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benwerd

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Which tech companies are funded may be about to change

A screenshot from Sam Lessin's WTF VC presentation

I’ve been thinking about Sam Lessin’s latest deck about the future of venture capital and its implications about the future of how technology is funded and built. Sam is General Partner at Slow Ventures and partner to Jessica Lessin, founder of tech industry publication The Information.

It’s certainly worth reading if you’re in the industry (although be aware that it’s a DocSend link that requires that you provide your email address to proceed). I don’t always agree with Sam — in particular, he recently wrote a piece about banning TikTok because of pro-Palestinian content that I vehemently disagree with. But there are some claims in this deck that, if true, will be seismic.

He first sets the stage for how VC has turned into a kind of assembly line over the last twenty years:

With clarity and manufactured consistency of what late-stage VCs had to 'roll off the line' to sell to the public market, it became possible for the whole ecosystem to reverse-engineer and standardize the metrics companies needed to be worth at different stages and 'peg' valuations to those stages for intermediate products.

This trend towards startup standardization, measurement, and 'legibility' at all stages allowed the VC factory run way more efficiently and dramatically scale up. It allowed different funds to specialize in different stages of startup production - doing just one step - and passing the goods along for markups.

This is a clear description of the venture capital funding ladder: from pre-seed to seed, then through early equity funding rounds, then to growth rounds, and out into acquisition and the public markets. As Lessin says, individual funds and ecosystems developed around each of these stages. It was like a factory line in a way, but also a bit like a Ponzi scheme: the way early stage investors made money was by later stage investors putting money in.

At each stage, Limited Partners — high net-worth individuals, pension funds, and so on — put a certain amount of their money into a venture capital fund with the expectation that they would see a return within a pre-determined timeframe (often ten years). VCs typically made a 2% management fee and then took 20% of the profit once the fund reached maturity.

The trouble was, most of the companies constructed this way didn’t succeed in the public markets. The model described above worked fairly well for the inward-facing market of investors, and sometimes created services that people used, but it didn’t actually create the value necessary to justify those valuations. This — together with a reformed market landscape in the wake of the pandemic — means that the formulae investors used to calculate valuations are meaningless. There’s no factory-ready set of calculations to use. Every company is different.

Every company was always different, and valuations could never be paint-by-number, but it’s become harder to maintain the appearance of set standards.

Lessin also points out that the factory model also allowed absolutely unscalable non-tech companies to get the tech treatment: direct to consumer products, electric scooters, networks of doctor’s offices, and so on were all VC-funded using the same metrics designed for software, despite not being software at all. These companies didn’t do well at all and trust was eroded.

There are lots of reasons why this happened, which Lessin doesn’t touch on: once limited partners have put money into a fund, the investor needs to deploy capital from that fund on investments within the timing of the fund. These investments have to come from somewhere, and it becomes harder and harder to find the right kind of software deals the more competition there is. In a 0% interest (“ZIRP”) environment that hosted an explosion of VC funds that were all competing for founders, investors often hustled hard to get any deals at all. There were simply more funds than viable software companies to support.

All this and a renewed government interest in enforcing anti-trust rules means that acquisitions (which were how many funds really made their money) have slowed. And because LPs didn’t get their money back from previous funds, they’re not re-investing in new ones. And potential founders aren’t leaving big tech companies, because layoffs and a more uncertain economic environment means they might not get their jobs back if their startups fail.

What Lessin does say — in, for me, the most interesting part of the deck — is that this dynamic is still going on, and is behind the current AI boom. He characterizes investor interest in AI as a somewhat desperate attempt to maintain the venture investing status quo:

But what of generative Al you say! Well, this is what you call wishful thinking... a clear example of a narrative generated out of desperation in the VC community vs. good sense. The Al startup opportunity is largely a mirage of thirsty investors trying to cling to an old way of doing things after similar spun up stories on Metaverse (and yes in its peak froth moment Crypto) didn't play out, and the last narrative around ‘on demand services' mostly crumbled.

It’s an extending / sustaining innovation, Lessin argues: one that allows incumbents (Microsoft, for example) to make higher profits rather than providing opportunities to new players in the marketplace. There are no moats: no way for startups to maintain a lead because there are no network effects and everything is open source. On top of this, the startups are so overpriced because of the concentration in investor activity that they would need to be phenomenally successful to provide a reasonable return. If any of these turn out to be the case, investors in AI startups will not see the returns they’re hoping for.

Remember, this doesn’t mean AI isn’t necessarily useful in itself: it’s simply an argument that it might not be a good fit for new startups or for venture capital investment. Whether a venture is suitable for VC funding is not a value judgment on it in overall. Nonetheless, it’s an enormous statement.

Instead of pursuing the “factory” model of startups that require lots of rounds of funding, Lessin suggests that small investors should put their money into more capital-efficient businesses: small business platforms, communities, and business-to-business platforms with low expenditures. In other words, communities that are built slowly and can be revenue-driven without having to grow to monopoly size. The world where investors can aggressively fund a tech company until its competitors are dead, regardless of its own profitability, is gone.

I see this as largely positive: this is a world where people are more aligned with the services they use, and where revenue rather than exploitation is central. It remains to be seen how accurate it will be for the market at large, but I consider it notable and exciting that investors like Lessin are coming around to thinking along these lines.

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Return To Office is all about power

A laptop open on a table in a cabin in the woods

Expensify’s experiment to use craft coffees and a free cocktail bar to lure employees back to the office failed spectacularly:

If the best office in the entire planet can't compete with the local coffee shop, the tightly-closed Pandora's box of "work from anywhere" has burst open, and will never be resealed. No amount of begging or coercion is going to work in the long run: the businesses that demand it are fighting a losing war of attrition against an infinite universal energy. You heard it here folks: the office is dead.

This isn’t where every company has ended up on this issue. Most large tech companies in particular are demanding a return to the office, for a few reasons.

The first, although not the main reason, is that a lot of very large companies have real estate portfolios that are now sitting mostly-empty, which will drive down prices when leases come up for renewal, in turn jeopardizing the value of commercial real estate holdings. (Boo hoo.)

The second is a belief — more religious than fact-based — that workers are more productive in the office than if they work from home. (Research tends to show the opposite.)

And the third is ostensibly about company culture:

In a 2022 Korn Ferry survey of 15,000 global executives, two-thirds agreed that corporate culture accounts for more than 30% of their company’s market value. Many leaders, the report notes, believe that a strong culture can only be established and maintained “if everyone is — at least some of the time — occupying the same workplace.”

Culture is important — the core issue on most teams — and I’ll come back to that issue. There’s a subtext here, too, about power. The essential flip is between an employer-controlled environment and a worker-controlled environment. In the former, employees can be observed and their behavior influenced. In the latter, not so much.

This balance of power, at least for knowledge workers, is what has flipped forever. Nobody’s willingly going back to an environment of predominant employer control — at least not without significant concessions.

I wrote a flippant post on Mastodon:

You really want to get people back to the office? Forget free cocktails. Think free daycare, six month parental leave, 25 days vacation + holidays, extensive carer benefits for those who need them, the expectation that you’ll stay home and rest rather than work if you’re sick, flexible hours, further help with the enormous cost of living in the cities you operate in.

Oh, and test and require vaccination proof for everyone.

The response was really strong. Americans overwhelmingly responded with, “Yes! And also retrofit offices to have better ventilation.” Europeans, meanwhile, overwhelmingly responded with, “This would actually be an erosion of my rights; aim higher.” — a good reminder that the working conditions Americans are used to are not the norm virtually anywhere else in the world.

The crux of what I was trying to say is that the balance of power has been in favor of employers; working from home has been much-needed freedom for employees (albeit granted by necessity rather than benevolence). It’s still not truly in balance, and the benefits I discussed should be provided regardless of whether a workforce works from home or from the office — but if a full return to office is on the table, worker benefits, rights, and protections should be too.

And that’s the crux of changes to company culture, too. When employers say “culture” they often mean “norms”: when people show up for work, how they dress, notions of professed work ethic, and so on. These are all cultural elements that benefit the office. But there are also “softer” cultural elements that are a hard requirement for functioning well as a community in any context, that are even more important when workers are not in constant contact with each other.

In a remote environment, communication skills, inclusion, empathy, feeling supported, and connectedness all become vital. It’s easy to feel isolated or unsupported when you’re working from your kitchen table and conversations need to be scheduled video calls. It’s easy to not know what’s happening, understand the team’s goals, or not realize that your colleague is having a hard time this week and isn’t able to be fully present. Many of these things were implicit and unspoken when everyone was in the same room. Not addressing them explicitly was already to the detriment of a company’s culture; it was never optional. But now that everyone is distributed, its importance is amplified.

It turns out that very few employers know how to adapt to that.

It’s worth considering ideas of formal and informal communication in work contexts. Everyone knows that the real benefits at work-related conferences aren’t the sessions, but the hallway track: the conversations people informally have on the side. In my early-career work in higher education, I used to argue that learning was dependent on friendship and study groups that are formed at colleges: the informal spaces where people learn and share knowledge together.

Relationships and ambient information are built in workplaces in the same way. Building a company culture is a lot like building any community. Everyone needs to feel supported, through both hard actions (providing inclusive benefits, tools, processes, policies) and soft gestures (trust, openness, vulnerability, transparency, empathy). There need to be spaces for reflection, and there has to be room for being messily human. Everyone has to feel valued because they are valued, both in word and action. And in turn, it turns out that having increased power, agency, connectedness, support, and trust will make them happier and more productive.

