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Time and Emotion

This coming Monday, as has become tradition, a significant fraction of the Twitter user base will send out Star-Wars-themed tweets tagged #maythe4th or #maythefourthbewithyou, because saying the day in that way makes for a handy bit of wordplay.  There will be cosplay pictures, Yoda-esque inversions of sentence structure, and probably (this year) a fair bit of squeeing about the upcoming sequel and its brilliantly fan-service trailer.

Also this coming Monday, as has become tradition for me, I will send out a tweet containing the opening lines of “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, tagged #maythe4th, because it was on May 4th, 1970 that National Guardsmen fired a volley into a crowd of Kent State college students, wounding nine and killing four.

Anniversaries are potent psychological markers.  We reflect on historical events, both global and personal, that have particular meaning to us.  We celebrate the days of our birth, of first meeting our loved ones, of all manner of wonderful life-changing moments.  We mourn the days of our losses, of our betrayals, of all manner of terrible life-changing moments.  In every heart, a secret calendar.

There are only so many days in the year; pile enough things together on a calendar, and some of them will coincide.  Some of those alignments will coalesce into rays of remembered joy, warming us from the past.  Others will form spears of relived pain, lodging afresh in our hearts.  A few may do both, comforting and piercing all at once.

The longer we spend online, the more traces of those secret calendars will take public shape.  The dates of my first marriage and divorce are not, to the best of my recollection, recorded anywhere online, but the date of my second (and current) marriage is there, thanks to some early blog posts.  The date of my first professional award is there.  The dates of our children’s placements and adoptions are there.  The dates of my daughter’s illness and death are there.

The more we build online networks, not physical networks but social and emotional networks, the more pieces we leave lying around for algorithms to gather together and present to us with no real thought for what those pieces actually mean, or for how they should or shouldn’t fit together.  A human can glance through a pile of photos and tell which are emotionally or even narratively out of place.  Code cannot.  A human can quickly determine which scraps of text and pixels were happy at the moment of their creation, only to be transformed into talismans of sorrow by later events.  Code cannot.

We’re collectively creating strata of data, adorned with easy bits of metadata like time and date and sometimes place, but lacking all the truly important metadata like feeling and meaning.  As we share with each other, we share with the future.  We share with the companies that help us share with each other, because it’s easy to store it all.  Content in the old network was ephemeral, and in the older networks was tangible but private.  In the new networks, everything we create is easy to retrieve—if not for us, as users of the network, then at least for the code that runs on the same machines which accept all that we share.

And so, more and more with every passing day, code is written to reach back into everything we’ve created, assembling it along easily-identified axes like Likes or Faves or geographic coordinates or the day of the year, in order to show it to us again.  Sometimes it’s code we invite into our lives, but not always.  Sometimes we find the code that drives the networks we use resurrecting our past without warning.

This will not always be welcome.

There are things we can do to make our remorselessly remembering routines more humane, and most of those things are rooted in experience design.  We can design compassionate consent requests ahead of introducing new functionality, and easy ways to mark which dates and memories and bits of data should be avoided, and even design thoughtful expressions of remorse and apology.  We can and should add this very human layer of thoughtfulness to cushion us from literally unthinking code that yields results which may harm as easily as they may heal.

It won’t be easy, and we’ll make mistakes no matter how hard we try.  Our very attempts to be thoughtful may backfire and make things worse, but we’ll learn from those mistakes and do better the next time.

Nothing could be more human than that.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 May 2015.

The Pivotal Ways

Five years ago yesterday, the suave and debonair Ethan Marcotte debuted a talk titled “A Dao of Flexibility” at An Event Apart Seattle.  I still remember the feeling in the room.  Those of us who were there realized that it was a pivotal moment for the web, even before Ethan had left the stage.  It was the moment that responsive web design burst forth into the world.

The title, and content, of Ethan’s talk explicitly paid homage to the rugged and handsome John Allsopp’s “A Dao of Web Design”, published fifteen years ago today at A List Apart.  It’s hard to overstate how much wisdom and prescience is distilled into that deceptively short piece.  As I said in the testimonial I contributed to ALA’s remembrance:

John’s insights are as sharp and relevant as ever, especially when we realize the web’s inherent flexibility isn’t just about layout—that, in fact, layout flexibility is one of the web’s least important features. I try to reread “A Dao of Web Design” at least once a year. You should, too.

