‘You’re constantly encountering interactions that don’t violate the terms of service but don’t make you feel good’
OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts with notable figures in and around the tech industry.
This week we’re joined by Hunter Walk, a partner at Homebrew VC who’s had stops at YouTube and other parts of Google. (You can follow Hunter’s writing on Medium.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, tech products became explicitly political. Operatives from both sides picked apart their algorithms and features, examining how they shaped society’s beliefs. And the companies, meanwhile, made choices about what parts of the administration they’d work with. Hunter Walk, who spent nearly a decade at Google and is now a partner at Homebrew, has watched the evolutions firsthand. He joins the Big Technology Podcast to discuss tech’s impact on politics and where it goes next under a Joe Biden presidency.
Alex Kantrowitz: I just published a newsletter talking about how, during the Trump presidency, tech products turned political. Companies used to say their platforms were neutral, and they can’t anymore. Do you agree with that premise?
Hunter Walk: I’d separate it into two camps. Is society political right now? Are we being challenged by this last administration and what America is going through right now to take a stance on a values basis for what we believe in? Separate from that is can tech embrace or set apart from politics when tech is no longer an underdog?
The former I think is where a lot of the heat is because that’s where the passion — the “I don’t want my company to do business with a government department that’s separating families” — is. A bunch of questions about what is the role of a company and should it have a political viewpoint, so on and so forth. But I think a lot of this also has to do with the technology industry essentially being the driver of economic growth and innovation for America. And so you have an industry that’s incredibly powerful and doesn’t always want to acknowledge or realize that.
But in reality, that’s naïve. Tech is now an industry with a lot of power, and that power attracts the attention of government and regulators. So I don’t think that’s going anywhere. Are we in a heightened moment where the decisions you make as a company are seen through partisan lenses? Yeah. I think we’re probably at a 10 out of 10 scale on that right now, and I’m not sure if that persists into the future in the same way. But politics and tech are going to be linked so long as technology is driving the economy.
I remember visiting Facebook’s offices in 2011, and the conference rooms were named after countries that Facebook was bigger than. Now it’s bigger than every country in the world. There was this sense that Facebook transcended nation states and was creating something better. What do you think it means for the future that it is now forever interlinked with political action?
When we talked about citizen journalism at YouTube, 2007, 2008, 2009, we were thinking Arab Spring—the idea that citizens with camera phones would be able to tell you a truth and give you opinions and access to realities that were often ignored or censored by government, the handful of media outlets that got most of the distribution and establishment press. And we only saw that as a good thing. We basically believed that that meant empowerment. It meant truth. It meant giving people a voice.
Now you look 10, 15 years later, and the content moderation debates aren’t about should you have nipples or not in videos and nudity or things like that — it’s about truthiness. It’s about what happens when everybody is allowed to upload content that essentially shows their version of reality versus a consensus version of reality. And what role do the platforms have in that? I think we saw in — what is it? OANN? Isn’t that the network that’s to the right of Fox?
One America News Network?
Yeah. I saw a bunch of people talking this week about the content that they were putting up on YouTube. What should YouTube do? Should YouTube not promote it? Should YouTube not allow it? I looked a little bit, and what was interesting is this is a network that is also on Verizon Fios, is also on DirecTV. So you have the telcos distributing this network. It’s an interesting question about people turning to the tech companies first and saying, “What are you going to do about it?” But there’s distribution alongside that, and then there’s the content creators themselves. It’s a question of where does responsibility fall?
If you look at the Fios viewership of some fringe, crazed network, you’re not going to see big numbers, but on YouTube, those videos are getting millions of views. YouTube definitely picked these winners by nature of the algorithm, so if it pulls it back, is that censorship, or is that it correcting its algorithm to line it up with reality?
Maybe more than my average tech community member, I tend to be a believer that platforms do create policies. The idea that they are just “enforcing laws” is kind of BS. If that was the case, there’s a very narrow definition of content that’s actually illegal, and there’d be a whole bunch of things that they would allow. But in their community standards and terms of service, they’ve decided that that type of content is not productive to the business environment or the community they want to build, and so they’re already making these decisions every day.
So asking them to make a few more decisions, to me, doesn’t break democracy.
And not only that, but they also make decisions with the products themselves in terms of the way they structure them.
Implicitly and explicitly sometimes. But I do find it interesting that we have to ultimately decide what we want to leave up to judgment and market forces versus what we want to create regulatory guidelines around. Often these discussions are very, very theoretical. And when you try to actually put them into a “well, what do you want the regulations to be,” it breaks down to people describing for each situation the way that they wish the world worked but not being able to create a uniform set of guidelines.
“You’re constantly encountering interactions that don’t violate the terms of service but don’t make you feel good.”