There are tools for this, but they’re different tools. I believe strongly in journaling inside a company, for example: a way of modeling transparent communication, quiet reflection, and vulnerability. The best place I’ve seen this work is Medium, which has a private version of its site (called Hatch) run as an intranet for employees. It’s a beautiful space that runs the gamut from engineering specs to personal introductions and introspection. As Marcin Wishary wrote a few years ago:

It’s so good it feels like a perk. It forces us to be thoughtful about our product and about our company. It makes everyone a better writer/explainer/storyteller. It keeps the relevant ideas and thoughts afloat, as they don’t just die in individual mailboxes.

It’s not a surprise that when the then-CTO of Medium moved on, it was to found Range, a sort of operating system for team communication.

These are hundreds of similar ideas — some of them formal tools, some of them informal practices — that can help with building a strong remote team culture. It’s completely possible, if employers can bring themselves to understand that they have to do the work, and to internalize Expensify’s finding that the previous status quo is never coming back.

No matter which way you cut it or which tools you use, remote work does depend on trust in your employees, more devolved power and distributed equity, high transparency, and great, bi-directional communication. If those are challenging to an organization, there just might be deeper problems that need to be addressed.

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Senior web development at ProPublica

ProPublica is hiring a senior web developer.

You’re familiar with ProPublica’s reporting even if you’re not sure about the name. They’re the newsroom that reported on Justice Clarence Thomas’s close relationship with GOP megadonor Harlan Crow; on TurboTax’s misleading practices that coerce low income tax filers into paying for its product; on Illinois schools collaborating with local police to issue tickets for minor misbehavior. It’s won major journalism prizes including the Pulitzer, had an outsize impact on American democracy, and shown the way for non-profit news.

The product team is a small group of creative technologists that provide the website, data, and infrastructure platform for this journalism to be published. It’s a remote team (although applicants must be in the United States) with an option to be in-person in New York City. Go apply here and say I sent you.

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Journaling in private with my friends

I kind of miss having something like a LiveJournal.

If you missed its heyday about twenty years ago, LiveJournal was a private blogging community that led to much of what we know as social media. You could follow your friends, and they could follow you back if they wanted; your posts could be shared with the whole world, just with your friends, or with a subset. Every post could host thriving, threaded discussions. You could theme your journal extensively, making it your own. And while you could post photos and other media, it was unapologetically optimized for long-form text. The fact that the whole codebase was also open sourced, paving the way for Dreamwidth and other downstream communities, didn’t hurt at all. Brad Fitzpatrick, its founder, went on to build a stunning number of important web building blocks.

There’s no other service I’ve found that allows you to write in long-form in a private space that you share with your friends. Instagram might be the closest in some ways: it’s turned into a more interesting, introspective social network than most. But I’m better with words than with pictures, and I miss that quiet, shared reflection.

Public social networks force us to use a different facet of our identities. In a private space with your friends, nobody really cares about your job, and nobody’s hustling to promote whatever it is they’re working on. Twitter nudged social networking into becoming a space for marketing and brands, which is a ball the new Twitter-a-likes have picked up and carried. Much like the characters from The Breakfast Club, each of the new Twitters has its own stereotypical niche: the nerds, the brands, the rich people, the journalists. But they all feel a little bit like people are trying to sell ideas to you all of the time.

Like many people on social media, I’m constantly sharing links to things I’m worried about, or things I’ve written, or things I’m working on. The underlying numbers are important. Is what I’m writing resonating with people? Are people subscribing? There’s an underlying neurosis to it that isn’t very healthy — and it’s this neurosis that also leads to blogging FOMO, where you feel like you have to keep pushing out content otherwise you’ll lose people. I know that influencers (the modern internet’s far better-looking answer to bloggers) also feel this acutely.

Not everything has to be about building a brand or a following. It can just be about reflecting, or sharing something with your friends. Private spaces allow us to be weird, unvarnished, and vulnerable in a way that’s harder for most people if they think the world could be watching. On the public web, everyone is their own little media publisher. In private, we’re just us. The former creates an enforced distance — almost a mask — between writer and reader. The latter is intimacy.

How can we reclaim some of that humanity from our social spaces? Should that even be a goal? I can’t decide, but I do know I miss it. I think what that really means is that I miss when the web felt like it was about making a genuine, reflective connection with other people — and it most often doesn’t anymore.

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I'm looking for a new adventure

I’m looking for new adventures! These might be:

  • A full-time position
  • A paid board or advisory position
  • A long-term contract

Maybe there’s a me-shaped hole in your organization! Let’s talk.

What do I do?

I’m an experienced technology leader and strategist with an engineering background.

I’ve spent years working in leadership teams, including:

Alongside this, I also:

  • Taught equitable product design to newsrooms as part of Open Matter and the Newmark School’s Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms
  • Served as the Geek in Residence at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab
  • Was a senior engineer at Medium, a top 100 website, where I also co-founded the openness circle and co-led workshops into responses to the 2016 election
  • Have been an active member of the indieweb community, advocating for a vibrant, diverse, independent web
  • Open sourced a rubric for making technology decisions

You can learn more about my career background on my LinkedIn profile.

What am I looking for?

I want to work with collaborative, empathetic, inclusive teams that are using technology to make the world better — or are advising mission-driven organizations about their use of technology.

We might be a great fit if:

  • You need someone who can create a product vision and execute on it
  • You’re looking for a leader with a technical background who can create a supportive, productive team culture
  • You’re looking for someone to advise on technology or startup strategy
  • You want to stay on top of technology trends and assess emerging opportunities
  • You need someone to help hire a great technology team
  • You’ve enjoyed my writing here and believe these ideas would be useful in your organization

Or all of the above! I would also strongly consider teaching or research positions.

What am I not looking for?

We’re not a great fit if:

  • You work with the military of any nation
  • You’re primarily looking for a software engineer (although I love coding in the context of the work listed above)
  • You’re an all-male or all-White team

I also only take remote-first positions, although I am willing to travel into the office or to customers from time to time. I can work in the United States without need for a visa or sponsorship.

How can I get in touch?

Email me at ben@werd.io to organize a chat. I’m looking forward to meeting you!

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The map-reduce is not the territory

Someone holding up an old-fashioned compass in Yosemite

There are two ways to use GPS navigation in a car:

The first is to use the directions as gospel. The system has found the right path for you to take; you need to follow them if you’re going to get to your destination.

The second is as a kind of North Star. The navigation will always point you towards your destination, but you know that you don’t have to follow the directions: if you choose to take one street instead of another, or take a detour, the system will adapt and find another way to go.

In the first scenario, the computer tells you what to do. In the second, it’s there to advise you, but the decisions are yours.

The first may get you there faster, if the systems’s model of the streets and traffic around you matches reality to an adequate degree. We’ve all discovered road closures or one-way streets that weren’t represented on-screen. By now, most people are familiar with the practical implications of Alfred Korzybski’s reminder that the map is not the territory even if they haven’t encountered the work itself. The computer’s knowledge of the street and its traffic is made of city plans, scans from specially equipped cars, road sensors, and data from geolocated phones of people in the area. While this collection of data points is very often adequate, much is left out: the model is not the territory.

But even if the model were accurate, the second method may be the most satisfying. A GPS system doesn’t have whims; it can’t say, “that street looks interesting” and take a detour down it, or choose to take an ocean drive. The first method gets you there most efficiently, but the second allows you to make your own way and take creative risks without worrying about getting completely lost. Sometimes you dowant to get completely lost — or, at least, I do — and then there’s no need to have the GPS switched on at all. You find new places, the second way; you discover new streets; you explore and learn about a neighborhood. You engage your emotions.

One way to think about the current crop of AI tools is as GPS for the mind. They can be used to provide complete instructions, or they can be used as a kind of North Star to glance at for suggestions when you need a helping hand. Their model isn’t always accurate, and therefore their suggestions aren’t always useful.

If you use AI for complete instructions — to tell you what to do, or to create a piece of work or a translation — you likely will get something that works, but it’ll be the blandest route possible. Prose will be prosaic; ideas will not be insightful. The results will be derived from the average of the mainstream. Sometimes you’ll need to adjust the output in the same way you need to drive around a closed road that GPS doesn’t know about. But the output will probably be something you can use and it’ll be more or less fine.

If you use AI as a kind of advisor, you’re still in control: your creativity has the wheel. You have agency and can take risks. What you’ll make as a human won’t be the average of a data corpus, so it’ll be inherently more interesting, and very likely more insightful. But you might find that a software agent can unstick you if you run into trouble, and gently show you a possible direction to go in. It’s a magic feather.

I worry about incentives. For many, they will be used to instruct or replace our decision-making faculties, rather than as a tool we can use while remaining in control. Software can be used to democratize and distribute power, or it can be used by the powerful to entrench their dominance and disenfranchise others. So it is with AI: the tools can aid creativity and augment agency, or they can be used to prescribe and control. I have no doubt that they will often be used for the latter.

There was a story that Google Maps intentionally routed people driving south from San Francisco on US Route 101, an objectively terrible stretch of highway, leaving the parallel and far more pleasant Interstate 280 free for its employees. It’s kind of funny but not actually true, as far as I know; still, because Google Maps navigation is a black box, they could have done it without anyone realizing it was on purpose. Nobody would need to know. All benefit would be to the owners of the system.

GPS isn’t only used by human drivers. Take a stroll around San Francisco or a few other major cities and you’ll notice fleets of driverless taxis, which use a combination of GPS, sensor arrays, and neural networks to make their way around city streets. Here, there’s no room for whim, because there’s no human to havewhims. There’s just an integrated computer system, creating instructions and then following them.

