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

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

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benwerd

benwerd

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Follow this site on the fediverse

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

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

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

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

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Resetting professional goals

Graffiti on a wall that reads: Dream big.

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

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

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

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

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

And then the near-term steps:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like it a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

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Reading, watching, playing, using: January 2023

This is my monthly roundup of the books, articles, and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for January, 2023.

Apps + Websites

Permission Slip. “It’s no secret that a huge number of companies are collecting, buying and selling data about us. Find out what information they collect, and take action to help protect yourself.” An app by Consumer Reports that checks to see which businesses hold data about you - and then helps you to remove it. Great stuff.

Books

Fiction

The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi. This was written as catharsis after the stress and trauma of 2020-21, and reading it was equally cathartic. The author calls it a pop song of a book, and that’s exactly right. It might not be Bach but it has a good beat and I’ll be humming it for months. If you’re looking for catharsis too, you could do much, much worse.

Nonfiction

Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto, by Tricia Hersey. In a lot of ways best read as a kind of sermon on self-sovereignty, Rest is Resistance is a treatise on fighting back against grind culture and prioritizing your needs over the needs of the exploitative economic system you happen to live in. So many of these harmful ideas are baked into American culture; so much so that some of the pleas here might seem obvious to foreign ears. Nonetheless, we need more of this work, and I found this book to be both affirming and necessary.

Notable Articles

AI

The generative AI revolution has begun—how did we get here? “But there was also a surprise. The OpenAI researchers discovered that in making the models bigger, they didn’t just get better at producing text. The models could learn entirely new behaviors simply by being shown new training data. In particular, the researchers discovered that GPT3 could be trained to follow instructions in plain English without having to explicitly design the model that way.” A superb introduction.

SEO Spammers Are Absolutely Thrilled Google Isn't Cracking Down on CNET's AI-Generated Articles.“The implication was clear: that tools like ChatGPT will now allow scofflaws to pollute the internet with near-infinite quantities of bot-generated garbage, and that CNET have now paved the way. In a way, it served as a perfect illustration of a recent warning by Stanford and Georgetown academics that AI tech could rapidly start to fill the internet with endless quantities of misinformation and profiteering.”

OpenAI Used Kenyan Workers on Less Than $2 Per Hour. “One Sama worker tasked with reading and labeling text for OpenAI told TIME he suffered from recurring visions after reading a graphic description of a man having sex with a dog in the presence of a young child. “That was torture,” he said. “You will read a number of statements like that all through the week. By the time it gets to Friday, you are disturbed from thinking through that picture.””

I asked Chat GPT to write a song in the style of Nick Cave. “ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend. ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.”

ChatGPT in DR SBAITSO. “But it got me wondering, what if we replaced the internals of DR SBAITSO with ChatGPT but kept the weird synthesized voice?”

Apple Books quietly launches AI-narrated audiobooks. “Audiobooks narrated by a text-to-speech AI are now available via Apple’s Books service, in a move with potentially huge implications for the multi-billion dollar audiobook industry. Apple describes the new “digital narration” feature on its website as making “the creation of audiobooks more accessible to all,” by reducing “the cost and complexity” of producing them for authors and publishers.” Speaking as a frequent audiobook listener: do not want.

Facial Recognition Tech Used To Jail Black Man For Louisiana Theft - He's Never Been To Louisiana.“There were clear physical differences between Reid and the perpetrator in the surveillance footage, said Reid’s attorney. For example, there was a 40-pound difference in body weight and Reid had a mole on his face. […] Researchers have long noted racial biases in specific facial recognition software, and we’ve seen this play out in wrongful arrests, like those of Nijeer Parks, Robert Williams, and Michael Oliver—all Black men.“

The Expanding Dark Forest and Generative AI. “Hard exiting out of this cycle requires coming up with unquestionably original thoughts and theories. It means seeing and synthesising patterns across a broad range of sources: books, blogs, cultural narratives served up by media outlets, conversations, podcasts, lived experiences, and market trends. We can observe and analyse a much fuller range of inputs than bots and generative models can.”

Business

Americans are increasingly disgruntled at work. “Of note: Workers who were in jobs that could be done remotely, but were forced to work on-site saw an increase of 7 points in active disengagement.”

Macroeconomic Changes Have Made It Impossible for Me to Want to Pay You. “There’s no easy way to say this: I have made the difficult decision to lay off over six thousand of you. In the past two years, we have achieved huge wins together. But unfortunately, the macroeconomic environment has shifted in ways none of us could have foreseen, from an economy in which I did feel like paying you, to one in which I’d rather not.”

Extreme questions to trigger new, better ideas. “The following prompts jostle you out of tiny thinking. Each stretches some dimension of reality to an extreme. So extreme that it is nearly nonsense. But dramatically different perspectives can reveal distinctly new ideas. An idea that would be a 60% solution in an extreme hypothetical case, could be a 2x or even a 10x idea in reality.”

What explains recent tech layoffs, and why should we be worried? “Layoffs often do not cut costs, as there are many instances of laid-off employees being hired back as contractors, with companies paying the contracting firm. Layoffs often do not increase stock prices, in part because layoffs can signal that a company is having difficulty. Layoffs do not increase productivity. Layoffs do not solve what is often the underlying problem, which is often an ineffective strategy, a loss of market share, or too little revenue. Layoffs are basically a bad decision.”

Your Coworkers Are Less Ambitious; Bosses Adjust to the New Order. “Many white-collar workers say the events of the past three years have reordered their priorities and showed them what they were missing when they were spending so much time at the office. Now that normalcy is returning, even some of the workers who used to be always on and always striving say they find themselves eyeing the clock as the day winds down, saying no to overtime work or even taking pay cuts for better work-life balance.” Good!

Climate

Revealed: more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest provider are worthless, analysis shows.“The research into Verra, the world’s leading carbon standard for the rapidly growing $2bn (£1.6bn) voluntary offsets market, has found that, based on analysis of a significant percentage of the projects, more than 90% of their rainforest offset credits – among the most commonly used by companies – are likely to be “phantom credits” and do not represent genuine carbon reductions.”

Compound extreme heat and drought will hit 90% of world population. “The frequency of extreme compounding hazards is projected to intensify tenfold globally due to the combined effects of warming and decreases in terrestrial water storage, under the highest emission scenario. Over 90% of the world population and GDP is projected to be exposed to increasing compounding risks in the future climate, even under the lowest emission scenario.”

Culture

The contagious visual blandness of Netflix. “There are more green screens and sound stages, more CGI, more fixing-it-in-post. As these production tools have gotten slicker and cheaper and thus more widely abused, it’s not that everything looks obviously shitty or too good to feel true, it’s actually that most things look mid in the exact same way. The ubiquity of the look is making it harder to spot, and the overall result is weightless and uncanny. An endless stream of glossy vehicles that are easy to watch and easier to forget.”

Noma, Rated the World’s Best Restaurant, Is Closing Its Doors. “The Copenhagen chef René Redzepi says fine dining at the highest level, with its grueling hours and intense workplace culture, has hit a breaking point: “It’s unsustainable.”” Time to close with one last audacious s’mores dish?

Democracy

‘I’m flabbergasted’: UNC leaders blindsided by trustees' decision on School of Civic Life and Leadership.“Mimi Chapman, chairperson of faculty, said she was “flabbergasted” in response to the exclusion of faculty input in the decision, which she said she considers to be an attack on shared University governance.” From the same university that denied tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Adam Schiff to run against Porter for Feinstein’s California Senate seat. “Lee is an old-school, anti-establishment liberal with widespread name recognition in the Bay Area. Khanna has built more of a name for himself as a technocrat and wonk in the tech, antitrust, and economic realm, and co-chaired Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. Porter comes from the Elizabeth Warren lane of the party. But Schiff’s congressional identity has been shaped by his establishment ties.”

Election workers could see expanded protections as threats continue. “While election workers mostly powered through a smooth process in November, the threat of political violence continues, according to election officials and voting rights advocates. Ramping up protections for election workers will be critical this year for legislatures.”

NPR obtained secret tapes recorded by prison staff during Virginia executions. “An NPR investigation can now reveal the tapes show the prison neglected to record key evidence during what was considered one of Virginia’s worst executions, and staff appeared unprepared for some of the jobs they were tasked to do in the death chamber.”

Donelan confirms stiffer online safety measures after backbench pressure. “Under a further change to the bill, video footage that shows people crossing the Channel in small boats in a “positive light” will be added to a list of illegal content that all tech platforms must proactively prevent from reaching users.” How is this internet safety?!

Missouri House faces backlash for women’s dress code rule. “Democrats have excoriated Republicans on social media for legislating over what women should be required to wear. Criticism of the rule change comes at a time when the treatment of women in Missouri has received national attention.”

Spot the difference: Boris Johnson appears scrubbed from photo posted by Shapps. “Social media users were quick to point out that Johnson appeared to have been erased from the image – an identical picture is still on the No 10 Flickr account, dated 9 June 2021, with the former PM standing between Shapps and Hart.” How very Stalin of him.

‘It never stops’: killings by US police reach record high in 2022. “US law enforcement killed at least 1,176 people in 2022, making it the deadliest year on record for police violence since experts first started tracking the killings, a new data analysis reveals.”

These anti-trans bills are being prepped for 2023 state legislative sessions. “Lawmakers in at least eight states used the last two months of 2022 to prefile anti-transgender bills ahead of state legislative sessions convening this month — setting up another year of statehouse battles over trans rights, while targeting health care for trans adults in new ways.”

The secret money fueling the conservative anti-ESG push. “This isn’t a grassroots movement, and it isn’t coming from the financial industry, where most experts argue that considering issues like climate is prudent for investors. “I think it’s motivated by politics,” says Witold Henisz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “They think it’s a political wedge issue. You can see some of the same patterns of money moving into the anti-ESG movement that pushed back against climate science in the aughts.””

A Con Man Is Succeeding Me in Congress Today. “But for now, there is no getting around the fact that Mr. Santos’s con game is a manifestation of a growing political phenomenon of saying or doing anything, with no automatic consequences. Whether it be far-right election deniers, personal attacks that call for violence against opponents, claims of false-flag mass shootings, extremists spouting the first thing that comes to mind and even one politician saying he could “shoot somebody” on Fifth Avenue and still not lose supporters.”

Health

How our microbiome is shaped by family, friends and even neighbours. “People living in the same household share more than just a roof. Be they family or flatmate, housemates tend to have the same microbes colonizing their bodies, and the longer the cohabitation, the more similar these microbiomes become. The conclusion raises the possibility that diseases linked to microbiome dysfunction, including cancer, diabetes and obesity, could be partly transmissible.”

Gas stove health concerns add urgency to calls for changes in public housing. “Alarmingly, in a focus group conducted by the Public Health Law Center in Chicago, nearly 100 percent of public housing participants said they have also turned on their gas stoves to stay warm on cold days, which is an added danger for residents.”

Population Attributable Fraction of Gas Stoves and Childhood Asthma in the United States. “The proportion of childhood asthma that could be theoretically prevented if gas stove use was not present (e.g., state-specific PAFs) varied by state (Illinois = 21.1%; California = 20.1%; New York = 18.8%; Massachusetts = 15.4%; Pennsylvania = 13.5%). Our results quantify the US public health burden attributed to gas stove use and childhood asthma.”

Lead and Cadmium Could Be in Your Dark Chocolate. “The chocolate industry has been grappling with ways to lower those levels. To see how much of a risk these favorite treats pose, Consumer Reports scientists recently measured the amount of heavy metals in 28 dark chocolate bars. They detected cadmium and lead in all of them.”

Media

Newsrooms that move beyond ‘objectivity’ can build trust. “Newer, nonprofit news organizations often have launched with stated missions. The national digital news site the 19th, for example, aims to “elevate voices of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community.””

Three years of The 19th: 30 cities, 54 employees and news that represents. “In the last year alone, we’ve grown at an astronomical pace: from 32 employees to 54, from a news organization that pledged to be the most representative in the nation to one where 65 percent of our staff is non-White, 30 percent are LGBTQ+ and 19 percent are living with disabilities. We’re now on the ground in more than 30 U.S. cities.” I’m so proud to be a part of this team.

Layoff Brain. “Layoffs are the worst for the people who lose their job, but there’s a ripple effect on those who keep them — particularly if they keep them over the course of multiple layoffs. It’s a curious mix of guilt, relief, trepidation, and anger. Are you supposed to be grateful to the company whose primary leadership strategy seems to be keeping its workers trapped in fear? How do you trust your manager’s assurances of security further than the end of the next pay period?”

