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For the last eight months, musicians and bands haven't been able to tour, play festivals or go much of anywhere. So, trapped in their homes, they've improvised. Live concerts on Instagram. Epic shows in Fortnite and on Roblox. Nightly singalongs on Twitch. It's not quite live, but it's a thoroughly modern take on the music business.
When 6lack (pronounced "black") and his team started thinking about their own live show, they wanted to do something out of the ordinary. "You've got your people who would just pull up a guitar and just turn on it live," said Junia Abaidoo, a co-founder at LVRN records, 6lack's label. "Or people who would go set up what looks like a real show, at a venue, but just stream it. And you've got everything in between. And so it was really important to us to try to approach it in a way that was different and creative." They eventually came up with an idea they loved: an artist performing from a live billboard, with the audience driving in and watching from their cars. It would be half live, half livestream.
All 6lack and the LVRN crew needed was a partner. So they reached out to their rep at YouTube, with whom they've made a number of things over the years. "And I was like, well, there is an idea that we have, and it's kind of crazy," said Sean Famoso McNichol, another LVRN co-founder. YouTube was in, and helped make the idea even crazier. By the time "Live From the Ledge" premiered on YouTube in late August, 6lack was on top of one of Atlanta's tallest buildings, in front of a billboard promoting racial justice and equality, performing a 30-minute show that's been viewed more than a million times.
YouTube was the natural outlet for a show like this. With more than 2 billion users, it's the internet's largest platform for video of any stripe, and music is one of the platform's core competencies. It offers so many features Spotify can't: a powerful visual platform, a way to premiere the performance that had thousands of 6lack fans waiting for it to drop and a community-centered setup that made all those fans feel (almost) like they were at a real concert. "YouTube has been amazing, working with them," McNichol said.
Not that long ago, YouTube was at best a frenemy to the music industry. It would gleefully announce the billions it was paying in royalties, only for industry bodies to call it the single biggest threat to the music industry. Labels and artists didn't think YouTube paid them enough, or cared enough about tracking down copyright violations. Even now, labels are hoping things like Article 17 in Europe will help force YouTube to pay more attention to its platform. But after years of careful effort and attention — not to mention new royalties deals the labels like a lot better — YouTube seems to be mostly back in music's good graces.
Lyor Cohen, the head of YouTube Music and a legend in the music industry after stints at Def Jam and Warner Music Group, gets a lot of credit for changing that relationship. After Cohen showed up and a new payout deal was done, "they made it very clear that … they understood that they needed the perception of their platform to change from the industry perspective," said Tarek Al-Hamdouni, the SVP of digital marketing at RCA Records. "They've done an excellent job of executing that." Cohen was careful to say that the work's not done, but he believes "we're on the way to having a healthier relationship with the music industry."
Three of YouTube Music's leaders: Lyor Cohen (left), Vivien Lewit (center) and T. Jay Fowler (right)Photos: YouTube
With that relationship on the right track, YouTube has now set on a different path: to assert and extend its dominance in the space. YouTube doesn't want to be the place users discover new songs, only to leave and pay $10 a month to stream them on Spotify. It wants to put the entire music business onto a single platform. It has spent the last couple years building and improving the YouTube Music service, developing its very own $10-a-month premium streaming app. Now it's shutting down Google Play Music, ramping up promotion for YouTube Music and preparing to battle with the giants.
On one hand, YouTube's about a decade late to the party. YouTube said Music has more than 30 million paid subscribers (up 60% since last year), but Spotify has 144 million. Apple Music has more than 60 million. And that's not including Pandora, Deezer, Tidal and the countless other ways people already listen to music.
On the other hand, it's YouTube. It has entrenched, undeniable advantages, an audience larger than all its competitors combined and practically infinite resources. "It is arguably a better fit for Gen Z and younger millennials than Spotify is, as YouTube as a whole plays a much bigger part of their overall digital lives," said industry analyst Mark Mulligan. For the last several years, YouTube has squandered all of that, with one bad or bailed-on idea after another. But now, YouTube has a plan for how to win the music wars.
One easy knock on music-streaming services is that they're all the same. Their libraries may differ slightly at the margins, but they all have about the same 60 million or so songs in their catalog. And Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" sounds pretty much the same anywhere you play it.
Except on YouTube. There you can watch the original version, but also the Carpool Karaoke version, a duet Carey did with Justin Bieber, the scene from "Love Actually" that features the song, and countless live performances, covers and remixes. Want to learn a dance to the song in time for this year's holidays? Want to learn to play the song on the guitar or piano? Want to hear a smash-cut version of President Trump singing the song? Want to know how that song got to be so irritatingly ubiquitous? That's all on the first page of the YouTube search results. YouTube has a corpus of unique music content that none of its rivals can touch.