Unlike many people, I’m not particularly worried about AI replacing peoples’ jobs, although employers will certainly try and use it to reduce their headcount. I’m more worried about it transforming jobs into roles without agency or space to be human. Imagine a world where performance reviews are conducted by software; where deviance from the norm is flagged electronically, and where hiring and firing can be performed without input from a human. Imagine models that can predict when unionization is about to occur in a workplace. All of this exists today, but in relatively experimental form. Capital needs predictability and scale; for most jobs, the incentives are not in favor of human diversity and intuition.

I also have some concerns about how this dehumanization may apply life beyond work. I worry about how, as neural network models become more integrated into our lives and power more decisions that are made about us, we might find ourselves needing to conform to their expectations. Police departments and immigration controllers are already trying to use AI to make predictions about a person’s behavior; where these systems are in use, their fate is largely at the hands of a neural network model, which in turn is subject to the biases of its creators and the underlying datasets it operates upon. Colleges may use AI to aid with admissions; schools may use it to grade. Mortgage providers may use AI to make lending decisions and decide who can buy a house. Again, all of this is already happening, at relatively low, experimental levels; it’s practically inevitable that these trends will continue.

I see the potential for this software-owned decision-making to lead a more regimented society, where sitting outside the “norm” is even more of a liability. Consider Amazon’s scrapped automated hiring system for software developers, which automatically downgraded anyone it thought might be a woman.

Leaving aside questions of who sets those norms and what they are, I see the idea of a norm at all as oppressive in itself. A software engine makes choices based on proximity to what it considers to be ideal. Applying this kind of thinking to a human being inherently creates an incentive to become as “normal” as possible. This filtering creates in-groups and out-groups and essentially discards groups the software considers to be unacceptable. If the software was a person or a political movement, we’d have a word for this kind of thinking.

Using AI to instruct and make decisions autonomously does not lead to more impartial decisions. Instead, it pushes accountability for bias down the stack from human decision-making to a software system that can’t and won’t take feedback, and is more likely to be erroneously cast as impartial, even when its heuristics are dangerously dystopian.

I like my GPS. I use it pretty much every time I drive. But it’s not going to make the final decision about which way I go.

I appreciate using AI software agents as a way to check my work or recommend changes. I like it when software tells me I’ve made a spelling mistake or added an errant comma.

I do not, under any circumstances, want them running our lives.

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Revamping link posts

I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with how links show up on this site, and their intersection with longer-form blog posts. Last night I made a few adjustments:

  1. Blog posts and links on the site now have the same font size, resetting the information architecture to display them as equals.
  2. Link posts more clearly show that their title is a link to the external page.
  3. Link posts will be more “bloggy”: longer descriptions with more of a focus on my reaction to them. It's not enough to share a link; the bar should be that you know why I think it’s interesting and what my perspective on it is.

Because of their blogginess, I’m going to stop aggregating them together into monthly “notable articles” pages. They’re effectively blog posts in themselves, and nobody wants to reread posts you’ve already published.

You will, however, still be able to view links and fully-fledged blog posts on separate index pages (with their own RSS feeds) if you prefer.

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My setup, October 2023

I thought it would be interesting to detail some of my day-to-day setup, Uses This style. This week I'm completely independent, so I'm only using my own hardware and software, which feels like a good time to take stock. This is my stack - I'd love to read yours!

Previously; also see the baby stack.

Hardware

My main computer is a 2020 Mac Mini with an M1 chip, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB disk. I use an LG 32" QHD IPS HDR10 monitor, the Magic Keyboard with Touch ID and Numeric Keypad, and Magic Trackpad. I have zero complaints.

My webcam is a Razer Kiyo Pro, which is kind of overkill, but far better than the cheap Logitech model I used to use.

For traveling, I still use a 13” 2020 MacBook Pro (1TB drive, 16GB RAM). I have an iPad Pro with Pencil that’s mostly for reading these days, not for lack of trying: the Magic Keyboard feels nice but the lag is incredibly noticeable with many apps. I’d originally intended the iPad to be for creative work but it was not to be.

I own a Fujifilm XT-4 mirrorless camera, which I bought when our son was born, but the truth is that I mostly take photos on my iPhone. I have the iPhone Pro Max 15 in Titanium, which I got on the upgrade program. I plan to let that expire this year and stick with this phone for a while.

After a bunch of trial and error with headsets (and getting an ear infection from the AirPods Pro), I use AirPods Max. The audio quality is incredible, but the microphone is just so-so. I have a Blue Yeti mic that I bought for podcasting years ago and have considered hooking that up.

I’ve got a Sonos Five in my office and in various larger rooms in my house (with the microphone function disabled). I’ve augmented with a bunch of Sonos One SLs (which don’t have a microphone at all).

I decided I needed a printer in my office so I bought a Brother HL-L2350DW wireless duplex laser printer. You can’t go wrong with Brother, but it must be said that wireless printing longer documents doesn’t work perfectly with newer versions of macOS unless you use the slightly awkward desktop application, which only takes PDFs.

I have a Fully Jarvis standing desk with the balance board and sit on a grey SitOnIt Wit task chair.

My TV is a Samsung 65" TU700D 4K Crystal UHD HDR Smart TV driven by an AppleTV, which I prefer to any other set top box I’ve tried. I studiously ignore the built-in Samsung OS.

I drive a 2021 Tesla Model 3, which I don’t think there’s an excuse for given Musk’s shenanigans and the company’s cavalier approach. My plan is to trade it in for a Volkswagen ID. Buzz as soon as they’re available in the US. I’m hardline about never going back to driving a gas car.

Software

I use macOS Ventura on my desktop but have upgraded my laptop to Sonoma. I’m not going to pretend that I can see much of a difference.

My default web browser is Arc, which I completely love. I read email in Superhuman, which is too expensive but really does make email easier for me. Lately I’ve taken to using the stock macOS / iOS calendar app with all of my various work and personal calendars aggregated into one interface.

I start my day by reading my feeds in Reeder, connected to my NewsBlur account.

I still use Spotify to listen to music, and have it connected to my car and the Sonos system. I use Brain.fm for binaural music that helps me focus and Libro.fm for audiobooks.

I code using VSCode, like almost everyone. I keep my Jetbrains license current, so I can always go back. My code is almost all hosted on GitHub, but I have some very old Known-related repositories on Bitbucket. I use iTerm2 as my terminal client and depend heavily on Homebrew.

I probably don’t need this many text editors. Blog posts are written in iA Writer. Long-form work like my book is written in Ulysses. I keep BBEdit around as a scratchpad and for text manipulation tasks. I’ve got Notion for private notes / bookmarks and Obsidian for public notes. I have Microsoft Word for very boring use cases (legal documents, my resumé).

I track time on freelance contracts using Toggl and manage my invoices using Wave.

My personal Mastodon instance is hosted with Masto.host and I use Ivory as my client. My website (running Known, of course) is hosted on Digital Ocean and sits behind a Cloudflare CDN. It uses Plausible Analytics.

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More questions to guide technical adoption

I’ve made a few updates to my technical assessment rubric, which is designed to help guide teams as they assess whether or not to adopt new internet services and software libraries.

The response has been pretty great: some folks have described using it in practice, while others have sent me suggestions for changes, which I’ve adopted.

I hope you find it useful! Please feel free to grab it and transform it however you need. If you do make changes, I’d love to hear about them so I can incorporate them upstream into this version.

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Gaza

The attack by Hamas in Israel was an atrocity: a brutal act of terrorism. The images and stories are horrifying.

Removing electricity and bombing the shit out of one of the world's most densely-populated areas, and requiring over a million people to vacate their homes at short notice when they have nowhere to go, is also not justifiable.

Killing people is never justifiable. Contravening the laws of war is never justifiable.

These opinions are not contradictory, but I'm beginning to feel in the minority for holding them.

What is unfolding is, first and foremost, a human tragedy.

And I feel both powerless to do anything to help and confronted by the desire for violence.

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The virality of human suffering

Gaza

It’s impossibly hard to watch coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Thousands of people on both sides of the border have been killed (1,300 in Israel, 2,000 in Gaza at the time of writing); the stories that have emerged are brutal. What is known to be true seems to be different day by day.

What’s been notable for me has been the level of bloodthirst I’ve seen across social media. One Instagram account on my feed that has traditionally covered social justice topics openly cheered on Hamas’s attacks, declaring that decolonization always required violence. I unfollowed. In turn, I saw lots of discussion on Threads in particular by people who wanted to see Gaza — one of the most densely-populated areas on the planet — bombed to the ground such that there would be nobody left.

In the midst of this armchair warmongering, people are missing their loved ones. It’s a real conflict, in the context of decades of history, in which real people are being killed in terrible ways as I write this. But social media has reduced it to video game dimensions; online discussions rip it of context and turn it into performative posturing that has been largely devoid of the underlying human tragedy. Missing family members; footage of bodies in ice cream freezers; wounded children. All of these have become atoms of content to be shared and reshared in order to build social media clout.

Over on X, this dehumanization of the conflict has become particularly pronounced because of the platform’s endeavor to pay users based on social engagement. The incentive is to post shocking content that will be commented on and reshared virally, because it will lead directly to revenue for the poster. Inevitably, a lot of this content takes footage that isn’t even from this conflict and relabels it. A patchwork of pictures and video drawn from across recent history that evoke feelings about this conflict, all thrown together so someone can make a buck (or, in some cases, tens of thousands of bucks). Whereas a blue checkmark used to indicate that a user is notable in their field, you can now buy one for $8 a month. It can be next to impossible to determine what is real.

