Like many others nowadays, I’m fascinated by the phenomena around “esports,” which can mean watching other people play video games or code or do both, either in person, or online, or on one’s phone. I had to laugh when Startup L Jackson tweeted “If one more VC discovers eSports this week & starts tweeting about it, I am going to come up with an ultimatum. And it will not be pleasant,” because it’s true…but there is good reason. I was catching up on some reading today and realized there are actually a confluence of non-connected trends which form to make the present day fascination quite logical:
One, the youngest millennials are now right in the middle of their teenage years, right around when they can almost drive a car. This generation entered the world when mainstream gaming consoles hit the market and started to invade the home, with the Nintendo Entertainment Systems coming to the U.S. in 1986, the Sega Genesis in 1989, Sony’s Playstation in 1994, and the XBox in 2001. Like I did, many folks owned or tried every system, and they popularized casual video game play.
Two, the culture around these home gaming systems is that only 2-4 people could play at a time. If you grew up around these consoles, you would clearly remember waiting your turn, and while you waited, you would watch other people play the same game you wanted to play. You’d just sit there. You didn’t have a phone to distract you or the Internet at home to jump on. Turns out “watching other people play video games” is randomly engrained in millennial muscle memory because everyone exhibited the behavior. This turned out to be inherently social behavior, waiting in tournaments to play the next round of EA Sports Madden or NHL, or trying to win Zelda or Metroid.
Three, over half of millennials grew up in an age where network TV was on the decline. Today, for many of them, network TV is wholly irrelevant. Instead, they stream content online, pay for subscriptions, buy individual shows, and watch shows on-demand. While mobile phones and networks take the place (in terms of attention) of TV, there are hours in the day folks can devote to this and they certainly do.
Four, the infrastructure required to support a range of esports activities has become robust enough to handle the traffic. People can now broadcast and/or consume esports media from home, networks like Twitch.tv and others have cropped up and amassed large audiences. Mobile phones, data networks, and video channels are also more robust, of course. MLB recently announced it was spinning out its quietly robust digital streaming and hosting business, a unit which could be worth many billions of dollars more than it is today. As livestreaming technologies have demonstrated this year alone, social networks like Twitter are ready to provide users with live content (a la Periscope) and to support those streams as a piece of audience development and engagement.
Five, the cultural interconnectedness from a tech point of view between Asia and the U.S. is also responsible for the trend hitting the west. The culture of watching others play video games in larger audiences began in parts of Asia, which made sense because that’s where the home consoles were originally developed and released, before shipping to the west. Like messaging platforms today, the esports behavior is older and just took a bit longer to incubate here in the west, but now these micro-cultures have converged.
Sixth, the global rise in the importance of and celebrity around computer literacy is timed in such a way that it doesn’t make the act of participating in esports seem like a waste of time. Rather, it can be seen as both educational and social, as both entertainment and interactive.
And, there you have it, all of these forces put into a blender, and it all explains why esports is so popular, why sports and media networks are not only allocating mindshare and budgets to it, but also doing this for derivate products, such as gaming networks which let fans bet on esports participants, among other parlays. It’s been almost a year since Microsoft acquired Minecraft and when Amazon acquired Twitch, and with most technology investors being a bit older than the millennial generation, most of them have enough nostalgia to understand the behavior and recognize the power in the mass audience aggregation when they see events like this one. Like Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat aggregate audience attention on the web and on phones, esports is starting to do the same thing in the same channels, but also in real life, where kids of all ages collide, compete, and make new friends. It’s almost like an entirely new social network, and that’s what gets people excited — and rightfully so.
On the morning of August 15, The New York Times published a long, investigative report on the culture at Amazon, one of the country’s (and world’s) largest technology companies. It’s late into Sunday morning the following day, and I’ve just finished the article. It took me so long to read it because I was intrigued by all the chatter and commentary on Twitter in reaction to the piece. Now, having read the original piece, here is what I take away from it:
Women – By far, the most damning part of the piece. The rest of the piece wasn’t that interesting. I can imagine many big, fast-moving companies having lots of drama and dysfunction. It doesn’t excuse unethical behavior, but there are choices parents can make, and oftentimes women (and moms) don’t have much say in the matter. An organization that doesn’t care for those it employs who are so vulnerable at a time around childbirth likely sets itself up for a rude awakening down the road. I can’t imagine a Bay Area company getting away with such ploys in today’s age.