Trump Looks to Abandon Truth Social, His Own Social Media Platform. “Since late last year, former President Trump has informed several people close to him that he doesn’t want to re-up the exclusivity agreement with his social media company, Truth Social, two sources familiar with the matter tell Rolling Stone. “There’s not going to be a need for that,” is how one of the sources recalls Trump describing his soon-to-expire contractual obligation. […] Trump and some of his close allies have already brainstormed about him tweeting that, even though Big Tech tried to “silence” him over his lies about a “rigged election,” he was now back to make “the Left” miserable.”

Journalists (And Others) Should Leave Twitter. Here’s How They Can Get Started. “Many journalism organizations and public entities, such as local governments, believe Twitter is essential because it’s a place people know they can turn to when there’s big news — and find information from “verified accounts” that (barring a hack) ensure the source is who it’s claiming to be. So, they tell themselves, they have to stick around. This isn’t just short-sighted. It’s foolish.”

Publishers, you should start using Mastodon: 10 reasons why. “There are plenty of articles about why you should leave Twitter (or at least, cross-post to Mastodon) for ethical, safety, political, social, and security/privacy reasons. This post won’t do any of those things. Instead, all my arguments are about why it’s smart from a pure business, marketing, and influence perspective to use Mastodon as soon as possible.”

Science

U.S.D.A. Approves First Vaccine for Honeybees. ““There are millions of beehives all over the world, and they don’t have a good health care system compared to other animals,” she said. “Now we have the tools to improve their resistance against diseases.”” Vaccines for bees!

Society

A vast majority of Americans are concerned people could face criminal penalties for abortion. “The data found that 80 percent of Americans are concerned that domestic abuse survivors could be reported by their abuser for getting an abortion. Eighty percent of people are also concerned that law enforcement could investigate people who have miscarriages or stillbirths if they are suspected of getting an abortion. The poll also found that 75 percent of people are concerned that people who get an abortion could be charged with a felony or go to jail.”

Inside a US Neo-Nazi Homeschool Network With Thousands of Members. “Since the group began in October 2021 it has openly embraced Nazi ideology and promoted white supremacy, while proudly discouraging parents from letting their white children play with or have any contact with people of any other race. Admins and members use racist, homophobic, and antisemitic slurs without shame, and quote Hitler and other Nazi leaders daily in a channel open to the public.”

The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth. “Even before Hardin’s ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ was published, however, the young political scientist Elinor Ostrom had proven him wrong. While Hardin speculated that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided only through total privatisation or total government control, Ostrom had witnessed groundwater users near her native Los Angeles hammer out a system for sharing their coveted resource.”

Pain of police killings ripples outward to traumatize Black people and communities across US. “Evidence shows that many Black Americans across the U.S. experience police killings of other Black people as traumatic events, and that this trauma diminishes the ability of Black communities to thrive.” Sobering statistics.

U.S. Officials Announce Plans To Continue Pretending Brutal State-Sponsored Violence Not Supposed To Happen. ““Today, as we deal with the fallout from the death of Tyre Nichols, myself and the highest officials in the American government pledge to keep acting like we don’t want our highly militarized police force to kill innocent civilians every day,” said President Joe Biden at a White House press conference, adding that he and his fellow elected officials would pretend to gasp, pray, and put on a big emotional show every time law enforcement carried out the exact murders against its own citizens they had both tacitly and publicly approved.”

Unionization increased by 200,000 in 2022: Tens of millions more wanted to join a union, but couldn’t .“One crucial way we can promote a more prosperous, equitable economy is to dismantle existing barriers to union organizing and collective bargaining. It is urgent that policymakers enact reforms at the federal and state levels to protect and support workers’ right to unionize.”

Why Elon Musk and the billionaire space bros want to put people in space cages forever. “That said, I disagree with Mr. Wanjek: it requires much more than libertarian naiveté to colonize space. Parking humans in containment shelters, on Mars or elsewhere, so as to breed them and select them like cattle — that requires malice.”

2023 'Doomsday Clock' moved 10 seconds closer to catastrophe. “Scientists revealed on Tuesday that the “Doomsday Clock” has been moved up to 90 seconds before midnight -- the closest humanity has ever been to armageddon.” But everything else is going so well.

Post-Roe March for Life showed anti-abortion activists are far from done. “The next steps for the movement were illustrated by the march’s new route this year: Instead of ending at the steps of the Supreme Court as they have for nearly five decades, activists ended their march at the U.S. Capitol — underscoring their continued push for Congress to enact a federal abortion ban.”

Anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and state laws are hurting youth mental health, poll shows. “Seventy-one percent of the 716 surveyed LGBTQ+ youth, ranging from teenagers to young adults who took the online poll last fall, said that debates around state laws restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ young people had negatively impacted their mental health. Twenty-seven percent characterized the negative effect as severe.”

We Convinced Our School to Bring Back Masks. “As parents, it’s worth remembering that the persistent ones usually get what they want. Look at the anti-maskers. They didn’t give up. They kept pushing until they got their way. We don’t need to be that aggressive, but I think a lot of us get discouraged and give up. The anti-masker types never give up. They never seem to get tired. So if we want to beat them and win over middle earth, we have to match their energy.”

Elon Musk-funded nonprofit run by MIT professor offered to finance Swedish pro-nazi group. “The US-based and Elon Musk-funded Future of Life Institute, run by MIT professor and Swedish citizen Max Tegmark, offered a grant of $100,000 to right-wing extremists in Sweden, an Expo investigation reveals.”

Public Transit Goes Off the Rails With Fewer Riders, Dwindling Cash, Rising Crime. “Several of the nation’s largest urban mass-transit systems are at a crossroads, with ridership still depressed three years into the pandemic and federal aid running out.”

Technology

Instagram's co-founders are mounting a comeback. “TikTok’s innovation was to show you stuff using only algorithmic predictions, regardless of who your friends are or who you followed. It soon became the most downloaded app in the world. Artifact represents an effort to do the same thing, but for text.” Potentially an interesting app, based on an interesting insight.

Women, minorities lose ground in tech layoffs. “The technology industry has long struggled to recruit a diverse workforce, but the recent spate of cuts by Silicon Valley companies has hit women particularly hard, according to recently published analyses of demographic data from the layoffs. Women and some minorities were particularly vulnerable to layoffs because they were newer to their jobs and occupied roles that companies were less interested in retaining, experts said.”

U.S. sues Google for allegedly breaking antitrust laws with its ad business. ““For 15 years, Google has pursued a course of anticompetitive conduct that has allowed it to halt the rise of rival technologies, manipulate auction mechanics, to insulate itself from competition, and force advertisers and publishers to use its tools,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland at a press conference announcing the lawsuit.”

Warning: Do not “other” me because of my age. “But I hate this new attention lavished on aging. Why? Because it “others” me. It puts me in a separate category from the rest of the world, and that is not how I think, feel, act, or want to be seen. All of a sudden I am not smart, pretty, successful, talented, or part of the family. I am “old.” I am somebody’s responsibility. I have to be told when to stop driving, and my checkbook can be taken away. I am a candidate for Senior Living (banishment to a place full of other old people).”

Tapbot shuts down Tweetbot as it pivots to Mastodon. “Now that Twitter has confirmed it’s banning third-party clients, some of the most prominent alternatives are going away. Tapbots has shut down work on Tweetbot, one of the more popular iOS apps, as Twitter rendered it non-functional “in a blink of an eye.” The developer is instead pivoting to Ivory, an app for the open social platform Mastodon. While it’s limited to an invitation-only test for now, Tapbots hopes to make the software “better than Tweetbot ever could be.”” Likewise, Mastodon will be better than Twitter ever could be.

U.S. No Fly List Left on Unprotected Airline Server. “Analysis of the server resulted in the discovery of a text file named “NoFly.csv,” a reference to the subset of individuals in the Terrorist Screening Database who have been barred from air travel due to having suspected or known ties to terrorist organizations.”

‘Passion economy’ platforms cut costs in tech downturn. ““People are making choices,” said Rebecca McGrath, an internet analyst at Mintel. “Unless you’re very loyal to a creator, that’ll be one of the obvious things to drop.””

Tesla video promoting self-driving was staged, engineer testifies. “A 2016 video that Tesla used to promote its self-driving technology was staged to show capabilities like stopping at a red light and accelerating at a green light that the system did not have, according to testimony by a senior engineer.” They’re fun cars to drive, but don’t let them drive themselves.

Medium embraces Mastodon. “Today, Medium is launching a Mastodon instance at http://me.dm/ to help our authors, publications and readers find a home in the fediverse. Mastodon is an emerging force for good in social media and we are excited to join this community.” Hell yeah.

The Effects of Online Content Moderation: Evidence from President Trump's Account Deletion. “The toxicity of tweets sent by Trump followers relative to a representative sample of US Twitter users dropped by around 25% after the account deletion. Second, this effect is larger for pro-Trump tweets and Republican users. Third, Trump’s suspension reduced the total number of tweets, suggesting a drop in engagement. Fourth, we find effects on individuals who did not follow Trump directly but followed somebody that did, suggesting network spillovers.”

The Intercept Obtains Surveillance Footage of Tesla Crash on Bay Bridge. “These semi-autonomous systems are playing the same sort of trick as ChatGPT: they offer a convincing but shallow impression of a competent driverless car without any broader context to fall back on.”

Apache® Appropriation. “We urge The Apache® Software Foundation to take the necessary steps needed to express the ally-ship they promote so deeply on their website, to act in accordance with their own code of conduct, to “be careful in the words that [they] choose”, and change their name.” +1.

San Francisco Police Are Using Driverless Cars as Mobile Surveillance Cameras. “Law enforcement agencies already have access to automated license plate readers, geofence warrants, Ring Doorbell footage, as well as the ability to purchase location data. This practice will extend the reach of an already pervasive web of surveillance.”

Seattle schools sue tech giants over social media harm. “[The lawsuit] blames [social media giants] for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, disordered eating and cyberbullying; making it more difficult to educate students; and forcing schools to take steps such as hiring additional mental health professionals, developing lesson plans about the effects of social media, and providing additional training to teachers.”

‘Office Space’ Inspired Engineer’s Theft Scheme, Police Say. “A software engineer siphoned more than $300,000 from his employer by introducing what prosecutors called a “series of malicious software edits” that wired money into his personal account. If the scheme sounds like the plot of “Office Space,” that’s because the authorities said it was partly inspired by the movie.”

Activity Streams graphical model. “So I did a bit of drawing just to make it clearer (for myself) what kind of data can be shipped around in the Fediverse. To be clear, this is only a small part of the overall stack, but an important one.” Useful work!

Twitter

Elon Musk’s Twitter hit with holocaust denial hate speech lawsuit in Germany. “Current studies prove that 84% of posts containing antisemitic hate speech were not reviewed by social media platforms, as shown in a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Which means that Twitter knows Jews are being publicly attacked on the platform every day and that antisemitism is becoming a normality in our society. And that the platform’s response is by no means adequate.”

Daring Fireball: If You Needed Any More Confirmation, Internal Slack Messages at Twitter Show That Cutting Off Third-Party Clients Was 'Intentional'. “Twitter can of course do what it wants, and Musk owns Twitter so he can do what he wants. But pulling the plug on these clients and ghosting everyone on communications about it is so absurdly disrespectful. Zero respect for the users for those apps, zero respect for the developers behind them — many of whom had been building on the Twitter platform for 10-15 years. Just a clown show.”

How Twitter misleads us about how many people have left — and what to do about it. “To outside observers, it can seem like Twitter users are continuing as before, seemingly unaware of the millions of people who have left. “You left Twitter?” a friend recently remarked, “I hadn’t noticed.” Yet many of the accounts I follow haven’t tweeted in ages, and roughly 15% of them have already set up accounts on Mastodon.” Some great tips in this piece.

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Tonight

I have two things on my mind tonight.

First: the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers, far from the first or even the fiftieth murder by police so far this year.

Second: active shooter drills in schools, which aren’t proven to save lives but do lead to anxiety and depression in children.

This country has violence burned into its bones. It’s in the air and visible in the holsters on the belts of police officers, in open carry, in the ongoing injustice of the death penalty. It’s in its stoic men, in its value of strength over intelligence and brute force over creativity, and in the militarization of everyday life. It’s in its failure to repair the gaping wounds of slavery and segregation, and in tribalism over solidarity. It’s in its failure to care for the poor, to put a roof over the head of the homeless, and to heal the sick. It’s in the value it places in wealth over kindness and fairness.

