The Dude tries to stay apolitical. Not because he abhors politics, but mainly because it isn’t really related to the topic of Product Management. But, the demise of Parler - a spin off social media construct to provide “conservative” voices a safe space - as a case study for the whole picture relates to product management.
The genesis of Parler dates back to August 2018. At the time, there was this belief that the main social media networks were being unfair to conservatives, that their voices were being silenced. This was twaddle, as the conservative voices had a lot more leeway than the general population, and their rhetoric was fiery, inflammatory, and at times scary. The main Social Media venues were afraid to moderate aggressively (or even at all) in fear of a backlash in the community. Hell, a report pointed out that if Facebook moderated the conservatives on their platform as aggressively as they do liberal voices, a lot of congress people and politicians would be flagged as white supremacists, that would inflame them even more.
So, John Matze, along with funding from Rebekah Mercer, “built” an alternative to Twitter as a place for people to “experience true freedom of speech.” While the Dude isn’t a member there, he has seem some snippets of the sort of dialog on Parler from the early days, and wow, it was the very definition of batshit insanity.
While the original free-for-all eventually slipped as some of the crazy was too crazy, and a community moderation was adopted, where reported “parleys” would be adjudicated by volunteer “judges” and if there was a consensus, they would be removed.
I bet you can see how effective that would be. When your whole purpose is to allow extreme right-wing rhetoric, and the vast majority of your users are hard core right wing nutters, remarkably little content would be adjudicated to be removed…
Essentially, it became a cesspool on par with the old 4chan and 8chan. Sure, a lot less child pornography, but a lot of hate speech, antisemitism, and white supremacist agitation was the coin of the realm. Further, it also became the main driver of the insane conspiracy bullshit spewed by Q-Anon.
What happened around the election…
While the conservative media as a whole built an alternate universe where Trump was the odds on favorite to win the election, and a lot of reality defying contortions. While the election was a lot closer than it should have been, it was decisive, and clear that Trump lost, even after he was able to shake the dark corners of Rural America, and get an astounding 74 million votes (compared to the 81 million votes that Biden won.)
Immediately though, the onslaught of how the election was rigged and stolen, the precursors of which Trump had been laying the groundwork since the spring.
After the election was called, and after each defeated challenge in the courts, often being dismissed for no evidence, or faulty logic, or faulty filing (the Trump “crack” legal team was definitely not the A-Team) both Facebook and Twitter began labeling the lies about the election, election results, and the victor, as false, with links to fact checks and correct opinions.
This lead to a very verbal cadre of the top conservative voices to “head over to Parler” where their batshit insane views were not being silenced.
n.b. The conservative voices weren’t being silenced. They were able to post all the bullshit they wanted, but there were overlays and labels that told the uninitiated that what was posted was bullshit.
Parler went from roughly 4M users to close to 20M almost overnight.
Seems like a success story, right? That is some damn fine vanity metric right there.
The fly in the ointment
The last constitutional hurdle before the inauguration is the tallying of the Electoral College votes in the full session of Congress. The Vice President oversees this, and it really is just a formality. There is no action that can be taken. The only wrinkle is if a state can’t certify its slate of electors, then the house of representatives can select a set. However, all 50 states had certified their elections, the selection of the electors, and the votes. The total showed that Biden beat Trump 306-232, a decisive drubbing. (For those keeping track, that is the precise victory Trump had over Clinton in 2016, where he lost the popular vote by almost 4M votes).
But in the run up to the counting of the votes, Trump, his enablers, and a stupefying number of Republicans were fanning the flames that Mike Pence, as VP, could use this event on January 6th to overturn the election and just hand it to Trump.
This was always poppycock, as the VP’s role is ceremonial, and the process is dictated.
We now know what happened. Trump fanned the partisan flames in a pre-count rally, and instructed his mob to storm the capital, to ensure that Pence and the congresspeople would choose him (Trump) to be the elected president. The mob broke through the security cordon, they entered the capital building, the congress people were evacuated, and about 6 hours of utterly horrifying chaos ensued.
How this relates to Parler
Parler was the “safe” space where the anarchists and white supremacists organized this riot and storming. There were lots of discussions about how to sneak firearms in. How to execute congress people, how to force Pence to acquiesce to their will, and in short how to behave badly.
Hell, one of Trump’s lawyers, Lin Wood, posted that Pence needed to be executed because of his “intransigence”.
All these posts that would have caused us mere mortals to have been ejected from the other platforms (Facebook and Twitter) but on Parler they stayed up. Newspeople screen shot them, and wrote about the horrible things that were being said, and there was literally no moderation.
Then the events of January 6th, 2021 happened.
A lot of it was discussed openly on Parler, and thousands of hate filled, violence advocating posts were up and stayed up.
After the shitshow that was the breaching of the Capitol building, John Matze, Parler CEO got on a podcast with the NY Times’ Kara Swisher, and pretty much admitted that they wouldn’t be moderating, and that he felt that Parler was blameless in the violence and mal-behavior.
He seemed shocked that this was poorly received.