Global Competition – What struck me most about the piece overall is how intense global pressure is on all western countries, America included. American citizens want their iPhones, but they don’t want to read about Foxconn; I want my toothpaste delivered tomorrow, but I don’t want to read about how Amazon makes it happen, right? Think of all the startups rushing to nip at the heels of Amazon. It’s a brutal game and they have big international competition (like Alibaba) and pressure from upstarts (like Wish, and potentially more).
Software vs. Software-enabled – Facebook and Google, for example, have a ton of leverage in their business model. Their software scales in a way that is so elegant, it empowers them to go over-the-top to recruit, hire, and retain employees. These are software-driven companies. By contrast, while Amazon certainly has amazing software, it is more defined by operations, logistics, and a characteristically low-margin threshold to ensures I can get my tube of toothpaste tomorrow. It doesn’t enjoy the elegance of a Facebook web and mobile ad model, and therefore is under all sorts of insane volume pressures the outside world cannot comprehend.
Ad-Homimem Attacks – I’ve noticed an uptick in this behavior, that when information comes out that is controversial and places a tech company or someone in tech in the klieg lights of the press, many (not all) will rush to discredit the source. It happens in politics, too. People don’t like to see stones being thrown at glass houses because in tech, there’s a row of glass houses that make for great fodder for the press who is hungry for more expose-type journalism and want to experiment with new types of media. The reality is that tech is driving the global economy, it is touching peoples’ lives in more and more ways, and the press will increasingly be on the lookout for targets to sink its teeth into. For instance, I can’t imagine Amazon not addressing the women/expectant-moms portion of the article, though I don’t think they’ll care about the rest of it. As I like to say, everyone in tech now plays for the Yankees and should expect scrutiny moving forward.
Power Of The New York Times – I am not sure if this piece, were it published in any other outlet (except The New Yorker) would’ve generated this much of a reaction. There’s something still about the power of the NYT brand, the fear that it will be read across not just the country, but the world; that it will itself drive other outlets and blogs (like this one) to chime in and drive derivative coverage. This piece likely did so well for them, we should expect both the NYT and other outlets to commission and look for stories like this — to examine the bigger targets like Facebook, Google, Apple, Uber, and beyond, and unearth information that wants to come out and will enrapt a mainstream audience.
We live in a new world where some elite corporations have more power than many governments, a world with much less job security, much less influence of those who aren’t fluent in some bit of technology, much more technology that is impacting operations in the real world, much more competition from global conglomerates as well as young upstarts, and many more press outlets who need to figure out a way for a global audience to refer to their work and click on their headlines. I am in favor of the NYT and others writing stories like these. The press is free, and we are all entitled to our opinions on the matters exposed. This weekend’s Amazon piece was likely a test-run for a broader strategy. The world is interested to learn more, and on many things, they have the right to have this and other similar stories aired for everyone to read.
In the middle of 2014, one of my friends on Twitter (@Stammy) kept retweeting an account into my feed, usually with a screenshot. Turns out, it was his friend and roommate, and that friend and roommate had created software which just looked different than other products.
I conducted a bit of Internet sleuthing and discovered my friend’s roommate used to work for a company I was dying to invest in earlier but couldn’t convince them. That company creates great web and mobile products, too, so my interest piqued. I asked my friend for an intro, and after a few months, it came through. I rushed to meet the entrepreneur a few days later.
Turns out, my timing was good.
Anand had built the v1 of Gyroscope, currently web-based software which served as a hub for all of a person’s connected device and monitoring/tracking data. By connecting various accounts to your Gyroscope, the products gives you a kaleidoscopic view of where you’ve been, the pictures from those places, how many steps or calories you’ve collected and more. But more than just aggregating data, there’s something about the product, the design and animation, which makes it compelling.
I wasn’t sure where Anand was in his thinking. I wasn’t sure if he wanted to join a company, or still travel. We talked broadly about his options and I didn’t share any of my own views on what he should do, except that if he thought about it and wanted to start a company, I would be his first check and help him close the round.
A few days passed and he got back in touch. He was ready to start. I didn’t expect that, but was psyched about it, no doubt. We put our minds together, came up with a plan, started engaging lawyers, and all those details — we priced the round, I wired my funds, and started making introductions for Anand. We also opened up a small AngelList Syndicate, which has been closed for a while. At the end of it all, a larger fund also came in to give Anand and Eric a good solid cushion to build out v2 of the product.
