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  • feedwordpress 17:15:45 on 2014/05/13 Permalink
    Tags: danahboyd, dsri, kevinmccoy, monegraph, , , techcrunch, theawl, thinkup, whitehouse   

    Let’s Do More 

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    I've been trying to do more things that are unfamiliar or slightly out of my comfort zone lately. Here's a quick roundup:

    • I got to participate in Rhizome's venerated Seven on Seven conference, where I teamed up with Kevin McCoy to create monegraph. It's a system that uses the block chain technology which underpins Bitcoin, but puts it to work in service of artists, so that they can verify that a digital work is an original, with a verifiable provenance. I describe the context of the work in A Bitcoin for Digital Art, my first piece for Medium's "The Message" collection, and we also showed it off with a demo at the most improbable of venues, TechCrunch's Disrupt conference. The response overall has been great, as you can tell from the monegraph tumblr.

    A Bitcoin for Digital Art

    • The White House's working group on Big Data and Privacy released its report, which is surprisingly thoughtful and appropriately nuanced in its consideration of the issues. As danah so aptly summarized it, "[T]he conversation around the “big data” phenomenon tends to get quickly polarized - it’s good or it’s bad, plain and simple. But it’s never that simple." It's no surprise danah's take was so thoughtful; her Data & Society Research Institute was one of the most valuable contributors to the White House report. In my role on the board of the DSRI, I got to moderate a panel with Kate Crawford, Steven Hodas, Alondra Nelson, and Shamina Singh. The conversation was incredible, and so it's no surprise that our panel was cited in the full report from the White House. You can watch the panel here:

    • Over on The Awl, it's "How to Avoid Raising a Monster" which takes a look at my, uh, parenting style. This includes the question, "Can you ... provide some more examples of when you’ve been especially tempted to do things that wouldn’t be found in any guidebooks on how best to raise a child?"
    • On PolicyMic, a nice piece on 23 Ways Feminism Has Made the World Better for Men includes my least insightful comment ever: "Sex is fun!"
    • Coming up this fall: I'll be speaking at PopTech in October. If you know that conference, you know why I'm geeked out about the opportunity, especially given that John Maeda as host has chosen "rebellion" as the theme for the event.
    • Oh, and Prince finally retweeted one of my tweets, but elided my name and then removed the tweet entirely a brief while later, as he is prone to do. But still, fun for me!
    • And as always, the ThinkUp team has been rocking with a whole range of fun and ridiculous new insights in the app. If you haven't seen ThinkUp lately, you haven't seen it. You should probably sign up and give it a try.
  • feedwordpress 22:00:38 on 2013/11/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , thinkup   

    Three Years Under Our Thumbs 

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    We’ll spend three years of our lives with our thumbs on our phones. What will we have to show for it?

    I keep bumping up against this statistic about how much time we spend online, and how much time we spend on our smartphones and tablets. Depending on the source you cite, it’s at least three years of our lives that we’ll spend scrolling up and down on little timelines.

    For geeks like me and my friends, it’ll be more, of course. And new wearable devices only promise to raise that number further. That’s not even counting the time we spend on, you know, regular old-fashioned computers.

    As I work on building ThinkUp, this number lingers in my mind, popping up nearly every time I am talking to a new person about our work. Can any of us who make apps be worthy of the investment of time and effort that we ask of our users?

    Those of us who make technology have to take responsibility for the time that people choose to spend with our creations. We seldom have conversations about this kind of responsibility, but when we do they usually come back to a few words or ideas: What’s useful, what’s important, and what’s meaningful?


    The truth is, I’m not sure I want to make an app that’s “useful” anymore. At least not on purpose. Useful has come to imply an almost robotic utilitarianism, focused on efficiency at the expense of soul. So much of our fixation on utility leads to soulless production tools where the only emotion they inspire is frustration. I’m happy to make something that’s incidentally useful, but art isn’t useful, and as Ev famously said to those who complained Twitter isn’t useful, ice cream isn’t useful either. And ice cream is great!


    Making something “important” is a scary idea, too. Packed into that word are a lot of judgments about what matters, and a lot of danger of being pretentious and overbearing. Right now a lot of technology promises to help you by trying to filter information down to what’s “important”. But that hasn’t seemed to be a problem that algorithms are very good at yet. Worse, we bring our own cultural and personal assumptions to any conversation about of what’s important, and while technology necessarily has values baked into it, tech culture overall isn’t very good at having productive conversations about these values yet.


    So that leaves “meaningful”. I’m as wary of this word as I am of any other jargon, but this aspiration is closest to my heart. Because we can find meaning in anything. We can find meaning through any lens that technology provides us, whether that’s a telescope or a microscope or a mirror.

    So I’ve decided that is what I want to do, use technology build a mirror to hold up to all our time online, to let us reflect on the years of our lives spent mediated by technology. The hope is that this is how we can each find what’s meaningful to us. If we can reveal to ourselves what we do and what we say and how we act, we’ll each make our own personal choices about what is the most meaningful path to pursue.

