An internet with an elephant memory

Turns out I always had a penchant for run-on sentences. I have counted over 3 of them in a college application essay I wrote in 2004. It is sitting there, on my Dropbox account, where I moved my “important” documents to from an old Yahoo! email. It’s been there, untouched, seemingly for eternity. Barring a catastrophic event, like Dropbox going out of business or me getting hacked, I suspect it’ll be there for at least 15 more years. Continue reading “An internet with an elephant memory”

Technology has agency, you just need to know where to look.

A line of reasoning that I just can’t get behind: Everything tech companies do is downstream user behavior, and they, people who lead them, have real no agency.

It makes some sense; consumers are fickle, culture flips on a dime etc. And definitely talking points are there too. “Competition is a click away”, “Mobile address book means switching costs zero”, “We don’t deserve your data, if we mess it up”. It’s all cute, and it makes some intellectual sense. But only the surface.

Continue reading “Technology has agency, you just need to know where to look.”

What Facebook did was probably legal. But that’s the problem.

Yesterday I had a quick interview with BBC Newsnight about the recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica debate. In one of my answers, I mentioned that I think what Facebook did was probably legal. The text in the tweet is missing the rest of my answer, but I regardless stand by what I said. As a disclaimer, I am not a lawyer.

Continue reading “What Facebook did was probably legal. But that’s the problem.”

A breach by another name? There is probably more coming. We need to prepare.

Imagine a data scientist working at Facebook. Let’s call her Alice. As part of her assignment, Alice collects a couple hundred thousand Facebook users’ profile, stores on her laptop. The data contains not just what users entered into Facebook, but what Facebook gathered and inferred about them. Alice is excited. Users whose data is being used largely trust Facebook to be good custodians of this data.

But Alice’s boyfriend, Bob, has another idea. He knows that the user data Alice has on her laptop can be sold to some data broker. He’s been unhappy where their relationship has been going anyway, his startup going through down rounds while Facebook stock just keeps going up and up.

Continue reading “A breach by another name? There is probably more coming. We need to prepare.”

Reading things on Twitter hasn’t changed for years. It is time for some new ideas.

I have been using Twitter for a better part of a decade. I have taken somewhat public breaks from it, but for better or worse, it’s become a big part of my life. I’ve met people through it, found jobs and clients through it (though suspiciously never paid for either of it). It’s where I go to ramble, and where I go for cheap laughs, depressing news, and dank memes.

What’s really remarkable about Twitter is how little it has changed over the years. They have added a (rounded) corner here and there, changed likes to hearts, maybe added a feature or two. But the core Twitter experience, a timeline, has been the same. I used to think it’s a good thing, but now I am not so sure. Continue reading “Reading things on Twitter hasn’t changed for years. It is time for some new ideas.”

Developing Shared Code with Principles

One of the most high-leverage work in a technical organization is building shared libraries or frameworks. A common library, a piece of code that can be used as is, or a framework, a system that codifies certain decisions and allows further work to be built on top, has the opportunity to benefit many people at once. Not only that, they also institutionalize shared knowledge, put knowledge that’s in people’s head in code for future employees. And of course, there are other benefits such as possibly open-sourcing such work, which comes with its set of benefits to hiring and on boarding. Continue reading “Developing Shared Code with Principles”

Re-engineering News with Technology

Years ago, in college, I went to a presentation by a big internet company, as part of a recruitment event. At the time, I was working at the college newspaper, and the talk was about their “front page”. They said it was the biggest news site at the time, so I was excited.

The bulk of the talk was technical. But the presenter mentioned that one of the biggest challenges was keeping abreast of what they called the “National Enquirer effect”. The problem, as she described, was this. The main goal of the front page is to drive traffic to other properties; and the system was always optimizing both the selection of content on the front page and its ordering based on raw clicks. He said, while no one admits to it, content with the best-clickthrough rate was always “bikini women”, so left alone, algorithms would turn the front page into National Enquirer. Ironically, this means that no one would visit them, over a long enough period. They said they were trying to fix this by some longer term optimizations, but for now, there was essentially a team for each locale that monitored the site, and kept it “clean”. Continue reading “Re-engineering News with Technology”

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.”

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.”

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”