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 Or is it still possible to develop when withdrawn from our hyper connected society.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.

Advertisements

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”.

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

Welcome to the News Feed

My News Feed

This section of the blog will have daily updates with articles, podcasts, videos, and anything I find interesting. The content will be brief, just a quote and my reaction most of the time, but in higher quantity than my other posts.

I wanted an outlet for all the things I learn about in a day. Instapaper, Feedly, and Pocket Casts are great for follow interesting creators, but it’s difficult to go back and see what I was reading, listening to, watching, thinking about on any given day.

The format is based on Daring Fireball (and I’m sure many others), but links and quotes will be here in their own feed to separate my own work from my reactions to the work of others.

Cal Newport said “I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.” I tend to agree, so this is my take. A news feed that I control. No algorithms or trending topics.

Want to follow along?

If you want to see the inner working of the blog or follow what I follow, this is the place. If not, regularly scheduled thoughts will continue once a weekish.

Here’s the RSS feed: https://ryancropp.blog/category/news-feed/feed/

Plug that url into Feedly to get all the updates! (you can add /feed to the end of any WordPress category to get an RSS link)

 

What we learned from Facebook this week

A puppy. This is why people use Facebook, right?
For all the talk with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the US Senate and House this week, there was very little surprising content. We give consent to use the Facebook service, we upload images, write posts, and like articles. We have control at every step of our interaction to decide how much to share with Facebook and what we give the company is exactly what is given back to us in the data archive download tool. It’s shocking to see every interaction you’ve ever made on Facebook in one place, but there is nothing here we don’t expect. There is no post we didn’t make or image we didn’t take. Facebook remembers what we do on the service as long as we have an account.

But that doesn’t mean everything from the last week was old information.

What was clarified?

An important point Zuckerberg reiterated is that Facebook does not sell user data. This would be a silly business move because Facebook’s value to advertisers is in the uniqueness of its data. It is in Facebook’s best interests to keep it’s trove of data secure, as it requires advertisers to keep coming back. There’s no other place advertisers can go to get the same level of targeting.

Instead of selling data, Facebook actually collects all the details from every person “in the community” and compiles the best advertising opportunity for a given ad. Facebook assures advertisers their ad placement will reach the intended audience with the greatest possibility of interaction. It is this assurance that gives Facebook it’s gazillion dollar market cap.

The Cambridge Analytica case was different, but still Facebook never sold data. Instead, Cambridge Analytica got raw Facebook user data from an app developer who used a survey app to harvest data. In 2014, it was within Facebook terms for a 3rd party app developer to use the Facebook developer platform to collect just about all the information about you and all your friends ever entered onto the site.

Listen to Exponent episode 146 “Facebooks Real Mistake” (link at the end) for background on how Facebook’s past push to be a platform landed the company in this situation. The takeaway? Had Facebook realized it’s value as an ad network, the company would never have given the same level of data access in the first place.

This is why the current Facebook fiasco is not a data security breach, but a data privacy leak. Hackers did not break into Facebook systems to obtain user data, but a developer (which could have been anyone) used Facebook sanctioned tools to collect your information. Facebook has since locked down it’s platform to prevent such unrestricted access to user data, but it does not change the fact that massive amounts of user data left the platform seemingly without consent of its users. And yes, it’s true that by signing up you agreed to the terms that allowed developers to leverage the wide open API to gather profile information, but did you really know that was part of the agreement?

What was surprising and novel?

Did you check if your info was collected by Cambridge Analytica? Go ahead, I’ll wait ⌚😊

After you’ve read through your activity log and exported your data, take a minute and think about what stands out from the content (I think this tinfoil hat scandal is all a ploy to get us to go on Facebook even more. Feel free to finish reading in the meantime, the export takes a while). Once you get to the details, you can see the majority of the information came from you, but there is a small subset which reveals the inner working of the Facebook machine.

To put things in perspective, focus on your ad preferences and take a look at your ad demographics information. This is a window to the 96 98 categories from the Senate hearing. Advertiser demographic is the result of running all our interactions on Facebook through a proprietary algorithm. Of all the information in the data archive, this piece is novel. We didn’t explicitly tell Facebook this information, but they determined it based on what we’ve done on the site.

