Good Twitter, bad Twitter (latest in a series)

Friday neatly encapsulated what I still like about Twitter and what I’ve increasingly grown to hate at the service under its new and erratic management. I know which slice of the service I want to see prevail, but I increasingly doubt that will happen.

First, let’s cover the good side of Twitter. Friday afternoon, I tweeted out my confusion at seeing Twitter owner/overlord Elon Musk declare his intention to liberate 1.5 billion usernames that had been abandoned for years. Could there be that many abandoned accounts when Twitter reported only 237.8 million monetizable daily active users in its second quarter?

Seven minutes later, tech journalist Tom Maxwell replied that he’d heard former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo say on a podcast that 80 percent of new users abandoned it after a day. I asked if he happened to remember the name of the podcast, and about half an hour later he replied with a link to the podcast episode in which former exec Ryan Sarver (see, memory can lead any of us astray) said the service had already hit a billion abandoned accounts when he left in 2013.

Twitter's bird icon, as seen on a t-shirt that I picked up at the Online News Association's conference in 2014, with a series of concentric white circles in the background.

Unexpected and fast enlightenment on a subject is always a delight, and Twitter remains remarkably effective at that.

Then came Friday’s night edition of Twitter Files, Musk’s attempt to smear the previous management’s content-moderation practices as an in-kind contribution to the Democratic Party. Matt Taibbi, one of a few writers to whom Musk has given vast access to internal documents and records, uncorked an overwrought, 67-tweet thread about the booting of President Trump from the platform after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that portrayed Trump as the real victim.

Taibbi’s unwillingness to note the essential context–that by repeatedly lying about election procedures, Trump was violating published rules in a way that would have gotten a less high-profile account booted a long time ago–makes this thread and all its screengrabs of Slack threads an infuriating read. Especially if you, like me, served as a poll worker in the 2020 election.

But Taibbi, like his Twitter Files collaborator Bari Weiss and his recent Twitter cheerleader Glenn Greenwald, seems to have made rejecting the Establishment Narrative part of a personal #brand. Even if that requires him to call a Trump tweet demanding that every mail-in ballot uncounted by the end of Election Day remain uncounted–thereby disenfranchising millions of Americans–“fairly anodyne.”

This thread and two earlier threads in this series–one Dec. 8 from Weiss, one Dec. 2 from Taibbi–have also revealed some interesting details about how content moderation decisions happen quickly behind the scenes, often on the basis of incomplete and fast-moving information, and how undocumented much of this corporate gear-grinding has been.

But as many others have noted, they don’t show a conspiracy afoot unless you think content moderation should parcel out equal pain on both parties. And that is an absurd expectation when so much of the GOP under Trump has bought into lies about elections, vaccines, climate change, trans people, all non-straight people, and so much else that have no comparable counterparts among Dems.

(I remain anxious to see party politics ease down to conversations about which problems actually require the government’s intervention and how to do that in the most efficient and effective manner.)

But because Twitter is also a context-destroying machine, and because Musk has been amplifying these alleged exposés to his nearly 121 million followers, I expect that many more people now believe this fraudulent depiction of how Twitter struggled to apply its published rules to an increasingly deranged president. And to keep its spaces palatable to the advertisers that keep it in business.

What must those advertisers now think about Musk ransacking Twitter and letting neo-Nazis, QAnon kooks, and Charlottesville and January 6 rioters back on the platform? And how do they feel about Musk’s most recent meltdowns, in which he’s lashed out at past Twitter employees for allegedly ignoring child sex abuse on the platform and then called Twitter “both a social media company and a crime scene”?

Musk may yet realize that he has a business to run, and that business is not providing “fan service for aggrieved conservatives who exist in the Fox News Extended Universe,” as George Washington University professor Dave Karpf tweeted Friday.

But Musk has a lot of money, even if the bank loans he took on to complete the Twitter purchase he spent months trying to wriggle out of leave his new property owing more than $1 billion a year in interest. He can probably afford to stew in his rapidly-curdling delusions for a while.