But it would be a mistake to say that this is happening on X in isolation. Even when social media posts don’t lead directly to revenue, everyone is in the clout game. More followers can lead to more cumulative engagement which can lead to more opportunities to sell in the future. Very few real brands — McDonald’s or Starbucks, say — would post so recklessly about the conflict (which is not to say they are ethical actors in other ways; it’s also worth saying that McDonald’s has donated to both sides of the conflict, and that Starbucks denounced a message of solidarity with Palestine that was published by its union). But everyone’s a personal brand now. Social media has become a literal marketplace of ideas, where peoples’ attention is drawn and monetized. And in this environment of clout and virality, no extra value is placed on truth.

None of this is exactly new. Media management has been a part of every conflict since at least the Second World War. Some disinformation from that period — carrots helping you see in the dark, for example — was absorbed so readily that it has simply become a part of our culture. In this conflict, both sides were surely aware of how footage would be played in the media. What’s different now to 80 years ago is that everyone is the media. We all have spheres of influence, and it’s not unheard of for a middle manager with an axe to bear to have more of an audience than a national newspaper with a complete set of reporters and fact-checkers. Most of our news is consumed in stackable, decontextualized pieces through our connections to individuals who we perceive to share similar opinions to us, delivered in such a way as to maximize engagement with advertisements and keep us on the platform.

None of which connects us to the underlying humanity of the people who suffer in this, or any, conflict. It disconnects us from the fact that civilians have been targeted, which is a war crime. It disconnects us from the need for the killing to stop.

This isn’t a game. It’s not like supporting a sports team. It’s not blue and black / white and gold dress. Regardless of the particulars of the war, the side we should all be on is that of preserving lives and creating a safe, inclusive, democratic environment for future generations. In a world where attention is money, it doesn’t feel like that’s where the incentives lie today.

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Re-introducing comments

This blog has had kind of a weird relationship with comments since I started it ten years ago. My previous blogs, in contrast, have always intentionally been spaces that can be homes for conversations. Over the years lots of people have asked me to fix this situation.

So, okay! Here’s what I’ve chosen to do:

As of today, you can comment on every blog post. I’ve chosen to use Commento, an open source comments platform. You can leave anonymous comments, authenticate independently, or use a few common SSO providers.

As an indieweb platform, the underlying Known software that powers this site supports webmentions. These haven’t displayed well on my site for a little while, so I’m committing to fixing them by next Monday, October 16. At this point every webmention that’s been sent will be displayed.

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Spinning a tech career into writing

I have a lot of admiration for Eliot Peper, who has spun a career in tech into a career in writing science fiction novels rooted in the intersection of technology and society. They’re fun reads, first and foremost, but there’s always an insight into how technology is made, and what that means for the rest of us.

His latest, Foundry, is a kind of spy novel about semiconductors that takes you on a knockabout ride before arriving at a satisfying conclusion that could — if he wanted — be the start of a series that I would happily read. Along the way, small details betray an interest in just about everything. (I particularly appreciated a discussion of how people of partial-Indonesian descent are treated in the Netherlands.) His books are very much in the tradition of pageturners by authors like Michael Crichton and John Grisham. I’ve enjoyed them a lot.

One of the reasons I admire Eliot’s work is that this is absolutely where I want to take my life, too. Writing was always my first love: there was a Sliding Doors decision point where I could have chosen an English / journalism or computer science route. Despite a career in technology that has taken me to some interesting places, it’s a testament to that original love that I still don’t know if I picked the right path.

I ended up going into computers specifically because the nascent web was so perfect for storytelling. My computer science degree has been a useful bedrock for my work in software, but there was far less exploration of computing in intersection with the humanities (or any kind of humanity at all) than I would have liked. Over the last few years I’ve allowed myself to pursue my original interest, and it’s been rewarding. Lately, I’ve been getting 1:1 mentorship through The Novelry, which has helped me to overcome some imposter syndrome and put a more robust shape to the plot I’m working on. Eventually, I’d like to try for a creative writing MA, once I can demonstrate that I’m more than some computer guy.

I’ve been lucky to have people in my life who have made a living through writing stories. (I wrote about this recently with respect to opening up possibilities for our son.) My childhood friend Clare’s dad was the author and Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter. I remember being enthralled that he could sit and write stories for a living. I was similarly enthralled, years later, when my cousin Sarah became a wildly successful young adult author. (She’s just started blogging again, and it’s quite lovely and worth subscribing to.) They demonstrated that it’s possible. It’s reductive to say that you’ve just got to sit down and do it — there is a craft here, which needs practice and attention — but that is, indeed, the first step, for them and every writer.

Giving myself the permission to just sit and do that has been difficult. Blogging is second nature for me: I can take an open box on the web, pour out my thoughts, and hit publish. An intentional long-form work requires a leap of faith, a great deal more craft and editing, and significantly less of a dopamine rush from people commenting and re-sharing. It’s possible that nobody else will see what I’ve written for years. It’s equally possible that it’s terrible and very few other people will ever see it. But I’ve decided that giving myself permission to sit down and write means giving myself permission to fail at it. In turn, I’ll learn from that failure and try again, hopefully writing something better the next time. I do want it to be a work that other people enjoy, but there’s also value in allowing myself to create without needing an immediate follow-up.

In the meantime, I have huge admiration for people like Sarah, Eliot, and Humphrey, who gave themselves the space and cultivated the dedication to write.

You should check out Eliot’s work and go subscribe to Sarah’s blog.

Now, onto today’s word count.

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AI summarization and the open web

Arc, my default browser for a year now, recently launched a set of AI-driven features. I’m finding two to be particularly useful — and one of those is problematic in a way I want to discuss. They’re worth considering because, while Arc has a relatively small userbase for now, they’re likely to come to other browsers before too long.

The first is AI-enhanced search. If I hit command-F, the browser will try and find my search term in the page as it normally would. If it can’t, it’ll answer a question about the content of the page using AI.

As an illustration, here’s Arc answering a question based on a Verge article:

Arc summarizing an article on The Verge

The second is AI summaries of links. If you hit shift and hover over a link, it’ll tell you what the page is about. Here’s Arc previewing a link from my website:

Arc previewing a link from my website

This is both useful — I don’t necessarily want to open a new tab to look at a cited source — and potentially really problematic for a lot of the web. This isn’t unique to Arc: the feature is not markedly different from, say, ChatGPT’s browser capabilities, which is similarly problematic. Here’s ChatGPT answering questions about my website:

ChatGPT answering a question about my website

If you’re getting an automated summary of an information source, you’re extracting the content without thought for how that source sustains itself. For some, that will be display ads. I don’t really care for ad-driven business models, but they exist, and if a significant number of people suddenly start looking at AI summaries instead of an actual page, ad revenues will drop proportionately. For others, it’ll be donations — and AI summaries don’t have any calls to action to contribute. And some, of course, sit behind a paywall. The AI summaries appear to even summarize content that would otherwise be irretrievable without payment.

Here’s Arc summarizing a paywalled article from the Atlantic, for which I don’t have a subscription:

Arc summarizing a paywalled article from The Atlantic

It’s honestly really useful for users, but not super-great for the web ecosystem or the survival of those platforms.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that browsers discontinue these sorts of features. But I do think there needs to be some consideration for platform health and ensuring that the information sources we use on the web can continue to exist. So here are some ideas:

Inline calls to action. Browsers could look for markup in the page that indicates a call to action that a user could take — for example to subscribe or to donate. This could be an ad.

A universal basic paywall. Publications register to receive aggregate payments from browsers that use their content to create summaries. (Itself problematic because it essentially requires every publisher on the web to reveal their identities — unless you use crypto, which has its own issues.)

Allow publishers to set their own summary content. Not every summary needs to be written using AI; metadata in the head could provide a publisher-written summary, giving them control over what is displayed.

A general small web publisher fund. Rather than direct micropayments, browsers pay into a general fund that small web publishers can withdraw from.

Just accept that this is what the web is now. Last but not least: passive acceptance. It’s not great, particularly when browsers are largely manufactured by tech companies like Google that already make a ton of money extracting value from the web. The drop in direct pageviews could adversely affect smaller publishers in particular. But it’s also early — perhaps it will have a different effect on site visits than I think?

But these are my opinions. I’m aware that my lens here is oriented around the perceived needs of publishers on the open web. What do you think should happen? How will the ecosystem adapt?

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An open rubric for technology assessment

A laptop showing some dashboard

I’ve written and open sourced a rubric for assessing new technologies as part of your organization. It’s written for use in non-technical organizations in particular, but it might be useful everywhere. The idea is to pose questions that are worth asking when you’re selecting a vendor, or choosing an API or software library to incorporate into your own product.

I originally wrote a version of an assessment template when I was CTO at The 19th. Because they have a well-defined equity mission, I wanted to make sure the vendors of technologies and services being chosen adhered to their values. I’d never seen questions like “has this software been involved in undermining free and fair elections” in a technology assessment before, but it’s an important question to ask.

This new assessment is written from scratch to include similar questions about values, as well as a lightweight risk assessment framework and some ideas to consider regarding lock-in and freedom to move to another vendor.

Some of these questions are hard to answer, but many will be surprisingly easy. The idea is not to undertake a research project: most prompts can be answered with a simple search, and the whole assessment should be completable in under an hour. The most important thing it does is add intention to questions of values, business impact, and how well it solves an important problem for your organization.

It’s an open source project, so I invite contributions, edits, and feedback. Let me know what you think!

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Why I hate flags

A hand waving a dinky little American flag

In her latest (excellent) book Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World, the author Naomi Klein makes an offhand comment that, as a leftist, flags make her itchy. I feel the same way, in a way that goes beyond the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack.

