Zoom is not good enough (Ricky Weekly #36)

This is where I share 3 things every week with my friends and anyone else interested.

A picture from my life:

My friends David and Shane celebrated their birthdays on Friday. We all sent different kinds of foods to David via delivery and did a quick Zoom to sing happy birthday. Shane celebrated his by reading “mean Tweets” from his friends.

Thing on my mind:

After almost two weeks of social distancing, I’m even more appreciative of Zoom. I’m also delighted to see how creative people are getting to make our days a bit more tolerable. Snapchat is seeing the most downloads, Houseparty is experiencing a resurgence, friends are making up art, fitness and dance challenges on Instagram, experimenting with all kinds of events on Zoom, or just calling each other randomly.

The problem is that we are only temporarily getting to re-live our teenage lives—trapped at home, bored, and wanting to hang out with our friends. As soon as life goes back to normal and we get back to our old busy and stressful routines, will we still think about our friends as much? Will we be able to call them spontaneously?

I’ve been thinking about the idea of “availability,” like when we used AOL Instant Messenger and being “online” meant something. Social products are usually designed with a younger audience in mind so you can assume they are time-rich and available. For the rest of us, the default is time-poor, unavailable, introverted, and “let me look at my calendar.” The reason why my friends are downloading Houseparty now when they never bothered to before is because previously the idea of showing friends we are “available to hang” did not seem practical, and no one had time to spontaneously get into a video chat that could easily last for an hour. This special moment when we’re all available won’t last, so take advantage!

Another thing I've been thinking about is the limitations of video chat itself. Video chat is a relatively neutral utility like a phone call is a neutral utility. Unlike phone calls though, usable video chat (Zoom) or easy video chat (FaceTime) are relatively new and we don’t have a lot of experience or established norms around them, so it often feels like we’re fumbling around. Can some people dial-in audio-only while others are on video? Can someone join while driving or walking or doing chores while others are focused? The mismatch of expectations here can really affect the experience. One person doing chores while the others are focused could ruin the feeling of connectedness for everyone.

And what happens when video chats go beyond just a handful of people? When the group gets large, we end up muting ourselves or resort to text chat while we take turns speaking because otherwise it’s impossible to hear. More structured interactions like games and performances help, but they feel too stilted and the social interaction feels more like sitting in a circle with a facilitator than a natural group interaction. That’s probably why people think video chat would never be as good as real life but I feel like there’s way more products can do. Zoom was designed for work, and their big group features are designed for conferences. What if you were to design it for the more casual use cases?

And then there’s what I’m now calling the “eye contact problem.” If you can’t make eye contact with someone, you just wouldn’t feel as connected. I’m sure all the video dating experiments or salespeople looking to make sales over Zoom have way more trouble getting people to make emotional decisions without the ability to make eye contact. Eye contact is just one element, same can be said about feeling the other person’s warmth, scent, touch, etc. It’s also about the environmental variables. The temperature of the room, the sound of other people talking in the cafe, the sharing of a table, etc. Those things make us feel together and connected and video dis-intermediates all that. Some people think the answer is VR, but probably not.

I don’t think enough energy has been poured into solving these problems and I hope this experience will help us realize that. Because of the hype around “remote” work, some resources have been poured into the work / professional version of these problems, but not much in the consumer / social realm and that sucks.

Some ideas...

If you can't make eye contact, what if you were to train an AI model to recognize high fives and acknowledge it in a satisfying way during a video chat. That could give us a feeling of extra synchrony, kind of like when you “jinx” and say the same thing at the same time. TikTok already has a few filters that recognize hand gestures.

What if you can actually embed the camera in the center of screen instead of above it? This way you can actually make eye contact. Device makers are experimenting with “under-display” cameras.

What if you can stare naturally at the video chat box, but the AI will “redirect” your gaze to make it seem like you are making eye contact? A research lab funded by Samsung is doing this and you should def watch this demo:

Piece of content I recommend:

I recommend two this week.

Coronavirus: Life inside China’s lockdown by BBC News

Coronavirus: From 93 infected to 0, what did this Chinese City do to contain the virus? by Takeuchi Ryo

The first video is made by two filmmakers who documented their days in Wuhan since the outbreak. Second video is about the impressive things that helped the city of Nanjing contain the virus.

As always, you can find out what I’m thinking in more real-time on Twitter and my essays are on my website. My latest essay is called From Socialcam to TikTok: How we figured out video social in a decade

Socially distanced (Ricky Weekly #35)

This is where I share 3 things every week with my friends and anyone else interested.