Either way, it might be prudent to leave my @robpegoraro Twitter handle off my next batch of business cards.

Whither Twitter

Twitter has occupied an embarrassingly large part of my online existence since the spring of 2008–a span of years that somehow exceeds my active tenure on Usenet. But the past two weeks of Twitter leave me a lot less certain about how much time I will or should spend on that service.

I did not have high expectations in April when Elon Musk–who, never forget, already has two full-time jobs at just Tesla and SpaceX–offered to buy Twitter. He had already revealed a low-resolution understanding of content moderation on social platforms but took the advice of a clique of tech bros and told Twitter’s board that he had the answers: “Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it.”

Photo of Twitter's site showing the "fail whale" error graphic and a "Twitter is over capacity" message, as seen in a phone's Web browser at CES 2010.

Seeing Musk then spend months and what could be $100 million in legal fees trying to squirm out of his accepted, above-market offer of $54.20 a share did not elevate those expectations.

Just before a court case he probably would have lost, Musk gave in, threw $44 billion ($13 billion borrowed) on the table and took over Twitter on Oct. 28. He quickly sacked a handful of top executives before firing about half of the workforce with careless cruelty. One friend figured he’d gotten canned when he couldn’t log into his work laptop.

Things have skidded downhill since. On Twitter, Musk keeps showing himself an easy mark for far-right conspiracy liars and the phony complaints of online trolls; in its offices, he’s ordered a rushed rollout of an $8/month subscription scheme that grants the blue-circled checkmark of a verified account, on the assumption that credit-card payment processors will catch fraudsters.

The predictable result: a wave of fake but “verified” accounts impersonating the likes of Eli Lilly, Nintendo, George W. Bush, Lockheed Martin, Telsa and Musk himself.

Also predictable: Twitter advertisers reacting to this chaos and their fear of wobbly content moderation (rejected by Musk) by smashing the Esc key on their spending plans until they can figure out what’s going on. Musk has responded by whining that companies pausing ad campaigns amounts to them “trying to destroy free speech in America.”

As for legacy verified accounts like my own, Musk has oscillated from saying that they’d require the same $8/month charge to suggesting they’d continue to saying they will be dropped–while also introducing, yanking and then resurfacing gray-checkmark icons for certain larger organizations over a 36-hour period. Oh, and not paying your $8 a month might mean your tweets fall down a bit bucket.

After a Thursday that saw Twitter’s chief information security officer, chief privacy officer, and chief complaince officer resign by early morning, Musk told the remaining employees at an all-hands meeting that “Bankruptcy isn’t out of the question.” Since Twitter now owes more than $1 billion a year in interest on the debt from Musk’s acquisition, that warning seems reasonable.

I am not writing this out of schadenfreude. As much as Twitter can drive me nuts (what is it with the militantly stupid people in my replies?), I’ve found it enormously helpful as a public notebook, a shortcut to subject-matter experts, an on-demand focus group, and an ongoing exercise in short-form prose. As (I think) my Washington Post colleague Frank Ahrens once observed, Twitter lets journalists write the New York City tabloid headlines we couldn’t get away with in our own newsrooms.

A "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12" badge from the 2012 Online News Association conference.

If Twitter really does implode, which now seems a much more real possibility even if a roundtrip through Chapter 11 is more likely, I don’t know how I’d replace it.

Many of the people I follow there are advancing evacuation plans on a federated, non-commercial, somewhat confusing social platform–not Usenet, but Mastodon.

I have taken tentative steps to do likewise, in the sense that I created one account on the well-known server Mastodon.Social and then realized I’d created a separate account on the xoxo.zone server in 2018 after hearing Mastodon talked up at a meetup during the XOXO conference in Portland. Now I need to decide which account to keep and which one to migrate, and indecision over that makes it easier to stay on Twitter and watch it burn.

