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A More Compassionate Facebook

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Facebook, in terms of compassionate design decisions.

First they announced that they aren’t adding a Dislike button, but they are adding a set of six emoji reactions to the “Like” button, so you can indicate a wider range of emotion.  Some people immediately linked this to Slack, as if emoji reactions hadn’t been a thing on social media for the last couple of years.  I happened to see Sally Herships asking “what are your thoughts?” about it on Twitter (heh), and oh, I had thoughts.  I ended up sharing some of those thoughts by phone, and one of them was part of a segment on American Public Media’s Marketplace.

It’s funny, in a way, that my thought on marketing and advertisers was what made it into the piece, because I think that was literally my whole thought about that side of things.  Most of the rest of my conversation with Sally was about how Facebook could use these reactions as a way to avoid insensitive design choices.  As an example, a status update that gets lots of interaction in the frowny-face or sad-face realm could be avoided when it comes to things like Year in Review.  I said something to the effect of:

People are sharing everything about their lives, positive and negative, billions of us every day.  That isn’t going to stop, so it’s great to see Facebook making changes to meet us where we are, or at least meet us partway.

These reaction emoji almost certainly aren’t the last word on this, but they’re a credible initial attempt.  In more than one sense, they’re a first step into a larger world.

Next, Facebook introduced filtering for its On This Day (OTD) feature.  This is another step in the evolution of On This Day, one that’s very welcome.  Facebook had already been revising its language to be more humane, shifting from simple “Relive this memory” to nuanced language expressing care and openness.

The original and more recent copy at the top of an On This Day memory.

With its new OTD preferences, Facebook now lets you define ranges of dates you’d like to be blacklisted, in effect, as well as people you don’t want to see memories about.  I’d commented on the lack of this, back when OTD launched:

…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.

So far as I can tell, you still can’t opt out entirely; even if you turn off all notifications, you can still get memories inserted into your timeline.  For me, I see about one a month, more or less.  But here’s the interesting thing: they’re almost never my memories.  In what I still regard as a major gamble by Facebook, On This Day will show you posts, pictures, and videos posted by someone else, but on which you were tagged.  I presume (though I have no simple way to test) that adding a person in the OTD filtering preferences will prevent you from seeing memories in which they’re tagged as well as memories they posted.

If so, that’s a really smart step, as I can only imagine how a spiteful ex might abuse OTD.  It still leaves open the possibility of old posts that you don’t remember being tagged on suddenly appearing.  In many cases, that will be a delightful moment, but in many others, the exact opposite of that.  This is why I regard Facebook’s decision to show you posts from other people a gamble.  Even if they show unwanted memories to just 1% of their user base—a ridiculously low percentage—that’s literally 10 million people a day.

Still: wrinkles or no, flaws or no, the presence of filtering preferences is a major enhancement to On This Day.  I could block out all of June 2014, if I so chose.  There might be years where I blocked it, and others where I removed the block.  The important thing is that I’m being given that capability, in an environment that’s already designed to show me memories and acknowledge that it’s easy to get that wrong.  The user experience for adding filters is still clunky, but much like the reaction emoji, I view this as a credible first try, not the final word.

All this has made for some interesting Slack discussions between me and Sara, as we literally just finished the manuscript for our forthcoming, still-not-quite-titled-but-we’re-really-close-honest book on compassion in design.  Which has references to things like On This Day, so we’re already revising a book that hasn’t even been published yet.  And when will it be published?  We’re pulling for early next year, which sounds like a long way away until you remember that 2015 is getting close to done.

Kudos to Facebook, both for its efforts to be kinder in what they do and for its willingness to try.  Not many businesses, let alone social-media titans, have had the courage to think about what can go wrong in this realm, let alone actually acknowledge missteps and work to do better.  Well done.


Facebook is emotionally smarter than we give it credit for, though perhaps not as algorithmically smart as it could be.

I’ve been pondering this for a few weeks now, and Zeynep Tufekci’s “Facebook and the Tyranny of the ‘Like’ in a Difficult World” prodded me to consolidate my thoughts.

(Note: This is not about what Tufekci writes about, exactly, and is not meant as a rebuttal to her argument.  I agree with her that post-ranking algorithms need to be smarter.  I also believe there are design solutions needed to compensate for the unthinking nature of those algorithms, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Tufekci’s piece perfectly describes the asymmetrical nature of Facebook’s “engagement” mechanisms, commented on for years: there is no negative mirror for the “Like” button.  As she says:

Of course he cannot like it. Nobody can. How could anyone like such an awful video?

What happens then to the video? Not much. It will mostly get ignored, because my social network has no way to signal to the algorithm that this is something they care about.

