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Trump's social media summit and me

Today, President Trump is hosting a social media summit at the White House. Rather than inviting actual social media platforms and experts to have a substantive conversation about the real problems inherent to the medium and how we might fix them, he has chosen to gather a collection of extremists. Among them is a site called Minds - in fact the only social networking platform invited to the summit.

One of the dangers of building an open source networking platform is that anyone can use it for anything. Elgg, an open source social networking platform made by my first startup, was used for all kinds of things: we knew it was going to be a success when non-profits in Colombia began to use it to share between themselves. It's named after the small village in Switzerland that my dad's family comes from - the Werdmuller von Elggs - and I poured my heart and soul into it. Generally, I have been very proud of the things it has been used for: when learned that Oxfam was using it to train aid workers, my heart swelled.

A few years ago, Bill Ottman reached out to me because he was using it as the basis of his new social network, Minds. By that time, Elgg was long in the tooth, and a lot of changes need to be made. (It wouldn't surprise me if, today, most of the Elgg code was gone. And honestly, that would make me feel a little better.) Nonetheless, it helped them get off the ground. Last year, Minds raised a $6M Series A round from one investor, the venture arm of

Yesterday, Vice reported this:

A previous Motherboard investigation found that miliant neo-Nazi groups connected to Atomwaffen Division—a violent American hate group connected to several murders—was using Minds as a platform for recruiting and spreading propaganda.

To be clear, I don't believe that Bill is a white supremacist. But it's also clear that deliberately lax moderation allows neo-Nazis to thrive on the platform and use it for recruitment. Minds describes itself as a platform for free speech: in other words, within the bounds of US law, anything goes.

Today there are concentration camps on the border. Children are dying. In the midst of this, Trump's approval ratings are at the highest point of his Presidency. This is a dangerous point in history - although, of course, not one without precedent, as groups like Never Again Action are right to point out. "The Jews will not replace us" is a common chant at right-wing marches, based on the idea that immigration is a Jewish conspiracy to replace white people.

My great grandfather fled Ukraine to avoid the White Army, which was burning Jewish villages and enacting mass killings in the region. My grandfather was captured by the Nazis. My dad and his entire immediate family were held in Japanese concentration camps, and my grandmother wailed through her nightmares every single night until the day she died.

This isn't principle; it's personal. It's personal for me, and for my friends who have been doxxed and received death threats for being feminists. It's personal for my friends who have been subject to the rapid increase in hate crimes. It's personal for my trans friends.

There's a word for people who aid Nazis: collaborators. There is nothing virtuous about standing up for the free speech of people who wish to see entire demographics of people murdered. To argue that it's "just speech" is disingenuous: words and stories have enormous power to persuade and to lead. To argue that the best way to defeat speech with more speech is similarly so: it inherently gives both sides a level platform, elevating extremism and giving it more integrity than it deserves. Scratch the surface even briefly and the subtext emerges: if inclusion and equal rights are really so great, the argument goes, surely it can defeat the opposition in debate?

These people, my argument goes, can go fuck themselves.

Recently, the white supremacist social network Gab decided to fork Mastodon, forcing that platform to release a strong statement decrying their values. I believe this was the right move. If Known or Unlock were used for hate, I would do the same. Even though it's a full ten years since I left the Elgg project, I'm finding myself writing this blog post.

I am deeply ashamed to have even a mild association with Minds. I think the free speech argument it uses is deeply flawed. I am also thinking hard about another set of principles: namely, the free software ideals that allowed Gab and Minds to adopt existing platforms in the first place.

In the same way that Minds shrugging its shoulders at the presence of hate on its platform is woefully inadequate, an open source social network shrugging its shoulders at its use by extremists is worthy of disdain. It is not enough, to say the least. If we're talking about abstract principles, the principles of human life, inclusion, and equality obviously override the principle of being able to share and freely distribute source code. Code is never more important than life. Genocide is always a bigger problem than software distribution licenses. Hopefully this is obvious.

While I accept that it runs counter to the stated principles of the free software movement, I believe we need a new set of licenses that explicitly forbid using software to facilitate hate or hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as "an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics", which is in line with the FBI's definition.

I don't want software I write to be used by these groups. Ever. For any reason. I don't want to help them even accidentally, ever again. And I think that principle - the principle of never causing harm or facilitating hate - significantly outweighs every other one.

The saddest thing to me is that this is probably a controversial idea. But I would much rather be a part of the anti-fascist software community than the libertarian free market community if the latter absolves itself of its culpability in the spread of white supremacy.


Update: I fixed Bill's name. It's Bill Ottman. Apologies for the earlier error.


Here's what I read in June


This is my first post since June 1st - and by that you can probably discern that I had a tough month. My mother has had two extended hospital stays, and my priority is always to be with my family and help however I can. As much as I'd like to remain calm and collected during these times, they're obviously stressful - so even when I had the time to read, I didn't have the mental energy or stillness of mind.

I did, however, manage to get to the end of one book:

Memes to Movements by An Xiao Mina. A thorough exploration of how memes shaped political movements and vice versa. Thought provoking and full of possibilities; I think, against all odds, this book made me excited about the internet again.

I'm heading into the hospital later this morning. I hope we all get to have more peace and health in July.

Notable Articles

Death of the calorie. It turns out there are better ways to measure what we put into our bodies. And it's simply not true that all calories are equal.

The Catastrophist, or: On coming out as trans at 37. "What I believed for too long, and what you might believe too, is that your body is not a gift but an obligation. That it is not who you are but a series of tasks assigned to you by the accident of your birth. This is not true. The best obligations — the only real obligations — are chosen. Your life is your life. It is worth fighting for."

Let’s Hear It for the Average Child. "To the daydreamer and the window-gazer, to the one who startles when called on by the teacher or nudged by a classmate, whose report card invariably praises your good mind but laments your lack of focus: We are grateful for your brown study. Here’s to the wondering reveries of the dreamers and the dawdlers, for the real aha! moments in life are those that cannot be summoned by will." It's me!

What HBO’s “Chernobyl” Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong. Chernobyl is amazing television, and you should see it. But it's like we're still afraid of the Soviet Union, and rather than represent it in a nuanced way, on television it's always a place where people are forced to do things by the barrel of a gun. It's as if our own capitalist society is the only one that people could possibly participate in willingly - which simply isn't true.

Uber’s Path of Destruction. Damning. I don't use Uber and I urge you not to, too.

The Roots of Big Tech Run Disturbingly Deep. I've become an enormous fan of Tim Wu through this year's reading project. In this opinion piece in the New York Times, he and Stuart A Thompson examine the acquisitions made by large tech companies, and ask why the government hasn't challenged a single one of them.

‘I Can No Longer Continue to Live Here’. The experience of Honduran women is an international tragedy. It's important to understand why they're coming to the US border. We should be giving them asylum. Instead, of course, we're putting them in concentration camps.

Dissent in Nazi Germany. We rarely hear about peaceful protests in Nazi Germany, but they existed. It's shocking to me how many people don't understand that Hitler came to power through a democratic process. It's vital to understand if we have any hope of understanding the present dark moment.

Farming while black. "The truth, however, makes no one happy: 1.) Conservatives refuse to acknowledge racism, 2.) Liberals refuse to confront racism unless it carries a flag, 3.) As a result, what success I’ve had in life is owed mostly to an ability to make White people very, very comfortable."

The I in We. WeWork - or rather, the We Company - is going to catastrophically implode. Here's why.

The World of Online Dating for Socialists. It's too easy to make a joke about praxis here. But I found this fascinating. "Red Yenta isn’t the first socialist dating site to crop up on ye olde internet (a similar platform called OkComrade had a glorious, but brief run in 2014 before becoming defunct), but it is, as far as I can tell, the only one whose interface doesn’t look like a Trojan virus-encrusted Geocities page."

The IMF Confirms That 'Trickle-Down' Economics Is, Indeed, a Joke. I didn't know that, like meritocracy, trickle-down economics was literally coined as a joke. That it doesn't work is obvious, but why do conservatives spin satire into reality so easily? Don't answer that.

Alphabet-Owned Jigsaw Bought a Russian Troll Campaign as an Experiment. I actually thought about doing the same. They're cheap as hell; we have to assume that just about everyone is doing it. (Not just the Russians, and not just using troll farms in Russia. Social media is fully gamed.)

Right-wing publications launder an anti-journalist smear campaign. Quillette, which itself launders hateful rhetoric and makes it look like reasonable discussion (albeit for people who aren't willing to engage in critical thought), published work by a right-wing troll that formed the basis of a kill list of left-wing journalists.

To protect and slur. "Inside hate groups on Facebook, police officers trade racist memes, conspiracy theories and Islamophobia." No surprise, but excellent work by Reveal.

The Time I Went On A Lesbian Cruise And It Blew Up My Entire Life. This is a controversial piece because of the transphobia present on the cruise, and to some extent the lack of criticism of it in the piece itself. So read it through that lens - but I found it a fascinating window into a world I'll never get to see.

The Best Way To Save People From Suicide. Bad headline. But I've known too many people who have died through suicide. I want to be able to better help.

Bodies in Seats. Important reading for anyone in the tech industry - and anyone who spends a lot of time using its products. This is a terrifying portrait of life in a Facebook moderation site. From what I know of other big sites, life isn't much better there, either. So I consider this to be a systemic problem. The tech industry is very good at creating a shiny face that makes us think everything works by magic. Typically, it works through low-paid workers in bad conditions - and a lot of them.

What It’s Actually Like to Be on House Hunters—Twice. My guilty pleasure is all fake. I mean, I kind of assumed.

What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane. Ultimately, a very sad, very human story.

‘Never again’ means nothing if Holocaust analogies are always off limits. How clearly can we say this? We have concentration camps at the southern border. And the analogies are strong. No, they're not death camps. But that doesn't mean we can't draw parallels.

