What’s the deal with social media app Clubhouse? And why is there so much secrecy around it?

BY Fast Company South Africa 5 MINUTE READ

When Clubhouse, a private social app, debuted in March of last year, it was hard for most people to score an invitation. Over the summer, that sense of exclusivity fueled intrigue and chatter, especially as big names in music, entertainment and tech created accounts. Even Oprah made an appearance. On the app, users hosted off-the-cuff, informal conversations where they would talk to hundreds of listeners-like a large conference call, but more fun.

A Clubhouse spokeswoman said the company never excluded journalists, but many users said the service’s rules-and its name-created a culture of exclusivity and secrecy. For the most part, people found out about particularly controversial or heated conversations after users shared audio clips from Clubhouse rooms on Twitter and elsewhere. But Clubhouse’s terms of service made it clear: Sharing what happened on Clubhouse outside of Clubhouse was against the rules.

It was a chummy sense of privacy that led to fun and whimsical moments on the app, like lullaby sessions or a Lion King reenactment. But that feeling also fostered darker conversations that have dabbled in homophobia or taken anti-Semitic turns.

Those two opposing dynamics-bringing people together, but also driving them apart-have been amplified in recent months as Clubhouse’s growth had exploded. Its founders said Sunday that the app had 2 million users, huge growth from just a few months before. This week, investors including Andreessen Horowitz valued the not-yet-one-year-old service at $1 billion. The startup raised $100 million in the round, according to Axios.

Meanwhile, it has played host to hot-topic conversations with newsmakers: The San Francisco district attorney joined a heated chat about urban crime earlier this month. And a few days later, the mayors of Miami, San Francisco and Austin, Texas all took part in a digital Clubhouse panel to talk up their cities-and pitch them as candidates for techie pandemic relocations-to thousands of assembled listeners.

None of these events were open to the public. But they also weren’t exactly private. Over the past few months, as Clubhouse’s profile has grown, more reporters and editors have found their way onto the app. Some of them have chronicled the increasingly high-stakes discussions on the platform-as well as the young company’s controversies over harassment and content moderation.

So far, Szalavitz said, she and her friends have brought several hundred journalists onto Clubhouse, who in turn have helped sign up hundreds more. At the beginning of this year, she estimated that at least 1,800 have joined the app, up from around 275, by her count, in October.

Szalavitz, who also spent time teaching social design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, said she had seen that Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. tended to punish bad actors “with enough attention from the media.” Her thinking about Clubhouse was simple: “The way to make changes was to bring public attention to them,” she said.

At first, Szalavitz had resisted joining Clubhouse. She’d read that New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz, who had written about the company in May and was one of the few reporters on the platform, had been harassed on the app after VCs complained about critical news coverage. But as the pandemic wore on, Szalavitz and her fiancé Sonaar Luthra started to feel more lonely at their home in Los Angeles. Their friends were joining Clubhouse. So in the fall, they gave it a try.

Immediately, Szalavitz said, she felt more connected to her friends and was also striking up conversations with people in her extended network. Hearing someone’s voice without seeing their face was more fun and less awkward than a Zoom gathering. She and Luthra started hosting daily rooms on Clubhouse for people who were phone banking for then U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden-people could drop in and ask questions about how to get involved or share their experiences.

But Szalavitz also noticed that the app seemed designed to limit the spread of conversations outside its digital walls. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, the app leaves no record of what’s said. Clubhouse’s terms of service forbid recording the audio of a room unless everyone there agrees to it-nearly impossible with chatrooms that can hold thousands of people. And in order to get invitations to give out to friends, users have to share their contact list with the company, something many journalists, wary of exposing their sources, won’t do. “This is a platform that was designed to evade accountability,” Szalavitz said.

As she spent more time on the app, she saw that some divisive figures were active on Clubhouse, such as Curtis Yarvin, a blogger whose ideas have inspired alt-right leaders. And she was frustrated when the company didn’t follow up with decisive action after she and others brought up their concerns about moderation during Clubhouse’s virtual “town halls” with its founders.

A Clubhouse spokeswoman said racism, hate speech and abuse are prohibited on the app, and that moderation has always been a top priority. She cited moderation features including blocking specific users and the ability to flag rooms for further investigation.

At first, Szalavitz was willing to wait to see what policies Clubhouse’s team might add on their own. But her attitude changed after Yom Kippur, just a few weeks after she joined the app. That day, she hosted an all-day chatroom about atonement. Later that night, another discussion room sprang up called “Anti-Semitism and Black Culture,” in which the speakers trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes. Jewish listeners pointed out that some of the speakers’ claims were extra painful given the conversation was taking place on the holiest day of the year. Bloomberg News and other outlets reported on the details of the conversation, but Szalavitz knew that it could have easily slipped by without being discussed publicly. She believed the app needed more accountability, and she felt she couldn’t count on it coming from Clubhouse itself.

