How farmers in Myanmar shape the future of the web

The Atlantic pub­lished The Face­book-Lov­ing Farm­ers of Myan­mar this week. It’s a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly inter­est­ing write-up by Craig Mod of ethno­graph­ic research he under­took in the South­east-Asian coun­try. What makes that mar­ket so par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing is that Myanmar’s net­work was until recent­ly arti­fi­cial­ly capped and con­trolled by the rul­ing mil­i­tary jun­ta, but a vast num­ber of peo­ple have sud­den­ly come online as the price of a SIM card plum­met­ed:

Mobile SIM cards in Myan­mar have his­tor­i­cal­ly been pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive. In 2014, the cost of a SIM card dropped from about $2,000 USD to $200 USD and then once again, to $1.50 USD.

In a coun­try of 53 mil­lion peo­ple, only 12% had access to cell net­works in 2014. By this year, the government’s plan is to have 74% online. That’s a huge influx of users, and large­ly in rur­al areas. The phones of this new wave of net­worked farm­ing users are com­mon­ly import­ed from Chi­nese man­u­fac­tur­ers, often bought sec­ond-hand. The biggest imped­i­ment to using the inter­net is the cost of data:

They feel each megabyte. For about 10 U.S. cents you can pur­chase 25MB of data. If you buy in bulk (although almost nobody does) you can get 2GB of data for 11,900 Myan­mar Kyat or about $9.20 USD. Most farm­ers grab dataon their scratch cards in 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 Kyat chunks. How long it lasts depends on the user. For some 3,000 Kyats gets them through the month. For oth­ers, it lasts only a few days.

What the research dis­cov­ers is that every­one is on Facebook—and often noth­ing else, except per­haps a mes­sag­ing app. The rea­son has lit­tle to do with the social graph, and more with that data restric­tion:

Face­book has a com­pelling advan­tage over oth­er news apps or even Twit­ter: The con­tent of many posts and news items live inside Face­book itself. There are exter­nal links, but most of the arti­cle sum­maries and pho­tos are self con­tained. As Face­book con­tin­ues to ramp up their Instant Articles—special ver­sions of web arti­cles that are lean­er, load more quick­ly, and are Face­book optimized—the amount of con­tent that lives in Face­book will only increase. For those who are data sen­si­tive, this is a clear virtue.

I wrote recent­ly about Twitter’s planned move to allow 10,000 char­ac­ters in tweets, quot­ing Will Oremus’s arti­cle Twit­ter Isn’t Rais­ing the Char­ac­ter Lim­it. It’s Becom­ing a Walled Gar­den. and its con­tention that:

If I’m right about what’s real­ly going on here, this move will not fun­da­men­tal­ly alter how Twit­ter looks or feels, nor how peo­ple use it. Rather, it will change where online con­tent is host­ed, who con­trols it, and who is in a posi­tion to mon­e­tize it.

I’m not naïve enough to think there’s def­i­nite­ly not an ele­ment of con­trol involved, but my orig­i­nal response was “it’s prob­a­bly more com­pli­cat­ed than that”, and I still think that way. To me this is not nec­es­sar­i­ly about monetising—not yet, at least—but more about being rel­e­vant. Twit­ter are tak­ing a look at the emerg­ing mar­ket and see­ing them­selves with no place in it. Right now, it’s not even a com­pe­ti­tion.

The oth­er com­pa­ny that stands to lose big from this is Google—the open web pow­ers pret­ty much every­thing it does, so los­ing out to Face­book on the next bil­lion online users would be dev­as­tat­ing to its busi­ness. Hence they’re push­ing Accel­er­at­ed Mobile Pages (AMP), a strict and opti­mised sub­set of HTML aimed at pub­lish­ing sto­ries with­out lega­cy adver­tis­ing and track­ing cruft. AMP is set to launch next month, with Twit­ter on board as a part­ner.

