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  • feedwordpress 22:21:36 on 2019/12/23 Permalink  

    The People’s Web 

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    The People's Web

    Every day, millions of people rely on independent websites that are mostly created by regular people, weren't designed as mobile apps, connect deeply to culture, and aren't run by the giant tech companies. These are a vision of not just what the web once was, but what it can be again.

    Think of every time you've sent someone a Snopes link to debunk a spurious story that's been shared online. The casual way we might look up the credits for an album on Discogs, or for a movie on IMDB. The absurd details of popular culture captured on TV Tropes and Fandom, linguistic oddities documented on Urban Dictionary, technical questions answered on Stack Overflow, lyrics we quote from Genius, memes on Know Your Meme — all of these are a powerful and valuable record of the world around us, created and captured by millions of ordinary people. And there is, of course, Wikipedia standing astride them all, as perhaps the pinnacle of people-created web references.

    Now, these kinds of sites are far from perfect. Each ecosystem of information has too many barriers to creation. Their communities of moderators and contributors are often exclusionary, echoing the gatekeeping of the media and institutions that preceded them. Some of the information on the sites is inaccurate, or skewed.

    But even with all their flaws, the existence of dozens of massive, collectively-maintained, curated and organized libraries of communal culture are still something like a miracle of the web. Tellingly, these kinds of sites rarely get launched these days, and the ones that have survived all follow a fairly common set of patterns. They often start as a labor of love from one person, or one small, tightly-knit community. The knowledge or information set that they record is considered obscure or even worthless to outsiders, until it becomes so comprehensive that its collective worth is undeniable.

    Their business models have evolved as the internet has evolved, and they tend to start as pretty pure web experiences, that have then had to iterate, often with limited resources, to accommodate the dominance of search engines, the rise of the mobile web, the pervasiveness of social networks, and the societal challenges of organized harassment and targeted misinformation. Through it all, they've grown and adapted, and handled the inevitable community challenges. Many have diversified their business models with everything from memberships and subscriptions to merchandise and events.

    But here's the thing: Taken together, these sites are as valuable as any of the giant platforms run by the tech titans.

    For as much video as we see on YouTube, as many photos as we browse on Instagram, there is just as much time, attention and energy spent every day on exploring and referencing these deep databases. They don't have fancy filters or complex recommendation algorithms, but they meet a variety of deep human needs around creation and expression and often, they also help people simply do their jobs.

    A Web At Risk

    At Glitch, we find a tremendous amount of inspiration in the open-ended creativity of these communities, but I think everyone who loves the web finds joy from the seemingly-endless ideas captured on these sites. We just don't think of them as a cohesive whole like we do with the big apps that live behind a button on our phones. We urgently need to pay attention to this cohort of sites, though, because their position is precarious. Just as we've seen with Google introducing its algorithms and devastating the first generation of the social web, with the rise of native mobile apps and social networks like Facebook and Instagram limiting our links and locking us into their walled gardens, these people-made web communities are deeply vulnerable to the whims of the big players. We have to recognize their collective value before they're facing an existential threat.

    If we're going to build a new web, and a new internet, that respects our privacy and security, that doesn't amplify abuse and harassment and misinformation, we're going to need to imagine models of experiences and communities that could provide a better alternative. There's not going to be a "Facebook killer". But there could simply be lots of other sites, that focus on a different, more constructive and generative, set of goals.

    The good news is, we don't have to imagine what that more human, more expressive, more valuable web could look like. We just have to pay attention to the fact that we visit it every day.

  • feedwordpress 14:29:56 on 2019/12/10 Permalink  

    “Link In Bio” is a slow knife 

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    “Link In Bio” is a slow knife

    We don’t even notice it anymore — “link in bio”. It’s a pithy phrase, usually found on Instagram, which directs an audience to be aware that a pertinent web link can be found on that user’s profile. Its presence is so subtle, and so pervasive, that we barely even noticed it was an attempt to kill the web.

    Links on the web are incredibly powerful. There are decades of theory behind the role of hyperlinks in hypertext — did you know in most early versions, links were originally designed to be two-way?  You'd be able to see every page on the web that links to this one. But even in the very simple form that we've ended up with on the World Wide Web for the last 30 years, links are incredibly powerful, opening up valuable connections between unexpected things.

    For a closed system, those kinds of open connections are deeply dangerous. If anyone on Instagram can just link to any old store on the web, how can Instagram — meaning Facebook, Instagram’s increasingly-overbearing owner — tightly control commerce on its platform? If Instagram users could post links willy-nilly, they might even be able to connect directly to their users, getting their email addresses or finding other ways to communicate with them. Links represent a threat to closed systems.

    Precarity and Scarcity

    Here's the thing, though: people like links. So closed systems have to present a pressure release valve. Hashtags are a great way out. They use the semiotics of links (early versions of hashtags on social platforms were really barely more than automated links to a search for a particular term) but are also constrained by the platforms they live on. A hashtag is easier to gather into a database, to harvest, to monetize. It’s much easier, sure, but it also doesn’t have all the messiness of a real link. Instagram doesn’t have to worry that clicking on its hashtags will accidentally lead people to Twitter, or vice versa.