So she started sending reporters direct messages on Twitter, offering them Clubhouse invitations, and-with her fiancé Luthra’s help-explaining the app over the phone to the new recruits, one or two at a time. One of the reporters Szalavitz brought in, Tatiana Walk-Morris, wrote a well-read article in Vanity Fair about how the app’s design allowed racist and Islamophobic ideas to proliferate, even from well-known users.

The media attention has raised a question over how much privacy it’s reasonable to expect on an invitation-only app, especially when speakers are prominent. “I get that [Clubhouse’s founders] want it to be more intimate and for people to speak more freely and honestly,” Walk-Morris said. “But it seems to be creating confusion between who is a public figure and who isn’t.”

Szalavitz isn’t sure whether her invitations will actually lead to tangible results beyond the occasional news story about Clubhouse. She wonders whether she’s achieving her goal or the opposite of it. “Can journalism address this, or is it compounding it?” she said. “Did I serve as their unpaid person bringing them more PR?”

It’s hard to know how to pressure a fledgling startup like Clubhouse to make changes, said Leigh Honeywell, the chief executive officer of Tall Poppy, a firm that helps employers protect their workers from online harassment. “They don’t have advertisers, they haven’t started monetizing yet, they have a giant pile of money,” she said. But Honeywell, who is also a friend of Szalavitz, said that regardless of whether the growing presence of reporters on Clubhouse brings about policy changes, it should give people a better sense of the conversations happening on a platform frequented by some of the biggest names in tech, and increasingly, politics and media.

“The more journalists that are there to see this, the less likely they are to be able to allow it,” Szalavitz said of the app’s most controversial speech. “I’ve never encountered a more addictive or more radicalizing app-or one that fosters more instant intimacy.”

Author: Bloomberg. Article originally published on iol.co.za.

Here’s how to let your intuition guide you in the workplace

BY Fast Company South Africa 3 MINUTE READ

In an age of information overload and overwhelm, intuition is the key to discernment. Intuition is our sense of deep knowing and our natural ability to see reality in a clear, uncompromised way.

Intuitive listening helps us process everyday information. Whether we’re chatting with colleagues, skimming news reports, reviewing job applications, or listening to presentations, intuitive listening is a filter that extracts the signals from the noise.

Many of us use it without even recognizing that we are accessing our intuition. We don’t need tools or complex processes to activate our intuitive abilities, nor do we need to enter altered states of consciousness. Instead, we need more awareness about how intuition is already manifesting in the body, as well as the capacity to see past the distorted lenses of our personal opinions and feelings.

We can essentially breeze through cumbersome messages by devoting more attention to the subtle visceral reactions that take place in the body—the physical “first impressions” that arise when we encounter nuggets of meaningful and substantive information:

  • It awakens us. Meaningful and substantive information causes us to perk up with excitement. Our eyes widen and we take in a sudden deep breath as if wanting to inhale something that feels nourishing.
  • It has a palpable richness. Meaningful and substantive information seems to carry more weight. It feels yummy. We may find ourselves wanting to highlight it, repeat it, or commit it to memory.
  • It unblocks us. Meaningful and substantive information causes us to rethink a stale problem in a new light and helps us move forward where we were previously stuck.
  • It elicits an urge to move. Meaningful and substantive information energizes us and ignites our creative impulse. It feels like a building block for a new perspective, idea, or project.

Even though intuitive listening is a natural ability, it still requires practice to fully activate within us. This means spending more time being focused on the body and unlearning a few dysfunctional listening habits.

A hyperactive mental state interferes with intuitive listening. Busy brains are programmed to hear mounds of blah, whereas intuitive ears can catch what is small but valuable. Watch out for the tendency to overconsume information, which happens by:

  • Spending lots of energy trying to understand every detail in a message
  • Attempting to store the entirety of a message

When we believe that intelligence is a function of how much knowledge we hold in our minds, information acquisition becomes a game of quantity over quality. We form the impossible expectation that we need to know everything to do our job well.

It’s perfectly okay, if not highly desirable, to let our visceral cues guide us toward the information that best serves us in the moment. The more we commit to listening viscerally, the more we realize that what we’ve been needing to learn all along has been hiding in plain sight.

Also, for the many of us who struggle with finding our professional passion, intuitive listening can reveal a trail of clues about what we truly want to express in this world. Over time, small nuggets morph into patterns, and then stories, about what genuinely excites us and what makes our creative voice unique.

