Aug 15, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Situational awareness: The last 24 hours have seen a sharp increase in the number of conversations in Silicon Valley mentioning the word "recession."

Today's newsletter: 1,279 words, or a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: WeWork IPO claims a communal heart

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

When WeWork filed its IPO prospectus Wednesday, it set in motion one of the great tech business stories of our time.

  • WeWork has long bet that it can wed the mundane efficiencies of commercial real estate with the lofty ideals of mission-driven tech. That would resolve the age-old contradiction between hard-nosed profit-seeking and high-minded world-changing.
  • Put another way: WeWork knows it looks like an aggregator of coworking office space rentals, but it aims to persuade the public it is instead "reinventing the way people work," helping them "make a life, not just a living."

How it works: The company's mission is "to elevate the world's consciousness," and the magic wands it waves toward that end include...

  • Smart, beautiful design: A WeWork office is typically gleamingly new, carefully optimized for efficient use of space, and scattered with informal conveniences.
  • Vast data acquisition: Thanks to its size in the cities it operates in, WeWork is in a position to know everything about its local markets.
  • Idealistic talk about community: One way to change the office-space game is to get people to stop thinking of these places as "offices" at all. If they're "communities" instead, maybe we'll like them more. Yes, the hunger for community is real — but rarely do successful efforts to satisfy it take the form of profit-driven, publicly traded companies.

Why it matters: With many investors, analysts and pundits deeply skeptical of WeWork's losses, debt and business model, a successful IPO would be a sweet victory for the company.

  • Its real challenge will be navigating the ups and especially the downs of the business cycle, which can be especially unkind to companies that, like WeWork, have taken on lots of long-term leases.
  • If budget-cutting ever kicks in, all the talk about elevating consciousness and personal fulfillment is going to come back to bite the company.

Reality check: Fashions in office topography never stop changing, rejecting the fads of the past. The cubicles of the '80s and '90s became the butt of jokes long ago. WeWork's sleek looks, open kitchens and slouchy sofas may not be hot forever.

Our thought bubble: Has there ever been an SEC filing that began like this?

"We dedicate this to the energy of we — greater than any one of us but inside each of us."
WeWork S-1 filing
  • WeWork's embrace of "we" is an over-the-top and, so far, successful re-branding of the traditionally adversarial commercial landlord-tenant relationship as a group hug.
  • But all those first-person-plurals aside, the single most important fact in WeWork's filing is more of a first-person singular: Even after it raises billions from the public, this company will be totally controlled by one person, co-founder Adam Neumann. Community, meet majority shareholder.
2. Private hate groups online prove difficult to police

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Recent high-profile hate crimes are forcing technology companies to reassess how hate speech and harmful content manifests in closed groups online, Axios' Sara Fischer writes.

Why it matters: As communications become more closed off and private, experts worry that private group forums online may be festering hateful activity that could manifest itself in dangerous offline behavior.

Driving the news: Facebook said Wednesday that it would be simplifying its groups policy to make groups on its platform either "public" or "private" so that it's easier for group members to understand who can and cannot see their posts.

  • The setting update essentially makes it easier for group owners to see whether or not their posts are publicly accessible.
  • Last month, ProPublica reported that border patrol agents were joking about migrant deaths and posting sexist memes in a private Facebook group that had nearly 10,000 members. ProPublica was leaked the contents from the group page, which had been active for years.
  • Facebook says it has heard from users that they wanted more control over how their groups can be discovered.

Between the lines: Facebook isn't the only platform to struggle with closed-off groups that spew hateful rhetoric.

  • Redditquarantined” one of its biggest pro-Trump groups in June over violent threats being posted by group members. Quarantining groups means that the groups can remain on the platform, but they can't earn revenue and visitors to the groups have to opt-in to viewing the content after receiving a warning message about it.
  • 8chan, the anonymous message board that often hosts conspiracy theories and hate speech, is under pressure from lawmakers, activists and even its own creator to crack down on forums that serve as a breeding ground for hate speech. On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee issued a bipartisan subpoena to 8chan's owner, Jim Watkins.

Be smart: Facebook, Reddit and other forums are reluctant to ban or take down specific groups because they don't want to infringe on free speech rights. Instead, most take steps to demote groups, making them hard to find, or to remove incentives for posting incendiary content.

The bottom line: Monitoring hate speech, even on mainstream social sites, is proving to be difficult in a world that's growing increasingly privacy-centric.

Go deeper: Privacy concerns push people to private, group-based platforms

3. Kashmir's internet blackout bites hard

India shut down all internet access in Kashmir nearly 2 weeks ago as part of its power play to eliminate the region's autonomy, and the New York Times has a sobering report on the impact of that move.

This "information blockade" has paralyzed the province:

"Shopkeepers said that vital supplies like insulin and baby food, which they typically ordered online, were running out. Cash was scarce, as metal shutters covered the doors and windows of banks and A.T.M.s, which relied on the internet for every transaction. Doctors said they could not communicate with their patients."
— The New York Times

The backdrop: The tactic is one India has used increasingly in recent years, and autocratic governments around the globe are finding it a handy tool for quashing dissent and preventing opposition organizing.

Go deeper: India leaves Kashmir in the dark as it erases special status

4. An Uber for self-driving cars

Photo: Erik Dreyer/Getty Images

Automated vehicles, when they are ready, won't magically deploy themselves into robotaxi services. They will require sophisticated dispatch and routing software like Uber and Lyft use today to match passengers with vehicles and get them to their destination, writes Axios' Joann Muller.

Why it matters: Most AV developers don't specialize in routing. They're focused on the AI and robotics necessary for vehicles to drive themselves.

  • To become a viable business, self-driving cars will have to be deployed as a transportation service that is safe, reliable and affordable.

What's happening: RideOS, a San Francisco-based startup founded by former Uber engineers, has developed an open-source platform that any company can use to create its own ride-hailing network.

  • It's the first time a set of ride-hailing applications has been open-sourced, allowing customers to rebrand or build new features on top of RideOS' technology.
  • The Ridehail platform is compatible with both human- and robot-driven vehicles.

Among its initial customers is Voyage, the self-driving startup focused on ride-hailing in retirement communities, whose CEO, Oliver Cameron, is glad to tap RideOS' expertise.

  • "We will always focus on what we do best, which is providing autonomous vehicle technology," he tells Axios. "We're not the world's best at building routing, pricing or apps."

What to watch: There's no reason Uber or Lyft couldn't squash a startup like RideOS if they decided to resell their own routing and dispatch software to other companies. It's basic plumbing, after all. So far, there's no sign that they plan to.

Subscribe to Joann's twice weekly Axios newsletter on Autonomous Vehicles.

5. Take note

Trading places

  • Impossible Foods, the plant-based meat maker, has hired Apple's Ravi Thakkar as its new VP of product management.


6. After you Login

Is it a surrealistic media-jamming stunt? A fraternity prank? Or a marketing gimmick for a product yet to reveal itself?

We just don't know why a Mr. TV Head decided to drop 50 vintage television sets on front porches in Henrico County, Va. Someday, surely, we must.

Ina Fried