    And the ultimate triumph of being anti-web is to make links scarce. The smallest possible number of links a platform could allow is zero, so Instagram gets as close to that theoretical limit as possible, and gives you… one. You can have one link. Aren’t you grateful? One!

    There are some legitimate reasons platforms limit links. Spammers abuse links. Trust is hard to verify around links — too many scammers make links that look real, but lead to sketchy sites. Building a system to monitor all the links being posted on a big platform does take some cost. Maybe you can have a link again, if you are already in the 1% most influential users on the platform and put it in a story — the part of Instagram's experience that drives the engagement metrics they care about. Maybe you just give up, and pay for links, by buying advertising.

    But killing off links is a strategy. It may be presented as a cost-saving measure, or as a way of reducing the sharing of untrusted links. But it is a strategy, designed to keep people from the open web, the place where they can control how, and whether, someone makes money off of an audience. The web is where we can make sites that don’t abuse data in the ways that Facebook properties do.

    Links take us to places where we can make choices that Instagram never would.

    Imagine Something New

    With billions of people using the major social platforms, and the people who remember a pre-social-media web increasing in age while decreasing as cultural force on the internet, we’re rapidly losing fluency in what the internet could look like. We’re almost forgotten that links are powerful, and that restraining links through artificial scarcity is an absurdly coercive behavior.

    I don’t care about the imagined “good old days” of the web, and I’m not a pollyanna about the wild, open web being some panacea for all the harms that technology and the internet can enable. But I do think coerce methods of controlling people are a danger, and some of the most insidious techniques are when a platform subtly erases empowering opportunities for its users. So let’s look at all the apps that live under our thumbs, and interrogate the choices they’re making, and then imagine what they would look like if we demanded that our tools don’t tie our hands.

    Flashback: From 2011, Facebook is gaslighting the web.

  • feedwordpress 14:30:28 on 2019/12/09 Permalink  

    Podcast of the Year: Function 

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    Podcast of the Year: Function

    Congratulations to Function with Anil Dash for being named podcast of the year! In a media landscape absolutely littered with sound-alike tech podcasts rehashing the same tedious iPhone rumors or parroting Facebook's latest defense of abusing your data, Function has stood out as the rare tech podcast that demonstrates a fluency, and even a comfort in discussing culture, race, policy, and numerous other areas that are too often glossed over in discussions of technology.

    Last year, the first year of Function was a credible, but fairly staid, look at the intersection of technology and culture. In the year since, there have probably been a dozen major tech podcasts that have launched purporting to cover the same ground, to varying degrees of success. So it's refreshing, then, that Function (and its producers, Bridget Armstrong and Keisha "TK" Dutes) has chosen to push far deeper into its more unique, and even controversial, perspective on tech.

    We don't often hear the CEO of a hot tech startup discuss their own struggles with mental health. But the opening episode of this season of Function features exactly that, with host Anil Dash being strikingly candid about his own experiences, as an entry point to a deeply critical and nuanced exploration of the impact that technology can have on our mental health — both for better and for worse. It's also worth flagging that this is one of many episodes that benefit from the team's diligence in providing full text transcripts for every episode; content that's potentially upsetting or that might require more time to process or digest is well-suited to having text to augment the audio.

    The complexity of that first episode typifies the show's attitude toward technology. There's none of the often-exhausting tech cheerleading that plagues so many other popular tech podcasts, nor the vacuousness of the "branded podcasts" that many companies put out as prestige projects. At the same time, there isn't a reflexive Luddite impulse here, either. This is, after all a show coproduced by a tech startup, Glitch, that is all about helping people make the web and write code, and an unusually sincere love for technology and an unabashed geekiness run through even the most tech-critical episodes of the season.

    Where No Other Show Goes

    When this season of Function hit its stride with an episode about how systematic racism gets baked into software like that used for making bail decisions in the criminal justice system, it was evident there's simply no other show that tells the story with a combination of genuine interest in vital civic issues, along with a deep fluency in the technology that often shapes them. There's no other podcast where you can listen to an interview about artificial intelligence impacting the justice system and get a sense that everyone in the conversation actually understands how machine learning works. And the even bigger surprise of that episode is hearing the host of a tech podcast actually learning from guests and reaching a conclusion that wasn't predetermined before they even started taping.

    No show is perfect, of course. There's a little indulgence in dedicating two full episodes of the show's short season to the host's fixation on the musician Prince, though it's a plus that those shows have a tech angle that's not contrived. However, whether it's being willing to take on the idea of GIFs as digital blackface, or a surprisingly insightful look at design bias through the lens of tech accessibility for the disabled community, this entire season of Function has shown a willingness to dig into tech with a passion and perspective that no other show can.

    Perhaps the best example was the final, two-part episode of the season, a look at how to save the 2020 election from the dangers of technology's influence. Just as season one of Function had a prescient look at the vulnerability of election technology, season two goes deep into the ways journalism needs to evolve, and even to the direct impact of activism in forcing the major tech platforms to be accountable.