Information overload isn’t generated only from the outside. It also comes from within. Most of us have been programmed to listen reactively, which means using our noisy emotions to guide our understanding of a message. Emotional listening happens when we:

  • Focus on the bits of information that we wish to protest
  • Form premature expectations and conclusions about a message

Often, we feel defensive when we are in listening mode. We block out aspects of a message that trigger our conscious or unconscious fears to protect the beliefs that drive those fears.

In addition to being visceral, intuitive listening is also vulnerable. When we listen vulnerably, we witness our emotional reactions to others’ words while inviting the possibility for those words to change our beliefs.

Imagine creating a mental waiting room—a space where we greet our emotions and let them be—while we allow ourselves to process new information before owning it. Does it align with our best understanding of our inner truth? Does it challenge a belief that we need to part with?

In this waiting room, we also separate our neutral observations (what was actually said or what actually occurred) from our interpretive evaluations (how we feel about our observations). When we mix our observations with our personal reactions, we form opinions. These static and conclusive judgments about the way things are can be mistaken as fact or absolute truth.

While the goal is not to disable our inclinations to have feelings or form opinions, we do want to disentangle ourselves from them. We want to achieve detachment, which is not the same as disconnection. Detachment is about loosening the semi-paralyzing grip of our emotions so that we can intuitively hear the essence of the matter.

Let’s be pickier information eaters. Intuitive listening limits our consumption of “empty data calories” that fill us up without nourishing our creative minds and hearts. By lending an ear to our intuition, we may find ourselves being more informed than ever.

Article originally published on fastcompany.com


Scientists have found a way to hack your nerves to make artificial limbs feel lighter

BY Fast Company South Africa 3 MINUTE READ

Weight is an objective measurement. If you want an object to weigh less, you need to construct it from fewer, lighter materials. It’s one of many reasons why MacBooks are made of lighter aluminum instead of more durable steel. But weight is, in part, a subjective sensation. Our expectations of how heavy something should be actually affects our perception of its weight.

Scientists studying artificial limbs at ETH Zurich have figured out an incredible method to alter a human’s perception of weight, in research just published in Current Biology. By using specific electrical impulses, fed into the residual leg nerves of an amputee, researchers were able to make a prosthesis feel nearly 25% lighter to its wearer. As a result, the amputee was more comfortable and confident wearing the prosthesis, all while being less distracted by it.

Stanisa Raspopovic, a professor at ETH Zurich, has been working on smart, nerve-connecting devices for a decade. By connecting a sensor-loaded prosthesis through two tiny electrodes under someone’s skin, scientists made it possible for amputees to actually feel their own footfalls striking the ground.

Such nerve-connected interfaces have been improving quickly in the last few years. Scientists have begun to master connections between hardware and the human nervous system, allowing them to speak the language of our own internal wiring via carefully honed algorithms. Today, mind-controlled artificial limbs with sensations the wearer can feel are increasingly part of everyday life.

“When I started as a grad student, it was trial and error. . . . Now we actually have quite a bit of knowledge of the physics behind these things and how we can feed this information into computational models for better understanding of the nerve electrode interface—from animals to more targeted simulations in humans,” Raspopovic says. “Recently it stopped being trial and error.” Linking an amputee with a nerve-connected prosthetic device used to take four days of adjustments. Now it takes about four hours.

In this newest research, Raspopovic’s team focused its efforts on one sensation in particular: the weight of the prosthesis. Even though modern prostheses are incredible, weighing as little as half a biological limb, 70% of amputees report them feeling heavier. And as a result, it can be harder for someone to accept an artificial limb as part of their body.In turn, the team developed what it calls a sensory feedback loop. What it really means is that whenever someone moved their prosthesis, researchers automatically sent a certain electrical impulse. And that impulse made the prosthesis feel lighter.

How much lighter? As much as 23% in testing. That number doesn’t just look big; it made a world of difference to how people felt while wearing the prosthesis. Some 36% of subjects reported feeling more confident, and more than half reported that the prosthesis felt more like it was actually part of their body.

But perhaps the most impressive test was when the subject was asked to walk while spelling words backward, which is a test of cognitive load (or how mentally distracting the prosthesis is). With the feedback loop in place, the subject wasn’t forced to slow down walking, and was 82% accurate in spelling words backward (as opposed to just 58% without the special feedback).

“That [result] is quite reasonable because . . . you feel more confident and less stressed,” Raspopovic says. Are there any adverse effects for the user? In a previous study, Raspopovic found no such evidence. And especially since the prosthesis is lighter than a biological limb, the sensory feedback shouldn’t lead to overexertion.

Raspopovic plans to further develop and commercialize the technology, which requires investment in more permanent, titanium implants that can live under the skin long term. “It’s a long and expensive job,” he says. “The technology is there, but we need to make a drive for funding.”