In recent years, YouTube's also built a number of products for musicians: livestreaming and premieres, certainly, but also community features that let artists engage directly with fans. Artists can sell tickets on YouTube, either to virtual concerts or (someday) real-world ones. Programs like Foundry and Artist on the Rise help musicians grow on the platform with YouTube's advice and promotion.
Most importantly, the monolithic YouTube has learned to have a personal touch. "It's been a huge focus for the last decade," said Vivien Lewit, YouTube Music's content partnerships director and a key partner to the music industry. "Not only to build the best products and deliver the best music experiences for consumers, but to partner with and collaborate with artists in the music industry." Nearly everyone in the music industry I spoke to had a YouTube contact whose name they knew, who consistently answered their calls. "You try and find a phone number for YouTube!" McNichol said.
YouTube tries to be a useful platform for all artists, but it seems particularly powerful for a younger generation of artists, many of who were on YouTube long before they were ever in "the music industry." One of those artists is Tate McRae, the 17-year-old singer and dancer who first built an audience with videos of her dance recitals. In 2017, she uploaded a video called "i wrote a song … one day // tate mcrae." That video rocketed around the web, racking up 34 million views and catching the eye of Matt Feldman, a manager at Hard 8 Working Group who now represents McRae. But he wasn't the first to find her. "She had a champion at YouTube early on," Feldman said, "before us."
In February 2020, McRae, Feldman and YouTube started talking officially about how to work together. She wasn't the most popular, or fastest-growing, artist on YouTube, but "they're kind of able to read the tea leaves and collaborate with us," Al-Hamdouni said. The side spent months figuring out what they wanted to do before YouTube named McRae one of its Artists on the Rise for 2020. In normal times, that would mean tour partnerships, lots of live opportunities and promotion all over the platform. In 2020, it meant putting together a biographical video heavy with animation and production value, working together on creating content and growing McRae's channel … and promotion all over the platform.
Al-Hamdouni said the only thing he wishes YouTube offered was a button he could push to get 100 million views shoved at any video he wanted. He's convinced YouTube could direct that kind of traffic if it wanted. But he knows it's right not to. "YouTube's protective, smartly, of their algorithms," he said. "They're not going to do anything to compromise that, and they're not going to do anything to shove content on the user's throat." It wouldn't work anyway, he said. People vote by showing up and watching, not by being forced to do so. And luckily, plenty of YouTube users keep showing up.
It seems like a foregone conclusion that YouTube should have the most powerful music streaming service. And yet, that's hardly been the case. The problem, in part, was that YouTube in particular and Google in general never seemed able to stick to a plan for very long. Years ago, YouTube launched Music Key, a service that allowed people to listen to music in the background on their phone, download videos and skip ads. That was right around the time Google launched Play Music All Access, a cross between old-school iTunes and Spotify. As if having two services wasn't confusing enough, they were both included in one subscription price, and had absolutely nothing to do with each other. Many people who could have gotten both services for free wound up paying for Spotify or Apple Music instead.
That part only got worse over time. Even when YouTube Music launched in 2015, it was part of YouTube Red, a confusingly broad subscription play that also included a subscription to Play Music. And YouTube Music was somehow different from YouTube, even though all that music was still on YouTube. Even the URLs were a mess: music.youtube.com and youtube.com/music went to two different places that seemed to be — yet again — totally unaware of each other.
Part of the equation is now mercifully simpler. There is but one Google music streaming service going forward, and it is called YouTube Music. It's free with ads or $10 a month without (or free with YouTube Premium, so it's still a little confusing), and it offers the full list of what you might call "Spotify Features:" tens of millions of songs, curated playlists, offline playback, albums in order.
YouTube has recently been asking people to switch from Google Play Music to YouTube Music, because now there's only one app for that.Photo: YouTube
Getting to this point has taken a while, said T. Jay Fowler, the director of product management for YouTube Music. He's been at the company for more than five years and has spent many of them, as he described, "peeling the layers back." The YouTube Music team had to build tools to help people import their library and history over from Google Play Music, which had a small but fiercely loyal set of users. Then they had to build all those Spotify Features, because you can't get anywhere else without them. "I want to fully acknowledge that we did spend a lot of time over the last several years building features that our competitors had," Fowler said. "Not because we felt like we had to do it for the sake of doing it, because there are some baseline functionalities that most users need."
As of now, though, the team at YouTube Music feels like it's ready: Its product is on even footing with what's out there, and it's as easy to find and play and share everybody's favorite new Fleetwood Mac track as it is on Spotify or Apple Music.