Meanwhile, seeing Musk’s stark, public display of incompetence continues to leave me baffled when I compare that to the Musk venture I know best, SpaceX. If Musk ran SpaceX this impulsively and with this little willingness to learn from others, multiple launch pads at Cape Canaveral would be smoking holes in the ground.

Instead, SpaceX is the leading provider of launch services in the world, sending Falcon 9 rockets to space and landing their first stages for reuse on a better-than-weekly basis. “Transformational” is not too strong of a word for what SpaceX has accomplished since it first orbited a prototype Dragon capsule in December of 2010; this part of Musk’s career ought to be Presidential Medal of Freedom material, with bipartisan applause.

(I got to see that reentry-singed Dragon capsule up close in July of 2011 when NASA hosted a Tweetup at the Kennedy Space Center for the final Space Shuttle launch, yet another experience I owe in some way to Twitter.)

I keep hoping that I will see this sort of steely-eyed focus in Musk’s stewardship of Twitter. Instead, he appears to be off to an even worse start than I could have imagined. And I can imagine quite a bit.

Twitter really isn’t the digital town square, but it might as well be the newsroom coffee counter

A blue pin handed out at the 2012 Online News Association conference, photographed on a piece of lined paper, reads "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12"

When Twitter’s management accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy the company for about $44 billion–a sentence that still makes me pause and think “wait, really?”–the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire called his upcoming property “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

That two-word phrase comes up in a lot in discussions of this compressed-prose, collective-angst platform that a dozen years ago I had to define for readers as a “San Francisco-based microblogging service.”

Twitter’s own management has liked to call the service a town square of own sort or another. Obsessive coverage of the Twitter habits of certain boldface names (case in point: @elonmusk) suggests as much. And many complaints over Twitter exercising its right and business obligation to moderate content assumes that you have the same right to tweet something–meaning have Twitter spend its computing, network and human resources to “use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute” your output–as you would in a physical town square in the U.S.

But the Pew Research Center’s surveys of social-media habits have consistently revealed a more humble reality: Just 23 percent of American adults use Twitter, far below the 81 percent on YouTube, the 69 percent on Facebook or even the 31 percent on Pinterest and the 28 percent on LinkedIn. And Twitter’s share has essentially stayed flat in that Washington-based non-profit’s surveys, with the service’s high point being an almighty 24 percent in 2018.

It is entirely possible to live a rich, meaningful online social life without being on Twitter. It’s also possible to exercise considerable political power without being on Twitter–Donald Trump’s expulsion from that and every other mainstream social platform after his January 6, 2021 self-coup attempt has not stopped the Republican Party from wrapping itself around its own axle over the guy.

Journalists, however, may be another matter. Many of us flocked to the site early on because of its utility as a public notebook and for communication with readers and sources (it took longer for some us, meaning me, to realize how Twitter could also empower distributed abuse), its self-promotional possibilities (which can turn self-destructive when editors fall for bad-faith campaigns to attack journalists who fail to perform like story-sharing automatons on Twitter), and for the way its brevity allows us the chance to pretend we’re headline writers for New York tabloid newspapers. And, especially over the last two years, it’s become a valuable online substitute for the work chit-chat that once took place at a newsroom coffee counter–or, after work, at a nearby bar.

Twitter’s own outreach to journalists, as seen in that souvenir from the 2012 Online News Association conference and in such favors as the service verifying me in 2014 basically because I asked nicely enough times, has also played a role in that popularity.

I’d miss those things if Musk runs Twitter into the ground, as seems a real possibility given how often he’s suggested that Twitter’s real problem is not keeping up everything that’s not actually banned by U.S. law. A logical outcome of that would be making such First Amendment-protected trash like Holocaust denial and ISIS propaganda safe on Twitter, although I am keeping my mind open to more optimistic possibilities.

But I’ve also been online for almost three decades and I’ve seen much bigger allegedly essential online platforms fade into irrelevance. Should Twitter come to that, I imagine I and other journalists will do what we usually do when we meet some occupational obstacle: swear a lot and then figure out some other way to do the job.