There’s not much more I can add, and honestly, anything I tried to add to these seminal works of brilliance would only cheapen them.  Go, read; go, watch.  Remember where we’ve come from, and use that foundation to chart where we’re going.

Obsessive Musings

I’m typing this, sandy-eyed and a little light-headed, as the Eastern Seaboard slowly scrolls beneath me.  It’s the second of two flights today; the first took off from Seattle at not quite 3am, at least considered from the Eastern (U.S.) time zone.  To those in Seattle, of course, I left shortly before midnight yesterday.

I’m headed for Boston by way of Dulles, there to land, roll off the plane, grab a cab, and get to the conference hotel on the harbor.  This afternoon, I’ll deliver a 25-minute talk in hopes of advancing the state of medical and health care design.  It’s a much cut-down version of the talk I gave not 18 hours ago (as I type this) at An Event Apart Seattle.  Basically, I just took my AEA talk and cut out all the parts that aren’t about health-care-centered design, then compressed a bit the parts that were.  The goal is to leave time for a question or two from the audience.

I left home this past Friday for the Pacific Northwest, and won’t get home until tomorrow—well, today, if you’re reading this on its publication date.  But then, if you are doing that, then everything I’m saying happened yesterday.

I may be a little sleep deprived.

Six days is a long time to be away from my family, at least by my standards, and it’s an especially long time to be away after no significant work travel for almost two years.  The punishing schedule makes it seem even longer to me.

I do it because I’m obsessed.

Time was, I was obsessed about HTML and CSS and the myriad possibilities of the web.  I still have all that, but it’s now almost an echo of what it was.  Apparently, I only have room in my life for one professional obsession.

Now I’m obsessed over the idea of designing with compassion, designing with empathy, designing with care.  It’s hard to articulate exactly what I mean in a compact manner.  The idea doesn’t have an accurate, obvious label yet, the way responsive web design does.  I’m trying to figure it out with Sara Wachter-Boettcher.  We’ll get there.

Writers talk of a muse that drives them, that tasks them.  They become obsessed with writing.  I assume that a muse is basically just an anthropomorphized obsession.  Maybe so.  I’ve never been that kind of writer, but now I have that kind of obsession.  It drives me to present two versions of one talk in successive days on opposite coasts.  It drives me to branch out in unexpected ways, pushing into areas of web design that I had never thought myself qualified to comment on, pushing beyond web design into the wider field of design in all its forms.  It will soon drive me to write in a way I never have before, for audiences I never expected to address.

I would have given a great deal to have never had this obsession, but I do.  Now I hope I can rise to exceed the demands it places on me.

If this all sounds a little grim, well, part of it is.  After all, it springs from a grim place and time.  But then, a big part of that grim tone is probably due to my physical weariness—the flight from Seattle to Dulles was only long enough for me to catch three hours of sleep.  Ordinarily, I’d be micro-napping on this flight to Boston, but instead I’m typing, pushed by my obsession to articulate it so that I can look at the words I’ve written and take them as a commitment, layering another thin stratum of determination on top of the obsession, adorning my muse with a plate of conceptual armor.

There might be more to this metaphor, but if so, the lack of sleep is clouding my ability to see it.

The plane has begun its initial descent into Boston.

Time to see where my obsession pushes me today.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 April 2015.

On This Day

Earlier today, Facebook announced a new feature called “On This Day”.  With On This Day, you see pictures, posts, and other events that occurred on a given day.  If you’re familiar with Timehop, it seems very much like a Facebook-only Timehop.  That will probably seem limited and broken to actual Timehop users, but for the vast majority of Facebook users, it will be a new and potentially very welcome feature.

