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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A Trump Ban Is Easy. Fixing Facebook and Twitter Will Be Hard

Facebook might have run out the clock on Donald Trump’s posts—I predict a permanent ban at some point—but the episode is only one data point in a wider crisis of toxic expression on social platforms. A lot of attention has been paid to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which allows platforms to moderate content without taking on legal responsibility for what users post. Many people in DC want to change or end that law. But the bigger question for Facebook and Twitter is, what kind of services do they want to be? One where comity rules, or one where divisive wedges poison society? Saying they want to be all hearts and flowers doesn’t mean anything. The question is what they want to do to get there.

A November 2020 New York Times article reported some instances where Facebook tinkered with ways to reduce misinformation and generally awful content. One, in an effort to tamp down conspiracy lunacy right after the election, assigned what it called N.E.Q. (news ecosystem quality) scores to articles, with reliable journalism ranked higher than lies and fantasy. It made for a “nicer News Feed.” But after a few weeks the company stopped the ranking scheme. In another experiment, Facebook trained a machine-learning algorithm to identify the kind of posts that were “bad for the world” and then demoted those in people’s feed. Indeed, there were fewer toxic posts. But people logged in to Facebook a bit less—and less time spent on Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg’s nightmare. The Times viewed an internal document where Facebook concluded,“The results were good except that it led to a decrease in sessions, which motivated us to try a different approach.”

I find that decision short-sighted. Maybe in the short term people would not log into Facebook quite so much. But that shortfall might challenge the company to concoct more wholesome features that would bring people back—and not feel so angry when they did use the service. Everyone would feel better, and fewer employees would threaten to quit because they feel that they are working for Satan.

When Facebook and Twitter began, neither founder suspected that their creations would be used to change public opinion, and certainly not to poison the body politic in the way Donald Trump did. The vision was to enrich people’s lives by letting them know what their friends were up to. But as their platforms grew, so did their ambitions. Zuckerberg set out to build Facebook as the ultimate personalized newspaper. Twitter positioned itself as “the Pulse of the Planet.”

In the past few years, however, it has been hard to look away from the consequences. The choice that the platforms face has little to do what is legal, and everything to do with what is right. Time and time again, when explaining why someone terrible remains on the platform, Zuckerberg invokes the company’s policies. But Facebook has things backwards when it invokes its own rules, as if it were referring to a tablet that some wonky Moses handed down. The company should more methodically examine the results of its policies, which in many cases scream wrong. Typically, Facebook defends a given outcome until enough people get disgusted at what is allowed to happen on its platform. Then it makes a change. That happened with anti-vaxxers, Holocaust denial, and now Donald Trump’s attempts to destroy democracy.

For now, of course, Zuckerberg is right when he says, “The priority for the whole country must now be to ensure that the remaining 13 days and the days after inauguration pass peacefully and in accordance with established democratic norms.” But after that, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey have—in a term both utter a lot—“a lot of work to do.”

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The Tenuous Promise of the Substack Dream

Substack CEO Chris Best tells me that while he’s not out to kill what’s left of big media, the ad-free newsletter model has advantages over what traditional journalism has become—a chase for clicks where “most people’s media diets get determined by social media,” he says. “And so we end up in this world where the things that everybody reads are not the things that you would choose to put into your mind if you were sitting back and making that decision thoughtfully.” If you are paying $100 a year to follow a single writer, you’d surely be more thoughtful about it!

That’s the price of Platformer, Casey Newton’s new Substack. He started it after writing a similar newsletter for his employer Vox, for two years. He saw other journalists take the leap, including Emily Atkin, who writes a popular newsletter about climate change. Plus, during the pandemic everyone is working from home anyway. “I felt like if it works, it could just be mine,” he tells me. “And I wouldn’t have to worry about what might happen to Vox Media in 10 years.” He says he sees newsletters as something he’ll be doing for his whole career. And if he draws a relatively modest paying audience, he can match his previous salary. “I only need to have 3,000 subscribers to have the best job in journalism,” he says.

