Help! Should I Tell My Colleagues I’m on the Spectrum?

Dear OOO,

Is it worth trying to explain to colleagues that my bluntness stems from being on the spectrum? Or just acknowledge that my approach isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and just go from there?

—Anonymous

I sometimes talk to young journalists trying to choose between two jobs. They talk to me about the difference in workload, prestige, paths for advancement, and a million other pros and cons. And more than half the time, I’d say, they’re surprised by my first question, which has nothing to do with any of the factors they mentioned: “Which group of people do you want to work with?”

Prioritizing relationships in the workplace from the start doesn’t come naturally to most people, in my experience; it certainly didn’t to me. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that when I’ve chosen a “fancier” job over the opportunity to collaborate with people I admire, I’ve always regretted it. Many of us spend more time with some of our closest coworkers (whether remotely or IRL) than our own family members, so it’s worth making sure they’re people you genuinely want to spend time with and learn from.

This is all a preface to state the obvious: You need not tell anyone that you are on the spectrum if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, but I hope you find yourself in a job where you do. If you are surrounded by people who respect you and listen to you and care about you, they’ll want to know what makes you you, and knowing will only deepen your relationship. If you’re not sure if your workplace is inclusive enough, think about how other groups of people are treated: Is the office accessible for wheelchair users? Are people of color marginalized in group discussions or rarely promoted? Are women actually treated equally? If they don’t pass the test, and you are able to get into a position where you can trust your colleagues enough to tell, leap at the opportunity.

That said, I do not have autism, and I realize this advice, while not irrelevant, is less specific and thus less helpful than you deserve. As with all things, consulting friends or people in your professional network who are in the same situation can be really helpful. But one advantage of being a semiprofessional advice-giver is the ability to call up brilliant people and get their brilliant advice. So: Eric Michael Garcia is a terrific DC-based freelance journalist who covers politics and policy. He is also the author of We’re Not Broken, a forthcoming book about how social and policy systems can better serve people with autism. The book has an entire chapter about being autistic in the workplace, which draws on Eric’s reporting—and his own experience as an autistic person working in newsrooms of several prominent publications.

Eric’s answer to your question, Anonymous, was very clear: “I would never ever ever ever ever ever ever tell someone to disclose their autism at the expense of their job, or their ability to feel comfortable at work.” A subject he interviewed for his book told him she has never disclosed her autism without regretting it; he’s also heard plenty of horror stories about noninclusive workplaces. So he recommends looking for some of the markers I describe above and, if you decide you can’t be open, developing a strong support system of mentors and friends outside of work who can be a sounding board. If, on the other hand, you think your workplace is a safe space to be who you are, sharing can function as a sign of trust that strengthens your relationship as colleagues (and even friends).

Surprisingly to me, though, one of Eric’s foremost pieces of advice for coping as an autistic person in the workplace is basically the same whether you’ve told your coworkers or not. “You can and should always apologize when you’ve offended someone,” he says. “Either way, you can say, ‘Sometimes I can be blunt or too rude, but I don’t mean to cause offense.’” It’s inevitable that some people won’t like you for one reason or another, but you can always strive to be better to your colleagues by making amends promptly. Many miscommunications between autistic and neurotypical people, Eric says, result from mistaken impressions about how autism works. It’s not that autistic people can’t empathize, but that they have trouble processing. In other words, they may not realize when they’ve hurt people, but when informed, they will apologize. If they don’t, he says, “they’re just a jerk.”

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Help! What if My New Job Sucks Too?

Dear OOO,

My job is awful and is crushing my soul. For insurance reasons, though, I can’t quit until I have a new job lined up. This week I got an offer. It’s not my dream job, but it’s something. The problem, though, is that obviously I never interviewed with anyone in person, but they expect to be back in the office by June. So now I’m freaking out about the possibility that I’ll hate it there too. None of the people I interviewed with seem awful, but I certainly didn’t walk away thinking I was dying to work with them. Should I take the risk or stick with the devil I know until I can meet the people I’d be working with face-to-face?

—Mark, St. Louis

Short answer: If the best thing you can say about your job is that it’s the devil you know, it’s time to quit. Some people cannot do that, because quitting means running out of money or health care if they leave—I’ll spare you the rant about how maybe we shouldn’t tie people’s ability to see a doctor to their employment status—but Mark, you are lucky enough not to be in that situation, so run away.