At its worst, a national flag becomes a kind of uniform that you wield to declare loyalty above all else to your nation of origin. For me, it’s a statement of nationalism: of belonging not to the human race but to a particular subset that you hold to be greater than the rest. Rather than a diverse plurality, it’s a uniform that stands for homogeneity; it’s a way of saying, we are all this one thing. The flag, and the anthem alongside it, is about national pride rather than human pride; pride in a set of administrative borders and legislative rules rather than ideals. It’s idolatry.

Back in 2012, the athlete Leo Manzano was roundly criticized for carrying the Mexican flag alongside the American one after winning an Olympic silver medal. People were outraged: how dare you align yourself with two nations? Manzano was honoring his heritage, but the idea that people can be more than one thing and be a part of more than one context and community didn’t sit well with flag worshipers. In 2016, American footballers started to kneel for the national anthem to make the point that America didn’t care for its people equally; for many, this was, again, a violation. Respect the anthem! Respect the flag! Stand to attention! Conform!

Once this set of patriotic norms has been established — as it has since the dark days of McCarthyism in the 1950s — it’s easy to cast doubt on people who call a country’s acts into question. “He hates America,” someone might say about someone who questions America’s foreign policy, casting real questions or criticisms into a projection of irrational blind hatred. This is the genuine definition of fascism: the creation of in-groups and out-groups and a demand for complete devotion to the nation from the populace. Not only is it fiercely repressive, but it’s inherently counter-productive. How can you strive to improve a place if questioning it is frowned upon?

Companies use similar tricks. A company’s brand is very much like its flag, and employees are encouraged to display blind devotion to its mission, vision, and strategy. By encouraging blind faith rather than independent, individual questioning, company bosses hope to maintain an obedient workforce. Loyal, valued employees aren’t the ones who start unions or share around salary spreadsheets to document wage inequality. They’re the ones who proudly wear the company gear, decked out in their logos, and are excited to follow the strategy du jour. These companies don’t want employees to question their executives’ ideas; to highlight ethical lapses; to point out harms enacted in the name of profit or a higher share price.

To the extent that companies are able to achieve this, it’s in part because this sort of blind fascism is already a core part of American culture. It’s an extension of what’s already in the water.

Americans are encouraged not to think too hard about what’s happening outside their borders. For some, particularly rural Republicans, that might be the borders of their town, or their state; for others, it might be the nation as a whole. Regardless, a holistic view of the world — we are all connected, we are all human, one nation’s actions affect the peoples of another — is not commonly held. The flag is a tool to that end: it demands that we should be loyal to America (or our state, or our town). Those other people are less important. “What happens in other places doesn’t really affect me, so I don’t pay attention,” I’ve been told, again and again. Yet ask the people in other countries what they think about their waters rising, their air getting dirtier, their democratically-elected governments being removed through coups in order to secure resource rights. We are all connected.

Consider the Meta workers who blindly allied themselves with their employer when it emerged that it had been actively complicit in a genocide in Myanmar. While some employees certainly did call out Mark Zuckerberg and other executives, many more sided with the company. They were loyal to their community no matter what, even in the face of evidence it had allowed atrocities to be committed using the platform they all built together. While Rohingya were dying, people enabling it proudly wore their Facebook T-shirts and worried about proving themselves at their performance reviews.

It would be much harder to dismiss the plight of an entire people if they were considered to be people in the first place. They’re out there over some border that most people have never seen, living in some other place, and are therefore lesser. We don’t see them as being us, in part because of our worship of nationhood, of flags, of anthems. There’s a reason why all of the worst movements in history centered a reverence for those elements.

I remember, as a child growing up in England, hearing the patriotic song Rule Britannia sung over and over again. It goes like this:

Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves.

That second line is a little rich if you know what, exactly, Britain was doing out on those waves in the 1700s, when the lyrics were written. If we cared about the legacy of our actions, and in this case the impacts that slavery had over generations, we might not continue to sing it. But the desire for blind loyalty through patriotism continues to overwhelm the need to actually confront and question that history and inhibits the discussion of those actions. I only learned in the last year that Lloyds of London, the oft-cited, very famous insurance broker, made its money by being the insurance center for the global slave trade. There is a need for a much greater reckoning, which blind loyalty impedes.

The third verse of the Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem, goes as follows:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

This is a derogatory reference to Black people in the Revolutionary War who fought with the British because American rule meant living in slavery. Its author described Black people as “a distinct and inferior race, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that affects a community”.

There is no need in the world to revere this old world fascism. There is no need in the world to perpetuate the myth of national superiority; of the goodness of military might; of pride in homogeneity. We are all one people, and our strength is in our diversity.

One of the greatest things the internet has given us is a post-national connectivity. We can speak with people in other nations as easily as we can with our neighbors down the street. The only real impedances are timezones and language barriers; the latter is being broken by AI, and the former is greatly aided by asynchronous communication. No visas are required to discuss, collaborate, and share ideas. In a world where most people have cameras and connections, nobody needs to be seen as inhuman. We can see each other; we can converse; we can know each other despite geographic separations in a way that we could never have before. I still believe that the internet can be a great force for peace: as we learn more about each other as humans, the less we can dismiss the lived experiences as others. They become real.

The thing is, we have to do it. We have to overcome the forces that tell us we should only care about the people in our local communities; the ones that say that you should be loyal to a single nation no matter how it conducts itself. We actually have to stand and say that we are welcoming and inclusive, which also means actively reckoning with the past.

And the same goes for people who are allied with their employer. There is no need to work on adverse policies unquestioningly. Organizing, advocating, thinking for yourself and bringing your whole, individual identity to your work community should be encouraged. Plurality, rather than a singular way of being, should be the expected norm.

Flags, patriotism, nationalism, anthems? I see those as anti-human ideas. As Naomi Klein says, they make me itchy. I’d rather we consider our humanity and our connectedness, and ditch the parochial horizons once and for all.

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The notable list: October 2023

A robot drawing with a glowing orb

This is my monthly roundup of the links and media I found interesting. Do you have suggestions? Let me know!

Apps + Websites

DALL·E 3. Once again, this looks completely like magic. Very high-fidelity images across a bunch of different styles. The implications are enormous.

Photoshop for Web. Insanely good. It blows my mind that this can be done on the web platform now.

Privacy Party. This is really good: a browser extension (for Chrome-based browsers) that goes through your social networks and helps you update your settings to optimize for privacy and security. Really well-executed.

Notion web Clipper - Klippper. I’m a heavy Notion web clipper user, but this is far better for my needs. I was worried I’d need to build it myself. Luckily: no!

Mastodon 4.2. Lots of good new changes here - and in particular a much-needed search overhaul. My private instance is running the latest and I like it a lot.

Notable Articles

AI

How the “Surveillance AI Pipeline” Literally Objectifies Human Beings. “The vast majority of computer vision research leads to technology that surveils human beings, a new preprint study that analyzed more than 20,000 computer vision papers and 11,000 patents spanning three decades has found.”

California governor vetoes bill banning robotrucks without safety drivers. The legislation passed with a heavy majority - this veto is a signal that Newsom favors the AI vendors over teamster concerns. Teamsters, on the other hand, claim the tech is unsafe and that jobs will be lost.

ChatGPT Caught Giving Horrible Advice to Cancer Patients. LLMs are a magic trick; interesting and useful for superficial tasks, but very much not up to, for example, replacing a trained medical professional. The idea that someone would think it’s okay to let one give medical advice is horrifying.

AI data training companies like Scale AI are hiring poets. These poets are being hired to eliminate the possibility of being paid for their own work. But I am kind of tickled by the idea that OpenAI is scraping fan-fiction forums. Not because it’s bad work, but imagine the consequences.

John Grisham, other top US authors sue OpenAI over copyrights. It will be fascinating to see the outcome of this - which, in turn, will set a precedent for how commercial data can be used to train AI (and other software systems) going forward.

Who blocks OpenAI? “The 392 news organizations listed below have instructed OpenAI’s GPTBot to not scan their sites, according to a continual survey of 1,119 online publishers conducted by the homepages.news archive. That amounts to 35.0% of the total.”

Microsoft announces new Copilot Copyright Commitment for customers. “As customers ask whether they can use Microsoft’s Copilot services and the output they generate without worrying about copyright claims, we are providing a straightforward answer: yes, you can, and if you are challenged on copyright grounds, we will assume responsibility for the potential legal risks involved.”

Our Self-Driving Cars Will Save Countless Lives, But They Will Kill Some of You First. “In a way, the people our cars mow down are doing just as much as our highly paid programmers and engineers to create the utopian, safe streets of tomorrow. Each person who falls under our front bumper teaches us something valuable about how humans act in the real world.”

Climate

EVs are a climate solution with a pollution problem: Tire particles. Another reason why the really sustainable solution to pollution from cars is better mass transit.

Revealed: top carbon offset projects may not cut planet-heating emissions. “The vast majority of the environmental projects most frequently used to offset greenhouse gas emissions appear to have fundamental failings suggesting they cannot be relied upon to cut planet-heating emissions, according to a new analysis.”

Earth ‘well outside safe operating space for humanity’, scientists find. “This update finds that six of the nine boundaries are transgressed, suggesting that Earth is now well outside of the safe operating space for humanity.” No biggie.

Why the United States undercounts climate-driven deaths. Another way the effect of the climate crisis is understated: climate deaths are undercounted. Changing this state of affairs is possible but requires effort, training, and resources. In the meantime, many people still don’t understand how serious the crisis actually is.

Culture

Nature TTL Photographer of the Year 2023: Winners Gallery. Every image here is stunning.

‘The scripts were the funniest things I’d ever read’: the stars of Peep Show look back, 20 years later.Before there was Succession, there was Peep Show. A brilliant piece of TV that launched a bunch of careers. If you haven’t seen it, give yourself the gift of checking it out.