Can paid newsletters scale to be an important part of journalism, as Substack hopes? Newton is right that only a few thousand readers can get him a star salary—even after Substack’s 10 percent fee, 3,000 readers at $100 a year would put him in the top tier of industry pay, and if he gets to five or six thousand readers, he’s definitely well into the penthouse region of journalistic paychecks. But getting those readers is hard, especially if the Substack model proves successful and hundreds of other writers are tempting readers to pay for their unique and glorious content. How many can people afford? Even in these nascent days, there’s a term for the problem:“subscription fatigue.” Substack’s Best says that having that problem would mean that the model is working, but he admits that it might affect his company’s growth. “How much people are going to want to spend on stuff is obviously not unlimited,” he admits. One thing is certain—to keep readers coming back, these newsletter writers must keep delivering tangible value. Otherwise they might wonder why they are paying more than half the standard subscription price of the New York Times for the musings of a single writer.

I suspect that in the long run, star writers like Newton or the former Rolling Stone scribe Matt Taibbi, another Substack luminary, will eventually rejoin bigger publications, just as orbiting objects in space are inevitably sucked in by Earth’s gravity. Among other things, it’s simply more fun to communicate with potentially millions of readers as opposed to a few thousand paying customers. And when Covid fades, there will be newsroom culture once more, with all its exhilirating intrigues and distractions.

Nonetheless, the Substack model has a future. It is perfect for enterprising reporters—ambitious newcomers, disgruntled mid-termers, and post-buyout veterans—to pick an unfilled niche that serves the obsessions or business needs of small groups of people with some cash to spend. Think of it as edge journalism: covering the hell out of beats that traditional publications haven’t even thought of, or if they did, wouldn’t assign a full-time reporter to obsessively research. Even this isn’t new; as a college student, Brian Stelter, for instance, got his start in media with his blog, TVNewser, which ventured deep into the weeds of an industry that loved to read gossip about itself. If he were doing it today, Stelter undoubtedly would have done it via Substack. I see a lot of absolute beginners pursuing that course in the years ahead. And some of them, like Stelter, who is now a CNN star, will be plucked up by bigger venues.

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WFH or Work at the Office—More Tech Employees Can Now Choose

Facebook, which gave employees $2,000 stipends to kit out their home offices earlier this year, has also fashioned itself into a hybrid company. It expects that half of its employees will work remotely in the next five to 10 years—but office space is still critical for the other half. The company has even expanded its footprint: This fall, Facebook bid on REI’s brand-new, 400,000-square-foot corporate campus in Bellevue, near Seattle. REI, which laid off hundreds of corporate employees in the spring, decided it would sell the headquarters to go “remote-first.”

In the hybrid model, companies seem to be selling a corporate vision of having it all. You can have the office, with the fancy ergonomic chairs, or you can have a stipend to buy one for your house. You can come here for your meetings and see teams in person, or you can take them at home with Zoom. You can even take a little from column A, a little from column B. Based on Gartner’s research, Penn says there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between satisfaction among people who are always remote and sometimes remote, but the option to choose where to work does seem to have an impact. Things like productivity and work-life balance generally improve when employees have the option to decide.

Still, the promise of flexibility comes with some fine print. Consider workplace surveillance. “Back in April, less than half of organizations were tracking productivity,” says Penn. “As of August, that has jumped up to over 70 percent.” Before, managers may have kept an eye on when people came and went from the office—not exactly a scientific measure. Remote work isn’t necessarily better. Mostly, Penn says, companies are tracking metrics like virtual clocking in and out, Outlook and Calendar usage, or time spent online. Now, with the pressure to always appear online, some employees are working much longer hours or wasting time on performative productivity: things like excessively chatting on Slack or setting up useless meetings, just to show that they’re there.