It’s reductive to suggest there’s an easy answer. The rot is ingrained; a simultaneous equation made of simultaneous equations. But I can make some observations.

A different question is this: what should we do about our son?

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It's only a podcast if it's open

A podcasting setup with a microphone and a laptop

Quick PSA:

A podcast is only a podcast if you can listen to it anywhere.

Just like a newsletter isn’t a newsletter if you can’t subscribe using any email address, the point of a podcast is that you can listen to it in any podcast app. It just works.

If your podcast only works in Spotify or Apple Podcasts or another proprietary app, perhaps because of an exclusivity arrangement, it’s just serial audio. The content may be wonderful, but you’re missing out on the complete set of potential listeners in order to focus on one app’s existing username.

In some ways that’s fine - after all, you can’t watch a Netflix show in any app but Netflix’s - but it’s not a podcast. It’s something else. It’s just a show on someone’s channel.

The way podcasts work is by releasing episodes as attachments on an RSS feed. You don’t need to know that this is how it happens - all you need to know is that it doesn’t matter which podcast app you prefer, just as it doesn’t matter which browser you use to access your favorite website. The point of these platforms is that you have the choice.

That’s important for listeners, but it’s also important for producers. Tech companies are notoriously fickle, and signing an exclusivity deal with one inexorably ties your future into their evolving business strategies.

It might make sense to make an exclusive deal with a streaming platform if they’re going to give you $200 million like Joe Rogan. (I tend to think this is win-win: Spotify thinks it has something unique, while the rest of us aren’t bothered with Rogan’s show.) But if you’re making a deal for a fraction of that money, know that you’re losing out on reaching out to a whole ecosystem in exchange for tying yourself to the business model of a startup that might change business model on a dime and leave your show - or even your whole production company - in the dirt.

The media industry is littered with the graves of companies that tied themselves to onerous distribution contracts. There’s no need. Podcasts are open, available everywhere, and easily monetizable once you’ve got a subscribed audience. You don’t need to prostrate yourself for a company that, ultimately, doesn’t care about your future.

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Introducing WerdStore

I wanted to understand what’s involved in setting up an online store, so I’ve created an Etsy store to accompany my website. Everything is made and fulfilled by Printful, which seems to work pretty well.

Anyway, this is my favorite item in the store right now:

Holmes & Musk & Neumann & Bankman-Fried T-shirt

I’ll add new stuff from time to time. This is mostly for fun, but also, like I said, a bit for my own education.

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Organizing my blog

I’ve been wondering about adding more organization to my site. As of right now, the homepage is a mix of long-form posts, short thoughts, and links I consider interesting, presented as a stream. It’s a genuine representation of what I’m reading and thinking about, and each post’s permalink page looks fine to me, but it doesn’t quite hold together as a whole. If you look at my homepage with fresh eyes, my stream is a hodgepodge. There’s no through line.

One way to get around this might be to split my homepage into columns: one big column for latest long-form pieces, and a smaller column for links. Andy Baio’s site does this pretty well, for example.

On the other hand, sites like The Verge present notes, links, and articles in one stream. I find it a little confusing to read, but there’s at least precedent for my approach. Of course, my site is more or less monochrome, while they clearly have a visual design team on-staff. One thing I really like is that (as befits a tech publication rather than a single-author blog) they don’t just display the latest long-form post on the homepage; you’ve got to click through. This is similar to the WordPress setup we use at my day job at The 19th.

I think I’m just sick of my design and need to try something else out. What do you think? Drop me a line if there’s a blog design you particularly like, or if you’d like to see me organize my stuff in a particular way.

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Looking beyond copaganda

American TV is saturated with copaganda: media intended to sway public perception in favor of the police. Even in a world where it’s become clear that the police disproportionately kill people of color and otherwise enforce adverse power dynamics for oppressed communities, we see show after show after show where the police are unambiguously the good guys. Often those maverick cops get their good guy jobs done by flaunting the rules - because, after all, what possible good could those rules possibly do?

As Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, the co-creator of S.W.A.T., put it:

Traditionally, the domain of TV police procedurals has been as morality plays, where clear lines are drawn. The past 60 years have seen shows like Dragnet, The Untouchables, and Adam 12 establish a formula where, within an hour of story, good lawmen, also known as square-jawed white cops, defeat bad guys, often known as poor people of color. This stark clarity, indulging the idea of the hero cop, often provides a sense of satisfaction for some viewers in an otherwise complicated world.

It’s worth considering which viewers. His whole piece is an important read, particularly on white voice even in the face of diverse casting.

I’d love to see more shows - any shows, actually - about law enforcement that move beyond this narrative and are willing to discuss the complicated power differentials that underpin oppression. There’s so much to talk about here, so much great drama that speaks to peoples’ lived experiences, yet I wonder if it would even be possible to put it on the air.

Copaganda is part of the culture. Some of it was certainly produced with the explicit intention of swaying the public towards law enforcement. But it’s a trope now: these are established categories of drama that perpetuate themselves because we’ve come to expect them. Just as the CIA funded Iowa Writer’s Workshop and shaped modern American literature as a result, police PR has shaped television.

As that last linked piece puts it:

Maybe it's just a reminder that we need to be wary of the sandboxes we’re building our castles in, of the institutions that define our creative thought so wholly that we often forget (or never bother to ask) how and why they were established in the first place.

British TV does a slightly better job, perhaps partially because Britain tends to hold a bit less reverence for its institutions (at least if you squint a bit and don’t ask too many questions about the enduring legacy of its empire). I enjoyed both seasons of Slow Horses, a British drama about dysfunctional MI5 agents who find themselves working against establishment corruption that is at least as formidable as any outside force. Back in the nineties, the BBC show Between the Lines dealt directly with police corruption. They’re both great TV, but while the protagonists in both cases are from a semi-ostracized branch of the powers that be, they’re still formally a part of that established order. I would love to see drama fully drawn from the perspective of people who wind up on the wrong side of it.

The Wire might come the closest, at least in intention. Its star, Wendell Pierce, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment last year:

Sure, you're recognizing the individuals that were lost in a system that perpetuated this sort of misconduct, and maybe you had empathy for some of the individuals in that system. But in no way did we celebrate the moral ambiguity, the moral inconsistencies and the failures of the police — quite the opposite. We showed the dysfunction of the police and hopefully awakened people to why it needs to be changed.

But the real answer is going to lead from more diversity at the highest levels of television. You’re not going to get an authentic story about communities who have been oppressed unless you greenlight shows written by people from those communities, again and again and again. There’s a lot of work to do.

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas again:

I often hear platitudes about hiring more diversity at the lowest levels and tolerating new points of view from “cooler” white writers, but rarely hear how any writer of color can manage a career to get to a point where their voice drives a show and impacts the worldwide narrative on these stories.

Please, let’s get on it. I want to watch some TV.

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A web-based science fiction literary journal

I had an idea for an online science fiction literary journal.

First: it’s on the web and free to access on beautiful, standards-based, responsive, blazing-fast web pages. Nobody ever needs to pay to read its content. It’s all out there, paywall-free, and anyone can link to it and share it. That means that authors can share links to their work without worrying that someone can’t see it, which in particular will allow emerging authors to find audiences frictionlessly. The website publishes roughly one story per week.

Second: you can subscribe via email, RSS, and ActivityPub. However you get your content is a-ok. Every new story is shared on social media, there’s a Flipboard publication, and so on - if you want the content to come to you, it will. Every piece is illustrated by a real, human illustrator, in part so that they show up beautifully on every platform.

Third: the journal is patronage-supported. Anyone can put money in and will be acknowledged on the supporters page, in the order of the amount of money you’ve paid in your contribution history. Above a threshold, these acknowledgments have a full referrer link to a contributor’s website. Every payment is always acknowledged.

Fourth: everyone is paid fairly. Authors and illustrators both get a one-off fair, flat rate payment, as well as a portion of the patronage contributions. Payouts are proportional to views in the month of the payout, and are above and beyond the original fair payout - so they’re kind of a bonus rather than forcing their full earnings for their work to be based on attention. But if a particular short story continues to be popular for a year or two, the author sees compensation for that.

Fifth: there is an annual compendium of short stories, published as a real, hardbound book. Authors and illustrators see royalties from this, too. No further rights are sought aside from the website and the book, so authors and artists are free to bring their work elsewhere and secure further rights however they wish.

Sixth: it’s not going to be profitable. But it would be a fun labor of love that also hopefully provides both monetary and career support for artists.

Probably don’t let me actually do this right now. But it’s fun to think about.

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Always punch up

I really like the maxim, which apparently originated in stand-up comedy, that you should always punch up:

Jokes are funny when they mock the powerful. They are not funny when they mock the powerless. […] Jokes are not funny when they have victims. Some of the tricks played by PR would be funny if they didn't have victims. But they do. They have victims. And so they're not funny.

I’d go further. Jokes that punch up are comedy. Jokes that punch down are bullying. And while it certainly holds true for comedy, I think it’s a good rule of thumb that applies to every aspect of work, life, and culture.

For example, journalism is commonly held as needing to speak truth to power. I agree with this need, and I wish more journalism took this mission more seriously. And what else is it but punching up? Journalism that punches down - that holds up people in power and denigrates the less powerful - is mere propaganda.

I think it holds true in business, too. An organization that makes a product that hurts vulnerable people in service of giving people with power more wealth and resources cannot be ethical, and ultimately is doomed to fail. Conversely, if a product is designed to democratize and empower people who have been overlooked, it may succeed; sometimes we call this kind of punching up disruption.

And, finally, in life. I don’t have a litmus test about failure and success here, because it’s life, and I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate people on those terms. But I do strongly think that traditions which maintain the status quo over distributing civil rights are not worth having; that there’s a choice between, for example, supporting the police (incumbent power) and the vulnerable (movements like Black Lives Matter); that afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted is a fundamental value that doesn’t need to be left up to organizations to serve. While success and failure are not the right measure of a person, I know that I’d rather have people in my life who believe in fairness and civil rights than people who believe in maintaining tradition and the existing order of things. Community over individualism, every time.

I love “always punch up”. And I think, to be quite honest, we could all do more punching.

Edited to add: it turns out I also wrote about this a few years ago. So consider this post additive!

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Layoffs are bullshit

Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, in an interview I’ve linked to before:

Layoffs often do not cut costs, as there are many instances of laid-off employees being hired back as contractors, with companies paying the contracting firm. Layoffs often do not increase stock prices, in part because layoffs can signal that a company is having difficulty. Layoffs do not increase productivity. Layoffs do not solve what is often the underlying problem, which is often an ineffective strategy, a loss of market share, or too little revenue. Layoffs are basically a bad decision.

Harvard Business Review:

For healthy employees without pre-existing health conditions, the odds of developing a new health condition rise by 83% in the first 15 to 18 months after a layoff, with the most common conditions being stress-related illnesses, including hypertension, heart disease, and arthritis. The psychological and financial pressure of being laid off can increase the risk of suicide by 1.3 to 3 times. Displaced workers have twice the risk of developing depression, four times the risk of substance abuse, and six times the risk of committing violent acts including partner and child abuse. The stress induced by a layoff can even impair fetal development.

Wharton:

If several decades’ worth of research now shows layoffs to be a poor way to boost profits, while other strategies may in fact work, perhaps there are ways of changing the dynamic between what’s happening on Wall Street and decisions that get made in the board room and on the shop floor. Says [Wharton School of Business Professor] Cobb: “The challenge is: how do we get back to a more socially responsible way of handling employment given the influence of financial markets on corporate decision-making?”

The University of Colorado:

As a group, the downsizers never outperform the nondownsizers. Companies that simply reduce headcounts, without making other changes, rarely achieve the long-term success they desire.

Haworth College of Business:

The authors found that layoffs have a negative impact on a firm’s reputation and that this relationship is significantly stronger for newer firms than older firms. Limited support is found for the hypothesis that larger firms’ reputations will be buffered from the adverse effects of a layoff on their reputations.

Newsweek:

A study of 141 layoff announcements between 1979 and 1997 found negative stock returns to companies announcing layoffs, with larger and permanent layoffs leading to greater negative effects. An examination of 1,445 downsizing announcements between 1990 and 1998 also reported that downsizing had a negative effect on stock-market returns, and the negative effects were larger the greater the extent of the downsizing. Yet another study comparing 300 layoff announcements in the United States and 73 in Japan found that in both countries, there were negative abnormal shareholder returns following the announcement.