Balancing the Ledger on Juneteenth. "In 2019, Juneteenth will be celebrated as emancipation was in the old days: with calls for reparations." As it should. I support reparations.

Why Should We Care About Faux Free-Speech Warriors? Because the Koch Brothers Are Paying Their Bills. Peterson, Shapiro, giant swathes of the Intellectual Dark Web? Koch funded, as it turns out. The idea is to counteract left-wing thought in universities - systematically, as a concerted effort.

Hideous Men. A remarkably written account, not just of an assault at the hands of Donald Trump, but of a series of abusers. Frightening, not just because of the brutality of these people, but because these people are everywhere, and it's impossible to draw a line. All of us men can do better - even if we think we don't participate, we need to do far better at calling it out and dismantling the systems that allow this to happen.

Hackers are stealing years of call records from hacked cell networks. "At least 10 cell networks have been hacked over the past seven years." And at the same time, the Trump administration is considering a ban on end-to-end encryption.


Here's what I read in May, April, March, February, and January.


Here's what I read in May


The Spirit of Science Fiction, by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer. A lyrical stream of a book, conjuring adolescence in all its cusping possibilities and emerging sexuality. Slight but evocative, often blurring the line between prose and poetry.

Air Vol. 1: Letters From Lost Countries, by G Willow Wilson and MK Perker. My first graphic novel this year (I've been wanting to read something by G Willow Wilson for a while). It starts with a human mystery but quickly unfurls into an existential adventure that upends reality itself. Upon finishing, I immediately ordered the other volumes.

Team Human, by Douglas Rushkoff. I'm a huge fan of Doug; I once had the privilege of speaking to his class, and Known was mentioned in his book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. This is a manifesto for reclaiming civilization and embracing our humanity; a compelling vision rooted in empathy and compassion. A point of light and hope for the future. Emergent Strategy is a good companion read.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. I will be thinking about this book for the rest of my life. A vivid portrait of the horrors many Americans are forced to live through every day, and the people who profit from it. A national tragedy, made real through masterful narrative.

Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. A meditation on loss and longing that builds like a painting, its yearning expressed through discussions of color and light. Beautifully written; heartbreakingly felt.

The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, by Brooke Gladstone. Facts are not the same as truth; the latter has power, and can be fabricated by totalitarian leaders and gaslighters with a blanket of lies. A meditation on the Rashomon of modern life.

Notable Articles

Want to see what one digital future for newspapers looks like? Look at The Guardian, which isn’t losing money anymore. The Guardian's experiment with patronage has been a roaring success, and points to the fact that many people who subscribe to newspapers do so because they want the journalism to exist in the world, not because of any sense of exclusivity.

Silicon Valley is awash in Chinese and Saudi cash — and no one is paying attention (except Trump). A quiet secret about Venture Capital firms is that they often take money from regimes that have dubious human rights records. A question I have: when much of a VC fund is linked to a government, and the fund has a voting seat on the board of a company, and that company (for example) operates a giant surveillance apparatus, how independently can we trust the fund to make decisions?

'Wide-open potential for abuse': States are ground zero in the fight against child marriage. 17 states have no minimum age of marriage. That it isn't a political slam dunk to end child marriage is yet another thing that blows my mind about America.

AirPods Are a Tragedy. I depend on mine, but this exploration of the environmental impact has made me rethink (again) my technology purchases. If we really believe in making positive environmental steps, we've got to make better decisions. I'll stop buying AirPods, but I wish there was a clearer, more positive alternative for phones, laptops, etc.

'I see any dinosaur, I buy it': at home with the embattled owner of the Flintstone house. I see this house all the time from the 280. Visiting it is on my bucket list. The current owner kind of seems like a badass.

Three Feet From God: An Oral History of Nirvana ‘Unplugged’. This was one of the most influential albums on me as a teenager. It's a beautiful set, recorded live six months before Kurt Cobain's untimely death. The performance of Lead Belly's Where Did You Sleep Last Night is particularly affecting. It's neat to read the behind the scenes story.

What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right. A portrait of the male resentment and coercive outside factors that these hateful movements thrive on. It's like a cult. But the piece offers a glimmer of hope at the end.

The Problem With Supplements. There should certainly be stronger oversight over the supplement industry, and there are major potential ill effects. The argument isn't that all supplements are bad - it's that they're not necessarily good, either, and many are harmful, particularly without a doctor's supervision. Adelle Davis has a lot to answer for.

Is Conference Room Air Making You Dumber? The argument being made here is much more far-reaching than conference rooms. Indoor air quality is not regulated or monitored to anywhere near the same degree as outdoor air, but it may have a stronger effect on our health.

It's Time to Break Up Facebook. Chris Hughes, an estranged Facebook co-founder, repeats many of the arguments made in Tim Wu's The Curse of Bigness. I'm very happy to see these arguments being made in a more public way, both by Hughes and politicians like Elizabeth Warren. I strongly agree that reformed anti-trust legislation will have an outsized positive impact on both the technology industry and inequality overall.

Strong Opinions Loosely Held Might be the Worst Idea in Tech. It's an approach that often leads to bluster and doesn't work well with introverts. Let's all just be more comfortable with saying "I don't know; let's find out".

The tyranny of ideas. Once a creator becomes known for an idea, how can they move beyond it?

Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry. I'm holding onto my love by the finest of fine threads. I'd love to share Paul Ford's enthusiasm, and maybe I kind of do, but my love of tech was never about the computers themselves or transhumanism, and was always about the potential to connect people. For me as a teenager, and thereafter, the potential to be really seen. It's hard to be enthusiastic about that knowing what we know now about power, abuse and inequality. Still, the whisper of a hint of that old potential is still there. Maybe we can turn this ship around.

The Racist Origins of America’s Tech Industry. It's all to do with counting and tracking people - from the US census, through IBM's involvement in the Holocaust. Just as Nazi propaganda techniques paved the way for modern marketing, racist tracking techniques made the way for modern surveillance.

The Criminalization of Women’s Bodies Is All About Conservative Male Power. "The goal of the wave of anti-abortion laws in America is to put female sexuality under strict and brutal state control." More than sexuality, it's about enforcing patriarchy. "We live in a society that is comfortable letting men get away with sexual violence, but determined not to let women get away with consensual sex. This is why there are vast swathes of society who are comfortable giving vast executive and judicial power to men credibly accused of sexual assault—as long as those same men promise to confiscate women’s power to sexually self-determine."

Why America Can’t Solve Homelessness. "The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that punishing homeless people makes it harder for them to find housing and get work. Nonetheless, the most common demands from urban voters are for politicians to increase arrests, close down soup kitchens and impose entry requirements and drug tests in shelters." Why can't we be more compassionate? Better informed? As I learned by reading Evicted this month, it's because poverty is hugely profitable.

What Actually Happens When a Country Bans Abortion. "Romania’s prohibition of the procedure was disproportionately felt by low-income women and disadvantaged groups, which abortion-rights advocates in the United States fear would happen if the Alabama law came into force. As a last resort, many Romanian women turned to home and back-alley abortions, and by 1989, an estimated 10,000 women had died as a result of unsafe procedures. The real number of deaths might have been much higher, as women who sought abortions and those who helped them faced years of imprisonment if caught. Maternal mortality skyrocketed, doubling between 1965 and 1989."

Why Losing Our Newspapers Is Breaking Our Politics. "As local newspapers disappear, citizens increasingly rely on national sources of political information, which emphasizes competition and conflict between the parties. Local newspapers, by contrast, serve as a central source of shared information, setting a common agenda. Readers of local newspapers feel more attached to their communities. Unless something is done, our politics will likely become ever more contentious and partisan as the media landscape consolidates and nationalizes."

Inside the World of Racist Science Fiction. This is fascinating to me: for me, science fiction is all about extrapolating what humanity can be, both for good and ill. I guess that's true of racists, too, and they have a parallel set of literature where dystopias are characterised by unity and racial diversity. It doesn't sound great, and I have no desire to read any of it. It's worth noting, though, that some mainstream science fiction authors also harbored unpleasant views: Robert Heinlein, for example, became increasingly right-wing as he got older.

The 15 Year Layover. Merhan Nasseri is the real-life counterpart to, and inspiration for, Tom Hanks's character in The Terminal. Trapped in Charles de Gaulle airport, partially by beaucracy and partially by his desire to control his identity, he has managed to survive through a mixture of intelligence and the kindness of others. But it's also an inadvertent commentary on the ridiculousness of borders as they stand. Why should he be trapped this way? Why should arbitrary rules mean someone should spend over a decade sleeping on benches in a shopping mall? It makes no sense.

How Many Bones Would You Break to Get Laid? I'll admit I'm fascinated by incels. Their worldview is based on an unacknowledged misogyny; what they think is a bedrock of scientific understanding is actually just illogical sexism dressed up as reason. I don't sympathize with them in the slightest, but I think they probably need help. Particularly in the cases described here, where their disorder brings them to the point of getting plastic surgery to try and become more attractive. Perhaps if they tried to be empathetic, three dimensional people?

For the record: Jonathan Freedland on his sister’s farewell Desert Island Discs. A journalist's gift to his dying sister, and the role the resulting self-recorded radio show played in her goodbye.

W3C TAG Ethical Web Principles. For the first time, real humanist ethics are represented in the W3C platform. This is a huge step forward - I agree with everything here, even if I wish it went just a little bit further.


Here's what I read in April, March, February, and January.


Yes: Can't wait!



A friend of mine takes time at the end of every Sunday to write down three to five things she's grateful for, based on these tips for keeping a gratitude journal. Then she mails them to her friends as part of an ongoing thread. For her, it's part of building a habit of seeing the world through a grateful lens; for me, it's a lovely reminder, every single week. I asked her if she minded if I stole her idea months ago, but I've never quite managed to get it together to do it. I think I'm a bit scared of asking my friends if they want to receive it - but, of course, that shouldn't stop me from writing it.