The model could also disadvantage employees on teams that are mostly in the office, or mostly remote, or people who want to keep different hours from the rest of their team. “Hybrid remote work perpetuates two very different employee experiences, and that can affect things like equity, inclusion, and belonging, or even career trajectory,” says Melanie Collins, the VP of people at Dropbox. Earlier this year, Dropbox found that its European employees—who had previously been the outliers on the Zoom screen—finally felt on equal footing with the Californians, because everyone was on the screen. That was a surprising upside of everyone working remotely. “Our teams in Europe have expressed how Zoom has been a great equalizer for them,” says Collins. “No one’s left out of the conversation.”

Last month, Dropbox announced that it would become a “virtual-first” company. The company plans to turn its offices into a series of meeting spaces, where teams can occasionally come together in person. Otherwise, and for the majority of the time, employees will work remotely. (It will also provide a stipend for coworking spaces, like WeWork, for employees who prefer to leave the house.) The change is significant: Before the pandemic, only 3 percent of Dropbox’s 2,300 employees worked remotely.

Collins believes that the future of work has less to do with where it’s done, and more to do with when it’s done. “Many things that were broken before feel even more broken now,” she says. “We’re working longer hours, we have back-to-back meetings, and they’re all on Zoom, and that’s exhausting.” To fix that, Dropbox is also moving toward a model where employees come together for meetings and the like during “core collaboration hours”—a four-hour window of time each day—and otherwise control their own time. “That doesn’t mean our workdays are shortening,” says Collins. “We just want this to result in a nonlinear workday.”

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The DOJ Is Fighting Google on a Shifting Battlefield

Marissa Mayer, Google’s 20th employee who later went on to lead Yahoo!, once told me that for many years, Google would do a test: It would show a certain percentage of users a version of search with no ads, to see if people preferred a commercially pristine experience. The result, she boasted, was that users would consistently use the ad-supplied search engine more—they liked ads, and found them useful. When I asked Google if it still conducted this test, no one seemed to recall doing it in the first place. Which means, I guess, that they don’t do it anymore. If they did, I suspect the result might be different. (Google tells me that it does do tests in general to see if its ads are welcome, or whether they repel people.)

But if Google web search has deteriorated in quality (an assessment Google vigorously denies) that begs the question as to why competitors haven’t taken advantage. Certainly if Amazon or Facebook had created superior general interest search engines, they would have the wherewithal to pay Apple and others for placement. But after seemingly testing a run at Google, both have retreated. Amazon started a search company in the heart of Silicon Valley called A9, but it never developed a direct Google competitor. In 2013 Facebook introduced Graph Search, which seemed to have some advantages over Google search—namely, access to the social data on Facebook. But that experiment fizzled as well.

I suspect those giants backed down because they got the commercial results they sought through other means. There is evidence that people now use Amazon’s product search more than Google’s when looking for stuff to buy. And Facebook found that by using massive amounts of user data, it could understand people’s intent when they’re looking to buy something—a power once believed to only come from a search engine where people explicitly express their desire by typing in a search box.

The lesson is that web search, while still very powerful, might not be the only way into people’s pocketbooks. In fact, you can make a case that the DOJ is fighting on a battlefield that has already shifted. Search competition has spread to multiple fields of conflict including maps, voice assistants, and even automotive operating assistants. Google’s dominance in web search is less critical by that yardstick.

That doesn’t mean that the suit is ill-advised. Exposing Google search to more competition would benefit all of us. I’d be happy to see Google give up the default position on Apple Safari, Mozilla, and Samsung phones, just to give some other rivals a chance. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point, Google settles this case, and that the end of paid placement will be part of the deal.

But no matter which way the suit goes—and since antitrust litigation operates at Bleak House velocity—the DOJ’s move this week hardly gets at the root of our Big Tech problem. That will only be addressed by sweeping legislation that focuses more on the protection of citizens than targeting companies that take advantage of our outdated regulation and laws. If there’s a way to do that wisely, I doubt that you’ll find the answer in a Google search.