Having the government come in and decide what you can and cannot say on a social platform seems sort of antithetical to the role of government. This should be in the hands of the private sector. Where do you think the lines should be when it comes to the type of speech that they should allow?
I agree with you in the sense that I don’t want the government to make all the decisions for me. I also think it’s difficult to then turn around and say private sectors should do that and private sectors should be perfect in doing it. I kind of believe some of the conversation that occurs around freedom of speech versus freedom of reach, which is the idea that making something available and hosting it is different than promoting it, boosting it, pushing it onto me.
I think those things do need speed bumps, if not control in the hands of the individuals themselves. Every day on YouTube when I was there, and this was more than a decade ago, there was content that I would see that I wasn’t necessarily proud to have on the site but did not trigger any of our community standards. Like some of the stuff that used to get uploaded to Worldstar Hip Hop. Like fight videos and things like that.
We had some of that on YouTube. I didn’t think that was particularly socially redeeming. But you try to realize that to some extent, it’s creating a space where you aren’t taking a scalpel to try to predetermine what content is allowed on the platform and what content isn’t allowed on the platform but understanding what emerges, and then start with principles and then turn those principles into policy. It’s much easier to be clear in your principles and then continue to evolve your policy to meet the needs of the times rather than believe that if you don’t get the wording exactly right on the first attempt you’re somehow then unable to enforce it going forward.
In the run-up to the election, Facebook and Twitter saw that there was a potential for our democracy’s integrity to be put into question. So they put labels on Trump’s tweets, but they also added friction. They turned down the retweet, made group recommendations go off for a while, which proved that the mechanisms and the machinery are largely responsible for some of the stuff we see and they can control it. What do you think about that?
These platforms have traditionally been built towards, let’s call it, “web two metrics.” Remember back in the web two days, we would talk about engagement, and we assumed that more clicks, more playback, more discussion was all positive. If those went up and to the right, our business model worked, and it meant people were happy. I think that it’s possible that there’s actually a different set of metrics to understand the health of these systems that we haven’t spent enough time on. Sometimes, for example, the flame war back and forth between two people on Twitter looks like deep, deep engagement until one of them quits the service. And then you’ve just lost a user.
The data doesn’t always tell the full story.
It doesn’t tell the story at all. And I bet if you looked at fMRIs — where you’re monitoring people’s brains — and saw what some of this content or these interactions were triggering and what it means to fire somebody’s anger, shame, guilt versus other, more healthy sustainable impact upon people, I do think we’re causing real harm to folks.
I sometimes call it on Twitter “paper cuts.” I’m a straight, white male, so folks of other genders or other backgrounds or who are activists or more forwardly activists on these platforms get it 1,000 times worse than I do. But you’re constantly encountering interactions that don’t violate the terms of service but don’t make you feel good. I’d love to see systems be more responsible around that. And I know a bunch of people at these companies. For the large part, I think they’re all smart, well-intended, responsible people. But I think something happens when you aggregate them together into a corporate structure. That makes everything a little bit more complex to sometimes try experiments that might reenvision the way that these systems could work.
You left YouTube in 2013. What did you see? You knew the demand for the type of websites on the internet. There was obviously some demand on YouTube for some fringey political folks.
Not as much. I stopped running product in the middle of 2011.
That’s where it went, though.
Oh, that’s where it went. Yeah.
So what did you feel like when you saw this spring up?
I immediately wondered what did we miss? What did we not see in 2007 through the middle of 2011?
And what’s your answer?
It’s twofold. The first of my regrets came when we started to move into monetization, which was very important, not just for YouTube but for our creators. I tended to de-staff some of the things that were hardest to measure the immediate impact of. Like figuring out how to make comments better. We still did work there on trust and safety, but we didn’t spend the time to say, “Hey look, we’ve got a few places here to make sure that this service as a whole shows that we care. We care about the interactions. We care about the harassment, the abuse, whatever.” And we stubbed our toe a little bit there.
The second thing I think about is — and I don’t remember ever looking deeply at this — but I remember when I started to see this stuff creep up, the only thing I went back and thought about was the Tea Party. I wonder about the types of videos that started to get uploaded. The birtherism. We’re not talking flat-Earthers. We’re not talking outright supremacist content. We’re not talking about things that I think everybody would look at and say, “Oh, we have an understanding of what this content is, and it doesn’t belong on the site.” But I think that’s a movement that’s maybe under-studied a little bit, in the sense of the beginnings of that group embracing the platforms for organization, content creation, or distribution.
That wasn’t about economic anxiety and taxes, right? That was about “we have a Black president.” And whether there’s direct lines from that to some of the things we see today.
I don’t want to get too Social Dilemma-y because we’ve discussed that movie a lot on this podcast. So let’s just end it with this question. How do you think tech companies did with the election?