I'm Feeling Lucky
Now that YouTube Music has the music part mostly nailed, it's time to figure out the YouTube part — which turns out to be a whole lot harder than it looks. Think back to "All I Want For Christmas is You." All those search results are well and good, except that most people, most of the time, want to listen to the Mariah Carey song as it was recorded and as it is played umpteen millions of times every year. If YouTube instead plays "SpongeBob sings 'All I Want for Christmas is You' by Mariah Carey," that's not YouTube mining its great library of unique content. That's a streaming service screwing up, badly.
Doug Ford is the person responsible for making sure that doesn't happen. When he joined YouTube as director of music and product programming after five years in a similar role at Spotify, he found himself answering an oddly deep question: What is music? It's a common one at YouTube, and one Fowler and others have been asking for years.
Think about it like this: 3.8 billion people have watched the music video for Psy's "Gangnam Style." Most of those people are likely not big fans of Psy, or K-pop in general, but instead found themselves checking out the video because it was one of the great cultural phenomena of 2012. Should YouTube's algorithms and curators consider it a beloved tune or a silly video nobody will ever think about again?
These kinds of questions are absolutely everywhere on YouTube. Do users want to listen to the studio version of a song or the canonical live performance? What about a cover? If someone searches for "All I Want for Christmas is You," are they trying to start a radio station of holiday music or listen to a dozen versions of the same track? Ford and his team have worked to classify songs with a thorough set of metadata concerning tempo, genre, style, instruments and much more. But how do you account for the fact that "Baby Shark" is the most popular video on YouTube? Is it the greatest song ever written?
Ford believes strongly that the solution is something that tends to be anathema to companies like Google: humans. "Programming is a pretty strong word around here," Ford said. That's clearly the case, given YouTube's complicated history of trying not to get particularly involved in the content on the platform. In spots, Ford's team gets very involved, like with the new Released playlist that complies every week's best new music (another Spotify Feature) and some of the other human- and algorithm-curated playlists on the platform. In most cases, though, Ford prefers a level of interaction somewhat less than "radio DJ" and somewhat more than "black-box algorithm." You might call it the Transparent Algorithm system. "We're not doing it manually," Ford said, "we're not gatekeeping, but we're making sure that those parameters are set up correctly across a plethora of different contexts."
Even though it's an audio service, YouTube Music still goes big on music videos.Image: David Pierce
Everyone on the YouTube Music team calls the big app YouTube Main. And figuring out what belongs on YouTube Music and what stays on YouTube Main is the big question left for them to answer. "Intuitively, it may make sense to take everything that's music and put it in the Music app," Fowler said. "But then you start poking at that: Do you really want guitar tabs in the music app? Do you really want karaoke versions in the music app? It's not always cut and dry." YouTube, which is mostly a lean-forward, search-and-recommendations experience, can intermingle all these things mostly successfully. YouTube Music, where people mostly just want to press play and go about their lives, can't. Fowler said he has some theories, and YouTube's tried some things that work, including relying on the third-party curators and always-on radio stations that are already so successful on the platform. But he acknowledged that there's a lot more to do.
Getting this right is more important than it may seem. YouTube Music's success is YouTube's success, and getting as many people as possible to pay $10 a month gives YouTube a crucial non-advertising revenue stream. "I'm sorry to use this cliche," Cohen said, "but it's better to board a plane that has two engines than one." Music could also be a model for YouTube building other premium services in niches like gaming and even with the platform's best-known creators. The YouTube TV team is going through exactly the same debate as Music, too, trying to mix live TV and the YouTube library in a way that makes sense.
And while YouTube tries to become like music services, other services are becoming more like YouTube: Spotify continues to invest in video, and Facebook just signed a big deal to become another official home for music videos online. YouTube still has big advantages, but time has eroded some of them. If there are better places to go, the music business will go there.
But there's one thing YouTube still has going for it: Everyone's already listening to music there. All YouTube Music has to do is keep helping billions of people discover new music and then keep them from leaving when they do.
Update: This story was updated to properly refer to YouTube's Vivien Lewit.
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It's part of an attempt to fix education inequality and address a looming demographic crisis.
Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. She has spent six years covering China from inside and outside its borders. Previously, she was a fellow at Asia Society's ChinaFile and a Beijing-based producer for CNN. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. Shen Lu is a founding member of Chinese Storytellers, a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry.
Beijing's strike against the private tutoring and ed tech industry has rattled the market and led observers to try to answer one big question: What is Beijing trying to achieve?
Sweeping policy guidelines issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on July 24 and the State Council now mandate that existing private tutoring companies register as nonprofit organizations. Extracurricular tutoring companies will be banned from going public. Online tutoring agencies will be subject to regulatory approval.
Much of the coverage around the latest crackdown has linked it with Beijing's war on Big Tech or focused on ideological control, which has been a major aspect of Beijing's handling of the state-run school system. But when it comes to the sprawling ed tech industry, experts say what's happening looks more like an attempt to cure tech-enabled ills that have exacerbated nationwide educational — and thus social — inequality.
