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I work and write at the intersection of technology, media, and society.

I've been a startup founder, mission-driven VC, engineer, and product lead. Right now I'm Chief Technology Officer at The 19th.

Follow me on Mastodon or subscribe via email.

benwerd

benwerd

werd.social/@ben

19thnews.org

 

Safety Systems Gone Wrong

“Why do we tolerate a police system - ostensibly a public safety system - that kills more Americans than aviation does, with some cops walking around indifferent to safety? And yet we're petrified about two airplanes getting too close.”

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How much Biden talked about abortion, LGBTQ+ rights

“During his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, President Joe Biden devoted more words to abortion and fewer to LGBTQ+ rights in 2023 than in previous years, spending 72 and 35 words, respectively, on the topics out of a nearly 7,300-word speech.”

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Tech's Elite Hates Labor

“I believe that a worryingly large amount of the most powerful people in technology have seen the growth of workers’ rights as a symptom of a broken market.”

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Disasters displaced more than 3M Americans in 2022

“More than 3 million adults were forced to evacuate their homes in the past year because of a natural disaster, according to a new Census Bureau tally that marks a rare federal effort to assess the uprooting caused by hurricanes, floods and other events. The Census Bureau estimate far exceeds other counts of U.S. evacuees and reflects the uncertainty about how much disruption disasters and climate change are causing. Census figures show that 3.4 million adults were displaced in 2022, or 1.4 percent of the U.S. adult population.”

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‘They need to see’: RowVaughn Wells on what it means to attend Biden’s State of the Union address

“For the first time at a State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the mother of a Black man killed by police will be a guest of the first lady of the United States. Other parents with similar tragedies will be in attendance as the guests of members of the House of Representatives; they will be visible reminders of the parade of unarmed Black Americans who have lost their lives, representing families calling for change in the wake of tragedy.”

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Fediverse Funding Opportunities

“At the moment, there’s funding for a handful of micro-grants (non-profit) or micro-investments (for-profit) up to ~$30k each. If your project needs greater funding, please submit it anyway; things can (and probably will) change quickly, and your proposal will help make the case for larger allocations to the fediverse.”

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Advocates mark the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act

“Advocates 30 years ago saw the passage of FMLA as the beginning, not the end, of what was possible at the federal level. But while hundreds of millions have benefited from the program, the United States remains the only wealthy nation without any national, guaranteed paid leave policy three decades on.”

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Build a reputation instead of a personal brand

“I find myself drawn more to what individuals are writing than publications; if others are like me, all the publications who treat their staff as disposable and interchangeable will be in for a rough ride when they try to replace them all with AI churn content. […] I read my first Ed Yong article because I was interested in COVID; his thoughtful writing and reporting earned my trust, so I started following him on Twitter — not The Atlantic.”

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Blame the CEO for Tech Layoffs at Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Amazon

“Any executive who participates in decision-making that leads to hundreds or thousands of people losing their jobs should be the one leading them out the door. Pichai and other tech CEOs shouldn't be making $280 million a year or even $1 million a year — they should be fired for poorly managing some of the largest companies in the world.”

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Big Tech is using layoffs to crush worker power

“Workers in an industry that had long been famously union-agnostic at best had been forming bonds, organizing and developing solidarity. Layoffs of this scale and suddenness can be a blow to that process. […] If there’s one thing that firing people in a large-scale and seemingly random way accomplishes, it’s instilling a sense of precarity, even fear, in those who remain.”

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For a while I was deeply into the podcasting universe, but these days I really just want text that I can consume in my own way, at my own pace, using my own imagination. Call it impatience. But I love that podcasts exist and that so many people make and listen.

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A Mass. bill would cut prison time for organ donations. An advocate is calling the measure 'unethical and depraved.'

““They’re a marginalized group in society, highly stigmatized and extremely vulnerable,” Cox said in an interview. “And so to incentivize the selling of your body parts in exchange for the most precious commodity in the world — which is time on this earth, and your freedom — was just so appalling.””

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Sam Bankman-Fried is not a child

“SBF is being extended the benefit of the doubt that many are not so lucky to get. He is affluent, white, male, and accused of white-collar crimes, and so he is granted the charitable characterization of a naive boy. Meanwhile, the perception that Black children, particularly those accused of violent crimes, are adult criminals has earned its own term: adultification bias.”

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Don’t write this, write that

“Yet despite all of this, I don’t believe you can ignore the audience. You can’t aim at them, you can’t change to suit an imaginary audience in the hope of getting a real one. But writing is not for writers, it is for readers and if they are not in your mind in some way, I think your writing becomes self-indulgent.”

