Thanks I’m giving for the start of the first big online season. Yes, the pandemic has put in place a gigantic move to the digital for our immediate and accelerated future. We all know how this plays out in the required state of things pre-vaccine. But there’s an undercurrent not so hidden there of a dynamic answer to my wife’s stubborn question: Where’s my Jetpack?
She’s a child of the 60s, a post-Beatles time of imploding dreams and dashed expectations. James Bond got to fly a Jetpack, but the telltale burned gasoline exhaust …
With one day to go to the election, our thoughts are with those who look forward to talking about something else. Difficult as it might be to imagine, there must be other things to work on. One thing that comes to mind is the impact of the virus on how we manage our days and nights in a digital environment. Mobile devices have already propelled much of the change, but the pandemic has accelerated the move to a hybrid distributed lifestyle.
The election has mandated our attention to the political situation in ways that have expanded early voting and legal efforts to slow it down. Regardless of the outcome, the pressure to adapt to this new collaborative workflow will intensify. People have already seen significant shifts from commuting to time switching in a home context. Podcasting, which had emerged from a hackerish geeky hobby in recent years, has morphed into a more commercial adjunct to mainstream media.
In the process, new formats such as newsletters and live streaming have attracted investment from companies including Spotify and Audible, related technologies like Otter (transcription), Substack, Medium, new bundles of services (Apple One) and cable network disrupters, Digital first publishers like The Recount may have started out as traditional takes on political commentary, but in the windup of the campaign they are reaching audiences via notifications rather than repetitive cable talking heads and panels.
This roll up of breaking notifications and user-controlled editorial access have major implications for the near future post-electuon, however long it takes to plow through legal challenges and the restaffing of whichever government is formed. Also impacted will be Congressional and antitrust attempts to regulate social media, and what I suspect will be a shift to private discussions and trend analysis. The interest groups and market makers that result from this realignment will offer exit strategies for companies like Twitter and YouTube where the risk of being broken up will be mitigated by powerful new business models for content creation and distribution.
By January 20th, a new influencer architecture based on notifications and live streaming will endow the media with tools it needs to lead the transition to safe, secure, hybrid digital/live events. Streaming will give new artists and entrepreneurs a platform to separate influence and impact from lossleader gatherings online, bolstered by association with food and tools delivery winners like Apple and Amazon. A similar synergy between tech companies and media advertising will be overt (Apple + and Prime) as well as implicit (the growth in Amazon search.and Twitch watch parties.)
COVID therapeutics such as Regeneron create a roadmap for these private groups to reorganize as CostCo-like next wave restaurants, entertainment events, and political efforts to consolidate economic power. With a combination of transparency and what could be called reverse boycotts, customers will align with products and companies who promote values-based association with stakeholders acrosss the spectrum.
Central to the relationship is providing ethical access to important data in return for clear guidelines for the use of that data at scale. If this election has been correctly assessed as signaling a massive change in the electorate, the period of deescalation from the pandemic can foster a sense of ownership of that success by the incoming majority. Notification-based entertainers such as Sarah Cooper and more mainstream projects like Matthew McConaughey’s new book, Greenlights, speak initially to the Zoom home/work crowd, and soon to the formation of new studios and networks.
Who really knows how this transformation is playing out given the terrible consequences of Trump’s impact on our country and its standing in the world. But the generation that followed the Greatest Generation is discovering it has more to it than the free love of rock and roll and following our bliss. That same generation ushered in the technology and media revolutions.
Now we’re suffering the backlash of so-called free software where our data is the real product, where Big Brother is extending power by acquihires and preemptive pivots. Yet still our democracy persists. Time to count the vote.
Not just the future of civilization is up for grabs this November. In this age of mobile social computing, we’re figuring out how to vote, entertain, teach, learn, and commit to meaningful change. Thanks to the pandemic emergency, our plans for transforming our country and planet are subject to immediate recall.