I used to see phrases like "gratitude practice" and roll my eyes automatically. It somehow seems like the most Californian thing ever: why do you need to practice to be grateful? But after a few really hard years, I see why making gratitude a habit is important - in itself, but also as a good foundation for mental health. I now see my eye rolls as immature reactions in a world where mental healthcare is not as highly valued as it should be.

I don't think I'll continue to post updates in this forum, but since we're here: these are some things I've been grateful for over the last week.

1: Reconnections. I was in New York City last week, and although I never get to see everyone I want to, and I was considerably less organized than I wish I'd been, I got to hang out with a lot of old friends. Most of them reached out to me, because it was a work trip and I didn't quite have it together to reach out to them. All of them are people I wish I could be around all the time, but one symptom of my anxiety is that I worry about imposing my presence on other people. That these people who I care about thought of me, and that I got to spend time with them, made me incredibly happy.

2: Family. My sister is currently disabled and in chronic pain, and needed to leave both her job and her home a while back. My parents are suffering ill health. I feel priviliged to be able to give my sister somewhere to live (and spend most days with her); equally, to be able to drive up and see my parents regularly. I'm also just grateful for who they are: empathetic, compassionate people who care very deeply about fairness and very little about individual gain. If I can be more like them, I'll be a better person.

3: Reading time. The arbitrary goal I set myself to read a book a week this year has been one of the nicest things I've ever done for myself. So far, they've universally been books on paper: time away from the screen,  notifications, and distractions. It feels like meditation, and I've learned so much. I had convinced myself that reading long-form pieces on the internet was a similar experience, but it is not.

4: Working at the office. The experience of actually being in the same room and time zone as people I work with was completely lovely. It's a whole different energy. I've learned over time that being around people energizes me, and these are smart, kind people. I'm grateful to know them.

5: Up and to the right. I've been depressed, in the true sense of that word, and it feels like there's finally light at the end of the tunnel. In particular, I feel like I have a lot more energy: even when I'm tired, it feels like there's a fire inside me that I thought had gone out for good. I still have a lot of work to do to rid myself of the negative self-talk and low self-esteem I've built up over years, but broadly, I feel like a different person. I was living with a layer of despair that informed how I thought about myself, and how I thought about the world. The sediment had built up over years, and I feel like I'm shaking it off. The world feels possibility-driven again.


Pro-choice is pro-freedom

A woman has the right to choose what to do with her own body. This should be obvious to anyone who cares about freedom.

It's ironic to me (but not surprising) that the people who are most in favor of subjugating women are also the people who advocate most strongly for what they consider to be Core American Freedoms. Your ability to own a gun should be unrestricted in a country where more children are killed by firearms than police officers or soldiers from any army. You should be able to discriminate against people whose love looks different to yours because you think your religion gives you the right to be a bigot. You should be able to use rhetoric that implies violence against whole demographics of people, who themselves have been subjected to violence for generations from people just like you, because you say you believe in freedom of speech, even while your speech silences whole communities and your calls of anti right wing bias are not functionally different to the people a generation ago who complained they couldn't use the N word anymore. But bodily autonomy for half of the population? A step too far.

Abortion legislation is sweeping conservative states like a virus. As many people have rightly pointed out, if it had anything to do with care for children, these same people would be providing parental care, better child healthcare, and programs to alleviate child poverty. They might not be actively creating concentration camps for asylum seekers at the border that separate children from their parents with no plan or means to reunite them later.

Instead, it's about pandering to a small, conservative base of voters, who don't just want to subjugate women, but also to re-establish segregation and "make America great again" by returning it to the dark days of white supremacy and hierarchical patriarchy. When Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, set about opposing desegregation by building a new kind of religious conservatism in the 1970s, he wrote: "The new political philosophy must be defined by us in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition [...] When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation."

In reality, no moral high ground can be claimed by a movement whose actions will result in the deaths of women, disproportionately affecting those from vulnerable communities, let alone one so steeped in the horrors of racism and slavery.

But nobody is off the hook. Rape culture - the logical conclusion of patriarchy and its inherent dehumanization of women - reaches into every aspect of society. Many men, including on the left, believe that they have the right to dictate what their partners do with their bodies. The logic is that the father of an unborn child should have some right to decide whether the mother carries that child to term. I disagree, in the strongest possible terms: no man has the right to decide what a woman does with her body, period. It's possible that a woman will grant a man the privilege of participating in the conversation. But it's never ultimately his choice. For it to be anything else, we would have to conclude that a man has partial ownership of his partner's body. This is not and cannot be the case.

The current viral sweep of abortion bans is designed to lead us to a re-evaluation of Roe vs Wade at the Supreme Court, before a roster of judges that has artificially been curated to lean conservatively, as part of a judicial system that has been radically remade for this purpose, but which has always perpetuated systemic prejudice. I would like to think that it won't prevail, and women will still have autonomy over their bodies (hopefully more autonomy than they do now) a decade from now. But I can't predict. This is an issue of pivotal importance, potentially putting life and death in the balance for generations of women, and yet it's just one thing out of many that can be described this way. In the current moment, brutality has found a kaleidoscope of ways to express itself.

Hope seems hard to come by.

But it can be found. I find hope in the many messages from people who are willing to put up women fleeing these regressive states and assist them in finding the healthcare they need, up to and including putting up the money and posing as family members. I find hope in feminism, and activism. I find hope in the past: knowing that abortion rights were hard-won, I believe that if they are lost, they can be won again. I find hope in politicians like Elizabeth Warren, who released a plan to finally encode abortion protections into federal law.

I find hope in dissenting voices. That's why I'm writing this piece to begin with: as a white, cis, straight man, I think it's important to speak up. Silence is tacit support. I donate what I can to organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and support politicians like Warren, but those things are baseline: they're nowhere near enough in themselves. Neither is simply voting, although it is crucial. There needs to be a unanimous show of support for women, and against the cynical bigotry of this political moment. We need to take to the streets, we need to take this to Washington, and we need to show that the moral majority are the people who believe in a women's right to choose.

Things to do right now:

Here's a list of local, grassroots organizations in states affected by abortion bans. If you have the means, they need your money.

A national day of action is planned on Tuesday, May 21st. RSVP to a local march near you here.

Support democratic candidates who will fight for reproductive rights.


Always punch up

“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.” - Molly Ivins

Comedians debate about punching up vs punching down - the idea that making fun of people more powerful than you is more equitous than making fun of people with less power and agency. Some argue that this rule is unnecessarily restrictive, but they're often the same people who complain that people can't be racist or sexist anymore.

Anyway, I'm not a comedian, and I've taken the idea to heart.

In technology, we often talk about disruption. In the Clay Christiansen sense that most people refer to it, disruptive innovation "describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors."

Internet companies have disrupted incumbents again and again. The question is: who is worth disrupting?

I think "always punch up" has a place here, too. When you're building a new platform, your targets should be the slow, inefficient mega-corporations further up the food chain. By punching up here, you're probably removing gatekeepers and democratizing a part of the market that had been previously locked up by one or two established players. Conversely, if your technology disrupts, say, public transport or the social welfare system, you're punching down: your platform negatively affects people with less power than you. Rather than democratizing, you're locking up an important resource that was previously owned by the people.

It's a simple test that you can rinse and repeat. Disrupting small, independent bookstores? Punching down. Disrupting WalMart? Punching up. Food co-operatives? Down. Monsanto? Up.

Of course, it's all relative to your own power and agency, which changes over time depending on how successful you are. White, male Stanford graduates from wealthy families have a different power equation than people of color who have had to overcome generational inequalities, for example. Someone emerging from poverty by creating an alternative to the neighborhood bookstore is punching up, but if Amazon did the exact same thing, they'd be punching down.

One could argue that it's an unnecessarily combatative metaphor, and it probably is. Life and business should be much more about collaboration than "punching" in any direction. In my defense, I've co-opted the idea rather than inventing it. Nonetheless, I find it a useful yardstick for which opportunities to take, which ideas are worth pursuing, and which ventures are likely to run into ethical trouble in the future.


The next wave of startups: smaller, scrappier, and making money

I think we're about to see a resurgence in smaller, more capital efficient startups. This new breed of company will be a startup by definition - a company that is still figuring out what it is, and how to best serve its customers - but won't necessarily be funded by venture capital. Correspondingly, it will have less of a financial cushion to sit on while it's figuring things out, and will need to start taking revenue earlier.

My prediction is based on a few things. Firstly, venture capital has been shielded by the "what if" stories told about a few mega-unicorns that seem to be getting more and more valuable. Those mega-unicorns - companies like Uber - are now finally finding liquidity, and the rubber will meet the road. Uber's IPO isn't likely to go as well as some investors might have hoped, and that's nothing compared to WeWork, which has also filed to go public. Stories about growth will give way to market realities, and the serious losses incurred by these companies will be felt in the returns of every venture capital fund that invested in them.

Secondly, we're hearing some noises about antitrust reform - from both sides of the political aisle. It remains to be seen if Elizabeth Warren's proposal to break up big tech companies bears fruit, but it's likely that there will be some changes here. Venture capital depends on companies that grow incredibly quickly and own a market - or, to put it another way, companies that tend towards monopoly. If they are disallowed from becoming monopolies, their growth potential is limited, and the amount of money that will be readily invested is correspondingly reduced.

Thirdly, some LPs - the people who put money into venture capital funds - are slowing down or being blocked from investing at all. Investors from Saudi Arabia are, rightly, now being turned away in the wake of the Kashogghi scandal (although its human rights record was indefensible long before). China's economy is also slowing down. This, together with knock-on effects from my previous two points, may affect LP enthusiasm, and it might start to get harder to raise a VC fund as investors look to other markets.