Article originally published on fastcompany.com.

Twitter launches new program asking users to fact-check Tweets

BY Fast Company South Africa < 1 MINUTE READ

Twitter has launched a new community-based pilot program called Birdwatch that allows people to identify information in Tweets they believe are misleading, and write notes that provide informative context.

In this first phase of the pilot, notes will only be visible on a separate Birdwatch site.

On this site, pilot participants can also rate the helpfulness of notes added by other contributors.

“These notes are being intentionally kept separate from Twitter for now, while we build Birdwatch and gain confidence that it produces context people find helpful and appropriate,” Twitter said in a statement late on Monday.

There will be about 1,000 users in the US to start with the Birdwatch program.

“Eventually we aim to make notes visible directly on Tweets for the global Twitter audience, when there is consensus from a broad and diverse set of contributors,” Twitter said.

“We believe this approach has the potential to respond quickly when misleading information spreads, adding context that people trust and find valuable”.

To date, Twitter has conducted more than 100 qualitative interviews with individuals across the political spectrum who use Twitter, and received broad general support for Birdwatch.

All data contributed to Birdwatch will be publicly available and downloadable.

“As we develop algorithms that power Birdwatch — such as reputation and consensus systems — we aim to publish that code publicly in the Birdwatch Guide,” the company informed.

Additionally, notes will not have an effect on the way people see Tweets or Twitter’s system recommendations.


Author: IANS


Will we be able to update the Covid vaccine if the virus mutates too much?

BY Fast Company South Africa 3 MINUTE READ

After a much more contagious coronavirus variant was discovered in the U.K. in December, scientists at Pfizer and Moderna started to study whether their newly approved vaccines would still work against it. So far, it seems likely that the vaccines will still be effective. But new variants continue to be discovered, including one in California linked to large outbreaks and one in South Africa that initial studies show may be resistant to the antibodies created by earlier strains.

The virus will continue to change. At some point, if new mutations make it possible for the virus to render the existing vaccines less effective, what would it take to bring new vaccines to market?

The first vaccines approved in the U.S., from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, both use a new vaccine technology involving messenger RNA (mRNA). The good news: It’s something that could easily be adapted if necessary.

“With an RNA vaccine, it’s very easy to switch,” says Drew Weissman, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania whose early research helped make mRNA vaccines possible. The vaccines contain the genetic instructions for cells in the body to make the spike protein, the part of the virus that invades human cells, helping trigger an immune response so the body is ready to respond if it encounters the actual virus. (Other vaccines, like the one from Johnson & Johnson that is likely to be approved soon, would also be fairly simple to update, though the process would take a few more steps—and thus more time—than the new shots that use mRNA.)

To design the COVID-19 vaccine, scientists started with the genetic sequence of the virus; changing to a new variant just means plugging in new genetic code. In January 2020, researchers at Moderna were able to finalize a new vaccine days after getting the sequence. Something similar could happen now, and manufacturing it could take around six weeks.

“The only unknown is what the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and other regulatory agencies would say,” Weissman says. Regulators might say that it’s similar to the flu vaccine, which has to change each year but doesn’t need to go through large trials again. At a recent healthcare conference, Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said that he would expect a reformulated vaccine to work without needing trials. Still, it’s also possible that regulators might require additional months of testing.

So far, new variants of the virus have shown relatively few mutations, so the original vaccines should continue to work. “The spike protein is very big—it’s like 350 amino acids, so that’s big for a protein, and what that means is that there are many, many different sites that antibodies can recognize,” Weissman says. The variant in the U.K. had only a handful of mutations.

But the number of mutations will increase as more people become infected and the virus improves its “immune evasion”—its ability to avoid the immune response. Right now, “the virus has plenty of uninfected people to grow in, so it doesn’t need to learn how to reinfect an infected person,” Weissman says.

The same is true with vaccines; few people have been vaccinated so far, so the virus hasn’t had to learn to mutate to avoid the vaccines. But that could change. The disease will be difficult to wipe out because the vaccines are being distributed slowly, particularly in the developing world.

“It’s probably going to be years before we get vaccines into sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and South America and in other regions,” Weissman says. “What can happen is that since in those areas the virus is growing freely, it’s going to keep mutating. It’s possible that someday a series of mutations might occur that the vaccine doesn’t work well [against]. And then we have to go back and we have to re-immunize the entire world.”

It’s critical to track how the virus is changing. The U.K. variant was discovered there because the country was doing more genetic screening of the virus in patients; it turns out that the variant was also already in the U.S., but officials here didn’t realize it. “We obviously missed it,” Weissman says. “We weren’t screening for it, and we should be.”

