
High level: What are the rules?
Illegal Products: Platforms must combat the sale of illegal products and services, affecting platforms like Amazon and Facebook Marketplace.
Illegal Content: Measures address illegal content, including Russian propaganda, election interference, hate crimes, harassment, and child abuse, ensuring the protection of fundamental human rights.
Protection of Children: Rules prohibit targeting children with ads based on personal data, requiring enhanced privacy, security, and safety measures for minors.
Racial and Gender Diversity: Sensitive personal data (race, gender, religion) can't be used for targeted advertising.
Ban on "Dark Patterns": Measures to protect online users from everyday interfaces that manipulate them into buying things they don’t need or want.
Also, tech companies are banned from favouring their own services, and must not hinder uninstalling pre-loaded software and apps.
Consumers can report violations. Non-compliance could lead to a complete ban in Europe or fines of up to 6% of global revenue—a lot of money, considering the size of these platforms.
Chinese Spy Used LinkedIn to Target British Officials and Gather State Secrets
A Chinese spy, working for Beijing's Ministry of State Security, used LinkedIn to contact thousands of British officials — including people working in the military — to lure them into handing over state secrets.
Using various names over five years, including "Robin Zhang," the spy offered officials from the UK and other countries business opportunities to gain sensitive information from them. For example, a recruitment consultant was offered up to £8,000 for providing details about someone from the intelligence services. Other targets were offered paid speaking engagements and trips to China.
A report by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee on China detailed potential ways such contacts could be exploited and warned that the aim was sometimes to attract people to visit China and then blackmail the targets who agreed to travel.
The Security Services in the United Kingdom, MI5, have previously warned about spies using LinkedIn to target individuals with access to confidential information. They estimate that at least 10,000 UK nationals had been contacted by fake profiles linked to hostile states using LinkedIn in the previous five years.
LinkedIn actively seeks out signs of state-sponsored activity and removes fake accounts, and Zhang's LinkedIn account has now been deleted.
Ecuadorians Celebrate Historic Vote to Protect Yasuní National Park from Oil Drilling
In a historic referendum, Ecuadorians voted to ban oil drilling in the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon rainforest — one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
According to the National Electoral Council of Ecuador, nearly 59% of voters rejected the oil drilling, while 41% voted in favour. This comes after decades of organizing led by a coalition of Indigenous peoples, youth, and activists across Ecuador. Voters also chose to ban all mining in the Choco Andino forest near the capital, Quito.
The Yasuní National Park park spans around 1 million hectares at the meeting point of the Amazon, the Andes and the Equator. A single hectare of Yasuní land supposedly contains more animal species than the whole of Europe and more tree species than exist in North America.
But underneath the park lies Ecuador’s largest reserve of crude oil. In 2007, President Rafael Correa tried to get international funding to leave the Yasuní untouched. But the plan failed. Instead, the Ecuadorian state oil company began drilling for oil in 2016 and currently produces more than 55,000 barrels daily, amounting to around 12% of Ecuador’s oil production.
This victory comes as the impacts of human-caused climate change accelerate, and some scientists warn that the Amazon is heading towards a dangerous tipping point, shifting from rainforest to savannah.
Owner of OnlyFans Takes Home $338 Million in Dividends, Averaging $1.3 Million Daily
Creator Economy, Ethics
OnlyFans, the mostly pornographic subscriber platform based in the United Kingdom, increased its pre-tax profits by 22% in 2022 to $525 million. The platform has 3.2 million registered creators and 239 million registered fans.
The owner and sole shareholder of OnlyFans, Leonid Radvinsky, paid himself $338 million in dividends in the past year — translating to $1.3 million for every working day. Leonid Radvinsky's total earnings from the site in the past three years amount to $889 million.
The subscriber platform acts as a marketplace for "adult performers", and the creators keep 80% of the revenue from the content they create on the platform. The remaining 20% of revenue goes to OnlyFans to cover business costs and provide income for Radvinsky.
Women make up 70% of all content creators and earn 78% more than their male counterparts on average. Additionally, 85% of the top 10% of earners on OnlyFans are female.
While the platform empowers content creators, primarily women, to monetize their work, it becomes essential to debate the power and revenue distribution on the platform, and its role in society at large. OnlyFans is criticised for attracting vulnerable women with the illusion that they can make a fortune on the platform, exposing them to the risk of harassment. And in 2021, BBC investigated the rising number of kids selling explicit content on the platform.
OnlyFans was founded by the Stokely family in Essex in 2016 and was sold to Radvinsky in 2018.
The Insight Section
Labour Decline Tied to Video Games? Young Men's Changing Leisures
Young men in the United States are spending more time playing video games. Better technology and reduced costs for online video games have made leisure time more attractive to young men. So attractive that their increasing engagement in online gaming may be connected to a decrease in their labour supply.
Average hours of work for men aged 21-30 decreased by 203 hours per year from 2000 to 2015. Reductions in manufacturing and routine job demand have contributed to declining wages and work hours for those without college degrees, and a 2017 research paper argued that this is causing a reduced labour supply among young men.
However, the sharp increase in gaming seems to be concentrated among men living with parents and is not uniform for all ages of young adults. The percentage of young men living with close relatives increased from 23% in 2000 to 35% in 2015 and 56% in 2022.
The increased time gaming seems to eat out of other types of leisure consumption like TV, movies and streaming, and a 2019 study suggests that it is driven by a shift in social norms that made playing video games more acceptable at later ages, particularly for non-employed men.