Finally, we're beginning to see more viable alternatives to VC, both for ethical reasons and because it's becoming more apparent that not all startups have the right growth profile. Alternative funding sources tend to be revenue-bound, and these necessarily mean lower investment amounts. Because these deals tend to promise to return a fixed multiple of the initial investment amount, startups need to be careful: if the multiple is 5X (which is pretty standard for these deals), taking a $10M check becomes harder to argue for. Nobody wants to commit to paying out $50M if they can avoid it.

All of which means that time to revenue will need to be reduced, and burn rate (the amount of money you spend beyond the money you take in) will need to shrink significantly. Correspondingly, services and tools that allow you to hit revenue milestones quickly (vs, say, user growth hacking) will become much more valuable parts of the ecosystem than they are today. Similarly, reducing burn by letting teams build revenue-generating software more quickly and with fewer engineers will be key. I'd expect Microsoft to be in front of this very quickly. Finally, remote teams who aren't located in the usual, high-rent cities will become more commenplace, and tools to manage those teams will become more necessary.

There's a common fallacy that startups should ape Twitter's early strategy - which is to say, grow really fast and figure out a business model later. It's a bad idea: most entrepreneurs aren't Ev Williams and don't have his resources or investor goodwill. This has always been true, but figuring out a business model early will become even more imperative in the future. For example, most founders don't think about performing revenue experiments - something we're trying to make easier with Unlock - until much later in their lives. It's something that I'd argue founders should now be thinking about in week one.

In some ways, it's a return to an era of tech that I honestly enjoyed more: one that isn't so much about making billions of dollars as people getting ventures off the ground to become viable businesses that produce cool software. Even if my predictions turn out to be wrong (and they may well), I think we're seeing a swing of the pendulum back to smaller businesses, and a tech world that's much more about possibilities than it is about being a financial vehicle for billionaires. I, for one, welcome this with open arms.


Here's what I read in April


Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E Butler. It's tempting to try and read Butler's entire bibliography this year. Her work is amazing. In turns profoundly affecting and utterly terrifying, this novel feels like a glimpse of the near future rather than far-flung speculation. Visceral and poignant. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Journey to Armenia by Osip Mandelstam, translated into English by Sidney Monas (my grandfather). A beautiful portrait of a specific time and place; the writing is breathtaking, even if the observations are firmly set in an imperialist era. I lost my grandfather last month, and I could hear his voice in the writing, too.

The Curse of Bigness, by Tim Wu. I should have read this months ago; it was recommended to me last year as part of a project I wish life hadn't gotten in the way of. A concise and powerful argument for antitrust reform as a path to a more equitable democracy. It cemented my opinion that it’s one of the most important things we can do.

Notable Articles

The Attention Economy to the Addiction Economy. "Short term optimization and focusing on attention will hurt the internet over the long term." I couldn't agree more, and I'm glad Mozilla is fighting the good fight.

The Day the Dinosaurs Died. "“We have the whole KT event preserved in these sediments,” DePalma said. “With this deposit, we can chart what happened the day the Cretaceous died.”" Absolutely amazing.

“The Big Error Was That She Was Caught”: The Untold Story Behind the Mysterious Disappearance of Fan Bingbing, the World’s Biggest Movie Star. A fascinating account of a story I've been peripherally aware of.

Bussed out: How America moves its homeless. "Each year, US cities give thousands of homeless people one-way bus tickets out of town. An 18-month nationwide investigation by the Guardian reveals, for the first time, what really happens at journey’s end." This should be a national tragedy. Beautifully reported, and best read on desktop.

The Hidden Air Pollution in Our Homes. Outside air pollution is regulated; indoor air quality is not. But the particles in our homes can have a severe impact on our hearts and lungs. I've become more and more aware of lung health in particular.

How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World. An impressively-told account of the Murdoch empire, the impact it's undeniably had, and its future.

Facebook Wants a Faux Regulator for Internet Speech. It Won’t Happen. The kicker is in the final paragraph. "In the future, American speech — at least online — may be governed by Europe." I agree. GDPR has already forced a rearchitecture of popular services all over the world, despite only having European jurisdiction. And that's a great thing for everybody.

Privileged. Utah Jazz basketball player on white privilege and his racial awakening. The conclusions he comes to should be conclusions for a lot of us.

We Need a More Ethical Web. I trust Daniel Applequist's opinions on many things, and he's right on here. "It’s time for web platform makers to enlarge this ethical framework to include human rights, dignity and personal agency. We need to put human rights at the core of the web platform. And we need to promote ethical thinking across the web industry to reinforce this approach." Damn straight.

The Death of the Hippies. Joe Samberg - Andy's dad - photographed the decline of the hippie scene on Berkeley's Telegraph Ave, just a few miles away from where I write this now. Drugs were a way to discredit both the anti-war movement and the black power movement, a deliberate and cynical government strategy, and unfortunately, they worked.

How PragerU Is Winning The Right-Wing Culture War Without Donald Trump. "It took two months for Prager University, one of the biggest, most influential and yet least understood forces in online media, to mold a conservative." I've come across PragerU's videos, often reshared by conservative family members on Facebook. They're easily debunked, but I'm not a receptive audience. There's no equivalent on the left.

Bret Easton Ellis Thinks You’re Overreacting to Donald Trump. I'm not shocked that he's as vapid and superficial as his work.

Climate Chaos Is Coming — and the Pinkertons Are Ready. If you're not familiar with the Pinkertons, they were Abraham Lincoln's private security during the Civil War, and were later hired to infiltrate unions and break up labor protests. They expect business to boom during the climate crisis.

15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook. As always, an excellent example of a company that could benefit from antitrust reform.

Capitalism in crisis: U.S. billionaires worry about the survival of the system that made them rich. "“So, what should we do?” her colleague asked. “Is he saying we shouldn’t go into banking or consulting?”"

‘Liz Was a Diehard Conservative’. It's early days, but Elizabeth Warren is my preferred choice for Democratic nominee (and the only candidate I'm donating to regularly, although I've also given to Bernie Sanders). This profile only deepens my respect.

The Black Feminists Who Saw the Alt-Right Threat Coming. An underreported story about a group of black women who discovered a disinformation campaign that was arguably the precursor of both GamerGate and the tactics used in the 2016 election.

I Used to Work for Google. I Am a Conscientious Objector. "Direct action from tech workers has been undeniably effective. Human rights organizations must therefore continue to advocate the legal protection of whistle-blowers and conscientious objectors, including protecting the organizing required for an effective collective action. Further, the broader civil society could increase the frequency of whistle-blowing by creating a dedicated legal defense fund."

Why Won’t Twitter Treat White Supremacy Like ISIS? Because It Would Mean Banning Some Republican Politicians Too. This is a telling story on so many levels: one reason Twitter can't ban white supremacists is that the dragnet would also ban prominent Republicans.

Here’s what happened inside The Markup. An evolving account of what happened to a publication that should have shined a data-driven investigative journalism spotlight on the societal impact of the tech industry.

The Narrative Experiment That Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I still haven't seen Endgame, but I unashamedly love these movies. It's never been done before: 22 movies all building on the same story. Even James Bond (which I like a lot less because of its jingoism and sexism, but technically has more titles, at 26) hasn't attempted this kind of interwoven narrative.

Jack Dorsey’s TED Interview and the End of an Era. "The struggle to maintain Twitter is a double referendum: first, on the sustainability of scale; second, on the pervasive belief in Silicon Valley that technology can be neutral and should be treated as such. This idea, that systems will find their own equilibrium, echoes the libertarian spirit that has long animated the Valley and fails to account for actual power imbalances that exist in the real world. In 2019, it also suggests a certain lack of vision or imagination about what social technologies can, or should, be."

Tony Slattery: ‘I had a very happy time until I went slightly barmy’. I used to love Whose Line Is It Anyway, and Slattery was omnipresent there and across the pantheon of British comedy panel shows. Even as a teenager, I could tell he was drunk. This is a sad story, but also one of survival.

The largest study involving transgender people is providing long-sought insights about their health. "The research could also reveal some of the basic biology underlying differences among sexes. Tantalizing hints are already beginning to emerge about the respective roles of hormones and genetics in gender identity. And findings are beginning to clarify the medical and psychological impacts of transitioning."

A Terrorist Tried to Kill Me Because I Am a Jew. I Will Never Back Down. "I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish."

The Case for Doing Nothing. "More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense." I'm very pro-niksen.


Here's what I read in March, February, and January.


Nobody talks about the fear

I wouldn't have founded my first startup without socialized medicine. Although my background was squarely middle class, I didn't come from wealth, and I didn't have a safety net to fall back on. If I'd had to pay hundreds of pounds a month for healthcare on top of my basic living expenses, or if I'd known that an accident could have led to lifelong financial catastrophy, there's no way I would have quit my salaried position to start a company.

Of course, I didn't have that risk, because I lived in a country with a safety net. It was also a country where I could get the computer science degree that has enabled my career for free, meaning I've only ever had the barest whisper of student debt. And where going to the doctor was something I could do any time something was wrong with me, without having to care about how much it would cost.

I didn't understand how privileged I was to not be afraid of those things until I moved to the United States.

What boggles my mind is that this is often used as a legitimate argument for not having a safety net. The need for health insurance in particular means that millions of people remain in the relative safety of their jobs, rather than stepping out and doing something on their own, or looking for something new. Because most workers either don't have significant savings or can't risk them, they're effectively trapped into working for wealthy employers, who have leverage over them as a result.

Employer-provided health insurance creates a chilling effect on entrepreneurship. It also reduces incentives for employers - particularly of the low-income employees who are the most trapped and are in the most need - to compete for workers by offering higher wages, better working conditions, and more meaningful work. It's bad for everybody except for the wealthy employers themselves.

As Aaron E Carroll wrote in the New York Times:

One effect of this system is job lock. People become dependent on their employment for their health insurance, and they are loath to leave their jobs, even when doing so might make their lives better. They are afraid that market exchange coverage might not be as good as what they have (and they’re most likely right). They’re afraid if they retire, Medicare won’t be as good (they’re right, too). They’re afraid that if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, they might not be able to find affordable insurance at all.