Beginning of the end
Now on to the Product related part. Apple and Google, the two dominant smartphone platforms were aghast at the content, the vitriol, and the glorification of violence that was literally ALL OVER PARLER, and gave Parler an ultimatum. Either implement a rigorous moderation process to clean this shit out, or Apple and Google would remove the apps from their respective stores.
This led to a lot of hand wringing and “but, but, but” hemming and hawing by Matze, but clearly the environment that Parler was fostering was against the T’s and C’s.
Then came the big bomb. I was remotely aware that Parler was built on AWS, and that Amazon also has T’s and C’s that call out the glorification of violence.
When on Saturday, January 9th, they sent a letter to Parler (not the first, it referenced prior letters) with a sample of 98 pretty fucking horrible posts on Parler, with the dictate that unless they policed their site, they would be shutting off their service at Midnight on Sunday, January 10th.
Yes, 30ish hours notice is a little bit of a dick move, but apparently Parler had ignored prior notices, standing on their principle of freedom of expression.
Matze and the rest of the leadership team of Parler have been fulminating and ranting about how this is unfair, and against the constitution (it isn’t), or how Facebook and Twitter get away with it (they don’t, they do moderate, far more heavily on the left than the right).
What we know about the product
After the notification from Amazon, Matze mentioned that they built their system on “bare metal” and weren’t using the services that AWS provides, and that in a week they would be back up, as soon as they found a new provider. I thought that was weird, and probably wrong.
But it turns out that I was wrong. I assumed that Parler was architected as a stand alone service, with a modern micro service back end, a distributed system, with security by design. I had heard that Parler encouraged people to provide documentation and become “Verified Citizens” akin to Twitter’s Blue Check program.
But that was all bullshit.
Turns out that Parler is built on Wordpress, with plugins for account management, SMS messaging, and leveraging 3rd party services for things like authentication, identity verification, and a lot of the broadcast services to match the Twitter experience.
So, Matze is right, if he could find enough servers, they could move the installs to them, and after migrating the reported 70TB of data (I cringe thinking what AWS will charge them for the outflow of that), they could be up.
But, they quickly found a hiccup.
No reputable hosting provider will touch them. They are toxic, and experiencing what 4chan/8chan and Stormfront experienced. They might have to move their data to somewhere in Russia to find a hosting solution.
Not only that, but apparently, they were using an evaluation license to Okta for the identity validation. Okta cut them off before the AWS shut down, and some clever whitehats figured out that they could get administrator permissions, and that 70TB data outflowed to their possession (so Parler can pay twice for 70TB data transfers).
A real shit show.
While they are screaming “censorship” and First Amendment, the reality is that Google, Apple, and Amazon, as well as their lawyers, Okta, their SMS provider, their payment processors, and other vendors they relied on are not the government, they have terms and conditions, and if you violate them, and are being assholish about it, they can cut you off.
Sure they can rebuild, find hosting in a former soviet republic, and get people to side load on Android (they are shit out of luck on iPhones), it is certain to be a shadow of its former glory.
What they could, nay SHOULD have done
First - They should have built the product from the ground up. Wordpress is an amazing package, and a very flexible content management solution. But it isn’t great at this scale. They should have had a product team, with an architect, and someone who knows how to build at scale.
Second - They should have built with a plan for the future. They knew they were poking the bear, and that eventually their laissez faire attitude would run afoul of the corporations that they are dependent on. It is clear that they just cobbled this together as haphazardly as run my personal blog (a simple Wordpress site that gets about 20 visitors a day…)
Third - They should have built their infrastructure in a country that has strong privacy laws and a culture of secrecy. Top of the list is The Netherlands, and Switzerland.
Fourth - They should have bit the bullet and built a data center to run this, and have multiple redundant peering agreements. At first the traffic would have been low and this would have been overkill, but the growth in members/activity in the latter half of 2020 would have had far fewer issues. There were reports of the service being slow, or unresponsive as their servers were hammered after the election in November. Here is where they should have used the goodies that AWS has for elastic process growth and scaling.
Fifth - Realize that the laissez faire approach to content, coupled with some really whack-a-doodle right wing nut jobs was going to lead to a lot of posts that were going to cause legal liability issues, and this scramble, and to forestall this, to have a robust plan to moderate content. I get that they aren’t large enough to have the AI systems that Twitter and Facebook use as a first tier, but the whole community adjudication for bad behavior, when your entire audience are far right nutters is never going to work.
I am unsure if they will recover. This is going to cost a LOT of money, and the believed revenue from their paltry ads won’t cover it. Will the Mercer’s toss more money at it? Enough to do it right?
I wouldn’t take that bet.
There is talk about congress repealing section 230 from the DMCA of 1996, as a silver bullet. But the conservatives who think this is their panacea to be as much of assholes as they want to be online will be in for a rude awakening. It will mean that the platform (Parler, Facebook, Twitter) will not be able to say that they aren’t responsible. They will be sued when someone posts that they believe that the Holocaust never happened. And they will lose. So they will dial up the moderation, and you will find a lot of posts removed and accounts banned.
Freedom of speech isn’t absolute, and doesn’t apply to private companies.
And the “Fuck your Feelings” crowd seems to have a lot of feels lately now that their egregious behaviors are causing them legal issues.