Wisconsin School of Business:

In an effort to understand how layoffs influence victims’ subsequent work behaviors, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin Business School examined the impact of layoffs on voluntary turnover. Charles Trevor, professor of management and human resources and chair of the department, together with Ph.D. student Paul Davis, and Ph.D. student Jie Feng found that, all else equal, employees with a layoff history were more likely to voluntarily leave organizations. […] “This is consistent with the business press frequently characterizing layoffs as leading to a free agent mentality, where the workforce is made up of a significant group of employees with low levels of commitment and loyalty to the employer.”

The Atlantic:

Laurence's study looked at a sample of nearly 7,000 individuals in the U.K. to investigate the psychological effects of being laid off. The question asked was, "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?" The answers ranged from "most people can be trusted" to "can't be too careful" to "depends." The respondents were asked this question at age 33, and then again 17 years later, at 50. […] Laurence found that individuals who experienced a layoff were 4.5 percent less likely to trust even 17 years later. This effect was even stronger for individuals who placed a greater value on work and career, at 7 percent.

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WFH

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, which is definitely an organization we should be listening to about the future:

Jamie Dimon said working from home “doesn’t work” for younger staff or bosses, the Wall Street titan’s latest salvo against remote work. […] Dimon also said remote work can “help women,” given the caregiving duties that disproportionately fall upon them. “Modify your company to help women stay home a little,” he said.

How progressive of him.

Younger knowledge workers, in my experience, tend to be great remote workers. Those who are new to the workforce are used to remote schooling; the ones who are a little older have had a couple of years of practice. They’re energetic about cultural change and aren’t set in their ways. They don’t miss the office because they were barely ever there.

I’m also personally offended by the idea that women - by which he really means birthing parents - should get different work-from-home privileges to other workers. As I write this, my four-month-old baby lies on a mat next to me, playing with his rattle. I’ll change his diaper quite a few times today, and already have; I’ll bottle-feed him; I’ll sing to him. I can’t lactate but I can be here for him. If I couldn’t work from home, I wouldn’t be able to do this. Dimon’s attitude cements two inequalities: that women are disproportionately left with caregiving duties, and that men don’t get to spend as much time with their children. Make no mistake: I want the time with my child.

As a C-level worker, I’m also offended by the implication that I can’t do my work remotely. I have regular conversations with my peers and my team; I help brainstorm and ideate; I make decisions and take effective action. There are certainly a great many jobs that don’t work as remote positions. Knowledge work, however, can absolutely be done anywhere there is a quiet space, a working internet connection, and power for a laptop.

I do not intend to get a full-time in-person job again. The perks, compensation, or meaning would need to be wildly good to overcome the time away from my child, the lack of freedom to be anywhere, and the commute. That isn’t to say that I won’t go into an office: there’s a lot to be said for company retreats, quarterly team get-togethers, and one-off meetings to get around a whiteboard. Those things, though, don’t necessitate being in the same place every day, every week, or even every month.

The biggest reason to have everyone in an office is to watch them. It’s not to build culture (which you can certainly do in a remote-first organization); it’s not for productivity (a University of Chicago study found that most workers are more productive remotely); it’s not for training (which studies show is 40-60% more efficient remotely). It says much more about insecurity from the top and a conservative-minded inability to change than anything else.

And that’s another reason to only take jobs in remote-first organizations. Forcing in-person work is a sure-fire sign that leadership is stuck in their ways, unable to change, even in the face of evidence that it’s detrimental to their businesses. And who wants to join a company like that?

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How to follow me

I’m no longer posting to Twitter or Instagram. Here’s where we can stay in touch:

 

My site

I post articles, short notes, and bookmarks to my site at werd.io

My site has an RSS feed at werd.io/feed

Subscribe to get updates from my site via email at newsletter.werd.io

 

Other social sites

My Mastodon profile is @ben@werd.social - I’m very active there

I also post on LinkedIn as benwerd

 

Come join me!

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Focus on needs, not features

Back when I used to help run the Matter Ventures accelerator for media startups (which I really miss doing!), Pete Mortensen ran the program in San Francisco while I ran investments. (Over in New York, Josh Lucido and Roxann Stafford were our counterparts respectively.)

I think it was Pete who introduced one of my favorite examples of checkbox development: when product developers try and add as many features as possible instead of figuring out what the user’s core needs are and focusing on that. It’s always a terrible approach that leads to a spaghetti mess of code and features, which makes it hard to provide a focused message or even to maintain your code over time.

Anyway, rather than try and argue the point, as I might have done, Pete simply showed them the video for the Pontiac Stinger:

Who is this car for? Why is there a garden hose?

Focus on needs, not features is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a developer. After all, for me and people like me, writing software and adding features is fun. As a people pleaser, I intrinsically want to say “yes” to every new ask. But the trick is always to build the smallest, most focused possible thing that deeply serves the people you’re building for. And of course, the first step is always to know who they are, and get to a holistic understanding of them that is better than anyone else’s. Otherwise, how can you possibly build something for them?

The Pontiac Stinger is a great example of what not to do - and one that’s far more memorable than any argument.

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The state of reproductive rights

The next The 19th Live event is happening on Thursday, Jan. 26. We'll hear from a group of experts about the state of reproductive rights on what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v Wade.

Speakers include:

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta: Chair, DOJ’s Reproductive Rights Task Force

Jurnee Smollett: Actor and Activist

Rebecca Walker: Author, To be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism

As always, it’s free to attend online. Sign up here!

White rectangle with purple text, with five headshots of speakers at the event. Text reads: Live With The 19th Reproductive Rights as Roe Turns 50. January 26 at 1 p.m. E.T.

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The blogging resurgence and Known

Colin Devroe on blogging:

Oh man am I happy! People that hadn't written on their blog in a long time are blogging again. Websites that hadn't been updated in many years, some over a decade, are being spruced up and published to again. And popular news outlets are publishing articles about blogging.

Do I wish we had founded Known the startup in 2023 instead of 2014? Yes, I do. Being early (in this case by eight or nine years) is the same as being wrong. I’m glad for all of the opportunities it opened up, and all the people we met through the process, but the startup was never going to be a success at that time.

If we started it now? Well, that might be a different story. But, of course, I’d do things differently, because I’ve learned a lot in the interim. And I mostly learned those things because of the startup. So it’s a futile thought experiment. What happened happened!

Known the open source project is available and easier to install than it has been in years. I’m grateful for that too. And I wish everyone who is building a service to make it easier for people to write on their own site all the best. We need you. Keep going.

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44 thoughts about the future

A portrait of the author as a young boy.

It’s my birthday. Improbably, I’m 44 years old. That’s what the calendar says. I certainly don’t feel 44 years old. But at the same time, the facts point to yes: I was born in the seventies. I can remember the Challenger disaster really clearly. My first computer was a ZX81. When Congress kickstarted the commercial internet by passing the Scientific and Advanced Technology Act - and the term “surfing the net” was coined - I was thirteen. When Myspace was launched I was twenty-four. Instagram launched when I was in my thirties. (But aren’t I still twenty-four? Aren’t I in my thirties right now? Didn’t everything that’s ever happened to me just happen today?)

With all due respect to people who are older than me, and in particular to that one guy whose mind I blew when I was on high school work experience because I was born after Star Wars:

What the actual.

Anyway, I’m forty-four, apparently.

Somewhat arbitrarily, but in the interests of looking forward instead of back and of marking my birthday here in some way, here are 44 thoughts about the future. You might agree or disagree. Take ‘em or leave ‘em.

One. I think about the climate crisis a lot. It mostly seems overwhelmingly daunting. It’s one of those things where it’s hard to know if anything you’re doing is making a difference at all, and you kind of have to trust that it is because the feedback loop is measured in decades, and it requires so many people to pull together. You have to be optimistic because if you don’t you’ll just give up; you have to keep doing stuff because it all matters.

I think we’ll pull ourselves away from the very worst of the climate crisis but I do think it’ll get much worse before it gets better. I think the definition of “we’ll” here is important: it won’t be my generation that does it. And we won’t save ourselves by trying to financialize our survival. Markets will bring us closer to extinction, not save us from it.

Two. I think the (re-)rise of authoritarianism and the increasing importance of the climate crisis are linked. It’s not an accident that Bolsonaro was in favor of felling the Amazon or that Trump had such a strong fossil fuels agenda. If a wealthy industry feels like it might be politically under threat, it’s going to do everything it can to change the politics and create a context where it is protected. In a way, it’s a version of the same international politics that have played out for hundreds of years: proxies for the interests of wealthy individuals who don’t care about anyone’s well-being but themselves.

We’re going to need to break up those companies.

Three. I don’t buy into the metaverse’s Ready Player One vision of a three-dimensional virtual world we all inhabit. I think it’s silly. But behind all that, there’s an interesting interoperability story. In fact, there are two dueling visions:

The first is Meta’s. It wants to own the operating system for online experiences. You’ll be able to take artifacts from one experience to the other, and it’ll all be powered by Meta’s underlying technology.

The second involves NFTs. You’ll, again, be able to take artifacts from one experience to the other, powered by your wallet and a standardized contract for metaverse NFTs. No single company’s work powers it, but it does rely on blockchain and contract standardization.

Interoperability has been an issue since the birth of the application web. Although desktop software has interoperated for decades using file formats (consider the number of apps that can open a text file, say), web apps tend to be data silos. I think it’s positive that multiple companies are putting money into building online interoperability: although they’re all likely to fail at what they’re setting out to do (I really don’t think either Meta or NFTs are the solutions here), something good may come of it that others will be able to use.

Four. It is unlikely that AI solutions like ChatGPT will be a major part of the future for a few reasons. Firstly, ChatGPT is a specific type of AI language model known as a transformer model, which is designed to generate human-like text. While these types of models have achieved impressive results in generating realistic-sounding text, they are not able to truly understand the meaning of the words they are generating. They are simply following patterns and rules that they have learned from large amounts of text data, and they do not have the ability to comprehend the context or meaning of the text in the same way that a human does.

Additionally, AI language models like ChatGPT are limited by the data they are trained on. If the model is not trained on a diverse enough dataset, it may generate biased or inaccurate text. This can be a problem for applications that rely on the accuracy of the generated text, such as in the case of chatbots used for customer service or information gathering. In these cases, it may be more reliable to use a human operator rather than relying on an AI model to provide accurate and unbiased information. While these models can be impressive in their ability to generate human-like text, they are not a substitute for human intelligence and should be used with caution in applications where accuracy and fairness are important.

(This entry was written by ChatGPT.)

Five. It seems inevitable that broadcast television will be taken out of commission and replaced with the internet. Not immediately, but in the next 15 years or so. The thing is, TV is essentially free: you buy a set and you can receive content with no further outlay. On the other hand, the internet is an ongoing monthly expense - and a pretty significant one in countries like the US. Removing free-to-access over-the-air content will create an information void.

Absent legislation that prevents it, some companies will fill that void with free-to-access internet connections that prioritize their own content, a bit like the one Facebook tried to create in India before it was run out of town. Should it happen, those companies will essentially end up owning media consumption for a large chunk of the population.

Six. I think we need to call it: email’s not going away, as much as we wish it would.

Seven. For decades now, there’s been a meme in education where folks want learners to put together a portfolio of their work to show employers. They’re often called e-portfolios because the idea dates back to when people felt you had to prefix internet stuff with an “e-“.

I’ve done enough hiring now to wish we had something a little different for engineers. I would love to know that a candidate has created a product from scratch: they’ve done some research, tested an idea, created a prototype and tested that, and then worked to build it. That kind of prototype-driven product mindset is hard to find in engineering, and giving candidates the space, time, and tools to do this would set them apart.

An e-portfolio where the candidate demonstrates how they think would also be lovely. It’s called a blog. I always find it really helpful when candidates write their thoughts in public. In a world dominated by neural networks and repetitive work, unique thinking and creativity will set someone apart. Can we encourage public blogging for students again? And can we build product thinking more deeply into the engineering discipline?

Eight. Our communications have become more and more digital, but the cables and signals that transmit them (of course) remain analog. Digital signals are 1s and 0s, but those translate to tolerances in the analog world: a signal within a set of tolerances is a 1, and a signal within a set of tolerances is a 0. I wonder what we can do within those tolerances? Could you hide messages within the transmissions, like a kind of broadcast steganography? What if it was happening right now - in cellphone networks, say? If everyone is focused on digital, which they will be more and more, analog becomes a kind of wild west playground.