I actually think where we sit right now, this Friday, this past week, the tech companies and the news media did a pretty good job. I know that the Steve Bannon video stayed up too long on Facebook or these types of things. I get a little bit less concerned about whether it came down in 10 hours or came down in one hour and more like why is he still on some of these platforms? Why did that piece of content get removed but not the channel? I think it’s very hard to prevent somebody from fooling you once. I think if you’re allowing them to fool you multiple times, then your culpability is increasing. So I’d love to see folks take a harder line on “Look, you don’t get to keep coming back.” Some of the things that distressed me most in what I read over the past few months were people putting their thumb on the scale at Facebook, removing strikes from some of the conservative pages because of fair and balanced or pressure like that. Once you start saying, “Look, we’re not enforcing our rules,” that makes me nervous. Because, let’s continue to improve these rules, fantastic, but you’ve got to enforce them, and you’ve got to enforce them consistently.
So I think the platforms did a pretty good job this week. At least in terms of the stuff that hit my radar.
I get a little queasy seeing labels put in front of messages from a head of state, but also when someone’s questioning the integrity of the democracy based on vapor, it’s tough to let that go through.
Yeah. See, I blocked all those folks years ago, so I don’t see the tweets, let alone the warnings.
You blocked the president?
Oh yeah. All that stuff, I decided I didn’t want it in my stream.
Quickly, what do you think’s going to happen to tech under a Biden administration?
There are three things that I’m most excited about or eager to see embraced: I’d like to see a class of worker that’s not strictly full-time or contractor. So what does it mean to give a gig worker protection that doesn’t have to be solved state by state? For example, here in California, the “Uber written” amendment: Prop 22. I’d love to see something created at a federal level that allows for protection of gig employees where employers have to — even if they’re not full-time — either pay into benefits or something like that. I’m hoping that our administration is thoughtful about that.
The second thing is looking at acquisitions and trying to better understand what is going to be the framework for how we think about monopoly, what sort of acquisitions we want to allow or not allow. Traditionally, they look at size. I’m not a scholar in this stuff, so I’m going to give just a layman’s understanding. Size and adjacency. So, concentration and within a market. That’s very different than when you look at some of the acquisitions that Facebook has made, which were about acquiring and killing off or absorbing nascent challengers. That’s not about breaking up the Big Tech companies. That’s not where my head goes. But it is around the question of what sort of M&A [mergers and acquisitions] guidelines and activities should we allow.
Third is this China question. I hope now that the weird giving TikTok’s cloud business to Oracle — maybe that doesn’t have to be the next action in figuring out what’s the relationship between U.S. and China from a tech sector standpoint. But I do think that under a Biden administration, we’re going to have to decide what sort of relationship we want to have with China in terms of market and technology exchange when it’s not bilateral.
“I tended to de-staff some of the things that were hardest to measure the immediate impact of. Like figuring out how to make comments better.”
Do you think there might be some lasting tension due to the TikTok situation, or do you think that that sort of blows over once Trump leaves office?
I think it’s a flashpoint. I think it’s going to be interesting to see whether they want to take it back up. It had some bipartisan support. It’s hard to tell how much of that was because, during an election year, Democrats didn’t want to look weak on China or whether it was a reasonable argument inartfully handled by the current administration.
It’ll be interesting to see whether this current administration wants to push it to its conclusion or leave it as a tangled knot to let the next administration inherit. I don’t know, and I don’t have direct exposure to this from a business standpoint. I just think it’s one of the broader questions of our times that has gotten politicized but actually is more of a question about America, not a question about either party.
One thing you touched on earlier is tech’s size. Under Trump, tech grew significantly. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft all more than doubled their market caps. Do you think their size just continues to increase over the Biden administration? Is that something the government eventually has to step in and do something about?
They continue to be in an amazing place economically. We’re coming out of a portion in time where, in some ways, they grew faster than the tech sector itself. I think maybe that changes a little bit. That we have broad growth, not just concentrated growth. But I don’t see any immediate threats to their size and performance. I used to come from the school that said, “Oh, people once said this about GE, and they once said this about half a dozen other companies through the railroad industry, the banking industry, so on so forth, and let’s just let the market play itself out.” I sort of still believe that. But I would certainly like to see these large companies pay their fair share of taxes and treat employees well and set a tone for not perpetuating some of the structural inequalities that have come out of industrial capitalism. So I guess I still see them as a force for good. I know that’s come under attack in the last few years. Maybe it’s the bias from being inside of a place like Google for so long. I still think of them as lovable and well-intended. It’s probably a little bit of a blind spot for me.