The data further suggest that men exiting the workforce do not display significant preferences for gaming leisure. Overall, the evidence suggests that while young men have dramatically increased the time they spend gaming over the past decade and a half, their decreasing levels of employment and labour force participation are more likely to result from changes in labour demand.
Cycling Triumph: London Records Higher Traffic Share for Cycles
According to data from the City of London, cycles (26.8%) made up a greater proportion of traffic than cars (25.8%) on their streets in 2022. The number of people cycling in London has increased almost fourfold since 1999, while the number of motor vehicles has declined by almost two-thirds over the same period.
Also, road casualty figures for the United Kingdom published in May show 85 fatalities for pedal cyclists in 2022, the lowest number since 1993. This was a 15% reduction from an average of 100 fatalities per year between 2015 and 2019 — the closest comparable years after the pandemic.
Cycling UK says liveable neighbourhoods, updates to the Highway Code and other road safety measures are likely what has led to the 24% drop in casualties.
Growth Marketing Strategies See 40% Decline in 2023 Due to Economic Challenges
A report from the marketing agency Dept found a 40% decline in the use of growth marketing strategies (defined by them as the combination of performance and brand strategies) in 2023 compared to the previous year.
The more challenging economic conditions have led marketers to invest more in bottom-funnel channels and strategies, causing a decline in growth marketing investment. The surveyed marketers suspect the economic conditions will stay through 2024, and make purposeful choices not to invest in growth marketing and instead focus on the short term.
In terms of strategy and planning, 45% of surveyed marketers are currently investing, down from 68% in the previous year. Here, brands are cutting areas like audience research and media planning to maintain ad spending during tough economic times.
Data and analytics investment has also decreased, with 48% of respondents spending on analytics, down from 70% in the previous year. Partly because of a lack of trust in the models used for data analytics. Also, the rise of AI and the depreciation of cookies have led some marketers to wait for new models before investing.
Finally, creative spending has decreased, with 46% of respondents investing, compared to 50% in the previous year. Instead, marketers are finding less expensive ways to create more assets in the creative process to achieve efficiency.
Balancing Innovation and Oversight: Policy Suggestions for Large Language Models
Artificial Intelligence, Policy
When it comes to Artificial Intelligence, ChatGPT and other large language models (LLMs) raise regulatory and ethical challenges. With the potential to transform industries, free up time, and improve access to services, OpenAI reported around 100 million active users of ChatGPT in January 2023.
LLMs have been found to invent information and present it as fact, providing users with dangerous information and being tricked into advising on harmful activities. There is also the issue of different types of bias in the outcome.
Sharing risks with social media, LLMs impact the quality and content of online conversations and public debate, and the critics are flagging that the compounded risks threaten democracy and public safety.
The critical policy question relates to how LLMs can be regulated to mitigate risks while encouraging innovation. In the European Union, the European Digital Services Act is trying to achieve this for other technology, aiming for a set-up that shields small actors who meet certain conditions from regulatory burden while the larger actors are responsible for conducting risk assessments and adopting mitigation.
Policy researcher Beatriz Botero Arcila at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University suggests lawmakers within the European Union could extend the DSA to cover general-purpose LLMs, like ChatGPT or Bard, which are also being used as search tools.
American School Attendance Is Still Not Close to Pre-COVID Levels
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted education systems worldwide. The pandemic negatively affected children's well-being and development, including their mental health and academic achievement. The pandemic also deepened pre-existing inequalities, and economically disadvantaged and minority students were harmed more by COVID-19, forcing them to learn from home.
The federal government in the United States is investing nearly $190 billion to support schools and students in academic recovery. However, that recovery depends on students' regular school attendance, which is not picking up.
During COVID-19, "chronic absenteeism" (defined as missing 10% or more of school) increased among public school students as they returned to in-person instruction. Between 2018-19 and 2021-22, chronic absenteeism grew by 13.5 percentage points, a 91% increase. The rate averaged 14.8% in 2018-19 and increased to 28.3% in 2021-22.
However, research by Thomas Dee at Stanford University shows that high rates of chronic absenteeism persisted into the 2022-23 school year in states like Massachusetts and Connecticut. This increase implies that an additional 6.5 million students are now chronically absent. Schools are trying to get students back with school-wide efforts and targeted initiatives.
Interestingly, factors like COVID-19 case rates and masking policies did not correlate with the growth in chronic absenteeism. Instead, it seems like the decline in youth mental health and academic engagement might contribute to the rise.
The small things
TOOLS — Open Source Research non-profit Bellingcat has gathered all its resources in a massive Google Sheet. You can find a lot of niche digital tools helping you kick-start your hacktivist career.
READ #1 — Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin is the best novel I've read in years. It is not like anything I've ever read — genuinely unique in its setting and storytelling. I don't know what more to say.
READ #2 — Why Does Everyone Feel So Insecure All the Time? by Astra Taylor in the New York Times. (Thank you, Carmilla, for the tip).
READ #3 — These women fell in love with an AI-voiced chatbot. Then it died — by Viola Zhou for Rest of World.
WATCH — My friend Christina recommended The Diplomat on Netflix, and while I've only watched a couple of episodes so far, I'm hooked.
Thanks for reading the newsletter. ✨ I hope you remember to pass it on if you have a friend you think would enjoy the insights.