What I’ve been thinking of late is that the people in her network can comment as a way to signal their interest, caring, engagement, whatever you want to call it.  When “Like” doesn’t fit, comments are all that’s left, and I think that’s appropriate.

In a situation like Tufekci describes, or any post that deals with the difficult side of life, comments are exactly what’s called for.  Imagine if there were a “Dislike” button.  How many would just click it without commenting?  Before you answer that question, consider: how many click “Like” without commenting?  How many more would use “Dislike” as a way to avoid dealing with the situation at hand?

When someone posts something difficult—about themselves, or someone they care about, or the state of the world—they are most likely seeking the support of their community.  They’re asking to be heard.  Comments fill that need.  In an era of Likes and Faves and Stars and Hearts, a comment (usually) shows at least some measure of thought and consideration.  It shows that the poster has been heard.

Many of those posts can be hard to respond to.  I know, because many of the Facebook posts my wife and I were making two years (and one year) ago right now were doubtless incredibly hard to read.  I remember many people leaving comments along the lines of, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking of you all.”  And even that probably felt awkward and insufficient to those who left such comments.  Crisis and grief and fear in others can make us very uncomfortable.  Pushing past that discomfort to say a few words is a huge show of support.  It matters.

Adding “Dislike” would be a step backward, in terms of emotional intelligence.  It could too easily rob people who post about the difficult parts of life of something they clearly seek.

Warning Hashflags

Over the weekend, I published “Time and Emotion” on The Pastry Box, in which I pondered the way we’re creating the data that the data-miners of the future will use to (literally) thoughtlessly construct emotional minefields—if we don’t work to turn away from that outcome.

The way I introduced the topic was by noting the calendar coincidence of the Star Wars-themed tradition of “May the Fourth be with you” and the anniversary of the Kent State shootings in 1970, and how I observe the latter while most of the internet celebrates the former: by tweeting some song lyrics with a relevant hashtag, #maythe4th.  I did as I said I would…and Twitter blindly added a layer of commentary with a very simple little content filter.  On and in the official Twitter app, a little Stormtrooper helmet was inserted after the hashtag #maythe4th.

So let’s review: I tweeted in remembrance of a group of National Guardsmen firing into a crowd of college students, wounding nine and killing four.  After the date hashtag, there appeared a Stormtrooper icon.  To someone who came into it cold, that could easily read as a particularly tasteless joke-slash-attack, equating the Guardsmen with a Nazi paramilitary group by way of Star Wars reference.  While some might agree with that characterization, it was not my intent.  The meaning of what I wrote was altered by an unthinking algorithm.  It imposed on me a rhetorical position that I do not hold.

In a like vein, Thijs Reijgersberg pointed out that May 4th is Remembrance of the Dead Day in the Netherlands, an occasion to honor those who died in conflict since the outbreak of World War II.  He did so on Twitter, using the same hashtag I had, and again got a Stormtrooper helmet inserted into his tweet.  A Stormtrooper as part of a tweet about the Dutch remembrance of their war dead from World War II on.  That’s…troublesome.

Michael Wiik, following on our observations, took it all one step further by tweeting a number of historical events collected from Wikipedia.  I know several of my British chums would heartily agree with the 1979 tweet’s added layer of commentary, but there are others who might well feel enraged and disgusted.  That could include someone who tweets about the election in celebration, the way people sometimes do about their heroes.

But what about appending a Stormtrooper helment to an observance of the liberation of the Neuengamme concentration camp in 1945?  For that matter, suppose someone tweets May-4th birthday congratulations to a Holocaust survivor, or the child of a Holocaust survivor?  The descendant of a Holocaust victim?

You might think that this is all a bit much, because all you have to do is avoid using the hashtag, or Twitter altogether.  Those are solutions, but they’re not very useful solutions.  They require humans to alter their behavior to accommodate code, rather than expecting code to accommodate humans; and furthermore, they require that humans have foreknowledge.  I didn’t know the hashtag would get an emoji before I did it.  And, because it only shows up in some methods of accessing Twitter, there’s every chance I wouldn’t have known it was there, had I not used to post.  Can you imagine if someone sent a tweet out, found themselves attacked for tweeting in poor taste, and couldn’t even see what was upsetting people?

And, as it happens, even #may4th wasn’t safe from being hashflagged, as Twitter calls it, though that was different: it got a yellow droid’s top dome (I assume BB-8) rather than a Stormtrooper helmet.  The droid doesn’t have nearly the same historical baggage (yet), but it still risks making a user look like they’re being mocking or silly in a situation where the opposite was intended.  If they tagged a remembrance of the 2007 destruction of Greensburg, Kansas with #may4th, for example.