That said, I do understand the dilemma. Getting your hopes up about a new, less-miserable job only to learn that the new job is equally miserable or worse would be 10 times more soul-crushing. And as we creep back toward an IRL existence, none of us have a clear view of what our lives will look like—even if we aren’t changing jobs. So the particular anxiety of knowing even less than most of us about what you’re signing up for in a post-vaccination universe must be overwhelming. There are, however, ways to minimize the chances of total disaster.

Step one: Talk to employees other than the ones you met via interviews. Personal connections are easiest, but even if you don’t have a friend there, you have options. Listservs and Facebook groups within your profession are sneaky-good resources, though it’s worth framing your initial post very carefully in case the group administrator is married to your prospective boss or something. If you find any current or former employees, get on the phone with them for 20 minutes and ask all the questions you don’t think you can ask the hiring manager. If you can’t find anyone, a blind LinkedIn message to someone with the company on their profile isn’t a bad approach. (Take it from someone who once scared a stranger out of taking a job working for an unimaginably abusive boss that way.)

Honestly, though, you should probably ask the hiring manager more questions too. It’s true that they don’t have a lot of incentive to be honest about the downsides when they’re trying to hire you, but even evasive answers can be revealing. Ask what the office culture was like pre-pandemic, and then ask specific follow-ups. Tell them your concerns with your current job and ask how their company addresses similar issues. Ask about the biggest challenges in the department you’d be working in. Listen as much to what they don’t say as what they do. If they pretend everything is perfect, consider that a red flag. And request to speak to someone in the department—the hiring manager shouldn’t have fears about connecting you with someone.

These strategies will help put your mind at ease. But we both know they can’t entirely eliminate the risk of ending up somewhere you hate just as much. I once accepted an offer for what I genuinely thought was going to be a dream job, turning down other opportunities, and … I hated it. But you know what? Everything worked out fine! I worked there for a while, unhappily but with a salary and health insurance, and eventually found another gig. A regrettable job decision or two is both inevitable and, in all likelihood, harmless in a decades-long career.

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Help! I’m Drowning in Admin and Can’t Get My Actual Job Done

Dear OOO,

For years now, companies I’ve worked for have cut budgets by (first) cutting support staff. But that means senior staff are doing more and more administrative work. I’m not saying this is beneath us; admin work is crucial. It’s just that doing the tasks we were hired for, which can help the company’s bottom line, gets sidelined or pushed to evening and weekend hours. Is there any way to combat this trend?

—Anonymous

My first thought when I read your question, Anonymous, was that you must be a fellow journalist—support staff barely exist in most companies I’ve worked for, and few industries have cut as much from annual budgets as ours. But then I lost two hours of my day down a rabbit hole of depressing articles about the death of administrative jobs—turns out 40 percent of administrative assistant roles disappeared between 2000 and 2020, a number comparable to manufacturing job losses. And that was before the pandemic, which caused massive cost cuts at a huge number of companies, but whose lasting effects aren’t yet visible in federal data.

So you’re not alone, and this is absolutely a worrisome trend. Administrative staff are often the only people keeping companies from utter chaos. What’s more, 95 percent of those jobs are held by women, one of many factors causing them to suffer disproportionate unemployment rates during this recession. Some of these positions are occupied by long-serving employees with invaluable institutional knowledge, others by young whippersnappers who are destined for senior leadership jobs. Too many people take these roles for granted, but they certainly miss them when they’re gone. And of course, it makes no economic sense for companies to lay off lower-paid support staff and thus make higher-paid senior staff do administrative work, but I long ago stopped trying to rationalize most companies’ decisions.

I wonder, though: How have you tried to deal with this at your own workplace? If you’re not doing the job you were hired for, something needs to change. Or if you’re working nights and weekends to get everything done, you’re at risk of burnout and leaving the company. Have you said that to anyone?

