At the recently concluded SXSW conference (2019), I had the opportunity to get my personally autographed copy of Roger McNamee’s book “Zucked” (Penguin-Random House, 2019). The book is an interesting capture of his journey from an advocate of social media to an activist for its reform. Roger McNamee is an investor, mentor and musician. Among various noteworthy milestones in his technology investment career is his interaction with Facebook, and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, during the early days. McNamee starts off with a description of his initial meeting with Zuckerberg in 2006, and how that has evolved over time. He also gives a backdrop of how Silicon Valley changed in that era with the advent of cloud computing; and how Facebook – and many other startups – benefited not only from a technology shift, but also a societal shift. A shift in which many actors, including consumers, have taken somewhat of a “laissez-faire” approach to privacy and user data. Even today, we are seeing the impacts of this shift. Although McNamee puts Facebook front and center with respect to challenges of social media today; he also points out that it is not a Facebook issue alone. Many technology companies have also adopted business models where the consumer is the ‘product’; where user data can be leveraged to advantage their real customers – the advertisers. In similar vein, McNamee refers to a captivating TED talk by Tristan Harris “How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day”. I recommend watching the video as well. If nothing else, it is an eyeopener. McNamee goes onto to describe his efforts to first directly appeal to Facebook; and later, to work outside of Facebook through various like minded individuals and organizations to bring about a fundamental change. He also refers to his interactions with members of Congress. To me, the most insightful piece of his book was the summary of his findings in Chapter 12, “Success?”.  In his own words “First, internet platforms that we love are harming the country and the world. Second, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter have too much influence on our democracy. Third, users and policymakers are far too trusting of technology. Fourth, the best way to differentiate the good from the bad is to look at economic incentives. Fifth, kids are far more vulnerable to screen-based technology than I ever imagined. Sixth, users are not being compensated properly for their data. Seventh, it is just not realistic at the scale of Facebook or Google to have the community police content. Eighth, the culture, business model, and practices that made internet platforms spectacularly successful produce unacceptable problems at a global scale that will not resolve themselves. Ninth, I believe the threat from internet platforms justifies aggressive regulation, even with all the challenges of doing so in tech.   Tenth, the country would benefit from an honest conversation about the values we expect from businesses, with a focus on the things we would sacrifice in service of those values. Eleventh, technology has unlimited potential, but the good of society depends on entrepreneurs and investors adopting an approach that respects the rights of users, communities, and democracies. Twelfth, with much reluctance I have concluded that platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter are currently doing more harm than good.” I ended up reading the book in one sitting. Though sometimes repetitive, it was always thought provoking.  At a minimum, I believe it would make readers want to change their online daily habits and that of loved ones. Especially in a “mobile-first” world.  And for some, I expect it will motivate them to be change agents for something very fundamental. Giving voice to democracy and the rights of users. More than ever, I believe that what SocialChains is doing is essential as part of this mission. — Padmanand (“Pad”) Warrier
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