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June 16, 2019
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Gender, race and social change in tech; Moira Weigel on the Internet of Women, Part Two

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Tech ethics can mean a lot of different things, but surely one of the most critical, unavoidable, and yet somehow still controversial propositions in the emerging field of ethics in technology is that tech should promote gender equality. But does it? And to the extent it does not, what (and who) needs to change?

In this second of a two-part interview “On The Internet of Women,” Harvard fellow and Logic magazine founder and editor Moira Weigel and I discuss the future of capitalism and its relationship to sex and tech; the place of ambivalence in feminist ethics; and Moira’s personal experiences with #MeToo.

Greg E.: There’s a relationship between technology and feminism, and technology and sexism for that matter. Then there’s a relationship between all of those things and capitalism. One of the underlying themes in your essay “The Internet of Women,” that I thought made it such a kind of, I’d call it a seminal essay, but that would be a silly term to use in this case…

Moira W.: I’ll take it.

Greg E.: One of the reasons I thought your essay should be required reading basic reading in tech ethics is that you argue we need to examine the degree to which sexism is a part of capitalism.

Moira W.: Yes.

Greg E.: Talk about that.

Moira W.: This is a big topic! Where to begin?

Capitalism, the social and economic system that emerged in Europe around the sixteenth century and that we still live under, has a profound relationship to histories of sexism and racism. It’s really important to recognize that sexism and racism themselves are historical phenomena.

They don’t exist in the same way in all places. They take on different forms at different times. I find that very hopeful to recognize, because it means they can change.

It’s really important not to get too pulled into the view that men have always hated women there will always be this war of the sexes that, best case scenario, gets temporarily resolved in the depressing truce of conventional heterosexuality.  The conditions we live under are not the only possible conditions—they are not inevitable.

A fundamental Marxist insight is that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation. In order to grow, a company needs to pay people less for their work than that work is worth. Race and gender help make this process of exploitation seem natural.

Image via Getty Images / gremlin

Certain people are naturally inclined to do certain kinds of lower status and lower waged work, and why should anyone be paid much to do what comes naturally? And it just so happens that the kinds of work we value less are seen as more naturally “female.” This isn’t just about caring professions that have been coded female—nursing and teaching and so on, although it does include those.

In fact, the history of computer programming provides one of the best examples. In the early decades, when writing software was seen as rote work and lower status, it was mostly done by women. As Mar Hicks and other historians have shown, as the profession became more prestigious and more lucrative, women were very actively pushed out.

You even see this with specific coding languages. As more women learn, say, Javascript, it becomes seen as feminized—seen as less impressive or valuable than Python, a “softer” skill. This perception, that women have certain natural capacities that should be free or cheap, has a long history that overlaps with the history of capitalism.  At some level, it is a byproduct of the rise of wage labor.

To a medieval farmer it would have made no sense to say that when his wife had their children who worked their farm, gave birth to them in labor, killed the chickens and cooked them, or did work around the house, that that wasn’t “work,” [but when he] took the chickens to the market to sell them, that was. Right?

A long line of feminist thinkers has drawn attention to this in different ways. One slogan from the 70s was, ‘whose work produces the worker?’ Women, but neither companies nor the state, who profit from this process, expect to pay for it.

Why am I saying all this? My point is: race and gender have been very useful historically for getting capitalism things for free—and for justifying that process. Of course, they’re also very useful for dividing exploited people against one another. So that a white male worker hates his black coworker, or his leeching wife, rather than his boss.

Greg E.: I want to ask more about this topic and technology; you are a publisher of Logic magazine which is one of the most interesting publications about technology that has come on the scene in the last few years.

Subscription fatigue hasn’t hit yet

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U.S. consumers are still embracing subscriptions. More than a third (34%) of Americans say they believe they’ll increase the number of subscription services they use over the next two years, according to a new report from eMarketer. This is following an increase to 3 subscription services on average, up from 2.4 services five years ago.

The report cited data from subscription platform Zuora and The Harris Poll in making these determinations.

The study also debunks the idea that we’ve reached a point of subscription fatigue.

While only a third is planning to increase the number of subscriptions — a figure that’s in line with the worldwide average — the larger majority of U.S. internet users said they planned to use the same number of subscriptions services within two years as they do now.

