Each Saturday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at The New York Times, review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry.
Farhad: Hello, Michael. Boy, this was another relaxing week in newsland, wasn’t it? I just wish something would happen. The world has gotten so boring and predictable. I’m falling asleep.
Mike: I’m too tired, shellshocked and busy looking into the Times’s insurance policies around therapists who treat news PTSD to acknowledge your sarcasm right now.
Farhad: O.K., let’s run through what happened in tech this week. As usual, there was a lot of Trump-related stuff, but let’s start with a few items that had nothing at all to do with our new president.
First: Snap (the maker of Snapchat) finally unveiled its I.P.O. documents. It’s been years since a big American consumer tech company went public, so everyone on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley has been salivating over Snap’s debut on the market. And what we learned can be boiled down to two sentences: Snap is making a whole lot of money. And it’s losing even more.
Mike: Also, they used the words “sext” and “poop” in the S-1 filing. That’s a big win in my book.
Farhad: O….K…. The company, which makes its money from ads that appear in its app, said that it sold $405 million in ads last year. But it lost $514 million at the same time.
Another interesting data point was the size of its user base. Snapchat has about 160 million daily users. That’s not small! But it’s not that big, either, compared to Facebook and Instagram. It’s more in line with Twitter, which is not doing all that well.
This seems to be the main question Snap will have to battle as it tries to attract investors: Is it the next Facebook, or the next Twitter?
Mike: I’m kind of wary of Snapchat, to be honest, at least as a stand-alone public company with long-term, major growth prospects. I honestly could have seen it as a part of Facebook, but I don’t think Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s C.E.O., had any interest in reporting to Facebook’s chief, Mark Zuckerberg. I do think it’ll have a successful I.P.O., though.
Here’s Snap’s problem. Part of what made companies like Facebook so successful is this economic term and Silicon Valley buzzphrase: network effects. Essentially, the larger a network gets, the more people tend to find value in it. Facebook is the classic example of positive network effects strengthening the site over time.
Snapchat has a bit more difficult time doing that. It doesn’t have a follower model similar to Facebook’s, which means it takes a bit more effort to find new or interesting people to interact with on Snapchat. Also, content posted by people who aren’t your friends isn’t easily discoverable, another issue of keeping people engaged, in my mind.
A lot of folks compare Snapchat to Twitter, which I think is a pretty apt way of looking at it. Both companies really rely on brand advertising — basically, high-dollar accounts from huge advertisers rather than a bunch of smaller accounts that make up the long tail of revenue — and that seems to pale in comparison to the advertisers that go with, say, Google or Facebook.
And, as Facebook will tell you all day long, advertisers love targeting data, which Facebook has in droves. Snapchat, less so.
Farhad: Let’s turn to Trump. The tech industry continued to be roiled by clashes with the new administration. The war expanded to a number of fronts.
First, there was immigration. Lots of tech workers protested President Trump’s executive order banning travel from a number of Muslim-majority countries. Employees at Google staged a walkout this week, not in opposition to the company’s management but sanctioned by it. Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, and Sundar Pichai, its C.E.O., who are both immigrants, spoke out in support of the protesters. And even though some of them initially dragged their feet, by early in the week just about every other tech leader had come out in strong opposition to the immigration ban.
This is moving much faster than I thought it would. I’m not surprised Silicon Valley is a liberal bastion; I am surprised that workers here reacted so strongly to the new order. Were you? And where do you think this goes?
Mike: Honestly, I wasn’t shocked. It seemed like a national backlash, and people mobilized almost immediately. Besides being quite liberal, tech has many, many workers here from Asia and the Middle East and this directly affects them and their families. I would have been surprised if they had all stayed quiet.
I do think the Uber phenomenon around this was interesting. Almost overnight, Uber became the target for outrage, as people were upset at the continued willingness of Uber’s chief, Travis Kalanick, to be on Trump’s economic council. As hundreds of thousands of people deleted their Uber accounts and employees internally voiced concerns, Travis stepped down from the council.
And to your earlier point, the speed of how people mobilized so quickly was indeed breathtaking. I think a lot of it had to do with a feeling of helplessness among people that I heard about quite a bit. They wanted to do something, hence the protests, but also deleting and boycotting Uber felt satisfying to many, like they were taking a stand. We’ll see if that blows over now that Travis is off the council.
Farhad: On the other hand, Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief, decided that he’s not quitting the Trump advisory council. In a statement, Musk said he didn’t like the immigration order, but that he’d use his position on the council to suggest changes to the policy.
The funny thing, though, is that Musk already seems to be limiting his ambitions. He suggested on Twitter this week that he didn’t think he could press Trump to retract the order. That ship had sailed! But yes, this is still a man who wants to colonize Mars. Guess some things are easier than others.
Mike: Sending a man to Mars is more feasible than changing Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. This is the part where I would normally use the thinking face emoji if we were texting each other.
Farhad: There is one hard-charging Silicon Valley bigwig who doesn’t seem to be giving up on Trump: Peter Thiel. But we did learn something interesting recently about the billionaire venture capitalist who was just about the only person in tech to support Trump during the campaign. He has his heart set on New Zealand.
Officials in New Zealand released documents about Thiel’s 2011 application for citizenship there. “I am happy to say categorically that I have found no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand,” Thiel wrote.
Mike: LOL. Make New Zealand Great Again?
Farhad: Boy, this guy. Thiel is an immigrant to America, and he made his money in an industry that’s overwhelmingly dependent on immigrants. But he championed a candidate who is bent on reducing immigration to the United States. Which is no problem for Thiel, because he has a New Zealand escape plan.
If that’s not towering hypocrisy, I don’t know what is.
Mike: If there’s one thing the United States stands for, it’s probably billionaires getting to do whatever they want with little fear of reprisal from, well, anyone with less power or money than them. God bless America.
Till next week?
Farhad: Vaya con dios!