As you can imagine, given what happened with Year in Review, I’m very interested by On This Day.  I haven’t interacted with the actual product yet, so I don’t know what kinds of opt-in or opt-out features will be present.  If any.  From the screenshots in the Facebook announcement, it looks like they’ve taken a much more neutral direction with the visual design.  There are calendar pages and abstract photos, with few of them expressing much in the way of emotional content.  An exception is seen at the top center of the banner image on the announcement, depicting what appears to be a woman in love, but that’s actually a decoration on the banner, instead of a UI component.  Whether those sorts of things will show up in the UI, I don’t know.

But this is what I wonder: is Facebook about to hurt a bunch of people?  From the announcement:

To see your On This Day page, you can click on the On This Day bookmark, search for “On This Day,” or visit facebook.com/onthisday. You might also see a story in your News Feed.

Putting “a story in the News Feed” is exactly how Year in Review became a viral news story.  And it’s what distinguishes On This Day from Timehop or ThinkUp (which has “your most popular update” features).

If I install Timehop, for example, I know what I’m getting into.  I’m actively, consciously deciding to revisit events from past years by way of Timehop.  I can decide not to launch it at all on certain days, if I know what I see would be too painful.

On This Day, on the other hand, is part of an existing ecosystem.  Dropping On This Day into the Facebook news feed without consent is very much like having Timehop install itself onto your smartphone and then auto-launch, all without asking.  If this happened, we’d (rightly) take the responsible parties to task.  Patronizing dismissals that “you use a smartphone, you get what you deserve” would be relatively thin on the ground, whereas I’m sure there will be plenty of that directed toward any Facebook user upset by what an On This Day new feed entry shows them.  That was certainly the leading line of condescension around the Year in Review news feed post.

There isn’t much more to go on in the announcement, though I did notice:

…you can choose to subscribe to notifications so you’ll be alerted when you have memories to look back on. You can also edit and delete old posts, or decide to share your memories with friends.

Editing or deleting old posts is interesting, if a bit troubling to the historian in me, and the ability to sign up for notifications is a welcome sign of opt-in ethics, but what I notice here is what’s missing:  I don’t see any reference to an ability to opt out of On This Day, either for certain days or altogether.  It might be there and simply not referred to in the product announcement, but I wonder if this is something that Facebook users will simply have to get used to.

The timing of this has a personal resonance.  As I wrote about yesterday, we just passed the first anniversary of the day Kat and I were told about Rebecca’s second tumor.  For the next eleven weeks, both our posts and pictures from last year, wherever they’re housed, will form a chronicle of the last days of our daughter’s life.  How will we react to Facebook, how will we feel about our experience there, if On This Day constantly reminds us of those events?  Will this product increase our affinity with Facebook, or our antipathy?  Perhaps we might go to Facebook to catch up with friends and joke around with them a bit, as a form of mental respite.  Or, perhaps, we would have done that, but now will be unable to do so.  We’ll soon find out.

Lest anyone misunderstand, this isn’t just about Facebook.  It’s about every service or product that seeks to increase user affinity, and avoid user antipathy.  Facebook just happens to be providing some very obvious grounds on which to base these conversations.  Given their line of business and scale of operation, that’s probably to be expected.  I’ll be following this with great professional and personal interest.

Taking Steps

Not too long ago, I got Step Nined on Facebook.

If that didn’t parse as regular English for you, Step Nine is part of the twelve-step program offered by Alcoholics Anonymous. It states, with edits for out-of-context clarity:

“[Make] direct amends to [people you have harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

And so someone I knew back in the town where I grew up, a classmate all throughout my pre-college education who I’ll call John, sent me a private message on Facebook apologizing for how he’d treated me, stating that he’d had no reason other than just having been a mean kid, and hoping that things were going well for me and my family.

I’ve pondered this message quite a bit in the interim. The message brought me neither upset nor relief, though I can well imagine that many people in such a situation would feel one or both. I bore no mental or physical scars with his signature upon them. There was no need of closure, or of re-opening, or really of anything, at least from my point of view. He and his actions toward me, positive or negative, are one thin thread in the complex skein that was my childhood, lost in the overall pattern.