    This question is how we build technology to help us find that meaning. I don’t know the answer, but I feel good about the question.

    Three years

    Three years sounds like a long time to spend on a mobile device, but three years is just the blink of an eye. My son is not yet three years old, but in the brief time I have known him, he has already become the most meaningful thing in my life. And he taught me my biggest lesson about technology.

    Since my son was born, I’ve spent more time reading my Twitter timeline than I’ve spent reading to him. I am not proud of that fact, but there it is. My son has challenged me to find some worth in all that time spent.

    How do we find enough meaning in the hours we while away flipping through a feed on our phones? Years from now, decades from now, will we be able to explain why this is how we spent our days? As the whole world picks up their phones, I actually think this may be one of the most important challenges I can work on.

    I know the conventional tendency is to dismiss our online lives as trivial, to say that social media and social networking are made up entirely of distractions. But I think we wouldn’t be there if there weren’t substance there, or at least the possibility of finding some substance. And I’m going to enjoy trying to find it.

    To that end, I’m working with my friend Gina to build a company, a community and a culture focused on that goal, knowing full well that it’s equal parts ambitious and absurd. So far, a few thousand other people have been willing to bet on the possibility that we might all find something meaningful together. I hope you’ll join us.

  • feedwordpress 19:40:31 on 2013/10/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , thinkup, webwelost   

    ThinkUp and What the Web Can Be 

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    I spend so much time writing, and thinking, about technology and tech companies. And so much of it's critical. I point the finger at how the apps and sites we build aren't meaningful, how the systems and institutions that support them aren't inclusive, that the process and the economics which make technology available to the world are broken, or at least problematic.

    But talking about it alone isn't going to fix it.

    So for a few years, quietly, with my friend Gina Trapani, I've been working on trying to imagine what it would look like if it were done right. What about a simple app that just made you feel happier and smarter and maybe even pleasantly surprised when you looked at it? No FOMO, no turning friendships into a competition, and maybe even a little bit of soul?

    And if I close my eyes, and picture the company that would make something like that, I can see it clearly in my head. Instead of a focus on just making something to sell to Facebook or Google, a focus on making something that a whole community could be proud of. Instead of trying to tack on a focus on ethics or responsibility after the fact, it could be baked in from the beginning. There's no reason that we couldn't build a company that just tells the plain truth, instead of trying to manage the truth. I can see a company I’d be proud to have my son, or Gina’s daughter, visit in 15 or 20 years and feel proud that this is the family business.

    It's a little bit terrifying. Every day I wonder, "Did I alienate too many people with those tweets, and is it going to screw up my chance of getting this new thing off the ground?" But every day I also see people saying "Even if I disagree with you, you stand for something, and I at least begrudgingly respect that." My guess is that having some healthy amount of fear is a good sign that we're taking on a project ambitious enough to inspire some fear.

    It's Not Lost

    We used to have Internet companies we loved. This isn't rose-tinted nostalgia about The Good Old Days; The apps were uglier, and harder to use, and less popular back then. But we rooted for the companies that made them, because we knew that the people who made Flickr, or Blogger, or Movable Type, or Upcoming, or Manila, or Delicious, or countless other early social apps really loved the web. We loved the web because it changed our lives, permanently and for the better. That is, in fact, what I was really grieving for almost a year ago when I wrote The Web We Lost.

    But I was wrong. That web isn't lost. It's just dormant. All things move in cycles, and technology and the Internet are no exception. A magazine ad saying "Find us on Facebook" today is no more dire, no more permanent, than one saying "here's our AOL keyword" was in 1997. In the darkest days of the dotcom bust, when people thought we were crazy to embrace these technologies, the Internet changed my life. It brought me my friends, my career, my wife. We were open to those things because we believed in what people were making, how they were making it, and why they were motivated to do so. If the Internet could have those values then, then it can certainly support these positive values now.

    So today, my friend Gina and I are announcing our campaign to finish creating ThinkUp, backed by thousands of users, developers, designers, and community members who've been helping us iterate on this product for years. I'm asking anybody who's found what I do here, what I've stood for over more than a decade of writing online, who wants to support these kinds of values and this kind of opportunity, to back us.

    We want to make an app that delights you and rewards you and makes you feel good for connecting in a meaningful way with your friends or family or even strangers. We want an app that makes you want to call your mom, or to chip in on a project with your neighbor, or to offer a kind word to a stranger who just happens to share some of the same interests that you do.

    And we want to prove that a company can do well by leading with its values. We're happy to try to speak up for inclusion, or thoughtfulness, or kindness in the tech industry. But the economic systems and technological systems that support some of the worst parts of tech are not going to change because we tweet at somebody and scold them for being a jerk.

    Technology will change when our greatest, most meaningful successes and the most innovative, creative products come from communities that demonstrate positive values every day. That's what we're going to fight for with ThinkUp. We're not going to compromise. We know that software has values, and that the values in software shape culture itself. And we're not shying away from that — we're running headlong into it, crazy as that might be. But we can only do it if others are crazy enough to believe in it, too.

    So, will you join us?

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