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Time Travel

In 2013, Facebook introduced Graph Search. My WIRED story on it focused on its potential, little of which was realized:

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Clarence Thomas Wants to Rethink Internet Speech. Be Afraid

But I suspect a different line of thinking inspired the Thomas comment. A Supreme Court justice’s public reservations about Section 230 do not come in a vacuum. For months now, politicians have been attacking 230. While both sides of the aisle have complaints (including from former Vice President Biden), the most virulent ones come from the right. So whether he intended it or not, Thomas’ words are a dog whistle to those who want to hobble social media’s ability to filter out lies that poison the culture, endanger our health, and generally make us hate each other.

Indeed, it didn’t take long for the justice’s comments to energize conservatives who despise Section 230. Only hours after the Thomas memo was posted, it found its way into the Amy Coney Barrett hearings. Senator Josh Hawley, who wants to strip Section 230 protections from platforms if they moderate misinformation in political speech, cited Thomas’ memo and asked Barrett her views about it. (She gave the same non-answer she had been repeating for days—it’s a hypothetical!) Clearly, Hawley sees Thomas’ words as supporting his views. “It’s quite significant!” he said of the comment.

Then the president himself weighed in. He was unhappy that Twitter and Facebook were correctly withholding distribution of what was possibly a false accusation of Joe Biden’s son. Trump hates it that companies have the right to refuse distribution of destructive propaganda weeks before an election. He tweeted his remedy in upper case, with three bangers: REPEAL SECTION 230!!!

Finally, FCC chair Ajit Pai, again citing the Thomas memo, announced his own intention to reinterpret Section 230. Why him? Well, his general counsel told him it was OK if he took it upon himself to bypass Congress and the courts so that Section 230 will mean what Pai says it means. Pai gave us a hint of his thinking: “Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech,” he wrote. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”

Dude! Platforms might not have a First Amendment right to that “special immunity.” But Congress passed a law that specifically gave them that immunity, because platforms are not like newspapers or broadcasters. If you don’t understand that, I shudder to think what your unilateral “rulemaking” will be.

Hawley, Pai, and Trump are not grappling with Thomas’ relatively nuanced arguments. But they are using his reservations to launch a broader attack on 230. They’re challenging the freedom of companies to interpret toxicity as they best see fit—because they want to use the platforms to spread that toxicity.

Thomas’s subtly incendiary 10-page comment increases the chances that Section 230, and the right to speak freely on the internet, will soon be curtailed or canceled—by legislators, the FCC, or presidential edict. If this happens, the Supreme Court will almost certainly end up determining the outcome. Which is exactly what Clarence Thomas has been asking for. Feel better?

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Time Travel

The Nobel Prize for economic sciences this year went to Paul MIlgrom and Robert Wilson. Milgrom is recognized as one of the world’s great experts in auction theory, and I interviewed him for my book In the Plex (finally out in paper next February!) about Google’s clever AdWords approach to bidding, which was crafted by Google engineer Eric Veach along with his boss Salar Kamangar. I’d asked Milgrom to compare the AdWords system to the competitor, Overture:

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I’m Done Being Mistaken for Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott

A few days ago, someone called me five times in the span of a few hours, flooding my voicemail box with long rants about valuable patents they wanted me to buy. Irritated, I sent them a quick text hoping to clear things up: “Hello! Please stop calling me, I am not Jeff Bezos. I am a journalist, and the reason our numbers are confused is because of a quirk with Google. Here’s an article explaining why this is happening.”

I only had to wait a few minutes for a response. “If you were anygood you would have called jeff benzo but i think your jealous or plane stuip i would make headlines if i was you.”