As 2015 unfolds, the landscape has changed. Apple has committed some of its attention with Apple Watch to digital tracking, fitness, and health sensors. We are accumulating more connected devices which collect more and more data about us or our surroundings. What will do with all of it? Who owns that data? These are big questions, and while I don’t know the answers, I have a good feeling Gyroscope will be in that conversation.
Meerkat has the makings of not only becoming a big, important platform, but you can already start to see how disruptive it may be given all the reactions it generates (“get off my lawn!”) and serious questions it raises about other media networks and platforms. Observing the way folks are using it and how different people are tweeting about its varied potential for over a week now, I believe it has the makings of that rare disruptive platform. Here’s how I think about it:
The best “entry point” into a live experience: So far, we think of Twitter as the real-time network, so it must be that a livestream product would need Twitter as a base. I don’t think this is true. Think of other avenues where real-time information has currency — sports, finance, etc. — and also of online communities and niches that run within these verticals. For instance, breaking news about a football team midweek could affect Vegas odds, fantasy rosters, and more. The best analysts in right now tweet or work for big sports networks (like ESPN); pretty soon, they can just “Meerkast” instead of traditional TV (ESPN) or online (Twitter) broadcast.
Twitter needs Periscope to grow: Twitter has a user growth issue, and offering Periscope “in-line” as a broadcast feature to major celebrities will be a killer feature for the users, but also to help Twitter grow. Media like this can help onboard new users and give them an excuse to follow a few accounts. “OMG, Steph Curry is practicing dunks right now and giving away a few signed balls on Twitter, I need to watch this right now.” Furthermore, these notifications on mobile could have way more currency and make Twitter notices look static. Contrast a notification like “Steph Curry just tweeted: xxx” vs “Steph Curry is practicing dunks….right now. Tune in and win!”
Meerkat can be extensible: While Periscope will live within Twitter, Meerkat can use all of this attention to encourage creators and audience members to create their own accounts and extend the network to other big social media sites. Imagine being able to read a LinkedIn Influencer piece while you’re browsing the site and then see your favorite business authors or self-help coaches give live training via Meerkat. Or a platform like Pinterest, imagine curators showcasing a wedding they’ve planned or a party, or showing off goods they want to sell exclusively on Meerkat.
Speaking of sales, Meerkat’s nativity could lead to money: If Meerkat can figure out the right entry points to grab your attention into their native app or their web browser while you’re logged in as a Meerkat user (regardless of entry point), they can also leverage payment gateways to help facilitate transactions with the ease of a click. Imagine that Taylor Swift is practicing a new single that’s not yet polished, and for charity, she wants to sell the song for $0.99, so as a viewer you can offer to pay and the money is collected and routed to Taylor’s account. Taylor would also know which fans hang out in the room (better analytics on mobile vs multiple tabs on browsers). Hopefully, the infrastructure will support such a big network.
And, speaking of infrastructure, Meerkat’s is great so far: Garry Tan has one of my favorite lines: “The best software is invisible.” So far, Meerkat just works, but to pull off high-fidelity, real-time, synchronous broadcast from one device to many requires robust infrastructure that cannot just be engineered in a month. This gives them the type of defensibility an external investor would look for and also raises the bar for Twitter/Periscope upon release. As more mobile devices come on board, it will not only strain those users devices (video bandwidth is costly in many ways), but may also require a different network architecture that a blockchain-enabled mesh could provide. The timing may be impeccable here.
Mobile software is eating mobile hardware: Just a few months ago, GoPro was the talk of the town; now, our phones are GoPros, thanks to Meerkat’s timing. Will people Meerkast from comedy clubs, sports arenas, private boardrooms, and so on and so on? As there are endless possibilities for celebs and big brands to leverage this new channel, but what about individuals who can disrupt what is bread and butter to networks like CNN, ESPN, The Cooking Channel, and so on…instead of paying a toll to cable operators and studios, content creators now could have yet another layer stripped away and capture more value. There are too many examples to list here, so just pick your favorite show, guesstimate the economics, and now add more to the protagonists and you’ll start to see how Meerkat can leverage the web to trigger this transfer.
The end-user watch points are also aplenty: Where will I watch my favorite Meerkasts — on my mobile devices? In the browser? As a channel or network of channels inside Netflix or Roku or Apple TV? If Twitter only offers Periscope, is there room for Meerkasts to extend and not need to rely on Twitter? You bet there is! And, what if I could watch a Meerkast via virtual reality? A sideline reporter or a network of cameras on a football field could capture the live feed, and I could view in total immersion — in real time.
