mirandakatz writes: In 2008, Airbnb was failing and its founding team was crumbling. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia had run out of money; they were going into debt; and Airbnb had no traffic. Nate Blecharczyk had followed his now-wife to Boston. The three founders were nearly out of options. Then, they resurrected an idea that had come to them before the Democratic National Convention: shipping Airbnb hosts free boxes of cereal—Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain’s—that they could then serve to guests. Surprisingly, it was those cereal boxes, not the platform they'd created for homesharing, that earned them a spot in Y Combinator and skyrocketed them to a $30 billion valuation.
mirandakatz writes: Wifi is growing up, fast—we're now seeing an influx of new "mesh" systems that use a system of devices to provide more consistent wifi to you in your home. At Backchannel, Steven Levy offers a guide to these new products, from Eero to Plume and Google Wifi, writing that "our relationship with wireless has changed for good. From this point on our data flow will be better, but we will have to become network administrators in the process. The amateur stage of home wifi is over, and, like it or not, we’re doomed to become pros...Inevitably, we will spend a multiple of the amount we used to drop on a new router once the old one petered out. The New Wifi is the $5 latte to the standard cup of coffee. And it’s just as tasty and essential."
jyosim writes: Coursera has recruited a volunteer corp of more than 2,500 beta testers to try out MOOCs before they launch. Other free online course providers have set up systems that catch things like mistakes in tests, or just whether videos are confusing.
Traditional colleges have shied away from checking online course content before going live, citing academic freedom. But some colleges are developing checklists to judge course design and accessibility.
“It would be lovely if universities would consider ways of adopting the practice of beta testing,” says Phillip Long, chief innovation officer and associate vice provost for learning sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. One factor, though, is cost. “How do you scale that at a university that has thousands of courses being taught,” he asks.
EdSurge asks: How much beta testing makes sense for courses, and what’s the best way to do it?
mirandakatz writes: Nextdoor came under fire in 2015 when it became clear that many people were using the platform to engage in racial profiling. In the two years since, it's made serious attempts toward eliminating bias, breaking certain cardinal rules of design in order to do so. Still, that might not be enough: social media has a racism problem because humans have a racism problem, and it's not yet clear that design can fix it. At Backchannel, Jessi Hempel takes an inside look at the company's attempts to rid Nextdoor of bias, and why that's proven to be so difficult.
mirandakatz writes: When Ahmed, a Syrian native, first made the journey from Turkey to Germany, he was fortified by the hope that his wife and kids would join him in a few months. That soon proved to be more difficult than they could have ever imagined. In the time that passed before they were able to be reunited, WhatsApp proved to be a crucial tool for staying in touch. At Backchannel, long-time Middle East correspondent Lauren Bohn delves into the important place WhatsApp has come to occupy for refugees, offering a lifeline for fractured families—and a window into the refugee crisis.
Speaking at the opening keynote of RSA Conference 2017 in San Francisco, he said the 2014 attack on Sony was a "turning point" with regards to cyberwarfare.
“Here was a nation state attack not for espionage, not related to the military, but to attack a private company for engaging in freedom of expression around, as it turned out, not a terribly popular movie," he said, before referring to the recent allegations around Russia. “For over two thirds of a century the world’s governments have been committed to protecting civilians in times of war. But when it comes to cyber attacks, nation state hacking has evolved into attacks on civilians in times of peace. This is not the world that the Internet’s inventors envisioned a quarter of a century ago but it is the world that we inhabit today,”
mirandakatz writes: Craigslist has endured for more than two decades, offering a service that is simply "good enough"—but not great. It facilitates peer-to-peer interactions, but does little to ensure that those transactions go off seamlessly. Enter the myriad startups trying to disrupt the “moving used crap around” space. At Backchannel, Justin Peters takes a deep look at one such startup—AptDeco—which, like Craigslist, allows users to list and view ads for used furniture—but unlike Craigslist, it also processes payments, coordinates pickup and delivery, and serves as a buffer between buyer and seller. Writes Peters, "everyone only has about a dozen major websites filed away in their brains. Once a site has made its way onto this list, it takes a lot to dislodge it: It has to start sucking, or change drastically, in order to lose its spot." Can AptDeco unseat Craigslist from one of those 12 spots?
mirandakatz writes: At one point not too long ago, futurists believed that Second Life was the final frontier of social media. Today, the platform is well past its peak—but it continues to host a thriving community of people with disabilities, who are able to live in Second Life in ways they cannot offline. At Backchannel, Kristen French embeds in one such community on "Virtual Ability Island," and offers up a gloriously detailed look at the utopia its residents are creating for themselves. She writes, "For many disabled residents, who may spend 12 hours a day or more in Second Life, the most important moments and relationships of their lives happen inside the virtual world. For them, the fevered fantasies of a decade ago have become reality: Second Life is where they live."
mirandakatz writes: Since 2014, Murray Cox has spearheaded the Inside Airbnb project, which scrapes data from the ride-sharing company's website and maps it, offering detailed looks at the company's presence in dozens of cities along with critical analysis. Cox is a vocal Airbnb opponent and housing advocate, and his strategy is working: in the past year, he's pushed Airbnb to be more transparent about its own data, and believes he played a role in helping New York pass a stricter law against illegal listings. The project is proof that even in the face of a $30 billion tech company, small-scale activism, when done cleverly, has an impact.
mirandakatz writes: Silicon Valley techies have long had the stereotype of being pampered, politically unengaged workers who preferred to better the world through products than through policy and political office. But in the months since the election, they've undergone something of an awakening—and now they're lending their skills to the resistance, bootstrapping tools for action and organizing marches in their off-hours. At Backchannel, Lauren Smiley takes a deep look inside this growing resistance, writing that "the newcomers are realizing they bring a valuable toolkit to this fight: tech and marketing skills coupled with that impatient startup mentality of expecting to scale impact, and wanting to find the most efficient route to do so...But all this energy only matters if it lasts."
mirandakatz writes: The Philadelphia 76ers have had a rough go of it lately, losing season after season. But off-court, the Sixers are hoping to hitch a ride off of Silicon Valley’s rise to prominence by banking on startups. They've just launched their Innovation Lab, which is providing funding, housing, meals, and more to young startups working in sports tech. At Backchannel, Andrew Zaleski offers an inside look at that program; he writes that "whether this strategy works for the Sixers is a gamble—and diehard fans may find themselves muttering 'trust the process' under their breath. Either way, this is one trend the sports organization is squarely ahead of."
mirandakatz writes: America has never been more divided, and on social media, people are blocking, muting, and unfriending each other left and right. At Backchannel, Jessi Hempel argues that Facebook is the last place we should be having political discussion right now: "We know the “filter bubble” about which Eli Pariser first wrote back in 2011 is part of the problem—it limits the viewpoints we see to those that reflect the opinions we already have. And yet we double down on that bubble, muting and blocking and unfriending people who think differently from us, if they make it into our social streams at all. We hate ourselves a tiny bit for this. And yet, if we do the opposite—engage on social media with people who hold different viewpoints—it almost always goes sideways." If you really want to understand people who don't think the same way as you? Get off of Facebook, and into the real world.
mirandakatz writes: Too much of a career "generalist," or stuck in one role when you think you'd be best suited for another? In the latest installation of Backchannel's advice column, Silicon Valley career wizard Karen Wickre offers up some sage advice for those considering a career pivot. Consider this the essential plan for a professional reboot.