Easier said than done, I realize. Most of us, especially members of one or more historically marginalized groups, have been socialized to avoid making waves at all costs, silently doing whatever it takes to keep the place running and the boss happy. But I’d also argue we have a responsibility to model behaviors—like standing up for ourselves—to our colleagues, especially more junior and more vulnerable ones. A colleague recently did something in front of me that seemed straightforward but stunned me slightly in the moment. While discussing his job with a superior on a meeting among the three of us, he said something like, “I’d recommend that we move X and Y tasks to someone more junior. That will free me up to do A and B, which are things only I can do.” He also pointed out that he knew there was currently no obvious person to assume those responsibilities, but he offered some creative ideas about people who are ready to grow and try new things.

What I like about this framing is that it was constructive but didn’t bury the point in a flurry of apologies or “I just thought” statements or equivocations. Give it a try, Anonymous. Maybe your boss will brush you off or say there’s no one else who can do these tasks, in which case you may consider looking for a new job. But maybe they just haven’t realized how much extra work you’re taking on—because they’re oblivious, or because you’ve been shooting yourself in the foot by covering it up—and once you bring it to their attention they’ll want to fix the problem. (It’s possible you won’t get more support staff, but there might be other ways to be sure disproportionate burdens aren’t falling on one person.)

Finally, remember that losing senior staff and having to hire new ones is a gigantic headache your boss would very much like to avoid, and that this gives you leverage when you explain what you need to do your job effectively and feel fulfilled in your work. So give them a call.


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Black Tech Employees Rebel Against ‘Diversity Theater’

“At the same time as they’re harming folks in marginalized communities, they’re whitewashing their reputations within the same companies,” Ozoma said.

Surviving in this kind of environment is difficult, explains Oscar Veneszee Jr., a Navy veteran and recruiter for Facebook. He says that, in his experience, people of color at tech companies feel pressured to inure themselves to their own mistreatment in service to the company.

“When you talk about imposter syndrome, well yeah. I am an imposter,” he says. Because I show up every day [as] someone else. And the better I can become at being someone else, the better I’ll thrive at this company.”

Last June, Veneszee and two other Black employees filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging the social network doesn’t give Black workers equal opportunity to advance. He says he routinely won praise from managers but was never formally rated better than “meets expectations” and was never promoted.

“There may be Black Lives Matter posters on Facebook’s walls, but Black workers don’t see that phrase reflecting how they are treated in Facebook’s own workplace,” their complaint reads. The case is pending. 

“We’re focused on creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace, advancing racial justice, and holding ourselves accountable,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. Since last summer, the company has added diversity and inclusion goals to senior leaders’ performance reviews and changed how employees report discrimination, microaggressions and policy violations, among other changes.

“I think corporate America is scared,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, Veneszee’s attorney. “We’re really seeing Black professionals who have done everything right to advance themselves in their careers and their education, but they see they’re up against a cinder block ceiling.”

Romer-Friedman said he’s seeing more Black workers, including professionals in tech, taking legal action to challenge discrimination. “They’re tired of being second-class citizens in the workplace,” he says.

The dynamic recurred in December, when Timnit Gebru, a well-known artificial intelligence researcher, left Google; she says she was fired. Gebru studied the ethical consequences of AI and also contributed to diversity efforts at Google. Shortly before leaving the company, she wrote an open letter to an internal listserv for women on Google’s AI team, voicing her frustrations and echoing the concerns of Banks, Ozoma, and Veneszee.

“Your life gets worse when you advocate for underrepresented people,” the letter read.

An Empty Feeling

Diversity theater creates a sense of dissonance: Workers have to represent the company publicly while feeling victimized by it privately; they must identify shortcomings but are punished for acting on them. Gebru’s letter aired a number of privately held criticisms. Since her departure, calls at Google have grown for structural changes and a push for a new approach to diversity and inclusion that is worker-led and longer lasting.

Raksha Muthukumar has worked at Google as a software engineer for two years. She quickly joined the queer pride ERG and mentored high school students on the Google campus. But she says the experience left her “feeling a bit empty.”

Many people of color in tech want to do progressive work around marginalized groups. But the companies decide what are the acceptable and unacceptable ways to do it. For Muthukumar, Gebru’s letter mirrored her own frustration of “trying to do good but being trapped by the confines of the corporation.”