For me, it was a deeply surreal way to make the one of the points I’d been talking about in my Pastry Box article.  We’re designing processes that alter people’s intended meaning by altering content and thus adding unwanted context, code that throws pieces of data together without awareness of meaning and intent, code that will synthesize emotional environments effectively at random.  Emergent patterns are happening entirely outside our control, and we’re not even thinking about the ways we thoughtlessly cede that control.  We’re like toddlers throwing tinted drinking glasses on the floor to see the pretty sparkles, not thinking about how the resulting beauty might slice someone’s foot open.

We don’t need to stop writing code.  We do need to start thinking.


My next big project is to form a rock band called The Why and release a double-length concept album titled “Apophenia”.

—Twitter post, 15 October 2014

Kat and Carolyn were in New York City this past weekend for a brief trip, and when they got back Kat was in a bad way.  I picked them up from the airport and Kat’s symptoms were such that I drove her straight to the Cleveland Clinic ER on suspicion of a cardiac event.  (It wasn’t.)  With the help of friends, I got the kids off to their scheduled activities and stayed with Kat.  By late in the afternoon, we knew she’d be staying overnight, and we decided that I should go to be with the kids.

I gathered up the backpacks and dirty clothes from their weekend trip, slung them over my shoulder, and then stood at Kat’s bedside, holding her hand.  Not speaking, just standing.  Eventually she gave me a small smile and said, “Go on.”

I twitched toward the door, and failed to actually move.  Kept standing.  Kept holding.

“I’ll be all right, Eric.  It’s fine.  Go.”

“I know it’s stupid, but I’m afraid to.  The two times I walked away from Rebecca in a hospital, it didn’t end well.”

We spent our last few hours of innocent ignorance in an emergency room in New Jersey, getting Rebecca rehydrated and hoping to figure out what was going on.  She was so lethargic and tired, and we feared spinal meningitis.  As the day wore on, she seemed stable, neither better nor worse, but one of us had to go get the other kids.  We decided to have Kat stay, since she was the medical professional.  I gave Rebecca a hug and kiss, told her I loved her so much and to feel better soon, and walked out the door.  Not long after that, she had her first seizure.

Just a few months later, after the surgeries and protons and initial chemotherapy and our return back home to Cleveland, Rebecca finally came down with a fever.  It was of course at a time that we could only take her to the ER for evaluation, to make sure she wasn’t neutropenic.  It was evening, and we were hungry, so I went over to the food court while the last few tests were run before they discharged us.  While I was gone, the staff gave Rebecca a routine dose of ceftriaxone, and she immediately had a strong anaphylactic reaction.  We had never known she was allergic to it.  Antihistamines were quickly administered, and she had to spend the night at the hospital in case the reaction flared up again.  It didn’t.

Twice I walked away from a loved one lying in a hospital bed.  Twice something went terribly, horribly wrong.

And of course there’s nothing to that but coincidence, but we evolved to spot patterns.  It was a survival skill of the savannah, to see how disparate and apparently unconnected events tied together into a cohesive story.

Now we drag it around with us like a growth that we’ve long since ceased to notice.  We see stories written in the stars and meaning imposed on our mundanity.  The most common question we ask is “Why?”, and that can lead us to wonderful discoveries and insight, but it seems just as often to mislead us into an egotistic reordering of the world.  Our obsessive quest for causes can all too easily cause us to invest in illusions.  That pattern-recognizer that coils through the hindbrain can and does turn on us.

Think of all the conspiracy theories you’ve ever heard or believed.  Think of all the times you’ve heard of something terrible happening to someone and asked yourself why it happened.  Think of all the people who get blamed for what has happened to or even near them, regardless of whether we know all they did or didn’t do.

Think of all the Greek or Roman or any other culture’s myths, the stories where some person draws the notice of the gods, who then proceed to punish them for hubris or mischievously grant their prayer according to its letter but opposite its spirit.  That impulse is no less strong in us.  So many people ask themselves what they could have done differently to avoid their current situation, or what they’ve done to deserve what’s happened to them.

And even our language enforces this view, subtly and persistently.  In the last paragraph, I could have written “So many people ask themselves what they could have done differently to avoid their fate”, but “fate” is a concept born of stories.  It carries with it meanings of destiny, of supernatural forces directing a specific outcome.  I even started to type the word, and then replaced it with “current situation”, which is a far more accurate rendition of what I want to say, but not nearly so poetic.

Not nearly so story-like.

We optimize our language’s patterns to favor the concepts that feel the best to us.  All languages do.  And in doing so, we not only reflect the patterns we see, but reinforce them.  Powerfully.  We reorder the way we see the world, we create patterns of filtering, and when we talk to each other we transmit those patterns to each other, self-reinforcing.

