Harvard Friday Five


Priscilla McGregor-Kerr

06 Sep 2019

At Harvard we stay up to date with the latest news and trends shaping the tech world by rounding up the top stories each week. We’ve recapped our favourite stories from the last few weeks to create August’s news round-up.

The man who created retweets is full of regrets

In a fascinating interview with BuzzFeed, Chris Wetherell, the man who built the retweet button for Twitter, says he deeply regrets what we did. His main concern was the function's ability to spread misinformation and promote bullying. “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon,” Wetherell recalled thinking as he watched the first Twitter mob use the tool he created. “That’s what I think we actually did.” Before the retweet button was launched, Twitter users had to manually repost other people's tweets onto their own accounts, which would require some form of conscious thought. The concern now is that the retweet button has made retweeting an impulsive and thoughtless act. Maybe removing friction from digital services isn't always the right decision.

Verizon sells Tumblr

Just two short years after acquiring the social platform as part of its $4.48bn purchase of Yahoo, US telecoms giant Verizon has decided to sell Tumblr. Verizon said on Monday it's selling Tumblr to Automattic, the parent company of Wordpress, for just $3m despite the site being worth $1.1bn a few years ago. The move will make Automattic the third company to own Tumblr in just six years. After a boom in popularity, it never managed to break into the mainstream in the way that Facebook or Twitter did, and its impact has notably declined under both Verizon and Yahoo. Can Tumblr get its shine back under a company more closely related to its purpose?

Trump considers executive order against social media firms

The White House is circulating drafts of a proposed executive order that would address allegations of "anti-conservative bias" by social media companies, according to a report in Politico. The executive order would apparently try to limit the alleged "censorship" of conservative voices on their platforms. It isn’t clear what penalties, if any, the executive order would propose for companies deemed to be censoring people, however. This could all fizzle out, of course – it wouldn’t be the first Trump idea to have done so – but if it does see the light of day it could be very consequential. It would set a precedent for political involvement in social media platforms in the US and it could shape what all of us around the world see in our feeds every day. It also comes at a time when the effect of social media content is being hotly debated again, following the recent white supremacist shootings in the US. Social media is going to be a political battleground for some time to come.

AI clones voices for audiobooks

AI isn't just writing content, it's speaking it too. This week Chinese search engine Sogou announced it's in the process of developing lookalike avatars which can read books in the voice and image of the author. On its website, it showcases its services with two audio recordings of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, created using machine learning. With audiobooks growing in popularity in the UK (one in ten of us now listen to them regularly), competition to produce high quality audio with an author or famous figure is in high demand. Of course, the flipside of this technology is spoof audio that impersonates public figures without their permission and deliberately tries to mislead...

Domino's launches e-bikes

Dominos is innovating its delivery methods. With a new range of e-bikes, Domino’s is hoping to solve the problems of traffic congestion and the difficulty of finding parking for those delivering its pizza in a car. The e-bikes, which have small integrated motors to assist with pedalling, can run for 25 to 40 miles depending on the user, before needing a recharge. One e-bike can hold up to 12 large pizzas. Domino's has a decent track record in tech innovation too. Last year it introduced Domino’s Hotspots, allowing customers to order a pizza from non-traditional delivery locations like a public park, a stadium lot or beaches. Sign up to the newsletter if you like what you see, and get more like this in your inbox every Friday.