A picture from my life:

Just watched Westworld season premiere with David and Yosh. Amazing start to the season!

Thing on my mind:

Some Covid-19 thoughts:

  • #FlattenTheCurve

  • I have friends in town from Puerto Rico and Hong Kong. I’d love to see them while they’re in town, but I probably won’t be able to.

  • Tech Twitter and Facebook are pretty insufferable right now because it’s all doom and gloom on there. I understand why…smart people who understand exponential growth and second-order effects feel the need to react to the people saying “it’s just a flu,” and so they choose to publish stern warnings, and stern warnings sound even more stern either in a Tweet or in a long-winded Fb post.

  • Work is definitely affected. Fortunately in tech we can just WFH, but WFH doesn’t mean slacking off. We should do the opposite and be extra-disciplined to try to retain our humanity. 1) Don’t fall to the level of “video chat behavior”. If it’s a 1:1 meeting, lean into the camera and pay attention. 2) Don’t be late to meetings just because you can’t control your home environment. 3) Don’t let the F.U.D. (Fear Uncertainty Doubt) overwhelm you and render you useless.

  • As a Y Combinator alum I get to see a bunch of startups present during Alumni Demo Day. Today is Alumni Demo Day and there were no video presentations for any of the 250 companies in the batch (typically there’s an event + recorded video). This makes me think YC is phoning it in and leaving the startups hanging, which is extremely disappointing.

  • On the brighter side, I’m seeing people experiment with new ways of hanging out online. I do a persistent Zoom call with some friends to co-work during the week. I saw a friend stream himself playing online party games and another running a virtual dating experiment. We have all the infrastructure we need (eg smart phones, high speed internet, Zoom, good audio input) but we haven’t innovated on the social layer above that for quite a while because “social” has been synonymous with Facebook for too long. Covid-19 is showing us how we quickly we feel lonely as soon as we are prohibited from human contact and highlights how much room there is for more creativity. David and I are working on solving this problem.

  • I caught up with a friend in Hong Kong and he told me that almost everyone is back to normal. IG stories from friends in Taiwan also indicate lives are back to normal. Word is that Foxconn factories are back to work and productions levels are back to normal. It’ll take longer for us here in the US because we suck, but we’ll get there. Sending ❤️ to all of you out there. Stay in and stay healthy. Message me if you wanna catch up.

Piece of content I recommend:

DAVE on FX

I started watching “DAVE” on FX loosely based on the life of Lil Dicky, the rapper. Pretty cool if you like Lil Dicky and his shtick. This show is all of that essence turned into a comedy series.

As always, you can find out what I’m thinking in more real-time on Twitter and my essays are on my website. My latest essay is called From Socialcam to TikTok: How we figured out video social in a decade

Internet Friends, Internet Skills (Ricky Weekly #34)

This is where I share 3 things every week with my friends and anyone else interested.

A picture from my life:

I went home two weekends ago and decided to record videos of my dad telling me stories from his life, which he loves to do anyway. He’s turning 80 this year but he still has incredible memory. I’d like to try to preserve some of that. Here are some old pictures from the time when he learned to not look at the camera.

Thing on my mind:

😷 I got sick again for the second time this year, and again I’ve recovered! It was a huge pain in the butt and definitely reminded me that I have limited time on this earth so I should make the most of it. Sending y’all my best to stay healthy.

I was reading Nadia Eghbal’s newsletter on “Internet Friends” and was struck by this passage:

Back then, I thought of myself as having “internet friends” and “IRL friends”, and those two worlds didn't overlap in any way. My online social life was filled with people whose names I didn't know, doing things that had absolutely nothing to do with our day-to-day lives.

Once everyone got on social media, my online interactions switched from being “people I know from the internet” to “people I know from real life”. My internet friends started sending me Facebook requests. I'd accept, then scroll through my friend list, amused to see their real names appear alongside other people I knew.

I was struck because unlike her, I never had “Internet friends” growing up. Sure I used forums, chatrooms and played games with strangers, but I mostly lurked or never got too sucked in. Every single friend I had was clearly IRL-first, and we might continue the conversation online afterwards. So it dawned on me that there are probably a lot of people like Nadia in the valley and they probably possess a special set of “internet skills” that I don’t have.