The U.S. doesn’t have a nationwide system to track coronavirus mutations. As of early January, out of the 1.4 million positive COVID-19 tests recorded each week, only around 3,000 went through genomic sequencing. Weissman says: “We need to have people dedicated to sequencing coronavirus all over the United States to see what’s developing.”


Article originally published on fastcompany.com.


Why Tech Workers need writing skills

BY Fast Company South Africa 4 MINUTE READ

As we head into 2021, work looks completely different than it did a year ago.

Success in remote work hinges on communication, but it’s challenging. Most of us feel Zoom fatigue, and nearly a third of the American workforce struggles to communicate about their work in a remote setting. Clear writing could be the antidote—especially for engineers.

Writing, long considered a “soft skill” for technical workers, is crucial when employees can’t talk through a problem in person or show a new team member the ropes over coffee. Good writing makes for specific, detailed communication that captures institutional knowledge. And effective writing can keep technical teams engaged and productive in remote work by helping them move faster and communicate more clearly.

To make good writing part of their teams’ DNA, leaders need to prioritize and nurture that skill. Here are a few ways to do that:


Writing is a muscle that needs exercise to get stronger. The best way for technical employees to get that exercise is to create written resources that are valuable for their teams.

Leaders should start by identifying the most valuable written resources their teams already have. For technical teams, those might be root cause analyses (which identify what caused a technical problem) or product release notes (which inform customers when changes are made to a product).

From there, they can guide teams to use, expand, and create more of them. Not only does this give employees an opportunity to practice writing, it also creates institutional knowledge that’s accessible to everyone, regardless of where or when they work. For example, a developer in San Francisco can get a question answered through a quick search instead of setting up a late-night Zoom call with their colleague in Berlin. Before a launch, a product manager can spend 10 minutes reading a root cause analysis to avoid repeating the mistake that caused an outage during a prior launch.

Managers should reinforce the utility of documentation—and effective writing—by referencing these resources often and leading their teams to do the same. These explanatory writing skills, which are essential especially for asynchronous work, will also translate into better directions and more effective feedback on specific tasks.

Technical employees who are eager to sharpen their writing skills can also try writing courses on Coursera or Udacity, or tap into Grammarly for specific writing feedback.


Many companies are now hiring employees in other parts of US, or even the world, who operate within different time zones and without important context. They’ve never met their colleagues in person and often work on different schedules that don’t allow for much one-on-one interaction.

It might sound counterintuitive, but micromanaging these employees in the short-term is key to setting them up for success in the long-term. Sharing ample information makes up for some of what’s lost without hallway conversations or team happy hours. Written resources are a crucial part of this: a roadmap that a new employee can reference any time and digest at any pace.

During every new hire’s onboarding, their manager should create a customized document outlining not just who they should meet (and why) and their team’s best practices, but also specifics like how notes are captured during meetings and standards for every product launch. Ideally, a leader could respond to every new hire’s question with, “Here’s a link to the answer.” Onboarding needs to be a managerial function as much as an HR one. Leading onboarding allows managers to practice their own writing, standardizing it as a technical leadership skill.


2020 was the year of the video call. The intention to re-create in-person interactions was good, but the result was mentally draining. Technical teams can offload that burden by turning some video calls into writing.

One of Amazon’s strategies, adopted long before the pandemic, offers a blueprint. Instead of developing a presentation, Amazon has teams write a six-page memo for every project. This forces them to create a clear and compelling argument, and to get specific.

We don’t all need to adopt Amazon’s approach, but substituting writing for talking can save time and mental energy. During the pandemic, HackerRank’s executive team cut our weekly meeting from an hour to 30 minutes. We spend the first 10 minutes reading the agenda and writing feedback, then 20 minutes discussing it. We’ve gotten 30 minutes back every week, and our meetings are more productive than ever.

Technical teams can benefit from this approach. It gives everyone a chance to practice writing and creates documentation to reference later. It also fosters inclusivity by giving introverts the opportunity to express their thoughts in writing, a medium where they’re often more comfortable.

It’s trite but true: Remote work will be the future for most tech teams. Nurturing their writing now will make them more productive and focused by improving communication, establishing institutional knowledge, and crystallizing strategic thinking. Writing is the most important new skill for tech workers, regardless of role.


Source: FastCompany.com


Vivek Ravisankar is the CEO and cofounder of HackerRank

Tech giants teaming up with healthcare companies to develop digital ‘vaccine passports’

BY Fast Company South Africa 3 MINUTE READ

Health agencies have relied on paper vaccination certificates to fight epidemics for more than a century.