    It's that specific, tech-fluent, focus that makes Function unique. Every tech show can say "Facebook bad!" but almost none have the chops to talk about what to do about it when the big tech companies are having negative impacts on the world. It's a bit absurd that these solutions are coming from a show that's co-produced by Glitch, a startup, and Vox Media, which has an entire stable of tech podcasts of its own. But ultimately, Function provides a unique and much-needed voice in the world of technology podcasts, and so it is our easy choice for Podcast of the Year.

  • feedwordpress 06:30:03 on 2019/11/21 Permalink  

    A primer on South Asians and Desis 

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    I often talk about South Asian people, or how I identify as being an American of South Asian descent. Many folks outside our communities don’t always know the details there, so I wanted to share some generally useful info, in hopes that it answers a bunch of questions that maybe people are uncomfortable asking, or don't quite know how to Google.

    Disclaimer: I'm far from an expert! This is just sharing my own understandings, and others may disagree with some of these interpretations.

    First, "South Asia" is different from Southeast Asia, a term which also commonly used in the U.S. Specifically, South Asia encompasses countries and cultures like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, The Maldives, Afghanistan, and Bhutan. (This isn't comprehensive — the boundaries can be fuzzy, and there are longstanding South Asian cultures in other countries like China.) By contrast, Southeast Asia typically refers to countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Laos. So, though both terms are imprecise, there's a distinct geographic separation, and an even more distinct cultural separation.

    We talk about South Asian cultures collectively because the political boundaries are relatively recent and were greatly influenced by violent colonialism. Events like Partition (one of the largest, most brutal forced migrations in human history) happened in living memory. More to the point, we often share culture and deeply personal aspects of identity like language, religion, cuisine, music and arts across these relatively young boundaries. This is notwithstanding the political tensions between some South Asian countries. Also, much of the desi diaspora lives outside of South Asia, and millions have never been to the subcontinent but have lived in parts of Africa, Asia or the Americas for generations.

    Sometimes I describe our people, including people in the South Asian diaspora as “desi”. This is essentially an in-group term meaning “a person of South Asian descent”. It’s not offensive if other people use it, though it may sound a bit affected. Do note, though, that some people don’t like using “desi” as a demonym, as it elides the history of marginalized cultures in the subcontinent, and perhaps perpetuates casteism in the diaspora. I didn’t grow up using the word, and don’t speak Hindi, so I’m still learning about this connotation!

    Many people I know in the diaspora identify first with the regional culture they’re from. For example, you may know people who are Punjabi; this can imply a connection to language, food, clothing, music, even faith in a way that crosses political boundaries. Even my view here is skewed; I’m by no means an expert, and I really grew up around very few other Indian people, including almost none from the region (meaning language & culture) that my family is from. One confounding thing to outsiders is that nearly every region has its own unique language, both written & spoken, and some languages (like Hindustani/Urdu) are similar when spoken but have wildly different written forms. It’s more analogous to countries in the E.U. than to states in the U.S.

    Also surprising to many outside the community is that nearly all South Asian countries (and thus South Asian diaspora communities) are very multi-religious. You know of Hinduism & Islam, but Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism & other faiths have more than 100 million collective followers in South Asia. This is true despite the sometimes severe political oppression that many groups face, especially in a time of rising religious fundamentalism from a lot of the people in power.

    This stuff can feel a little complicated, and that's made even more fraught because we’re so marginalized in countries like the U.S. There are  roughly 6 million South Asian Americans in the U.S. — nearly 2% of the population. That makes us collectively more populous than the 30 smallest U.S. states are. Despite this, we’re never even mentioned in political polls.

    That invisibility is particularly dramatic when you consider that there have been South Asian immigrants for > 200 years. Our first significant presence began in the 1800s, when we were welcomed into Black neighborhoods in New Orleans, Harlem & Baltimore. Later, South Asian workers came to the west coast to build rails & farms. At each new stage of South Asian immigration, we faced barriers both political & social. The Asian Exclusion Act barred our immigration & eventually led to revoking citizenship for desi immigrants. South Asians were also subject to violence, including lynchings and mass killings. We’ve also faced deep struggles within our community. Tensions often arise between immigrant & native-born desis, and we can carry forward animosities that are grounded in tensions between our countries of origin. Casteism and colorism plague our community, and anti-blackness often poisons our solidarity with those who welcomed us first. Domestic violence & misogyny are epidemic.

    Despite all these challenges, and the often-tenuous grasp we have on our identity in the U.S., the last few years have seen an unprecedented visibility & presence for South Asian Americans even in the face of white supremacy. We’ve got our first TV shows, first feature films, a real presidential candidate, and a number of prominent business leaders. We finally exist in culture.

    I'm optimistic that enough people are even curious about these topics and want to know more about us in a way that promises more acceptance and support in the years to come.