I felt the difference. It was visceral, and it's hard to completely articulate: no matter which choice I made, I knew I would never slip through the cracks. Even if I fell into poverty, it would not be a death sentence. In the US, that's only the domain of the very privileged. Everyone has to make a monthly payment - whether provided by them or their employer - that could mean the difference between their life and death. It's bonded labor that keeps workers from rising above their stations. And it's an omnipresent fear that underpins almost every aspect of American life. You've have to compete; work hard; always be productive. Because you know what will happen if you don't.

American society has fear running through it. It informs every decision. It's internalized as a fact of life and a part of the natural order of things. And it manifests everywhere. It's what's bringing American life expectancy down year on year. And it has effects on mental health and happiness that we've only begun to scratch the surface of.

The people who talk about these things in terms of abstract economic arguments have missed that everyone should also get to be human. Everyone deserves a decent life, no matter who they are. Nobody should fall through the cracks of society because of chance or a bad decision. And everyone should have the right to live without fear.

People talk about a social safety net out here like it's some mythical beast that couldn't possibly truly exist. It exists. And speaking as someone who had free healthcare, had free education, who lived under the protection of a compassionate, democratic system, let me tell you: these things are great, and I couldn't have existed without them.


Fixing the financial dilemma at the heart of our broken tech industry

I was recently forwarded Jeffrey Zeldman's piece on A List Apart, Nothing Fails Like Success, on the impact of venture capital on startup business models. At the end, he questions whether the indieweb is a possible answer to the predicament we find ourselves in.

I feel uniquely positioned to answer, because I've been a venture capitalist (at mission-driven accelerator Matter Ventures) and have literally started an indieweb startup, Known. I've also bootstrapped a startup and worked at one that raised hundreds of millions of venture capital dollars.

He's correctly identified a major problem inherent to startup funding in the modern age. It's certainly true that venture capital depends on moonshots - and they have to. To break this down, we need to briefly explain how a VC fund works.

Why VCs need moonshots

You can think of venture capital funds as purely financial instruments: investors (limited partners, or LPs) put money into them, and expect to get more money back. Because the risk inherent in these funds is high (most startups fail), LPs expect more of a return than they would from a more traditional investment fund. In fact, venture capital funds often aim to triple an LP's investment. The venture capitalists managing the fund usually make money by taking 2% of total LP investments as a management fee, and then 20% of any profits. To ensure there is alignment, LPs often require that the managing partner of a venture capital fund puts in 1-4% of the fund total from their own money.

Investments made by VC funds come in two forms. The first is as an equity purchase: they are buying shares in a startup at a defined price. This makes the most sense when a company obviously has some potential and has grown beyond its embryonic stage. It's important to consider valuation here: when investors buy a type of share in a company at a particular price, the company takes on a valuation that assumes every share of that type in that company is worth that price.

The only way equity investors make money is if their shares are sold at a higher price.

The second is as debt: if a startup is too young, it's hard to know what its potential is. In particular, there's a strong chance that it will pivot to find a different customer base or to provide a different product. Two examples are Slack, which was originally a game, and Instagram, which was originally a Foursquare competitor. While both became enormous companies in their own right (Slack is about to IPO and Instagram was bought by Facebook for $715 million), buying shares in those companies in those early days would have given them a valuation based on those early versions of those products. Slack would have been valued as if it was a game, and Instagram as if it was a Foursquare competitors. So instead, early stage investors use debt that turns into equity at a certain value when the startup is ready to sell shares.

The only way these early stage convertible debt investors make money is if more investors come along later to buy shares in the company, which automatically turns their convertible debt into shares. Then they need to be able to sell their shares.

To compound matters, you can't just sell shares in a private company. To make a return on their shares, investors need the company to either be sold at a good price to another company, or to IPO and turn into a public company, at which point their shares can be publicly tradeable on the stock market. Both of these are referred to as an exit event.

90% of startups fail. The entire profit model of a venture capital fund therefore depends on the outliers: those 10% of startups that buck the trend and manage to not just survive, but grow very quickly and reach an exit event. To make their economics work, venture capitalists are hoping for each individual investment to make them a 30-40X return on their investment. Most will disappear without a trace; the ones that don't need to make up the difference.

Finally, funds have a fixed time period; usually, they last 10 years. The first 3-5 years might be spent making initial investments, with the remainder of time devoted to making follow-on investments in companies that look like they're winning. It would be ideal if the successful startups found their way to a high-worth exit event in a timely manner, so that VCs can return funds to their LPs, make their profits, and show good results so they can raise new funds.

All of this means that VCs are very careful. The stereotype of them being bold risk-takers is almost entirely untrue: they're very risk averse, and often look to replicate patterns that have worked for them in the past in finding very high-growth companies that have provided a rapid return on their investments. Unfortunately, they fall into common biases in the process, and this is why there is a bias towards white, male founders who look a little bit like Mark Zuckerberg. (More on this later.)

Why startups need VCs

The short version is that everyone needs to eat and put a roof over their heads, and the money has to come from somewhere.

Let's discuss startups that intentionally want to play the high-growth VC game, and then startups that don't.

If you intentionally want to take the high-growth route, you need to make your startup grow in value as quickly as possible. Value is not directly correlated with revenue: for example, a web service with hundreds of millions of users who compulsively check it every day can be said to be valuable even if it isn't making a dime. A direct business model can be added later: maybe you want to serve advertising to them, or perhaps they're inadvertently creating a database of insights that can be sold to third parties. That rapidly-growing database could make the service a valuable purchase by another company later on. Or maybe the business model can be applied when the service hits critical mass, and the business has the potential to reach IPO.

Revenue has a cooling effect on growth. If you ask your users to pay, it's a simple fact that most won't. So if your service comes with a price - unless it's a high-ticket enterprise service where a single customer could represent a six or seven figure monthly sum - it's less likely that you'll hit the growth milestones that will entice more investors to come in at a higher valuation, or that you'll hit an exit event.

So if you're hoping to entice venture capital investors, it's probably not a good idea to take revenue at first; instead, you'll want to concentrate on growth. And if you're growing fast, you may need to operate for years with a larger and larger userbase, and therefore with a larger and larger team. Which means you need to raise more and more money from venture capital investors, as well as experiment with non-interruptive revenue models like targeted advertising. It's self-fulfilling.

If you don't want to take the high-growth route, you need to be thinking about revenue from day one. It's highly unlikely that you'll build a startup that covers your costs in the first month - or even in the first year. In fact, most startups don't begin to cover their costs until over three years after they start.

This effect is compounded in areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, which used to be the place where innovation could happen. It's still a special place, and there's certainly still a critical mass of people who have built innovative technology, and scaled innovative technology. (The two are different, by the way: research into new technology doesn't typically happen inside a startup. Instead, startups bring new technology to market. This should probably be the subject of another post.)

But the San Francisco Bay Area is now too expensive to live in if you're not either independently wealthy or drawing a six figure salary. There are so many wonderful stories about ventures being created in Palo Alto garages - but to buy a home with a large garage in Palo Alto would now cost you between three and four million dollars. In San Francisco itself, a family earning $118,000 a year is considered to be low income. The rule of thumb for an early-stage startup is that you should budget for $10,000 per team member per month - and that still puts you into the low income bracket.

Given these costs, who could possibly live there and forgoe a real salary for three years?

For most startup founders in Silicon Valley, investment is necessary. Without investment, there would be very few Silicon Valley startups (and the ones that did still exist would be run by the very wealthy).

Because startup founders need investment to create their companies, and because venture capital is the prevailing form of startup investment, most startups are created to be high-growth venture capital investments.

There are non-financial reasons to take investment. A good investor is like a co-founder: they have amassed enough knowledge about startups, and a big enough contact book, that they can add meaningful value to a venture before they've added any money at all. Investors build reputation through the advice, hard work, and connections they put in. They can also be social proof: new investors will look at the capitalization table of a business to understand who has already bought in. Beyond fundraising, consider the number of articles in the tech press announcing that a famous investor has joined this or that startup. It's a sign that the startup is real and worth paying attention to. All of these factors lessen the risk in a venture.

Because these startups are typically Delaware C Corporations, whose company documents do not make mission or ethics a core part of their founding bylaws, their founders have a primary, fiduciary duty to their shareholders: the investors that put money into them. Although it can be argued that being an unethical company can have detrimental effects in the marketplace and degrade a company's valuation (I've certainly made this argument many times), founders are obligated to do what they can to be good stewards of investor value. They have to continue to grow, and they have to continue to build value - often, as Zeldman noted in his piece, at any cost.

The same is true of the venture capitalists. There are many thoughtful, ethical VCs. But they have a fiduciary duty to their limited partners, who, after all, are their investors.

Is the indieweb the answer?

It depends.

For consumers - those of us who use web services - picking indieweb solutions, and independent solutions more generally, may free us from some of the worst effects of the growth-at-any-cost model. Certainly, every business, and I would argue every adult, should own their own website. Having a web presence that you control has profoundly positive effects in business, work, and life. For example, artists and musicians who own their own website rather than primarily operate a Facebook page have a far greater ability to build deeper relationships with their fans. In my case, almost every job I've ever had can be traced directly back to my blog.

Furthermore, the technologies being developed by the indieweb community - decentralized website-to-website social networking - show that we don't need large centralized growth machines to communicate with each other. Over time, if these technologies become more popular and widely-supported, the effect may be to lessen the importance of those platforms.

Nonetheless, for the startup ecosystem, I don't think the indieweb is a direct solution. At least, not yet. At its core, this is a social problem, and indieweb is a technical solution. Ownership over our digital identities is vitally important, but it is not the key to unlocking a new tech industry. In particular, indieweb doesn't solve the financial dilemma at the core of the problem.