This is why the Facebook hearing this week is only the tip of the iceberg. If we are concerned that Cambridge Analytica could sway an election with a slice of our data, what kind of power does Facebook have? Sure we didn’t entrust Cambridge Analytica with our data, but why does opting into a puppy video sharing service change our perception of possible psychological manipulation?

What does Facebook do with all our data? And what can they do?

We need greater transparency on how our data is used. I can control and know what I upload, but what happens with the data “I own” once it’s handed over?

When I upload a photo to Facebook, what algorithms are tuned as a result? How does the content of the photo affect ads I see?

WhatsApp communication is encrypted, so it’s private between those in the conversation, but in what way does Facebook link my WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook accounts? I’ve logged into all three on the same device so they must know it’s the same person (even though I signed up for all three as separate users).

And what about activity coming from the same IP address or GPS location? Does Facebook correlate data of those physically closest to me, outside of our connections on it’s services? What about when I’m on Facebook but signed out?

The consumer facing fun part seems like a front for the stingy advertising business on the back end. What is the difference between the two? It’s telling that Zuckerberg doesn’t fully understand the difference (from questioning by Brian Schatz). From Facebook’s perspective, the “fun part” is the user feature set that drives advertising revenue. It’s the top of the funnel for all of Facebook’s algorithms and drives the companies valuation.

For a platform that relies on its users to generate value, the company doesn’t provide much information to said users on how the internal cogs work. Perhaps it’s best to be blissfully unaware, or maybe it’s not a requirement, but when 2 billion people feel like the product and not the customer, it’s reasonable for them to want a little more information on how they’re being used.

And if this is Facebook, what about Google? (You can also export Google data)

What can you do to stay in control?

  1. Adjust log-in behavior to prevent future data leaks

    Check permissions when using Facebook (or Google or any over service) to sign up for a new site. To keep the same convenience, sign up for a password manager like Dashlane or LastPass which can generate and remember a new login for each site you visit. This adds a layer of security to your accounts and removes the possibility of another Cambridge Analytica style data leak.

  2. Prevent cross site tracking

    Use a separate browser just for Facebook. Only log in to Facebook on that browser and do all your other web stuff in another. Or use extensions like Ghostery (which also tracks your trackers, so maybe just turn off the internet for the day…) or the Facebook Container for Firefox.

  3. Limit sharing data

    Just use Facebook less? Deactivate for a week and see how you feel. You can always reactivate.
    Go old school and use an rss reader.
    Stick with iMessage/FaceTime.
    This is always an option.

All sorts of links

Video of Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing (transcript) and appearance before House committee (transcript)
Day 2 from MIT Technology Review
What was Facebook Thinking by James Allworth
The Facebook Current and The Facebook Brand from Stratechery
Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Explained from NYTimes
Facebook’s Real Mistake and Facebook Fatigue from Exponent Podcast
Mark Zuckerberg is Either Ignorant or Deliberately Misleading Congress from The Intercept
What is GDPR?
General Data Protection Regulation
Coachella streams 1, 2, and 3

Slow Social Media

In his recent posts, Cal Newport outlines why our attention will benefit from individuals owing their own domains. We may need tools to help us do it, but companies will assist us from behind the scenes allowing us to build our own brands. People should be able to move their brand (and data) from one platform to another when improvements come along. This is the social internet, and it will power the economy of the future. Value online comes from those who create it. All we can do as technologists is empower others to make their art with greater efficiency.

Context: On Social Media and its Discontents and Beyond Delete Facebook by Cal Newport

Collapsing Context

Assorted music amps, records, tapes, books, and televisions on a wall

Does Jaron Lanier follow blogs? Where does he get his news? How does he learn about Meltdown/Spectre?

 

Word of mouth was the original form of communication. Before there were books, people could only tell stories to share information. The collective hive mind of civilization would do their best to spread knowledge equally from one person to the next. Verification of stories could only be carried out collectively as groups of people could ensure what they believe was true. One could add Individual color a story to show creativity but ultimately lead to deviations from the original idea.