Much of the current political dynamic is expressed through the lense of “how much change can we afford to make?” The swing states in the race for the electoral college are those most profoundly affected by the transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy. The choice: how many jobs will we lose by shifting away from oil and gas to wind and solar. Workers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and Michigan are fearful of losing their livelihood to a future of retraining and disruption.
Regardless of where we sit along the left/right spectrum, we share the increasing understanding that government doesn’t work. Running for office is a gauntlet of fundraising and promises you can’t keep; legislating is a lobbyist playground where special interests are neither special nor in our interests. The courts are overwhelmed by political power plays timed to inflame and suppress voting turnout. It’s no wonder that the common reaction to this week’s final presidential debate was relief that the campaign is almost over.
The most important fix to the body politic is the mute button. For a brief moment in the debate, we got to experience a few seconds of not talking. Time seemed to stand still, as if we were being handed down a digital tablet of things to not do: don’t interrupt, don’t disrespect, don’t mock, don’t waste our time. Above all, don’t forget the people we’ve lost to the virus. Remember the days when our biggest problems were what show to watch, what music to play, what jokes to tell. It’s amazing what you can hear when the agenda is turned back to ourselves.
In that moment, you can hear things that smooth the soul. In that moment, you can hear the words leaders will have to speak to get our vote next time. I feel much better about the next election no matter how this one turns out. The explosive numbers of early voting tell us a lot about how this will go. The genie is out of the bottle and people are beginning to connect the dots. If the vote is suppressed, it only makes us try harder.
Mobility is about a return to value, to roots, to resilience. Working from home is a big step toward living from everywhere. AR stands for accelerated reality, VR for valued reality. If we want to know what social is good for, switch on the mute button and listen to what you’ve lost. If you can mute the sound, you can unmute it and find your voice.
At first, the mute button was a defensive move. It counteracted the business model of the cable news networks, the repetitive time-filling of partisan perspective mixed with not listening to the grievances of the other side. The hardest thing I’ve had to do is be open to the truth emanating from the least likely location. We are taught to attack our opponent’s weaknesses; a better strategy might be to respect their strengths and adopt them as your own. Don’t worry, though. You probably won’t find too much there to reflect.
Once you experience the mute button envelope, you can hear it even if it’s not there. The rules of the revised debate were that the first two minutes of each candidate’s response used the mute button, then the old rules returned. Even then, the experience of using the mute button informed the rest of the debate. Particularly noticeable was Joe Biden’s response to a series of back and forths when the moderator asked if he had any further response. “… … … No.”
There have been other mute buttons in history. The 18 and a half minute gap spoke loudly when Rose Mary Woods erased a crucial Watergate tape. Before that, we assumed there might be a smoking gun. After that, we knew there might be others, too. Throughout the campaign, we could learn more about what was really going on by listening for the moments when key questions were left unanswered, ducked, or bounced back to the opponent like some Pee Wee Herman playground retort.
Soon we’ll know the answer to the important question: how do we confront the virus? I vote for listening to the science, wearing a mask, socially distancing both off and online, rapid testing, and contact tracing. And the candidates who agree.
On this edition of the Gillmor Gang, the live recording session was briefly interrupted by a rolling upgrade from Zoom. We’ve been using Zoom to virtualize what we’ve been doing for years with a combination of video switching hardware (Newtek’s TriCaster), a bunch of Mac Minis hosting Skype, an audio mixing board, and a backchannel pushing the switched Program Out to the members of the group. At first, we partnered with Leo Laporte on his fledgling video network. Subsequently, I copied Leo’s early studio setup to make the transition to streaming.
