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Humanist technologist. Equality and adventures.

I co-founded Elgg and Known, worked on Medium, and now invest in innovative media startups to support a stronger democracy at Matter.

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The letter from a Birmingham jail is an important piece to reflect on today, in a world where many still hold the law to be more important than justice. http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf

 

Bad UX and the Hawaii missile scare

2 min read

It turns out that the origin of the missile scare that terrified Hawaii the other day was a poor UX choice. Instead of triggering a test alert, a civil defense employee accidentally triggered a real one - which then wasn't rescinded for 38 minutes:

Around 8:05 a.m., the Hawaii emergency employee initiated the internal test, according to a timeline released by the state. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.” He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert.

He "feels terrible", according to reports. I bet.

It reminded me of a UX story that was relayed to me by a university advisor.

My computer science dissertation was on accident reporting: I built a system that allowed you to log events that led to an accident, and then draw weighted causal links between them (using primitive JavaScript, because this was 2001). You could then determine the root causes of an incident using graph theory, often revealing issues that might not have been obvious.

This particular advisor had been involved in assessing the incident at Three Mile Island. The controls to shut down the reactor were, as you might imagine, in a prominent, protected place in the operations room, to avoid accidental shutdowns. It wasn't quite a big red button, but it was close. Which was all fine, until a maintenance officer had to change the overhead bulb: they were observed climbing onto the console and placing their feet on either side of the shutdown control.

I don't know how true the story is, but it's good even if it's just a parable. Observing your user and understanding their context is vital if you're going to design something for them. That's particularly important if the consequences could be life or death, when surprising insights can mean the difference between war and peace.

I feel really awful for the people of Hawaii. I'm also not at all keen on the Cold-War-esque atmosphere that seems to be ratcheting up. May cooler heads prevail.

 

Facebook is deprioritizing news posts, and that's great!

3 min read

A lot has been said about Facebook's upcoming changes to its news feed, which will downgrade posts from Facebook Pages and news publishers in favor of people you actually know. Facebook stock fell 4.5% in response: not a lot, but enough to be felt.

It's easy to see why they're changing their strategy here, even though it will result in shorter visits to Facebook and fewer ad dollars spent in the short-term. In addition to having been instrumental in the Brexit referendum and the instrument for foreign actors hoping to sway the US election (not to mention a propaganda weapon for the likes of Duterte), passively reading your Facebook feed makes you feel bad. Over time, that can only result in fewer people using the service. (It's also worth noting that linking itself so tightly to journalism may cause it difficulties in China.)

Publishers are variously up in arms. Digiday's post was particularly alarmist:

The end is nigh. Facebook is planning a major change to its news feed, starting as early as next week, that will decisively favor user content and effectively deprioritize publishers’ content, according to three publishers that have been briefed by the platform ahead of the move.

The end is nigh. Later on in the piece, one anonymous publishing executive is quoted as saying, "we're losing hope".

But I don't think any of this fear is warranted. This is the web, and Facebook isn't the only game in town. Publishers are already diversifying away from it in order to acquire readers, strengthening their businesses in the process. Facebook's monopolistic supplier power has been overwhelming for the last few years, and the result has not just been felt in the publishing businesses themselves, but in democratic society. A change is long overdue.

Some good thought experiments for web technologists in publishing houses are: what does it look like to retake control of our distribution? How can we work with other publishers, as well as startups and technology companies, to make reading the news easy and fun? We've been hacking the monolithic social network model to be a news distributor for the last decade, but what else is already out there, and who can we work with?

There's a lot out there, from new kinds of technologies explicitly designed for distribution that gives publishers more control, to new ways to pay for content, to interesting new platforms for discovery. And this is before we consider new paradigms like ambient computing (Alexa etc), AR and VR, which are all on the up.

Overall, a lot is possible on the web, if you speak to experts, understand your audience (and your potential audience) deeply, and approach distribution with an innovation mindset.

And to think, not so long ago, publishers were contemplating moving themselves wholesale onto Facebook itself. What a disaster that would have been.

 
 

Yes! I would VERY much like to see Chelsea in government. (Suboptimal description from the WaPo, though.) https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/chelsea-manning-files-to-run-for-us-senate-in-maryl...

 

This. All of this. I'm so glad I got to go to university for free. https://medium.com/the-nib/where-college-is-free-f6c33b851b07

 

This isn't just investing.

2 min read

It's been a long week of 8am starts and 8pm finishes. It's such a privilege to do this job. When I started, I met a VC investor who told me I'd lose my idealism because I'd realize investing was just moving money around. But that's not what we do.

We take people who want to make the world more informed, more inclusive, and more empathetic. We support them with a little bit of money, yes, but more importantly, we plug them into a community and a structured program to help them be more effective in reaching that goal.

When these ventures grow, they have more and more influence. Hearken is changing the way news organizations serve the public on a grander and grander scale. NextRequest is making government more transparent. It's a privilege just to know these people. There have been 61 of these companies (so far).

In the last few months I've spoken to hundreds of teams, all of whom share this goal. 2017 was a tough year, but it was made so much better by meeting so many people who wanted to make a more empathetic, inclusive, informed world.