In the aftermath of the Floyd protests, Muthukumar says, Google leadership encouraged workers to share their experiences and resources on ways to help. But when Muthukumar circulated GoFundMe links, she was reprimanded by HR. One of the GoFundMe links included derogatory messages about police, and a coworker complained. The incident confused her: How can anyone engage with the realities of racism and the Floyd murder but ignore the social frustration toward law enforcement?

Muthukumar says it felt like there was some invisible line between acceptable and unacceptable ways to pair her job with activist endeavors, and the company decided when it’d been crossed. She later joined hundreds of other Googlers to create the Alphabet Workers Union.

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How Google’s Grand Plan to Make Stadia Games Fell Apart

Eventually, Stadia Games and Entertainment teams got the software and people it needed to gain momentum prototyping Stadia games. The allure of a Google-sized paycheck and an exit ramp from the crunch-fueled hamster wheel was enough to draw a critical mass of developers to Stadia Games and Entertainment. Artists, producers, audio experts, programmers had been brought on with the promise of making one-of-a-kind games for a revolutionary software—and, many believed, without the threat of layoffs hanging like the sword of Damocles, as is too often the case at traditional game companies. Teams were exploring what Google games could look like, how to best to tap into the power of Google’s massive data centers and showcase cloud gaming. Then, Covid-19 struck.

In April 2020—a month after the Los Angeles studio was announced—Google implemented a hiring freeze. “Now is the time to significantly slow down the pace of hiring,” Pichai said in an internal message, “while maintaining momentum in a small number of strategic areas where users and businesses rely on Google for ongoing support, and where our growth is critical to their success.” Gaming, according to four sources, was not one of those “strategic areas.”

“If the company was OK putting us on a hiring freeze, they were also OK with damaging our ability to build content,” says one source. “The studio was not yet fully formed and ready to produce games. That put on the brakes, and was a statement. We interpreted it as a lack of commitment from Google to make content.”

Google is not the first tech giant to run into these difficulties. Amazon followed a similar arc. In 2020, WIRED investigated the enormous challenges Jeff Bezos’s empire has faced producing first-party games in its Amazon Game Studios. Like Google, Amazon hired the best of the best: trusted developers like Far Cry 2’s Clint Hocking, System Shock 2’s Ian Vogel, EverQuest’s John Smedley, and Portal’s Kim Swift, many of whom were excited about the stability and relatively higher paychecks associated with the tech giant. Amazon’s goal, according to several sources, was to make a billion-dollar franchise that would help advertise the company’s cloud technology, proprietary game engine, and Twitch streaming service.

The approach, sources say, was hubristic. Amazon wanted to “win at games,” developing several AAA games simultaneously despite its nonexistent track record in the industry. Amazon Game Studios head Mike Frazzini has no prior professional experience in games. High expectations combined with Amazon idiosyncrasies—an obsession with in-house software, for example, and a fixation on measuring success with data—has led to failure after failure. Amazon has cancelled at least three of its games: Project Nova, Breakaway, and Crucible, the last of which was canceled just five months after release.

AAA game development can cost between $100 million and $200 million. Successes like Blizzard’s Overwatch come from the ashes of failures, like the company’s scrapped massively multiplayer online role-playing game Titan. Product design at big tech companies may not always be straightforward, but game design is a resource- and money-intensive labyrinth.

“I think it’s a lack of understanding of the process,” says one source who works at Stadia. “It seemed there were executive-level people not fully grasping how to navigate through a space that is highly creative, cross-disciplinary.”

Throughout Google’s hiring freeze, game developers felt thwarted in accomplishing their goals. Prototypes were being developed without full resources; the studios weren’t working at full capacity. When performance review time came, three sources say, Google judged game developers against benchmarks created for UX or visual designers. There isn’t a number associated with “fun-to-play,” or a process-based workflow for generating creativity. Veteran game developers lobbied for their work culture as much as they could. Over time, Google seemed to soften. Developers got the tools they needed, the appropriate reviews processes. But not the headcount. Frustration persisted.

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Australia Is Fighting a Platform War on the Wrong Battlefield

Hi everyone. This week, I’ve resisted temptation and written about Australia without a single mention of kangaroos, shrimp on the barbie, or Naomi Watts. (Even though she once appeared in a TV movie version of one of my books.) G’day!