In truth, John’s message aroused more pity in me than anything else. I thought as I read it, What must he have endured as a child, that hurting other people seemed normal to him?  And in that thought, I felt an echo from the past, as though the question had come to me before. Perhaps my parents made the observation, as I struggled through growing up, and I was finally able to hear it now. I’m not sure. It doesn’t really matter. If his message is anything to go by, whatever John did has been far more damaging to him than it ever might have been to me.

Still, I keep coming back to John’s message and pondering it further. What I’ve thought about, far more than its contents or the history it references, has been the simple fact of how it happened, and what that means.

Had John wanted to offer amends in, say, the late 1990s, he would have had to actively seek me out. It would have taken the effort of calling my parents to ask for contact information, or other people he thought might have it, and then making that call to me. The social distance would have been a barrier to contact, one whose surmounting signified the importance of the act to him. And then, when he did make that call, he would have talked to me, able to gauge my reaction. There would have been a feedback loop to tell him whether or not his amends were injurious in some way.

And yes, of course, John could have done exactly that today. He could have kept his process entirely off Facebook and gone through those efforts, as an act of personal penance or just as a useful social signifier. Or, perhaps, he could have contacted me on Facebook to ask for my phone number, with a brief statement as to why he was asking for it, and then let my decision to allow the contact or not be a measure of whether it would in fact be injurious.

But he didn’t. Because the internet has disintermediated social effort.

What I wonder about, as I ponder this small signal, is the depth of his remorse. How much does John really mean it, and how much is he going through the motions, trying to get through Step Nine as quickly as possible so that he can reach Step Twelve sooner? Is he working through his personal pain, or is he grinding the leveling process? It’s impossible for me to say. I know it’s a lot easier to send a bunch of “sorry” messages to your contacts than it is to talk to each person you feel you’ve wronged, one on one, one by one, and go through that painful process over and over and over again.

I wonder if that simple ease of contact has robbed him of a critical component of his healing process.

Or, if you want to be more accurate, I wonder if that simple ease of contact lured him into a course of action that was harmful to his healing process.

The things we build are almost always meant to make things faster, more efficient, easier. Perhaps, sometimes, they should be harder.

This genie will not go back into the bottle. The internet isn’t going away and Facebook still has a long way to go before its fall. Even then, something will have replaced it. There’s no reason to think these sorts of connections will become more difficult to make, technologically speaking.

I wonder if they will become more difficult, socially speaking—if an act like that will become frowned upon, as we might frown upon a form letter condolence note. I wonder what sort of protocols and expectations, what social mores, will emerge over time in response to the disruptions our work has caused and will cause, and how they will shape personal interactions at all levels.

I wonder how much effort we should be putting into influencing the evolution of those emergent social constructs, whether through our work or our personal interactions, and how much of that effort would be ultimately fruitless.

I wonder how intentional people are about what they do, online as well as off; and how intentional they should be.

I wonder what I should say to John.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 March 2015.

Words, Words

R: “What are you playing at?”

G: “Words, words.  They’re all we have to go on.”

—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead

My recent-inbox counter incremented by one, and I was between tasks, so I went to take a look.  It was a notification from Facebook:

Jesse Gardner commented on a link you shared.

"*gets some popcorn*"

Thanks,
The Facebook Team

I couldn’t figure out what would have provoked that sort of comment, so I went to look at the link I’d shared and came away even more confused.  What about the link was popcorn-worthy?  It wasn’t even a case of being an inappropriate response: it was so out of left field, it seemed literally disconnected from the post.  I seriously wondered whether it was a reply meant for some other post, accidentally dropped onto mine by some combination of multiple browser tabs and mental distraction.

So I asked, and it turned out Jesse was actually replying to an earlier comment on that link.  Once he clarified, his comment made perfect sense, and it was in fact quite funny.  What had seemed like a complete non sequitur was revealed to fit seamlessly into the conversation.

Words have such power, but none of it their own.  The words “commented on a link you shared” are so neutral, they make the Swiss look hyperpartisan, and yet they were sufficient to fit into my mental state in such a way that I was led completely astray.  I was so taken in by the idea that Jesse was commenting on the link, I never stopped to ask if he was participating in a conversation.

