Google, Data Privacy, and Unconscious Oversharing

Pushpins overturned on a map of the world

Pushpins overturned on a map of the world

Google is tracking your location. Did we not already realize this?

Yesterday the Associate Press released a story titled Google tracks your movements, whether you like it or not. The gist of the article is there are at least two settings on your Google account relevant to your location, “Location History” and “Web and App Activity”, and you need to be aware of how you’ve configured both to limit the extent to which Google tracks and saves your location data.

Privacy Settings

via Google’s Activity Controls:

Location History

Saves where you go with your devices to give you personalized maps, recommendations based on places you’ve visited, and more.

Web and App Activity

Saves your activity on Google sites and apps to give you faster searches, better recommendations, and more personalized experiences in Maps, Search, and other Google services.

Question

Which setting do you need to disable to stop Google from saving locations of the places you’ve been?

(Second question: Did you know these settings exist?)

For the first, what did you go with? Location History? That seems to make sense but turns out not to be enough.

Answer, from AP and Google

To stop Google from saving these location markers, the company says, users can turn off another setting, one that does not specifically reference location information. Called “Web and App Activity” and enabled by default, that setting stores a variety of information from Google apps and websites to your Google account.
When paused, it will prevent activity on any device from being saved to your account. But leaving “Web & App Activity” on and turning “Location History” off only prevents Google from adding your movements to the “timeline,” its visualization of your daily travels. It does not stop Google’s collection of other location markers.

Um, what? Actually, this is not too surprising. Leveraging location makes Google services better. Knowing your location allows Google Search to show you the conditions outside when you search for “weather” instead of a definition for the word. It also lets you see concert tickets at venues in your city and movie times at your local theaters without the need to include your physical address in the search. Plus, driving directions in Maps would be useless if you didn’t let Google know your GPS coordinates.

Unconscious Over-sharing

The real issue here is not that we give up some privacy to make online services better as we use them, but the fact that transparency is virtually nonexistent into how companies use our data in ways we don’t consider. We are unconsciously over-sharing our personal information.

Take Maps again as an example. Not only does the service help us get from point A to B without the need of a physical map, but it also gets us there on the fastest route, optimized to include time in traffic.

Did you specifically let Google know that you are sitting in traffic? Unless you’re an active Wazer, the answer is probably no. So how did they determine there is a slowdown ahead? Remember, data lets companies improve their apps and services in ways indirectly related to the original value proposition. So while you are going 20 on the highway, using Google Maps to direct you home, Google is using your changes in location to measure your position and speed and recognize you are sitting in traffic.

Do you like that Google Maps includes traffic data? How would you feel if Google removed the “Traffic” feature from Maps? No one focuses on the benefit that’s given to you when you hand over your data and the service gets better.

It would be interesting to learn exactly how Google implements Traffic in Maps. As a thought experiment, would Traffic still work if everyone on the planet disabled Web & Activity Data? Clearly for Google Maps to give you directions, you must give it your location. But is the transaction single use? Does Google read your location, update your directions, then throw away your GPS point? They could reuse your location data to help improve the service for everyone else. They could even go as far as saving that data point for later, just in case another service could benefit from the information in the future. Each of these are not a “could”, Google is doing all of this.

But because the industry is so shady in its reporting practices for collecting data, it’s confusing what benefit you’re actually getting because it’s all just very opaque I give you my data and what am I getting out of it? This confusion leads to a default reaction is to turn off all data sharing settings, but in reality the services don’t work if they have no data. Kind of a Catch-22.

Companies have also streamlined the app onboarding experience and skirted away the finer details of what apps give and take. Google’s activity controls are not mentioned when you set up an Android phone or create a new Google account. So how are we supposed to be proactive about the privacy settings?

We need to flip the script on data privacy and give people the information they need as they need it. Not retroactively as a “clean up” feature.

Random thoughts

Ad Market Cap. Ad companies like Google and Facebook need as much information as possible about you to create a profile about you to sell ads and show ads to people like you. Facebook still knows a lot about you based on how you’ve used Instagram even if you’ve never posted a single picture. They can track scrolling, clicking, stopping, screenshotting.

Inastapaper GDPR. We still have no idea what Intapaper and Pinterest were doing that was against GDPR in the EU. It would be nice to know how companies use the data we so generously hand over.

Facebook and Google “Shadow profile”. All the data and information we didn’t explicitly give, but is intuited by algorithms from less visible forms of input (location from ip address, activity by linking signed in & out accounts). Even with all these settings disabled, to some unknown extent, Google et all stills know about our location and how we use the internet. It’s our right to know they know.

We need apps people pay for.

Product & service privacy settings

If you are concerned about companies knowing too much about you and your whereabouts, be sure to double check privacy settings for Location Services on all your devices.

Devices

iPhone
Settings > Privacy > Location Services

Android
Settings > Security & location > Location

Mac
Apple menu > System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Location Services

Windows
Settings > Privacy > Location

Chromebook/Chrome
Settings > Advanced > Privacy and security > Content settings > Location
(or search “Location”)

Apps & Services

Google

Microsoft

Apple

Instagram

Facebook
(Use a VPN)

Strava
So many toggles… read the article

My settings

Just saying, turn everything off. Google won’t be the same, but at least you’ll be in greater control of your data privacy.

Activity Controls

Screenshot of Google's Activity Controls permissions settings webpage

My Activity

Screenshot of Google's My Activity control page

Oh, and pot, meet kettle

“They build advertising information out of data,” said Peter Lenz, the senior geospatial analyst at Dstillery, a rival advertising technology company. “More data for them presumably means more profit.”

How to do a triathlon

A group of people floating in open water at dusk

The lazy person’s way*.

There are tons of resources online that will help you go from 0 to 27.2 miles in some amount of time, but I’ve been running and biking for longish distances for a while now. Working up from a 1 mile run wasn’t something I needed. I wanted a plan that would help me go from running most of the way for 10km to running the entire 10km (after swimming a mile and biking for 20). That’s not to say I ignored all advice out there. I read this book and also heard this one was good too.

For me the swimming was going to be the hardest leg of the race. Starting out, I had never swam in open water for any significant distance (other than wading around in the ocean). I knew how to swim, but going for a mile seemed impossible.