But Microsoft, Salesforce and Oracle are now teaming up with the health care nonprofit the Mayo Clinic and other major health care companies to develop technology that would bring such certifications to people’s phones. The companies envision that such “vaccine passports” could allow business, schools, concert venues and airlines to screen whether people have proof of vaccination.

The companies – which otherwise fiercely compete – together unveiled the Vaccination Credential Initiative.

The group’s goal is to help develop a secure copy of immunization records, which could be stored in the digital wallet feature on smartphones. The group is also plans to provide papers printed with QR codes that would allow people who don’t have smartphones to still access a secure record and gain entry to places that might require such a certificate.

“We wanted to build something that will empower consumers to take charge and have control and be able to manage their vaccination information in the way that they feel most comfortable, but will give them the freedom to start to get back to their life,” said Joan Harvey, president of care solutions at Evernorth, Cigna’s health services business and a partner in the coalition.

The announcement signals the role that Silicon Valley could play in the next phase of the pandemic – for better or worse.

A digital and secure format could ensure that people can keep track of their credentials in one place, and it could prevent people from creating fraudulent copies of the paper vaccination cards that health agencies distribute.

But health experts and privacy advocates questioned the timing of the initiative – especially as technical and other problems are inhibiting many vulnerable Americans from getting vaccines in the first place.

Bioethicists are concerned about developing vaccination certification tools before immunizations are more widely available.

Schools and some workplaces have long required proof of vaccination among students and some employees. But Nita Farahany, a professor and director of the Initiative for Science & Society at Duke University, warned against businesses and others requiring proof of vaccination too soon.

Farahany has warned that such requirements could result in a “two-tiered society,” where vaccinated people have access to jobs and public places and others don’t. She also worries that putting such requirements in place before more data is available about the vaccine could give people a false sense of security.

The partners in the Vaccination Credential Initiative say it will be up to business and schools to determine how they would use such credentials.

Some businesses are already thinking about it. Already airlines have introduced a health passport app called CommonPass. The app initially checked the status of travelers’ coronavirus screening tests, and new vaccination passport apps could work similarly.

Albert Fox Cahn, the fonder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, questioned why tech companies are focused on building vaccine passports and not the technical problems that are currently hampering the rollout of the vaccine. He said the industry should wait for direction from public health officials before jumping to develop solutions.

“It’s completely unnecessary,” Fox Cahn said. “It’s more of the same failed technosolutionism that we’ve seen throughout this pandemic.”

It’s not the first time that tech companies have collaborated during the pandemic. Apple and Google teamed up to build systems to notify people if they had been exposed to the virus, but those tools have not been widely adopted in the United States.



4 fun ways to socialise remotely

BY Fast Company South Africa 3 MINUTE READ

I don’t know about you, but around about my thousandth Zoom get-together during this never-ending pandemic, it dawned on me that after using Zoom all week for work, these so-called happy hours were starting to feel pretty sad.

Luckily, there are more stimulating ways to video-chat with your buddies. Grab a snack, pour yourself a beverage, and prepare to have some fun.

If you’ve been around long enough to remember what Crystal Pepsi tasted like, then you may have had the pleasure of playing an innovative and amusing trivia game show-esque series called You Don’t Know Jack. Not to date myself, but I believe the first time I played it was on the ill-fated 3DO console.

Anyway: The franchise has evolved into a full-blown multiplayer games company called Jackbox Games, which periodically puts out “Party Packs” that can be played across console, mobile, and computer platforms.

Its latest, Party Pack 7, supports up to eight players and features five games meant to keep everyone on their toes—kind of like modern-day Scattergories or charades.

To keep things interesting, each go-round averages about 15 to 20 minutes. The gameplay can be viewed by up to 10,000 spectators, just in case you and your friends are attention-depraved lunatics.

Best of all, only one person in the group needs to own the actual game. Jackbox outlines how to play remotely via several different platforms and streaming video services.

Remember real-life parties with a bunch of actual human beings? How you’d flitter around among people and groups to catch up?

You can now virtually relive the good old days with Gather, a very cool service that’s half video game, half video call.

You and everyone else at the party are represented as little controllable avatars that can stroll around and talk to each other. When your avatar approaches another one, the real-life video from your respective webcams will pop up on-screen so you can converse face-to-face. Walk away, and the video disappears. Small talk has never felt so fun!

The service is free for up to 25 users, with paid plans starting at $7 per user, per month, for additional features.

Remote watch parties are getting more and more popular, but with so many streaming services available across so many platforms, it’s hard to find a service that works with everything.

If you use the Chrome web browser, the excellent and free Scener extension is about as good as it gets right now.

Scener works with most of the big-name services—Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video, among others—and supports up to 10 people in a room at a time. As long as you and whoever else is watching all have accounts for whichever service, you can watch shows and movies together, complete with live video chatting in the sidebar.