In other words, they’re not paring down their subscriptions just yet — in fact, only 7 percent said they planned to subscribe to fewer services in the two years ahead.

However, that’s both good news and bad news for the overall subscription industry. On the one hand, it means there’s a healthy base of potential subscribers for new services. But it also means that many people may only adopt a new subscription by dropping another — perhaps to maintain their current budget.

Subscriptions, after all, may still feel like luxuries. No one needs Netflix, Spotify, groceries delivered to their home or curated clothing selections sent by mail, for example. There are non-subscription alternatives that are much more affordable. The question is which luxuries are worth the recurring bill?

The survey, however, did not define subscription services, which could include news and magazine subscriptions, digital streaming services, subscription box services, and more. But it did ask about consumers’ interest in the various categories.

Over half of U.S. consumers (57%) said they were interested in TV and video-on-demand services (like Netflix) and 38 percent were interested in music services.

Related to this, eMarketer forecasts U.S. over-the-top video viewers will top 193 million by 2021, or 57.3 percent of the population. Digital audio listeners will top 211 million by the same time, or 63.1 percent of the population.

The next most popular subscriptions in the survey were grocery delivery like AmazonFresh (32%) and meal delivery like Blue Apron (21%). Software and storage services like iCloud and subscription beauty services like Ipsy followed, each with 17 percent.

Consumers were less interested in subscription news and information and subscription boxes — the latter only saw 10 percent interest, in fact.

The figures should be taken with a grain of salt, of course. The meal kit market is actually struggling. The consulting firm NPD Group estimated that only 4 percent of U.S. consumers have even tried them. So there’s a big disconnect between what consumers say they’re interested in, and what they actually do.

Meanwhile, the supposedly less popular news and information services market is, in some cases, booming. The New York Times, for instance, just this month posted a higher profit and added 223,000 digital subscribers to reach 4.5 million paying customers. And Apple now has “hundreds of people” working on Apple News+, it said this week. 

Of course, consumers will at some point reach a limit on the number of services they’re willing to pay for, but for the time being, the subscription economy appears solid.

 

Maisie Williams’ talent discovery startup Daisie raises $2.5 million, hits 100K members

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Maisie Williams’ time on Game of Thrones may have come to an end, but her talent discovery app Daisie is just getting started. Co-founded by film producer Dom Santry, Daisie aims to make it easier for creators to showcase their work, discover projects and collaborate with one another through a social networking-style platform. Only 11 days after Daisie officially launched to the public, the app hit an early milestone of 100,000 members. It also recently closed on $2.5 million in seed funding, the company tells TechCrunch.

The round was led by Founders Fund, which contributed $1.5 million. Other investors included 8VC, Kleiner Perkins, and newer VC firm Shrug Capital, from AngelList’s former head of marketing Niv Dror, who also separately invested. To date — including friends and family money and the founders’ own investment — Daisie has raised roughly $3 million.

It will later move toward raising a larger Series A, Santry says.

On Daisie, creators establish a profile as you would on a social network, find and follow other users, then seek out projects based on location, activity, or other factors.

“Whether it’s film, music, photography, art — everything is optimized around looking for collaborators,” explains Santry. “So the projects that are actively open and looking for people to get involved, are the ones we’re really pushing for people to discover and hopefully get involved with,” he says.

The company’s goal to offer an alternative path to talent discovery is a timely one. Today, the creative industry is waking up — as are many others — to the ramifications of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. As power-hungry abusers lose their jobs, new ways of working, networking and sourcing talent are taking hold.

As Williams said when she first introduced the app last year, Daisie’s focus is on giving the power back to the creator.

“Instead of [creators] having to market themselves to fit someone else’s idea of what their job would be, they can let their art speak for themselves,” she said at the time.

The app was launched into an invite-only beta on iOS last summer, and quickly saw a surge of users. After 37,000 downloads in week one, it crashed.

“We realized that the community was a lot larger than the product we had built, and that scale was something we needed to do properly,” Santry tells TechCrunch.

The team realized there was another problem, too: Once collaborators found each other in Daisie, there wasn’t a clear cut way for them to get in touch with one another as the app had no communication tools or ways to share files built in.