But I’d like to just tighten up the regulations around corporate governance, taxes, so on and so forth so that tech companies are “paying their fair share” like everybody else. I’m not as worried in the near term about whether they should be broken up or not. I think it’s very, very difficult to look backwards and undo. I do think new types of acquisitions and growth need to be looked at through a different framework than maybe the way some of these agencies are currently thinking about it, but I don’t have the policy proposal.
It’ll be interesting to watch. I think the antitrust stuff is going to be front and center over the next four years.
Yeah. I just don’t know. I got to Google a little bit before the IPO, a little bit before the S1. And as transformative as that event was in my life materially, and I’m incredibly thankful for it, I remember having a little bit of sadness when it happened because I did feel like wow, Google just gave up its chance to be different from an org structure standpoint. To say, “Hey look, we’re going to be a holding company of smaller companies.” Or “we’re going to spin all of these things out because largess will eventually slow down our ability to be innovative. We can’t sacrifice all of these things just for shareholder value.” So the size for me actually always comes with a little bit of sadness because I know how size causes organizations to behave differently. Regulatory capture. Protect what’s working and not take bigger risks. It’s very hard to convince people to rethink their business if it’s paying their salary.
So, to some extent, I do think we might get more and different types of innovation if they were able to operate with something other than near-term shareholder concerns, which is why I’m an angel investor in the long-term stock exchange, and other mechanisms to think about how we take these companies public. How do we give citizens and investors the chance to share in their upside but not force them to just think about squeezing the last dollar each quarter from the ad system?
When we first started speaking about having you on the show, you proposed that at a certain point we flip it and give you a chance to interrogate me. So I’ll turn the show over to you for our last 10 minutes, and have at it.
I’m just going to do live reads from my portfolio companies now. Is that appropriate?
It’s all yours.
No. Alex, I appreciate it. I do. So you recently sprung out on your own, right? We are talking in something that’s Alex Co., not owned by somebody else. You probably covered this earlier, but every episode brings new listeners. What was the motivation for that?
That’s a great question. I had just finished getting my book, Always Day One out, I’d spent two years working on this book that goes into the inner workings of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. So I realized that number one, I was going to have to put way more energy into getting the word out about that than I would have otherwise due to the pandemic. I felt that it was important for me to be independent to do that.
There were also things I learned while reporting the book that I found were worth expanding upon. I wanted to go deeper into some of the management stuff and into the way that these companies work versus being someone who just kept up on every incremental bit of news. So I felt that going independent would allow me to do that as well.
I also just loved the process of following my own curiosity. So throughout the book, where I had something that I thought might be interesting, I just basically went after it and kept asking questions and making calls until I got to the bottom of it. And I felt that doing something independent would give me that opportunity, and I thought it would be fun. And so far so good.
People talk about sort of the trend of going indie, substacks, and so forth. Is that something that continues this year, or do folks find out the reality of being on their own isn’t all rosy?
It’s hard, man. I don’t know if this thing is going to work or not. But so far so good. It’s gone well. And I think it’s on track to be sustainable.
When you talk about sustainability and going well or not, is that purely economic, or are there other considerations around what it means to be sustainable?
I’m looking at whether I’m making enough money to keep doing this. I’m also looking at the growth numbers and seeing, am I able to build an audience? Are people opening the email? Last week, the newsletter got a 42% open rate, which was the highest ever, so that seems to be pointing in the right direction.
Have you had to learn new skills that you think impact that sustainability, or is it just write well and people find you, or are you now also your own marketer, your own strategist, your own biz dev person?
I think the content is going to be the lead horse. No matter how well you market a newsletter, if the newsletter sucks, no one’s going to read it. But I think instead of learning new skills, it’s been me tapping into some old skills. Before I went into journalism, I spent three years in sales and marketing. So for me, this moment has definitely brought some of those things back. I’m putting together the first ad sales deck for Big Technology. And I’m going to try to support it with advertising to keep it free for people as long as possible. So that’s been interesting. And honestly, it’s kind of fun.
Very fun. One last question on that. I wrote something a week or two ago called “Come for the Content, Stay for the Community.” I’ve noticed that a lot of the authors, journalists, reporters that I’ve followed into their individual newsletters are doing something besides the content creation, besides the one-way “hey, I’m publishing something to you in text or audio,” and they’re either doing events or Slack groups — convening their readership together for some sort of community aspect that is less static than maybe the traditional byline publishing. Do you think about that, or is that something that is in process for Big Technology?
Yeah, definitely. If I end up releasing a paid tier of the Big Technology experience, it will almost certainly be community-based. What I think that would mean would be like a monthly Zoom call or even live podcast tapings. I could write more, but I feel like once a week is a pretty good cadence. I would definitely be excited to build a community. It’s something that I’ll probably put into motion within the next six months or so.