The Berkeley Hotel hostage. I know people who worked with Douglas Adams and I’m incredibly envious of them. He seems like someone I would have really enjoyed meeting - and his books (all of them) were a huge part of my developing psyche. This story seems so human, so relatable. Trapped by his success, in a way.

Refusing to Censor Myself. A less-discussed problem with book bans: publishers will self-censor, as they did here by requiring the removal of the word “racism” in the context of internment camps.

Writer Sarah Rose Etter on not making things harder than they need to be. I found this interview fascinating: definitely a writer I look up to, whose work I both enjoy and find intimidatingly raw. And who happens to have a very similar day job to me.

Democracy

FTC Sues Amazon for Illegally Maintaining Monopoly Power. “Amazon’s ongoing pattern of illegal conduct blocks competition, allowing it to wield monopoly power to inflate prices, degrade quality, and stifle innovation for consumers and businesses.” Whatever happens here, it will be meaningful. It’s also nice to see the FTC actually wielding its antitrust powers.

Intuit Pushing Claim That Free Tax-Filing Program Would Harm Black Taxpayers. Intuit has a stranglehold on how taxes are filed in America. For what? Many other countries just have an easy to use tax portal of their own. This is a business that shouldn’t even need to exist.

Migrants tracked with GPS tags say UK feels like ‘an outside prison’. I had no idea Britain was fitting migrants and asylum seekers with ankle bracelets and surveilling them to this level. It seems impossible that this is something people would think is right and just. The dystopian cruelty is mind-boggling.

An endless battle for the rights of the underclass. Every word of this, but particularly: “Cultural warfare was a political ploy designed to keep workers from recognizing our common ground and banding together against corporate abuses and thefts.”

US economy going strong under Biden – Americans don’t believe it. It’s how we measure the economy, stupid.

What Mitt Romney Saw in the Senate. A fascinating read that makes me want to check out the full book, which seems to me like an attempt by Romney to save the Republican Party from Trumpism (as well as, let’s be clear, his own reputation). Wild anecdote after wild anecdote that highlights the cynicism of Washington political life.

Never Remember. The best thing I read on the anniversary of 9/11 by far. It feels cathartic to read. But it’s also so, so sad.

New Elon Musk biography offers fresh details about the billionaire's Ukraine dilemma. If I was building technology to let people watch Netflix and check their email from remote locations, I would also be upset about it being used for drone strikes. But if that’s the case, you shouldn’t be deploying your tech to the military in the first place. Nor should you be making strategic military decisions of your own.

Majority of likely Democratic voters say party should ditch Biden, poll shows. No surprises here. We need more progressive change than we’re getting. But obviously, if it’s Biden v Trump, there’s only one choice.

AOC urges US to apologize for meddling in Latin America: ‘We’re here to reset relationships’. Yes. Absolutely this. And everywhere.

Health

The Anti-Vax Movement Isn’t Going Away. We Must Adapt to It. Depressing. I agree that vaccine denial is not going away, and that we need to find other ways to mitigate outbreaks. But what a sad situation to be in.

Labor

Remote work may help decrease sexual assault and harassment, poll finds. “About 5 percent of women who were working remotely reported instances in that time, compared with 12 percent of in-person women workers. Overall, only 5 percent of remote workers reported instances in the past three years, compared with 9 percent of those who work fully or mostly in person.”

Working mothers reach record high, above pre-pandemic levels. Flexible work from home policies have allowed more mothers with young children to join the workforce than ever before. Yet another reason why these policies are positive for everyone and should not just stick around but be significantly expanded.

Media

Amanda Zamora is stepping down as publisher at The 19th. Amanda is absolutely fearless and I was privileged to work with her. As co-founder of The 19th, she was an absolutely core part of what it became: both a strategist and culture instigator. What she does next will certainly change media; I’ll be cheerleading.

Failing Without Knowing Why: The Tragedy Of Performative Content. Thought-provoking for me: particularly as someone who thinks through ideas through writing. But perhaps that writing doesn’t need to be in public, in front of an audience.

How I approach crafting a blog post. “I don’t think I’ve seen someone walk through their process for writing a blog post, though.” I love this breakdown! Tracy’s structured process shows up in the quality of her posts. I love the thoughtfulness here.

In defense of aggressive small-town newspapers. This: “The prevalence of “news deserts” has apparently led some to think it’s normal for neighborhood news outlets to function as lapdogs rather than watchdogs.” The purpose of journalism is to investigate in the public interest.

In the AI Age, The New York Times Wants Reporters to Tell Readers Who They Are. I think this is the right impulse: people tend to follow and trust individual journalists, not publications. Building out profiles and establishing more personal relationships helps build that trust.

Counting Ghosts. “Web analytics sits in the awkward space between empirical analysis and relationship building, failing at both, distracting from the real job to be done: making connections, in whatever form that means for our project.”

Publisher wants $2,500 to allow academics to post their own manuscript to their own repository – Walled Culture. The open access movement is an important way academics can fight back against predatory publishers for the good of human knowledge everywhere - but the publishers are still out there, grifting.

A New Low: Just 46% Of U.S. Households Subscribe To Traditional Cable TV. I’ve lived in the US for twelve years, and at no point have I even been tempted by traditional cable. Every time I encounter it, I wonder why people want it. It’s a substandard, obsolete product. So this is no surprise.

The Ad Industry Bailed On News. Can An AI Solution Offer A Way Back? Services like this become single points of failure with outsize power over the journalism industry. It’s a bad idea. No one entity should be the arbiter of bias in news or where a buyer should put their money. For one thing, who watches that entity’s own inevitable bias? And if you’re offering AI as a bias-free solution, you’ve already lost.

Zine: How We Illustrate Tech (and AI) at The Markup. Lovely!

White House to send letter to news execs urging outlets to 'ramp up' scrutiny of GOP's Biden impeachment inquiry 'based on lies'. I couldn’t be less of a fan of the current Republican Party but I hate this. The White House should not be sending letters to the media encouraging them to do anything. That’s not the sort of relationship we need our journalistic media to have.

Snoop Dogg can narrate your news articles. Snoop Dogg gimmick aside, this is actually pretty neat, and useful. I’d also like the opposite: sometimes I want to read podcasts. Different contexts demand different media; I wish content itself could be more adaptable.

Non-news sites expose people to more political content than news sites. Why? Two thirds of the political content people consume come from non-news sites. And most of the news content people read is not overtly political. Instead, it’s mostly coming from entertainment - which has no ethical need to report factually.

Naomi Klein's "Doppelganger". “Fundamentally: Klein is a leftist, Wolf was a liberal. The classic leftist distinction goes: leftists want to abolish a system where 150 white men run the world; liberals want to replace half of those 150 with women, queers and people of color.”

Society

US surgeons are killing themselves at an alarming rate. One decided to speak out. “Somewhere between 300 to 400 physicians a year in the US take their own lives, the equivalent of one medical school graduating class annually.”

Oxford University is the world’s top university for a record eighth year. This presumably means that the Turf Tavern is the best student pub in the world.

Britain’s attitude to refugees shows, once again, that it’s a colonial nation. “Hostile immigration policy stokes racism but the foundation it builds upon itself is racist and maintains a ‘colonial present’. Through dealing with migrants like pests, who deserve to be locked away in a prison barge, the British government continues to ignore the fact that, “Borders maintain hoarded concentrations of wealth accrued from colonial domination.”″

19th News/SurveyMonkey poll: The State of Our Nation. Lots of interesting insights in this poll, including on nationwide attitudes to gender-affirming care (only 29% of Republicans think their party should focus on it) and gun control (82% of Americans want to restrict access in domestic abuse cases).

Victims of forced sterilization in California prisons entitled to reparations. One thing I learned from this story is that forced sterilization of inmates has still been widespread in the 21st century in America. Ghoulish.

Unconditional cash transfers reduce homelessness. It turns out that if you give homeless people money as assistance, it really helps them. This is something society should do.

Startups

Why Starting Your Investor Updates With “Cash on Hand” Information is a Major Red Flag Right Now. It’s Maybe the Only Thing Worse Than Not Sending Updates at All. I appreciated this succinct discussion on using venture dollars well from Hunter Walk. In particular, this: “Startups spend a $1 to ultimately try and create more than $1 of company. If you do that repeatedly and efficiently we will all make money together.” Too many founders still think of investment as being akin to a grant.

Technology

Meta in Myanmar, Part I: The Setup. “By that point, Meta had been receiving detailed and increasingly desperate warnings about Facebook’s role as an accelerant of genocidal propaganda in Myanmar for six years.” We need more discussion of this - I’m grateful for this four-part series.

Optimizing for Taste. A solid argument against A/B testing. A lot of it comes down to this: “It fosters a culture of decision making without having an opinion, without having to put a stake in the ground. It fosters a culture where making a quick buck trumps a great product experience.” I agree.

Meredith Whittaker reaffirms that Signal would leave UK if forced by privacy bill. Signal on UK privacy law: “We would leave the U.K. or any jurisdiction if it came down to the choice between backdooring our encryption and betraying the people who count on us for privacy, or leaving.” Good.

U.S. Counterintel Buys Access to the Backbone of the Internet to Hunt Foreign Hackers. “The news is yet another example of a government agency turning to the private sector for novel datasets that the public is likely unaware are being collected and then sold.”

Digital Disruption: Measuring the Social and Economic Costs of Internet Shutdowns & Throttling of Access to Twitter. This report found that removing access to Twitter created significant economic and social impacts. Question: are some of these now replicated with the switch to X?

Build Great Software By Repeatedly Encountering It. This is really important, and why we talk about “eating your own dogfood”. If you don’t use what you build, you can’t build anything great.