It wasn’t the words that led me astray, but my interpretation of them.  I led me astray.  Everything I brought to that moment of reading, all my experiences and biases, took the incredibly banal concepts encoded in those arbitrary marks and came to a conclusion that had nothing to do with Jesse’s original intent.  An entire flowering construct of incorrect, misleading assumptions grew out of that simple moment of unconscious interpretation.

No matter how hard we work to be clear, no matter how many words we spend on precision, no matter how carefully we choose our words, what people find in our words is more a product of their views than our efforts.

This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people hear us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what they hear.  If we express ourselves badly, or in a way that is misinterpreted by many, that is on us.

This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people speak to us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what we hear.  If we misinterpret another’s intent, or listen in bad faith, that is on us.

Words have such power, but none of it their own.  We invest them with all the power they have, each in our own way.  We rarely think about it, rarely make conscious decisions about what power we invest in which words.  I think we think far less about what we hear than what we say, and still less about why we hear what we hear.

Nothing about communication can be entirely one-sided.  We bring ourselves to the words that pass between us, every node in the network running on a unique protocol, striving for clarity in a landscape that seems built for confusion.

This is dilemma of communication: words.  Words.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 February 2015.

Sunrise, Sunset

Everything begins, and everything ends.  Sometimes the beginnings are hard to define, and the endings are hard to accept.  Other times the beginnings are clear, and the endings are welcome.

We have a lot of beginnings and endings in our lives.  Beginnings are usually easier than endings.  In fact, some of us dislike endings so much that we avoid them by any means possible.  How many projects have you started, and then let fade from attention, denying them a proper finish?  I’ve done that so many times, I should be ashamed.

This is so common to our industry, though.  Plenty of projects and even programming languages get launched, gain favor, start a buzz, and then gradually fall by the wayside, but they never really end.  There are still people making a living writing COBOL.  There are so few of them left, in fact, they’re probably making a better living than you and me.  COBOL will only die when the last machine shuts down, or else when the last COBOL programmer does.

We see the same dynamics at play in design.  Remember drop shadows?  Some day, we’ll say the same thing about flat design, even responsive design as we now understand it.  Something will build from them, whether as a reaction or an evolution, be given a snappy new name (snappy names are critical to the adoption of design trends), and we’ll look back and say, “Remember…?”

But there is no standard definition of what constitutes the end of a trend.  It’s probably just as well, since in the absence of such a definition, we can support a thriving industry of thinkpieces on The Death Of whatever the thinkpiecer wants to declare dead.  They’re never definitive, but they do generate traffic, which generates ad revenue, which generates higher stock prices for Google.

That is, until some confluence of factors causes Google’s stock to drop, which will in turn launch a thousand breathless thinkpieces on The Death of Google.  They’ll sail off toward the intellectual horizon, questionable axioms and unquestioned assumptions fluttering gaily in the hot air, following in the wakes of the fleets of thinkpieces on The Death of Apple, The Death of Microsoft, The Death of Dell, The Death of IBM, The Death of Kodak, and The Death of Digital Equipment Corporation.

If you live long enough, you start to get a sense that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating, as Shirley Bassey once put it.  The towering crises of youth, both the personal and global, are eventually seen to be iterations on a long-running theme.  When our elders say that youth is wasted on the young, a big part of that observation is the realization that the time of life at which you are the most energetic is also the time in which you’re most likely to expend all that energy taking everything so damn seriously, as if the world is coming to an end.

Which it will, at some point.  Everything does.

The best we can hope for is that an ending comes at the right time, for the right reasons.  We don’t always have the ability to make that happen.  Other times, we do.

Here’s to the last year of The Pastry Box.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 January 2015.

Well, That Escalated Quickly

This post is probably going to be a little bit scattered, because I’m still reeling from the overwhelming, unexpected response to the last post.  I honestly expected “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty” to be read by maybe two or three hundred people over the next couple of weeks, all of them friends, colleagues, and friends who are colleagues.  I hoped that I’d maybe give a few of them something new and interesting to think about, but it was really mostly just me thinking out loud about a shortcoming in our field.  I never expected widespread linking, let alone mainstream media coverage.