Honestly, they have a point: I am plain stupid for allowing callers like this person to annoy me for so long. I don’t usually respond, but their messages still pile up in my inbox and on my phone. For over a year now, Google’s search algorithm has presented my phone number and email address as the contact information for TikTok customer support, MacKenzie Bezos (now MacKenzie Scott), and, most recently, Jeff Bezos himself. At this point, I’ve probably gotten over 1,000 calls, texts, and emails meant for powerful billionaires and tech companies.

I’ve asked Google to fix this issue many times, to no avail. So now, I’m giving up. Today is my last day at WIRED, and as a result, the email address Google is surfacing will soon be out of commission. I plan to deactivate the phone number—a Google Voice number, coincidentally—as well.

This saga started sometime last year, after I wrote a story about MacKenzie, who had recently divorced from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. She announced that she would give away the majority of her fortune, estimated at the time to be worth over $30 billion. My piece argued that rich people’s generosity won’t fix the world. Embedded in the article’s web page was my email address and phone number, included for readers to share feedback or tips—something plenty of journalists do.

Soon after the story was published, I began receiving an avalanche of messages meant for MacKenzie, everything from marriage proposals to devastating stories of personal loss. Almost everyone, of course, wanted money. At first, I didn’t know what was happening, but I soon traced the problem back to Google’s search engine: If you looked up a phrase like “MacKenzie Bezos phone number,” it would often spit back the article, along with my number and email address, which were prominently displayed in a stand-alone box called a “featured snippet.” Google also began associating my number with TikTok support after I published a simple guide to using the app. I first wrote about the problem earlier this year.

“In situations where people are searching for something like a phone number that is not readily available online, our systems are understanding these pages (that include those exact keywords plus a phone number) to be the best matches available, even if the phone number is not the correct number for that entity,” Lara Levin, a spokesperson for Google, said in an email at the time. She added that the company was planning to look at ways it could improve its system “to better recognize” when a phone number should not be resurfaced as a featured snippet.

So far, that hasn’t happened. From my perspective, the only thing that’s changed is I’ve started to hear from more people trying to reach Jeff, rather than MacKenzie. I can’t be sure, but I think the culprit is a separate article I wrote in February about the billionaire’s plan to donate $10 billion to combating climate change. Jeff Bezos and Amazon did not immediately return requests for comment.

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WIRED25 Day 2: How to Build a More Resilient World

Also on the panel was Isla Myers-Smith, whose research crew, Team Shrub, has been studying the greening effect in the Arctic tundra over the past dozen years. But green, as Myers-Smith pointed out, isn’t always good: More vegetation means more insolation, and more insolation means a warmer ground—thereby melting the permafrost and releasing carbon into the air. How much carbon? “It’s somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 petagrams,” she calculated. “If you imagine a coal train, the train would be 200,000 miles long.”

Whether it’s microplastics or the thawing Arctic, Steve Allen reminded viewers, “We often forget we live on a ball and that ball is inside a bubble. So whatever we do in one area affects everybody else.”

Matt Mitchell, the founder of CryptoHarlem and a tech fellow at the Ford Foundation, then spoke with Sidney Fussell, a senior writer at WIRED. Mitchell told Fussell he launched CryptoHarlem in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial to help educate activists on cybersecurity. His free courses are geared to disrupt what he calls the digital stop-and-frisk. “It’s the criminalization of Blackness online instead of on the streets,” he explained. As for white people who think this is an issue that doesn’t involve them, Mitchell pointed out that our marginalized communities are the canaries in the coal mine. “When it comes to surveillance, they’re the ones who are targeted first. They’re the beta testers,” he said. “It begins in Black communities and brown communities and in marginalized communities. They are the canaries in the coal mine, and they are screaming, but we’re still alive.”