The confusion stems from the overlapping timelines of two regulatory trends: The first is far tighter regulations on the private education market, which were handed down last Saturday but have been bubbling up since earlier this year. The second is Beijing's increasingly widening crackdown on Big Tech generally. But "the crackdown on private tutoring is a crackdown on tech-mediated harm, not part of the crackdown on Big Tech," Michael Norris, head of China Consumer & Tech Research at AgencyChina, a global marketing agency, told Protocol.
Beijing, or at least one of its major regulators, appears to agree. To calm spooked investors, China's securities regulator reportedly held a call Wednesday night Beijing time with major investment banks. On the call, senior officials at the China Securities Regulatory Commission stressed that the curtailing of private education is a targeted crackdown on problematic practices that occur in the particular market, not a blanket move that targets other industries, according to Bloomberg.
Moves against tech titans like Alibaba, DiDi and Ant Financial are aimed at addressing genuine problems in China's tech industry including unfair competition, lax cybersecurity and predatory lending. By contrast, the latest ed tech rules are intended to rectify unscrupulous practices like false advertising and VC capital-induced pricing wars that have disrupted the market and are increasingly excluding underprivileged children. Tencent-backed Yuanfudao, one of China's largest ed-tech unicorns that had been rumored for an IPO, is already transitioning away from K-12 after-school tutoring. It launched a new product on Wednesday, Pumpkin Science, which will instead focus on a so called "well-rounded education" (素质教育), not (banned) subject-specific training.
Sociologists and political economists believe that while Beijing's tightened grip on the private education sector might hamper the growing wealth and power of the online-learning companies, it is ultimately an attempt to avoid massive social unrest.
"Education has been crucial to [the] CCP's legitimacy as a people's party," Ye Liu, a sociologist at King's College London who studies education inequality in China, told Protocol. "The recent crackdown on ed tech and private tutoring can be seen as an attempt to respond to the concerns of the poor."
China is home to one of the world's largest learning-technology markets, powered by its 240 million K-12 students and eager families willing to shell out an average of 11% of annual family expenses for their children's future success. The state is the dominant education provider, but deep-seated anxiety over education inequality and the highly competitive nature of the gaokao has fueled a private tutoring bonanza. Many companies offer services online and tools that are equipped with deep learning technology that helps solve questions for students. These startups are backed by behemoths like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba and have adopted the same cash-burning strategy — grab market share, at virtually any cost — that has given rise to the tech giants. Buoyed by the pandemic, China's ed tech industry once enjoyed exponential growth. Online education startups raised over $10 billion in 2020, about two-thirds of the world's total venture capital investments that went into this sector, according to HolonIQ, a market intelligence firm.
The staggering amount of money pumped into China's private tutoring market has led to shady practices, such as misleading advertising and use of fraud, that have disrupted the market and, in the eyes of the government, exacerbated education inequality, a huge pain point for hundreds of millions of Chinese families, even though some ed tech companies claim they try to tackle the exact same problem.
One common practice private ed tech companies have adopted is to attract new user subscriptions with cheap, heavily subsidized trial classes. Once the trial period is over, families have found themselves on the hook for significant upfront course fees, which have proven budget-busting for even members of the relatively wealthy urban middle-class. "I believe this use of subsidies to attract new parents, and make them pay upfront, was one reason that this sector was targeted," Norris said.
Why private education?
Insiders in the private education sector had long anticipated heightened restrictions, and they'd gotten advance word of the new policy guidelines that came down last weekend, according to Rui Ma, a China tech investor and analyst who hosts the podcast and newsletter Tech Buzz China. Ma told Protocol that tech entrepreneurs she talked to last week, when rumors about upcoming sweeping rules were widely circulating, "basically all said that they felt like this is clearly to address the demographic crisis."
The latest Chinese census, released on May 11, showed the slowest population growth in decades, and plummeting birth rates since 2011. To address it, Beijing announced a three-child policy on May 31. Yang Wenzhuang, director of the Department of Population Monitoring and Family Development at China's National Health Commission, said in July that economic and social policies related to education, housing and employment have become key factors "influencing families' fertility choices." To encourage families to have more babies, Yang said, the government will roll out supplemental policies to make life easier for parents. And that could include reduced education costs and Ministry of Education-led support for after-school services and summer care services in order to reduce the burden of education for schoolchildren.
"The demographic crisis is exacerbated by social inequality," Ma said. "[If] I am struggling to see any future for my kids without spending a ton of time and resources on it ... I'm gonna not have kids."
After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.
The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.
Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.
These are all great initiatives to help foster work-life balance after a stressful year. But if you're worried about long-term burnout at your company, you should also look into ways to prioritize team well-being all year round. Just as with building a healthier lifestyle, enacting measures of support on the day-to-day level is where lasting change is made.