Internet skills are like…commenting in forums and getting into conversations with strangers on the Internet. Sure we can all do that to a degree, but some people are way more comfortable doing it. Not me. Blogging and writing this newsletter is already a big deal for me. You won’t ever see me writing a comment on some random dude’s blog or in some forum somewhere under an alias. This is why Facebook was so transformative because it brought our IRL friends to hang out with us on the Internet in a big way.

Twitter is probably the thing I use most today that has an element of “strangers online,” and even there I’m pretty mediocre. I see people who are just great at it, and now I think they probably just have better internet skills. They are infinitely more comfortable than me at, say, dunking on a stranger’s Tweet. I’m quick and clever in-person, and I think there’s probably a version of that from behind the keyboard. It’s not as simple as calling a generation of people “digital natives” or whatever. I think it’s something you develop from really living from behind the keyboard, to the point of making “internet friends.”

It’s useful for me to know this because then I can sort of understand what game I should be playing. Like, should I even try to invest in Twitter or stick with something slower pace like this newsletter or the occasional blog post? If I don’t have the internet skills, then Twitter is probably going to be slightly harder for me.

Slightly different topic but somewhat related. It’s interesting to see people talk about remote work or more WFH especially with COVID-19 likely becoming a fact of life for the foreseeable future. Of course I also like more remote and WFH, who doesn’t? But I was thinking in what scenario would I actually build my startup as a remote startup from the ground-up. 1) David and I already communicate well, so putting more of it in writing should be doable. 2) We like strong processes and habits, which should lend itself to remote. 3) If the product has a large enough surface area that can be decomposed without needing too much coordination, then it might lend itself to remote. But those attributes don’t make the decision. Really, it comes down to the founders’ preferences and the people we’d work well with. David and I don’t have highly-developed “internet skills” and our version of the best teammates probably also prefer to hash things out in-person just as much as they prefer to do it online.

Lol, crazy how a stranger’s newsletter triggered this long and windy thought.

Piece of content I recommend:

This is random but hey the YouTube algorithm decided that I’d like videos from Sign Duo and they were correct! It’s a YouTube channel from a deaf and hearing couple. I don’t have any personal experience with the deaf community but I’ve learned a lot from watching them and I’m intrigued by ASL!

Don’t forget to turn on captions!

As always, you can find out what I’m thinking in more real-time on Twitter and my essays are on my website. My latest essay is called From Socialcam to TikTok: How we figured out video social in a decade

Substack...what's the hype? (Ricky Weekly #33)

This is where I share 3 things every week with my friends and anyone else interested.

A picture from my life:

Did you know the “Tres Comas” tequila from HBO’s Silicon Valley is now a real thing? 😂

Thing on my mind:

There’s a lot of hype about Substack (the service that powers this email) and the creative economy in general. I think the idea is that if you can make things people want, you now have an easier time making a living just doing that. But a friend who interviewed at Substack told me that they were only doing $400k in revenue and most of that revenue comes from their top two paid newsletters. I suspect services like Patreon, OpenCollective, Gumroad, etc have similar top-heavy dynamics. Of course, anything that makes the long tail more viable makes a dramatic difference for the creative class, so I’m all for it. I’m wondering if anything else has really changed to unlock the creative economy.

Attention and $$

Our attention and wallets are still limited. Sure we’ve found a little more time to consume content from our devices and we have a little bit more money to pay for content from the money we used to spend on cable, but the found time and money are incremental. That’s not even considering the overhead of subscribing to all these different things. The cable bundle was easy. Now that Peacock, HBO Max, Quibi, and Discovery streaming services are all slated to launch later this year, people are wondering how many we can reasonably sustain even if the aggregate price is still lower the cable.

Discovery infrastructure

Even if you can charge for a newsletter easily, you still need to tell people about it. Social media is more mature and more people have followers they can monetize right away, so maybe that’s what’s new. Because otherwise in terms of discovery, there’s way more competition. It’s much harder to get found on Google or stand out on social media compared to the early days. Big brands and celebrities have more power and closed systems like Spotify and Medium are more attractive today because they have the power to help the little guys get discovered, but they’re very limited in what they can do (eg if Spotify puts too many new artists in a playlist and you don’t get your Justin Bieber fix, you’d stop using it).

Supply and demand of quality

It’s possible that after being spoon-fed junk by Facebook and having lived long enough in the age of information abundance, we started to crave more quality content, but that doesn’t seem like a strong effect.