Maria Ressa, the CEO of Rappler and the final guest of the day, is intimately familiar with staying alive in a despotic system, as she explained to WIRED’s editor at large, Steven Levy. With eight arrest warrants for “cyber libel,” tax evasion, and securities fraud, she’s been the victim of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s attack on the press and faces a possible jail sentence of almost 100 years. Ressa and Levy’s conversation covered Duterte’s legal gymnastics to achieve convictions, Facebook’s ongoing efforts to “duck the responsibility of being a publisher,” and the world’s tragic backslide into fascism 75 years after the formation of the UN. Even if Ressa feels like Franz Kafka’s Josef K., though, she still maintains an upbeat spirit and sense of “gallows humor.” Her trick, she said, is to “embrace my fear, and if I hold it tight, then I can rob it of its power over me.”

Shifting that power dynamic today, as WIRED’s editor in chief, Nick Thompson, said in his closing remarks, is crucial.“When something starts to move in one direction, it starts to move ever faster in that direction,” he added. Whether that direction is positive or negative is up to the global community.

To meet some more of the superheroes of 2020 working to push humanity in the right direction, join us for the final day of WIRED25 next Wednesday, September 30, at 12 pm Eastern Time. Speakers will include—among others—Anthony Fauci, Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang, journalist Patrice Peck, and a timely segment on the wildfires now raging through the American West.


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California Lawmakers Push for More Diversity in the Boardroom

AB979 is a robust approach to a longstanding problem, but raises a complicated question: Who counts as an underrepresented minority? The bill defines the category as someone who “self-identifies as Black, African American, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Native Hawaiian, or Alaska Native.” Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender employees also qualify as underrepresented.

But those categories may not fit neatly with how people identify. Uber, for example, has two directors from outside the US, neither of whom fit any of the bill’s categories: CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who was born in Iran, and Yasir Al-Rumayyan of Saudi Arabia. Prospective board members who “look” white may nonetheless have nonwhite or mixed race parents. Combating discrimination means engaging with race, but judging someone’s status as “underrepresented” based on race, or worse, phenotype, is unsettling.

Assemblymember Chris Holden, another sponsor of the bill, acknowledges the complexity, but says the bill is the first step in a longer, iterative process. “I think the bill is really looking for those who would self identify and describe themselves to fit one of these categories,” he says. “Progress sometimes just takes one step at a time. And that’s what this bill is designed to do. It’s not perfect.”

The bill would require companies to submit annual reports on board composition. Holden says the plan is to compile this data and potentially adjust the law over time. This includes adding nuance to the definition of “underrepresented.” For now, however, he hopes the bill supplements the changes from the 2018 law.

While it’s important to build a coalition, the authors recognize that different groups face different barriers. Black and Latinx workers, for example, face historically low recruitment numbers that haven’t budged much over the years. This is very different from Asians, who are well represented at technical levels in Silicon Valley, but face different issues in corporate advancement.

At Google, for example 42 percent of the US workforce is Asian, but only 30 percent of people in leadership roles. Facebook’s workforce is roughly 44 percent Asian, but its leadership is only 25 percent. In 2005, consultant Jane Hyun coined the term “bamboo ceiling” to describe the paradox faced by many Asian workers kept from leadership roles.

“Each of our communities are challenged in different ways when it comes to corporate advancement,” says Chiu, who is chair of the legislature’s Asian & Pacific Islander caucus. “Part of what we wanted to do with this bill was to help level the playing field with policies that are broad enough so that every community could benefit.” He says the so-called “model minority” stereotype that Asians perform well, often “masks the challenges that our communities are facing.”

Some businesses may be wary of the resources needed to change board demographics. A 2018 study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that the value of California firms suffered, compared with similar firms headquartered elsewhere, after the bill requiring women on boards became law. Companies that had to add the most women to their boards suffered the most. The authors theorized that the companies that needed to add more women had to spend more money to do so, hurting returns.

That’s the short term view. In the long term, the authors considered the changes “ultimately may lead to improved outcomes” for the firms. If companies are struggling to find qualified talent, the problem doesn’t rest solely with prospective hires.

