Typically, this time of year is slow for the "Amoeba Sisters." The YouTube channel makes animated, intricate videos about biology for over half a million subscribers, and its audience usually fluctuates with the school year. "Kids don't want to learn about mitosis over spring break," Sarina Peterson, one of the channel's creators, said.
But there was no spring break this year. Millions of school-age children are stuck at home, which has turned YouTubers into desperately needed entertainers, babysitters and—as parents scramble for homeschooling content—de facto educators. Viewership for the "Amoeba Sisters" was up almost 70% on the last Monday in March compared with earlier in the month, a period when traffic usually falls. Other channels popular with kids are seeing similar spikes. Daily views of YouTube clips with "home school" in the title more than doubled over the past month, according to the company.
Global pandemic lockdowns are reigniting an old Silicon Valley dream for schools run on big data and YouTube clips. Shoddy execution, privacy mishaps and reluctant parents kept that Renaissance from happening. But now, virtual education is reality—and e-learning pioneers are eager to seize this moment.
"I've reverted to myself 10 years ago," Sal Khan, head of Khan Academy, an early e-learning hub, told me between flurries of video meetings. Registrations from parents for Khan Academy's online classes has grown twenty-fold in recent weeks and its YouTube traffic rose 80%. (Bandwidth costs for the nonprofit also shot up.)
Even online personalities not generally devoted to education have dipped a toe in the growing market. Mark Rober, a popular YouTuber known for his "glitter-bombing" clips, has started a regular "Science Class" series during quarantine. (Sample lesson: "Does farting make you weigh less?")
For YouTube, which is part of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, the quarantine is a chance to rehabilitate its image for parents and teachers. Once blocked in classrooms, the company now has a shot at proving its educational mettle. In 2018, the company started a fund for "EduTubers" and introduced "Learning Playlists," a curated collection of channels like Khan Academy and "Amoeba Sisters." Now, it’s highlighting more of those videos on a website YouTube set up for parents last month, called "[email protected]." The company wouldn’t provide traffic numbers for [email protected], but Peterson said that this kind of list can provide a big boost in viewership.
Peterson and her sister and collaborator, Brianna Rapini, a former biology teacher, are unique among YouTubers—they post videos only once a month, follow science curriculum and sometimes make supplemental content at teachers' request. They also work with several schools, but they still see hurdles for getting YouTube widely adopted inside classrooms, even virtual ones. YouTube isn't integrated easily with most school software and some districts still block the site, citing concerns over roaming teenage eyes or bandwidth.
If the habits built up during Covid-19 endure, though, schools may be incorporating more YouTube into their routines. "They're definitely not there yet," Peterson said. "But it's so exciting."
Singapore was hunkering down for the Lunar New Year holiday in late January when the country detected its first case of the coronavirus. A team of software engineers immediately got to work developing a contact-tracing mobile application.
They moved swiftly and rolled out an app called TraceTogether in eight weeks, making the Asian city-state one of the first countries in the world to develop its own contact-tracing app to fight the outbreak.
When the app launched with great fanfare last month, the government took pains to allay privacy concerns. Officials explained how it uses Bluetooth signals to determine if the user is near another app user and how this data is encrypted and never leaves a person's phone. If someone's diagnosed with Covid-19, the health ministry can ask to access the tracing app's data to identify others who had close contact with the infected individual.
“Please rest assured your personal information is safe in the system. We only collect your mobile number and that's well protected,” said Jason Bay, the engineer who headed the project. He said his team’s vision was to create something akin to a “magic notebook” that follows you everywhere.
Yet the approach raised concerns over privacy and security. Would the data be protected? If the health ministry can call you, is it really anonymous? Citizens had to decide between helping state efforts to protect public health and sharing their personal data, like they are doing now in the U.S., the U.K. and beyond.
So far, the results are underwhelming. Government officials have said they need three-quarters or more of the population to use the app for it to be effective. But just more than a million of Singapore's 5.7 million residents have installed it, and not all of them turn on Bluetooth, a prerequisite for the app to work.