“That journey from concept to production was pretty muddy and quite muddled…so we realized, if we were bringing teams together, we actually wanted to give them a place to work — give them this creative hub…and take their project from concept all the way to production on Daisie,” Santry notes.

With this broader concept in mind, Daisie began fundraising in San Francisco shortly after the beta launch. The round initially closed in October 2018, but was more recently reopened to allow Dror’s investment.

With the additional funding in tow, Daisie has been able to grow its team of five to eighteen, including new hires from Monzo, Deliveroo, BBC, Microsoft, and others — specifically engineers who were familiar with designing apps for scale. Tasked with developing better infrastructure and a more expansive feature set, the team set to work on bringing Daisie to the web.

Nine months later, the new version launched to the public and is stable enough to handle the load. Today, it topped 100,000 users — most of which are in London. However, Daisie is planning to focus on taking its app to other cities including Berlin, New York, and L.A. going forward.

The company has monetization ideas in mind, but the app does not currently generate revenue. However, it’s already fielding inquiries from companies who want Daisie to find them the right talent for their projects.

“We want the best for the creators on the platform, so if that means bringing clients on — and hopefully giving those connectivity opportunities — then we’ll absolutely [go] down those roads,” Santry says.

The app may also serve as a talent pipeline for Maisie Williams’ own Daisy Chain Productions. In fact, Daisie recently ran a campaign called London Creates which connected young, emerging creators with project teams, two of which were headed by Santry’s Daisy Chain Productions co-founders, Williams and Bill Milner.

Now Daisy Chain Productions is going to produce a film from the Daisie collaboration as a result.

While celebs sometimes do little more than lend their name to projects, Williams was hands-on in terms of getting Daisie off the ground, Santry says. During the first quarter of 2019, she worked on Daisie 9-to-5, he notes. But she has since started another film project and plans to continue to work as an actress, which will limit her day-to-day involvement. Her role now and in the future may be more high-level.

“I think her role is going to become one of, culturally, like: where does Daisie stand? What do we stand for? Who do we work with? What do we represent?” he says. “How do we help creators everywhere? That’s mainly want Maisie wants to make sure Daisie does.”

On the Internet of Women with Moira Weigel

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“Feminism,” the writer and editor Marie Shear famously said in an often-misattributed quote, “is the radical notion that women are people.” The genius of this line, of course, is that it appears to be entirely non-controversial, which reminds us all the more effectively of the past century of fierce debates surrounding women’s equality.

And what about in tech ethics? It would seem equally non-controversial that ethical tech is supposed to be good for “people,” but is the broader tech world and its culture good for the majority of humans who happen to be women? And to the extent it isn’t, what does that say about any of us, and about all of our technology?

I’ve known, since I began planning this TechCrunch series exploring the ethics of tech, that it would need to thoroughly cover issues of gender. Because as we enter an age of AI, with machines learning to be ever more like us, what could be more critical than addressing the issues of sex and sexism often at the heart of the hardest conflicts in human history thus far?

Meanwhile, several months before I began envisioning this series I stumbled across the fourth issue of a new magazine called Logic, a journal on technology, ethics, and culture. Logic publishes primarily on paper — yes, the actual, physical stuff, and a satisfyingly meaty stock of it, at that.

In it, I found a brief essay, “The Internet of Women,” that is a must-read, an instant classic in tech ethics. The piece is by Moira Weigel, one of Logic’s founders and currently a member of Harvard University’s “Society of Fellows” — one of the world’s most elite societies of young academics.

A fast-talking 30-something Brooklynite with a Ph.D. from Yale, Weigel’s work combines her interest in sex, gender, and feminism, with a critical and witty analysis of our technology culture.

In this first of a two-part interview, I speak with Moira in depth about some of the issues she covers in her essay and beyond: #MeToo; the internet as a “feminizing” influence on culture; digital media ethics around sexism; and women in political and tech leadership.

Greg E.: How would you summarize the piece in a sentence or so?

Moira W.: It’s an idiosyncratic piece with a couple of different layers. But if I had to summarize it in just a sentence or two I’d say that it’s taking a closer look at the role that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have played in the so-called “#MeToo moment.”