I can't believe I get to do this. Honestly, I can't. It's a privilege and an honor to get to meet the people I do and learn from them (as well as the incredible team I get to work with).

I'm profoundly grateful.

 

Seeing pitches as a former founder

2 min read

I've been seeing a lot of presentations lately as part of the run-up to Matter Eight, and thinking a lot about my experience as an investor vs as a founder. I think there's a longer piece on this that I should write.

I actually applied to Matter twice (once with Known, and once with Wavelist, a social network for podcasts) and got to the finalist round in both cases. Known was, of course, funded, and I've been a part of the community ever since.

The result of that experience - and the other two startups I either co-founded or had a core part in running - is that I can't help but put myself in the shoes of anyone who's pitching me. It's hard. It's nerve-wracking. It can feel really awful. And the truth is that if you don't get funded, it's not a value judgment on your project; it just might not be a fit.

It might also be that the investor, or one of their partners, is wrong about something core about the venture - not because you described it badly (although storytelling skills are vital), but because of assumptions they have. We've started running mini bias training sessions before each day of pitches to try and prevent this. But declaring your core assumptions and justifying them is a really smart thing to do - at least then you can have an informed conversation about them.

Anyway. Seeing pitches is the best part of my job, but making decisions is the hardest - I ideally would love to support everyone. In most cases I can see the potential, and I can definitely empathize with what the founder is going through.

 

I'd missed this: AngelList's $35M fund to back founders who want to be angel investors. Founders have 15% carry and can write checks directly (not a given). https://blog.angel.co/introducing-spearhead-an-accelerator-for-angel-investors-and-35m-to-back-them-...

 

Insta capitalism

2 min read

Fascinating story about Instagram dropshippers by Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic:

Ganon searches out some lion-themed objects, including the one that he anticipates making the most money from, a gold-plated lion bracelet that he puts on sale for $0. He gives some tips for finding popular dropshippable items, too. He sorts Shopify-hosted sites by traffic with myip.ms, and then digs below the most popular stores, which generally sell products they make themselves. Deeper into the top 1000 stores, there are dropshippers reselling Aliexpress goods, just like Ganon is, so if can ferret out what products are selling at high-performing stores, he can siphon off some of those dollars. All he’d need to do was do reverse image searches to find the listings in Aliexpress, suck those products in with Oberlo, and he could effectively clone the store in a few minutes.

There's nothing particularly new about any of this, but I've seen an uptick in ads for these Everlane-lite products in my Instagram feed and had wondered what the model is.

I'm curious about the effectiveness of the storytelling involved: one store discusses a founder who "had a constant desire to present himself well but didn’t believe fashion and style should come with such a high price". I don't think I could count the number of times I've seen an online store with a founder story like this. It never came across as authentic, but over time the bullshit factor surely becomes overpowering.

Also, importantly: the cross-platform techniques described aren't going to work under the GDPR, because they heavily depend on targeted advertising. Embedding a Facebook pixel in your Shopify site is going to necessarily be a thing of the past, at least in Europe. So hounding someone with ads because they happened to visit a product page on a website may become a thing of the past, forcing marketers to find more authentic and user-friendly ways of reaching potential customers.

This seems like such a soulless way to build a business, and if these aren't technically scams, they sit on the very blurry edge of the border of scamland. I won't be sad if, through a combination of legislation, better privacy features, and new business models, this kind of dropshipping becomes a footnote in the history of social media; just one more reason why targeted advertising is insanely bad.

 

Designing consent for the GDPR is onerous - and that's a good thing

3 min read

PageFair has some really interesting GDPR consent designs:

In late 2017 the Article 29 Working Party cautioned that “data subjects should be free to choose which purpose they accept, rather than having to consent to a bundle of processing purposes”. Consent requests for multiple purposes should “allow users to give specific consent for specific purposes”. Rather than conflate several purposes for processing, Europe’s regulators caution that “the solution to comply with the conditions for valid consent lies in granularity, i.e. the separation of these purposes and obtaining consent for each purpose”.

The sample wireframes they've come up with are hilariously onerous, and Europeans will have to opt in on every single site where data is collected. The result will be that almost nobody agrees to give their information universally across all sites, which is the current status quo (because right now, nobody's being asked for anything).

As David Carroll points out on Twitter, it's a fairer negotiation:

I see two big wins from this:

1: Constraints breed innovation. In order to allow advertising and tracking companies to continue to survive, they will need to become more compliant very quickly. We're going to see a new breed of technologies that respect user privacy.

2: More importantly, we're going to see publishers and platforms move to different business models. I'm particularly excited about this. Targeted display advertising has been a catch-all business model for a long time, and the GDPR removes this lazy route to monetization. Everyone is going to need to think harder and more carefully about how they make money - and the result is likely to be something that aligns readers and publishers (or users and platforms). Display ads do the opposite, as the arms race between ad companies and ad blockers has shown.

