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Lessons from a huge virtual conference

Web Summit

Good morning! Hope you all had a good weekend, and that everyone in the Bay Area (and elsewhere) is holding up OK in this re-lockdown. This Monday, we have two very different takes on a drone-filled future, lessons from a massive virtual conference, a look at Facebook's big ecommerce plans and the latest on Google's dustup with Timnit Gebru.

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The Big Story

Facebook's next big thing

Anna Kramer writes: Social shopping is perhaps the one thing Amazon hasn't yet figured out, and the folks at Facebook seem to know it. The accuracy of Instagram's targeted advertising algorithm — if you haven't succumbed at least once, are you even online? — is just the beginning. While we're all wondering how much of the pandemic-induced rise of ecommerce will last beyond 2020, the social companies are gearing up for a different fight down the road.

Facebook named about 40 startups to a commerce-focused accelerator program last month, and they're all based in the Middle East and Latin America, places where social media adoption and engagement are still growing aggressively and where traditional ecommerce is less popular than it is in China or here in the U.S.

  • Facebook clearly wants to make Facebook Marketplace easier to use (and more popular). While the company isn't explicitly using the accelerator program to vet startups for venture investments or acquisition, it hopes to build long-term relationships with a bunch of these companies, a spokesperson told me.
  • Focusing on startups outside the U.S. could be a clever move for the company. Experts told me that social shopping could grow faster in places without the robust, traditional ecommerce ecosystems like the one we have in the U.S. By strengthening the startups in these regions, Facebook could successfully build out social commerce there before others get a chance.

While Facebook looks beyond the U.S. to build success, this year we also saw TikTok launch a commerce partnership with Shopify and Snap put a big bet on shopping with AR. You can bet that in 2021, we'll be seeing these companies and more (YouTube, Pinterest and others) level up the competition, all while Amazon tries to figure out whether to get in the game or leave this particular fight to the social giants.

Events

Lessons from a huge virtual conference

Web Summit pulled off a monster of an online event last week, with hundreds of speakers and tens of thousands of people all showing up at the same time for a conference. Which, in 2020, is no small feat!

I talked to Paddy Cosgrave, Web Summit's CEO, just before the conference started about what he'd learned from the shift to virtual events. Here are a few of what he said were the most important lessons:

  • Consider the size. Early on in the pandemic, Cosgrave told his team that most virtual conferences would be "barely distinguishable from mind-numbingly elongated Zoom calls." Even Hopin and other tools like it start to feel less useful when they host thousands of people. That's why Web Summit built its own platform from scratch, which Cosgrave said it will likely give away to other conferences.
  • Less time, more activity. Lots of conferences have turned into content-on-demand affairs, betting that people won't want to spend hours at a time in front of their laptop. Cosgrave went the other way: Web Summit packed everything into three days, hoping to get more people involved at the same time. Because, he said, being together is the point.
  • Optimize for networking. Cosgrave said Web Summit has always been mostly just an excuse for people to get together and hang out. "The real purpose of the whole thing," he said, "the value extraction, is networking." For the virtual event, Web Summit built out its Mingle feature, which is basically speed-networking, algorithmically matching people who might get along. (Cosgrave also called it "Chatroulette, but less penis.") That's where most Web Summit attendees spent most of their time.
  • Going forward, hybrid is everything. "My view is that all of these large events will come back" in person, Cosgrave said. "But I think there's a massive market for the long tail webinar and smaller niche conferences" to move online, he added. And even the biggest conferences will have to figure out how to include virtual attendees and still be interactive and useful.

Drones

The promise (and perils) of drones

Two stories from over the weekend perfectly captured what's going to happen when drones go from expensive wedding photography add-ons to ubiquitous corporate equipment.

First, from The Wall Street Journal, how drones will shape the way we build homes:

  • What if your mailbox was on your roof, instead of at the end of your driveway? From the WSJ: "The top of the mailbox acts as a landing pad, and the drone activates a retractable door to a space where packages can be safely deposited, explains Valqari founder and chief executive Ryan Walsh."
  • Already, buildings are including elevators that go all the way to the roof, which will come in handy when your commute switches from land-living car to Uber Air Taxi. (Well, not an Uber anymore, but you get the idea.)