Set healthy communication boundaries — and model them
According to a 2020 report by Aviva, 44% of employees say they feel like they "never switch off from work," while 70% of all workers say they regularly check emails and messages outside of work hours. And these habits have consequences: More than half of employees feel like their mental and physical health have suffered due to work pressures.
When employees may not feel like they can draw a line in the sand between their work and personal lives, it's up to leadership to clearly share communication expectations and model healthy boundaries. Encourage employees to turn off all email, Slack and work app notifications outside of working hours, and ensure that managers aren't reaching out to team members after-hours with requests.
Make sure that your company's leaders aren't just paying lip service to employees' right to disconnect, either. That means everyone in leadership — from the CEO down to team managers — should avoid sending emails during off-hours or reaching out to team members during their paid time off. By living the guidelines, leadership can help employees feel psychologically safe to stick to the recommended boundaries.
Just as with building a healthier lifestyle, enacting measures of support on the day-to-day level is where lasting change is made.
Eliminate unnecessary meetings
"Well, that meeting could have been an email." A recent joint study from Harvard Business School and New York University found that the average number of meetings increased 12.9% during the pandemic, while the size of each meeting grew by 13.5%. Meetings are the first and fastest way for your company to free up valuable team time.
Some companies have decided to implement "No-Meeting Wednesdays" to help employees recover. At Trello, employees will take regular "Maker time," where they forego any meetings to focus on creative work. But another option includes taking a closer look at each meeting on an employee's calendar and asking, "Does this meeting really need to exist?"
While some events should happen in real time — such as one-on-ones or difficult conversations — many other meetings can be carried out asynchronously. A project update is a great example of this. Rather than meet every Monday to discuss everyone's progress on a new project, team members can simply add their weekly updates to a list on Trello and respond to one another asynchronously. Everyone's kept in the loop, and no one has to sacrifice an additional hour of their time.
Companywide meetings announcing a new feature are another example. Rather than ask everyone at the company to spend half an hour in a meeting, consider typing the update in an email, sharing on Slack or adding the recap to your company's knowledge base on Trello. The example above takes advantage of Trello's integration with Loom to record and attach a video update for those looking to save time typing.
Cut down on context-switching
According to Blissfully's 2019 SaaS Trends Report, the average employee uses at least eight apps a day to get their work done. It's no wonder 40% of employees are frustrated by the collaboration and communication tools they're expected to use at work. Because they're constantly switching between email, chat, video, documents and more, employees find it harder than ever to focus on the actual work they need to carry out, which stretches out working hours, wastes time and leads to burnout.
To lower the amount of context-switching team members have to do, decrease the number of tools they need to monitor throughout the day. Make it clear that emails and chat messages aren't emergencies and that notifications can be muted while deep work is being carried out. (This is something Trello employees do by setting their "Slack off" hours.) Most of the time, work won't suffer if employees only check their inboxes or Slack messages every couple of hours.
You can also help employees reduce their context-switching by keeping information organized on one platform. According to a 2019 survey by 8x8, nearly 50% of employees say they spend up to two hours a day looking for the information they need to do their jobs. This cuts into valuable time that employees could be spending doing work that matters to them.
Cut back on the amount of time employees need to spend hunting down information by centralizing as much work as possible in a tool stack that is accessible for everyone. For example, if a project is being tracked in Trello, ask the team to keep all progress updates, questions and feedback within the project board, where everyone can see the same timeline view of the work.
Whichever toolset you choose, consider the "single pane of glass" concept: Your teams operate in a busy workplace, so making information visible and discoverable in as few locations as possible goes a long way in reducing frustration and busywork.
Check in on employees regularly
Saving the most important tip for last, invest in manager coaching and resources for recognizing and addressing the warning signs of burnout in employees. Have them check in on employees' stress levels during one-on-one meetings and encourage everyone at the company to take regular vacation and sick days when needed.
Managers should also keep a close eye on how much work employees are taking on. Star employees will often over-commit to work — without complaints — and burn themselves out, which helps no one. Managers need to step in and stop employees from taking on Herculean workloads because, even if someone can do a lot of extra tasks, it doesn't mean they should.
Fortunately, managers who use Trello can see exactly how much work their team members are taking on using the Dashboard view:
With data on task distribution and due-date management, managers can see who is taking on (and completing) a reasonable amount of work and who might be overextending or falling behind. We use data for every other business decision; why not see how it can empower more equitable team management?
Stop the slow burn
The pandemic may have exacerbated employee burnout, but it was an issue long before COVID-19. Unfortunately, there's no single solution that can extinguish burnout, either. Support your employees' ability to focus and work-life balance by focusing on their day-to-day experiences — and you'll stop burnout from smoldering on for too long.