Sure, there's an argument to be made that the EU shouldn't be interfering with the digital economy in the way that they are, but I think it's dead wrong. Government should be adjudicating and legislating around issues like privacy. I strongly suspect that similar legislation will make its way to the US and other countries - and either way, this is the internet, so the effects will be felt worldwide.

 

Skeptically dabbling in cryptocurrency

2 min read

I've been pretty cynical about cryptocurrency, not least because of a lot of the community around it. It's hard for me to get excited about something when it presents as bro-fessionally as crypto does. But it turned out over New Year that a $20 joke investment in Dogecoin that I made in 2014 was worth almost $500 - so I decided to pull it out and invest it in a "real" currency to see what all the fuss was about.

Eventually I identified Stellar Lumens as something that fit the bill for me: a kinda sorta fork of Ripple that has a much more palatable governance model and ambitions. The project is trying to make it easy to build global financial applications for humans, and one of their stated goals is to help immigrants send money back to their families. Okay. That sounds interesting to me.

But to get my funds there, I had to sign up to a bunch of services that all made me feel like they were going to take my money and run. I needed to convert Dogecoin into Ethereum, then move it to another exchange, convert it to Lumens, and then withdraw it into my own private wallet. Various exchanges went down while I was doing this, and none of them made me feel at all safe. It looks like I made it under the wire with at least one, which has decided to close registrations for new users.

Stellar has done okay since then: I'm up, but not by a lot.

Contrast with Coinbase, which provides a beautiful, safe-feeling interface for Bitcoin, Ethereum and LightCoin. It makes trading those currencies significantly easier - and it and related services are likely partially responsible for their value. User experience leads to real value, and it'll be interesting to see the effect if and when it adds others. (I'm sure they're aware of this.)

My bigger question is: is this socially useful in any way, or should we be worrying about bigger things?

 

Changing how I post in 2018

1 min read

This year, I’m moving back to blogging on a regular basis. Blog posts are shorter than full-length articles, and usually contain some brief thoughts around an issue or a link. I’ve been blogging since 1998, but sadly not in a consistent place, and over the last few years I’ve let Twitter take more of a focus.

If you use a feed reader (I’m a paid user of Newsblur), you can follow my posts by subscribing to https://werd.io/feed - or I’ll continue to cross post to Twitter. I may add a newsletter later (although, aren’t we all fighting our inboxes almost all of the time?).

I’m writing this on public transport, and this will also encourage me to keep improving my own mobile posting experience.

And finally, comments are off - so if you disagree with what I write about, you’ll need to post your replies on Twitter or on your own site. I’ll see them.

Onwards!

 

It’s really gratifying to see this piece from Roger McNamee, Managing Director of Elevation Partners, and an early investor in Facebook. I couldn’t agree with him more. https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january-february-march-2018/how-to-fix-facebook-before-it-fix...

 

“In other words, an informed public is a necessary condition of democracy, but not a sufficient one.” https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/fighting-fake-news-is-not-the-solution

 

In 2012, new to the Bay Area, I wrote a short novel about the weird world I found myself in. What if the secret sauce was something more terrible than you could ever imagine? It feels more relevant than ever, so here it is publicly for the first time.

https://medium.com/@benwerd/herebe-569324066e9f

 

I wrote a piece about the decisions I'd make if I founded a startup again.

Knowing what I know now, from the founders I work with, my background in startups, and what I’ve learned from working at a values-based accelerator: if I was to do it all again, what choices would I make?

I'm hopeful it will be useful for anyone who's just embarking on this journey.

https://medium.com/@benwerd/founding-a-startup-just-one-more-time-37f7a4b9b22e

 
 

Those CPU exploits can be used by malicious web content to read private information, too. Mozilla and other browser vendors are working on a fix. https://blog.mozilla.org/security/2018/01/03/mitigations-landing-new-class-timing-attack/

 
 

As states go, California is a pretty great one. I really like most of these changes. http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-pol-ca-new-2018-laws/

 

Instead of posting New Year's resolutions, I've written a list of . What are yours? https://medium.com/@benwerd/my-2018liberations-2f581b8adc0c

 

HAHAHHAHA BURRRRRN 2017

That is all.

 

Happy New Year to all my friends who made it to 2018 already! You’re the advance guard. How does it look?

 
 
 

Replied to a post on werd.io :

I’m utterly inspired by Appolition and apps like it. We should have a compassionate society and infrastructure that allows everyone a real chance. But we don’t, so if there are ways to take matters into our own hands (while pressuring government), so be it.

 

Replied to a post on werd.io :

Genuine, voluntary distribution of wealth from those with the ability to those according to their need. My view is that this is a simplified (likely oversimplified) version of what governments need to be doing to support those in need, but here we are. Needs must.

 

Replied to a post on werd.io :

There would be no questions asked about what the money would be used for. If you need it and you qualify, it’s yours. The central account would distribute to neighborhood ATMs according to the local need, with contributions drawn from everywhere.

 

Replied to a post on werd.io :

Withdrawal cards would be distributed by local aid organizations and linked to a specific neighborhood ATM. (Not a bank ATM: a separate machine.) The monthly withdrawal limit would be set according to circumstance according to a rubric; eg, a parent with kids would need more.