I also have been exercising, weight training and playing sports consistently for several years now. So this is more of a guide detailing how to work training for a triathlon into your usual exercise routine with some tips and tricks for doing the best you can in the race.

Getting Started

Here’s my steady state training routine:

Cold/Wet Weather

Weight lifters use this time to “bulk”, eating anything and everything to assist gaining muscle (and fat) in preparation for the spring “cut”. But we’re here for lifelong health, so you don’t have to do anything too extreme. Just keep to your normal diet and adjust your workouts for the weather.

When it’s dreary outside it’s mentally tough to go for a run or a bike ride. You can do it, and if you do, it will give you a psychological boost for warm weather. If, you’ve done it in the rain, you can definitely do it in the sun. In recent years, I’ve invested in cold weather and water proof training gear, so I can ignore the weather and exercise outside all year round.

Inside, the winter is for weight training and cardio in the pool. Use the opportunity to build or maintain strength and work on your swim technique. I exercise 4 to 6 times a week and keep to a ratio of 3:1 strength to cardio in the winter. My rotation generally progresses through legs/shoulder, chest/triceps, back/biceps, and swimming. I find this to be a good balance in the winter as I’m not a fan of cardio on stationary bikes or treadmills (they just remind me I’d rather be outside). I also include abs most days and like to warm up on the rowing machine (or erg, as I recently learned they are called). I try to keep my workouts from getting too repetitive, but center my training on bench press, squat, deadlift, and shoulder press variations.

Swimming is the fun part. I am terrible. Up until I really started focusing on getting better for the triathlon, I could not string together many laps in the pool. I blame my inability to float (although I am now certified for the capability, see week 13), but it’s really that I don’t swim enough to develop into a strong swimmer. That didn’t discourage me from trying. Swimming is tremendous cardio exercise and it’s low impact. Plus it’s humbling watching people many (many) years older than me out stamina me, swimming for what seems like days, while I struggle to do four laps in a row. Every time I jump in the pool, I’m determined to do a little bit better than I did last time. It’s exhausting, both physically and mentally, but rewarding, when I finish swimming faster or longer than I had before.

Warm/Sunny Weather

In the summer I flip the weight training to cardio ratio, opting to spend as much time outside as possible. I’ll bike two or three times a week, run once or twice, and go to the gym only once or twice. Swimming isn’t generally part of my summer work our routine, as I hadn’t started open water swimming until this summer, and I despise being in a stuffy indoor pool when it’s nice out (outdoor pools are hard to come by here).

Training Schedule

With that background in mind, here’s how I’ve adjusted for the triathlon.

I signed up for the triathlon three months ahead of the race day. The race is Olympic distance, which in this case, entails a 1 mile swim, 20 mile ride, and 10 kilometer run (the standard Olympic distance has a 40km/25 mile bike ride). I knew from the beginning that swimming was going to be my weakest link, and it would be the hardest leg mentally for me to train.

Feel no compulsion to stick to this schedule. I know I will do something completely different for my next race. This is just a way to show how you can do a triathlon at your own pace when starting with a solid background.

Week 1 (4/15-4/21)

Monday:
Sign up for the race. (Take the week off and start training on Saturday)

Tuesday
Strength training (legs & shoulders)

Wednesday:
Strength training (back & biceps)

Thursday:
Strength training (chest & triceps)

Saturday:
14mi bike ride (50 min) and 6km run (32 min)

Week 2 (4/22-4/28)

Monday:
Ultimate frisbee (90 min)

Tuesday:
11.6 mi bike ride (56 min)
11.9 mi bike ride (55 min)

Wednesday:
7.5 km run (38 min)

Friday:
Strength training (legs & shoulders)

Saturday:
Strength training (back & biceps)

Week 3 (4/29-5/5)

Sunday:
Strength training (chest & triceps)

Monday:
Ultimate frisbee (90 min)

Tuesday:
1250 yd (.7 mi) pool swim

Wednesday:
1400 yd (.8 mi) pool swim

Thursday:
Strength training (back & biceps)

Friday:
1800 yd (1 mi) pool swim

Saturday:
5.5 km run (26 min)

Week 4 (5/6-5/12)

Monday:
12.1 mi bike ride (52 min)
11.7 mi bike ride (50 min)

Tuesday:
Ultimate frisbee (90 min)

Wednesday:
5 km run (32 min)

Mother’s Day weekend:
Take a few rest days (maybe 4)

Week 5 (5/13-5/19)

Tuesday:
12 mi bike ride (53 min)
11.8 mi bike ride (57 min)

Wednesday:
6km run (28 min)

Thursday:
11.9mi bike ride (51 min)
11.8mi bike ride (55 min)

Saturday:
Strength training (legs & shoulders)

Week 6 (5/20-5/26)

Sunday:
Strength training (chest & triceps)

Monday:
1225 yd (.7 mi) pool swim

Tuesday:
Ultimate frisbee (90 min)

Wednesday:
13 mi bike ride (1h 1m)
Volleyball (60 min)

Thursday:
28.6 mi bike ride (1h 48 m)

Friday:
2325 yd (1.3 mi) pool swim

Saturday:
6.5 km run (32 min)

Week 7 (5/27-6/2)

Sunday:
5 km run (30 min)
Strength training (back & biceps)

Wednesday:
6.75 km run (36 min)

Thursday:
2025 yd (1.1 mi) pool swim

Friday:
11.8 mi bike ride (54 min)

Saturday:
17ish mi bike ride (1h 34m)

Week 8 (6/3-6/9)

Sunday:
2000 yd (1.1 mi) pool swim

Monday:
Ultimate frisbee (90 min)

Tuesday:
11.9 mi bike ride (52 min)
11.8 mi bike ride (52 min)
7 km run (34 min)

Wednesday:
Volleyball (60 min)

Saturday:
0.5 mi open water swim

Week 9 (6/10-6/16)

Monday:
Ultimate frisbee (90 min)

Wednesday:
8.5 km run (50 min)

Thursday:
11.9 mi bike ride (59 min)

Friday:
14 mi bike ride (1h 4 m)

Week 10 (6/17-6/23)

Monday:
Ultimate frisbee (90 min)

Tuesday:
1775 yd (1 mi) pool swim

Wednesday:
7 km run (37 min) do this at noon on the hottest day of the year

Friday:
2000 yd (1.1 mi) pool swim

Saturday:
7 mi hike

Week 11 (6/24-6/30)

Sunday:
0.25 mile open water tubing

Tuesday:
Ultimate frisbee (60 min)

Wednesday:
1 mile open water swim (44 min)

Thursday:
10 km run (50 min)

Week 12 (7/1-7/7)

Monday:
11.7 mi bike ride (52 min)
11.4 mi bike ride (49 min)

Tuesday:
(do the a trial tri just for kicks)
1 mile swim
20.1 mi ride (1h 13m)
10 km run (57 min)

Saturday:
6.5 mi hike (~3 hr)

Week 13 (7/8-7/14)

This week I started to taper my training. I didn’t want to feel depleted for the race, but I still wanted to stay in form. It was odd to limit strength and conditioning training for means of consistency instead of progression. If you’re used to keeping a regimented workout routine, it may feel strange to ease off for a while (it did for me), but the process paid off. I felt strong on race day, with the energy to make it through each leg.