The city-state has had more success with WhatsApp. It approached the U.S. company in late January to explore setting up a communications channel directly with the population to provide timely updates about Covid-19. Now most residents get daily updates via those messages as well as Twitter. Singapore was the first to launch such a WhatsApp service, but now more than 25 countries, including Brazil, Germany, India, Indonesia and the U.K., have followed suit.
As for TraceTogether, the government has made its source code freely available to developers around the world. Japan is reportedly considering using it. Apple and Google have struck a rare partnership to develop tracing apps that work in similar fashion to TraceTogether across iPhones and Android phones.
China, which requires citizens to comply with tracing technology, shows there are pitfalls. The Beijing Health Kit app, which asks local residents to submit names and identification on their mobile phones, assigns each person a color-coded health status that's checked at public venues, including stores and restaurants. On Sunday, foreign passport holders living in Beijing got a jolt for a few hours when the app began erroneously identifying some as having been ordered to stay home for observation. A government spokesman said the issue was caused by a glitch; by the afternoon, the problem had been fixed.
The trade-off between surveillance and public health will become more personal and pressing for all of us in the weeks ahead. Singapore's early start in deploying technology will help others decode the best containment measures for this virus -- whether the tracing app works or not
Should startups take money from the government? Silicon Valley is puzzling over the answer right now.
Some venture capitalists seem more than happy to say, yes, please take that sweet government money. “If the U.S. government didn’t want to support VC-backed businesses, they easily could have excluded them and they knowingly did not,” writes venture capitalist Mark Suster.
The pool of cash we’re talking about is the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, part of Congress’s coronavirus bailout effort. Small businesses of all stripes are now rushing to apply for the program’s $349 billion in available loan money (and possibly another $250 billion if an expansion goes through). The so-called PPP loans turn into grants if companies keep their employees in their jobs.
At first it seemed like venture-backed startups, along with companies funded by private equity firms, didn’t have much of a shot at getting government funding. But after a few tweaks in the requirements, the situation is now more ambiguous for venture-backed companies. The government is no longer requiring that minority investors risk criminal consequences if the startup misappropriates the funds—a breakthrough, even though startups will still have to make complicated disclosures about their investors. (Private equity-backed companies at this moment seem mostly out of luck.)
But just because tech companies can, doesn’t mean they should. One legal and ethical wrinkle is baked into the language of the bill: As part of the application process, companies are asked to certify that "current economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary to support the ongoing operations of the applicant."
What’s necessary? There’s so much uncertainty in the world of startups. Most venture-backed companies are just trying to make it to their next financing round. If runway is running short, it might be tempting to take a government loan along the way to your Series B.
Indeed, some people think their companies should qualify like everyone else. Startup founder George Arison tweeted that the government shut the economy down and it “feels like eligible businesses should be treated equally.”
If the goal of the loan program is to keep people employed, there is a logic to funding startups. Employees are usually one of tech companies’ biggest costs, so cash-strapped startups lay off their employees to try to stay afloat like everyone else. Those layoffs are happening.
And in general, these scrappy upstarts are more sympathetic than, say, Boeing Co., whose planes were crashing before the coronavirus slammed its stock. (Venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya made the case against bailing out shareholders in big corporations.)
But most startups, which raised near-record levels of funding last year, don’t need the money in the way that local restaurants or repair shops need the money. And many laid off tech employees will find themselves better off than dishwashers or mechanics who lose their jobs. Indeed, some founders have concluded that the funds wouldn’t be necessary for their companies’ near-term survival, and that they therefore shouldn’t apply.
The problem, of course, is that the loan program is finite. Those restaurants and barbershops, without any access to VCs or other forms of capital, could lose out because a startup put in an application first.
If the system works well, a business like Nopa—the San Francisco restaurant favored by tech types for its perfect $20 grilled cheeseburger—would get the bailout over the startup offering to do its delivery. Startups fail fast, pivot and come back, but beet hummus is irreplaceable.
