As tempting as it is to want to forget about the events of 2020, and even erase its 366 days entirely from our collective memories, the impact of this horrendous year on digital merits retrospection. In a year where millions perished from covid-19, families were separated, economies tanked, political divisions deepened, and isolation took a heavy mental toll across the world, there were lights of positivity. Heroic efforts from healthcare professionals to save the sick, the entire scientific community coming together to develop vaccines in record time, people showing flexibility and the ability to change, and a population of voters braving the virus to get rid of the biggest threat to western democracy since Hitler are all examples of reasons to be proud. And digital – in every sense of the word – became more deeply anchored into our lives, businesses, and economies.
We will try to shed some of the remnants of 2020 as quickly as possible. I personally can’t wait to throw all of my masks in the trash and delete the app for creating an attestation to go outside. But many of the new habits that we have created will stick, and our reward for getting through the pandemic will be choosing what we permanently adopt. More working from home and more time with the kids. More services that have moved online that are easier, more efficient, and more accessible. More handwashing. On the flip side: less commuting. Less doing things just because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”
New things were forced on us this year, for both good and bad. For the first time in my life I was confined, I was controlled in the streets just for being outside. There was panic in March that there would be no more toilet paper, that supply chains would break, that metropolises would deteriorate into the hunger games. But those fears proved unfounded as humanity showed an incredible level or resilience, not just to survive, but to keep life going as normally as possible. And this is thanks to digital.
Dinners were not reduced to rice with ketchup, we could still eat what we want thanks to restaurants staying open through delivery services where people could browse the world’s cuisine and get it delivered to their doors. We couldn’t go to stores that were closed but online platforms spread and new ones opened and we could order and collect at the entrance to stores or get anything delivered to our homes. We couldn’t go to work but we toiled thanks to the integration of communications platforms to stay connected to colleagues in the same offices and around the world. We shed cash and fully adopted contact-less payments.
And we learned. We learned about the progress of the pandemic, the scientific studies, the drawbacks to lockdowns and how to do them better – all of this was communicated via online platforms. We learned how to make sourdough bread from online recipes, how to sew masks in YouTube tutorials, how to play chess thanks to The Queen’s Gambit and how to jam together when we were not via apps like Houseparty. We learned how to be patient again as the world remains closed off, but we can still visit places thanks to Virtual Reality and the endless amount of content available online.
We are not through with the pandemic. These shortest days are dark and deaths continue to mount. As difficult as it is though, could you imagine going through this without the Internet? Without being able to FaceTime with family, watch swathes of entertainment from a number of streaming services, not get information in realtime from your news apps? We would have lived with a much higher level of fear, anxiety, and suffering.
So let’s take some time to look at what happened and celebrate the lifeline that digital represents during the darkest year of our millennial lives.
It’s a shame for brick and mortar businesses that were dragging their feet on making the shift to digital, but those who were ready to sell online capitalized on lockdowns and some experienced triple digital growth. Amazon doubled its market capitalization. They were not the only winners. Overall, digital now represents over a third of total retail sales in Europe, packing a full 10 years of ecommerce growth into 9 months. Between the east – China’s digital pioneering, and the west – more traditional markets like the EU and leaders like the US – there are fully 2 billion digital online buyers in the world.
Delivery times are shortening. Business models are incorporating basic shipping costs, as brands anticipate that people order online and so build that cost in instead of charging people after the fact (in order to be perceived as being more generous). People are home and are more available to receive deliveries. Some of these aspects will stick, others may release as people find the pleasure of shopping in stores again. But it is doubtful that packed malls and shoulder to shoulder checkout lines will make a comeback in the next few years.
And purchasing models are changing, just look at the success of Swedish payments firm Klarna this year. They break purchases down into multiple payments, a trend called “buy now pay later.” It is essentially consumer lending but the merchants pay for it, enabling more, bigger purchases.
It’s not just buying things, services are increasingly moving online, particularly in the most pressing field of 2020, healthcare. Doctolib, the French health platform, had already been offering video consultations before the pandemic, but the context enabled skyrocketing adoption, both among patients who were afraid of going to the doctor and getting sick, and doctors who were so entrenched in their old school ways that many of them still didn’t offer to accept payments by credit card. Now video consultations are the default, and for many people who are not suffering from some specific ailment, it’s enough to get them a prescription to take care of a minor health issue like strep throat.
With gyms closed, fitness trainers had to go online, broadcasting classes to their clients. Top end services like Peloton took off, bringing cycling classes to your living room (Peloton was also boosted in a big way by Klarna, and vice versa). Apple just launched Fitness+ to start getting the exercise-motivated into their recurring revenue ecosystem.