Zeldman looks to as a potential answer. It's a great company that could point to what a more general solution could look like, but not specifically because it works with the indieweb. Instead, it's worth examining how it's financially structured. Rather than a unicorn, it's a zebra.

Indeed, for a widely-applicable solution, I believe we have to look to the zebras - and we have to be ready to open the door to some new voices.

A zebra?

It's highly likely that Silicon Valley will stop being the go-to location for early-stage startups. The exodus is already in progress, with more and more founders and investors looking outside the Bay Area to places with a significantly lower cost of living. Ironically, even though the cost of living in the Bay Area is tightly interrelated with the wealth generated by venture capital funded companies, VC investors are also looking outside the area - the high cost of living makes their investment dollars less effective, and their investments riskier. Firms like Andreessen Horowitz have transformed their structures in order to move away from pure VC and invest in other kinds of assets. The crypto boom was related to this shift: investors needed somewhere else to put their money.

But there's no need to move into radically different markets, or to shift funds away from supporting entrepreneurs who have the potential to improve the human experience. Other types of startup investment are possible, including revenue-based financing, where founders repay investors as a percentage of income. Other types of legal company structure are also possible, including the Public Benefit Corporation, where ethics and mission are encoded into the company's bylaws. And as I mentioned in Why open?, there is also space for other kinds of organizations to build software and create innovative products.

The solution isn't going to come from tech insiders, who are somewhat locked into this ecosystem, and don't feel the full weight of its detrimental effects. But recall that venture capitalists largely pattern match their investments: they look to invest in people who have similar characteristics to founders who have made them money in the past. This compounds existing biases that have developed over generations. As a result, people who aren't straight, white men are much less likely to have received investment.

Entire demographics of people have effectively been locked out of venture capital. They are no less skilled, no less visionary, and their startups have no less potential to grow, except that they may have a harder time raising money, due to this same bias - a vicious circle. In many ways they have more grit and determination, because they face far greater odds. And I strongly believe that these people hold the keys to the future of the technology industry, from ideas through execution through funding. The next generation of technology companies will not be founded by the same old faces.

I've written before about Zebras Unite, which calls for a more ethical and inclusive movement to counter existing startup and venture capital culture. It's founded by women, who have built a movement of thousands of founders across six continents. The idea is that rather than building unicorns - venture capital companies that rapidly grow to be worth over a billion dollars - startups should be building zebras instead: inclusive, revenue-based companies that grow carefully and make a positive impact on the society around them. The result is more stable, world-positive companies. They're better startups. And of course, unlike unicorns, zebras are actually real.

It's not enough to wish it into existence, and it's not enough to have a few aligned investors here and there. Zebras Unite doesn't just imagine new kinds of funding; it brings investors and founders together to make concrete steps towards bringing them into existence. There are existing threads - including the funding models pioneered by Indie.VC, Tiny Seed Fund, and Earnest Capital - that can and must be brought together into an ecosystem. They need to be joined by many more, including angel and institutional investors. Arguably, indieweb should be among the ideas being pulled together here: for many use cases it will be a useful philosophy.

If we are to fix the tech industry, we need to acknowledge the financial realities. I've heard arguments like "all software should be free and open source" that don't address the fact that software is expensive to make and everyone involved needs to be paid well. (It's fine for software to be free and open source, but this is irrelevant to the issue!) I've also heard arguments like "startups shouldn't take investment", which similarly don't reflect the costs or the value of the skills involved. Imagine what kinds of platforms we'd see if only independently wealthy people could make software. It would probably be worse than the situation we find ourselves in now.

So instead, we need new kinds of investment that are lucrative for investors but bring everyone involved in the startup stack - founders, users, customers, investors - into alignment. As software becomes more and more ingrained in society, this becomes more and more of a moral imperative - and an imperative for the technology industry if it's going to survive. That's not a technical problem, and it's not something that's going to come from Silicon Valley, which has made venture capital integral to its foundations. It's going to take new ideas, new geographic centers for innovation, and new voices. And as the Bay Area becomes more and more expensive - putting greater and greater limits on who can start companies within its confines - I believe it's going to happen in the next few years.

So yes: the zebras. My money's on them. More generally, my money is on the innovative founders who haven't been able to work within the venture capital system, who also understand that their ventures sit within a wider societal context. My money's on them because even though they've been shut out of the current system, they're joining forces and collaborating to help make a tech industry that works for them. If you're an investor or have skin in the startup game of any kind, I think yours should be, too.


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


A bias towards action when faced with a fascist

I woke up this morning to news that the President's advisers met to discuss heightened military involvement at the border, including tent cities for migrants that would be run by the military itself.

These are concentration camps by definition: a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.

My dad spent some of the first years of his life in such a camp with his family. But even if you don't have direct experience with these atrocities - even if you don't viscerally remember your grandmother's wailing from the nightmares she suffered from every night - intellectually you've got to know that this is something that can't stand. And while it feels like it's one more thing on top of a long list of things that won't stand, it's also a leveling up of the threat. They want us to feel fatigue. They want us to feel like all of this is normal now. And we can't feel that way.

But what can we do?

I mean, we can vote, of course. We can take to the streets. And we should do those things.

In fact, if we do build and run concentration camps, we should bring the country to a standstill.

In my working life, I've operated and advised startups and other businesses. One of the core pieces of advice that it's important for any business owner to internalize is to have a bias towards action. It's potentially possible to talk and research and theorize forever, but that is death. What you have to do more than anything is get out there and execute on your vision, set yourself to learn continuously from how people interact with you, and constantly change based on that feedback, even if the information you receive is imperfect.

At its worst, Twitter can be an outrage trap. It is a useful source of information, and a good way to find like-minded people. But the outrage that is poured into social media is effectively thrown into a void. Servers have a location called /dev/null; redirect the output of a program to that location and you'll never hear from it again. Social media, when not paired with action, is /dev/null.

But we know when it is paired with action - for the women's march, for Black Lives Matter, for protests against illegal surveillance, for the school walkouts, for SOPA and PIPA - it can be effective. All of those movements transcended activist communities and became more or less mainstream. Say you want about the pussy hats, they're a part of the mainstream national consciousness now. That's an incredibly impressive feat for a protest movement.

If the US builds concentration camps at the border, every one of us should strike. Whether we lock human beings up in camps should not be a partisan issue. Everyone with an ounce of dignity, or an ounce of historical understanding, should walk out of work. Every website should be blanked out. Every store should be shut. Every American should be resolute until those camps are closed. And we need to let our government know that this is how we will act if they are opened.

I don't think we quite have the platforms to support this kind of organization. And I'm sure that we'll somehow see camps spun to be a positive thing by the government and its sympathetic media, as has happened every single time they have been used in the past. But that this is even on the table should be a national shame, regardless of political affiliation. And if this is a country that genuinely believes in freedom and liberty - an idea that unfortunately seems ludicrous given our current political situation and climate - we need to use our constitutionally guaranteed rights to show those in power how we feel.


Why open?

I've been building open source platforms for my entire career. It has not made me rich. Nonetheless, I'm more committed than ever to openness as an ideology, strategy, and organized response.

It took me years to realize that the startups I founded were more acts of resistance than they were ways to make money from a perceived opportunity. Elgg, my first, was entirely created because my co-founder and I believed that educational technology exploited institutions that served the public good; we open sourced it because we were appalled by the license fees these business commanded of taxpayer-funded organizations. It wasn't so much "we could make millions of dollars" as "you're looking at the million you never made".

The same pattern has continued since. Known was originally created as a way to support communities outside of the centrally-controlled Facebook ecosystem. I found work at Latakoo and Matter, two organizations anchored (albeit in different ways) in supporting the future of media in an uncertain time. And Unlock is a payments layer for the web without central control.

I'm here to tell you that running an open source project is not a path to glory. One of the important lessons we taught startups at Matter is that first-mover advantage is a myth: it's usually the second or third mover in a market that learns from the first mover in order to find success. In open source, that's particularly true, because the second and third movers can literally take your software and commercialize it. You spend money on R&D, and they can immediately turn around and use it for free.

Crypto-based projects like Unlock have a way of getting around this: the second and third movers theoretically increase the value of tokens held by the first mover, so everybody wins. There's also a growing movement to compensate the developers of open source libraries that are used as the building blocks of for-profit products and services. Still, in general, open source is not for the profit-minded.

But not everything needs to turn a profit; there is a core and growing need for software that is entirely built for the public good. Particularly now.

I'm comfortable with the idea of end-user open source platforms sitting in opposition to monopolies. In education, government, and anywhere primarily supported by public funding, it makes sense to use software that doesn't lock you in or quietly convert public funds into private equity. And as software becomes more and more ingrained into every aspect of society, we need to be asking questions about the effects of lock-in and ecosystem ownership.

I'm beginning to think of open source as operating like a union. In labor unions, corporate power is offset by organizing workers into a counterbalancing force. One worker would have a hard time counterbalancing a corporation's power, but if all the workers band together, they can influence decision-making and negotiate for better working conditions. Similarly, in the open source movement, developers all act together to build products that counterbalance the impact of high-growth platforms in order to create a better ecosystem.

(I'm pretty sure Eric Raymond, who originally coined "open source" because he felt the free software movement was associated with communism, would hate this framing. Too bad.)

I knew Elgg was going to be a success when non-profits in Colombia started to use it to share resources with each other. If it had been a centralized, subscription-only platform, and if all the available social software had been centralized, subcription-only platforms, they never would have been able to do this. But because there was an open source platform available, they could take it, run it on their own servers, and customize it for their own needs, including translating it into Spanish. In turn, other Spanish-language users could take their work and use it for their own advantage.

And, yes, some people who weren't me made a lot of money from Elgg. But for me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. It was used to train aid workers by NGOs around the world, and by schools who otherwise didn't have the funds to run a platform of their own. That's meaningful. No, it wasn't a VC-scale business, and it didn't achieve significant recurring revenue. But that's not in any way to say that it didn't have value.