Tuesday:
1.4 mi bike (46 min)

Wednesday:
2000 yd (1.1 mi) pool swim

Saturday:
10 km run (53 min)

Sunday:
10 minute pool float (0 mi)

Week 14 (7/15-7/21)

Tuesday:
11.3 mi bike ride (47 min)
11.6 mi bike ride (51 min)

Thursday:
1800 yd (1.0 mi) pool swim

Race day (Sunday 7/22)

1 mile open water swim (25 min)
20 mile bike (1hr 6min)
10 km run (53 min)
2:31:35

Post race thoughts

Only wear a wetsuit if you really need it for the water temperature. It will save you valuable minutes and seconds if you can run out of the water and jump on your bike. For me it helped with training in the weeks leading to the race as the water warmed up, but on race day, the water was warm enough to swim without a wetsuit. I decided to wear the suit given I mentally prepared to wear it, but for the next race I think I’ll go with just the tri-suit.

Energy gels are nasty and leave a weird taste in your mouth. Stick to the energy chews for a quick burst carbohydrates to restore glycogen. And go with an electrolyte water for your bike ride. Sugary sports drinks can weigh you down.

Did you get one of those neon buoys for swim training? If you didn’t you should (and go with one that has an insulated pouch for your keys). But they also come in handy for wearing your bib number across the finish line. I’m not sure this is the case for all races, but for mine, it was required to have your number on your bike and helmet, and to wear your bib number `during the running leg. I pinned the number to a shirt that I put on for the run, but others pinned their number to the belt of their swim training buoy. It was an interesting idea I hadn’t considered.

Bring a towel to lay down at your transition spot, so you can quickly dry your feet. And only bring the bare essential accessories with you into the transition area. For me that included water, snacks, headphones (for getting in the zone during warmup), extra goggles, and a towel. Of course you also need your bike, helmet, cleats, running shoes, number, swim cap, and goggles. I brought everything in a reusable mesh grocery bag so it could collapse down easily.

Rapid-fire miscellaneousness: Get to the race an hour before it starts (and at least an hour before your start time). Bring headphones to keep you focused and calm. Eat a regular breakfast, but not heavy (I had eggs and pb&j). Stay hydrated the day before. Don’t eat dinner tool late the night before; give yourself time to digest. Stay mindful of the start time of the race and using the restroom beforehand. Inflate your bike tires either the night before or at the race (I didn’t bring a pump, but some people did). If you are cheering on a racer, bring a giant poster cut out of their face. Prep your bag the night before, so you can wake up grab the bag and go. Enjoy the race! Once it’s starts, it will be over in an instant. Take count of everything going on and have fun.

Looking forward to the next one

I’ve always exercised to enjoy the outdoors and strive for lifelong health. People think I’m crazy, but I actually like to go for a run or bike ride. Because of this, it didn’t feel like I did much different outside of my normal routine. Going into it, I had never swam in open water, let alone continuously for a mile. With a little coaching and a lot of practice, I was able to complete the swim, and was congratulated by my screaming fans “YOU FINISHED THE SWIM!” as I ran out of the water.

For the next race, I need to work on the running most to yield the most improvement for the effort. The biking was fine, but it took a while for my legs to warm up. Combined with cutting down the transition times I could be in pretty good shape for a 10-15 minute improvement. Always something to keep pushing for.

So that’s it! Completing a triathlon takes mental and physical preparation, but with a little determination you can do it without deviating too much from your normal routine. You just have to stick with it!

Footnote

*By lazy person, here I mean person who doesn’t want to stick to a new, strict, and  regimented schedule because said person has been exercising for consistently for a few years and already has a good routine going. So more of an “avoiding change” lazy, than a “sit on the couch all day” lazy (although said person enjoys that kind of lazy too).

Screen Time with iOS 12

Screen Time is Apple’s take on the growing trend of operating system level features that help you discover how you are really spending your time with your digital devices. These features and metrics provide you the baseline information to understand where your time is going, and give you the power to make changes to your habits. You are in control of how you use your device, and Screen Time, like Android’s Digital Wellbeing, will not inherently force you to act in a certain way. The tools can shape your behavior, but it is not Apple or Google prescribing how you should use your time. You are still the one making the choice to eat your vegetables.

So how does it work?

There are four main features (and one minor) under the “Screen Time” setting: Device Screen Time, App Limits, Downtime, Content Restrictions, and Bedtime.

Device Screen Time

Device screen time gives a detailed look at where you spend all your time on your Apple devices. You can see your daily and weekly usage trends, your most used apps, how often you pick up your device, and how many notifications you get.

In the last week, I’ve used my iPad for 10 hours and 45 minutes, with over and hour of that time coming during my defined device downtime. You can tell I spent some time organizing my calendar last weekend.

The average length of time per device “pickup” isn’t displayed (nor is most common amount of time), but a quick calculation given the weekly time spent and total pickups shows roughly 2 minutes and 45 seconds per interaction with my iPad. I’m wondering how this compares with others, and how many meaningful interaction people have with their devices in a day. Lowering the number of times we glance at the time or check for notifications could increase the average time, but is session length is not necessarily an indicator of time well spent.

It’s fun to see all this data, but there are no recommendations of how to use your device more intentionally. Apple lets you do all the analysis and any subsequent action you decide to take is entirely your decision.

App Limits

Once you’ve decided you need to take action, App Limits let you reign in your usage of certain apps.

You can set limits for individual apps or categories of apps.

Apps will act the same way whether or not you have screen time limits enabled. While you have time remaining, you can keep using the app, but once time runs out, that’s it. No more for today. You can always go through the block, but Apple tallies up all the times you were bad.

Interestingly, because my time on Twitter and Outlook is a scarce resource, I now find myself using the entire time limit every day. Previously, I would only go on Twitter once or twice a week, but when I did, I found myself engrossed in the content for a while. I figured Twitter would be a prime candidate for trying the new app limits. I wasn’t wrong, but now, since I know I’ll only be there for at most five minutes, I find myself spending time on Twitter every day.

Downtime and Always Allowed Apps

Downtime is the more interesting feature. While screen time limits are opt in for certain apps you think you use too much, Downtime is default opt out for every app on your device. Enable Downtime and you will be locked out of all your apps from the start to end time.

You can individually toggle on apps you want to use an app during downtime. This is a two part set up, first by enabling the Downtime setting, then returning to the Screen Time menu and selecting Always Allowed apps to select the apps available during Downtime.

This feature triggered the most significant, and positive, behavioral shift for me. I start Downtime a little while before I generally go to sleep, and end it a little after I generally wake up. I only enable apps where I most intentionally create and consume content. For me, this means I can read the articles I set aside for myself earlier in the day, and can write what’s on my mind. That’s it. (Phone, Messages, and FaceTime are also enabled by default). Since I installed the iOS 12 beta on my iPad, I’ve stopped watching YouTube hours on end before going to sleep, and I’ve stopped immediately checking notifications right after waking up.

Parental Controls to Block content and set a Screen Time passcode


These are also under the Screen Time setting, but it feels like they were just moved here because they make sense in relation to the other settings . Nothing too interesting, but you can set a Screen Time passcode for your self if you really want to lock your self out of some apps.

Expanded “Do Not Disturb” settings with Bedtime mode


You should really create your own Bedtime mode using Downtime as I described above. The new Bedtime mode toggle under the Do Not Disturb Setting will dim the lock screen, silence calls, and send all notifications to notification center. It’s really only an extension on the existing Do Not Disturb mode. Nice to have, but not a major improvement compared to the other Screen Time features.

Not so final thoughts

Apple’s Screen Time features are available now in the iOS 12 public beta but you may just want to wait for the general release this fall before trying everything out (it’s telling I accidentally typed “bug” while trying to write “public” just then). Betas allow developers to fix issues in software before the official release, and running beta software can cause some headache when your main device does not work as expected.

Tuesday’s Links and Quotes

Today I explored the internet. There was no common thread other than reading stories and articles from various people of interest to me. Just some divergent thinking to spark new ideas and connections.

Cosmik Debris from Kneeling Bus

“Let little bits of your daily existence dissipate into the air rather than having them vacuumed up by a global machine that will alchemize them into advertising gold.”

How to Avoid Card Skimmers at the Pump from Krebs on Security (also All About Skimmers)

“look for fuel pumps with raised keypads and horizontal card slots. And keep in mind that it may not be the best idea to frequent a particular filling station simply because it offers the lowest prices: Doing so could leave you with hidden costs down the road.”

Map of Bay Area Memespace from Julia Galef

“Business in general is good real-world rationality training: you test your theories, you update your models, or you fail. And startup culture in particular promotes a “try things fast” attitude that can be a perfect antidote to the “sit around planning and theorizing forever” failure mode we’re sometimes prone to.”

“You take the thought as something your brain produced, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful — and this ability to take a step back from your thoughts and reflect on them is arguably one of the building blocks of rationality.”

 

How Asia (and social networking) Works

After over three years on the bookshelf, I finally picked up the Bill Gates recommended, How Asia Works by Joe Studwell. The review sparked my interest in the book then, but the intrigue was rekindled recently when I discovered Strange Parts on YouTube (don’t ask how it took me so long to find Scotty). Seeing another side of technology, the technological fringe, so to speak, I was fascinated by how the electronics manufacturing and recycling industries worked. So looking for a more worldly view, and with years of anticipation, I started reading How Asia Works.

And then, still in the roman numerals, I put the book down because I was so surprised at how taken aback I was by this comment.

“If a country does not trade and interact with the world, it is all but impossible to get ahead in the development game” – How Asia Works, page xx

The idea was not meant to be a large part of the story, as it was literally telling why Studwell would not be including further discussion about countries low on the United Nations Human Development Index, but the impact of the implication in today’s globally networked world really struck me. It’s silly, but I haven’t been able to continue reading the book because the thought has been on my mind for the last week. I had to make sense of this line before moving on to the next.

I am having trouble reconciling the positive benefits of networking in the digital age with the draining effects of the attention economy.

Will those who abstain from social networking share the same demise as the “politically and economically introverted” countries Studwell mentions? Or is it still possible to develop when withdrawn from our hyper connected society.  Existentially, does this mean I am going the way of these disconnected countries? I have a Facebook account, but I don’t use it, and I rarely post on Twitter.

Cal Newport on Social Networking

There is a way to connect digitally with others, and Cal Newport calls it the Social Internet from his post On Social Media and Its Discontents.

The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.

I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.

So do I. I am trying to contribute to the social internet, but it is difficult to be found without the leverage of the social media’s network effects. Newport has thoughts on this too:

The tricky question, of course, is how exactly one enables a useful social internet in the absence of the network effects and economic resources provided by the algorithmic attention economy.

One intriguing answer is the idea of augmenting the basic infrastructure of the internet with social protocols.

In short, these protocols would enable the following two functions:

  • A way for individuals to create and own a digital identity that no one else can manipulate or forge.
  • A way for two digital identities to agree to establish a descriptive social link in such a way that outside observers can validate that both identities did in fact agree to form that link.

There are few serious technical obstacles to implementing these protocols, which require only standard asymmetric cryptography primitives. But their impact could be significant.

This has glimmers of dana boyd’s Faceted Id/entity thesis, but the key point of Newport’s idea is this:

In this ecosystem, many different applications can leverage this distributed social graph to offer useful features to users. By eliminating the need for each such social application to create a network from scratch, a vibrant competitive marketplace can emerge.

Ben Thompson talks about open sourcing Facebook’s social graph all the time, more from the perspective of fostering competing services, but still the idea is similar:

All social networks should be required to enable social graph portability — the ability to export your lists of friends from one network to another. Again Instagram is the perfect example: the one-time photo-filtering app launched its network off the back of Twitter by enabling the wholesale import of your Twitter social graph. And, after it was acquired by Facebook, Instagram has only accelerated its growth by continually importing your Facebook network. Today all social networks have long since made this impossible, making it that much more difficult for competitors to arise.

via Manifestos and Monopolies and here and here

Strategies and Future Developments

Blockchain could flip the internet paradigm on its head, creating a decentralized network akin to Pied Piper, which could solve the online identity problem.

For all their brilliance, the inventors of the open protocols that shaped the internet failed to include some key elements that would later prove critical to the future of online culture. Perhaps most important, they did not create a secure open standard that established human identity on the network. Units of information could be defined — pages, links, messages — but people did not have their own protocol: no way to define and share your real name, your location, your interests or (perhaps most crucial) your relationships to other people online.

via Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble

So while we wait for blockchain to save us, what are we stuck with for the time being? We can “change [our] relationship with these services to shift from compulsive to controlled use“. Or, how about some slightly ironic info about how to use Twitter, from someone on Twitter. It’s actually quite optimistic and intellectual:

Follow weird stuff. Follow unusual corners. I enjoy Nigerian tech twitter. I enjoy short-story twitter. I enjoy urban design twitter. I enjoy the zillions of clever bots . I keep meaning to get into opera twitter, but never quite manage it.

via @michael_nielsen

Hey, at least he’s contributing to the network.

That’s all for now

I’m still thinking about all this, but I had to get some initial thoughts out of my head so I can keep reading the book. I’ll let you know what happens after the introduction.

One more thing, here’s John Oliver on the subject of China.

The Genius of Fortnite’s Business Strategy

Fortnite is all the rage right now. It came out a little less than a year ago considered nothing more than a free PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) knockoff, but in that time, Fortnite has come to dominate the gaming industry. Some background for the non-gamer types, Fortnite is a free to play video game which means a majority of the game is available to play at no cost. There are many variations on free to play business model, but for Fortnite, the full gameplay functionality is available to everyone. There is one map and one game mode that all people play no matter what you’ve paid for the game. While you don’t need to pay money to play, costumes and skins for your character are available for purchase. These features aren’t too intriguing on their own, but when combined with a uniquely designed quarterly season pass, called the Battle Pass, the package becomes a multimillion dollar a day phenomenon.

BATTLE PASS

The Battle Pass is a $10 opt in quarterly subscription that is tied to “seasons” in the game. Every three-ish months Fortnite gets a huge update that comes with changes to the map, different character skins, and a new Battle Pass. While everyone is still playing the same underlying game, the pass unlocks new challenges and a leveling system with rewards that adds a reason to keep playing Fortnite. On top of that, everyone’s level resets at the start a new season, so it’s a chance to rank up again to collect all the new items, emotes and experience points. It’s amazing this setup makes any money at all because there is still no need to purchase anything to play the game the exact same way with everyone else. Everything you can purchase is purely for looks**.

Once players buy in to the Battle Pass they are more inclined to continue paying because the game loses some of its intrigue without the content unlocked from the pass. Fortnite reverts to a singular leveling system without much of a goal to the game other than to keep winning and just have fun. You can keep playing on the free tier, but for many (which is quite a lot of people judging by the sales figures) the point of the game is to unlock more content for your character. And what’s the way to do it? Keep playing the game. Keep buying the Battle Pass.

Aside from the joy of almost winning, there is not as much feeling of accomplishment in the free tier. Yet the paid tier continues to be fun because there are just more things to do, even if all sense of additional achievement is fake (not sure what that says about playing video games in general). But the irony is all players are still playing the same base game whether they are paying or not. The progression is purely superficial.

RARITY VS ACHIEVEMENT

And quantity vs quality

The Fortnite development studio, Epic Games, understands their position of reliance on in game purchases, and the Battle Pass for the new Season 4 doubles down on the business strategy. The same leveling and unlockable content system continues to exists from previous seasons, but now there are two skins (Carbide and Omega) than can be upgraded by playing the game more. With the introduction of these upgradeable skins, Epic has created two categories of unlockables based rarity and achievement. In reality however, both tie back to how much you play the game.

fortnite1.png

Because there is no visible ranking in game, to show prestige players can either purchase skins or spend time leveling up their character models. This balance of rarity and achievement serves a dual purpose for the individual player and the entire player base. For the player, upgrading your character visibly reinforces how they stack up against other players in the game. Because there is a time limit to each season, the sooner players have a new upgrade, the better they are assumed to be at the game (or they just played a lot).

fortnite2.png
The green cost line, for context, and not entirely to scale. For that matter, if we’re going to put disclaimers everywhere, this graph is purely a visual aid and has no scientific grounds.

For the rest of the community, this creates a “Stars Upon Thars” environment where those without skin feel inferior to those with the upgraded look. In the game, if you see someone coming at you a rare skin, you shudder at the thought of their skill, even though their character’s costume has nothing to do with how good they are at the game. Nevertheless, new players are naturally drawn to want better looking skins because it feels like once you have them, you will somehow play with improved performance. At that point, Epic only needs to convince new players that Battle Pass is the most economical way to get the skins, and they are swept up into the money machine that is Fortnite.

As an aside, it would be an interesting psychological experiment flip the dynamic by giving new players rarer skins and force experienced players to use the default skins just. Would the better players who were brought up with the skin prestige dynamic experience a role reversal? Maybe give new players a random rare skin for their first few games for a psychological boost against other players (and an advertising boost for Epic).

fortnite3.png

For Epic, building a leveling system into the paid version of the game is a genius idea. For players, it’s akin paying for your own soma holiday. The underlying game you’re playing does not change whether you decide to pay or not. What does change, however, is your perception of the game you are playing. The new layer of intrigue and achievement gives a reason to keep dropping in, playing game after game, and trying to win the base game does not afford. The Battle Royal genre of games has proven to be exhilarating, and Epic built a psychological goldmine on top of the core concept that reinforces itself and keeps people playing Fortnite instead of PUBG (and any other game for that matter). If you want to build a character, why not just play Sims?

BUSINESS MODEL

Many successful services in other industries employ business strategies where plans start with a free tier to get people on board and only pay as they scale. This benefits both those entering the market as they begin using the service with a few users and the service provider as successful clients are locked in and pay more overtime. There’s a similar funnel for Fortnite. Since the game is free, the sum total of people who know about the game is the mouth of the funnel. These people get to play the game but don’t see much additional benefit. Moving down the funnel, Epic needs to convert as many of these people into paying customers to profit on their investment. How does Epic do it? They increase the value for players as players decide they want to invest more time in the game. People want to pay more as they play more. It’s an amazing phenomenon.

In principle, Fortnite’s business model is simple: release a free to play game for everyone to try, include fun character outfits with no effect on the core gameplay, let players buy the outfits individually or through a leveling system. In practice, Epic executed the strategy to give all players from the most frugal to the most invested a way to play the game the way they want.

You don’t have to buy the Battle Pass. If you just want skins, you can pay for them individually. Although, the rarest can cost upwards of $20 and only a few are available per day, adding to the allure and impulsiveness. For the more frugal gamer, investing in a Battle Pass just feels like the better option. It includes many more items and gives players V-bucks, the in game currency, just for playing. If you are patient, you could purchase one Battle Pass and use all the V-bucks collected from playing the game to finance the next season’s pass. But with so many cool new things to purchase, how many players are really going to pass the marshmallow test?

Buying in to the Battle Pass unlocks an entirely new experience, reserved for those in the “elite” class who are truly invested in the game. While you can play without a Battle Pass alongside your friends, listening to them rank up and go for challenges can make you feel left out. For Epic, this desire to be “part of the club” is bolstered by the fact that Fortnite is the most popular game to watch on Twitch, and when people aren’t playing Fortnite, they are watching their favorite streamers use literally every new skin in the game. From a marketing perspective, Fortnite generates so much value that the free advertising from watching streams of the game is even a multi-million dollar enterprise. With this level of attention from such a captive audience, it’s crazy we haven’t seen Fortnite repeat Apple’s In App Purchase fiasco from years past (you can now refund Fortnite purchases).

COMPETITION

For many games, micro-transactions are unsuccessful and linked to abusive gambling techniques. Recently there has been a large backlash against micro-transactions in the gaming community. For these games, the additional transactions are added on top of a paid game, making it seems as though your initial purchase only unlocked a piece of the full game. Plus the core gameplay provides replay-ability that does not require additional enhancements to stay fun.

I mention this up because the old behemoth, Call of Duty, recently announced a battle royale mode, called Blackout, in its upcoming Black Ops game. CoD isn’t going to rip out its tried and true multiplayer prestige system and replace it with a free to play system like Fortnite’s. There is too much history of success riding in the existing $60+ a year model. Instead the game will remove it’s single player campaign opting instead to bundle Blackout with the purchase of the game.

Psychologically, spending $60 upfront more feels like a greater investment than spending $60 in $10 or $20 increments. So while Blackout could be popular, the initial investment narrows the funnel of possible players and limits the number of people who might be willing to pay less than the sticker price. For a direct comparison with the previous battle royale king, PUBG sells for $30 and is losing ground to Fortnite.

GAMING PSYCHOLOGY

Everyone is playing Fortnite because the core of the game is a blast, and Epic is making boatloads of money because the paid model adds a level of replay-ability that keeps the core gameplay fresh. This is why the Battle Pass is genius. The game is fun, and people want to keep playing, but on its own, the game gets repetitive over time. Epic developed a solution. Pay $10 to have fun, play more, get hooked and pay more in the future. Once bought in, players become invested in their progress and will continue paying to maintain their status. Plus going back to the free tier is boring, so why do that? The intrigue of the game is baked into the business model.

With all this said, I still can’t get over the fact that there are two versions of Fortnite. One that you pay for and one that’s free. The one you buy into feels more fun and engaging because you have a sense of purpose in addition to just trying to win games. But once you jump in and start playing, there is no underlying difference between the free and paid game. Truly a testament to the nuance of human psychology. Epic is playing us at an entirely different game than we think we’re playing.

 

*Disclaimer/skin in the game: I bought the Season 4 Battle Pass and wrote this while waiting for the Battle Bus.

 

Why I Switched to WordPress.com

(Insert generic inspirational quote here)

I spent the entire weekend trying to sort out why changing my WordPress theme brought down my site. There was this error and I just couldn’t figure out what was happening. I exported my data, moved to a temporary free WordPress.com account as a backup, and re-installed WordPress on my self hosted site.

Before we get to far into it, to clarify, WordPress is a technology that lets you create blogs. You can either run WordPress on your own server (in the cloud) or let a company manage your installation. WordPress.com is a company that manages WordPress installations, so you can blog away and let WordPress.com handle the technical details of running the site.

Getting back to it, I reinstalled three more times because each time I ran into a different problem. I think the issue came down to a database incompatibility, but it was just one in a series of problems I’ve encountered over the last few years while running my own site. My site was “defaced” via an exploit in an out of date version of WordPress, was unable to connect to Jetpack services, and needed to be re-installed one too many times. This iteration was the last straw. I needed to switch from site maintenance mode and get back to blogging.

Self Hosting

There’s a lot you need to keep up with when running your own WordPress install. I enjoyed learning all the details over the years of running my site. Finding the pieces and putting them all together was fun and made for fulfilling work when the site decided to play along. Although, when something went wrong, managing this workflow and disjoint accounts brought my progress writing posts to a complete halt.

Here are many of the pieces required to run a WordPress site (all of which WordPress.com will handle for you):

Hosting

Your site needs to live somewhere (search for “WordPress hosting” to find a few options)

Domain Name

A site needs a url, so you have to ensure your domain name registration is up to date every year, AND linked to the WordPress install. The latter is a constant source of struggle. (Namecheap, Google, GoDaddy, Hover, etc)

Certs

Want that green lock on your site? You’ll need an SSL certificate. Site certificates let people connect securely and communicate privately with your blog, so it’s important that your has the correct certs. (Let’s Encrypt, Comodo, Namecheap, etc)

Backup

Site backups are crucial in case anything every goes wrong (which through my experience seems common), but they are costly, unintuitive, and require manual configuration.

Updates

WordPress must be kept up to date, with a self-hosted site, you need check for updates. It requires active engagement. I try to write posts on a weekly cadence, but sometimes there would be long stretches of time I didn’t go on the site. You can configure auto-updates to the WordPress core, but there are many caveats. In either case, it’s another task you need to keep in the back of your mind, using up resources I could allocate elsewhere.

Customization

Do you spend way too much time setting up your video game character, even before starting the game? You’ll do the same with WordPress site customization. While seemingly a differentiator, a site’s look is not nearly as important as it’s content. (Ironically, switching from a highly customized theme to the default Twenty Seventeen theme kicked off this whole ordeal)

In then end, all this mental overhead was cutting into my time and creativity. Running the technology distracted from what I wanted to do with my site. And with that, I handed over the keys to WordPress.com.

Going Forward with WordPress.com

Note, this is not a review of WordPress.com. I’ve only used the service a couple days, so I’m still deciding if it’s the right fit. However, I had five accounts to manage everything related to my website, and now I have one.

Blog spectrum of User customization and control to One experience fits all (Doing my best Stratechery impression)

WordPress.com sits in the middle of the blogging platform spectrum of user control and one experience fits all. I can still modify my the site to make it feel like my own, but I don’t have the same level of configuration as a self-hosted site. It’s a good first step to building a focus on writing, because I don’t want bells and whistles anymore. I want to write and develop something new.

Technology works best when it’s invisible. I am optimistic that getting the site administration work out of the way will free up headspace to think and give me time to create more.

My site has a history on WordPress, so there is some lock in to the technology. As I searched for a platform that just lets me write, switching to WordPress.com was an easy first option to explore. Since it’s easy to transfer WordPress data from one hosting service to the next, I brought all my posts with me to WordPress.com.

With that said, I am going to keep iterating, with new formats, platforms, and mediums. I am now a customer of WordPress.com. If I decide their services improve my ability to create, I will stick with them. Otherwise, as WordPress.com says in their own words “You own your data – take it anywhere”.

Medium.com leans further towards the one experience fits all side of the blogging platform spectrum. On Medium, you get a title, and a story. That’s it, but it’s amazing. The focus is on the content of the words on the page, not the theme of the website.

I have a Medium account with zero posts (until know). Starting today I will be cross posting longer form thoughts like this under the Medium Partner Program (and I checked, this is allowed by the Medium Content Guidelines). All my posts will still be on my site, but I want to experiment with Medium to learn how the different communities interact.

So let’s see how this goes. The content of my blog has changed over the years from small ideas (Seth Godin-style), to connecting things I read/hear/watch, weekly reviews, back to connections, and now a news feed. I can already tell this latest iteration is working well. It’s easier to get back to writing and integration with email updates, social media, and reader feedback is better overall. There’s less in the way of getting things done, and I’m hopeful this new format will keep my momentum going strong.

Be on the lookout for a future post explaining “Why I’m Staying with WordPress.com” or perhaps “Why I Switched to Medium”.

Intentional Technology

Would it be easier if we carried around devices devoted solely to one function instead of our multifaceted gadgets? There’s no reason we couldn’t go back to pocket calendars, contact lists, photos, wallets, and pens, other than that it wouldn’t be quite as convenient. Video game consoles are great at just playing video games, and we still put up with them. You wouldn’t be distracted by mail delivered to your door when writing down the date of your next dentist appointment, so why should you settle for that experience in a phone?

Katie Reid wonders if we can relearn to live without using smartphones. What will it take for us to feel comfortable being bored? We gotta think of some weird slow activities to fill the time.

My smartphone obviously helped me with a great number of cognitive tasks. It communicated with my friends. It managed my finances. It delivered work emails. It alerted me to emergencies in the area. It reminded me of appointments. It captured and stored memories. But this sudden and overwhelming awareness of its physical absence indicated that it had become just as important to my body as it had to my mind. If I’m honest, much of what I did on my phone could be characterized as mindless. I can’t count the number of times I pulled out my phone just for the feeling of unlocking the screen and swiping through applications, whether out of comfort—like a baby sucking her thumb—or boredom—like a teenager at school, tapping his fingers on a desk. In those cases, I sought not mental stimulation, but physical release.

Dear iPhone—It Was Just Physical, and Now It’s Over by Katie Reid

It can be fun to mindlessly watch YouTube videos for hours or scroll endlessly through your friends’ Instagram feeds, but when the action becomes habitual and reactive, it can be problematic. Reading the New York Times is a similar experience online and in print, but did anyone ever self distract themselves by picking up a newspaper and scanning the headlines for 30 seconds? There’s a more intentional decision making process to read the physical paper. It’s a single task you mindfully opt into for the course of reading a few articles (or cover to cover).

What happened is that the internet stopped being something you went to in order to separate from the real world — from your job and your work and your obligations and responsibilities. It’s not the place you seek to waste time, but the place you go to so that you’ll someday have time to waste. The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.

I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore by Dan Nosowitz

Maybe it’s time to stop wasting time on the internet and start using the tool to accomplish what we want to do. In their own ways, people are beginning to realize the many of the most popular services online have been designed to keep us amused rather than help us develop.

Here’s the reality:

– there are more interesting independent blogs now than there were pre-Facebook/Twitter. Maybe less “per-capita” of total online usage, but there’s still a higher volume

– every single person is capable of making an online community using cheap tech, and using corporate social media to promote it; way easier than it was in the past

– developers are still “allowed” to make sites in plain HTML/CSS that look great and load fast

Comment from Hacker News

It ironic how engrained these services are in our lives that companies trying to help us be more mindful are leveraging the same platforms they warn us about.

The addictive qualities of these platforms make them the best place to reach potential new customers or fans. Kindred notes that she’s proud of Mindful Technology’s Instagram account. “It’s blowing up,” she says. “I think a lot of people like me are fed up and over it.”

Tech Addiction and the Business of Mindfulness by Erin Griffith

 

But they still provide some overly simplistic tips for dealing with tech overload.

Conveniently, they have five tips for mindful sharing on social media. For starters, don’t just suddenly drop into phone-mode around other people. Tell your companions, “I’m going to do a social post right now,” and step aside. Next, tap into your inspiration, asking yourself, “What about this feels special to me that I want to build up as part of my world?” Don’t forget to check yourself. So much of posting on Instagram can be an exercise in vanity and proving one’s self-worth; instead, pause and “find the place where you’re inspired.” The fourth tip – “have fun with it”—seemed obvious, but Instagram can be an anxiety-inducing place for many. And lastly, let it go. “There is a nice moment where you can say, ‘I kinda don’t care if anyone likes it … I’m just gonna I hit send and then move on,” Pettit says.

In your mind, will telling your companions you are going to do a social post right now really fix your social media concerns? What about following another account on Instagram. I don’t think so. We need steps to remember how to leverage technology as a tool. It’s meant to help us be more productive, connect with people and build new things. Perhaps the internet really is just a utility that isn’t so much fun anymore, but we need to be intentional about our use of technology instead of slipping into mindless habits. We can use the internet to create and not just consume.

Workplace Design

Coffee mug and open notebook on a wooden desk

My team is moving back from open to private offices, so it’s an opportune time to find inspiration for the new space. There are all sorts of studies about collaboration and productivity level in open space vs closed offices, but Joel Spolsky and Anil Dash from Stack Overflow and Fog Creek have perspectives from the lens of software engineers that still hold nearly fifteen years later.

Office space seems to be the one thing that nobody can get right and nobody can do anything about. There’s a ten year lease, and whenever the company moves the last person anybody asks about how to design the space is the manager of the software team, who finds out what his new veal-fattening pens, uh, cubicle farm is going to be like for the first time on the Monday after the move-in.

Well, it’s my own damn company and I can do something about it, so I did.

Bionic Office by Joel Spolsky

Mindset

Building great office space for software developers serves two purposes: increased productivity, and increased recruiting pull. Private offices with doors that close prevent programmers from interruptions allowing them to concentrate on code without being forced to stop and listen to every interesting conversation in the room. And the nice offices wow our job candidates, making it easier for us to attract, hire, and retain the great developers we need to make software profitably. It’s worth it, especially in a world where so many software jobs provide only the most rudimentary and depressing cubicle farms.

The New Fog Creek Office by Joel Spolsky

Just take a look at the long list of requirements for the office space:

  • Gobs of well-lit perimeter offices
  • Desks designed for programming
  • Glass whiteboards
  • Coffee bar and lunchroom
  • A huge salt water aquarium
  • Plenty of meeting space
  • A library
  • A shower
  • Wood floors, carpet, concrete

The link to photos of the space is broken, but not because the space didn’t work out; Joel’s ideas on workplace design outlasted Picasa. Luckily the NYTimes article on the Fog Creek office still has a few thumbnail sized images. Plus street view is still a thing.

They used bold, playful colors and bright common areas to foster in-the-trenches camaraderie and created private soundproof offices where the programmers can go to get their jobs done.

A Software Designer Knows His Office Space, Too via NYTimes

Spolsky wanted a space designed intentionally for deep work and collaboration, and he put a considerable amount of thought to ensure he built a productive environment for the people at Fog Creek. It paid off.

Results

Spolsky has a treasure trove of knowledge on his blog that spills out amongst others on his team. The rich history is pervasive across those he influences.

With a private office, you’re in control of your space and attention: you can choose when to close the door and avoid interruptions, and when to go play ping-pong, talk with coworkers or work out of the coffee bar. In an open office you’re at the mercy of the people around you: if they’re talking, the best you can do is crank up your headphones and hope to drown them out, and if they’re playing foosball then good luck.

Everybody has their own rhythm. People come in at different times, take breaks at different times, need to socialize at different times, and have their most productive hours at different times. Management’s job is to accommodate that and create a space where all those conflicting needs don’t congeal into a persistent hum of distraction — not to enforce some top-down ideal of openness and creativity. Private offices put the people who do the actual work in control.

Why We (Still) Believe in Private Offices by David Fullerton

Fullerton’s post shows how teams can create a “magnificent culture of non-distraction” by using technology to keep people in control of how they work. At first, the idea typing out a chat, going back and forth seems less efficient than tapping someone on the shoulder for help, but leveraging technology as a tool to help people stay in the flow actually makes sense.

Whenever we get a new hire in the office, I make it a point to sit down with them in their first week and explain that they should not go to someone’s office when they have a question. Instead, ping them in chat and then jump on a hangout. The result is exactly the sort of culture that open offices are supposed to promote but better:

  • If someone else sees the message, they can chime in with the answer
  • If someone else is interested in the discussion, they can jump onto the hangout
  • And, crucially, if someone is working heads-down and doesn’t want to be distracted, all they have to do is close the chat window.

But what about marketing and design? And how about expanding teams?

We don’t actually even give everyone private offices: some people are doubled up in offices, and the sales and marketing teams sit in larger open spaces because they feel that’s an important part of how they work.

Evolution

Putting employees first is always at the heart of how we create great places to work.

In 2017 Fog Creek moved to it’s fourth headquarters (1, 2, 3, 4). They could have recreated a bigger version of their office 3.0, but instead they reflected on their team dynamic and arrived at a design that allows people to work in a variety of ways. With a largely remote workforce and a larger percentage of people in non-technical roles, Anil Dash (Fog Creek CEO as of December 2016) understood the existing office design could be enhanced.

The new office also includes a variety of work spaces that accommodate different work modes. Anil mentioned personal offices for standalone work, but they also work well for collaborative work like pair programming. There are workstations for independent or individual co-working, and phone booths for external communication such as sales calls or podcast appearances. There’s also our conference room — known as the “quiet car” — which can be used across a number of different work modes. And true to the nature of our office being flexible and experimental, we are already re-configuring some of these spaces based on how we use them.

Beyond Open Offices: The New Fog Creek Headquarters by Maurice Cherry

Fog Creek treats their office like any other product they produce. With Spolsky at the helm, the company researched best designs, planned with it’s people in mind, built it’s ideal vision, and iterated on the product, improving with each new update.

As the company has grown and changed over the years, so has our office space. Joel’s grand visions for what a work environment should do for employees have been part of Fog Creek from the very beginning, and we have tried to honor that legacy. We also have plenty of plans for the future, and look forward to continuing our tradition of incubating new teams and ideas from within our company and beyond.

Inspiration

For those of you looking to revitalize your open space or bring the aesthetics of open plan spaces to a private office from Design Milk 2017 Where I Work Year in Review. Since these aren’t Fog Creek offices, the productivity may not be at the same level, but they look cool.

All the links

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com