And of course there’s the story of Calm, an anti-anxiety app that helps people destress in a year when the pandemic, fires, protests, and a disputed election sent stress levels through the roof. It turns out that people are ready to pay for relief from the pressures of society. The company is now worth over $2B.
Did you suffer from Zoom fatigue? Are you one of the people who spends their time looking at themselves in the corner instead of looking at your coworkers? How many times did you tell a great joke or make a smart point only to find that you were on mute? No matter which services your company uses, we all became experts in video conferencing as the pandemic shut down offices and banished workers to their couches and bedrooms. There was good and there was awful.
Let’s start with the bad. Connected work was not available to everyone. Many people whose job relies on their physical presence did not have the luxury of folding their laptops and setting up shop elsewhere. They became known as the “essential” workers who were crucial to keeping the economy humming along and certain desires met. Many of them died from contracting covid-19. The fact that these workers are also the worst paid among the global workforce is a tragedy inseparable from capitalism itself.
Then, for those of us who are working remotely, the toll of work related stress became inseparable from our personal lives. The pandemic took away notions of work/life balance. Days off were spent in the same place as days working. There was nothing to interrupt the monotony – which in turn became so intense that it has itself become a source of additional stress.
What was the alternative? Shutting down the economy entirely? No, I don’t think so. Companies that adapted were able to keep people working and in many ways this represented a focus that helped us keep our heads above water when the world seemed like it was going to drown us. And it created a way for us to save the ships for which we work from certain failure.
Our heroic efforts were enabled by the rapid roll out of collaborative tools. Microsoft’s Teams saw unbridled growth. Zoom notched a hundred million new users in 2020 alone. Slack, which had spurned an offer to be acquired by Microsoft, was just bought by Salesforce. Whenever we do get back to the office, these tools aren’t going anywhere since they have proven their worth and enabled us to see work in a different light.
And here is the good. Working from home combined with lockdowns gave us a window into our coworkers’ lives. We met children who popped into calls. We could see the books lining their bookshelves (make sure you hide your copies of 50 Shades of Grey behind Built to Last). People were not so late to calls as they were when they had to switch floors to run between meetings. And the decentralized nature meant that more people could join in on important calls.
It wasn’t just the immediate workspace that benefited, I participated in a large number of panels for virtual events that often included people from NYC, Paris, and Singapore in the same panel at the same time. As much as I miss actually going to physical events, the technology that allows people to come together can cast a larger net, making discussions more diverse and more worthwhile.
The future looks even brighter. We are used to this hybrid approach now. It will be standard procedure for meetings in the future to include people physically in the room and people connected from home (or anywhere else). Connected work will let companies seek out top candidates from a wider pool and current employees will have more of a say over where they can live if they are less chained to the office. The office itself might be a thing of the past.
All things Streaming
When we did manage to close our computers there wasn’t a whole lot to do. Sure, people started crocheting and baking, but a lot of time was spent on couches in front of online entertainment. And holy moly is there a lot of it.
Disney+ launched at the start of the year just when the pandemic lockdowns were at their strictest. For desperate parents it was a prayer answered by a divine being. There are now over 86 million subscribers in what can only be the most successful platform launch in the history of digital. Its star show, the Star Wars spin off The Mandelorian became so popular that you couldn’t go online without running into Baby Yoda memes.
None of the other streaming services are hurting either. Apple tv+ is in the game, Netflix continues its storied rise – both in popularity but also in credibility – releasing major films on par with the other Hollywood studios. It now has just as much star-making power as anyone out there. Amazon’s Prime Video is competing with top notch original programming (watch Upload). And the big winner looking for 2021 is probably HBO Max, which will be the home of all major Warner releases next year at the same time as cinemas (if they are open). That will be a big draw towards getting people into that ecosystem.
Series and movies are great, but they are only a part of the world of live events that had to go online this year. Fans of fashion got to watch fashion shows from Milan, Paris, and New York online, streamed via Instagram lives. Music lovers got to see concerts all over the place, most notably Travis Scott’s mind bending concert experience in the smash hit video game “Fortnite.” And there were countless webinars from business, fitness, nutrition, DIY, parenting, and pet experts all vying for a chance to provide you with insights and knowledge. This is only the beginning.
Mobile adoption has officially crossed a threshold where we no longer talk about “mobile first.” We have moved into the realm of mobile only, mobile everywhere. The implications are huge, and one of the biggest areas affected is content itself. Gone are the days of landscape videos, everything is moving towards vertical content. From Netflix previews to the default formats on Tiktok to publishers like ESPN, everyone is getting in on the game.