Flickr’s Android app still needs some work

Today brought yet another rerun of a mobile-app routine that I’d like to see closed out: I saw an update for Flickr’s Android app waiting on my Pixel 5a, I installed the update, I went out and took some photos, and I saw that Flickr still isn’t saving location data when it backs up pictures automatically.

As bugs go, this one is not too consequential. But it’s also gone unfixed since late December, when I first noticed it. Flickr’s customer support promptly responded to that tweet, asking me to send in a sample photo, and the response I got hours later let me hope for a fairly quick resolution.

“We did some testing with the image you provided, and got mixed results upon uploading to a private test account that we use for cases like this,” the rep wrote. “The issue seems specific to the app, and possibly to the new update of 4.16.6.”

But the Flickr app has since seen multiple updates–it’s now up to version 4.16.15–and I’m still seeing automatically uploaded photos stripped of their geotags. That seriously erodes Flickr’s use as an unlimited-storage image backup vault; fortunately, I mainly employ Flickr for its original purpose of photo sharing, and for that I can use the share menu in Google Photos to post pictures, GPS data intact, to Flickr.

Flickr reps have remained a pleasure to deal with over e-mail, and the most recent one added three free months to my Pro subscription, which was a nice gesture.

But I also don’t feel that I can get too mad here, given that Flickr is my only major social-media platform that isn’t the property of a tech or media conglomerate, having been rescued from Yahoo’s erratic stewardship by the privately-held photo-sharing firm SmugMug in 2018.

And not only does Flickr have the advantage of being Not Google and Not Facebook, its support for albums has no equivalent on Instagram. And its support for Creative Commons licensing (my photos are free for non-commercial use while commercial users are welcome to pay) and groups of like-minded photographers (for instance, Capital Weather) have no equivalents at either Instagram or Google Photos.

I don’t even mind having this expense of a Flickr Pro subscription, now $71.99 a year and increasingly hard to avoid, in my Web-services budget. And while I would not turn down getting a few more months free, I would just as soon see Flickr fix this bug and restore this app to complete functionality.

Keeping a Facebook page would be less work if Facebook were less tolerant of scammers tagging my Facebook page with other Facebook pages impersonating Facebook

Living a public work life on social media can be tiresome under many conditions, but my occupational outpost on Facebook–facebook.com/robpegoraro–has been feeling especially tedious lately.

And I can’t even blame random Facebook commenters for that! Instead, it’s the random Facebook scammers that have been nibbling away at my social-media attention span by staking out fake Facebook pages that impersonate Facebook itself, and which then tag my page with grammatically-iffy posts threatening to have my page suspended (for example, “someone has reported you with non-compliance with the terms of service”) if I don’t click/tap to verify my page ownership at a site that is obviously not at Facebook.

(Pro tip: Facebook is an American company and, AFAIK, does not have any substantial presence in Vanuatu that would require it to point users to a .vu domain name for terms-of-service compliance.)

I resent being treated like an idiot and I resent having my time wasted, but I also resent seeing a gigantic social network with country-sized resources fail so badly at stopping its own tenants from impersonating it. Every single time, the scam page has a big blue “f” icon matching Facebook’s and calls itself something like “Pages Identity Policy Issue,” which combined should seem like easy bait for a company with Facebook’s machine-learning capacity to quash or at least quarantine.

Instead, I get to play Whac-a-Mole with these idiotic impostors, and Facebook doesn’t even make that efficient.

Here’s the workflow on my iPad if I want to report the tagging post itself: Tap the ellipsis menu at the top right, select “Find support or report post,” select “False information” from the menu (“impersonation” isn’t an option), select “Social Issue,” (other choices being “Health,” “Politics,” “Something Else”), confirm that the post goes against community standards, then tap “Submit.” That last step doesn’t remove the tag, which takes another tap or two to zap.