So the first thing I want to say: I owe the Year in Review team in specific, and Facebook in general, an apology.  No, not the other way around.  I did get email from Jonathan Gheller, product manager of the Year in Review team at Facebook, before the story starting hitting the papers, and he was sincerely apologetic.  Also determined to do better in the future.  But I am very sorry that I dropped the Internet on his head for Christmas.  He and his team didn’t deserve it.

(And yes, I’ve reflected quite a bit on the irony that I inadvertently made their lives more difficult by posting, after they inadvertently made mine more difficult by coding.)

Yes, their design failed to handle situations like mine, but in that, they’re hardly alone.  This happens all the time, all over the web, in every imaginable context.  Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that web design does poorly, and usually not at all.  I was using Facebook’s Year in Review as one example, a timely and relevant foundation to talk about a much wider issue.

The people who I envisioned myself writing for—they got what I was saying and where I was focused.  The very early responses to the post were about what I expected.  But then it took off, and a lot of people came into it without the context I assumed the audience would have.

What surprised and dismayed me were the…let’s call them uncharitable assumptions made about the people who worked on Year in Review.  “What do you expect from a bunch of privileged early-20s hipster Silicon Valley brogrammers who’ve never known pain or even want?” seemed to be the general tenor of those responses.

No.  Just no.  This is not something you can blame on Those Meddling Kids and Their Mangy Stock Options.

First off, by what right do we assume that young programmers have never known hurt, fear, or pain?  How many of them grew up abused, at home or school or church or all three?  How many of them suffered through death, divorce, heartbreak, betrayal?  Do you know what they’ve been through?  No, you do not.  So maybe dial back your condescension toward their lived experiences.

Second, failure to consider worst-case scenarios is not a special disease of young, inexperienced programmers.  It is everywhere.

As an example, I recently re-joined ThinkUp, a service I first used when it was install-yourself-and-good-luck alpha ware, and I liked it then.  I’d let it fall by the wayside, but the Good Web Bundle encouraged me to sign up for it again, so I did.  It’s a fun service, and it is specifically designed to “show how well you’re using your social networks at a more human level,” to quote their site.

So I started getting reports from ThinkUp, and one of the first was to tell me about my “most popular shared link” on Twitter.  It was when I posted a link to Rebecca’s obituary.

“Popular” is maybe not the best word choice there.

Admittedly, this is a small wrinkle, a little moment of content clashing with context, and maybe there isn’t a better single word than “popular” to describe “the thing you posted that had the most easily-tracked response metrics”.  But the accompanying copy was upbeat, cheery, and totally didn’t work.  Something like, “You must be doing something right—people loved what you had to say!”

This was exactly what Facebook did with Year in Review: found the bit of data that had the most easily-tracked response metrics.  Facebook put what its code found into a Year in Review “ad”.  ThinkUp put what its code found into a “most popular” box.  Smaller in scale, but very similar in structure.

I’m not bringing this up to shame ThinkUp, and I hope I haven’t mischaracterized them here.  If they haven’t found solutions yet, I know they’re trying.  They really, really care about getting this right.  In fact, whenever I’ve sent them feedback, the responses have been fantastic—really thoughtful and detailed.

My point is that ThinkUp is a product of two of the smartest and most caring people I know, Gina Trapani and Anil Dash.  Neither of them comes anywhere close to fitting the Young Brogrammer stereotype; they are, if anything, its antithesis, in both form and deed.  And yet, they have fallen prey to exactly the same thing that affected the Year in Review team: a failure to anticipate how a design decision that really worked in one way completely failed in another, and work to handle both cases.  This is not because they are bad designers: they aren’t.  This is not because they lack empathy: they don’t.  This is not because they ignored their users: they didn’t.  This is such a common failure that it’s almost not a failure any more.  It just… is.

We need to challenge that “is”.  I’ve fallen victim to it myself.  We all have.  We all will.  It will take time, practice, and a whole lot of stumbling to figure out how to do better, but it is, I submit, vitally important that we do.

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