And, therein lies the challenge and opportunity. The challenge is that while we’re enjoying the flurry of experimentation today, the cost of watching video (especially poorly produced grainy and unstable video) is very high to the audience. It can feel noisy or disorienting. Very few things will have real-time currency, but as more people experiment, no doubt interesting things will emerge. Also, Meerkat couldn’t’ve exploded without ambushing Twitter, and now that Twitter also has its own competitive product, has a huge incentive to bring the feature in-line and give preference to Periscope. While we have Net Neutrality now for our big pipes, the social and interest pipes on top of the web do not have their own flavor of net neutrality. Now, Meerkat will have to go through the work of building out user accounts, finding other networks to integrate with, and helping those with large and niche audiences produce this new style of media. That’s the opportunity ahead, and I’m sure the team will have enough talent and dollars chasing it to see if they can make it into a reality.
A final, personal aside about Meerkasts and blogging — nothing I do in life ever has true real-time currency, so in a Meerkat world, I’m likely to be a consumer, not a creator. In the world of text, I can create, but blogging for me is a way to structure thoughts over time — I’ve been tweeting and thinking about Meerkast for a week, and finally had a chance to write this as my daughter is napping. By contrast, I technically could’ve opened up my Meerkat and broadcast this to you all, but it wouldn’t have been as structured, and it would’ve been significantly more boring!
I’ve been talking a bit more recently in private conversations and a few tweets about Twitter lists, and I was surprised that people would ask me “How do you use them?:” or more interestingly, “What are they?: Ugh, Twitter UI regression. There’s a long history around “Lists” that isn’t worth going into, but essentially, Lists are user-generated lists of accounts — either public or private — that provides a different feed to the user, separate from their main feed. For instance, someone can create a list that includes @justinbieber without having to explicitly “follow” @justinbieber.
It’s a bit confusing. Twitter Lists are a power user product, and I’m sure many people who use them do so in different ways, so I’ll share mine briefly:
I keep about 4 public and 4 private lists: https://twitter.com/semil/lists
One of the private lists is max of about 100 accounts of friends, colleagues, or feeds I don’t want to miss — for me, it’s the max number of accounts I can really pay attention to without feeling overwhelmed. Most of the time, I’m in my main feed just seeing what’s most recent in the last hour.
I will scan the other lists if I have time, but it’s really a scan. Could be a few seconds. I don’t visit the web directly much more — I see the web through Twitter. And, as that increases, creating lists (like I recently did around cyber attacks) helps me quickly get up to speed on what’s happening. Think of it like the print WSJ front page that has those two columns of headlines on the left — lists are those, but entirely customizable.
Ultimately, Twitter lists are a great feature, but they’re hard to access and use (it’s even hard to build a list, to be honest — it takes time), and just like DMs before it, or the newsfeed in general, the overall decline in information density on Twitter web is why I don’t use Twitter native products anymore. On mobile, I use TweetBot (great list views) and TweetDeck in the Chrome Browser for my laptop, which also has great list views. I’d probably be blind without lists.
As someone who uses Twitter a lot (yep, over 70,000 tweets) over the years, it’s been fun to watch Marc Andreessen take Twitter by storm in 2014. In the last year, he’s turned up the volume to build his Twitter network and promote his firm’s investments, curate ideas and articles, and amplify in the voices of others. So, it got me thinking — just how much did @pmarca use Twitter in 2014? The answer to the question is pretty cool (and very consistent with Dan Frommer‘s take from the midway point in 2014, here on Quartz). Note, these aren’t exact statistics for 2014, as he signed up for Twitter many years ago, but given the volume of content creation this year, it’s directionally safe to presume most of his tweets and interactions were generated this year.
As of Dec 25, 2014, @pmarca‘s stats for the year 2014 are (approximate & rounded up for cleanliness):
Number of Tweets: 41,600 (114/day)
Number of Followers: 235,000 (+644/day)
Number of Accounts Followed: 4,700 (+12/day)
Number of Favorites: 121,000 (332/day) % of Tweets Which Are @Replies: 73.5% [Source]
Device Share: 78.5% (Twitter web), 19.7% (Twitter for iPhone), 1.7% (Twitter for iPad). [Source]
** Note: His account was created in 2007, and had <1,000 tweets up to 2010, but turned up the volume in Dec ’13. **
Marc was quite consistent throughout the year. If I were trying to build an interest-network online from scratch today, I’d probably follow most of what he’s done plus post/blog and curate links/images/videos on Medium (which has good discovery and juice on Twitter). Heavy use of Twitter, including lots of curation with commentary, lifting the voices of others (including in the media), and timely linking. He’s favorited a tweet well over 100,000 times. All of those people who tweeted got a receipt that Marc has read their tweet. Small, but powerful, and reinforces reciprocity, which is a core tenet of building influence over time. Also critical, as Frommer highlighted, Andreessen balances his broadcast heft by quite consistently replying to people — assuming he tweets 100 times a day, over 70 of those tweets, on average, are replies to others. Despite his tweetstorm megaphone, he actually seems to listen on Twitter. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that, too.
