Digg was all about news and nothing else. It didn’t work out.

Couple days ago, I was having lunch with a friend who used to work at Twitter. Eventually, the issue of Fake News came up. I told him, as more of a joke, that Facebook could just solve the Fake News problem by taking the News out of News Feed, and turning it to essentially just a bunch of social update. He retorted, saying that product already existed and it was called Instagram. We both sighed and shrugged and downed a few more drinks.

Now, apparently Facebook is trying that exactly, and of course publishers are freaking out. You can’t really blame them. For many publishers, Facebook is their biggest source of traffic, which they monetize via ads. But you can also not just feel bad for them, because, that is the risk of building your business on someone else’s platform. Just ask Zynga. Continue reading “Digg was all about news and nothing else. It didn’t work out.”

Every company is a tech company, and everyone is a techie.

I work in tech, or used to, like most of my circle in San Francisco. But it was never clear to me, what I really did. I changed the world, of course, but what did I really do? My father ran his own business of gas stations, and also sold cars. My lawyer friends wrote up legal documents and endlessly argued about stuff, and doctors did what doctors did. Teachers taught kids, professors taught slightly older kids, writers wrote, and I worked in tech. I worked at T-tech companies, and tech companies that were more or less a custom CMS. The term lost all its meaning, we all kind of knew, but we all played along. Continue reading “Every company is a tech company, and everyone is a techie.”

Smoking as a parable to tech addiction

When I talked about how people’s addiction to smartphones is akin to a public health crisis, I compared it to smoking.It’s not a particularly insightful analogy, of course. For example, Ian Bogost wrote about it as far as back in 2012. He compared the fall of BlackBerry to the slow burn of Lucky Strike with this note:

But calling Blackberry a failure is like calling Lucky Strike a failure. Not just for its brand recognition and eponymy, but even more so, for the fact that its products set up a chain reaction that has changed social behavior in a way we still don’t fully understand–just as our parents and grandparents didn’t fully understand the cigarette in the 1960s.

Continue reading “Smoking as a parable to tech addiction”

Apple created the attention sinkhole. Here are some ways to fix it.

Your attention span is the battleground, and the tech platforms have you bested. Social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram get bulk of the blame for employing sketchy tactics to drive engagement. And they deserve most of the criticism; as Tristan Harris points out, as users, they are at a serious disadvantage when competing against companies trying to lure them with virtually endless resources.

However, one company that is responsible for this crisis goes relatively unscathed. Apple jumpstarted the smartphone revolution with the iPhone. Our phones are not anymore an extension of our brains but for many, a replacement. However, things went south. Your phone is less a digital hub, but more a sinkhole for your mind. Continue reading “Apple created the attention sinkhole. Here are some ways to fix it.”

Fighting Spam at Facebook

Couple days ago, I wrote about how “Fake News” on Facebook is a spam problem caused, or at least exasperated, by economics of attention. Since there’s limited amount of attention people can give in a day, and Facebook controls so much of it, if you can reverse engineer out the mechanics of the News Feed, you can fan out your message, or boost in Facebook parlance, to millions of people with at a minuscule cost.

On this blog, I use a combination of my experience as a software engineer, what is reported in press, and some light rumor treading to explore ideas. But it is hard to not come off as navel-gazing. No one writes about spam at Facebook, when it’s not a problem. And these systems are complex, involving hundreds of people working on them over many years. They have their own compromises. The inner workings aren’t always hidden (but they are, more than they should be), but it’s not always easily accessible to an outsider. Continue reading “Fighting Spam at Facebook”

Fake News is an attention economy problem

A common theme of this blog is that history repeats itself. There are some fundamental dynamics of information that are innate to the internet, and most companies coast those trends. There are occasional shifts; like the smartphone with its always-on-connectivity and sensors but things more or less follow certain trends. Continue reading “Fake News is an attention economy problem”

With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility

It’s getting harder to suppress the sense of an impending doom. With the latest Equifax hack, the question of data stewardship has been propelled to the mainstream, again. There are valid calls to reprimand those responsible, and even shut down the company altogether. After all, if a company whose business is safekeeping information can’t keep the information safe, what other option is there?

The increased attention to the topic is welcome but the outrage misses a key point. Equifax hack is unfortunate, but it is not a black swan. It is merely the latest incarnation of a problem, that will only get worse, unless we all do something. Continue reading “With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility”

iPhone stole your attention. Your watch might help.

Apple announcements never fail to entertain. Over the years most amusing moments came to be when an Apple executive makes a comment about how their products not just contain amazing technology, but embody larger than life qualities. Couple years ago, when Apple removed the headphone jack from its phones, they called, without a hint of irony, “courage”. This year’s announcements had its share of squirming moments too, from Apple Town Squares to soul-sucking visualizations of face scanning technology. But for me, the real kicker was when Apple decided to associate the Apple Watch with cellular connectivity with “freedom”. Continue reading “iPhone stole your attention. Your watch might help.”

The cyber history repeats itself

With a new unicorn popping up seemingly every other week, it’s easy to forget that the new behemoths that shape our lives, the technology firms, existed more than a few years. Behind the shiny veneer, however, there is a rich history of how this world came about to be. And just like any other history, it’s one that keeps repeating itself.

The latest iteration of the history, though, is not its finest one. Nazis are back. Continue reading “The cyber history repeats itself”

On quiet

Istanbul is not a quiet place. The streets are filled to the brim with cars, honking. The kid is screaming to his mom, the girlfriend to her boyfriend, the police to the street vendor. It’s not pleasant, but it is Turkey.

However, the real noise is not the people, or the cars, or the ferries. It is the news. Everyone in Turkey is always watching the news. It’s on the background when you are at home, with your parents. It’s blaring at you when you are at the corner store from the TV hung to the corner. It’s shouting at you when you are at bank, from the small radio sitting next to the framed photo of the teller’s daughter. It’s even on at the waiting room at the doctor’s office, because that’s when you really need a pick me up.

And when you are, by some miraculous happenstance out of the earshot of a TV, there’s Twitter. Everyone is always on their phones, and if they are not checking Instagram, they are checking the news on Twitter. It never ends. It wasn’t always that way, I want to say, but for the love of me, I can’t remember when it wasn’t.

It used to be fashionable to call Turkey the “Little America”, largely due to an overzealous adoption of neoliberalism and all the joys and pains that come with it. It used to be a thing, a family tradition, to enjoy the even the most inane of American traditions. Having visited America was a sign of not just wealth, but also a checkmark on the pursuit of a more enlightened world.

Now, slowly it looks America is on its way to become a “Little Turkey” itself, primarily starting from people’s addiction to the news and a constant state of screaming.

Many a words have been said about the 24/7 cable news networks in the US. How the inane, and insane, need to fill up over the hours drives networks to just have talking faces on TV. The current boogeyman for the orange man in the White House is partly responsible, people argue, for him being there. When I was a kid, CNN for me was the night-vision imagery from the first, of seemingly endlessly many, Iraq war. Now it’s a bunch of talking heads, that are always there.

And then, there’s Twitter. And push notifications. Always the push notifications. It used to be different though. When I first moved to US, in 2006, we also had a scandalous president. He didn’t seem to be that coherent, and his policies didn’t earn him many favors in or outside the US. There was some political turmoil, maybe even a war, but it happened on a different timescale. There were other things going on.

One of the first things that America lost when Trump got elected is the quiet, the personal space millions had to themselves. You had a time to yourself to be in love, to be with your friends. There were conversations that never touched on politics. Some things were downstream politics, but most things were not. There was a time, when you could just be angry at your things in your world at your own time. Now, you are required to be angry all the time because of something you didn’t do, don’t have control over and seemingly with no end in sight.

Has it been 6 months since Trump took the office, or 6 years? Is anyone even counting anymore? How would it feel different if this wasn’t just 1/8 (hopefully) into the dumpster fire that’s this administration but we were just halfway there. I am aware that I am speaking from a privileged position here, as a white man with a stable job in a well-paying industry, as opposed to being a minority. Maybe things were always this loud, if you always had to worry about your job, or your livelihood.

But in the objective space I can carve out, I feel that things got worse. And we need to do something about it.

I am not suggesting that people ignore the news or disengage from the public discourse. Or disconnect entirely or at all. I don’t think a democracy works with a fully disengaged public. And it certainly does not, with a public that only is informed about topics that interest them. We all have a responsibility to be informed, including on things that don’t matter to us but to those around us. But it also matters what we each decide to think about, what we need to care about. We built ourselves empires on capturing attention, and we are slowly realizing that our minds cannot keep up with its demands. But, I think we have yet to realize that our minds aren’t also capable of being outraged, all the time. We can’t always be mad, lest we lose our connection with the reality. Everything is political but politics isn’t everything.

One goal of politics is to arrange relationships between big groups of people. Not necessarily divide or unite them, but to establish some sort of structure. A network of roads, where connections happen. It doesn’t care if you run tanks on them, or ice-cream trucks. You can drive away, or run towards someone. But the world is not about those roads. It’s not not about them either, of course -just ask any commuter- but it’s just a part of it.

Somewhere along the way, we need to park our cars, get off our bikes and look around the world as is. The quiet is easily disturbed, but in the end, it’s what makes each of us human, unique and it’s what keeps the society humming along. We can’t always scream, we need to be quiet so that everyone else can have it too.