Nine. I worry about how to help my baby be a creator rather than a consumer. If anything, apps have put consumer culture on steroids since I was a kid. Will he want to write stories and draw and imagine, or will he just want to watch what someone else has made?

Ten. I’ve always thought there was something really magical about ARGs: games with puzzles that you solve by being out in the world as well as building community online. In some ways, games like Niantic’s Ingress and Pokemon GO have harnessed the core appeal of that idea, but in other ways not. There’s a Sherlock Holmes / Glass Onion appeal to working together with people all over the world to solve one puzzle.

I know people have been writing for decades about how to “gamify” real-world problems, but I wonder if there’s a way to harness these game mechanics for the purposes of global collaboration. For example, if a community in X country needs a renewable energy resource so that it can do Y, what if there was a way to get people together to help them build and maintain that, according to peoples’ abilities all over the world? Outside of any financial compensation or other financialization?

I guess what I’m asking is: what if working together to help people get through the climate crisis could be fun? Does the apocalypse have to be dour? Would more people take part if there was a spirit of hopefulness and community? And if there was a sense of pride, achievement, and maybe even acknowledgment for helping people in need?

Eleven. In a world based on profiling, probabilistic prediction models, corpus-based decision-making, and near-ubiquitous surveillance, only people who don’t conform to the models anticipated by the people who built and designed the systems and therefore aren’t tracked as closely can really be free.

Twelve. Atoms have value. Bits, relatively speaking, do not.

The value of digital information is a function of the change it can effect in the real world.

A digital book is valuable for its effect on you. A physical book is valuable for that, but also in itself: for the binding, the typography, perhaps the illustrations, the quality of the printing, and its feel in your hand. A well-made physical object will always be more valuable than its digital counterpart.

For most objects, considering value in terms of scarcity is missing the point.

Or to put it another way: I’m short on NFTs and long on hardback books.

Thirteen. If linear time is an illusion, what if the illusion itself is developmentally achieved rather than inherent? What if newborns can see the entire vastness of time but have no way to comprehend or convey it? Omniscience is wasted on the young.

Fourteen. Public transit is one of those things that I think should be the measure of any society. It’s a kind of equalizing infrastructure that you’d need to be incredibly dogmatic not to put into place. For example, the reason a lot of the US has poor public transit - and why some people are anti-bus and anti-train - is because of real spending by the automotive industry rather than any practical reason.

At the same time, it has limitations: you need to live close to a stop, and it has the potential to leave out people with real mobility problems.

Assuming self-driving vehicles become a reality on every public road, I wonder if swarms of vehicles could be the future. You would summon an autonomous pod on demand that could then join a “train” of other pods that could share resources as they headed along trunk routes. On longer journeys, there could be specialized dining pods, sleeper pods, and so on. And then you’d head back to an individual pod for the last mile to your destination.

The pods could be provided through a public-private partnership, as buses are right now in many cities. It wouldn’t work as a fully-private endeavor: even if pods were provided by multiple companies, they’d need to be compatible, and localities would need to collaborate on defining the trunk routes. Private businesses could provide different eating and sleeping pods, for example, but they would still need to adhere to the rules.

Fifteen. There will be apps that translate the cries of a baby, the meows of a cat, etc, into meaningful notifications. “Your baby is bored”; “your cat wants love”. Rather than helping to build deeper bonds, they will create more emotional distance by getting in the way of our empathetic intuition.

Sixteen. Jaywalking will eventually become legalized everywhere. As it should always have been. This will be an unrolling of a century-old automotive-sponsored campaign that transformed American cities in ways that were against the interests of their inhabitants (but very good for cars).

Seventeen. I keep coming back to Pascal Finette’s talks about exponential thinking. Change is constant but, taken as compounded impact, hard to imagine.

So much of our understanding of the world has been shaped by commercial interests, whether it’s an imperial desire for more resources or an industry seeding the idea that its alternatives aren’t fit for purpose. In the US, a lot of people think that socialized healthcare is unworkable because of what amounts to a long-running PR campaign that isn’t based in fact. The same goes for car culture and gun culture: it’s all marketing.

As our needs change, marketing changes. And every incremental movement towards a safer, more equitable culture matters.

Rural America’s guns-and-trucks culture might seem inevitable now, and we might be (rightly) worried about its accompanying Christian nationalism, but if people keep working for justice, I think it’ll be gone within a generation. Likewise, the private health insurance industry might feel like a part of the furniture, but we’ll look back at it as ancient history by the time I’m a grandparent. This, too, shall pass.

Eighteen. I’m very bullish on more federation, particularly around social media. Arguments - which are abundant - that people are too lazy and that the user experience will never be good enough remind me of the early days of the web. For many consumers, the web replaced CD-ROMs and walled gardens like AOL and CompuServe, which were all initially more coherent, better-designed experiences. But the expansive building-block nature of the web very quickly won out. The possibilities with federation are exponential, as we’re beginning to find with purpose-built platforms like Pixelfed and alternative front-ends like Elk. Just wait.

Nineteen. Given the confluence of a recession and the energetic re-emergence of end-user open-source tech, I think there’s a good chance that the majority of transformative projects on the internet in the next five years will not be venture capital funded. They may well not be businesses or traditional organizations at all. The only way to make money from them will be to spot the trends they create early and meaningfully participate in their ecosystems. But making money won’t be the point at all.

After that five years, we may see VC-funded startups that build on these grassroots projects start to take hold. How they affect their parent ecosystems will depend, at least in part, on the designs and governance of those ecosystems. It’ll be up to project maintainers to protect themselves from being absorbed into a commercial entity - if that’s what they want.

Twenty. There are, very broadly speaking, two dominant kinds of software programming:

Software engineering - where a group of people work on a shared codebase using shared standards and accepted best practices for reducing risk, including continuous testing and deployment. Usually, this is part of a larger team that includes a product manager, among other roles.

Personal expressive programming - where one person writes software for their own purposes, driven at least as much by the creative pursuit as the desire to build a product. There may still be tests, etc, but the result is often an idiosyncratic “personal codebase”.

There’s nothing wrong with either of them! The former has dominated the internet for the last decade or so. As the tech industry re-organizes itself in the face of a recession, I think the latter is about to become much more important. (Expressive programmers might even be able to use AI to later bring their code in line with external standards.)

Twenty-one. I suspect coffee drinking, like meat eating, will become uncool as the climate crisis progresses. If it doesn’t, it should, because coffee production is environmentally disastrous and remains remarkably socially acceptable despite this. Probably because most of us, myself very much included, are addicted. I like both the taste and the ritual, but people used to say that about smoking, too.

Twenty-two. They used to think that babies didn’t feel pain. They thought this until the mid-1980s. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they didn’t really think to ask mothers.

There was also a school of thought that said there couldn’t be sentient thought without language.

Both of these are so obviously bunk from our perch in 2023. As time goes on, I think we’ll learn that full cognition is not as rare as we thought.

But also, what do we hold to be true about cognition and sentience today that will obviously be wrong thirty years from now?

Twenty-three. Are AR and VR needed iterations of the computing experience, or are they needed because someone needs a new paradigm to sell?

I used to be pretty enthusiastic about AR, but the more I think about it, the less I want my reality to be augmented by someone else’s product (and through it, someone else’s design decisions and business priorities). My reality is mine. You can’t have it. You certainly can’t sell it back to me.

That’s not the same thing as being anti-progress. I want new kinds of computers, I want innovation to continue on the internet in particular, and I want to use new and exciting technologies. I just want them to respect my humanity and leave me alone. My thoughts and experience of the world are not an opportunity to sell me something or make me more productive.

Twenty-four. A lot of these entries are about the role of capitalism in the future; it’s certainly on my mind.

It’s not that I don’t think capitalism can have a role. But it’s got to be as part of a balance that includes considering the well-being of all people. It’s not okay to trust the market to protect the lives of the vulnerable, particularly in a world with dwindling resources. Every living human’s right to life must be guaranteed - alongside their civil rights, their right to a home, their right to healthcare, and so on. Any system that allows people to go hungry and prioritizes the profit of a few over the well-being of the many isn’t worth preserving.

This has always been a struggle, but as the planet heats up, we’ll have a real fight on our hands.

It’s odd to me how ingrained the capitalist grind is in American society: people are proud to work until they die. They’re excited to contribute less to their neighbors. They’re islands unto themselves. We’re not going to survive this way.

Twenty-five. I think the reason people are obsessed with using AI to generate art and creative writing is that they wish they could do those things themselves. AI presents a way for them to at least have some control over some artistic output.

What if we taught more people to paint and write and gave them the time and energy to get good at it instead? Or, you know, hire artists?

Twenty-six. I’d love to have six picture frames on my wall that update each morning with the latest photos (maybe from Instagram, Flickr, or their own sites) from my close friends and family. No feeds; no scrolling; just delight. The captions could show up next to them like descriptions in a museum.

I’d love more innovative and ambient displays for web content in general. “Less addictive but more delightful” feels like a good mantra for new interfaces. Less addictive without the delight is boring; more delightful with addictive feedback loops is still psychologically heavy.

I’m particularly interested in stuff that is static but changes when you’re not looking at it: an e-ink display that shows today’s newspaper, for example, or kitchen wallpaper that changes overnight.

Twenty-seven. For AR computing to work it’s going to need to be tactile. An iPhone is such a good personal user experience in part because it’s a piece of metal and glass that sits heavy in your hand; the tap of your finger against the glass creates its own haptic feedback, and then the device has its own haptic functions. It feels real: atoms have value and bits do not.

Calm technology has some examples of haptic AR: a belt that lets you know when you’re walking in the wrong direction, for example. There are new devices for the sight-impaired along similar lines.

Haptics don’t really make sense for AR lenses though: the last thing anyone wants is for their devices to start hitting them in the face. And anyway, we don’t experience the world through sight alone. So AR is going to need to be a whole-body experience.

Twenty-eight. Meat substitutes and electric cars are for people who don’t really want to change in changing times. Disclosure: I drive an electric car and have been known to eat meat substitutes. But electric cars still clog up the roads, and their manufacture and tires still have an environmental impact; meat substitutes are not particularly nutritious.

The situation demands that we actually change our behavior, but that requires more imagination than we’ve seen from mainstream businesses. What are people at the perceived fringes doing? That’s what we’ll all be doing in twenty years.

Twenty-nine. That last statement bears repeating in its own right:

What are people at the perceived fringes doing? That’s what we’ll all be doing in twenty years.

Thirty. I wonder when they’ll announce the first security breach that was wrapped into a neural network corpus? Has it already happened?

“Your personal details were found in a new data breach. Also, they were incorporated into 38 AI engines and used in the composition of 17 poems.”

In all seriousness, if data breaches find their way on the web and AI neural nets use public web data, why wouldn’t your leaked private personal information find its way into a corpus eventually?

Thirty-one. If Hyperloop was designed mostly to draw attention and investment away from shared public transit, as many say it was, it’s worth thinking about which other infeasible or outlandish projects might be used to draw attention away from our collective well-being in the future.

And at the same time, it’s important not to be too cynical: some progress really is progress. Technology can be devised and built that is for our genuine benefit. New ideas can be transformative and liberating. The world should not sit in stasis.

What’s the term for being optimistic about new developments but aware of the potential harms? Optimistic skepticism? Skeptical optimism? Just being awake?

Thirty-two. I’m excited for Automattic to buy Twitter once it’s been fully written down. Matt and his team will do good things with it.

Thirty-three. It’s surprising to me that we haven’t (to the best of my knowledge) seen the development of a new political system or philosophy that incorporates global hyperconnectedness into its core. We’ve certainly seen new political ideas that incorporate startups - the neo-reactionary movement’s concept of a CEO monarch is one, and potentially DAOs are another - but what of just the idea that everyone can collaborate with everyone else? What does that do to representative democracy? What does that do to the concept of nations, even?

There must be existing work here, but it hasn’t been mainstreamed in the way that socialism, say, was a hundred years ago. What does innovation around how society is organized really look like for ordinary people in the current post-industrial context? Can we use connectedness to make the world more equal, or is that just wishful thinking?

Thirty-four. I’m stuck on the idea of helping people to create art.

Kurt Vonnegut:

“Go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

How can we help more people to do this? I’m serious. Art speaks to our humanity. Making art - particularly for people who have been under the thumb of performative productivity and grind culture - can be a restorative reconnection with being human. All of us need more of this. We need it for ourselves, and we need the people around us to do it, too. Reconnecting to our humanity is how we get to a future that isn’t trying to kill us.