  • feedwordpress 21:39:42 on 2019/11/11 Permalink  

    The Sound Of Your Voice 

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    The Sound Of Your Voice

    Even though I watched the medium of podcasting being created since its inception, I'd always resisted a little bit participating myself. I think I just felt more at home in this format, blogging, as that's where I'd found my voice.

    Well, that might be a bit hard to believe now that I've been on lots of different podcasts. But it feels like I'm really finally getting the hang of it, and I hope you'll check out some of the recent conversations that I've been lucky enough to get to visit.

    The Weeds: The Internet We Lost

    This was a really great conversation with Matthew Yglesias — especially because we didn’t just  go into some old visions of "the good old days of the web" (which never actually existed), but because we got to talk about the evolution from those days — and how the independent web is  resurgent today. You’ll want to hear this!

    The New Rules of Work: Communities Are Diverse. Why Isn’t Tech Talent?

    This conversation with Kathryn Minshew started by talking about the structural barriers that keep tech from being inclusive, but we also offered some hope about people and companies that are doing the hard work today.

    Developer Tea

    This is one of the first times anyone's ever asked me about the deeper motivations for why I got into technology in the first place. For all the criticisms of tech that I often have, there's something really meaningful about why I've always loved coding and tech, and we got to dive into it in this two-part interview.

    Switched On Pop: Why U Love 2 Listen 2 Prince

    Oh, you can't miss this one. With the upcoming release of the Deluxe Edition of Prince's 1999, I went on Switched On Pop to let my funk freak flag fully fly, and we had a blast. You are gonna love this one.

    The Sound Of Your VoiceThe Sound Of Your Voice
    The Sound Of Your Voice
  • feedwordpress 14:41:51 on 2019/10/02 Permalink  

    Every Day, A Little Better 

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    Every Day, A Little Better

    [CW: mental illness, self-harm] When my depression was at its worst, it felt almost like a constant, physical pain. Getting away from that crushing weight felt as urgent as pulling my hand away from a hot stove, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even imagine a respite or a pause in the misery, let alone conceive of a day when I wouldn’t have to think about it, when just lifting that weight off my chest wasn’t the singular concern of my every waking hour.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, to start: I’m an incredibly fortunate person, with a wonderful family, a thriving career, and a platform that lets me speak my mind to the world. I’m thankful every day for these blessings, and try to be worthy of the gifts I’ve been given. What’s more, I am privileged enough to have some stability and kindness in my life, granting me a resiliency I am deeply grateful for. I want to start by reciting how appreciative I am for my life now because it’s the thing I most wish I could tell my younger self as I was struggling.

    For most of my teens and twenties, I wrestled with depression as either a specter that lingered over everything, threatening to yank away any joy or peace that I found, or worse as a predator that stalked me and actively fought me finding any happiness or comfort. In reading other people’s stories, I find that the details of my experience are maybe a little different, but the high level pain of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted seems very similar to what so many have endured.

    The truth is, I’ve never kept my struggles with mental health a secret; I wrote about it all on this site back when blogging was still vibrant and booming before social networks took off. And my personal view was that I didn’t have any more stigma about mental illness than about, say, acid reflux. “Here’s a health challenge I had. It was serious. Because I was fortunate enough to have good medical care and a solid support network, I was able to treat it. A combination of the right medication, changes in diet and sleep and exercise, and being mindful about my wellness overall helped me manage it and make it something I live with but don’t have to worry about on a daily basis anymore.”

    But I’ll be real: I’ve been quiet about it. When, after a decade and a half of people asking me, o finally started a podcast last year, I figured I’d just be talking about tech and software. I did not think I’d start a new season of the podcast by talking about the fact that I’d once wanted to kill myself.

    I don’t mean to be glib about it, because it still terrifies me to say it out loud. I’m not ashamed, but o worry about my family or loved ones having to face the stigma over my own issues. I worry about my colleagues and coworkers feeling unsettled or uncomfortable with me talking about this, even though they’ve been nothing but sensitive and supportive. I worry about still having to do business in a tech industry that struggles with issues of inclusion on the best of days, and how it will react to me being fairly visible while sharing this kind of message. And I care deeply about being an advocate for universal, freely available access to vital mental health care when I also know that our American healthcare system is so screwed up its hard for me to get every detail right at the company that I lead.

    They’re going to say I’m crazy. They’re going to say I’m a hypocrite. They’re going to say it’s not that bad and I’m pretentious for pretending I’ve struggled. They’re going to say nothing, and just uncomfortably back away, forever thinking less of me and embarrassed by what I said.

    So today, I‘ve spoken about my experiences more directly and more publicly than I have in decades. I of course want everybody to reach out for help and support if needed, but I also want to tell the story of how it’s possible to make a new life where you’re thriving and joyous, not just enduring the pain. Not everybody gets there, and no two people follow the same path, but it absolutely _can_ happen. I’m living proof.

    I’ve also found something that brings me joy and inspiration today: seeing others take care of themselves. When I was at my lowest, my hardest struggle was to forgive myself for not fixing everything all at once. The most significant breakthrough I had was reframing my challenge as just trying to do one thing a little bit better, every day. A small, incremental change that felt manageable would be the thing that saved my life, not some monumental effort to transform everything at once.