Not everything that has value has to be a high-growth business - and not being suitable for VC funding is not a value judgment. We're in an era where the impact of venture capital scale is being examined, and it's the best time in decades to find other models. If you're building something to serve people, it's important to think about how you can do so sustainably, but there are lots of different ways to do this. From the Zebra movement to the Shuttleworth Foundation, there are opportunities to find sustainability in a way that's right for the thing you're trying to create, with world-positive values.

Communities can build open source; startups can absolutely build open source; I think there's a huge part for public media and higher educational institutions to play that they as yet haven't quite lived up to. For organizations that already serve the public good, collaborating on software that serves their needs should be a no-brainer.

More than anything, I think there's value in standing in opposition to the status quo. Open source is a bottom-up, worker-led movement. The means and outputs of production are available to everybody. I think that's beautiful - and, in a world where every aspect of our lives has been packaged and monopolized for profit, a powerful force for good.


It was brought to my attention that the illustration I used for this piece was an image that traditionally is used as a symbol for racial equality. My misappropriation was unintentional, but nonetheless harmful. I'm very sorry for this thoughtless mistake.


Here's what I read in March


Contrary to my goal of reading at least book a week this year, I didn't manage to finish a single book in March. It was one of the worst months of my life, and my thoughts were scattered and urgent; finding the mental space to immerse myself in someone else's work was difficult. Prolonged concentration at all, in fact, was hard to come by.

I've forgiven myself for this, and for probably failing to reach my goal for the year. At the same time, markedly increasing my book reading - and mostly avoiding business or tech books - has improved my life this year in many ways, and I'm getting back into it. I might well still hit 52 by the end of the year, although this was always an arbitrary goal that doesn't really matter. What matters is the books themselves, and the time spent reading them.

Notable Articles

Trapped in a hoax: survivors of conspiracy theories speak out. "In short, Fontaine is a vulnerable leftwing individual who would not harm a flea, which apparently makes them perfect fodder for the sadistic mockery of 4chan, the anonymous message board that hosts alt-right activists and other extremists." Truly tragic stories of exploitation by trolls and worse.

How Wealth Reduces Compassion. "Who is more likely to lie, cheat, and steal—the poor person or the rich one? It’s temping to think that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to act fairly. After all, if you already have enough for yourself, it’s easier to think about what others may need. But research suggests the opposite is true: as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline."

The Making of the Fox News White House. "Fox News has always been partisan. But has it become propaganda?" (Spoiler alert: absolutely yes.)

WWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured And Killed People. "The World Wide Fund for Nature funds vicious paramilitary forces to fight poaching. A BuzzFeed News investigation reveals the hidden human cost." Challenging: conservation is one of the most important movements for good.

Is Japan losing its umami? I very badly want to try this soy sauce.

The Case for Reparations. aka the most surprising David Brooks column ever. I agree with him: there is a strong and enduring case for real reparations.

Here’s how we can break up Big Tech. Elizabeth Warren has long been one of my favorite American politicians. I agree with her - strongly - about breaking up big tech (more on this, hopefully, soon). This is a concrete proposal that I'd be happy to co-sign. It would have a positive impact not just on the tech industry, but on all of American society.

You May Have Forgotten Foursquare, but It Didn’t Forget You. A sobering account of how tracking and surveillance have become a core part of our tech ecosystem, including as a part of apps and services that you might not expect. You don't need to have Foursquare installed to be adding to its dataset.

Facial recognition's 'dirty little secret': Millions of online photos scraped without consent. "The latest company to enter this territory was IBM, which in January released a collection of nearly a million photos that were taken from the photo hosting site Flickr and coded to describe the subjects’ appearance. IBM promoted the collection to researchers as a progressive step toward reducing bias in facial recognition."

The US Government Will Be Scanning Your Face At 20 Top Airports, Documents Show. When we talk about a "virtual wall", it's important to consider what this actually means.

The Government Is Using the Most Vulnerable People to Test Facial Recognition Software. "Our research, which will be reviewed for publication this summer, indicates that the U.S. government, researchers, and corporations have used images of immigrants, abused children, and dead people to test their facial recognition systems, all without consent."

Former Facebook Employees Say The Company’s Recent Prioritization Of Privacy Is All About Optics. I'm shocked; shocked, I tell you.

Facebook acknowledges concerns over Cambridge Analytica emerged earlier than reported. "The new information “could suggest that Facebook has consistently mislead [sic]” British lawmakers “about what it knew and when about Cambridge Analytica”, tweeted Damian Collins, the chair of the House of Commons digital culture media and sport select committee (DCMS) in response to the court filing."

Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control). It's about a failure to regulate emotions, which points to its relationship to anxiety, depression, and self-care. And therefore, a way to go about finding more focus: find more happiness.

The Adult Brain Does Grow New Neurons After All, Study Says. "Study points toward lifelong neuron formation in the human brain’s hippocampus, with implications for memory and disease."

What Facebook Is Getting Wrong in the Fight Against Fake News. A punch-the-air interview with Brooke Binkowski, formerly Managing Editor at Snopes. "If Facebook was really acting in good faith, they’d put it into a foundation and not use it to make the marionettes dance, which they do."

The 310 Miles Breaking Brexit. A beautiful exploration of the border between Ireland and the UK, its importance today, and its history. "The 310 mile (500 kilometer) line that cuts through rivers, lakes, farms, roads and villages separates two countries with different currencies, heads of state and political systems. It also marks a division that has weighed on British and Irish history for a century, a reminder of terrorist gun-running, illicit alcohol, military checkpoints and bombs."


Here's what I read in January and February.


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Peace and love

I don't know how to even begin to address this, or if I should, but here goes. This update comes with a trigger warning for self-harm, serious illness, and hate. But also maybe some hope.

My mother is sick. Really sick. She's waiting for another lung operation (she had a double lung transplant six years ago), and last week I learned that a virus is putting that in jeopardy. Her lung capacity is declining and I don't know what's going to happen. I've developed my own cough, which is just a cold of some kind, but because she's immunosuppressed I can't be with her. I've been recording her life story for posterity, and to show to her future grandchildren that she may never meet. I don't understand what the universe looks like without her, and I can't imagine that any offspring of mine wouldn't have the benefit of her love. It seems so incredibly cruel.

Later last week I learned that a close friend took her own life. The news doesn't appear to be public, so I won't share further details, but I'm very sad that she's gone. I'm also sad that I didn't do more to help; I wasn't always there when she reached out and wanted to talk. Unfortunately, I've known many people who have decided to end their lives, and this has been true for all of them. I was busy, and I always wished I could have spent more time with them.

Finally, when I was flying back from a short trip, I learned that a former co-worker, Tess Rothstein, was killed while cycling in SoMa. We weren't friends, but she was an enormously positive presence. And it just seems so wanton; so meaningless. She had so much to offer.

And then, today.

I can't imagine what the families and friends of the people at the two mosques in New Zealand feel like today. There are no words. I just wish them peace and love. It has been hard to think about anything else.

There's a lot to be said about the media-aware way in which it was done, and there's a complicated discussion to be had about the complicity of technology platforms. This is not that piece. Today, all I have to offer is solidarity.

And indeed, if we can't offer solidarity, what is the point in us? What is the point in having a society if we can't be there for each other?

In the aftermath of the atrocity, members of Canadian right-wing communities discussed being "colonized by people they can't relate to". Ignoring the obvious historical irony, and the intentional misuse of the word "colonized", imagine being this scared of people who are different to yourself. It's not human nature; the vast majority of people are inclusive and compassionate. It's petty small-mindedness if it's anything, with a core of terrified racism that I almost pity. It's the same sentiment that had protesters in Charlottesville chanting "the Jews will not replace us". In many ways, it's the same sentiment that has led to Brexit, and Trump, and all the tiny aggressions towards anyone who is not a part of the straight, white, male mainstream.

Last year, I needed to get a DNA test to determine whether I was likely to die of the same incurable illness my mother has. The experience - and the experience of supporting her through this suffering - was clarifying on multiple levels. I've carried grief with me for years, and it is likely to be a part of me forever (as I suspect it is for most people). But grief can be acknowledged; it can guide.

I find joy in people. Life is precious and special, and we should celebrate the time we have, and the time we have with every person in our lives. I heave learned so much from the generosity of people, and I can honestly say that my friends and family make life worth living.

And I find joy in purpose. I want to make the world more peaceful, more inclusive, more empathetic, more kind. I am not arrogant enough to think I can change the world in a big way - but maybe I can nudge it, even if it's only in a small way. There is no purpose in glorifying yourself, or serving your own self-interest alone. I find that to be a morally bankrupt and emotionally hollow ideology (and I have to imagine that its proponents are incredibly lonely). If we can't stand in solidarity with humans, and work to improve every person's life, what are we for? Why are we even here?

I'm not religious; I don't believe in nationalism or patriotism. I'm a person, here to stand in partnership with every other person, regardless of belief or origin. We're all interconnected; we're all interdependent. Even if one were to be a fundamentally selfish person, that connectedness would suggest that helping others, and lifting everybody's quality of life, would be the correct thing to do. It's in all of our interests to work towards peace, inclusion, equality, and kindness. Yet that's not where we're at as a species.

These small, scared people will not win. The sadness will not win.

Being generous, having purpose, working in service of others; the truth is that all of those things make you happier, too. I need to get so much better at this. But it's clear to me that it's the right direction.

Rather than be responsive to hate, fear, or tragedy, I want to be proactive with love, with everything in my work, and everything in my life.



Joyful worlds

I grew up wanting to be a writer. Not a coder, and certainly not a businessman. My high school yearbook says I'm most likely to be a journalist. But what I really always wanted to be was someone who creates worlds every day.

In some ways, that's been my approach to my technology work, too: I want to help bring future worlds to life. There's an infinity of paths we could all follow from right now; perhaps, with a little nudge, I can be a small part of finding one that's a little more kind, and a little more connected.