4G connectivity is a big part of this shift. It’s now possible to get a signal in most places in the developed world, and people consume content faster and faster. This means less time to flip the screen and set your phone down (which we still do for Netflix or long YouTube videos). Content needs to be consumable on the fly and in a snap. Phones are also getting bigger, which means it becomes harder to manipulate them in your hands in different ways.
User habits are changing. Snapchat was the pioneer here but Instagram stories really broke open a new way to interacting with content. People got used to tapping through content instead of scrolling. The swiping interactivity replaced pesky buttons that were harder to hit when stretching your thumb across a larger screen. Removing buttons also freed up space so that content could take over, creating a more immersive experience.
And brands – who were slow to abandon landscape – have started to see the potential of vertical content aided by new creative tools like TikTok and Instagram’s Reels. It is also brand safe, since you don’t share your screen space with anything that might compromise your brand image. Vertical content can also move now between platforms, just look at how Spotify took over Instagram with their end of the year Wrapped feature.
A psychic would try to predict what the next round of content innovation looks like, but stories and vertical formats are now the default, and they are here to stay.
The battle for consumer confidence has gotten a lot hotter this year. Apple – the only major tech player without an ad network – has gone on the offensive, promising to wipe third party cookies from iOS 14. That would spell disaster for the likes of Facebook and Google who rely on those cookies to help advertisers reach their audiences. Facebook just responded with a print campaign standing up for all of the small and medium size businesses that rely on cookies to run effective campaigns and therefore keep their businesses running. It is true that businesses rely on that tracking to be able to function, and Apple’s move would cripple many entrepreneurial dreams making it harder to find new customers and engage with them.
The problem is that most consumers don’t understand anything about webtracking and cookies. The actual issues are very nuanced and deep. People might feel like Big Brother is spying on them, but cookies actually prevent many people from seeing certain ads – in order to avoid wasted spend. All Apple says is that they care about your privacy, meaning implicitly that the others don’t.
People have reason to be suspect. The gilded age of tech promising to connect the world with rainbows and joy is long gone. And when it comes to tracking, they get nervous and spooked out. Just look at the failure of tracing apps to combat covid-19. Governments set up apps to alert others when they came into contact with someone who became positive for the virus via anonymized Bluetooth connections. The idea was to make it possible for people to continue to meet and move around – to limit the severity of lockdowns – but so few people in the western world activated the feature that it had no impact. This is despite the fact that the Bluetooth connections don’t identify you or even where the contact took place, just that it did.
If you’re snorting right now I agree with you. There are always problems with these systems and many governments are not deserving of the trust necessary to not keep that data and use it in other ways. It is perhaps the slipperiest of slopes. But if you are going to trust a government, it should be the EU’s. It has the toughest privacy and data protection laws in the world, and recent rulings from the EU’s Supreme Court make it even harder for data on European citizens to make its way across the Atlantic where it can be subject to surveillance from America’s spooks. It is so hard to collect information about people in Germany – even when those people are willing to give you their name and email address – that many companies just don’t bother.
There have to be measured conversations to figure out what is better and worse when it comes to privacy. Unfortunately this runs cross current to people’s emotions which is that privacy is a fundamental right and anything that you find out about me is spying. Often, these are also the same people that scoff at the idea of paying for access to Facebook or paying Google each time you search for something – they readily skip over the fact that online behavior (what you do when you’re online) is not necessarily ownable. Do you own the fact that you visited a retailer site and clicked on a certain product page? Or does the website?
The age old saying of “people are going to believe what they damn well want to believe” could not be more true than today – despite the fact that all of the world’s information is available to refute any inherently false claim. That’s a bummer, of course, but things get nefarious when people purposefully use the Internet to spread misinformation. The damage can be severe as we saw when the US was taken by surprise during the 2016 US Presidential Election.
But there is good news here and 2020 proved that measures can be taken to counter the flow of misinformation and harmful behavior. The social giants have stepped up, labelling Trump’s tweets and increasing budgets in moderation for content that harasses others. Suspicious accounts were removed. Facebook banned political advertising to prevent a 2016 repeat.
Moreover, in response to the pandemic, the giants stepped up. Facebook put together an official covid-19 information center in order to make sure that users could get real information instead of getting swayed by viral conspiracy theories that were being shared on the platform.
I believe that this one-two punch is going to be the path of the future, meaning that platforms will continue to invest more in content moderation to make people safer and use their reach to push official information from credible sources. That provides a basis for hope moving forward, and they should not let themselves change because of criticism from the fringes. There may be no such thing as an absolute truth, but there are things that are more true than others and the world will be a better place if we put our faith in science and reason over emotion and speculation.
After 2020 hope is returning. People are being vaccinated. Biden’s win was certified. The horizon is brightening. Whatever 2021 has in store for us, here’s hoping for the best!
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