Trello moves teamwork forward by bringing productivity, collaboration and team spirit together in one place. Get a free trial of Business Class to try out Views, including Dashboard and Timeline. And if you want to see how Trello can be implemented across organizations, check out our best practices for setting up a shared toolstack like Trello Enterprise at scale.
"I mean, the pedals go around if you turn off all the tech, but Peloton isn't selling a pedaling product."
Karyne Levy ( @karynelevy) is the West Coast editor at Protocol. Before joining Protocol, Karyne was a senior producer at Scribd, helping to create the original content program. Prior to that she was an assigning editor at NerdWallet, a senior tech editor at Business Insider, and the assistant managing editor at CNET, where she also hosted Rumor Has It for CNET TV. She lives outside San Francisco with her wife, son and lots of pets.
A new media company from the publisher of POLITICO reporting on the people, power and politics of tech.
One of the breakout hits from the pandemic, besides Taylor Swift's "Folklore," has been Peloton. With upwards of 5.4 million members as of March and nearly $1.3 billion in revenue that quarter, a lot of people are turning in their gym memberships for a bike or a treadmill and a slick-looking app.
But here at Protocol, it's that slick-looking app, plus all the tech that goes into it, that matters. And that's where things got really heated during our chat this week. Is Peloton tech? Or is it just a bike with a giant tablet on it? Can all bikes be tech with a little elbow grease?
Even our executive editor weighed in.
Karyne Levy: is PELOTON tech?
Megan Rose Dickey: are we doing these every week or what's the deal?
Karyne: yes! it is a weekly series
Megan: yes, i knew that lol
Kate Cox: Anything you can control remotely with DRM and a subscription fee has to qualify, yes?
Karyne: i will go first: peloton is for sure tech. without the technology that runs peloton (leader boards, streaming, the big tablet on the bike, the app) it is just a bike.
Tom Krazit: never saw this one coming
Kate Cox: Yeah, its whole thing is the connected software, that's what they're selling. With an expensive bike.
Karyne: right. i mean really they're selling a LIFESTYLE but it's a tech lifestyle 😎
Karyne: obviously i'm obsessed with peloton, i'm an evangelist
Tomio Geron: Yes it is a lifestyle because you can hook your bike up to zwift or other software for much less
Kate: I am the opposite of obsessed with Peloton, and I am deeply antisocial in my working out, but I agree that its whole deal is aspirational and techy
Karyne: oh i don't talk to anyone
Amber Burton: I would like to venture that it is just a bike with tech attached
Karyne: amber no
Meg Morrone: Is my treadmill that is not connected to the internet tech?
Amber: im sorry lol
Karyne: please explain further
Amber: it's a bike with bad tech attached
Karyne: no @Meg, your treadmill is just a treadmill, i'm so sorry
Karyne: BAD TECH????
Meg: But it has a chip in it.
Megan: you tell em, amber!!!
Karyne: a chip does not a tech product make
Karyne: or something
Kate: What pushes me over to Peloton being tech is the way they retroactively turned off features for treadmill users when they added a subscription fee
Kate: That's Internet of Things behavior right there, which is tech
Karyne: lol killed by google vibe
Sarah Roach: If I fasten my phone to my bike, did I make my bike tech? Or did I just decide to use tech while riding my bike
Amber: I have a schwinn and it's basically the same. But I guess my point is that Peloton is bad tech. Is that fair?
Amber: Sarah, that's exactly it!
Kate: does your bike still work if you disable the software or stop using your phone? (yes)
Tim Grieve: I feel that I am the elephant in the room.
Sarah: Or is the bike tech too? Are bikes tech?
Amber: I'm waiting to hear Tim's take
Kate: tim's hot bike take
Tim: I say it's tech. I mean, the pedals go around if you turn off all the tech, but Peloton isn't selling a pedaling product. It's selling the whole package – bikes and classes, and readouts on the bike that tell you whether you're doing the things you're supposed to be doing.
Karyne: you can connect an ipad to any bike and attend the classes, but then you're using peloton's app, in which case that, too, is tech
Tim: My kid spent weeks hacking a bricked Flywheel bike so it would work with Peloton classes. That feels like tech!
Kate: Peloton is the software product, right? That's what really matters. Where something like Tesla is both software (updating your car) and hardware (the literal four wheeled car), Peloton is, as you say, something you can make work on any bike if you're determined but the experience is all the software bits
Amber: Ugh ok maybeeeee
Tim: A meeting isn't tech, but Zoom is. A spin class isn't tech, but Peloton is.
Karyne: right. and when you do a peloton ride on a peloton, you can see your cadence and resistance on the screen
Karyne: that's tech, it's using a sensor!