But quietly, I've found my way back to writing. I don't presume that any of it is publishable, but that isn't the point. It feels healthy, like exercising a muscle that's rarely used. Call it a hobby for now: a way to work on something uncommercial that uses another part of my brain to produce something that I may never choose to share with another human. Many of my friends are artists, and I'm constantly awe-struck by what they're able to make. I don't think I qualify to be one of them, but the point isn't to compare. It's just to make, and craft the best thing I can, that is as close to my truth as possible.

Working in the technology industry, and living in one of the most expensive places on the planet, naturally leads to a kind of imbalance. There are a lot of people who are obsessed with wealth, even if they don't have a name for it, which leads to a toxic climate of status symbols and importance signaling. "People don't move here because they want work / life balance," someone once told me.

I'm not energized by participating in any of that. I do love working with technology, but I'm not anxious to become "successful". I'd rather live decently but give myself space to follow my joy. This is one small way I can.

One concrete thing following my joy has brought me: I've found my way into real life communities (like Gallifrey One, the world's largest Doctor Who convention, which was life-changing in ways I could not have expected), and online communities that are a hundred times friendlier and more welcome than the social networks. Gatherings of people who are there just because they love something are pure in a way that tech events can never be (at least while there's so much money sloshing around); walking into a real-life space full of this kind of energy for the first time was beautiful. I'll never have that experience in a church, but I imagine that's what it must feel like.

In a broader way, I've realized this is what I've been craving: deep connections forged over a love of shared values, or certain shared experiences that define us - and which have explicitly not been forged over industry. And part of that is solitary. I'm allowing myself to explore the parts of my myself I let sit dormant, or worse, was quietly ashamed of, because I assumed they didn't have any value. That's no way to live. Nor is chasing wealth. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the only way to live is to tend to the things, the people, and the ideas that you really love.


Here's what I read in February


Kindred, by Octavia E Butler. A lightning bolt of a book; a grim fantasy with a vital, beating heart at its center, that cuts to the core of all of our history. At once horrifying and required reading. I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama. Remarkable for its openness, although it occasionally paints a glossed-over picture of Obama’s Presidency. The contrast between her integrity, empathy and inclusion and the cruelty of the Trumps brought me to tears.

Little Wonder, by Kat Gardiner. A fictionalized, lyrical account of opening and then closing a music venue and cafe in the Pacific Northwest. Almost a poem to failure; bittersweet, evocative writing, rich with human detail.

Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown. A playbook and an attitudebook for people who want to help shape the future. Fiction, poetry and emotional connectedness are deftly drawn on to help us form better organizations and better selves. I've returned to it and quoted from it a few times even in the few weeks since finishing it.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor. Effortlessly inventive and cleverly humanist, a masterful science fiction novella about belonging and understanding that I expect to reread. I can’t wait to read the other two in the series.

Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, by Jose Antonio Vargas. His state of unmoored helplessness at the hands of a decision he had no part in, and America’s cruel xenophobia, is profoundly sad. Mandatory, heartbreaking reading.

Notable Articles

How Gab Has Raised Millions Thanks to This Crowdfunding Company. How StartEngine has allowed the white supremacist social network to survive through crowdfunding.

Finding Lena, the Patron Saint of JPEGs. A fascinating story about Lena, whose Playboy photo problematically became central to the creation of the JPEG. Even when I was studying Computer Science, her photo was still being used.

How Daar-na takes a culturally sensitive approach to psychosis. "Immigrants have higher rates of psychosis. A Dutch care facility believes culture should be part of treatment."

This Is Your Brain Off Facebook. I rejoined Facebook this month. I'm not certain it was a good idea; I can feel the cognitive effects, and I'm not sure they outweigh the benefits of feeling like I'm connected to people I otherwise wouldn't hear from.

Why this 19-year-old BuzzFeed quizmaker will no longer work for free. The person in charge of writing quizzes at BuzzFeed was laid off - in part because volunteers wrote most of the successful ones. This particular user is done providing free labor.

Let Children Get Bored Again. "Boredom teaches us that life isn’t a parade of amusements. More important, it spawns creativity and self-sufficiency." None of us should over-schedule ourselves - but in particular, we shouldn't do it to children.

On Hertzfeldt's Rejected. In turn, on art's subjugation to commerce.

The New Rules of Being a Millennial. Indescribable, but hilarious.

Liberals and Conservatives React in Wildly Different Ways to Repulsive Pictures. "To a surprising degree, our political beliefs may derive from a specific aspect of our biological makeup: our propensity to feel physical revulsion."

Scorched Earth. On journalism: "Advertising in its current forms is burning out — perhaps even for the lucky ones who still have it. Paywalls will not work for more than a few — and their builders often do not account for the real motives of people who pay and who don’t. There is not enough philanthropy from the rich — or charity from the rest of us — to pay for what is needed. Government support — whether financial or regulatory — is a dangerous folly."

More border surveillance tech could be worse for human rights than a wall. I'm deeply worried about this.

Heavy Metal Confronts Its Nazi Problem. A fascinating portrait of a scene that's tolerated fascist bands for a long time, and is now coming to terms with its problem.

What I learnt on a men-only retreat. British repression plus masculine repression doesn't equal a recipe for tenderness and sensitivity, but this is a poignant exploration.

‘Sustained and ongoing’ disinformation assault targets Dem presidential candidates. My friend Brett Horvath, co-founder of, worked on this reporting. We all need to be aware of it.

The Latest Diet Trend Is Not Dieting. "Intuitive eating, on the other hand, is a theory that posits the opposite: Calorie counting, carb avoiding, and waistline measuring are not only making people emotionally miserable, but contributing to many of the health problems previously attributed to simple overeating."

Green New Deal is feasible and affordable. Yes and: I believe it deserves our support.

The Trauma Floor. The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America.

The deadly truth about a world built for men – from stab vests to car crashes. Crash-test dummies based on the ‘average’ male are just one example of design that forgets about women – and puts lives at risk.

How Google, Microsoft, and Big Tech Are Automating the Climate Crisis. We all have a responsibility when it comes to climate change; business isn't all just business.

Poll: How does the public think journalism happens? 60% of people think journalists are paid by their sources!

Barbara Hammer’s Exit Interview. "The pioneering filmmaker talks about her career, her quest to die with dignity, and why being a lesbian is so much fun." Tender, sad, beautiful.

Everyone Around You is Grieving. Go Easy. "Everyone is grieving and worried and fearful, and yet none of them wear the signs, none of them have labels, and none of them come with written warnings reading, I’M STRUGGLING. GO EASY."

Limiting Your Digital Footprints in a Surveillance State. "In China, evading the watchful eyes of the government sometimes feels like an exercise in futility. The place is wired with about 200 million surveillance cameras, Beijing controls the telecom companies, and every internet company has to hand over data when the police want it. They also know where journalists live because we register our address with police. In Shanghai, the police regularly come to my apartment; once they demanded to come inside." Arguably information that isn't just useful in China.


Here's what I read in January.


What do I pay to subscribe to?

Hunter Walk has a fun post about indie software he pays for. I'd like to broaden my definition to include indie content, too.

Here's my list. I'd love to see yours!

Indie software

Ulysses: A simple, markdown-based text editor that allows you to organize written content into groups. I also have a paid copy of Scrivener, but I find it heavy-handed for shorter work. Ulysses provides a much more beautiful writing environment. And I have IA Writer. Maybe one day I should choose.

Overcast: I want my podcasts to download in the background and be ready to play without an internet connection, and this Just Works. (RadioPublic is better for embedding, sharing, and discovery.)

NewsBlur: A truly great feed-reading engine that will also ingest mailing lists so they don't have to clog up your inbox. I use Reeder as the front-end.

Alfred: Literally the first thing I install on any new Mac. Spotlight has grown to incorporate some of its features, but its shortcuts, clipboard management, and workflows are second to none.

Mastodon: I'm proud to support the decentralized social platform via patronage.

Indie content

Stratechery: There is no better tech industry analysis newsletter. It's not always relevant to the areas of the technology industry that are most interesting to me, but it's always incisive. I pay for the daily updates. Theoretically this gives me access to the forums, too, but I'm not sure I've ever logged in.

The Establishment: Confession: I know the founders and invested in the site as part of Matter Seven. But in doing due diligence for that investment, it became clear that it provides a badly-needed space for diverse writers whose lived experiences need to be heard. I'm proud to continue to support it, albeit now in a much smaller way.

The Shatner Chatner: I've been a fan of Daniel Mallory Ortberg since The Toast, and particularly since Next on Black Mirror ("what if phones, but too much"). Each dispatch brightens my day.

Team Human: Via patronage rather than subscription, I'm proud to support Douglas Rushkoff's work. I was privileged to co-teach a class with him when Known launched in 2014, and we were subsequently namechecked in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus; his body of work pushes at the important topics at the intersection between tech and society in ways I'm highly aligned with.

The Amazon Chronicles: A weekly newsletter specifically about Amazon. I'm boycotting the company this year because of its involvement in ICE deportations, and it's incredibly hard: it's ingrained into society in a way most corporations could only dream of. Tim Carmody is doing a good job of going deep on this one-company beat. For example: why Amazon and New York are better apart than together.

Creator Interviews: Again via patronage, Richard MacManus (who originally created ReadWriteWeb) interviews independent creators who make money on the web to learn more about their processes.

Hallie Bateman: My last patronage contribution, Hallie's art is exactly the kind of thing I love. Emotionally resonant, whimsical, relatable. (She drew my Twitter avatar.) If you haven't checked out the book she wrote with her mom, What To Do When I'm Gone, you should. But fair warning: I can't remember anything that's made me cry anywhere near as much.

Anxy: An indie paper magazine about our inner worlds and personal struggles. The most recent issue, about masculinity, is a breath of fresh air.