I’ve come to realize that success is a pretty great disguise. When things turn out well it, can make up for a lot of crummy stuff that often happens behind the scenes.
Instagram is a great example of this in more ways than one. I think we can all agree at this point that the photos and videos people choose to share on social media create a pretty warped view of reality. Instagram’s corporate story was similarly varnished for years. What most people saw was an app that grew like a weed, crushed its competition, and created an entirely new class of digital celebrities. When co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left the company unexpectedly in late 2018, part of the shock was that—from the outside—things looked perfect.
In an excerpt this week from her upcoming book, No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, my colleague Sarah Frier strips away the gloss. Here, she’s gamely answered my questions about Systrom's tense relationship with Mark Zuckerberg, how the Instagram founders have responded to the pandemic, and doing a book tour in the time of coronavirus.
What's it like releasing a book in the middle of a global health crisis?
Some of it involves improvisation. For example, you can't send an early copy of the book to someone unless you know where they're sheltering in place. And we've had to get creative with virtual events. For one event next week, I'm signing sticky labels and sending them to the hosts, so attendees can still get a signed book. I've also purchased a bunch of lighting equipment so video appearances can be high quality without going to studios. The most interesting thing has been virtually meeting authors who are all in the same situation, who all want to support each other and rally around independent book stores, which need more help than we do right now.
After Facebook Inc. bought Instagram, how did the tension between Systrom and Zuckerberg change the product?
We're certainly seeing a lot more Facebook-y tactics, like push notifications, prompts to redirect users from Instagram to Facebook, and recommendations on who to follow. But I think the restrictions on resources for Instagram are the most important thing to keep in mind. Facebook will always prioritize fixing whatever affects the most users, or is critiqued the most by the public. In practice, this means Instagram, which is tremendously influential in our culture, with more than 1 billion users, will be a second or third priority.
What are the Instagram founders up to now?
Both founders have tried to take their time to figure out what to do next. Kevin Systrom likes having a strategy, but in 2018 he took different advice from his mentor Ray Dalio, the hedge fund billionaire. Dalio said he told Systrom to "go into ambiguity, allow the free time for exploration and to feel what comes naturally without a plan. He was both uncomfortable with it, and understood intellectually that it was the best thing to do." Lately we've seen them pop up publicly to talk about Covid-19—Krieger and his wife made a website to help restaurants sell gift cards, and Systrom has been explaining how to manage viral growth.
Do you have a favorite anecdote from the book?
Instagram's employees can make people into stars overnight. My favorite was hearing about this employee who keeps a spreadsheet of the best pet accounts on Instagram so he can share them in a feature called The Weekly Fluff. He had a soft spot for awkward-looking pets, like goats missing hind legs or cats with their tongues sticking out. In 2013, after being featured in a Weekly Fluff update, the owner of @tunameltsmyheart woke up one day to find her dog rapidly gaining fans. She eventually quit her job to manage the account full time and has 2.1 million followers.
What's the most interesting thing you learned from one of the celebrities you interviewed?
Kris Jenner, the matriarch of the Jenner-Kardashian clan that has built an empire through Instagram, told me that A-listers used to question her family's devotion to Instagram. They thought that if they removed the mystery of their personal lives by posting all the time, their fans would become less interested. She definitely proved them wrong.
In ordinary times, they moved among us largely unnoticed. Now we can’t get enough of them. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust once-anonymous IT support workers into a new role: corporate saviors.
As millions of employees make the transition from well-maintained office equipment to jury-rigged kitchen table setups, information technology departments have been called upon to keep companies online and connected. Requests range in size and scale, from replacing employees’ $5 mouses, to speeding up networks, to keeping multimillion-dollar data centers up and running.