John shared this video of Steve Wozniak last night, describing it as “wonderful” 3x. Really? Well, yes it is. Rather than retweeting it or just sharing the link, I wanted to post it here and say a few words, to save the clip. The video is short, so there’s not a big cost in watching it. Also, it’s highly produced with good music, great clips, transitions, color. It is worth the time.
Beyond this, like John tweeted, I just love this video. It is honest, pure, and true. The scenes of him reenacting how he built the first boards by hand, the old video clips of the machines he would unveil, and everything in between was a joy to watch. My favorite part is at the end – where he explains he likes being at the “bottom of the org chart” where he can just be an engineer, creating things — that was powerful.
He took a few swipes at Jobs’ desire for business, to move up the org chart, to sell machines and make money. And it reminded me of how politics comes into play as successful people accumulate more power and fame. while this happens, there are plenty of people who are either expert in their craft or only interested in the pure pursuit of it that let go of the ambition to move up the food chain, let go of the drive to make more money, etc. to instead just focus on what they love to do. Only makes you wonder, in this day and age of tech celebrity brands: What greatness rests at “bottom of the org chart”?
Finally, I had to write out this last quote from Wozniak, can’t stop thinking about it today:
When we went public, yeah, a few of us became unbelievably wealthy, we were worth so many millions of dollars, hundreds of millions…but…I designed these machines because I wanted computers for myself, I wanted to help revolutions happen, and I didn’t really want that kind of wealth…I want to stay at the bottom of the org chart, as a engineer, because that’s where I want to be.” – Steve Wozniak
Hello. This is a request for help to all the readers of Haywire. Last week, I shared the Preface and Table of Contents (draft) to my book on Uber. The embeds didn’t work well on this WordPress theme, unfortunately, so I wanted to specifically write to you all and kindly ask for your help in looking over the Table Of Contents: https://hackpad.com/The-Uber-Effect-by-semil-jperNxo8smn
I’ve put the TOC on Hackpad where anyone can add or edit, or you can reply by email to me privately, or put some thoughts down via Disqus comments. I know many of you read here without interacting, so please forgive me this once to get your feedback here. The TOC serves as my guidepost in framing the book, and is probably the most important part of the entire book-writing process. Thank you!
A startup idiom can go something like “stealth mode is overrated” or “counterproductive” or just plain “dumb.” Lately, however, there are more and more companies I’m seeing which remain stealth, don’t announce funding, or their investors, or much of anything. Here, the conventional reason given is: “Press and coverage no longer drives attention and, therefore, conversions or customers.
But, I think that’s not entirely it. I think a deeper force is at play.
Over the last few years, companies couldn’t wait to announce funding, their backers, and work the PR angle. Investors fueled this further writing on their blogs about new investments alongside press events. Nowadays, not a day goes by when someone tells me about a new stealth company that has been funded by a great investor, for around $3m or so (give or take), and there’s little or no trace of the company, the founders, or investors. All carefully cloaked.
My theory — people are afraid of competitive forces and ruthless copying. Working in the dark now may preserve all sorts of advantages, such as the ability to focus, the protection from recruiters or poaching behavior, and not giving ideas to overfunded teams of talented souls who are clever enough to pivot 180 degrees into your neck of the woods. I should underscore here this has been so common over the past year that when I see tech headlines on Twitter, it just feels like an entirely different universe. I should also underscore that these companies are often on a different level from what is publicly discussed about other companies. A growing but derivative company may get people chattering online, but some of these new companies — if public — would make for great blog posts, discussions, and debates about what our future may hold.
That gives me hope but also puts me in a bind. I have survived here by being open and public, but also working very hard to work with several competing interests while maintaining confidentiality. And, I like to distill what I see happening and then write about it here, as a way to deepen my understanding and learn from others. But as more things go stealth, I will hear about things less, and even if I do, like I did this week, the information can’t go anywhere but patiently wait to launch or seep quietly into the mainstream one day. From what I’ve seen, I hope they do.