If, however, I tap the fake page itself (which, in the most recent incident, had been set up for a construction firm in 2013 and then renamed this week, presumably after a hack), I tap the ellipsis menu at the top right, select “Find Support or Report Page,” select “Scams and Fake Pages,” then choose “Misleading Page Name Change” (had I not seen that switcheroo, I would have picked “Pretending to be Another Business” or “Fake Page”). Then it took another tap to block the page’s tag from my own page.

My gripe here isn’t so much with the number of clicks Facebook required but with the gap between its apathetic enforcement against con artists ripping off its own identity and its aggressive and punitive reaction against the New York University researchers who invited readers to install a browser extension that would track which ads Facebook served them, so that we might learn a little more about how that advertising gets targeted. What’s the priority at Facebook?

It’s yet another reason–on top of of the recurring nags to spend money on Facebook ads–to make me wonder why I keep up that Facebook marketing output when it’s so much more work than my other social-media presences. And yet if I want to see how the advertising machinery works, I feel like I have to stick around, scammers and all.

Google Photos storage won’t be free. Now what?

Almost five and a half years ago, I wrote a post for Yahoo Tech about the launch of the new, free Google Photos service that ran under the headline “Will Google Really Store All Your Photos Forever?” Wednesday, Google answered that question: No, it won’t. At least not for free.

That response came in a corporate post from Google Photos vice president Shimrit Ben-Yair announcing the end of the unlimited-with-imperceptible-compression picture storage that Google had touted at its I/O developer conference in San Francisco in a simpler time:

Starting June 1, 2021, any new photos and videos you upload will count toward the free 15 GB of storage that comes with every Google Account or the additional storage you’ve purchased as a Google One member.

I don’t have to worry about this just yet. Beyond “only” having squirreled away 4.4 gigabytes of images and video on Google Photos–a rate of accumulation that Google estimates won’t push me past that 15 GB threshold for another year–my Pixel 3a phone entitles me to continued free backup from that device.

But at some point, I’ll retire that phone and may need to make some budgetary decisions. My USA Today colleague Jefferson Graham outlined the major alternatives in a post Wednesday. Leaving out Apple’s Android-excluded iCloud and assuming yearly discounts, here are the cheapest options:

  • Amazon (unlimited storage, included with $119/year Prime Account)
  • Dropbox (2 TB, $119.88/year)
  • Flickr (unlimited, $60/year)
  • Google (100 GB, $19.99/year)
  • Microsoft (100 GB, $23.88/year)

As it happens, I’m already paying for three of those–I’m an Amazon captive like everybody else, I’ve paid for Flickr Pro since 2011, and I subscribe to the 1 TB tier of Microsoft 365 for easy backup of my Windows laptop. (I also pay Google for 100 GB of storage for my G Suite work account, but that’s separate from the everyday Google account I use on my Android phone.)

I already have Flickr set to back up my photos–although the app only does that when I open it, not in the background–so that would seem the logical fallback option. That service also offers the advantage of existing outside the orbits of the tech giants. But although Flickr has worked to apply some machine-learning techniques to photo searches, it’s nowhere as good as Google at finding photos without a human-written title or description: A search for “eggs” in Google Photos yields 19 photos, only two of which don’t feature actual eggs. On Flickr, that nets me one photo, a close-up of fingertips.

So the easiest choice for me, for now, is to change nothing and hope I can stay under that 15 GB limit. One thing I will do, and which you can as well to free up some space: Clean out your Gmail by searching for and deleting messages from certain senders older than a set number of days, weeks or months (as I told USA Today readers back in 2012, when daily-deal messages were a serious consumer of inbox space).

But maybe I’m wrong. Here’s your chance to show that: Take the survey below and then leave a comment explaining your choice.

DVR debt, but for virtual-conference panels

For the past two months, I’ve been looking at the same five tabs left open in my Mac’s copy of Chrome. They’re all from Black Hat–as in, the security conference that happened online in early August, but which remains incomplete in my own viewing.

If this event had taken place in Las Vegas as usual, I would have watched almost all the talks I’d picked out from the schedule. That’s a core feature of traveling to spend a few days at a conference: All of the usual at-home distractions are gone, leaving you free to focus on the proceedings at hand.