Charging for content has the effect of signaling quality, but as more people start charging money for content, money becomes a less useful signal. Social signals like “likes” and “shares” used to signal quality, but once people started to game it or realize that it only captures the lowest common denominator / popular vote kind of quality, the social signal became less useful. So basically I’m not sure if we are really demanding more quality, but we definitely have more supply.

With money directly coming from subscribers we are getting better quality content in two ways. Platforms like Netflix can spread out the cost of developing shows over millions of subscribers, giving them way more leeway to experiment and go for more niche content as long as it appeals to a segment of their subscriber base. The other way is that if you can make videos for your 100 Patreon supporters, you can make the best videos for those niche 100 people without feeling like you need to appeal to more people.

Am I missing anything important?

Piece of content I recommend:

Is Joker Cinema? by Now You See It

The “video essay” is one of the best things to emerge from YouTube in my opinion. This one’s special because it’s a video essay without a narrator!

As always, you can find out what I’m thinking in more real-time on Twitter and my essays are on my website. My latest essay is called From Socialcam to TikTok: How we figured out video social in a decade

How not to ask for help (Ricky Weekly #32)

This is where I share 3 things every week with my friends and anyone else interested.

A picture from my life:

Lots of restaurant and cafe restrooms have this extra lock, especially Asian restaurants. Why? Is it because the lock on the door handle breaks too easily? Do I really care to know? 🤷‍♂️

Thing on my mind:

I got “feedback” from a friend this week because I asked for an intro without asking if he wanted to catch up first, and he didn’t like that. We haven’t talked in about a year, but I’ve known him for a while so I didn’t think too much about it. He said that I should’ve known because he’s a relationships-first guy, and maybe it’s true I should’ve known especially because I think of myself as a “people person” so I should’ve been able to discern how to best approach each person.

These things are tricky though. Sometimes I’m on the receiving end of it. People have asked me to catch up, and then I find out they’re just trying to get me to send them to someone else. If I like the person and the reason is a good one I probably would’ve been happy to help over email or a quick call. That’d be way more efficient for both sides. Sometimes when I don’t think I know the person that well, I’d want to catch up first and remind myself why this person is awesome, and if they don’t offer to do that I get a little annoyed. It also depends on timing - sometimes I’m busy and I can’t get back to all the people asking me for help. Other times I feel like my head’s above water and I can take a few phone calls or coffees.

I haven’t done a deep reflection here but off the top some variables are: 1) how well you know the person 2) how fresh is the relationship 3) do you have a personal interest 4) what’s the objective of the meeting (eg quick intro, catch-up or a deep-dive on strategy) 5) what method of connecting is best for the objective (eg two friends catching up is probably best done in-person) 6) how well you can communicate the objective without warming up the relationship 7) what the person prefers 8) what you prefer 9) how well you can communicate your preferences, etc. There are probably a lot more variables and that makes this a pretty complicated problem. Some people have strict policies like only email or only calls, but if you want to do that you’d need to get comfortable making, say, a big investment decision over email without ever meeting the person. Some people like Mark Cuban can do that, but it requires work and probably lots of trial and error.

Piece of content I recommend:

I coached 101 CEOs, founders, VCs and other executives in 2019: These are the biggest takeaways by Leo Widrich

Helping founders is mostly playing therapist (or “coach” if you’re too alpha for therapy), but not everyone does it well because they haven’t been in the shoes of a founder or they just don’t have the right kind of empathic powers. Based on this essay I think Leo Widrich has found his calling. Some quotes I loved:

What I’ve learned is that most of our problems occur when we don’t see our own power anymore.

The question I often like to ask then is: What do you have to accept to step back into your power in this moment/relationship? Frequent answer: That the answer might be “no”.

Whether it’s fear, anger or hurt, what I started to practice with my clients is to let these things come and as they come, notice how they don’t want to stick around if we really agree to them:

  • The sadness wants to become tears and flow and become tender thereafter

  • The anger wants to punch, ball hands into fists and then fizzle out through the arms and legs

  • The loneliness wants attention, to be held, embraced and just sat with.

  • The fear wants to be felt, receive attention and permission to flow through the body, only to leave a trail of energy and aliveness behind.

Enduring gets us far, but I don’t think that’s what life is for. To let go of that belief and to allow a new one to emerge, often one rooted in love and joy, is scary and takes courage. Especially when endurance has helped you build a massive company or another successful thing.

As always, you can find out what I’m thinking in more real-time on Twitter and my essays are on my website. My latest essay is called From Socialcam to TikTok: How we figured out video social in a decade

Loading more posts…