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Crypto’s mainstream moment

Image: Andre Francois McKenzie / Protocol
Bitcoin

Good morning! This Friday, what Coinbase's S-1 says about the state of crypto, what Twitter's product team is up to, and why #hugops is all over Twitter.

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The Big Story

Coinbase's crypto craze

If you believe in Bitcoin, or cryptocurrency as a whole, or even if you hate decentralized finance but think the blockchain is the future anyway, you probably also believe in Coinbase. And so far, history is proving you right: Coinbase published its S-1 yesterday, and the company is absolutely on fire:

  • It brought in $322 million in profit on $1.3 billion of revenue in 2020, both up massively from 2019. And trading volume hit $38 billion last year, nearly double the year before.
  • Coinbase made an early bet on making crypto accessible, and it's paying off as more normal humans get into buying Bitcoin. As Coinbase keeps rolling out more banking-style features, the company thinks that's going to keep paying off.

Obviously, Coinbase faces a lot of risks. I mean, have you seen the price fluctuations on Bitcoin? The company's risk factors are changing so quickly that they include an example from this Wednesday. As we like to do here, let's look at what scares Coinbase:

  • Volatility is the biggie: "Our operating results have and will significantly fluctuate due to the highly volatile nature of crypto," the company wrote. As crypto goes, so goes Coinbase.
  • Bitcoin and Ethereum dominate, at least for now — 56% of Coinbase trading volume was for those two currencies — but there are plenty of reasons why one or both could become less attractive.
  • The HODLers are a problem. Only about 6% of Coinbase users actually trade every month, and a few people hold most of the crypto riches, so it wouldn't take much of a migration to hurt Coinbase in a big way.
  • Regulations are coming. Coinbase is already highly regulated, as tech firms go, and there's much more change coming in that space. Plus, it could be hard to compete on a global scale when many of its competitors won't face the same scrutiny.
  • There's also the "nobody knows anything" risk. Crypto is still effectively brand new, there's never been anything like it before, and anyone who tells you they know what the landscape will look like over the next decade — or hell, the next month — is lying.

The upside is potentially even bigger, though. Crypto has the potential to upend huge parts of the global financial system, yes, but that's only just the beginning.

  • "Crypto deeply integrates the concept of money into the internet ecosystem as a means of value exchange, storage, and unit of account, effectively creating a resilient internet of value," the S-1 says. Values and tokens aren't just about money; they're about access, identity, certainty, verifiability. Coinbase, in this vision, is less like a bank and more like Google or AWS. And also still a bank.
  • If that sounds a bit overzealous, that's fair. And Brian Armstrong said it's going to take a while, with a Bezos-y warning to investors that the goal is "to roughly operate the company at break even, smoothed out over time, for the time being." And he wrote that he has a particular kind of investor in mind: "We are looking for long-term investors who believe in our mission and will hold through price cycles."

Social

Twitter shares its roadmap

Tech debt has been crushing Twitter. "We've been working ourselves out of a significant deficit for years," was how Jack Dorsey explained why Twitter has been slow to innovate recently. (Its slowness has become so notable that a lot of people think Clubhouse will crush Twitter Spaces just by virtue of the fact that Twitter can't get its act together.)

Now Twitter's ready to move a lot faster. On the revenue side, its in-house ad server is a key part of the reason the company expects to double revenues in the next couple of years, to $7.5 billion. And it's testing a slew of new products, which it showed off at its analyst day yesterday.

  • Super Follows is basically OnlyFans for Twitter (minus the nudity). Users can charge for content such as newsletters and badges, or just accept tips for their fire tweets.
  • Microcommunities is basically Facebook Groups for Twitter. It's related to the company's focus on topics over people, giving Plant Twitter or NBA Twitter a more dedicated place to hang out.
  • And of course there's the Revue integration, Fleets, Spaces, and a bunch more. Twitter has changed more in the last six months than in maybe the entire decade before.

I wrote last month that Twitter wants to be a public messaging app. Dorsey described the vision in 2016 as "A simple way to say something, to anyone, that everyone in the world can see instantly." The road to getting there is pretty clear now.

  • But Twitter needs to keep moving quickly, and turning some of those experiments and beta tests into actual products that define the actual future of the company.

Enterprise

#hugops

The people who keep the internet alive for the rest of us are tragically under-appreciated. And generally, people are pretty mean to them (especially software engineers). So in response, operations professionals have built a community of support for each other, one that's been so powerful it's now changing how the rest of the world treats them. Protocol | Enterprise's Tom Krazit wrote an oral history of how this community came to be, and how it eventually led to the birth of #hugops.

The movement was a reaction against cruelty, because being horrible to systems administrators was just a thing that happened over and over.

