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Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. It feels like we are finally turning a corner. We’ve passed the one-year mark of the onset of the global health crisis, vaccines are rolling out at a faster clip and the latest jobs report shows positive signs for the economy. For the first time in a long time, we’re looking into the future and seeing some glimmers of hope. With a gradual return to “normalcy,” what comes next?
To know what’s ahead, you need to have a clear-eyed view of what’s already happened. For me, one of the through-lines of the past year has been our extreme “online-ness.” We’re not only spending our working hours online but also socializing and communicating with people through various digital mediums and communities like never before — all of which can take a mental toll. Internet usage spiked in the early days of the pandemic, and even after rolling lockdowns and restrictions have eased, it remains much higher than average. It’s also well-documented that the health crisis has rapidly accelerated almost every company’s adoption of digital technologies across the board. On average, the share of digitally-enabled solutions in the market has accelerated by about seven years.
These days, our lives are entirely online — work, personal life, you name it. Today we’re streaming and learning online in ways never thought possible. Once “niche” platforms are now at the center of our lives. Investment in my industry — online learning, another type of virtual community — has skyrocketed. Although our lives are gradually returning to some semblance of normalcy, our attachment to these online communities will remain a fixture going forward. Here are a few reasons why.
To an extent, this has always been the ethos of the Internet. But from my perspective, never before have vertically-focused communities occupied the kind of space in our social lives the way they do now. Consider Twitch — a platform that, not so long ago, was considered a niche community for gaming enthusiasts. Last year, the platform clocked an eye-popping 17 billion hours watched, which was by far its most heavily streamed year yet, a full 83 percent higher than the 2019 tally. I mention Twitch as a case study because I don’t see this kind of momentum across these types of platforms slowing down anytime soon.
As a dad, I’ve seen this firsthand. My daughters have turned Fortnite into their group hangout — playing with friends on Facetime. In normal times, I would have put tight limits on their gaming time, but when we were in the depths of the lockdown, it was their only social activity. I know a lot of parents have been in the same boat, and still are. In my other leading role as CEO at Skillshare, I’ve seen firsthand how the surge of new users that came onto the platform in March 2020 has remained steady ever since. People sign up for the opportunity to learn something new but stay because of the deep level of engagement with their teachers and classmates. Whether it’s streaming or gaming or online courses, they’re all just different forms of virtual communities. I believe this trend toward deeper engagement across platforms is not only a symptom of the times but also the sign of a true paradigm shift in terms of how we all define and seek out community.
Earlier in my career, the idea of staging an offsite, let alone an entire conference or event series online, would’ve seemed illogical due to technical limitations and lack of interest. But now, it has become table stakes. Regardless of what industry you operate in, your virtual offerings are now just as important — if not more important — than what you offer in person. Today and going forward, the ability to connect with others virtually (whether through Zoom or Twitch or Fortnite or something else) is the norm, rather than the exception. We raised a $71 million Series D without leaving the house. Should we raise again, the idea of flying all over the country seems crazy.
These connectivity points are ubiquitous, which is what will ultimately keep people coming back in the long term. As a consumer, it no longer feels unusual to sign up for a virtual class or to attend an online lecture series. Even small engagements have become a source of community: For instance, I used to meet up with my best childhood friends once a year, but in this new world, we do a monthly Zoom lunch. It’s a seemingly small thing, but the frequency with which these interactions are occurring these days has made us all more comfortable spending more time online and more meaningfully investing in online communities.
We’re still in the early stages of a long-term trend. From my vantage point, the sheer volume of capital that has gone into online education over the past year will give all of us in the industry the time and resources to invest more into our businesses and deliver more value to our members. Additionally, topics or learning models that were considered “niche” before are now seeing enough interest to build companies around them, rather than features. The aggregation of demand always promised by the Internet may be earlier in its life cycle than we thought pre-crisis.
Beyond all the IPOs and the fact that online learning had its hottest VC year on record, what’s extremely telling about the growth of the broader industry over the past year is overall revenue growth. People are parting with their hard-earned dollars in the middle of an economic downturn to invest in these various virtual communities because this is something they see as valuable.
It’s this economic reality paired with our social reality, bolstered by the rapid growth and expansion of these platforms, that gives me incredible confidence that what we’re seeing today isn’t simply a byproduct of an anomalous year — instead, it’s a clear sign of how deeply and permanently life has changed. As someone who’s as much of an optimist as a realist, I believe the proliferation of these virtual communities will very much continue to enhance our analog lives.