At that point, streaming was an emergent model. No Netflix, no Facebook Live, certainly no transition from RSS and podcasting to what we see now as Streaming From Home is adopted. Not just by the technocrati but mainstream cable networks, the remnants of broadcast television, and commercial streaming networks like Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney +, and even Apple TV +. Cable news uses a version of our studio model to bring together roundtables where even the hosts are using Zoom’s background replacement feature or the like to simulate their usual broadcast locations. The 4 or 5 second delay over TCP/IP gives away the tech, but just as with the smaller delay we’ve gotten used to with the translation from landline to satellite and now to cell service, we accommodate this seeming lack of attention being paid.
There are limitations with this new virtualized studio, but with a great deal of tweaking, the relative ease of onboarding Zoom offers, and the ubiquity of use that the pandemic has mandated, a new experience has emerged with recording the show. It’s more relaxed, a subtle hybrid of a “show” and a conversation among friends. As I’ve mentioned before, we use a multi-streaming service called Restream to do just that with the edited Zoom feed to broadcast the live session on Facebook Live, Twitter/Periscope, and via an embedded YouTube window, to our newsletter feed on Telegram. After postproduction, we release an edited, sweetened, titled version on TechCrunch.
From the beginning of the Gang, back in 2004 when it was an audio production only, we leveraged an early social network called FriendFeed, to engage listeners in a realtime chat. FriendFeed was essentially a blend of Facebook and Twitter, so much so that Facebook ultimately acquired the startup and made co-founder Bret Taylor CTO. Those playing along at home might recognize Bret now as President and COO of Salesforce, where he went after his next startup, Quip, was acquired. The FriendFeed backchannel lasted for a few years, opensourced at the time but eventually shut down by Facebook.
To explain the magic of the backchannel, I refer you to a book by an old friend, Harvey Brooks, bass player and right-place-right time musician who recorded with a dazzling set of greats from Miles Davis to the seminal first stop on his journey, Bob Dylan. In an age without liner notes, he’s a living example of the magic of producing the right notes at the moment of creation in the studio. With Dylan, that moment came in the recording of Dylan’s first fully electric record, Highway 61 Revisited. He’d just recorded the single Like A Rolling Stone when Harvey was recommended by his friend Al Kooper, who had famously sat down in front of an organ he’d never played before and survived Dylan’s recording process.
Dylan would run down a song with the musicians a couple of times and then begin recording. The players would glean the structure of the song by watching the artist’s hands; Harvey quickly made notes of the chords in the first couple of run throughs. Then it was off to the races with tape rolling. Often that first take would be the keeper. To break it down further, my analogy would be that this was Dylan’s version of the backchannel, where each player’s intuitive feel would be communicated not just to Dylan but to the other musicians, who often were strangers to each other as well.
In recording the Gang, the trick if you will is to capture that moment between the first time you hear something to the time where other takes don’t improve on that spark of creation. A later take may be more studied and practiced, but it may lose that magic of the spark. In the case of the conversation, it’s not quite an improvisation, but what takes it somewhere else is the backchannel, where we all live and communicate between sessions. It’s not quite a newsletter, where the goal (or at least my goal) is to provide stepping stones between rocks in the stream and not the pebbles that form the rush of news and attitude that overwhelms us.
These days Trumpstock is everywhere, not to be avoided but necessary to be survived. Then there are the glimmers of tech, like the media story about Disney’s reorganization around streaming. The ripple effects of surviving the pandemic’s direct hit on Disney’s park revenue and the need to shift investment to Disney + content production are a major signal of where winners are going to emerge in the entertainment industry’s move to a direct relationship with consumers. The backchannel is a powerful tool for giving us direct access to the underlying information required to make strategic decisions about where and how we live as we recover.
Sometimes the winging-it approach bears fruit; sometimes it crashes and burns as elements of this loosely-coupled cloud mashup unexpectedly shift. In this case, our carefully constructed production flow broke down just as we went live. It took some time and a restart to regroup, and a post show debugging to figure out what had changed in a Zoom autoupdate. This is the process. It’s not perfect, but it works when it works. When it doesn’t, it gets better. Join us on the backchannel.
The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary, and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, October 9, 2020.
Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor