Unicorns and Other Things We Must Stop Talking About in 2016
There’s a drinking game I like to play at tech conferences. Every time someone uses the word “unicorn,” take a swig of your beer or coffee. Or your Kool-aid. You’ll be sick of your beverage within half an hour. It’s one of a host of terms and themes that have been useful in 2015 but have suffered from overuse, coming very close to losing their meaning altogether. Trendy ideas quickly descend into cliché; instead of illuminating what they purportedly describe, they obscure the facts and spur lazy thinking. So in 2016, let’s stop talking about:
Unicorns: Big props to Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee for coining the term. It refers to the companies that are privately valued at a billion dollars or more. But now there are more than 124 of these supposedly rare companies, according to a September report from Credit Suisse. In 2009, there were four. The number continues to rise. The original unicorns are mythical creatures; they’ve never been seen in the wild. It’s worth remembering that if you happen to see one, it’s probably just a horse wearing a fake plastic horn.
The Sharing Economy: People, no one is sharing anything. The term, which lent a rosy Kumbaya glow to the first companies launching peer-to-peer marketplaces like Airbnb and Uber, is no longer useful. So what do you call these new businesses? At WIRED, we call them on-demand services because they allow people to find a housecleaner, say–or clean a house–at exactly the moment it’s needed. They offer a new approach to meeting customer and worker demand without the pretense that we’re engaging in anything other than capitalism.
“Smart” anything: Someone somewhere decided that if an object is powered by the Internet, it’s smart. Smart homes. Smart cars. Smart watches. Smartphones. But as we’re learning, adding technology doesn’t make anything smarter by default. In fact, technology seems to render a lot of things dumb. In moments when it is blurting and beeping and disrupting my flow, my smartphone seems like the dumbest thing on my desk. Powering objects with the Internet opens the opportunity for them to be useful, and thus, smart. But only good design can make them so.
Wearables: That awkward term coined to describe the avalanche of products designed and sold to fuse the Internet to your body–fitness trackers, watches, Google glass–should be retired. Wearables are going to start to disappear next year, to become less noticeable in their presentation and less demanding in their interactions while giving us more data about our bodies. So let’s get rid of the word, too—after all, has anyone outside the navel-gazey worlds of Silicon Valley and tech journalism ever really said it?
Marissa Mayer: Yahoo’s plan to spin out everything but its stake in Alibaba is likely to take well more than a year, according to the company. Yet that hasn’t stopped activist shareholders from calling for Mayer’s ouster, and the media to ruminate on her fate. There may be nostalgia in Sillicon Valley for the Yahoo that dominated the web in the late ’90s, but today’s company hasn’t been significant for awhile. Its CEO won’t be able to bring back the core business, but she may be able to do right by investors and help it live on. Move along. There’s nothing to see here.
The Bubble: Yes, there might be a bubble. Or there might not be a bubble. If there is a bubble, it’s likely in late stage funding, the kind of money that is propelling the unicorns to their multi-billion-dollar valuations. And the Fed interest rate hike could cause the mutual funds and hedge funds fueling those investments to pull back, which would cause some of those valuations to dip. But no one can say for sure until it happens. In the meantime, asking if there’s a bubble leads to fuzzy comparisons with the dotcom crash at the turn of the century. If you hadn’t noticed, a lot has changed since then. As a metaphor, “bubble” is in a bubble all its own.
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