  • "[One team leader] took us and my whole team, there were like 20 systems administrators, and he took us all out for beer on System Administrator Appreciation Day. And he said, 'Here's your guys' beer. Too bad none of you are smart enough to be engineers. Cheers,'" Adam Jacob, CEO of The System Initiative, told Tom.
  • Their work was — and often still is — thankless. Gremlin's CEO described an Amazon crash where he pulled over to the side of the road on his motorcycle to handle the crisis, and another where he left the company holiday party to fix a problem while everyone else kept celebrating.

So sysadmins bonded together by creating the Velocity Conference, and eventually the #hugops hashtag.

  • "Velocity was like the first time that there was a non-academic place where everybody who is doing that work could get together. And it was like, well-funded and pretty. It wasn't like we were meeting up in the American Legion hall or whatever. It was a fucking conference," Jacob said.
  • "Capturing this real dread, these pretty scary, pressure-filled situations, sort of fueled that you're part of this tribe. I don't know who you are, but you're here and you're talking and, so having that common ground is what I think genuinely got people [to be] like, 'Can I give you a hug?'" said John Allspaw, founder and principal of Adaptive Capacity Labs.

#hugops is really just a shorthand "to show that I have empathy for where you're at, because I'm going to be there at some point. And I hope you show me that empathy too, but also, you know what? You are not alone," said Jennifer Davis, developer relations manager at Google. I think the whole tech industry could use more of that kind of thinking.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON

Amazon

In 2018, Amazon established a $15/hr start wage for all their U.S. employees, which is more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr. They've seen the positive impact on their employees and their families. That's why they're calling on Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act.

People Are Talking

After yet another story about its work culture, Mailchimp's Ben Chestnut promised this would be a "turning point":

  • "We envisioned a place where all employees would feel included, respected, and empowered to do their best work. Working at Mailchimp is a great experience for many of our employees, but in recent conversations I've learned some of you (too many) haven't had a great experience."

Clubhouse's next big decision, Chris Messina said: Does it want to be an app or a platform?

  • "There's this cottage industry of people now getting on the platform who are trying to capitalize on the moment … Clubhouse now has to make an executive decision: Do we want to allow other people to build apps?"

Liat Kaplan used to write a blog called Your Fave Is Problematic. Now she said she regrets the cancel culture she helped create:

  • "My brain wasn't ready for nuance. I was angered by hypocrisy and cruelty; what I did about it was apply a level of scrutiny that left no room for error. I'm not saying that I should be canceled for my teenage blog. (Please don't!) I just know what we all should know by now: that no one who has lived publicly, online or off, has a spotless record."

Making Moves

Manuel Bronstein is Roblox's new chief product officer, joining from Google where he was VP of product for Google Assistant.

Debbie Clifford will be Autodesk's new CFO. She's currently CFO at SurveyMonkey.

On Protocol: AT&T spun off DirecTV and its other pay TV businesses. TPG's taking a 30% stake in the new company, valuing it at just over $16 billion — a huge drop from the $67 billion AT&T paid for DirecTV back in 2015.

Microsoft is opening a data center region in Indonesia, its first in the country.

In Other News

  • On Protocol | Policy: Democrats and Republicans found common ground during the first House antitrust hearing of the new Congress. That's bad news for Big Tech.
  • Google plans to change its research review procedures, Reuters reported, in the wake of the drama surrounding its AI ethics team.
  • On Protocol | China: Women are boycotting Bilibili over what they say is out-of-control misogyny. It's becoming a case study in what can go wrong when a platform moves from the fringes to the mainstream.
  • Twitch banned Amazon's anti-union ads. It said the ads should never have been allowed to run.
  • Amazon's data protection practices are inadequate, insiders told POLITICO. They said that they'd tried to flag the issues to senior leadership, but were ignored or even pushed out of the company. Meanwhile, lawmakers criticized Amazon for not sharing more information on the SolarWinds hack, which was partly conducted using AWS servers.
  • Facebook's considering facial recognition for its smart glasses, Andrew Bosworth reportedly told staff. He said the company's currently investigating the legality of the feature.
  • Huawei's looking to get into electric vehicles, Reuters reported. It's apparently planning on working with automakers to manufacture the cars, which would be Huawei-branded and could launch this year.

One More Thing

AI knows what Edison looked like

One of my favorite YouTube channels is Two Minute Papers, and its most recent video is a mind-blower: Based on a new paper detailing the use of AI to figure out what the subjects of old photos actually looked like, it updates your mental image of everyone from Lincoln to Edison. The effects are incredible … and sort of unnerving.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON

Amazon

In 2018, Amazon established a $15/hr start wage for all their U.S. employees, which is more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr. They've seen the positive impact on their employees and their families. That's why they're calling on Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your weekend; see you Sunday.

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