Part of the thrill of playing Texas Hold’em is trying to read your opponents’ faces—something that’s not always possible to do if you’re playing remotely.

The free-to-play Poker Face app (AndroidiPhone) looks to change all that, with everyone at the table being represented via video.

It’s just like a real poker night, except without the stinky cigars, the uncomfortable folding chairs, and chip-dip spilled everywhere.


Article originally published on fastcompany.com.


The rise, fall and future of the online platform Trump followers are fond of

BY Fast Company South Africa 5 MINUTE READ

Early in the morning of January 11, the social media platform Parler went offline after Amazon withdrew the platform’s web hosting services. Parler sued Amazon in response.

Amazon’s move followed Google and Apple’s banning the Parler app from their app stores. The tech companies cited the platform’s inability or unwillingness to block calls for and threats of violence. Amazon’s move shut the platform down, at least until the company can find an alternative web hosting service.

Parler had a surge in new users following Twitter’s ban of President Donald Trump on January 8. Since the November election, when it saw a spike in usage, Parler has contributed to the widening gap between the different perceptions of reality held by the polarized public.

Competitor Gab was similarly forced offline after the 2018 mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh but it was only temporary. Shooter Robert Bowers had been posting anti-Semitic and violent content on the platform, and the revelation resulted in PayPalGoDaddy, and Medium‘s banning Gab from their services. Gab has since come back online and has reportedly gained hundreds of thousands of new users since Parler’s shutdown.

After the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Parler caught on among right-wing politicians and influencers—people with large online followings—as a social media platform where they could share and promote ideas without worrying about the company blocking or flagging their posts for being dangerous or misleading. However, the website also became a haven for far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who interacted with the mainstream conservatives flocking to the platform.

As the three highest-profile social media companies—YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter—continued to take action to mitigate the spread of extremism and disinformation, Parler welcomed the ensuing exodus of right-wing users. It exploded in popularity, doubling its members to 10 million during the month of November, and claimed 12 million at the time of its shutdown—although that’s still dwarfed by Twitter’s roughly 330 million monthly active users.

On mainstream social media, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the presidential election, and theories alleging crimes by the Biden campaign and Democrats are flagged as misinformationOn Parler, Trump won in a landslide, only to have his victory stolen by a wide-ranging alliance of evildoers, including Democrats and the so-called deep state.

But along with its success came the reality that extremist movements like QAnon and the Boogalooers thrived in the platform’s unregulated chaos.

Parler was launched in 2018 and found its place as another niche platform catering to right-wing users who ran afoul of content moderation on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Its user base remained small—fewer than 1 million users—until early 2020.

Other primarily right-wing platforms, especially Gab, had housed fringe and violent ideologues and groups by the time Parler was launched. These included violent far-right militias and the mass shooter Robert Bowers.

Parler, in contrast, gained a reputation for catering to mainstream conservatives thanks to a handful of high-profile early adopters like Brad Parscale, Candace Owens, and Sen. Mike Lee. As a result, in 2020 when Twitter began labeling misleading Trump tweets about possible fraud in absentee and mail-in voting, politicians like Ted Cruz embraced Parler as the next bastion for conservative speech.

In the weeks before the November 3 election, the big social media sites took steps to mitigate election-related extremism and disinformation. Twitter rolled out labels for all mail-in ballot misinformation and put a prompt on tweeted articles to encourage people to read them before retweeting. Facebook blocked QAnon groups and, later, restricted QAnon-adjacent accounts pushing “SaveTheChildren” conspiracy theories. Facebook also began prohibiting Holocaust denial posts. YouTube labeled and blocked advertising for election-related fake information, though it left in place many videos promoting conspiracy theories.

These actions continued in the wake of the election, especially as mainstream conservative politicians and Trump pushed the false claim that Biden and the Democrats committed large-scale voter fraud to steal the election. Consequently, millions of users migrated to alternative platforms: Gab, MeWe, and, in particular, Parler.

Users flocked there because of the promise of a site that wouldn’t label false information and wouldn’t ban the creation of extremist communities. But they also moved because Republican politicians and well-known elites signaled that Parler was the new home for conservative speech. These include commentator Mark Levin and Fox host Sean Hannity.

Parler has only two community guidelines: It does not knowingly allow criminal activity, and it does not allow spam or bots on its platform. The lack of guidelines on hate speech has allowed racism and anti-Semitism to flourish on Parler.

My research center has spent several years building an extensive encyclopedia of far-right terminology and slang, covering niche topics from the spectrum of white supremacist, neo-fascist, and anti-state movements. We have studied the ways that far-right language evolves alongside content moderation efforts from mainstream platforms, and how slang and memes are often used to evade regulations.