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The Plain View

When they started their respective companies, the founders of Google and Facebook had no idea that they would eventually find themselves charged with destroying the news industry. Google’s Page and Brin wanted to capture all the web, on the reasonable premise that anyone who set up a site on that open channel would welcome the traffic. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg didn’t even envision that people on his network would be swapping news links, but came around to the idea of the News Feed as a personalized newspaper, equating news with “stories” about parties, weddings, and who friended who. Like Google, Facebook assumed that the sites its users linked to would welcome the traffic.

One need only look to Australia this week to see that things didn’t work out that way. The news business in general is hurting, and some publishers, notably the powerful Rupert Murdoch, say that platforms profiting from their news content is a big reason why. This argument has won the favor of the country’s government, which is considering a law demanding that platforms like Google and Facebook negotiate compensation for the damage its behavior has done to news publications.

Though both companies deny culpability, Google this week decided to toss some millions from its vast profits to Murdoch and other publishers. (The deal is couched as part of an existing global program, but the timing inextricably links this arrangement to the impending law in Murdoch’s native country.) The ever-stubborn Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has dug his heels in, a move he makes so often that one suspects a team of cobblers is on call. Not even waiting for the law to pass, he ordered his team to change the News Feed to the No News Feed, wiping all links to news articles in Australian news feeds and also blocking links to Australian news sites worldwide. Facebook didn’t win any friends by executing the removal so ham-handedly that it wound up accidentally taking down government and public-interest sites offering vital information.

The weird thing about these machinations is that this war—which may well spread to other countries not happy with the platforms—is being fought on the wrong battlefield. Though the law doesn’t seem terribly specific about the issue, Australian lawmakers seem to have accepted the long-voiced Murdochian claim that Google and Facebook are stealing news content by linking to articles, sometimes even providing snippets. But that claim is bogus: The links are beneficial to the news organizations, as they send readers to their pages. If a news site wants to opt out, it can simply block the links. Where’s the harm?

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The Amazon Case Signals a Tougher Stance on Gig Economy Firms

The Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday that Amazon had agreed to repay drivers for its Flex delivery service almost $62 million that consumers had intended as tips, but that Amazon retained for several years. The FTC called Amazon’s tipping practices “deceptive.”

“We have a long history of bringing cases against bogus business opportunities and phony income claims. This case puts an internet economy spin on that history,” acting FTC Chair Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, a Democrat, told reporters Tuesday.

In other words: Gig companies beware. The move is “unmistakably an indication of the agency’s commitment to devoting additional attention and enforcement resources to monitoring the behavior of gig employers, and to punish misrepresentation and fraud,” says William Kovacic, a former chair of the FTC and now a professor at George Washington University Law School. “This is an expansion.”

According to an FTC complaint, the settlement stems from advertisements Amazon posted when it launched Amazon Flex in 2015, through which workers sign up as independent contractors delivering Amazon goods. Those ads—and subsequent statements by Amazon—promised prospective workers $18 to $25 an hour in base pay, plus 100 percent of customers’ tips. But the FTC alleges that by late 2016, Amazon had begun to use an algorithm to determine new base pay rates by workers’ locations, and to subsidize that base pay with customer tips. That meant that if, for example, Amazon determined that area’s base pay rate was $14, and a customer tipped a driver $4 for their work, Amazon would use the customer tip to meet the promised minimum pay of $18.

Have you worked as an Amazon Flex driver, and would like to talk to a reporter about your experience? Email Aarian Marshall at aarian_marshall@wired.com. WIRED protects the confidentiality of its sources.

The complaint says that hundreds of drivers complained to Amazon about the pay discrepancies. A 2019 Los Angeles Times article described drivers, assigned by chance to deliver packages to their own homes, tipping themselves very specific figures to determine if the full tips were reaching their accounts. They weren’t. Meanwhile, according to the FTC, internal Amazon emails show employees describing the situation as “a huge PR risk for Amazon” and “an Amazon reputation tinderbox.” In mid-2019, Amazon adjusted its tipping practices.

