This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.
One of the things I obsess about is whether our current state of technology is immutable.
Are Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and other tech giants invincible? Will they forever command a big chunk of our attention and money, shape how economies and labor markets operate and influence what people believe? Or is there room for others?
One way to explore these questions is to look at tech copycats. When we do, I see a glimmer of hope.
This tale starts with TikTok. It’s a rare example of an internet property that became huge and wasn’t owned by one of America’s tech stars. It’s owned by … a very large Chinese internet conglomerate called ByteDance. But that still counts as different.
There are plenty of concerns about TikTok, including what it’s doing with people’s personal information.
But TikTok’s popularity shows that it’s still possible for a fresh-faced internet star to break through.
With any success there are inevitably rip-offs. The technology news outlet The Information recently wrote about one of China’s internet superpowers, Tencent, trying and mostly failing to copy Douyin, ByteDance’s version of TikTok in China.
The efforts included Tencent’s widely used WeChat app requiring people to use the company’s Douyin copycat if they wanted to send virtual cash envelopes, a common practice around Lunar New Year. It’s not clear if WeChat’s arm-twisting worked.
Both YouTube and Instagram (owned by Facebook) have introduced their own TikTok-like apps. My colleagues wrote last year about how much they disliked the Instagram version, Reels. It’s hard to tell how Reels is doing, but it certainly hasn’t taken over the internet yet.
But having a second-class product — maybe even a bad one — doesn’t spell doom. A powerful company can make a product a hit through sheer force of will, a willingness to spend money like crazy and repeated exposure to millions of people.
That’s what Slack, the workplace chat app, said Microsoft was trying to do with its Slack-like software. And that’s what Facebook did with its video-and-photo montage “stories” feature, which was copied from Snapchat.
Sometimes copycats in technology succeed big — just look at Microsoft’s Windows, the iPhone or Facebook’s social network. (Also, sometimes the rip-offs are much better than the original.)
But it doesn’t always work. Tencent’s WeChat is an inescapable force on the Chinese internet, but its popularity hasn’t translated into success for the company’s Douyin clone. For now.
We’ve seen before that big leaps forward in technology can bring down industry titans, like the cellphone pioneer Nokia. But boy, it sure feels like the tech giants today are so entrenched, so good at what they do — and, perhaps, skilled at tilting the game to their advantage — that they simply can’t be beaten.
It would be better for all of us if Big Tech wasn’t an absolute and invulnerable force. I’ll see the wobbles of TikTok’s clones as a sign that it’s still possible for Big Tech to fail.
Facebook can’t admit how Facebook works
Quick catch up: There was a mini global freakout last month when WhatsApp started notifying people about what appeared to be new steps that forced WhatsApp users to hand over their personal data to Facebook, which owns the app.
WhatsApp didn’t actually change very much, but its communications were awful. And it was a moment for people to consider something they perhaps had not before: Facebook already collects a lot of information from what people do on WhatsApp.
WhatsApp keeps saying what it doesn’t do with people’s personal information — that messages are scrambled so that no one can peer at the contents, and that WhatsApp doesn’t share your phone number with businesses. But WhatsApp still isn’t saying what it does do with people’s personal information.
The plain talk is that Facebook gathers information when people use non-Facebook apps on their phones. The company harvests people’s physical location even when they’re not using Facebook. It keeps track of people you unfriended, all of the websites you visit and your contacts. Many of us understand this, even if we don’t want to acknowledge all of the gory details.
Most of Facebook’s data harvesting applies to WhatsApp, too, although Facebook says that WhatsApp contacts aren’t shared with Facebook.
So why can’t WhatsApp just say all of this?
Here is the fundamental problem, I think: People at Facebook are unwilling to be honest about how Facebook works.
When people freak out about privacy on WhatsApp and Facebook, what they often mean is that they want privacy from Facebook and its data surveillance machine. Facebook cannot give them that. As WhatsApp’s communications show, Facebook won’t even say out loud what the problem is.
Before we go …
Protecting people from surveillance, or enabling it? The software company Oracle offered to help buy TikTok and prevent data from possibly flowing to Chinese authorities. But the Intercept writes that Oracle has also been marketing its own software for Chinese authorities to harvest and analyze more data on their citizens.
Do you want to read about farmers hacking their tractors?! (You do.) The bigger point in this Vice article is that companies like John Deere are using software locks to make it impossible to repair our own stuff. Apple does this, too.
Garfield is the soul of the internet: The orange cartoon cat has inspired loads of clever internet remixes, an avowed Garfield fan, Dan Brooks, writes for The New York Times Magazine. There are Garfield cartoons with Garfield removed and panels generated by artificial intelligence with the characters as twitching mollusks.
Hugs to this
Meet Elizabeth Ann, the first successfully cloned black-footed ferret. She is supremely cute, and may point the way to protect species from extinction. (The article also mentions a cloned horse named Kurt.)
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.