We have monitored far-right communities on Parler since March and have found frequent use of both obvious white supremacist terms and more implicit, evasive memes and slang. For example, among other explicit white supremacist content, Parler allows usernames referencing the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division’s violently anti-Semitic slogan, posts spreading the theory that Jews are descended from Satan, and hashtags such as “HitlerWasRight.”

In addition, it is easy to find the implicit bigotry and violence that eventually caused Facebook to ban movements like QAnon. For example, QAnon’s version of the “blood libel” theory—the centuries-old false conspiracy theory that Jewish people murder Christians and use their blood for rituals—has spread widely on the platform. Thousands of posts also use QAnon hashtags and promote the false claim that global elites are literally eating children.

Among the alternative platforms, Parler stands out because white supremacists, QAnon adherents, and mainstream conservatives exist in close proximity. This results in comment threads on politicians’ posts that are a melting pot of far-right beliefs, such as a response to Donald Trump Jr.’s unfounded allegations of election crimes that states, “Civil war is the only way to drain the swamp.”

Parler’s ownership is still kept largely secret. However, the few pieces of information that have come to light make Parler’s spike in popularity even more concerning.

For example, Dan Bongino, the highly popular right-wing commentator who published a book about the “deep state” conspiracy theory and frequently publishes unverified information, has at least a small ownership stake in the company. CEO John Matze said in a post on Parler that is now unavailable because the site is down that the ownership is composed of himself and “a small group of close friends and employees.”

Notably, conservative billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, are investors in the platform. Rebekah Mercer helped cofound it with Matze. The Mercers are well known for their investments in other conservative causes, including Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign, Breitbart News, and Cambridge Analytica. The connection to Cambridge Analytica has, in particular, alarmed experts, who worry that Parler may harvest unnecessary data from unwitting users.

Parler’s privacy policy doesn’t put to rest concerns about user privacy, either: The policy says that Parler has permission to collect a vast amount of personal information, and gives its members much less control than mainstream platforms over what that data can be used for.

If the company can find a new web hosting service, Parler’s fate will hinge on what its members do over the next few months. Will the company be able to capitalize on the influx of new users, or will its members slowly trickle back to the larger platforms, particularly amid recriminations for the platform’s role in the U.S. Capitol insurrection? A major factor is how Trump himself reacts, and whether he eventually creates an account on Parler. Prominent right-wing figures, including Sen. Lee, have called on him to do so.

Having catered to a right-wing audience and allowed hate speech to thrive on its platform, Parler is also at the whims of its user base. Online extremism and hate can lead to real-world violence by legitimizing extreme actions. Parler’s tolerance of hate and bigotry, and its affiliation with violent movements enabled right-wing extremists to rally supporters to go to Washington, D.C., prepared to force Congress to yield to their will, by violence if necessary. Like Gab, Parler is now dealing with the repercussions of members’ having committed acts of violence.

Although it’s hard to know whether Parler will recover and grow in the future, my research suggests that the extremism among its user base will persist for months to come.
Article originally published on fastcompany.com. Alex Newhouse is a research lead at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, Middlebury Institute of International Studies. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Do wealthy people practice more social distancing?

BY Fast Company South Africa 2 MINUTE READ

The eggheads at Johns Hopkins University wanted to know which groups practice social distancing the most—and their findings are not politically correct: Rich women, it turns out, are far more dependable with the masks and hand washing and social distancing than everyone else.

The economists studied 6,000 people across six countries, and found that peek social distancers have individual incomes around US$230,000 a year—you know, wealthy but not riding out lockdowns in their own chateaus. They are substantially (54%) more likely to practice safe COVID-19 behaviors than low-income people.

“We need to understand these differences because we can wring our hands, and we can blame and shame, but in a way it doesn’t matter,” said co-author Nick Papageorge, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, in a news release. “Policymakers just need to recognise who is going to socially distance, for how long, why and under what circumstances to give us accurate predictions of how the disease will spread and help us establish policies that will be useful.”

Excellent social distancing, it turns out, tends to come hand-in-hand with two factors: teleworking and homes with access to outdoor space, both of which are much more prevalent among the upper classes. Overall, social distancing was found to be more “practical, comfortable and feasible” for higher earners, who could easily do things like order groceries or change their work schedule.

Women continue to be the superior gender when it comes to not hurling themselves in the path of COVID-19: They were 23% more likely to social distance than men, according to the study.

If you’re hoping that most people are generally following lockdown guidelines, think again: “Policies that assume universal compliance with self-protective measures—or that otherwise do not account for socioeconomic differences in the costs of doing so—are unlikely to be effective or sustainable.”


Article originally published on fastcompany.com.