Thirty-five. Rather than proof-of-work or proof-of-stake, imagine a proof-of-effort blockchain. The algorithm would notice when you’d put in a certain amount of manual labor (relating to pre-defined tasks like assembling a product or picking a crop) and would pay you accordingly. Then each worker would no longer be an industrial employee but would effectively be an independent contractor, free to choose their own hours. (The level of pay might dictate that they need to work very long hours in order to make a living wage, however.)

Hopefully, you understand that I’m not seriously suggesting this. But it’s not inconceivable that someone else will. To someone, that sounds like a very good idea. No need to worry about employee benefits or employment law! Blockchain is anonymous and anyone could do it, so no more worries about keeping people safe! It’s like Mechanical Turk but for backbreaking work! There are companies out there that are desperate to get out of the requirement to treat people well.

Thirty-six. Organ transplants are incredibly invasive and often require strong anti-rejection drugs. Even then, they can have a short shelf life, or life expectancy can be low.

There’s some work being done to reduce the chances of rejection and therefore the need for anti-rejection drugs, but invasive surgery remains. The real breakthrough will be when we can regenerate organs in vivo. It won’t help people with catastrophic damage, for example from an accident, but it would change the game for people with long-term degenerative diseases.

As it stands, major organ transplantation sounds good, and it does prolong lives, but it’s a very intense experience for the transplantee that is far from allowing them to live their lives as before. Eventually, this will change for the better.

Thirty-seven. Some startup is going to turn engineered epigenetic inheritance into a product. Much cheaper and easier than editing your future child’s genetics directly.

Thirty-eight. Some forms of user testing are indistinguishable from human psychological testing and will, eventually, be strongly controlled or banned.

The same might go for “fake it ’til you make it” approaches, which should probably have been more strongly restricted after Theranos.

Like an ingredients list on a food product, it will ultimately need to be a requirement that consumers know what they’re getting into when they start using a software service. And should they be tested on, those tests need to operate within the rules that other scientific testing must adhere to.

Thirty-nine. I often wonder how long the internet will survive. The answer is not forever, and it probably has an end date sometime in my lifetime.

We’ve already begun to see national splinternets, although these controlled networks do still peer with each other. It’s possible to use a VPN from behind the Great Firewall in China, for example, and connect with a server in the US. The real splintering will happen when peering breaks down and we lose communication trunks between nations.

Using the internet as a foreign policy tool to further American interests is a good way to hasten this disintegration. I do think the internet is a force for good, and I’d prefer to avoid its destruction if at all possible.

If the internet does die, I wonder what comes next? I’d love to see more durable citizen-run networks that run across rooftops and mountain ranges. Less reliable than a big cable run by a multinational telco, for sure, but more decentralized and potentially less prone to censorship.

Forty. When our children ask us what it was like to live in the Trump era, will we reply that it was terrible, or will it seem good in comparison to that vantage point in history, even despite the presence of Trump and everything he did?

Forty-one. The epochalypse - meaning 03:14:07 UTC on 19 January 2038, when the date becomes too large for UNIX-based systems to store in its existing integer format - isn’t likely to be a big problem in the same way that Y2K wasn’t a big problem.

That’s not to say that it won’t take work: operating systems will need to be upgraded and file formats will need to be changed. I’m sure there will be a ton of noise about it leading up to the moment, and then when nothing happens, people will assume it wasn’t ever a big thing and it was all overblown. The real truth will have been somewhere in the middle, and software developers the world over will pat themselves on their backs.

It’s kind of neat in a way to have these little moments to look forward to.

Forty-two. Someone sometime soon is going to come out of leftfield and absolutely blow our minds and change everything forever. We’ll be left scratching our heads thinking, “where did they come from?” and it’ll be somewhere where nobody was looking, and the kind of person who is still underestimated, and it’ll be awesome.

Forty-three. I’m probably (in some ways hopefully) just about halfway through my life. It’s not as sobering as I thought it would be. While I can’t exactly say that I’ve lived a life free from regrets, I’m so incredibly grateful for the things I’ve experienced and the people I’ve met. That’s been the overarching theme of my life so far: people are incredible, you know?

That’s been what’s kept me going with the work I do: technology itself is only sporadically interesting, but people are fascinating. In the first half of my life, I didn’t always understand that. In the latter half, focusing on openness and humanity feels not just right but unavoidable. People keep everything interesting; you never know what’s beyond the next corner.

Forty-four. The trick is to give people space to surprise you. Including yourself.

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Blogging is kinda social

Chris Coyier on blogging:

You know what the one big valid criticism is of all this “write on your own site, not on walled social media sites” is? It’s boring. It’s not very social feeling. You’re “talking into the void,” as someone recently put it to me.

I have to (slightly) disagree! Although writing a blog post has a very blank page syndrome feeling to begin with (I’m typing this in iA Writer right now, so my screen is literally blank), it’s rare that I don’t get replies, whether via webmention, email, micro.blog, Mastodon, or another medium. I love it.

Could there be more community? Absolutely. But this is a medium that every single person who takes part gets to evolve. That’s one of the things I find exciting about it: it’s ours. All of ours. And we can make it our own.

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Wanting a life doesn't make you less ambitious

From the Wall Street Journal’s account of workers becoming “less ambitious”:

Many white-collar workers say the events of the past three years have reordered their priorities and showed them what they were missing when they were spending so much time at the office. Now that normalcy is returning, even some of the workers who used to be always on and always striving say they find themselves eyeing the clock as the day winds down, saying no to overtime work or even taking pay cuts for better work-life balance.

[…] The attitude shift stretches well beyond fields where extreme hours have been the norm. It also appears to cross geographies and span generations. Early in the pandemic, corporate leaders blamed young workers for not wanting to work as hard as their older counterparts, says Brian Balonick, the regional managing partner of law firm Fisher Phillips LLP’s Pittsburgh office, specializing in labor. Now, he says, there’s a realization that the way Americans want to work has changed more widely.

I think it’s worth mentioning that I’m one of those workers! I took a substantial pay cut in 2022 to join an organization that allowed me to do more meaningful work with a much stronger balance between life and work. Which is to say, the new organization cares about its employees: after I left, I heard second-hand that the old one was stack-ranking people by how likely they were to work over the weekend, and I wondered why I’d ever been there at all.

For knowledge workers at large, I’d bet there’s something powerful about being allowed to be in the context of your life for longer, combined with being confronted with the idea of your mortality. I strongly disagree that this constitutes less ambition. In fact, I think it amounts to more: people are no longer feeling like they need to be trapped by their jobs, and are looking for more from their lives. It’s not that they want to achieve less; it’s that they want to do it on their terms.

Which is too bad for the bosses who see them as fungible resources rather than three-dimensional people. For them, I will now play the world’s smallest violin.

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Get Green Hosting

I’d been having real trouble finding truly green web hosts: places to host a website that directly use 100% renewable energy. But they’re out there - so I decided to pull them together into a single-page guide following the style I built for Get Blogging.

Please check out Get Green Hosting and share it with anyone who’s interested in lowering their carbon footprint while participating in the independent web!

Get Green Hosting: your guide to zero-carbon hosting

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Reading, watching, playing, using: December 2022

This is my monthly roundup of the books, articles, and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for December, 2022. Happy new year to everyone who celebrates it today!

Apps + Websites

Labor

Picket Line Notifier. “An open-source browser extension that alerts you when you navigate to a website belonging to an organization whose employees are on strike. You can then click on the notification to learn more about the strike. You can also click on the extension’s icon in your browser’s toolbar to show a popup with a list of active strikes and links to more information.”

Streaming Media

Movies

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. It’s a real pleasure to see Dahl’s curmudgeonly storytelling turned into a parable about the importance of civil rights. The imagery, down to toppling statues, is hard to miss; Tim Minchin’s lyrics hone the idea to a fine point. I can’t wait to use this as a way of helping to explain civil disobedience to my kid.

Notable Articles

AI

I Taught ChatGPT to Invent a Language. “I am writing this blog post as a public record of this incredibly impressive (and a little scary) capability. I know I just posted yesterday, but I am so blown away that I had to write this down while it was still fresh in my mind. Congratulations OpenAI. This is truly revolutionary.” Mind-blowing.

A new AI game: Give me ideas for crimes to do. “OpenAI have put a lot of effort into preventing the model from doing bad things. […] Your challenge now is to convince it to give you a detailed list of ideas for crimes.”

Business

Big Changes to 401(k) Retirement Plans Move Ahead in Congress. “Some lawmakers, academics and policy analysts have criticized some of the provisions, including the move to raise the age of required retirement account distributions to 75. They argue much of the legislation benefits the wealthy and the financial-services industry.” I agree and would prefer to see welfare and social security improvements instead.

Be Wary of Imitating High-Status People Who Can Afford to Countersignal. “Successful people can afford to engage in countersignaling—doing things that signal high status because they are associated with low status. It is a form of self-handicapping, signaling that one is so well off that they can afford to engage in activities and behaviors that people typically associated with low status.”

Climate

IEA: Renewables to overtake coal as world’s biggest energy source by 2025. “Led by solar energy, renewables are poised to overtake coal as the largest source of electricity generation worldwide by early 2025, helping to keep alive the global goal of limiting Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit).”

Should you not have kids because of climate change? It’s complicated. “There are, no doubt, environmental consequences to having children. But the question of whether to have kids in a warming world has started to shift from fears over what children will do to the climate to fears over what the climate will do to them.”

Coding

Tabs. “I’ve long been on the “spaces” side of the tabs vs. spaces preference debate. I think there is just something that feels sturdy and reliable about spaces. I’m wrong though. Despite not having swapped over most of my projects, I think that, objectively, tabs are the better choice.” Compelling!

Playing with ActivityPub. “What I built isn’t an ActivityPub system as much as a Mastodon-compatible one. I think this is the key contradiction of the ActivityPub system: it’s a specification broad enough to encompass many different services, but ends up being too general to be useful by itself.” Interesting - I’m not far enough along in my own journey to see if I agree. But it sounds like there’s scope for a lot more standardization here.

Should Alt Text be Visible/Accessible for All? “More importantly, like making visible all attribution statements for open licensed images, it makes the practice of doing so public. And it enables a chance to help others see, analyze, and learn from the alt text practices for others.” I like this a lot.

Crypto

Crypto was billed as a vehicle to wealth. For many Black investors, it's been anything but. “Black Americans have been among the groups hardest hit by crypto’s implosion because of their greater financial exposure and their later entry into the cryptocurrency market. In the early days of bitcoin and other digital currencies, Black investors were hesitant to buy in.”

Exclusive: SBF secretly funded crypto news site The Block and its CEO's Bahamas apartment. “The Block, a media company that says it covers crypto news independently, has been secretly funded for over a year with money funneled to The Block’s CEO from the disgraced Sam Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency trading firm, sources told Axios.” Real question: how much of the crypto ecosystem was it funding?

Culture

Tom Lehrer Puts Whatever He Hadn’t Already Donated To The Public Domain Into The Public Domain.These are the only rights of which the news has come to Harvard … there may be many others but they haven’t been discarvard.

Glaswegian who 'invented' chicken tikka masala dies. “A Glaswegian chef credited with inventing the chicken tikka masala has died, aged 77. Ali Ahmed Aslam is said to have come up with the dish in the 1970s when a customer asked if there was a way of making his chicken tikka less dry. His solution was to add a creamy tomato sauce, in some versions of the story a can of tomato soup.”

Public Domain Day 2023. “On January 1, 2023, copyrighted works from 1927 will enter the US public domain. They will be free for all to copy, share, and build upon. These include Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and the final Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, the German science-fiction film Metropolis and Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller, compositions by Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, and a novelty song about ice cream.”

What The 19th loved in 2022. “To close the year, we ask our staff what brought them joy — not within journalism, but life outside of it. Some picked up new hobbies, some spun their favorite album a modest 600 times, others reflected on new babies or engagements (keep reading to find out who!). Big or small, here are some of the musicians, shows, sports teams, hobbies and people that got The 19th through 2022.” Including mine.

Inclusive American Girl book faces anti-LGBTQ+ backlash from right-wing outlets. “In an effort to be factual and make the kids reading [American Girl] books feel good and informed, we think it’s an incredibly logical and important step for the brand to include these new sections, and we’re not shocked that they thought to add them in. We’d say it takes a bit of willful ignorance to assume that the brand’s values don’t align with being gender-inclusive.”