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Follow this site on the fediverse

You can now subscribe to my website on Mastodon / the fediverse by plugging @werd.io@werd.io into your search bar and hitting “follow”.

It was really easy. Here’s how I did it:

  1. I signed up to Bridgy Fed
  2. Made sure my website produces an h-card that describes it well (Known does this out of the box).
  3. Added a single line to the top of my website redirects.
  4. That’s it.

Ryan Barrett, who builds and supports the Bridgy set of services, is brilliant, and this simple tool is another reason why. I really appreciate how easy this was.

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Journalistic Lessons for the Algorithmic Age

“Before I go, I wanted to share the lessons I learned building a newsroom that integrated engineers with journalists and sought to use a new model for accountability journalism: the scientific method.”

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Resetting professional goals

Graffiti on a wall that reads: Dream big.

I’ve been spending some time looking carefully at my professional goals.

A few years ago, I open sourced the mission / vision / tactical worksheet I’d been using, which was inspired by high-level organizational strategy. First, it invites you to consider your “mission”:

This is your north star. For example, a possible mission statement is to work on technology that makes the world more equal. Another example of a mission statement is to work at startups building world-class products that change the world.

Then, your “vision”. For a company, the vision is the world you want to create through your mission and activities. For a person, that’s not far off:

This is where you want to see yourself in 5 or 10 years. One long-term goal is to be the founder of a generational tech company. Other long-term goals are to be a senior individual contributor engineer, or an engineering manager, or a product manager at a large tech giant.

And then the near-term steps:

What measurable, actionable steps bring you closer to your goal?

While I’ve found this to be a useful framework, it undeniably suffers from a lack of focus. For example, the definition of a “measurable, actionable step” could vary a great deal from person to person.

Recently, through professional development at The 19th, I was introduced to the Management Center’s SMARTIE goals:

SMARTIE stands for Strategic, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic, Time-bound, Inclusive, and Equitable. By incorporating an equity and inclusion component to your SMART goals, you can make sure your organization’s commitment to racial equity and inclusion is anchored by tangible and actionable steps.

The traditional definition of SMART goals is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. It’s a useful framework in itself, in the sense that at least it provides some structure and concreteness, but in its definitions it encourages you to diminish mission and values in your work. A goal that is Specific and Achievable is highly likely to just be iterative on what you’re already doing.

In contrast, SMARTIE encourages you to dream. By replacing Specific with Strategic, we’re encouraged to think longer-term. By replacing Achievable with Ambitious, we’re given permission to stretch for what we really want. Swapping Relevant for Realistic reminds us to keep our feet on the ground, but in paired this with Achievable we’re being asked to find a productive middle ground between our dreams and reality. And then reminding us that our goals must be Inclusive and Equitable ensures that we consider our impact on others, and on our communities and ecosystems.

I like it a lot.

Giving me permission to make my goals values-oriented is, in itself, a big deal. I’ve often had to smuggle my values into goals and trade them off with the goals of the organization. Here, I’m asked to put them front and center.

But the detail-oriented approach and demand for accountability has also made me reconsider my personal mission and vision.

For years now, my mission has read: To work on projects with the potential to make the world more equal and informed. In itself, it’s been fairly useful: I’ve been able to look at opportunities and ask, “well, does this have the potential to do those things?” And it’s been easy to say “no” to opportunities that don’t.

But it’s possible for an opportunity to have the potential to make the world more equal and informed but still not be a fit for what I want to do. It doesn’t communicate what I actually do, to myself or anyone else. For example, The 19th, my current employer, is clearly an organization with the potential to make the world more equal and informed - it’s a newsroom (check!) that particularly serves women, women of color and the LGBTQ+ community (check!) with the information, resources and community they need to be equal participants in our democracy (check!). So as an organization it’s aligned with my mission. But what does my mission say I should do there? Should I be an illustrator? I’d love that, but I don’t think they’d have me. A journalist? Again, I wish. No, based on my experience as an engineer, founder, and investor, I’m probably better off serving them on the technical side - and even then, by building, supporting, and advising on a particular kind of software.

So it’s more accurate and useful to say that my mission is to support organizations that have the potential to make the world more equal, open, and informed by building and supporting open web software and strategy.

It still needs workshopping. But we’re a lot closer: you still know I want to work to help make the world more equal and informed, but now you can more definitively say where I can be helpful and want to be working. It also emphasizes openness: there are plenty of allegedly equal worlds that are authoritarian or limited, and that’s not what I want to be a part of. And in specifying this greater detail, I can make more detailed choices.

So, onto vision. Perhaps the most famous vision statement in computing is Microsoft’s original wish to create a world with “a microcomputer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software”, which balanced an intent to markedly change the marketplace (and arguably the world) with making it obvious what Microsoft’s role in that transition would be.