Fast forward to books. Once we mastered the skill of preserving information in physical objects the amount of our collective knowledge exploded. We could remember things across generations, and even without coming into contact with the person or people who first transcribed their ideas. We could pull from philosophers, physicists, mathematicians, composers, playwrights, and doctors to develop deeper ideas and advance our understanding.

What is the hive mind in the world of books? It was still among the people reading these works who pulled from their own experiences and created their own interpretations. Remixing their learnings into new forms of intelligence.

Today is another progression. We go beyond having all the knowledge in the world documented and at our fingertips, to peering into the minds of everyone on the internet. Social media, like Twitter, amplify ideas only for an instant, as the next thing comes along and yanks at our attention.

(This is no different than before when we spread stories across the world, or documented our understanding of nature.)

We go where the thought leaders go. And when rapid reactions and quick wit are incentivized, we miss out on the deep thinking required to keep progressing forward. As Lanier mentions, where are all the Woodward and Bernstein’s these days? Deep investigative journalism is becoming a thing of the past. Instead our big stories take the form of the aggregate. Pulling the voices of all perspectives involved. And taking down multiple people.

Continuing the thought, how can one create new ideas and seek blue oceans? Part of the success of the web (an any technology for that matter) is the externalities spawning new industries out of the original innovation. Like cryptography, it takes a lot of work to come up with a solution, but once public, the idea is easily verified. It’s the “why didn’t I think of that moment” you get when watching Shark Tank.

So how can we do it? Why is music from 90s and 00s so similar in sound? Are we bound to digitally rehash all of history? To find out, lets think about some of the new ideas stemming from web 2.0.

Well one more digression. To do so, lets start with some digital rehashes: Airbnb -> hotels. Lyft -> taxis. Wikipedia -> Encyclopedia. Ebay -> Thrift store. Amazon -> Bookstore, grocerystore, restauraunt brick and mortar. These are all hugely successful companies that replaced what existed before. I think what’s missing from Lanier’s manifesto is the added value web 2.0 tech brings to previous implementations. However, he does highlight what’s lost in the transformation. (there is more to talk about here, but I’m getting off track)

What is new thought. Is a review of a book just adding to the noise? How can we ever learn if we do not discuss our thoughts and opinions with others? There is value to rehashing work if the idea can stand for something greater. A new version of Unix? Ok sure. But openly available for all to improve and understand? This is novel and moves society forward. Lanier is concerned with the side effects of open culture and I agree with him on the aspect of sustainability (via employment, how do you make a living working on open source?), but how do we build cathedrals if we don’t have the tools?

Part of Lanier’s concern stems from the abstraction of humankind. Kevin Kelly’s one book theory, for example. And it is important to maintain human individuality and creativity. So how do we keep from abstracting the person behind the creation as we move to an aggregated world? People no longer know which studio produces a movie or TV show, unless it’s from Netflix. Netflix advertises their creations, and everyone else’s are abstracted to a title, image, and caption.

Context Collapse

There is a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show with Lanier. Instigated by the release of Lanier’s new book, the two discuss all sorts of things including VR, music, Facebook, blogs, and podcasts. The most intriguing thread was on the topic of social media’s influence in collapsing context of the things people create. They didn’t know who coined the term, but it seems to have been either danah boyd or Michael Wesch (see below), although it might as well have been Lanier.

The basic idea is this (as nicely described by Joel on Software):

Here’s what happened with the 140 characters. You would start out having some kind of complicated thought. “Ya know, dogs are great and all? I love dogs! But sometimes they can be a little bit too friendly. They can get excited and jump on little kids and scare the bejesus out of them. They wag their tails so hard they knock things over. (PS not Huskies! Huskies are the cats of the dog world!)”

Ok, so now you try to post that on Twitter. And you edit and edit and you finally get it down to something that fits: “Dogs can be too friendly!”

All the nuance is lost. And this is where things go wrong. “@spolsky what about huskies? #dontforgethuskies”

Ten minutes later, “Boycott @stackoverflow. @spolsky proves again that tech bros hate huskies. #shame”

By the time you get off the plane in Africa you’re on the international pariah list and your @replies are full of people accusing you of throwing puppies out of moving cars for profit.