Biz Carson: Can we now talk about how Cody Rigsby is our favorite Peloton instructor and I will accept no substitutes?
Is Cody Rigsby tech?Image: Peloton and Protocol
Kate: Peloton is as much tech as my Fitbit is, I think
Tim: I hope we're tagging all the instructors so we get the traffic.
Karyne: you know i will. SEO 4 eva
Tim: What time is Emma Lovewell's Peloton class?
Karyne: that's our headline
Biz: for the internet records, i do believe peloton is tech and will go a step further and say it is also a media company
Amber: oh man that hurts my soul
Karyne: Peloton is tech and media and hurts Amber's soul
Tom: well, soul-destroying = tech
Amber: The takeaway for the day
Tim: Also, who's up for Soul Cycle in Marin tonight at 5:15?
Megan: big yikes
Megan: i mean, no thanks lol
Megan: those classes seem so intense
Karyne: perfect. if something is soul-destroying, kills features without warning, has a sensor and an app and DRM and cody rigsby, then it is tech.
Karyne: i'm going to make t-shirts
"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."
It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.
Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.
"It's very much the same reason that we sent everybody home in February 2020," Jennifer Christie, Twitter's chief human resources officer, told Protocol. "We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."
Twitter had only been allowing vaccinated employees at its offices since reopening its San Francisco and New York sites at half-capacity earlier this month. But because even vaccinated people seem to be able to transmit the highly infectious delta variant, Twitter executives decided to shut down the company's offices this week in order to prevent co-workers from spreading the virus to each other and then bringing it home.
Employees seemed to be growing more concerned about the variant over the last week or so. After a strong turnout during the first week of reopening, attendance at Twitter's offices had dwindled, Christie said.
Although postponing return-to-office dates well into the fall or even next year has now become the norm — Roblox is yet another company delaying its reopening until January, the company told Protocol on Friday — Twitter is the first tech giant to backtrack and close its reopened offices.
(One outlier is Amazon, which said Thursday that it was still planning to reopen offices in September and would not impose a vaccine mandate.)
Twitter, by contrast, has no timeline for reopening its offices and expects to keep its vaccine mandate into the foreseeable future, Christie said.
The mandate might be easier to impose at remote-first Twitter than at companies like Google, which is adopting a hybrid work model that requires most employees to come to the office three days a week. Twitter, by contrast, allows its employees to work remotely by default.
"Coming into the office is a privilege, and if they want to come in, they're going to have to abide by the vaccination rules that we're putting in, because that's to protect everybody," Christie said. "We're letting them choose vaccination. We're letting them choose where they want to work."
Vaccine mandates apply to contractors, too
Both Google and Twitter told Protocol that their vaccine mandates would apply to their entire workforce, employees and contractors included. Facebook, too, said Wednesday that it would require "anyone coming to work at any of our U.S. campuses to be vaccinated."
So, what does that look like? Christie said that Twitter would be telling any organizations that staff the tech giant with contract workers that "these are the standards that we operate by, and if you're having people come into our offices, that's what we would expect."
It's unclear whether that could pose legal issues for Big Tech, where some companies employ armies of white-collar contract workers.
Rick Gerakitis, an Atlanta-based partner in the labor and employment practice of Troutman Pepper, said it's possible that by imposing a vaccine mandate on contract workers, companies could be seen as treating them like employees under rules like the ABC test established by California's Assembly Bill 5.
"How do we design a remote-work program in a way that actually is something that's manageable, but it also doesn't put them at risk of saying, 'You're now an employee,'" Gerakitis said. "'Because we set too many control factors that make you ... not have a level of independence that you should.'"
Christie said Twitter could make some exceptions for contractors depending on the type of work they're doing or when they're in the office.
"We take it on a case-by-case basis, but we still wouldn't do anything that would put our employees at risk," Christie said. "We work with them to make sure that it wouldn't put our vaccination policies — it wouldn't throw those out the window."
Return-to-office plans and the war for tech talent
Another issue companies face as they refine their return-to-office strategies is competing for talent. Sought-after engineers have choices in Silicon Valley, and if they don't like their employer's policy on vaccines, masks or hybrid work, they can leave.
Adam Kemper, a partner practicing labor and employment law at Kelley Kronenberg in Fort Lauderdale, noted that several large tech companies had made similar announcements in the span of a couple of days.
"It shows some alignment there," Kemper said. "Then, an employee can't just go work for the competitor that's having the same exact policy in place, if they're all doing the same thing."
There's still ample variation among how tech companies are approaching the return to the office. In addition to Amazon, the large companies that haven't announced vaccine mandates include Apple, Microsoft, SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Intel, among others.
But with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Lyft, Uber and others all requiring vaccines, it seems likely that other vaccine mandates will follow.
