When Google Wave Crashed and the Tech Press Burned

Was it the end of the tech blogging innocence?

Yesterday, Martin Bryant wrote a post that I think has been on the mind of many folks in recent years. Certainly those who have worked in the tech press for a long time, or who used to — like myself. “I miss blind, dumb enthusiasm for new tech,” reads Bryant’s headline.

A subsequent Twitter thread by Ross Mayfield looped in many of us in that former (or current, long time) tech press camp. It’s a good discussion (made much easier to follow thanks to Twitter’s new experimental threading in the twttr test app, by the way), but rather than pile into the canoe, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts here.

Bryant’s post centers around Google Wave, a long-since defunct product that launched ten years ago. I was in the room when it launched, and since I was at TechCrunch at the time, we got a preview of the technology a few days before so we could write one of the first stories about it. That story was nothing if not enthusiastic!¹

And that’s sort of humorous because you could certainly argue that in hindsight, it should not have been so enthusiastic!² I’m not sure how many people we got to sign up for Wave after that post, but it was certainly hundreds, if not thousands (maybe more?!?). And that ended up being… a pretty big waste of time!

Don’t get me wrong, there were parts of Wave that were undeniably cool. Namely the technology behind the real-time collaboration. Such things are pretty normal these days, but some of that is because the tech behind Wave found its way into other Google products, as Bryant notes.³ Wave undoubtedly helped push the industry forward, at least a bit.

At the same time, it was still a fail. We can quibble about why that ended up being the case. (I would blame timing as much as anything — it was too early. But you can’t overlook the general lack of coherent product direction — it was a technology in search of a problem, which the team behind it admitted at the time!) And I think it points to something important in the bigger picture here.

These days, I look at the landscape with a much different lens — that of an investor. My job is now essentially ‘default no’ versus being ‘default yes’ when I was in the press.⁴ But when I look to the tech press these days, I definitely see a switch to a more ‘default no’ mentality as well. And I think this is both natural and makes sense.⁵ There is simply too much out there to spend time with the vast majority of new products. Of course, to some extent, that was always the case, but the filters have changed significantly as well.

Whereas a company just (“just”) raising funding was a decent indicator of quality back then, these days there are too many funding sources for that to mean all that much. And while that money used to ensure at least some level of traction, these days it’s far too hard to break through the noise. Whereas it used to be fun and exciting to find and try new apps on the iPhone, these days we’re out of slots on our home screens, and more importantly, out of time in our days to use new apps. There hasn’t been a truly new platform (at least for consumer services) in quite some time. And on and on… And all of this means that any time spent on new apps and services is likely for naught.

The vast majority of these new products are going to fail — and while that may have always been the case, they’re failing faster than ever before. And so who in their right mind would commit their time (let alone their data) to such services? The oxygen has been sucked out of the room.

At the same time, there are still new services that pop up from time to time which are worthy. But the filters to find them are now rarely a single story in the press. They’re more likely to be found via triangulation — some combination of press, general buzz, word of mouth, and perhaps the right investors, in the right spaces…

Yes, as tech enthusiasts, that is incredibly disappointing. But imagine what it’s like for the startups! It is both easier than ever to start a company and harder than ever to be discovered, let alone gain traction.

Anyway, all of this is why I think services like ProductHunt, or even just Twitter are generally better at serving this need today than tech blogs.⁶ As a enthusiast, you can easily scan and comb through dozens of new products and services at a time. You don’t need to read 500 to 1,000 words (let alone 2,500 words!) about them, which again, is time probably better spent doing something else. And services like Techmeme remain vital to help with the aforementioned triangulation of what you should be paying attention to.⁷

I’m not saying all press around new products, companies, and funding should stop. But if I were to give advice to an aspiring reporter/blogger, it would be to be extremely mindful of your filters. Because you are a filter! The way to grow in stature and relevance in your profession is to be a great filter. To be someone who people can grow to trust your recommendations.

Given the size and scope of the industry these days, I also think it makes sense to go far more granular than you may have in days of blogging past. Perhaps don’t just cover “consumer services” but cover “consumer voice services” or something like that.

All of this is easier said than done, of course. And it takes time — a lot of time — to gain such trust and expertise in a space. It does not take a lot of time to lose such trust. If you say, write enthusiastically about products that go on to fail time and time again. If you go in blind and dumb, as it were. Thankfully, Google Wave wasn’t the norm for me. 😉

¹ Sidenote: I once got an offer to write one of the “For Dummies” series of books about Google Wave. I declined, mainly due to time constraints. There’s a joke about dummies in here somewhere, but I can’t quite get there…

² I did, of course, caveat myself, in the end: “It’s a really interesting concept, one that you really do need to see in action. It’s ambitious as hell — which we love — but that also leaves it open to the possibility of it falling on its face.

³ Here’s where I should note that the firm where I’ve been a partner the past six years, GV, has an LP named… Google!

⁴ Largely because even if you thought a product sucked, you could still write that! As an investor, if you think a product sucks, you decidedly do not write (the check).

⁵ There are also, of course, many people doing bad things in our industry. Things which need to be uncovered and called out.

Disclosure: GV was an investor in ProductHunt back before it sold to AngelList. We’re also an investor in AngelList!

Disclosure: Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera is a friend of mine. I also think he puts far too much funding news on Techmeme, which I hope he knows because I constantly tell him.