    Few things have brought me more joy than seeing my professional work at Glitch, where people can create anything they want on the web, become a place that people make tools that help them do a little better every day for themselves. Almost from the first day, we’ve seen people make little reminders or nudges or assurances that, while certainly not displacing the need for therapy or medication or proper treatment, become part of a larger effort to take care of themselves.

    I’m really proud of the work our community and team have done to tell these stories, and I’m appreciative that I get to tell my own story as part of a larger effort to remove stigma and ensure that people get the care and support that they need and deserve. I do hope you’ll give this story a listen.

    One final note: I’m far from a mental health professional. My experiences may well be completely non-standard and certainly don’t reflect what many other people go through. So while I’m happy to talk about my story and open to connecting with people around it, I’ll be setting boundaries around how much I can help people who may be struggling with similar challenges. Please know that doesn’t mean I don’t want to help, or that you can’t overcome your own challenges, but simply me trying to manage my ability to be supportive without being overwhelmed.

    Here’s to getting a little better, every day.

  • feedwordpress 05:17:39 on 2019/09/11 Permalink  

    Eighteen is History 

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    Eighteen is History

    There are kids now who are old enough to go fight in wars that were justified back when they still had their umbilical cords attached. For them, the attacks are only history; that's all they ever were.

    I can sort of understand it. I was born after Vietnam, after Watergate. But my whole childhood, these were the points of reference, the milestones used to justify choices or underpin arguments. They were totems, symbols, history. Only history, not something real.

    And these days I spend a lot of time with people for whom 9/11 is only history. Someone who is as old today as I was that day would probably have been shielded from knowing too much at the time. They'd have been as young as my son is today, and I still shield him from the full weight of my memories of that day.

    Frankly, that's hard for me to process. We still ground so much of our social and political rhetoric in that day, so it's easy for me to forget that for many (for most?), it's only a signifier, with none of the visceral evocations of memory. I remember how 9/11 smelled. I remember how my city smelled, for months. I can still look up at a clear blue sky with the slightest breeze in the air and imagine that morning, and remember when the wind shifted and the plume came over our neighborhood.

    So, it's up to me to let it go. To let it become history. I don't mind that younger people don't have the same reverence for the moment. Maybe I'm kind of glad they don't. I can see now what I couldn't see then. Those of us who witnessed that day, even if only in a small way, will fade from the cultural conversation. When I was young, you would still hear people talk about D Day, or Pearl Harbor. Being young and insolent, I never had much patience for listening to the stories. Young people don't have reverence for these moments.

    I guess we said we'd never forget. But the consensus around grief, around memorial, around observance — that fragile fiction faded by the time the smell dissipated. We didn't get around to deciding what it was, exactly, that we were Never Forgetting.

    And so, we ended up with this legacy. There are ritualized remembrances, largely led by those who weren't there, those who mostly hate the values that New York City embodies. The sharpest memories are of the goals of those who masterminded the attacks. It's easy enough to remember what they wanted, since they accomplished all their objectives and we live in the world they sought to create. The empire has been permanently diminished. Never Forget.

    But I still maintain a little bit of hope. Because just as a new generation doesn't revere the memories of those of us okd enough to bear witness, they are also not despairing over the failures of our follow-up. This is the world they've always lived in, the starting point they were always given. So there was never anything other than moving forward from that day.

  • feedwordpress 03:50:35 on 2019/07/23 Permalink  

    20 Years of Blogging: What I’ve Learned 

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    This week marks the 20th anniversary of this blog.

    20 Years of Blogging: What I’ve Learned

    I thought the best way to observe the milestone, and to try to pass along some of the benefits I’ve gained from keeping a presence online all these years, would be to share some of the most important things I’ve learned since I started this site.

    It’s almost impossible for me to remember my life when I started this site, or to really understand how much it’s changed after tens of thousands of hours spent on social media in the decades since. More than anything, my response to twenty years of writing and sharing things on this site is an overwhelming gratitude for all the opportunities it’s opened up, and a deep appreciation for the relationships and connections that it’s made possible.

    Now, I’m hardly an expert on major aspects of life. But If you have enough of a high profile, or spend enough time who are at a different stage of life, you’ll regularly end up being asked for advice. So, while I may not have any particularly unique insights, I hope that simply sharing my most responses to the types of questions I’m asked most frequently may have value to people. And of course, if you disagree or have any corrections for things I’ve gotten wrong, please don’t hesitate to write about such things on your own site and let me know that you did!