Under the settlement, Amazon will pay the $62 million to the FTC, which will then give the money to the drivers who earned it. The FTC does not yet know how many drivers will be entitled to payments, according to spokesperson Jay Mayfield. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

Other gig companies have similarly manipulated worker tips and pay—and, to a lesser degree, also been called on the carpet by regulators. In 2019, after public outcry, DoorDash changed a policy that used customers’ tips to subsidize its workers’ minimum pay rate. Instacart has also been accused of misleading customers into thinking an optional service fee would be collected as tips for workers. (The company changed its policy on the fee in 2018.) Both companies have been sued by the District of Columbia for consumer deception. The Instacart case is pending, but DoorDash last November paid $2.5 million to DC for misleading consumers over tipping.

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Robinhood Restricts GameStop Trading—in a Bid to Save Itself

Many of Robinhood’s detractors accuse the company of acting in the interest of institutional short sellers rather than the individual retail investors that rely on it. It wouldn’t be the first time the company allegedly put those big bankrolls first; in December it paid a $65 million fine to the Securities and Exchange Commission to settle charges that it had misled users about the revenue it made selling its customers’ orders to third-party trading firms. Robinhood did not admit or deny any wrongdoing as part of the agreement.

“To be clear, this was a risk-management decision, and was not made on the direction of the market makers we route to,” Robinhood said of the restrictions it imposed on Thursday.

Another complaint, filed around the same time as the SEC settlement, might be more instructive when it comes to Robinhood’s actions Thursday. On December 16, the state of Massachusetts lobbed a complaint against Robinhood, accusing it of “aggressively targeting young, inexperienced investors” and exposing them to “unnecessary risk.” It’s the latest in a long arc of accusations that Robinhood’s playful interface makes buying and trading stocks too easy and downplays the downside risk.

“They’ve gotten a lot of criticism that it makes it too easy to trade, too much fun to trade,” says Jim Angel, who specializes in market structure and regulation at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “When Robinhood sees a situation that they know is going to end really badly, they’re going to be worried that if they don’t do something, people are going to come back and say, ‘Why did you let me buy this stock at $300?’”

Financial experts universally agree that GameStop will eventually crash back to a price that reflects its actual fundamentals, and when it does, a lot of people are going to find themselves on the wrong side of that trade and lose a whole lot of money.

In that interpretation, Robinhood is something like a bartender cutting things off before the party turns into a riot. Restricting stock trades also isn’t unique; Angel points out that many brokers don’t let customers trade in penny stocks without special authorization, for instance. The difference with GameStop et al. is one of scale. “There’s definitely a history of this kind of paternalism,” Angel says. “But there’s a really good question of how paternalistic should the brokerage firm be?”

Then again, if Robinhood had its users’ best interests in mind, it could have made this exact move days ago; GameStop’s stock has long since abandoned any pretense of relating to the company’s fundamental financial outlook. “It’s a little late to do it to protect the customer base,” says Gabriel Rauterberg, a professor at the University of Michigan’s law school and coauthor of The New Stock Market: Law, Economics, and Policy. Especially given that Robinhood also may have helped spark a sell-off Thursday morning; GameStop is down 44 percent from Wednesday’s close, and losses in stocks like AMC have been even more dramatic.

It seems more likely that Robinhood is trying to protect itself from SEC scrutiny. It was just yesterday, after all, that the agency said it was “actively monitoring the on-going market volatility” and the various parties to it. “Since Covid-19 led to a massive increase in retail trading, Robinhood has been more in regulators’ sites,” says Rauterberg. GameStop is the most dramatic of these incidents but not the first; individual traders drove Hertz to improbable heights this summer while it was in bankruptcy, and WallStreetBets has previously given a boost to stocks like Plug Power and Lumber Liquidators. “Now it’s become undeniable that massive retail trading is leading to some weird things happening in the market.”

That wariness of regulators showed up in Robinhood’s statement Thursday afternoon. “As a brokerage firm, we have many financial requirements, including SEC net capital obligations and clearinghouse deposits,” the company wrote. “Some of these requirements fluctuate based on volatility in the markets and can be substantial in the current environment.” Bloomberg reported Thursday that Robinhood had tapped into hundreds of millions of dollars of its credit lines recently, implying that it may face financial risk of its own related to executing these trades.

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Alphabet Is Grounding Loon—but Won’t Call It a Failure

The interesting thing is how far Loon got before Alphabet pulled the plug. When Teller first heard the idea, he says, he gave it about a 1 or 2 percent chance of succeeding. By the time of its launch in 2013—which I traveled to New Zealand to attend, following some of its first internet-bearing balloons—it had gotten to around 10 percent. By the 2018 graduation, Teller thought it was 50–50.