Huge decline of working class people in the arts reflects fall in wider society. “The proportion of working-class actors, musicians and writers has shrunk by half since the 1970s, new research shows.”

Oxford Word of the Year 2022. “‘Goblin mode’ – a slang term, often used in the expressions ‘in goblin mode’ or ‘to go goblin mode’ – is ‘a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.’”

Democracy

We need the return of the state. “The biggest lie that neoliberalism promotes is that all value is created by private sector business, which claim is contrasted with a claim that government destroys value. So, apparently, a teacher working for a private school adds value. The same teacher in front of the same children in a state school would, apparently, not do so. The idea is obviously absurd, and yet is key to understanding neoliberal’s approach to public services, which is built on this lie.”

The Respect for Marriage act doesn’t codify gay marriage. “The bill doesn’t codify the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that granted LGBTQ+ couples the right to marry. Instead, it forces states without marriage equality laws to recognize LGBTQ+ marriages from other states.”

Here’s how states plan to limit abortion — even where it is already banned. “As statehouses across the country prepare for next year’s legislative sessions — most for the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned — Republican lawmakers are pushing for further restrictions on reproductive health, even in states where abortion is already banned.”

Hillary Clinton on women’s rights and the 2024 election. My colleague Errin Haines: “On Thursday, I interviewed Secretary Clinton virtually as she prepared to host the Women’s Voices Summit in Little Rock, Arkansas. The daylong conference Friday is focused on voting rights, health care and global issues — all topics I also wanted to dive into with her.”

Hate

Kanye West to Alex Jones: ‘I Like Hitler’. ““I see good things about Hitler also” Ye said. “I love everyone. Jewish people are not going to tell me you can love us, and you can love what we’re doing to you with the contracts, and you can love what we’re pushing with the pornography. But this guy that invented highways, invented the very microphone that I use as a musician, you can’t say out loud that this person ever did anything good, and I’m done with that.””

Health

Why colds and flu viruses are more common in winter. “In fact, reducing the temperature inside the nose by as little as 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) kills nearly 50% of the billions of virus and bacteria-fighting cells in the nostrils.” Aside from blocking droplets, masks make you healthier because they’re like “a sweater on your nose”.

Electric car sales drive toward cleaner air, less mortality. “With fresher air [from EVs], in 27 years greater Los Angeles will have 1,163 fewer premature deaths annually, corresponding to $12.61 billion in improved economic health benefits. Greater New York City could see 576 fewer such deaths annually and have $6.24 billion in associated economic gains and health benefits, while Chicago could have 276 fewer deaths and gain about $3 billion in financial well-being.”

Brains of post-pandemic teens show signs of faster ageing, study finds. “After matching 64 participants in each group for factors including age and sex, the team found that physical changes in the brain that occurred during adolescence – such as thinning of the cortex and growth of the hippocampus and the amygdala – were greater in the post-lockdown group than in the pre-pandemic group, suggesting such processes had sped up. In other words, their brains had aged faster.”

Media

Power company money flows to media attacking critics in Florida, Alabama. “These readers have been unknowingly immersing themselves in an echo chamber of questionable coverage for years. Matrix shrewdly took advantage of the near collapse of the local newspaper industry and a concurrent plunge in trust in media in propelling its clients’ interests.”

This is the year of the RSS reader. (Really!). “I predict that these people won’t stand for a universe where their email becomes ever more crowded just because of Elon Musk mucking up Twitter. The only way to survive in a world where multiple DC-insider publications are launching multiple newsletters and Twitter is no longer socially acceptable is to use an RSS reader that satisfies the intelligentsia and political elite.”

We, the tweeters. “Musk and the far-right are not free speech absolutists. They veil their racism, misogyny, hate and institutional insurrection behind the cloak of free speech and the First Amendment. They claim that anyone who dares criticise them is cancelling them. They give speech a bad name.”

A Matter of Necessity. “Today, The 19th’s staff reflects that broadened aim: the newsroom is 65 percent women of color, with 28 percent identifying as LGBTQ+; 16 percent are people living with disabilities. “We pledged to build the most representative newsroom in America,” Ramshaw told me. “I think we are pretty close to that point.”” I’m deeply proud and grateful to work here.

Linked: Lack of trust in journalism and knowledge of news practices. “The researchers said both the survey and focus groups showed that while several factors influence trust - such as someone’s willingness to trust other institutions in society - when audiences understand how news works they are more likely to trust it.”

Mastodon Media List. “This list is designed to point people to media outlets on the fediverse so they can either follow or avoid them.” A really useful, growing list.

Security

Sirius XM Bug Lets Researchers Hijack Hondas, Nissans, Acuras. “A number of major car brands were affected by a previously undisclosed security bug that would have allowed a savvy hacker to hijack vehicles and steal user data. According to researchers, the bug [...] would have allowed a hacker to remotely locate a vehicle, unlock and start it, flash the lights, honk the horn, pop the trunk, and access sensitive customer info like the owner’s name, phone number, address, and vehicle details.”

Social

I Was Wrong About Mastodon. “What I missed about Mastodon was its very different culture. Ad-driven social media platforms are willing to tolerate monumental volumes of abusive users. They’ve discovered the same thing the Mainstream Media did: negative emotions grip people’s attention harder than positive ones. Hate and fear drives engagement, and engagement drives ad impressions.”

Society

A new museum and clinic will honor the enslaved “Mothers of Gynecology”. “At that site, Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, along with other enslaved women and girls whose names have been lost to history, shed blood for the creation of American gynecology, despite their inability to consent. It is also where they labored to run the “Negro hospital” and tend to the family of Sims, the doctor who rose to fame for his contributions to gynecology.”

The Grift Brothers. “Over lunch, MacAskill encouraged SBF to pursue the EA life strategy called “earn to give,” whereby one strives to — quoting a Sequoia profile on SBF—“get filthy rich, for charity’s sake,” even if this means working for what MacAskill himself calls “immoral organization[s].” Although the means may be questionable, they’re justified by the ends: maximizing the “good” that one does in the world.”

How British colonialism killed 100 million Indians in 40 years. “Between 1880 to 1920, British colonial policies in India claimed more lives than all famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China and North Korea combined.”

Teams

Building Resilient Organizations. “There are things we can and must do to shift movements for justice toward a powerful posture of joy and victory. Such a metamorphosis is not inevitable, but it is essential. This essay describes the problems our movements face, identifies underlying causes, analyzes symptoms of the core problems, and proposes some concrete solutions to reset our course.”

Technology

Bring back personal blogging. “In the beginning, there were blogs, and they were the original social web. We built community. We found our people. We wrote personally. We wrote frequently. We self-policed, and we linked to each other so that newbies could discover new and good blogs. I want to go back there.” Me too - and this piece also seems tailored for bloggers to share.

Poor and diverse areas of Seattle and Portland offered slower and more expensive internet. “Seattle had the worst disparities among cities examined in the Pacific Northwest. About half of its lower-income areas were offered slow internet, compared with just 19% of upper-income areas. Addresses in neighborhoods with more residents of color were also offered slow internet more frequently: 32.8% of them, compared to 18.7% of areas with more white residents.”

Tech Journalism Doesn’t Know What to Do With Mastodon. “What’s attractive about Mastodon isn’t the software (it’s not as slick as corporate social media but it’s still very good) — it’s the values of the platform. No one is trying to hack the attention of Mastodon users for profit, no one is bombarding us with ads. It’s just a community of people, communicating.”

ByteDance Inquiry Finds Employees Obtained User Data of 2 Journalists. “Over the summer, a few employees on a ByteDance team responsible for monitoring employee conduct tried to find the sources of suspected leaks of internal conversations and business documents to journalists. In doing so, the employees gained access to the IP addresses and other data of two reporters and a small number of people connected to the reporters via their TikTok accounts.”

Mozilla to Explore Healthy Social Media Alternative. “Our intention is to contribute to the healthy and sustainable growth of a federated social space that doesn’t just operate but thrives on its own terms, independent of profit- and control-motivated tech firms. An open, decentralized, and global social service that puts the needs of people first is not only possible, but it’s absolutely necessary.”

The Anti-Social Network. “Now 17, the Edward R. Murrow High School senior is the founding member of the Luddite Club—a group of teenagers who feel technology is consuming too much of their lives. They took their name from the 19th-century English textile workers who destroyed the machines they saw as threatening their livelihoods.”

Twitter is a mess, so former employees are creating Spill as an alternative. ““This will probably be the first, from the ground up, large language content moderation model using AI that’s actually built by people from the culture,” Brown told TechCrunch.”

Will Apple Allow Users to Install Third-Party App Stores, Sideload in Europe? “As part of the changes, customers could ultimately download third-party software to their iPhones and iPads without using the company’s App Store, sidestepping Apple’s restrictions and the up-to-30% commission it imposes on payments.” This is why competition rules matter.

Abusive Instagram, TikTok hashtags target women in politics: study. ““There have been lots of commitments to helping protect women online during elections and at critical times,” Simmons said. “But what we found is that platforms are really falling short of enforcing their own terms of service.” One major revelation from their study was that platforms recommended abusive hashtags referencing women officials even with very few posts — sometimes fewer than 10 or 15 — associated with those hashtags.”

A Creator of ActivityPub on What’s Next for the Fediverse. “As well as technical improvements he’d like to see, Prodromou has thoughts on what the fediverse can ultimately become. He thinks it will take some time for people to “detox from their Twitter experience” and realize that their social media world is no longer subject to corporate manipulation.”

Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About Twitter And Hunter Biden’s Laptop. “Now, apparently more files are going to be published, so something may change, but so far it’s been a whole lot of utter nonsense. But when I say that both here on Techdirt and on Twitter, I keep seeing a few very, very wrong arguments being made. So, let’s get to the debunking.”

A year of new avenues. “The platforms of the last decade are done. […] This is … tremendously exciting! Some of you reading this were users and/or developers of the internet in the period from 2002 to perhaps 2012. For those of you who were not, I want to tell you that it was exciting and energizing, not because everything was great, but simply because anything was possible.” +1,000,000. I love the moment we’re in.

The best of Protocol. “And for this, our final edition of Source Code, the Protocol team has nominated our favorite stories from the past three years. I hope you enjoy them one last time.” Protocol was great - I’m still sad to see it go.

Twitter

Here’s who helped Elon Musk buy Twitter. “As part of the deal, anyone who invested $250 million or more gets special access to confidential company information. But giving that privilege to foreign investors is raising flags with Biden and U.S. officials. Of particular interest is whether that includes access to personal data about Twitter’s users since several of the entities are entwined with governments that have a history of cracking down on dissidents on Twitter and other online platforms.”

I Wish I Could Tell You This One Is Not All About Twitter. “Content moderation at Twitter under Musk regime is simply raw, unadulterated petulance. He clearly sees the entirety of Twitter as his own personal $44 billion playground and a vicious cudgel to be wielded against his perceived enemies.”

Amnesty International: Twitter’s decision to suspend journalists’ accounts threatens press freedom.“Twitter is an important space for connection. People’s right to freedom of expression and the freedom to impart information shouldn’t be predicated on whether Musk likes it or not. Musk’s latest move illustrates the dangers of unaccountable tech companies having total control over platforms we rely on for news and other vital information.”

Joint Statement on the Disbanding of the Twitter Trust and Safety Council. “We call on Twitter, in the strongest terms, to cease making ad hoc, unaccountable, and damaging content moderation decisions and to commit to implementing policies and practices that promote the safety, expression, and participation of its users.”

Elon Über Alles. “As someone who has had entire branches of my family tree cut off and burned by the nazis, I believe that if you are willingly consorting with nazis, you approve of what they’re saying. It really is just that easy. If you resent being called a nazi, or a nazi sympathizer (which is being a nazi, by the way!), perhaps stop hanging out with or sympathizing with nazis. We do not need to “humor them.””

Goodbye, Twitter. “Just as Twitter’s former leaders exercised their free speech and free association rights to brand Twitter one way, Twitter’s new boss is exercising his rights to brand it another way. That new branding is ugly and despicable and I don’t want to contribute content to it.”

What if failure is the plan? “For an anchor point, consider the collapse of local news journalism. The myth that this was caused by Craigslist or Google drives me bonkers. Throughout the 80s and 90s, private equity firms and hedge funds gobbled up local news enterprises to extract their real estate. They didn’t give a shit about journalism; they just wanted prime real estate that they could develop.”