“I am not going to sit back and allow companies to make an excuse that the talent is not there,” says Thomas, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO. “We want to open up an entire new set of opportunities to people who have been excluded from many of the conversations that they deserve to be a part of.”

Companies have often pointed to a “pipeline problem,” referring to a small talent pool of qualified individuals who have difficulty finding their way to companies. Holden and Thomas proposed a different framing: that companies have myopic networks that aren’t designed to bring in new talent.

“You go to the same headhunter, the headhunter goes out and finds the same people they normally look for,” Holden says. “By having this law, maybe companies need to find some diversity in hiring their headhunters.”


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As Restaurants Move to the Cloud, Something Is Missing

The startup Kitchen United calls itself the future of takeout and delivery, with stripped-down locations in Chicago; Austin; Pasadena, California; and Scottsdale, Arizona. It had hoped to open a shop in Berkeley, California. But CEO Jim Collins says city officials there wanted the company to create a more elaborate “front of house” setup akin to a typical restaurant. Kitchen United balked.

Kitchen United is a virtual kitchen, playing host to 10 or so already-established restaurants in each facility. The businesses save money on rent and labor by operating from something like a WeWork for restaurants. Efficiency is the byword here. Customers generally use apps to order—maybe more than one restaurant at the same time, if one person wants sushi and another wants a falafel sandwich. Each location is designed for app-based takeout and delivery, with space for delivery people to park their cars or bikes and wait for orders.

Some virtual kitchen companies, like Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens or Reef Technology, sometimes build their facilities in industrial areas or abandoned parking lots, where rent is cheaper and room is abundant. But Collins and his colleagues don’t like that strategy. Instead, they seek real estate closer to the diners they want to serve. “I don’t I don’t want to be on Main and Main,” Collins says. “But I do want to be within a couple of blocks of Main and Main.”

Kitchen United employs greeters and places kiosks near the entrance, in case a confused diner or delivery person wanders in and wants food. But Berekley, Collins said, hoped for more places for customers to linger. “They were trying to improve the feel of the area we were in and they saw us as a path to get that done,” he says. (The city did not respond to questions.) So for now, that project isn’t moving forward.

During a pandemic, takeout is hot, and so are ghost kitchens. Research completed last year by the consultancy Foodservice IP counted 119 ghost kitchens around the country, run by companies like Kitchen United, Reef, Zuul Kitchens, Katopi, or CloudKitchens. But with traditional restaurants closed or limited to take-out in many places, Tim Powell, the managing principal of Foodservice IP, projects the number of ghost kitchens will double over the next 12 months.

The recommendations app Yelp says that the owners of 15,770 food businesses reported closing permanently between mid-March and mid-June, more than any other business sector tracked by the app. Cloud kitchens hope to fill the gap, and perhaps, expand the pie.

“We’re going to start to see a lot of creative opportunities with a lot of especially second generation restaurants that unfortunately aren’t going to make it through this,” says Corey Manicone, the cofounder and CEO of Zuul Kitchens. But ghost kitchens generally won’t replace restaurants in the same location. Zuul’s first, which opened May 2019 in New York, hosts nine takeout-only restaurants in 9,000 square feet in a quieter part of Soho. He’s heard talk of restaurants abandoning brick-and-mortar sites for ghost kitchens, but he’s not sure his business will box out dine-in restaurants. He calls it a “personal mission” to “take a very archaic and challenging industry and bring it into the new era. I never thought it would be accelerated as much as it has been in a Covid world.”

For restaurateurs, delivery feels different. Here’s what Santiago Rodriguez misses most: conversations with regulars, and knowing what they’d eat before they ordered; repeat customers who bring in new diners and tip them off about favorites, like they’re sharing a secret; telling people about the new art on display; the folks who come for lunch and stay for hours. But in May 2019, after 20 years in business, Rodriguez’s Belgian-style restaurant Frjtz stopped serving food out of its storefront in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. The rent had nearly doubled, and other expenses were climbing.

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