Online-only events zero out my travel costs and offer the added benefit of vastly reducing the odds of my catching the novel coronavirus from a crowd of hundreds of strangers. But because they leave me in my everyday surroundings, they’re also hard to follow.

If I have a story to write off a panel–meaning a direct financial incentive–I can and will tune in for that. But for everything else at an online conference, it’s just too easy to switch my attention to whatever work or home task has to be done today and save the panel viewing for later, as if it were yet another recording on my TiVo. (Or to let my attention wander once again to Election Twitter.) It’s not as if other conference attendees will be able to note my absence!

So I still haven’t caught up with the talks at Black Hat. Or at the online-only DEF CON hacker conference that followed it. I haven’t even tried to follow the panels at this year’s online-only version of the Online News Association’s conference… mainly because I couldn’t justify spending $225 on a ticket when this conference’s usual networking benefits would be so attenuated. I feel a little bad about that, but on the other hand I also feel a little cranky about submitting a panel proposal for ONA 20 and never getting a response.

I would love to be able to return to physical-world events with schedules crowded by overlapping panel tracks that force me to choose between rooms. But there seems to be zero chance of them resuming in the next six months, even if a vaccine arrives before the end of the year in mass quantities. Web Summit, CES, SXSW: They’ll all be digital-only, happenings experienced only through a screen.

I should try harder to cultivate the habit of experiencing these virtual events in the moment, not weeks or months afterwards. Or at least I should try to catch up on the backlog of panels I’ve already accumulated. This last hour would have been great for that… except I spent it writing this post instead.

Update, 10/10/2020: It turns out none of those Black Hat panels were available for viewing anymore. Whoops! At least the tab bar in Chrome looks cleaner now, I guess.

I’m finally getting paid by the click, more or less

My byline showed up at a new place this morning: Forbes, where I’m going to be covering the intersections of media, policy and technology. My first post unpacks AT&T’s probably-doomed attempt to boost its HBO Max streaming video service by exempting it from its data caps.

Writing about tech policy is nothing new for me, but this freelance client brings a different model of compensation, plus some self-inflicted dents to its reputation.

The publication I once knew as a glossy magazine that branded itself a “Capitalist Tool” did not cover itself with glory as it transitioned to the Web. It leaned way too far into the outside-contributor model under former editor Lewis D’Vorkin, flooding its pages with content churned out by writers who were often unvetted and unpaid and sometimes flat-out unqualified.

So when my friend Wayne Rash started writing there last year and encouraged me to come along, I had to quiz him at length about his experience. Then I talked to another recent addition to the site, analyst Carolina Milanesi, as well as one of its more senior contributors, tech journalist Larry Magid. They all pronounced Forbes a worthwhile outlet that was no longer a churnalism warehouse.

So I got on the phone with Dawn Chmielewski, the media editor there. I’ve known Dawn since she was covering tech at the Los Angeles Times when I was doing the same at the Washington Post, and seeing Forbes hire her last January had already raised my estimation of the place. She explained the steps they’d taken to professionalize their contributor system, including booting a bunch of the old contributors, as well as the pay structure.

That aspect, of particular importance to me, involves a minimum payment for five posts a month that would represent… a per-word rate I wouldn’t want to talk about. But traffic above a certain level brings a steady increase in income, and the page views that come from repeat visitors count for considerably more.

Aside from the short-lived micro-blogging platform Sulia, no other clients have paid me along these lines. But I can tell you that at almost every place I’ve written, including the Post, I’ve had editors cite my page views as a key metric in my value as a journalist and send me spreadsheets showing just how my stuff had done in recent months. And I’ve had editors turn down pitches explicitly because previous posts on the same topics did not get enough clicks.

Remember that every time you see journalists huff that they don’t get paid by the click. Stories get assigned on the basis of traffic all the time, and journalists can lose their jobs for the same reason. Making this a direct component of compensation is at least more transparent–as is the fact that each story at Forbes shows its page views above the headline.