If a person or organization’s mission is fairly hard and fast, their vision is likely to change more often. Microsoft’s vision statement is no longer the above (in no small part because they achieved it). So what is mine? The world I want to bring into existence, based on my ambitions and values as they stand right now?

Here’s my draft attempt: To build and lead a diverse and inclusive generational organization that produces open source software, advice, and advocacy in service of making the world more equal, open, and informed.

Breaking it down: a generational organization inherently says not a startup that’s designed to exit quickly; I want to build something that will last a long time. It also leaves the form of the organization open: it could be a private company, a non-profit, a co-operative, and so on. Diverse and inclusive specifies that it should be an organization with diverse leadership and inclusive practices. Produces open source softwareis self-explanatory, but advice and advocacy is an important clause to me: it says I’m not just building software but also helping people think about their own policies, strategies, and use. I don’t just want to be a personal expert in this arena; I want to build an organization that shares that expertise in service of my mission.

That doesn’t mean I want to do that right this second, or from scratch. I’m very happy at The 19th - and in many ways I am building this organization as a member of its Senior Leadership Team. (It’s a startup, so I think it’s also fair to say that everyone on the team is also building it.) But I don’t think I’d be so happy if I wasn’t learning so much about building a diverse organization, and about hitting that mission. The people I get to work with and the journalism and processes we produce are so good that I’m leveling up more and more the longer I stick around. And understanding that this is important to me helps me figure out what my more tactical goals need to be.

Those tactical goals are where that SMARTIE framework comes into play. Knowing what my underlying mission is, and what I want to have achieved in 5 or 10 years, what are my concrete next steps over the next six to twelve months?

The answer is a mix of the organization’s goals - I want to support it, remember? - and my own developmental tasks. I need to relearn how to center those values in my work, and communicate those values more clearly; I need to build more focused, structured reporting into my team’s policies and procedures; I need to hold us accountable to values as well as productivity. And I want, ambitiously, to lead the industry in doing all those things. There are more, of course, and there’s a lot of prioritization that needs to happen. But by reconsidering my personal mission and vision, and applying a different framework to the individual tactical goals I set out for myself and will be held accountable to, I’m much closer than I was.

 

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

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'I wiped my eyes and wrote the facts'

“As a reporter, I felt tasked with the duty of accurately representing this funeral and the vile circumstances that led to it. As a Black reporter, I felt a duty to bear witness to his unjust death and the burden of grief that came with it.” This edition of The 19th’s weekly newsletter is breathtakingly written. Yet another reason I’m proud to work there.

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In ‘The Last of Us,’ a survivor of the AIDS crisis saw his partner's death honored

““As I’m watching it, I’m like, ‘Oh my god,’ [‘The Last of Us’ co-showrunner] Craig Mazin wrote this piece that just made me feel like someone saw me and Robert,” he said. “Somehow Mazin wrote this piece of art that reflected not just the life that Robert and I had, a falling in love in this dystopian time, but the lives of so many of my friends who also found loves that they loved and lost.””

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Squid skin inspires novel “liquid windows” for greater energy savings

“The idea of a building that can learn, that can adjust this dynamic array on its own to optimize for seasonal and daily changes in solar conditions, is very exciting for us.” No kidding!

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AI-Generated Voice Firm Clamps Down After 4chan Makes Celebrity Voices for Abuse

“In one example, a generated voice that sounds like actor Emma Watson reads a section of Mein Kampf. In another, a voice very similar to Ben Shapiro makes racist remarks about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In a third, someone saying “trans rights are human rights” is strangled.”

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The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok

“This is enshittification: Surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they're locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they're locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit. From mobile app stores to Steam, from Facebook to Twitter, this is the enshittification lifecycle.”

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I’m Now a Full-Time Professional Open Source Maintainer

“Long term, I want this model to grow beyond me and become a known professional path. This experiment is both easier and harder for me than it will be for those after me: easier because I have an extensive personal network and the financial means to safely take risks; harder because it’s uncharted territory for both me and the clients and because there’s a lack of legal, administrative, and marketing tools. I hope that as things progress the barriers will lower, making the model accessible to more and more people.” Inspiring!

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The Celsius examiner's report: a picture of fraud and incompetence

“For some reason, Pillay stops short of outright stating that “Celsius was a Ponzi scheme”, but the facts speak for themselves.”

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Child care crisis is causing parents to leave their jobs or get fired, study shows

"Of the parents surveyed, 26 percent quit their jobs because of child care problems and 23 percent were fired. The number of parents who were fired or had their pay reduced is three times as high as it was just five years ago. The rate of parents quitting has doubled since 2018.“

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