Why employ a strict sub­set of HTML rather than get­ting pub­lish­ers to clean up their acts and pro­duce bet­ter-opti­mised pages? Time. Although per­for­mance is a hot top­ic in web devel­op­ment cir­cles, web pages con­tin­ue to get heav­ier. It will take more time to cor­rect that, and the rapid growth of mar­kets like Myan­mar shows that time is an ill-afford­ed lux­u­ry.

Data use and privacy in Web services

Tim Cook recent­ly made a speech attack­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies (e.g. Google and Face­book) for mak­ing mon­ey by sell­ing their users’ pri­va­cy. The prob­lem with what he said is that, first of all, it’s fun­da­men­tal­ly incor­rect. As Ben Thomp­son points out (sub­scrip­tion required):

It’s sim­ply not true to say that Google or Face­book are sell­ing off your data. Google and Face­book do know a lot about indi­vid­u­als, but adver­tis­ers don’t know any­thing — that’s why Google and Face­book can charge a pre­mi­um! [They] are high­ly moti­vat­ed to pro­tect user data — their com­pet­i­tive advan­tage in adver­tis­ing is that they have data on cus­tomers that no one else has.

Cen­ny­dd Bowles also argues the same point:

The “you are the prod­uct” thing is pure slo­ga­neer­ing. It sounds con­vinc­ing on first prin­ci­ples but doesn’t hold up to analy­sis. It’s essen­tial­ly say­ing all two-sided plat­forms are immoral, which is daft.

The @StartupLJackson Twit­ter account puts this more plain­ly:

Peo­ple who argue free-to-cus­tomer data com­pa­nies (FB/Goog/etc) are sell­ing data & hurt­ing con­sumers are the anti-vaxxers of our indus­try.

I’ve always main­tained that this is about a val­ue exchange — you can use my data, as long as I get con­trol and trans­paren­cy over who sees it, and a use­ful ser­vice in return. But beyond that, anoth­er prob­lem with mak­ing pre­mi­um ser­vices where you pay for pri­va­cy is that you make a two-tier sys­tem. Cen­ny­dd again:

The sup­po­si­tion that only a con­sumer-fund­ed mod­el is eth­i­cal­ly sound is itself polit­i­cal and exclu­sion­ary (of the poor, chil­dren, etc).

And Kate Craw­ford:

Two-tier social media: the rich pay to opt out of Face­book ads, the poor get tar­get­ed end­less­ly. Pri­va­cy becomes a lux­u­ry good.

Aside: Of course this suits Apple, as if wealth­i­er clients can afford to opt out of adver­tis­ing, then adver­tis­ing itself becomes less valu­able — as do, in turn, Google and Face­book.

The fact that peo­ple are will­ing to enter into a data exchange which ben­e­fits them when they get good ser­vices in return high­lights the sec­ond prob­lem with Tim Cook’s attack: Apple are cur­rent­ly fail­ing to pro­vide good ser­vices. As Thomas Rick­er says in his snap­pi­ly-titled Tim Cook brings a knife to a cloud fight:

Fact is, Apple is behind on web ser­vices. Arguably, Google Maps is bet­ter than Apple Maps, Gmail is bet­ter than Apple Mail, Google Dri­ve is bet­ter than iCloud, Google Docs is bet­ter than iWork, and Google Pho­tos can “sur­prise and delight” bet­ter than Apple Pho­tos.

And even staunch Apple defend­er Jon Gru­ber agreed:

Apple needs to pro­vide best-of-breed ser­vices and pri­va­cy, not sec­ond-best-but-more-pri­vate ser­vices. Many peo­ple will and do choose con­ve­nience and reli­a­bil­i­ty over pri­va­cy. Apple’s supe­ri­or posi­tion on pri­va­cy needs to be the icing on the cake, not their pri­ma­ry sell­ing point.

As this piece by Jay Yarow for Busi­ness Insid­er points out, in the age of machine learn­ing, more data makes bet­ter ser­vices. Face­book and Google are ahead in ser­vices because they make prod­ucts that under­stand their users bet­ter than Apple do.