For many departments, the result has been virtually unprecedented workloads. On March 12, Qualcomm Inc. told all staff to prepare to start working remotely in three days. Vice president of IT infrastructure, Zeeshan Sabir, and his team then worked about 72 hours straight trying to prepare a lot of laptops for secure, remote access and get other corporate systems ready.
“I just saw heroics,” he said. “I didn’t see a blip of complaint from anyone.”
When the switch happened, though, Sabir’s newly beefed-up call center was inundated with user complaints over slow internet speeds. After more stretches of intense work, his team increased the responsiveness of Qualcomm’s data centers, aiming to overcome the constraints of some workers’ slow home connections. Now, he said, the chipmaker’s 37,000 employees are mostly “back to normal.”
The way most IT departments are set up has meant many directors have been juggling major issues alongside relatively minor ones. At Bay Area transit agency SamTrans, IT manager Edward Kelly got help from AT&T Inc. to quickly increase the speed of connections to the agency’s networks once its 200 employees made the switch to remote work. At the same time, Kelly’s team of five was flooded by calls from employees who’d forgotten their computer password and guessed wrong too many times. He said he’s also hoping people learn to use the “reply-all” button on group emails more sparingly.
As many employees’ home computers infuriate them, tensions can run high, said Jennifer Reed, a consultant at IT outsourcing firm Viqtor Davis North America. “Anyone that’s in cloud deployment, network operations, we’re notorious for not getting good sleep in the first place,” she said, referring to the often-stressful job. Under quarantine, “it’s like that on steroids,” she said, citing flaring tempers and frayed nerves.
Still, as IT workers put in overtime, many say their companies have been grateful. For the often-unsung departments, it can even feel like something approaching corporate glory. “People have been really cool,” SamTrans’ Kelly said. “We’ve definitely got a lot of credit, there’s no doubt about that.”
Eventually, IT support workers want to return to their anonymous roles. “We want customers and staff to not notice that we exist,” Reed said. “We’re not seeking gratitude. We just want to keep the lights on.”
Lovers of legal drama can now get real-life trials beamed to their devices live from courtrooms across the country.
As government buildings throughout the U.S. shut their doors to prevent the spread of Covid-19, many judges have moved operations online rather than put cases on hold altogether. The result is that custody hearings, bankruptcy proceedings, abuse charges and other cases are being heard by virtual courts. And thanks to the digital convenience of live-streaming, public hearings can now truly be heard by any member of the public.
To date, three dozen states have issued orders on virtual hearings, while Connecticut, New Mexico and others have mandated their use in some cases, according to the National Center for State Courts. Miami held its first major criminal court hearing via Zoom last week (a case in which a retired teacher was accused of having sex with an underage student). And on Monday, New York's chief judge said its virtual court system was up and running to conduct essential and emergency proceedings via Skype.
I tuned into some of the proceedings in Texas, where I grew up, and the feeling was uncomfortable and oddly voyeuristic, a little like scrolling through an ex-boyfriend’s email. Some cases that I happened upon were extremely sad, like the man trying to change his name to escape from a history of family abuse.
In general, most courtrooms are open to anyone, due to constitutionally-afforded rights to a fair and public trial. But there are natural barriers to viewing those proceedings, like time and travel, that can make them feel more private than sending the information out onto the various platforms court systems have been using—primarily Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube, Zoom Video Communications Inc., Cisco Systems Inc.’s Webex and Microsoft Corp.’s Skype or Teams.
There’s also some privacy afforded to courtrooms by old-fashioned physical distance. It’s hard to an remain anonymous observer if you have to physically show up in person, or to illegally tape the proceedings when bailiffs with guns are standing right there. On YouTube, anyone can watch anonymously like I did. And nothing is physically stopping a viewer from recording the hearing for personal use later.
"Judges aren't thrilled at the thought of all our work being put on YouTube, but we want to be flexible," said Collin County, Texas Judge Emily Miskel, who now has more than 500 followers on her court's YouTube channel. "I don't want technology to be the barrier to anyone having their day in court."