    20 Years of Blogging: What I’ve Learned

    Understanding Technology in Society

    As is probably appropriate to observing an anniversary of this blog, the first set of lessons I’d share are about technology and social media itself. Some of the most fundamental lessons were summarized in a piece I wrote last year, "12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech". I go into more detail there, but some of the key points are pretty easy to understand:

    • Tech is not neutral, and not inevitable.
    • Most people in tech want to do good, but tech history is poorly understood. As a result, many in tech don't understand how tech can have negative impacts when they think of themselves as good people.
    • A lot of tech is created without much explicit knowledge about users or ethics.
    • Tech is never created by one single genius, and is mostly not made by startups.
    • Most tech companies make money in a few ways that usually aren't about selling tech itself, and those business models skew all of tech. (One of the worst effects of those business models are the creation of fake markets.)
    • Tech is as much about culture as it is about innovation, and thus no one institution can fix tech's problems — it will take a broad effort. And that effort will have to go far past traditional tactics like boycotts and regulation to truly have an effect in reforming tech.

    All of these observations about how tech works are grounded in a broader, more important perspective that I wrote about a few years earlier: there is no "technology industry". Every industry, and every social institution is both shaped by, and responsible for creating, technology, and so trying to understand tech as if it were a conventional corporate industry isn't a useful perspective.

    After years of thinking about the place of technology in society, I'm increasingly asked to summarize the challenge facing society today as we reckon with how tech is changing our world. Perhaps the most cogent articulation of that challenge happened a few years ago in this conversation with Krista Tippett for On Being, where we talked about tech's moral reckoning.

    How Social Media Works

    In addition to broad observations about tech, I've tried to articulate some of the specific lessons I've learned in 20 years of creating, and living in, social networks online.

    One of the most popular things I've written about my lessons in social media was actually on the fifteenth anniversary of this blog, when I shared 15 lessons from 15 years of blogging. Maybe one of the most important points outlined there is to always write with the idea that what you’re sharing will live for months and years and decades. I also do still strongly believe that someone who really has a strong point of view, and substantive insights into their area of interest, can have huge impact just by consistently blogging about that topic. It's not currently the fashionable way to participate in social media, but the opportunity is still wide open. (I also published a far sillier list of 10 rules of Internet, which still kinda holds up.)

    Then, there's the evergreen truth: If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault. Of everything I've written over the years, this piece from 2011 gets cited more than almost any other. When I first started talking about the idea a decade ago, it was often seen as heretical, and the concept of holding online platform owners accountable for the worst social impacts that they enable was commonly seen as absurd. When I warned that Facebook was gaslighting the web, I was called alarmist. When I said, a decade ago, that Facebook was due for a reckoning for what it was doing with users' data without their consent, I was warned that I was ending my own career.

    I wish I could find some validation in the fact that culture has shifted so much in this regard, but the truth is that people only clamor for accountability now that such an egregious amount of damage has happened. And that harm was exactly what I had been hoping this kind of writing would help prevent. I failed.

    My presence on social media is an odd one. I've been around longer than most, which gives me some perspective. I have a social network that sort of resembles that of a famous person, despite not actually being famous, and it yields glimpses into phenomena like what it's like being verified on Twitter. This was all forseeable; back in 2002, I wrote about how we'd have to own, and control, our identities online:

    We’re all celebrities now, in a sense. Everything that we say or do is on the record. And everything that’s on the record is recorded for posterity, and indexed far better than any file photo or PR bio ever was.

    But I still have some hope for how social media might evolve. By doing things like looking at the history of what's worked for social media in the past, we can predict what sorts of things we might want for the future. And to be clear, I'm not someone who thinks there was a "good old days"; social media has always been too exclusionary, and too dependent on systems and infrastructures that replicate the injustices of society as a whole. It is possible, though, to make new systems that are a little more equitable, and I still haven't given up on that hope at all.

    Ultimately, it's my belief that social networks are systems that can be intentionally designed, and intelligently managed, to ensure that their primary impact is a positive one for the people who use them, and for the world. This is an optimistic idea that was the original spark for the creation of platforms, and a promise that's been painfully abandoned in the years since. But I think we have learned enough lessons for it to still be worth trying to make something that works for the world.

  • feedwordpress 15:44:05 on 2019/06/04 Permalink  

    Can You Trust A Company In 2019? 

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    Being trusted is a huge advantage for any company that can pull it off. But is it even possible for people to trust a tech company right now?

    Can You Trust A Company In 2019?

    Union Square Ventures is one of the best-known and most respected venture capital firms in the world. Every year, they get together all of the CEOs of all the companies they've invested in to talk about Big Ideas. And this year, they shared one of the ideas they're focusing on most: Trust.

    The whole presentation is worth reading over, as I think it outlines the business argument for the importance of trustworthy companies extremely well. In short, being trusted provides enormous value to a company. It protects against competition, increases customer loyalty, helps improve recruiting and retention, and has many other less visible benefits. Trust is a massive strategic advantage. You want your company to be trusted.

    Of course, this is a slide deck from a company that makes tons of money investing in giant tech startups, so it's entirely grounded in that perspective. For example, take this slide, talking about how companies break their core promises:

    Can You Trust A Company In 2019?
    Breaking the Core Promise is the biggest risk

    I'd of course take issue with, for example, the Uber line item here. The core promise of Uber depends deeply on the community you're in. Maybe for wealthy white tech insiders in San Francisco, Uber's core promise is about convenience. But for black passengers, Uber's core promise is reliability, in contrast to trying to hail cabs whose drivers can't be trusted to stop, or transit systems that don't serve every neighborhood equally. For South Asian drivers, the core promise Uber made was control over making a living, in contrast to being dependent on extractive medallion programs or coercive fleet owners.