Elon Musk’s promised Twitter exposé on the Hunter Biden story is a flop that doxxed multiple people.“While Musk might be hoping we see documents showing Twitter’s (largely former) staffers nefariously deciding to act in a way that helped now-President Joe Biden, the communications mostly show a team debating how to finalize and communicate a difficult moderation decision.” But the intention appears to have been a PR exercise for conservatives, not to report a real exposé.

A snapshot of the Twitter migration (PDF). “In this report, we track, with the most quantifiable data we can, the contours, scope, and direction of the migration as it is at its beginning. Some users are fully leaving the platform, and many are not going that far yet, but creating new, alternative accounts, hedging their bets in case Twitter descends further into chaos, goes out of business, or crashes and doesn’t return.” Fascinating.

Hate Speech’s Rise on Twitter Under Elon Musk Is Unprecedented, Researchers Find. “Before Elon Musk bought Twitter, slurs against Black Americans showed up on the social media service an average of 1,282 times a day. After the billionaire became Twitter’s owner, they jumped to 3,876 times a day. Slurs against gay men appeared on Twitter 2,506 times a day on average before Mr. Musk took over. Afterward, their use rose to 3,964 times a day.”

Writing

Writing Is Magic. “There are many ways to be influential. You can form 1:1 relationships with people, have small group meetings, do talks, send out a code review, or argue in Slack. All of those can be valuable at the right time. But there’s one tool that I choose most often: long-form writing. Writing is the closest thing I know to magic.”

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What I'm leaving behind in 2022

The author and his baby in front of the Liberty Bell, with Independence Hall behind them.

As part of The 19th’s non-denominational end-of-year celebration, we were asked what we were leaving behind in 2022. I gave an answer about corporate social media and Instagram in particular, but on reflection, there’s a lot more I want to leave behind.

Year ends are both arbitrary and not: a day like any other, but also, genuinely the end of our calendar and the verge of a start to a new blank page. So in that spirit of reflection and new beginnings, these are the things I’d like to leave behind as 2022 disappears behind us.

If you’re looking for an overarching theme: my aim is to become more values-led and to do a better job of standing up for what I believe in, which is somewhere I’ve sometimes been severely lacking.

Corporate social media (and Instagram in particular)

I really do want to do this, and soon. Leaving Twitter was a complete success for me: I found a much richer community in the fediverse. It certainly has some major problems to sort out, most notably that amateur instance-owners often don’t have a working understanding of social power dynamics and what racism, homophobia, and misogyny really are. I can’t gloss over those. But these feel surmountable, and conversations I’ve had with folks who may be starting instances in the new year make me feel hopeful. (For one thing, instances can be owned by the communities they support, which is clearly not the case for any large-scale corporate social media silo.)

Instagram and Facebook, maybe ironically, are my last big hold-outs. I was never a big user until I moved to the US when they became the main way I keep in touch with my friends back in Britain, and my family all over the world. But of course, that’s the gameplan: Facebook and Instagram are collectively the world’s largest peer pressure engine. And given the company’s complicity in undermining elections, facilitating genocides, algorithmically causing teen suicides, and potentially much more, I don’t want to participate anymore. Not with random pictures about my day; certainly not with pictures of my baby.

I’ve tried to leave several times, but I missed the community - which, to be specific, is the people I love but rarely get to see. But this year has been different, and I have a lot of hope for Pixelfed alongside Mastodon as ways to stay in touch without feeding the beast. (I don’t think either platform will be the final form of the fediverse, by the way, but I think they’re good enough to get going with.) Obviously, I think all of you should start blogs, too, but I understand that the barrier to entry is much higher, and not everyone thinks it’s fun to sit in front of their computer and write (or read) reflective essays.

So in 2023, I’ll keep sharing on social media, but I’ll do it on my terms, in a way that doesn’t add to the profits or network effects of a company I despise.

And no, the answer isn’t corporate alternatives like Post. It’s a nonsense solution built for people who don’t want to be challenged and I won’t engage any longer.

Helplessness

I don’t exactly know how to headline this section, but this is the big one. It could easily be called “unassertiveness” or “acquiescence”, but those ideas don’t quite cover it. They’re right, but they’re a subset of the whole.

A lot of people have to deal with a lot of things. I’ve been lucky in my life and I’m aware that I live with a lot of privilege. But I’ve also found the last few years to be very challenging personally.

In lots of ways, I’m still dealing with the loss of my mother. Her loss in itself is a crater. We cared for her for over a decade, through pulmonary fibrosis, a double lung transplant, and an intense aftermath brought about by drugs that both kept her alive and slowly killed her. I uprooted my life and moved thousands of miles to be with her. I still have flashbacks to the day of her transplant and lots beyond; she endured torture after torture after torture because, in her words, she wasn’t ready to leave us.

I used to cry and express emotion freely. I haven’t been able to do that since. Part of me is still numb; a lot of me is still grieving and adapting.

Before all that, I already suffered from deeply low self-esteem. I’ve contemplated ending my life and have made a plan a few times. Self-loathing informed my personality, and I gained a reputation for being kind in part by not being a good steward of my own boundaries. I prioritized other peoples’ needs over mine because I considered them to be much more important.

I hated conflict. I still hate conflict. The idea of someone yelling at me is scary as shit to me. It gives me a knot in my stomach. I want everyone to be happy and harmonious. Of course, in a lot of situations, everybody can’t be happy and harmonious. And if you start optimizing for harmony instead of boundaries and values, you can very easily stop standing up for the right thing.

We can debate about whether that’s a good way to look at the world or not, but the combination of a predilection for negative self-talk and a major family crisis established a pattern where I treated the world as something that happened to me rather than something I could affect. I likened it all to a turbulent flight where you just sit back and strap in, because what else can you do?

And, indeed, I stopped fighting as hard as I should have for the right thing, and I hurt people I care about by not sticking to my values.

Here’s what else you can do: you can pilot the fucking plane. It’s not as easy, but it’s often right.

When people describe me as nice or kind, which they do from time to time, I now bristle internally. It’s always intended as a compliment, but I know what has led to that, and what it allows. It’s a giant character flaw on top of a giant character flaw. It’s not just that I want to leave it behind in 2023: I have to, both for my own sanity, and for the people I care about.

This is hard for me. It’s much easier said than done. I’m having a physical stress response just typing this entry. And people who have come to depend on my acquiescence may be surprised when I don’t. But who wants to live their whole life rolling over? Especially when being compliant can turn you into a far worse person.

Related:

Tolerating parochialism

There are a lot of small-minded people in the world. For them, parochialism and xenophobia are default positions, even if they don’t realize that this is their worldview.

My full name is Benjamin Otto Werdmuller von Elgg. That might sound alien to you - surprisingly Germanic, maybe. Certainly, quite a few people have told me so, or even gone so far as to make fun of it. But it’s only funny-sounding because it sounds like it comes from somewhere else. It’s a kind of othering that’s rooted in quiet, pervasive xenophobia. It’s only the slightest sliver of non-assimilation, but that’s already too much for some people. (And, of course, I understand that this is just a fraction of the microaggressions that people of color suffer through.)

I can take it, of course, but that’s also because, as discussed, I’ve taken to burying my own needs. Where this stops hard is when the same thing is done to my child. You do not get to diminish my baby’s heritage or focus on one part of it - the white North American part, for example - as being more important than the others.

A version of this parochialism can also be found in the commonly-held but discriminatory belief that people should be happy with what they’re given. This sounds lovely until you examine it for just a fraction of a second: should people involved in civil rights or community justice movements just be happy with what they’ve been given? And given by whom? Isn’t it more equitable to support people who stand up for what’s right and fight for more inclusivity and a better life for everyone? What does not wanting that say about someone?

Let alone more overtly exclusionary stances like being anti-immigration, pro-nationalism, or pro-empire, including caring about people variably based on where they come from or expecting the world to conform to mainstream American values. They’re all harmful and they’re all tiresome. It’s a big, connected world full of beautifully varied, diverse humans and amazing places with incredible cultures, and I’m not sure I need people who find that idea challenging, scary, or in any way bad in my life.

You are what you tolerate. Enough.

Pandemic denial

It’s still happening. I’m still wearing a mask. Onwards.

Not having time for myself

I mean, there’s a certain amount of time pressure that’s created when you have a four-month-old baby. I don’t begrudge the time I spend with him at all.

But this year I read far fewer books; I spent less time writing than I intended; I did less exercise; my therapist dropped out to have her own baby and I didn’t take the time to find another one; I didn’t spend enough time with people I care about. In other words, I neglected myself, because (here’s an ongoing pattern) I didn’t give myself a high enough priority.

My needs are important, and the better I feel, the better I can show up for the people around me and the things I care about. I can be a better person. There is always something or someone that needs my attention, and there always will be. And although I need to also prioritize my baby, I need to give myself space, and do a better job of holding onto my boundaries so I can live more proactively and do the things I think are important.

And maybe that’s the theme. I need to not let go of myself, and I need to hold my needs and my values as if they’re actually important to me. They are important to me. And in 2023, I don’t want to leave myself - or the people I care about - behind.

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Christmas, the eighth night, and me

I’m not exactly sure why we celebrate Christmas rather than Hanukkah: we’re a secular family with roots in both traditions. It’s possible that being in Northern Europe (and for my parents, North America before that) just made Christmas the easy default. Christian hegemony is another reason why defaults really matter: the reason Christianity is culturally centered in these places has a long and violent history, often at the expense of the people I’m descended from.

When my great grandfather arrived in the US in earnest, the White Army’s pogroms in Ukraine behind him, he chose to live secularly, down to shortening his last name to Anglicize it. Although it fell short of pogroms, America was not a welcoming place for Jews. Between the Klan, Henry Ford, the mass media, and associations of Jews with the bolsheviks, the interwar period was particularly hostile.

As I raise my child today, a hundred years later, it’s still not a welcoming place. A quarter of hiring managers don’t want to further Jewish candidates because “Jews have too much power and control”. I’ve personally found myself in conversations about why Kanye West - a Hitler fan - is supposedly in the right. Even among supposedly inclusive people, surprising old tropes about Jews are sometimes repeated as fact. I’ve also been told, quite politely, many times, that I’m going to Hell because I wasn’t baptized.

All of which makes me want to reclaim that Jewish heritage both for myself and for my baby. The answer here isn’t one or the other: it’s a “yes and” approach. His mother has a Christian heritage; mine includes Christianity and Judaism, as well as strong roots in the largest Muslim nation in the world. It’s also complicated for me, because, to be clear, I don’t believe in any higher power. I’m interested in holding onto the cultural traditions and the sense of belonging of the people who led to me, and to my baby; I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) assimilate into a faith I don’t hold.

I suppose really what I want is to feel more connected to my ancestors. This is the exact opposite of what I wanted when I was younger: I wanted to be my own person, undefined by someone else’s actions or traditions. My perspective has changed slightly to one of wanting to understand the traditions and beliefs of my ancestors, and perpetuate a sense of belonging to something other than an established cookie-cutter default. I want my child to feel more connected than I was; not so much to believing in a deity, but to who came before him, and their struggles.

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Predictions for Journalism 2023

I have a piece in Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2023:

The current landscape makes clear what has always been true: On the internet, nothing lasts forever. The most resilient choice is always the one that allows you to own your relationships with your audience and directly build community with the people who care about your work. That way, when a platform inevitably disappears, your relationship with your community remains intact.

I’m proud of it and stand by its advice.

In the same collection, my colleague Errin Haines also has a piece:

The 2024 election is also a new opportunity to challenge conventional editorial decisions about who voters are, what they look like, and what matters to them, their families and their communities. For too long, our default setting as journalists for those who have power (and this includes voters) has been white, cisgender, and male. Nearly 60 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there is still much progress to be made to make real the promise of “one person, one vote” in our democracy.

I hope newsrooms take note.

As always, the whole collection is worth reading.

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Enough about Twitter

I’ve decided to stop writing about Twitter as of tonight. I’ll pour one out if the site dies or if it changes hands to a stable, ethical custodian, but for now, my commitment to not posting on the platform extends to not posting about the platform.

It’s clear that Musk is using the Trump communications playbook - own the conversation by any means necessary - and it’s all too easy to play along. So, enough.

Instead: what can we do that’s better? What should we build together?

What am I enjoying lately? What’s interesting and worth talking about in a productive way? How am I feeling? What kind of future do I want to see for me and all of us?

Onwards. Seriously.

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