The context for Joel’s thought is his decision to give up Facebook and Twitter for 2018. (Isn’t it odd how things come in threes? Reading Lanier, Context Collapse, Joel on Facebook & Twitter). His reasons for doing so are exactly what Klein and Lanier discuss in the podcast. You just lose the human connection when everything we say and do is mashed up, chomped into a sound bite, and thrown around far outside the initial context for the idea.

And I realize I’m constantly doing that know. I haven’t quite figured out how to include quotes and references to others when developing new thoughts and creating new things. I have to keep exploring. Which leads to…

A basis for further understanding

A quick search lead me to this post from danah boyd on coining context collapse. danah boyd talked about the term back in 2013, referencing her thesis from 2002. So the idea, while not new, was new to me. This topic is a rabbit hole, and I have just scratched the surface. I need to go off to read, watch, and listen. I will return soon.

from danah:

From Michael Wesch:

P.S.

I’ve fallen victim just now. I scoured the web for an hour following links to uncover new and interesting things to read. Then I took it all out of the context I was in and distilled my findings into a nice tidy list. I’m grappling with how the onslaught of Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory can mesh with avoiding context collapse via boyd/Lanier (the three should do a podcast together). Does pulling together sources and finding key themes inherently strip the human side of what people create? Or are we bound to keep mashing up ideas. Certainly all new things come from the history that preceded, but how do we balance this growing from this influence with remembering where we came from?

To do research, you take all the mind space of the internet open 100 tabs, make some progress, then save it across all services to pick up again tomorrow. Just with this topic alone, I scattered material to YouTube, Kindle, Instapaper, iBooks, and OneNote. What in the world!? How do people keep any semblance of a train of thought when the best technologies are designed to keep us stretched in multiple directions. Where does the context remain after distilling your work into buckets and silos? This frustrates me, With all the learning one can do on the internet, why is it so unnatural and inhuman? What if the internet was set up more like college, where thoughts and ideas are shared amongst new learners and experts, instead of like a kindergarten classroom where things may be haphazardly thrown everywhere with no sense of where they came from?

There is more to this thread, but I need to dig deeper. I have my materials and my thoughts. Now I just need to stay focused. Keep my mental state and remember the context of where it all began.

Best Books I Didn’t Read in 2017

Open books laying in grass

 

Or books people told me to read in 2018…

I didn’t read as many books in 2017 as I did in 2016, but I still learned a lot from what I read this year. I did read Deep Work, and, with Klein, would highly recommend it. Titan by Ron Chernow was a brick of a good book and I would expect nothing less from Grant (in terms of both length and quality). And How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid was pretty good (even if I read it in 2016).

To start 2018, I’m reading You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier and Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson. Lanier probably wouldn’t approve of this type of post (we should go for evergreen content instead of rehashing previous work), but I found it funny that so many people had these Best books posts. So this is mine! Looking forward, not back, to take what we learned in the past months and apply it to the present and future.

Here’s to another year of great books and learning.

Ezra Klein

  • Young Radicals by Jeremy McCarter
  • The Final Days by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
  • Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev
  • Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen and Barbara Fields
  • Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters With Reality and Virtual Reality by Jaron Lanier
  • Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport

Ryan Holiday

  • Bodyguard of Lies: The Extraordinary True Story of D-Day Vol I & Vol II by Anthony Cave Brown
  • The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader by Fred I. Greenstein
  • Montaigne & Magellan by Stefan Zweig
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel by Karen Joy Fowler
  • Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey

Bill Gates

  • The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
  • Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens, by Eddie Izzard
  • The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Energy and Civilization: A History, by Vaclav Smil

Barack Obama

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Grant by Ron Chernow
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
  • Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • Five-Carat Soul by James McBride
  • Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
  • Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  • Coach Wooden and Me by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Basketball (and Other Things) by Shea Serrano

NY Times

  • Autumn By Ali Smith
  • Exit West By Mohsin Hamid
  • Pachinko By Min Jin Lee
  • The Power By Naomi Alderman
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing By Jesmyn Ward
  • The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us By Richard O. Prum
  • Grant By Ron Chernow
  • Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America By James Forman Jr.
  • Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder By Caroline Fraser
  • Priestdaddy By Patricia Lockwood

Wired

  • Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History By Erik Malinowski
  • (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work By Brooke Erin Duffy
  • Ours to Hack and to Own Edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider
  • Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest By Zeynep Tufekci
  • Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech By Sara Wachter-Boettcher
  • The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies By Jason Fagone

Some notable repeats are Pachinko (Klein and NYTimes), Grant (NYTimes and Obama), Evicted (Gates and Obama), Exit West (NYTimes and Obama). There are a lot of books out there to read in 2018. If you are looking for something, perhaps take a recommendation from the world’s thought leaders. Or, in the spirit of Lanier, go out on your own and read something no one else is talking about. In either case, keep curious.

The Apple Experience

iPhone X innards with batteries showing

At this point, people don’t need to upgrade their phones every two years. Phones are fast enough and the bump from the last generation A10 fusion chip to the latest A11 bionic really isn’t that important. Apple has even started added some fancy name to the end to uphold the experience of getting a new, more powerful phone. As a result, the deliberate slowdown was seen as user hostile to deceptively increase user delight when upgrading to a new phone and artificially enhancing the “this is so much smoother than my old phone” feeling. If the last iPhone started at 100% performance and degraded to 75%, the jump to 125% feels more significant.

From A Message to Our Customers about iPhone Batteries and Performance

It should go without saying that we think sudden, unexpected shutdowns are unacceptable. We don’t want any of our users to lose a call, miss taking a picture or have any other part of their iPhone experience interrupted if we can avoid it.

Apple mentions there are three contributions to battery life and performance:

  • a normal, temporary performance impact when upgrading the operating system as iPhone installs new software and updates apps
  • minor bugs in the initial release which have since been fixed
  • continued chemical aging of the batteries in older iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s devices, many of which are still running on their original batteries.

As always, our team is working on ways to make the user experience even better, including improving how we manage performance and avoid unexpected shutdowns as batteries age.

As they should. Apple has always been the experience company. The Apple walled garden is carefully designed in the ethos that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Maybe we need a little more clarity into how Apple creates people’s preferences.

Cosmic Brain

Stars in the sky

Remember this video? In it you start with a person lying on the ground looking up at the sky. The camera zooms out exponentially into space showing the immense scale of the galaxies. Then, we quickly zoom back in to molecular scale

Notice the similarity of the Cosmic Web at 1 billion light years and Quarks at 1 femtometer

I immediately recalled the Cosmic eye video when I read this headline:

The Strange Similarity of Neuron and Galaxy Networks

The article is written by an astrophysicist and a neuroscientist on the similar complexities and structures of the brain and the cosmic web.

The task of comparing brains and clusters of galaxies is a difficult one. For one thing it requires dealing with data obtained in drastically different ways: telescopes and numerical simulations on the one hand, electron microscopy, immunohistochemistry, and functional magnetic resonance on the other.

It also requires us to consider enormously different scales: The entirety of the cosmic web—the large-scale structure traced out by all of the universe’s galaxies—extends over at least a few tens of billions of light-years. This is 27 orders of magnitude larger than the human brain. Plus, one of these galaxies is home to billions of actual brains. If the cosmic web is at least as complex as any of its constituent parts, we might naively conclude that it must be at least as complex as the brain.

Complexity of the brain and cosmos “can be quantified by counting how many bits of information are necessary for building the smallest possible computer program that can … predict its behavior.” We do this using an equally fascinating measurement tool: Computers. “independent studies have concluded that the total memory capacity of the adult human brain should be around 2.5 petabytes, not far from the 1-10 petabyte range estimated for the cosmic web!” Petabytes are huge.  This means the amount of information needed to predict the behavior of a human brain is roughly equivalent to the amount of data required to stream the first two seasons of Stranger Things 50 thousand times.

Does this fact tell us something profound about the physics of emergent phenomena in the two systems? Maybe. But we must take these findings with a grain of salt. Our analysis has been limited to small samples taken with very different measurement techniques.

But it’s fun to think about.