But in the last six months, the odds reset, like some grim-reaper-ish version of the New York Times needle. Loon had two challenges: the technological leap to deliver internet by balloon, and making the business case that people would pay for it. While the tech side was solving problems, the commercial environment became less favorable. In the last decade, much of the underserved world became connected—internet availability rose from 75 percent of the world to 93 percent. The remaining areas are primarily populated by those who can’t afford the 4G phones that receive Loon signals, or aren’t convinced that the internet—which in some cases has little content in their own language—was worth the effort. Teller came to realize that Loon was unlikely to ever contribute to Alphabet’s profits. And so the bet was lost.

Loon does leave a legacy. Probably no one has ever spent more money and brainpower on balloon technology, and Loon constantly set records for keeping them aloft. It broke ground in using sophisticated algorithms as well as the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather data to figure out how to ride wind currents and navigate the skies at 60,000 feet. Just last month, Loon engineers had a paper in Nature describing how their technology pioneered deep learning techniques to help their balloons autonomously form networks that thrived in a challenging environment. Another Loon breakthrough—sending high-speed data via beams of light (like fiber optic without the fiber)—kicked off a separate X project, Taara.

The fall of Loon is a good occasion to take a look at X’s accomplishments. Last year, the Moonshot Factory celebrated its first decade. In that time, it’s pioneered autonomous driving, which is now the basis of the Other Bet called Waymo; another project, Google Brain now powers much of Google’s technology with deep learning; and Alphabet still has high hopes for X graduates like its medical bet Verily, and its drone delivery company, Wing. And still inside X are projects involving robots and food. But it has also populated a boneyard of costly failures, now including Loon.

But Teller won’t call it failure. Loon, he says, was “a successful experiment.” Considering that he just killed a costly high-profile enterprise, I asked him what an unsuccessful experiment might look like. “Real failure is when the data tells you what you’re doing isn’t the right thing, and you do it anyway.” Loon was a success, he says, because once it was clear that it would never become a viable business, or solve internet connectivity, he called it quits.

Crazy? That’s the X way. “We can’t get access to these really exceptional opportunities unless we’re willing to be wrong a decent amount of the time,” says Teller. His bosses are cool with that. He gets regular reviews from Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and CFO Ruth Porat, and says both continue to be supportive. How does Teller himself rate the performance of X? ”Eight out of 10,” he says.

Still, it’s never fun to end a project. “We wanted Loon to be a beautiful solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem,” says Teller.

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Facebook Can’t Fix What It Won’t Admit To

I told Zuckerberg that right now my News Feed is basically … Trump, Trump, Trump, married, Trump, baby, Trump. I wondered how much of his News Feed was dominated by posts about our new president. “It’s a good amount,” he said. But he sees it as a temporary aberration. The issue for him is not just our domestic situation but “a serious global thing” where people need to be better informed—not just by news, but by each other. Though he touts recent tools that Facebook introduced to give lower rankings to inaccurate or overhyped news stories, he also admits that it’s a work in progress. “I just want to make sure there’s common ground, that everyone has the ability to share what they want and that nuance doesn’t get lost,” he said.

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Ask Me One Thing

Julie, who describes herself as “a therapist for children and families, not a lawyer, philosopher, techie, or media expert,” asks, “What should the guidelines be for users and content guards? How should Twitter (for example) be monitored and held accountable if content is not removed immediately?”

Hi, Julie. Thanks for asking a question that dovetails with this week’s Plain View essay. Also, thanks for not being a lawyer, philosopher, techie, or media expert. Good to meet you! Put simply, a mass commercial social network would do well to set guidelines that minimize destructive content. You can’t stop hateful or dangerous comments and posts from ever appearing. But what Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can do is assess how objectionable content spreads on their platforms and work backwards to make changes until the results are different. As for accountability, that process is underway. If those platforms continue to amplify speech that tears us apart, or motivates people to perform violent acts, they will increasingly become pariahs. We are already fed up with their excuses. And, perhaps more significantly, so are the people who work for them.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

The congresswoman from QAnon announced that she will move to impeach Joe Biden on January 21. At least she admits he won!

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