When Texas judges set up the virtual court system last month, some advocated for protecting the hearings with passwords for further privacy but ultimately decided against it. "You shouldn't need government permission to exercise your right to a public court hearing," Miskel says, noting that she and other judges are consulting privacy laws already on the books that determine when certain evidence or testimony should be excluded from a public courtroom.
Miskel told me she's included a "Do Not Record" watermark on the videos and is deleting them after they're posted, and that "there will be legal consequences,” for recording. Is the system perfect? “No,” Miskel said. “But for every drawback, there's a competing benefit, like the value of civic education by making our courtrooms more accessible to the public. For now, we're just going to see how it goes."
Amazon.com Inc. has played an important role in bringing groceries and other supplies to people’s doorsteps during the global pandemic. But it’s not just battling Covid-19 and the myriad logistical complexities the virus has introduced. As last week’s developments made clear, Amazon also appears to see itself as fighting a war on its other flank—against organized labor.
While other retailers closed up shop and laid off employees at the start of the crisis, Amazon said it was opening 100,000 new positions and continuing to operate its network of hundreds of warehouses and delivery centers. The company said it put in place enhanced safety measures, promoting social distancing and suspending security checks that can create lines of people outside facilities. But workers said the company should be doing more—like furnishing them with personal protective medical gear—and organized protests in Chicago, Detroit, Sacramento and Staten Island. The demonstrations were small but widely covered in the news.
The company then stumbled into a series of self-inflicted injuries. Last week, Amazon fired a five-year veteran named Christian Smalls, one of the organizers of the Staten Island protest, alleging that he had violated a quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus at work. Smalls, who announced that he had lost his job live on our Bloomberg Technology TV program, said that conditions in the facility were “horrific,” that cleaning supplies were “scarce” and that his firing was retaliation for speaking out.
Public officials condemned Amazon for the firing. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio directed the city’s Commission on Human Rights to investigate the situation, and Senator Bernie Sanders, an Amazon foil, tweeted that the firing was “absolutely immoral.” Amazon’s PR chief, Jay Carney, and the operations chief, Dave Clark, retorted nearly in unison, both tweeting about Smalls, saying he “purposely violated social distancing rules” and that “knowingly putting our team at risk is unacceptable.”
Then things got really strange. On Thursday evening, Vice News published what it called “notes from an internal meeting of Amazon leadership,” written by the company’s top lawyer, David Zapolsky. The note referred to Smalls, who is African American, as “not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”
Zapolsky suggested Amazon should deliberately try to draw attention to Smalls: “Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” He wrote there was “general agreement” on this point among the other attendees of the meeting, a group that included Clark and the chief executive officer, Jeff Bezos.
In a statement, Zapolsky conceded the notes were genuine and said he was frustrated over Smalls’s alleged safety infractions: “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”
Leaving aside the rarity of an Amazon executive’s internal memo leaking to a reporter, the story showed a leadership team seemingly preoccupied with the optics of minor protests and the possibility of union activity in its warehouses. In the past, Amazon has said it doesn’t want intermediaries in its relationship with employees. As a company that hires a huge number of temporary workers for the holiday season—and then dismisses many of those people in January—it probably can’t abide labor unions bargaining for enhanced job protection.
But Amazon has defeated many union incursions over the years in Delaware, Nashville, Staten Island and elsewhere. (It has also worked peaceably with steel and construction trade organizations that build its warehouses and offices.) It doesn’t have much to fear from a modern labor movement that is fractured, absorbed with old tactics and largely geographically confined to the northeastern U.S.
But it does have plenty to learn from employees who are raising legitimate concerns at a critical time—about the absence of cleaning supplies in vans, crowded job fairs and a virus that appears to be spreading in dozens of warehouses. “There are thousands of scared workers waiting for a real plan from Amazon so that its facilities do not become epicenters of the crisis. More and more positive cases are turning up every day,” Smalls said in a statement after he lost his job. “While they may have fired me, they can’t stop all of us from fighting for the protections we need.”