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Life in an "After Corona" World
Plus, Shopify becomes the anti-Amazon, streaming services, and mainstream VR
This is a newsletter about how tech is changing how we live and work
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Weeks and Decades
This past week, I’ve found myself thinking of a quote from Lenin:
There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.
We're living in unprecedented times. The name of this newsletter is Rewriting Culture, and that's exactly what's happening. COVID-19 is not only changing the way we live, but requiring that we change how we live in order to mitigate its spread. How quickly we can change our cultural programming—staying home, not going out to run errands, not going out to eat—will determine how quickly we can slow this pandemic. Perhaps Thomas Friedman put it best in his excellent piece this week: we're now living in the age of B.C. and A.C.—Before Corona and After Corona.
I hope to strike a balance in this week's newsletter: some virus-related content, and some unrelated content to offer a momentary respite from thinking of the pandemic. I'm conscious of the fact that many people don't have the luxury of not thinking about the virus. Some of us are lucky that, for us, this crisis simply means staying home: one friend wryly put it, "Our grandparents were asked to go to war, and we're being asked to stay on our couch."
That said, this crisis is unique in its isolation. Comparisons have been made to post-9/11, but in that moment we were able to come together for support and community. Michelle Goldberg wrote: "This mass withdrawal is like social chemotherapy, damaging the fabric of our communal life while trying to save it." I'm hopeful that after this pandemic, we'll see a pendulum swing back toward rich, meaningful, in-person human interactions.
Sources & Additional Reading — here are the pieces that inspired and informed this content; check them out for further reading on this subject:
Our New Historical Divide: B.C. and A.C. — the World Before Corona and the World After (Thomas Friedman, NYTimes)
Thursday Thought (Aidan McCullen, Medium)
Grieving for My Sick City (Michelle Goldberg, NYTimes)
Chart of the Week
Two charts this week, both of app downloads. First, downloads of Zoom. Last Wednesday, 343,000 people globally downloaded Zoom, the most ever in a single day.
Second, an interesting chart that Alex Taussig pointed out. Third-party developers are creating modified versions of WhatsApp; for instance, GB WhatsApp allows users operate multiple accounts, restore deleted messages, and send and receive larger media files. These third-party versions of WhatsApp are even more popular than the Facebook app in many markets, illustrating just how popular WhatsApp is around the world (of course, Facebook owns WhatsApp).
How Shopify is Leading the Online Resistance to Amazon (Fast Company)
Shopify was named Fast Company's most innovative company of 2019. Shopify—which powers online stores for Allbirds, Kylie Cosmetics, Budweiser, Nestlé, and more—is on a tear. Last year, it signed its millionth merchant. Between 2016 and 2018, Shopify enabled $183 billion in transactions and created full-time jobs for 1.4 million people. In the four days from Black Friday through Cyber Monday last year alone, Shopify merchants sold more than $2.9 billion worth of goods to 25.5 million people, up from $1.8 billion the year before. As Shopify launches more tools for online merchants—including payments, logistics, and loans through Shopify Capital—the company is positioning itself not as an e-commerce platform, but as "the world's first retail operating system."
How Cameo Turned D-List Celebrities Into a Monetization Machine (Patrick Sauer, Medium)
Cameo, which lets people purchase short video messages from their favorite celebrities, is one of the fastest-growing marketplaces in the world. Cameo customers have purchased more than 560,000 videos from some 20,000 celebs and counting. A celeb simply sets a price—anywhere from $5 to $2,500—and the customer books an original or scripted video. (Caitlyn Jenner is the most expensive celeb on the platform, at $2,500 / video; her last video was all of 21 seconds.) The top-earning celeb on Cameo (comedian Gilbert Gottfried) makes $100K per month on the platform. The idea for Cameo was born when the co-founders agreed on two core truths about modern celebrity: (1) there are more famous people today than ever before, and (2) these famous people are more famous than they've ever been at any time in history.
2019 Was a Major Inflection Point for Virtual Reality, and Here's the Proof (Road to VR)
Virtual reality had a tough decade. Again and again, the technology overpromised and undelivered; one of the hottest VR start-ups of the decade, Magic Leap, is currently for sale. But I continue to believe that VR will be huge, and evidence is building that the tech is at an inflection point. VR software sales broke $300 million in 2019, tripling year-over-year. If it continues at this growth rate, 2020 VR software revenue will be similar to that of mobile apps in 2009. A key question is whether VR will be simply a good product, or the next platform. The latter is looking more likely: developers have created more than 100 titles that exceed $1 million in revenue, and at least one top title is grossing over $40 million in annual revenue.
Y Combinator's Winter 2020 Batch (TechCrunch)
YC's Winter 2020 Demo Day showcased 200 start-ups. One that's getting a lot of buzz this week is Glimpse, which offers short, social video chats with friends and friends-of-friends. A user creates a “room” and adds friends, who can then add their own friends. The room can have two people, or hundreds of people. With schools shut down for COVID-19, the app is gaining traction among high school and college kids, who are using it to combat loneliness.
Disney+ Needs More Content (Hollywood Reporter)
Disney+ came out of the gates hot, driven by hype and a hit show in The Mandalorian. But the service is now suffering from a lack of content. This is coming at a tough time, with millions of Americans isolated at home and looking for new forms of entertainment: last week, gaming was up 75% and streaming was up 12%. Bob Iger's new priority is to create high quality and high quantity content. One idea for Disney: put Mulan on Disney+. The film was supposed to hit theaters this month, but was postponed indefinitely because of the coronavirus. Instead of waiting to release it next fall or winter, Disney should put it on Disney+ today. Adding a tentpole film to the streaming service will generate buzz and drive millions of new subscribers.
Universal Breaks Theatrical Window for Movies (NYTimes)
Speaking of moving films to streaming services, Universal made headlines this week by pulling films from theaters early and releasing them for in-home rental. This makes sense financially, given that last weekend the box office was at its lowest point in 20 years. While Universal is offering the movies as TVOD (transactional video on demand) rather than SVOD (streaming video on demand), this could be a nail in the coffin for movie theaters and a turning point for streaming services.
How Execs at Twitter, Slack, and Box Decided to Send Everyone Home (Protocol)
The story of how leaders at major tech companies decided to mandate remote work.
Inside the NBA's Decision to Shut Down (ESPN) and A Proposal to Salvage the NBA Season (Bloomberg)
The inside story of how the NBA decided to cancel the season, and an article exploring the (slim) chance that the season could be salvaged. It's a radical idea: "Or how about proceeding with some version of the NBA Finals? Take a subset of the best qualifying teams, test every player for coronavirus, isolate them in a remote area with a college gymnasium, and have them proceed with a shortened version of the real thing in front of only a TV crew. With so many other public events closed down, television viewership would probably reach an all-time high, and the sense of drama would be incredible. It would be one NBA Finals we would never forget, and the quality of play would respond to the very high psychological stakes."
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