On a very different note, The New York Times looked into how AI-powered police drones are learning to help officers in investigations, even thinking for themselves in the process:

  • The police in Chula Vista have been using drones for years, the Times reported: "The department's drones can cover about one-third of the city from two launch sites, responding to roughly 70% of all emergency calls."
  • At least four cities are using drones in their investigations, which is drastically more efficient than buying a bunch of helicopters or sending teams of officers to every call. And thanks to companies such as Skydio, whose drones mostly fly themselves, it's getting much easier. But that raises all kinds of ethical and moral questions.

Drones might be one of those technologies that become commonplace before anybody really notices. The use cases, from safety monitoring to delivery to remote sensing and surveillance, are just too valuable to too many businesses. But just like with facial recognition or AI, the second-order effects of all those drones — whether it's how buildings look or what we see when we look at the night sky — demand a lot more consideration.

A MESSAGE FROM SYNCHRONY

SYNCHRONY

Contactless payments are no longer a nice to have.

At Synchrony, we understand the challenges of running a business. Our financial and technology solutions, like touchless payment tools, help you offer your customers more tailored experiences, so they keep coming back.

Learn more about our solutions.

People Are Talking

Elon Musk thinks Tesla's biggest competitor won't come from Detroit:

  • "A lot of the Chinese companies are very, very, very fast. I would guess the most competitive company for Tesla might be a company that was created in China. The market there is extremely competitive."
  • And here's what it's like inside Musk's alpha-software Tesla: "Many times I can go through a very complicated series of intersections and narrow roads, without ever touching any of the controls. All the way to work and back."

We're heading into a new phase of digital transformation, DocuSign's Dan Springer said:

  • "Last quarter, we were still seeing urgency, as companies were dealing with [work-from-home]. Now, we're seeing CIOs in our customers settling down a little bit, we're still in the pandemic, but we understand we need to build our business to last, and we need to get these digital transformation projects done."

And Peter Thiel sees the changes to the economy happening at an even bigger level:

  • "One should think of COVID and the crisis of this year as this giant watershed moment, where this is the first year of the 21st century. This is the year in which the new economy is actually replacing the old economy."

Coming Up This Week

DoorDash and Airbnb are both set to start trading. DoorDash boosted its price target on Friday, while Airbnb is expected to do the same.

Disney's investor day is on Thursday, which should serve as a pretty good way to understand the trends — and troubles — coming for the entertainment world in 2020.

The TikTok deadline passed on Friday without a peep, and there's a hearing scheduled for next Monday. Will anything happen between now and then?

In Other News

  • Three things you should read about Timnit Gebru and Google: MIT Tech Review's analysis of her draft paper, which concerns the costs and risks of large language models; Jeff Dean's email to Google staff explaining why the company had issues with the paper; and this article about the 1,200-plus Google workers who signed a letter of protest.
  • Google pulled some IAC browser extensions from Chrome, saying they violated its policies. The Wall Street Journal reported that Google was concerned that taking action could be seen as anticompetitive.
  • The NLRB issued a complaint against Amazon. It concerns Courtney Bowden, who claims she was wrongfully terminated for workplace activism.
  • Mastercard and Visa are investigating allegations that Pornhub hosts rape and child pornography. That stems from Nicholas Kristof's article on Friday, which prompted widespread concern. Bill Ackman said Mastercard, Visa and American Express should withhold payments from the company until the issues are resolved.
  • Elon Musk is moving to Texas, CNBC reports. He's reportedly told friends that he's going to head to the state, which has zero income tax. Meanwhile, Tesla's first diversity report showed its leadership is 83% male and 59% white.
  • The Netherlands launched an antitrust investigation that targets Apple. It's looking at companies that limit access to NFC payment technology to their own apps — in other words, Apple Pay.

One More Thing

Don't call it a comeback. (Or a car.)

Aptera built a three-wheeled vehicle more than a decade ago, but couldn't get it funded and had to shut down. (Aptera called it a car, but it was technically a motorcycle.) Now Aptera's back with a three-wheeled electric vehicle. It runs $26,000 and the company says most drivers will never need to charge it. It also looks like a knockoff Batmobile or a rejected prop from Blade Runner. Which is to say, it looks awesome.

A MESSAGE FROM SYNCHRONY

SYNCHRONY

Contactless payments are no longer a nice to have.

At Synchrony, we understand the challenges of running a business. Our financial and technology solutions, like touchless payment tools, help you offer your customers more tailored experiences, so they keep coming back.

Learn more about our solutions.

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 day; see you tomorrow.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of male leadership at Tesla. This story was updated Dec. 7, 2020.


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