EV charging infrastruture is a joke – Brad Barrish. Non-Tesla EV charging infrastructure is awful. It’s good that Tesla has opened the standard, but it’s not good that the only really viable charging infrastructure is owned by one company. It needs to be fixed.

The Affordance. I strongly agree with this. “View source” has been an important part of the culture of the web since the beginning. Obfuscating that source or removing the option does damage to its underlying principles and makes the web a worse place. I like the comparison to the enclosure movement, which seems apt.

Online Safety Bill: Crackdown on harmful social media content agreed. This is a horrendous bill that is designed to encourage self-censorship, including around topics like “illegal immigration”, as well as vastly deepen surveillance on internet users. And Britain passing it will likely embolden other nations to try the same.

WordPress blogs can now be followed in the fediverse, including Mastodon. I’d prefer if this was default WordPress functionality - but the big lede is buried here. Hosted WordPress sites are getting fediverse compatibility. That’s a huge deal.

Finishing With Twitter/X. Who at the intersection of tech and politics is still posting on Twitter? And should they be? A good breakdown.

Unity has changed its pricing model, and game developers are pissed off. As with API pricing changes across social media, these tiers disproportionately penalize indie developers. The message is clear: they don’t want or need those customers. In a tighter economy, much of technology is re-organizing around serving bigger, wealthier players.

Silicon Valley's Slaughterhouse. “Andreessen wasn’t advocating for a tech industry that accelerates the development of the human race, or elevates the human condition. He wanted to (and succeeded in creating) a Silicon Valley that builds technology that can, and I quote, “eat markets far larger than the technology industry has historically been able to pursue.””

Google vet wants to turn your hot water heater into a "virtual power plant". I really need this for my home, and I suspect my entire region needs it. This could do a lot of good and be the start of something much bigger using virtual power plants as a platform.

It’s Official: Cars Are the Worst Product Category We Have Ever Reviewed for Privacy. Every modern car brand abuses your personal information. 84% sell your data (including where you go and when). 56% will share it with law enforcement without a warrant. And none of them have demonstrably adequate security.

Tucson's Molly Holzschlag, known as 'the fairy godmother of the web,' dead at 60. Rest in peace, Molly. We’ve lost one of the really good people who made the web better.

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What Elon Musk's X is getting right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some dude looking at X on his phone

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Every company is a community

Silhouettes of people gathering at sunset

There’s a piece in the latest Harvard Business Review which starts with a premise I’d like to challenge:

It’s well-known that firms where strategy and culture align outperform firms where they do not. It follows, then, that if the two aren’t aligned, you most likely need to change your culture.

The rest of the article goes on to describe how storytelling is an integral part of establishing a strong culture in a company — and it absolutely is. A cohesive, supporting culture and the ability to tell strong stories are things every organization needs if it wants to succeed.

What I want to challenge is this idea that if strategy and culture don’t align, it’s the culture that needs changing. To be sure, quite often it does: particularly in situations where not enough time has been spent building a supportive culture to begin with. But culture is made of people, relationships, norms, and stories. The premise above hinges on the idea that if the people in your organization aren’t aligned with an organization’s strategy, you need to change the people. The strategy is paramount. But what if that’s not true? What if the strategy really is at fault, and organizations need to put more trust in their people?

I believe that the strongest organizational cultures are the most equitable ones. Whether you agree with my belief or not, research backs me up: the most productive work cultures are the ones where everyone feels empowered to speak up and be heard, where management genuinely listens to and acts on both the needs and ideas of their workforce. There’s a necessary underlying respect that you can’t simply storytell your way around.

In turn, that respect is built by distributing equity: giving people real ownership, both figurative and literal, in their workplace. There’s a reason burnout is driven by people not feeling like they can affect the choices that impact their work; people want to have control, and to make real progress on meaningful work.

If you don’t have those things, then, sure, your culture needs to be changed. But if you find yourself wishing that everyone would just go along with what you’re telling them to do, perhaps the first change needs to be a little more personal.

Building this level of interpersonal respect necessitates approaching building your workforce like a community. In turn, this means prioritizing strong interpersonal relationships. Can people talk with each other openly? Are they able to bring their whole selves to work? Does management listen and act? Are there rules and norms that foster emotional safety, particularly among people who may feel underrepresented and therefore alone in the organization? Does the organization treat the people who work inside it as fully-realized, three dimensional human beings, or are they fungible line items on a spreadsheet?

Is your company a diverse, happy, healthy community of trusted experts?

Was your strategy co-developed with your community?

Are your community’s needs and ideas represented in your decisions?

Will your community directly experience any upside that is an outcome of their work?

From here, other, related ideas become more obvious. If your community is co-developing your strategy, your want as many diverse ideas as possible. Hiring people from different contexts and backgrounds becomes an integral part of setting strategy. It becomes important to ask, when considering any new hire, whether they’ll bring a new perspective to your community. A homogenous workforce becomes a liability, because you’ll have a narrower set of ideas to work with.

Obviously, this mindset of collaborative inclusion is not commonly employed among business leaders. If it were, we’d see more diverse organizations with happy workforces, rather than the stark monocultures that engage in union-busting we see in tech (and everywhere) today. It runs completely counter to Elon Musk’s “extremely hardcore” work culture and wild firing rampages, for example. Not to mention the screaming fits associated with software leaders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Often, managers want to be mavericks: the smartest people in the room, who bend reality with their singular vision and bring everyone along from the ride. The truth is, it’s kind of bullshit: a story egotists tell themselves to justify being antisocial. You can’t hypnotize people into working for you through sheer charisma. The only way to scale an organization is to set a really strong internal culture first, and then empower everyone you add to your community to help you build it.

If you’ve hired great people and built a strong community, and those people are telling you that your strategy is off, you should believe them. And then you should shut up and listen to them, work together, and build something better together.

If you haven’t hired great people, and you haven’t built a great community, you’ve failed at business-building 101 and need to go back to the drawing board.

Every industry, including tech, comes down to people. Every company is a community. And every community is built on trust, respect, and equity.

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Unions work

Hands joining together in solidarity

The Writer’s Guild of America seems to have received everything it asked for:

Delivering on issues that many scribes saw as core to their profession, the deal contains big leaps in AI guardrails, residuals and data transparency for writers — leaps that could be transplanted into the upcoming negotiations between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA, which could start in the next week.

This is a great example of how unions can really work for their members. Hollywood is a broadly-unionized industry, as we’ve seen for the last five months, and the result has been real gains in writer equity and compensation in the face of technology changes like streaming and AI.

Of course, at least in America, most industries are not highly-unionized. 10.1% of wage and salary workers were unionized in 2022, down from a peak of about a third, which coincided with income inequality’s lowest point. Generally, unionized workers make 18% more (20% for African Americans, 23% for women, and 34% for Hispanic workers).

Tech is often the home of a particular kind of libertarian thinking that is often anti-union. But that, thankfully, is changing. In 2004, a third of tech workers were in favor of unionization; twelve years later, it was 59%. These days, prominently recognized tech unions include the Alphabet Workers Union, but firms have engaged in nakedly union-busting activity, from big tech companies like Apple, later-stage startups like Instacart, and supposedly public interest organizations like Code for America. (It’ll be no surprise that Elon Musk’s Tesla was found guilty of illegal union-busting tactics).

Regardless, the industry would gain immensely from unionization — and more and more tech workers agree. It’s not so much about wages as recognition and a say in how these companies are run. Last year, Jane Lytvynenko, senior research fellow on the Tech and Social Change Project at the Shorenstein Center wrote in MIT Technology Review:

[…] Silicon Valley companies don’t see more protests about wages from their white-collar employees—those workers get stock options, good salaries, and free lunch. But such perks do little to address structural discrimination.

My hope is that examples like the WGA’s win will help spread this idea that there should be a counterbalance to corporate power, and that the people who do the work should have influence over how it is organized. If you’ll pardon the pun, tech workers should own the means to push to production. Allworkers should have a say in how their companies function. And I believe — still crossing my fingers, because there’s a lot of work to do and a lot of gains still to be made — that this future is coming.

In the meantime, congratulations to the WGA! Nice work. Solidarity.

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Parenting in the age of the internet

A toddler using an iPhone on the floor

I learned to read and write on computers.

Our first home computer, the Sinclair ZX81, had BASIC shortcuts built into the keyboards: you could hit a key combination and words like RUN, THEN, and ELSE would spit out onto the screen. I wrote a lot of early stories using those building blocks.

Our second, the Atari 130XE, had similar BASIC instructions, but also had a much stronger software ecosystem. In one, you would type a rudimentary story, and 8-bit stick figure characters would act it out on screen. “The man walks to the woman”; “The wumpus eats the man.”

We never had a games console in the house, much to my chagrin, although the Atari could take games cartridges, and I once got so far in Joust that the score wrapped back around to 0. But mostly, I used our computers to write stories and play around a little bit with simple computer programming (my mother taught me a little BASIC when I was five).

We walk our son to daycare via the local elementary school. This morning, as we wheeled his empty stroller back past the building, a school bus pulled up outside and a stream of eight-year-olds came tumbling out in front of us. As we stood there and watched them walk one by one into the building, I saw iPhone after iPhone after iPhone clutched in chubby little hands. Instagram; YouTube; texting.

It’s obvious that he’ll get into computers early: he’s the son of someone who learned to write code at the same time as writing English and a cognitive scientist who does research for a big FAANG company. Give him half a chance and he’ll already grab someone’s phone or laptop and find modes none of us knew existed — and he’s barely a year old. The only question is how he’ll get into computers.