"At some point, we're going to have to have businesses play a role in this that will push it forward, and I think that will result in some organizations, if not many, requiring the vaccination," said Liz Joyce, a vice president on Gartner's HR advisory team. "If you look across what's been happening so far, encouraging vaccinations isn't sufficient."
Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.
The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.
While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.
The result is something both comical and sad: Because of the countless comments swarming into livestream sessions of Nike and Adidas products to berate the brands, some on-camera staff for the sportswear companies felt necessary to stick pieces of paper to their bodies that said "We support Erke" — a competing Chinese brand that has been heralded for its 50 million RMB ($7.7 million) donation to charities working on the ground in Henan.
In today's China, nationalism finds a way to integrate itself into seemingly any technology innovation. Starting with the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, livestreaming ecommerce has been one of the highlights of China's tech industry, growing into a trillion-RMB market. Its popularity also means it's vulnerable to populist attacks.
It all started with Erke, a faded, 21-year-old Chinese sportswear brand. On July 21, it executed a PR masterstroke, announcing on social media platform Weibo that it would donate millions in cash and goods to the disaster-stricken area. The brand went instantly viral. People commended Erke for donating an amount of money comparable to much more successful brands, even as the company itself is struggling financially.
The emergence of livestream ecommerce offers Erke a convenient way to convert that surge in popularity into real income. Overnight, millions of people participated in Erke's shopping livestream sessions on Taobao. The viewership of its regular livestream grew from the low thousands to over 19 million by July 24. There were so many purchases that the brand had to apologize for not having enough inventory to meet demand.
"Patriotism sells," Guobin Yang, a professor researching social movement and digital culture at the University of Pennsylvania, told Protocol. "It is a product of popular culture and commerce and is not unique to China. Think about the patriotism in Hollywood movies."
But the patriotic buying frenzy turned dark, quick. It soon became not just about supporting the brand that donated, but also about boycotting the brands that donated too little or too slowly.
Li-Ning, the second best-selling Chinese sportswear brand, became an early target. A day after Erke's announcement, Li-Ning posted on Weibo that it would donate $1.5 million in cash and $2.3 million worth of goods to charities working in Henan.
Social media was not satisfied. One of the Weibo comments, which received over 9,000 likes, reads: "You always advertise your patriotism but you must have gained a lot from raising prices during the time of the Xinjiang cotton [boycott]. When the country is in danger, you donate much less than brands like Anta and Erke."
The angry crowd then left Erke's livestreams and went to Li-Ning's, spamming the comment section with "Erke" or accusing Li-Ning of being a "Han traitor." Recorded videos of the livestream sessions, still available on platforms like Weibo and Douyin, show that some on-camera staff were harassed so thoroughly that they stopped talking and waited in silence for the stream to end.
There's also misinformation circulating around claiming Li-Ning is actually not a Chinese company. Like many Chinese companies, Li-Ning is incorporated in the Cayman Islands.
This is not the first time nationalism has resulted in mass-spamming on livestream ecommerce platforms. Back in March, during the boycott against foreign brands who said they would not use cotton produced in Xinjiang, fervent nationalist trolls — not to mention many ordinary web users — also attacked livestream vendors of Nike and Adidas products. Many of these vendors were just distributors, not Nike or Adidas employees, but that didn't make a difference.
The March boycott actually benefited Li-Ning, which at the time emphasized its Chinese ownership and attracted patriotic buyers. Now it has become the one being boycotted. Unsurprisingly, livestream channels of Adidas and Nike were also attacked (again) after the Henan flooding, even though the two companies have donated to the impacted people in Henan too.
Consumer boycotts are neither new or surprising, said Kacie Miura, assistant professor in political science and international relations at the University of San Diego. "But over the last decade or so, in part because of social media, boycotts of foreign brands that are perceived as having said or done something offensive to China seem to be occurring with greater frequency."
The latest development shows that not just foreign brands but also domestic brands and their employees can become victims of nationalist consumer boycotts. And as livestreaming becomes the dominant marketing tool, it has become a new cultural battleground.
Luckily, like anything on social media, patriotic boycotts disappear as quickly as they arrive. As of Thursday, the trolls have receded, and the ecommerce sellers have gone back to their busy schedule filled with hours of non-stop livestreaming. On social media, people have also started to reflect on, and even denounce, the harassment toward livestream sellers.
One of the only scars left in the visible digital world is in Li-Ning's livestream channels. The comment section, usually stuffed with viewer product questions, lies nearly empty. At the peak of attacks, Li-Ning disabled the commenting function to limit the scale of impact. It still hasn't opened it back up.
"I don't think the cyber-nationalists in the stories you shared are true believers," Yang said. "They may attack the Nike brand today, but will just as comfortably wear Nike shoes tomorrow. Their nationalism is part of their consumerism more than the other way around."