In late 2017 and early 2018, I became interested in the tensions that the moment was exposing between digital media and so-called “legacy media” — print newspapers and magazines like The New York Times and Harper’s and The Atlantic. Digital media were making it possible to see structural sexism in new ways, and for voices and stories to be heard that would have gotten buried, previously.

A lot of the conversation unfolding in legacy media seemed to concern who was allowed to say what where. For me, this subtext was important: The #MeToo moment was not just about the sexualized abuse of power but also about who had authority to talk about what in public — or the semi-public spaces of the Internet.

At the same time, it seemed to me that the ongoing collapse of print media as an industry, and really what people sometimes call the “feminization” of work in general, was an important part of the context.

When people talk about jobs getting “feminized” they can mean many things — jobs becoming lower paid, lower status, flexible or precarious, demanding more emotional management and the cultivation of an “image,” blurring the boundary between “work” and “life.”

The increasing instability or insecurity of media workplaces only make women more vulnerable to the kinds of sexualized abuses of power the #MeToo hashtag was being used to talk about.

Credder offers Rotten Tomatoes-style ratings for the news

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In an age of online misinformation and clickbait, how do you know whether a publication is trustworthy?

Startup Credder is trying to solve this problem with reviews from both journalists and regular readers. These reviews are then aggregated into an overall credibility score (or rather, scores, since the journalist and reader ratings are calculated separately). So when you encounter an article from a new publication, you can check their scores on Credder to get a sense of how credible they are.

Co-founder and CEO Chase Palmieri compared the site to movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. It makes sense, then, that he’s enlisted former Rotten Tomatoes CEO Patrick Lee to his advisory board, along with journalist Gabriel Snyder and former Xobni CEO Jeff Bonforte.

Palmieri plans to open Credder to the general public later this month, and he’s already raised $750,000 in funding from Founder Institute CEO Adeo Ressi, Ira Ehrenpreis, the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Steve Bennet and others.

Palmieri told me he started working full-time on the project back in 2016, with the goal of “giving news consumers a way to productively hold the news producers accountable,” and to “realign the financial incentives of online media, so it’s not just rewarding clicks and traffic metrics.” In other words, he wanted to create a landscape where publishing empty clickbait or heavily slanted propaganda might have actual consequences.

If Credder gets much traction, it will likely attract its share of trolls — it’s easy to imagine that the same kind of person who leaves a negative review of “Captain Marvel” without seeing the movie (this is a real issue that Rotten Tomatoes has had to face), would be just as happy to smear The New York Times or CNN as “fake news.” And even if a reviewer is offering honest, good-faith feedback, the review might be less influenced by the quality of a publication’s journalism and more by their personal baggage or political leanings.

Palmieri acknowledged the risk and pointed to several ways Credder is trying to mitigate it. For one thing, users can’t just write an overall review of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or TechCrunch. Instead, they’re reviewing specific articles, so hopefully they’re engaging with the substance and specifics of the story, rather than just venting their preexisting feelings. The scores assigned to publications and to journalists are only generated when there are enough article ratings to create an aggregated score.

In addition, Palmieri said the reviewers “are also being held accountable,” because users can upvote or downvote their comments. That affects how the reviews get weighted in the overall score, and in turn generates a rating for the reviewers.

“It will take time for the weight of your reviews to be meaningful, and there will be a visible track record,” he said.

While I appreciated Palmieri’s vision, I was also skeptical that a credibility score can actually influence readers’ opinions — maybe it will matter when you encounter a new publication, but everyone already has set ideas about who they trust and don’t trust.

When I brought this up, Palmieri replied, “What we see in today’s media landscape is the left-wing media attacks the right-wing media, and vice versa. We never get a sense of what our fellow news consumers feel. What’s more likely to change your perspective and make you question yourself? It’s going to a rating page [for] an article, pointing out a specific problem in that article.”

To be clear, Credder isn’t hosting articles itself, simply crawling the web and creating rating pages for articles, publications and writers. As for making money, Palmieri said he’s considered both a tipping system and an ad system where publications can pay to promote their stories.

TechCrunch readers can check it out early by visiting the Credder website and using the promo code “TCNEWS”.

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