I’m adamant with him, as my parents were with me, that he should see a computer as a creation, not a consumption device. At their best, computers are tools that allow children to create things themselves, and learn about the world in the process. At their worst, they’re little more than televisions, albeit with a near-infinite number of channels, that needlessly limit your horizons. For many kids, social media is such a huge part of of their life that being an influencer is their most hoped-for job. No thank you: not for my kid.

But, of course, if we can steer away from streaming media and Instagram’s hollow expectations, there’s a ton of fun to be had. This is one area where I think generative AI could be genuinely joyful: the fun that I had writing stories for those 8-bit stick figures, transposed to a whole universe of visual possibilities. That is, of course, unless using those tools prevents him from learning to draw himself.

He’s entering a very different cultural landscape where computers occupy a very different space. Those early 8-bit machines were, by necessity, all about creation: you often had to type in a BASIC script before you could use any software at all. In contrast, today’s devices are optimized to keep you consuming, and to capture your engagement at all costs. Those iPhones those kids were holding are designed to be addiction machines.

Correspondingly, our role as parents is to teach responsible use. If we are to be good teachers, that also means we have to demonstrate responsible use: something I am notoriously bad at with my own phone. I’ve got every social network installed. I sometimes lose time to TikTok. I’m a slave to my tiny hand-computer in every way I possibly can be. I tell myself that I need to know how it all works because of what I do for a living, but the real truth is, I love it. I don’t need to be on social media; I don’t need to be a part of the iPhone Upgrade Program. I just am.

I think responsible use means dialing up the ratio of creation to consumption for me, too. If I’m to convey that it’s better to be an active part of shaping the world than just being a passive consumer of it, that’s what I have to do. This is true in all things — a core, important lesson is that there isn’t one way to do things, and life is richer if you don’t follow the life templates that are set out for us — but in some ways I feel it most acutely in our relationship to technology.

There will certainly be peer pressure. His friends will have iPhones. I don’t think withholding technology is the right thing to do: consider those kids whose parents never let them have junk food, who then go out and have as much junk food as possible as soon as they can. Instead, if he has an iPhone, he will learn how to make simple iPhone apps. You’d better believe that he’ll learn how to make websites early on (what kind of indieweb advocate would I be otherwise?). He will be writing stories and editing videos and making music. And, sure, he’ll be consuming as part of that — but, in part, as a way to get inspired about making his own things.

These days, creating also means participating in online conversations. As he gets older, we’ll need to have careful discussions about the ideas he encounters. I’m already imagining that first conversation about why Black Lives Matter is an important movement and how to think about right-wing content that seeks to minimize other people. I don’t want our kid to be a lurker who thinks people should be happy with what they get; I want him to feel like the world is his oyster, and that he can help change it for the better. Our devices can be a gateway to bigger ideas, or they can be a path to a constrained walled garden of parochial thought. It all requires guidance and trust.

The computer revolution happened between my birth and his. Realizing so makes me feel as old as dust, but more importantly, it opens up a new set of parental responsibilities. I want to help him be someone who creates and affects the world, not someone who lets the world happen to him. And there’s so much world to see.

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Trying out Kagi

As an experiment, I’m trying out Kagi as my default search engine, switching from Google (no link required; they’re probably behind you right now).

I like the idea of an ad-free experience: a paid-for engine puts the incentives in the right place. But it’s got to be about more than ideology. Because search is such an important part of my working life (and most knowledge workers’ working lives) it’s important that the results are actually better than Google’s.

For a while, I tried to use DuckDuckGo, which uses Bing’s search engine behind the scenes. It was just fine for most things and markedly worse for a few, so I had to switch back, even though I love its privacy focus.

Kagi uses a mix of third-party engines and its own to provide its results. So far, they seem pretty good, but the proof will be in intensive use.

What I already know I love: they have a StumbleUpon-like site for discovering small websites, and surface blogs in some search results when they’re relevant. That’s something I want from every search engine.

We will see! I’ll give it a month and then report back.

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Subscribing to the blogs of people I follow on Mastodon

It’s no surprise to anyone that I prefer reading peoples’ long-form thoughts to tweets or pithy social media posts. Microblogging is interesting for quick, in-the-now status updates, but I find myself craving more nuance and depth.

Luckily, Blogging is enjoying a resurgence off the back of movements like the Indieweb (at one end of the spectrum) and platforms like Substack (at the other), and far more people are writing in public on their own sites than they were ten years ago. Hooray! This is great for me, but how do I find all those sites to read?

I figured that the people I’m connected to on Mastodon would probably be the most likely to be writing on their own sites, so I wondered if it was possible to subscribe to all the blogs of the people I followed.

I had a few criteria:

  1. I only wanted to subscribe to blogs. (No feeds of updates from GitHub, for example, or posts in forums.)
  2. I didn’t want to have to authenticate with the Mastodon API to get this done. This felt like a job for a scraper — and Mastodon’s API is designed in such a way that you need to make several API calls to figure out each user’s profile links, which I didn’t want to do.
  3. I wanted to write it in an hour or two on Sunday morning. This wasn’t going to be a sophisticated project. I was going to take my son to the children’s museum in the afternoon, which was a far more important task.

On Mastodon, people can list a small number of external links as part of their profile, with any label they choose. Some people are kind enough to use the label blog, which is fairly determinative, but lots don’t. So I decided that I wanted to take a look at every link people I follow on Mastodon added to their profiles, figure out if it’s a blog I can subscribe to or not, and then add the reasonably-bloggy sites to an OPML file that I could then add to an RSS reader.

Here’s the very quick-and-dirty command line tool I wrote yesterday.

Mastodon helpfully produces a CSV file that lists all the accounts you follow. I decided to use that as an index rather than crawling my instance.

Then it converts those account usernames to URLs and downloads the HTML for each profile. While Mastodon has latterly started using JavaScript to render its UI — which means the actual profile links aren’t there in the HTML to parse — it turns out that it includes profile links as rel=“me” metatags in the page header, so my script finds end extracts those using the indieweb link-rel parser to create the list of websites to crawl.

Once it has the list of websites, it excludes any that don’t look like they’re probably blogs, using some imperfect-but-probably-good-enough heuristics that include:

  1. Known silo URLs (Facebook, Soundcloud, etc) are excluded.
  2. If the URL contains /article, /product, and so on, it’s probably a link to an individual page rather than a blog.
  3. Long links are probably articles or resources, not blogs.
  4. Pages with long URL query strings are probably search results, not blogs.
  5. Links to other Mastodon profiles (or Pixelfed, Firefish, and so on) disappear.

The script goes through the remaining list and attempts to find the feed for each page. If it doesn’t find a feed I can subscribe to, it just moves on. Any feeds that look like feeds of comments are discarded. Then, because the first feed listed is usually the best one, the script chooses the first remaining feed in the list for the page.

Once it’s gone through every website, it spits out a CSV and an OPML file.

After a few runs, I pushed the OPML file into Newsblur, my feed reader of choice. It was able to subscribe to a little over a thousand new feeds. Given that I’d written the script in a little over an hour and that it was using some questionable tactics, I wasn’t sure how high-quality the sites would be, so I organized them all into a new “Mastodon follows” folder that I could unsubscribe to quickly if I needed to.

But actually, it was pretty great! A few erroneous feeds did make it through: a few regional newspapers (I follow a lot of journalists), some updates to self-hosted Git repositories, and some Lemmy feeds. I learned quickly that I don’t care for most Tumblr content — which is usually reposted images — and I found myself wishing I’d excluded it. Finally, I removed some non-English feeds that I simply couldn’t read (although I wish my feed reader had an auto-translate function so that I could).

The upshot is that I’ve got a lot more blogs to read from people I’ve already expressed interest in. Is the script anything close to perfect? Absolutely not. It it shippable? Not really. But it did what I needed it to, and I’m perfectly happy.

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G'mar chatima tova to all who observe.

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Long-term blogging

Tracy Durnell celebrates 20 years of blogging:

A blog is a much nicer place to publish than social media, sparking fewer but more meaningful interactions. Blogging allows writers a more forgiving pace with slower conversation. On their blog, people can be themselves instead of playing to an audience and feeling judged — a place to escape the pressures of one-upmanship and signaling, the noise of the ever-demanding attention economy, and the stress of hustle culture.

It’s a huge achievement, to be sure, and I couldn’t agree more with Tracy’s sentiment here. Congratulations, Tracy!

I’m a little jealous that she can pinpoint an anniversary date. For me, it depends on how you judge: I had a hand-rolled blog of sorts when I went to university in 1998, but was it really a blog? I definitely had a public Livejournal in 2001, but was that a blog? How about blog I used to keep on Elgg dot net (now a domain squatter, may it rest in peace)? My old domain, benwerd.com, dates back to 2006, and my current one, werd.io, only goes back to 2013. It’s a bit of a messy history, with stops and false starts.

On the other hand, I know people who have posted to the same domain for almost as long as they’ve been online. I don’t know if I can match that sort of dedication - or a commitment to even having a continuous identity for all that time. Am I the same person I was 20+ years ago? A little bit yes, but mostly not really. The idea of joining up my life online on a long-term basis is actually quite daunting.

Tracy links to Mandy Brown’s piece on writers vs talkers, which also deeply resonates: I’m a writer. I hate being drawn into making decisions in ad hoc meetings. I want to write my thoughts down, structure them, and then come to a conclusion after getting feedback and iterating. Perhaps that’s why blogging early appeals to me so much: I can put out ideas and very quickly engage in conversations about them that pushes my thinking along.

Blogging might seem like a solitary activity, but it’s very, very social. Even the name — a pun derived from weblog = we blog — is about community. Writing for 20 years also means building community for that long.

Here’s to the next 20!

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