    What's not obvious is that trust relies on social signaling, so even though Susan Fowler, who became the voice of Uber's workers speaking up against hostile working conditions, is a white woman, her unjust treatment provided a valuable and credible way of judging the trustworthiness of the organization even for people who were seeking a different core promise from the company. Uber profiting off of the protests against Trump's travel ban catalyzed the #DeleteUber movement, and though it was centered on protecting Muslim travelers, it again provided useful signal of trustworthiness to people in other communities.

    This is because trust is based in an ethical context, and on values. People do not simply evaluate companies based on the economic value they provide, they decide to trust companies based on a moral framework.

    And in this moment, when the biggest, most visible tech companies have betrayed so many people so completely, almost no company can earn trust. This is especially true because so few tech leaders are willing to speak to the core social issues that have undermined trust — concerns like pervasive surveillance, abuse of privacy, economic inequality, systemic racial discrimination, persistent harassment and abuse on platforms and in the workplace, and complicity in systems of violence and persecution. Compared to those challenges, conventional worries like system downtime or app performance shrink into relative irrelevance.

    So why even bother?

    If the situation is so dire, why am I even bothering to share this view on the value of trust? Well, the simple answer is that I'm the CEO of a tech company. And I'm trying my damnedest to make sure Glitch is a company that can be trusted — by its employees, by its industry, by its community, and by the world. Honestly, it's hard as hell these days because most of tech isn't even aligned to trustworthiness as a goal, and even those who still believe in that ideal have (understandably!) become so cynical and jaded that they've either preemptively given up on trying, or mock efforts to be trustworthy as hopelessly naive.

    I don't know if it means I'm stubborn, or still just overly optimistic, but we do keep trying.

    When people join Glitch, I generally give them a short presentation explaining what we're trying to do and how we run our company, and I went back and looked at one of the slides that shows up early in the presentation.

    Can You Trust A Company In 2019?
    Trust is our most precious and fragile asset.

    Usually at this point in the conversation, I explain to the person who's new to the company that right now, people like us and trust us. Right now, they do. I then mention that every other company I've ever been at, and really, nearly every company I've ever seen, screws this up. They break the trust of the people who were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And most of the time, it's for no reason at all. (Sometimes, it's just so the company can make money. Which is shitty, but at least makes sense, as compared to betraying trust simply through incompetence.)

    What's interesting is, once I was reflecting on trust, I realized that a lot of the things that I talk to our team about are about building trust, maintaining trust, being worthy of trust.

    For example, we recently had the whole team in at our headquarters in NYC, and I looked over a few of the presentations that we did to talk about goals and vision and strategy, and some of these slides jumped out at me.

    Can You Trust A Company In 2019?
    We differentiate Glitch by telling a story that is true and meaningful.

    This message jumped out at me, not because it's particularly unique, but because of the emphasis we put on making sure our story is true. So many companies just say things, without regard to whether they're real, and it always bends my brain to realize that they don't even seem to care about the validity or veracity of their messages.

    The part about being meaningful also seemed important, because trust has to be about things that matter — it's easy to trust a company about minor things that aren't very important. It's a lot tougher when it comes to issues that are vitally important.

    The inside and outside have to match

    Can You Trust A Company In 2019?
    We must consistently be on the inside what we hope to inspire on the outside.
    Can You Trust A Company In 2019?

    These next few slides came from a conversation about how we should run our company, and centered on the ugly reality that most companies talk about ideas to the outside world that have no bearing on the actual practices within their organizations.

    The extraordinary thing here is that companies don't seem to realize that it's impossible to trust anyone if you know they don't practice what they preach. Even if a company is secretive enough (or obscure enough) that outsiders don't know whether its internal processes are aligned with its public statements, its employees know, and they can sense whether they work at a trustworthy organization or not. If the employees know, then almost certainly its partners know, and if partners know, then any hypocrisy or disconnect is rotting away at their credibility every day, whether it's acknowledged or not.

    Closing the gap

    Can You Trust A Company In 2019?
    There must be zero gap between our stated values and our lived values.

    Originally, this slide came from a presentation that was focused on company culture, but it speaks to the moral grounding that underpins being a trusted company. These days, pretty much every company knows the "right" thing to say to the world. And almost none of the major tech companies follow through on those words into changing how they operate.

    This is an especially acute concern for a company like ours, both because we're a tiny company competing with giants, and also because we have a company handbook (see below) where our values are publicly stated for anyone to read and share and remix for their own use.

    The truth is, almost every person of conscience has grave concerns and deep worries about the effect that tech companies are having on civil society and culture overall. They're right to. Add to that the well-justified skepticism and critique about the extractive and abusive practices of most industries, and even a lot of the most well-intentioned companies basically just give up and decide it's not worth trying to fight a battle that (seemingly) can't be won.