As I write this, my debut only has 408 views. In the context of a Saturday-morning post that didn’t break news, I’d rate that as not great, not terrible. And I have time to figure this out, given that business at other clients has slowed or, in the case of Yahoo Finance, ground to a halt.

In six months, I may decide that this experiment–and its key benefit of letting me write and publish as I see fit instead of waiting for an editor to okay a pitch and then edit my copy–was worth it. Or I may put this down as another case of my successfully finding something that didn’t work. Either way, I suspect I’ll know a lot more about the dynamics of online readership after seeing my metrics move in real time on a site with an exponentially larger audience than this blog.

Lessons from moderating three virtual panels

I spoke at a conference Tuesday for the first time since February, and this time the dress code was a little different: no pants required.

That’s because my appearance at Futureproof IT came through my laptop’s webcam and the Zoom video-chat app, leaving nothing below my chest visible to the remote audience. That’s also how I moderated two more panels this week for the Collision conference that was originally set to run in Toronto in June but has since migrated to a digital format, with my appearances among those recorded in advance.

And that’s how I expect all of my conference speaking to happen for at least the next few months, thanks to the novel-coronavirus pandemic ruining everything.

I’ve learned a lot about successful panel moderation on a physical stage, but doing so in a virtual environment brings new challenges.

Start with picking and positioning a webcam. The camera in my aging iMac is at a good height relative to me when sitting, but it also delivers a subpar 720p resolution–and from that angle, I’d have natural light from the windows hitting only one side of my face. My HP laptop, meanwhile, has a 1080p webcam, and by parking it atop a stepladder and then a large tin topped by the thickest book I could find in my office (a hardcover of Dune), I could position it high enough while allowing myself to face my office’s windows.

(If I’d only bought the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam in the Before Times, I could have stuck the thing on a tripod and be done with it. As the song goes, there’s a lot of things if I could I’d rearrange.)

The Collision panels added another complication: a request for a pale, blank backdrop. I managed that by hanging a white bedsheet from the ceiling with packing tape and binder clips–the tape stuck to the drywall, but I needed the clips to hold the tape to the sheet.

And then none of my other panelists showed up with pale, blank backgrounds. That’s one reassuring aspect of this: Not only can you expect somebody else to have audio or video hiccups, you can also expect somebody else to have a worse backdrop or camera angle.

Before kicking off a virtual panel, you must also silence every other device in the room, and my failure to think through “every other device” meant the Futureproof panel was not interruption-proof. As in, we were distracted by the one thing I didn’t think to put in do-not-disturb mode, an old Trimline land-line phone on my desk mainly for nostalgia purposes.

At least I didn’t have to change any settings on the laptop, thanks to Windows 10’s Focus Assist quashing interruptions from other apps once I switched Zoom to full-screen mode. But that also meant I had to look elsewhere for a timer: I couldn’t see the lock in the Windows taskbar, while Zoom’s option to show your connected time doesn’t account for minutes spent prepping on a call before a panel begins. I made do with the clock apps on my phone and iPad.

All three panels suffered from a certain latency as other speakers paused before answering my questions. You can’t point or nod to one as you would onstage to encourage them to jump in–and if one starts filibustering, it’s also harder to signal him to wrap things up. Simply reading the facial expressions of other panelists can be difficult if they use a lower-resolution webcam or neglect their lighting.

Reading the audience seems even harder in Zoom unless, I guess, you keep the chat pane open and have an audience that is exceptionally concise in their feedback. The way Facebook and Twitter let a live video audience respond with emoji and hearts ought to deliver easily-understood feedback at scale, and perhaps one of the many virtual-event apps now seeing escalating interest–see my friend Robin Raskin’s writeup of a handful at Techonomy–gets even closer to the real thing.

But I highly doubt any app will recreate how great it can feel to have a live audience tuned into the talk, laughing at your jokes and then applauding your work.