    But I've seen some signs that this is still a fight worth engaging, that being worthy of people's trust is still possible. Inside Glitch, our colleagues take a lot of pride in being part of an organization that's still idealistic in this way. In our community, users and partners feel good about getting to work with a company that doesn't leave them feeling dirtied or used by the interaction. And in our industry, people seem delighted by the reminder that there was an optimistic, idealistic view of the future that attracted so many of us to technology in the first place.

    Even despite all the failures, and all the failings, and the countless, heartless betrayals of trust, we're still going to try. Yes, there are great business reasons to do it, and we're seeing the benefits of those business opportunities. But most importantly, there's a satisfaction in proving that a group of people can collectively put in so much care and investment in the old-fashioned idea of simply being worthy of people's trust.

  • feedwordpress 03:53:08 on 2019/05/23 Permalink  

    Putting the Soul in Console 

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    Putting the Soul in Console

    Playdate, the upcoming indie handheld gaming console from venerable software publisher Panic, is really important. But if you don't know the history of where the little company behind this little device comes from, it might be hard to understand why this isn't just another random gadget like you might see on a crowdfunding site.

    An Indie Scene

    About 20 years ago, there was a bit of a reckoning about what the web was going to be. The dot com era of startups were in full bloom (the crash didn't come until 2000, with 9/11 cementing the collapse of the first web bubble) but those of us who loved the internet could sense some of the joy and creativity seeping out of it as the money men took over.

    A little less obvious was the reckoning going on amongst "software people". We were still making programs then, or software — applications wouldn't get shortened to "apps" until the iPhone took off almost a decade later. But there was a culture that almost saw making software as a craft. And a number of new web-savvy companies sprung up at the forefront of that movement, all of them decidedly not interested in just riding the dot com wave that was about to crash. I was a fan of them all, watching from afar as they seemed to set the standards for what was "cool" in tech — and all of them did it from outside of Silicon Valley.

    Basically, in tech there was something akin to an independent music scene that one might see in a mid-sized town. Except it was geographically dispersed rather than being in one city, and it was about creating technology instead of creating songs.

    In Chicago, there was 37 Signals. Brash, bold, opinionated, and trendsetting in design, the company evolved over time into today's Basecamp, still one of the most popular project management tools. (And they spun out lots of interesting tech and tools along the way.) In New York City, we had Fog Creek Software. It, too, had opinionated and charismatic leaders talking pointedly about The Right Way to make software, and it changed immensely over the years, spinning out efforts like Trello and Stack Overflow, before finally evolving into Glitch, where I work now.

    And then, in Portland, there was Panic. They began with the venerable and utilitarian FTP app, Transmit, but released a wide variety of tools for developers, before transforming themselves in recent years into a broader, more ambitious software publisher that put out mainstream hits like Firewatch. But where these other standard-bearer companies were brash and in-your-face, Panic was always a little, well... goofy. Friendly, to be sure. And smart as hell. But there was a sense of exploration and fun and play to everything Panic did.

    And today, we got to see one of the most exciting announcements in the two-decade history of the company: Playdate. You can read up on all the details elsewhere, but suffice to say, this little game machine looks like one of the most fun and joyful new efforts that any company has done recently, and that a tiny indie software company in Oregon has the ambition to even attempt such a thing makes it only more endearing.

    Perhaps the best way of explaining why Panic is so important to so many of us is to watch Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser's wonderful, heartfelt talk at the XOXO Festival back in 2013. (It even teases the existence of Firewatch, long before it became a smash hit!)

    Cabel Sasser, Panic

    Cabel's closing exhortation to "don't waste this, keep everyone guessing, and make me proud" hit me hard in the room at that moment, and stuck with me to this day. Because Panic has done exactly that.

    Date of Arrival

    I'd been given a hint a while ago that something like this was coming, but the final execution is even more delightful than I'd imagined it might be. (That crank!) More importantly, it's captured the imagination of so many, and seems like the kind of thing that could inspire a new generation of creative people to think, "Hey, maybe good tech is something we can make ourselves." I've seen it happen on Glitch, and now I see it happening around Playdate after just a few hours.

    That idea, that maybe things like our gaming devices or the websites we visit should be created by people we know and like, instead of giant faceless companies, seems more essential than ever. We would never settle for replacing all of our made-with-love, locally-grown, mom's recipe home cooking with factory-farmed fast food, even if sometimes convenience demands we consume the latter. And we shouldn't compromise any less on making sure that some of the time we spend playing games with each other, and delighting in the promise of technology, comes from people who've been diligently working for years to make well-sourced, organically grown, made-with-love technology.

    I don't know if Playdate will succeed in the market. I don't know what kind of risk it represents for Panic as a company. But I know that people see this cute little device, and are reminded that they used to get excited when they saw cool new technology, instead of wondering how it would warp their reality, or steal their information. Here's hoping for a return to tech that's fun, that's thoughtful, and that's created with a little bit of soul.

    Putting the Soul in Console

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