I could say the patterns are living, memetic symbiotes, and thus fall victim to the overactive pattern-recognizer in my own hindbrain.

So we ask ourselves what we could have done to save Rebecca.  I can and do believe as strongly as I believe anything that there was never any hope for Rebecca.  Her genetic makeup, some accident of her conception or fetal development or whatever, meant that she was always going to die of cancer as a child.  We could have tried anything from megadoses of chemotherapy to experimental surgery to the latest woo-woo herbal treatments, and she still would have died.  All we could affect was how long that took, and what her short life would be like as it came to an end.  And we had no way to know which choices struck the best balance of lifespan and life quality.

I like to think that we did well, but for all I know some other set of choices would have given her another six or twelve months with the same quality of life she had.  I don’t know, and I don’t torture myself over that; we did the best we possibly could.  Perhaps that’s me imposing an absent pattern on disparate points of data again, but she did have great quality of life, up until the last week or so, and we fought ourselves to safeguard that for her.  It will have to be enough.

And yet, I still ask myself sometimes if we somehow could have saved her.  If there was a moment when the doctors said X, that we were supposed to do Y instead.  And there’s that pattern-recognizer, affecting our language again: “we were supposed to”.  As if her life was meant to be a long and perfect story, and we were too blind and stupid to see it and fulfill it.  As if we failed to understand what we were supposed to do.

That same impulse is only a short step away from taking responsibility for the cancer itself.  Wondering if we could have avoided the cancer entirely if we’d fed her a different diet, or lived in a different city with different air, or taken a different approach in infant medications, or to vaccination.  Or if we’d been less satisfied with our lives.  Maybe she’d be all right if we hadn’t had the impulse to thank whatever gods or demons might lurk beyond the horizon for our lives that seemed so right, and say no more than that; maybe she suffered for our being humbly grateful for what we had and not thinking that we needed to beg for that state to continue.  Punished for the hubris of believing that our lives were good and in no need of improvement.

“What did I do to deserve this?” it’s so easy to ask.  “What did she do to deserve this?  Why her?  Why us?”

“Why”.  “Deserve”.

Patterns of instinct, encoded in language, enforced in thought, imposed on the world.

Capricious deities, lurking in the clouds.  Heroes and monsters, written in the stars.

Twice I walked away from a loved one lying in a hospital bed.  Twice something went terribly, horribly wrong in my absence.

So I stood there holding Kat’s hand, wanting to stay with her even if it meant sleeping in a hospital chair all night, because deep in my hindbrain, the pattern-recognizer was screaming that something would go wrong, just like those other times.  That she would die if I left.

I squeezed her hand and gave her a kiss, told her I loved her and to feel better, and walked out the door.

She’s fine.

If Harry Befriended Sally

I really want to see a mainstream Hollywood movie, preferably with stars in the lead roles, that goes basically like this:  a couple of single people meet cute, become very good friends, meet and fall in love with other people, and stay very good friends.  The End.

It’s been pointed out to me that this is basically the Harry Potter series, which causes me to applaud J. K. Rowling all over again…but note that I said “movie”, not “movie series”.  That is to say, while I love that Rowling resisted having Harry and Hermione hook up, I’d like to see that same sort of arc played out over ninety minutes, not nineteen hours.

Here are some other limits I would place on my ideal movie:

  • The friends never have sex.  Not even drunken one-night-stand sex.
  • In fact, they never even date.  They hang out and do stuff together, but the way that people hang out and do stuff with people they aren’t dating.
  • Related: neither of them develops a crush on the other.  Their love for each other is that of really good friends, period.
  • Possibly optional: show through various grace notes in the scenes that while these are great friends, they wouldn’t work well as a romantic couple, and that they realize and are totally fine with that.
  • Their friendship is not broken or externally threatened.  It’s okay if they argue and even fight from time to time—friends often do.  Misunderstandings are part of any relationship.  Show those, but don’t make it into some kind of world-shattering drama or seem like they’re going to part ways.  Just normal human struggles.
  • Related: neither of them hates or is jealous of their friend’s choice of romantic partner, and vice versa.  I’m not going to insist they all four become super-best friends, but what we’re looking for here is healthy (if imperfect) relationships all the way around.

In a lot of ways, this would look like When Harry Met Sally… without the sex and the stuff at the end.  I’m not saying it’s exactly that, because it’s been a long time since I saw that movie and there may be other things that would need to change.  But, in a broad sense, that.

Why do I want this?  Because I’m really tired of seeing movies (and TV shows and video games and on and on) that essentially insist that any two people who could potentially fall in love must fall in love.  Or even just lust.  Those things are not requirements of all human interaction, and I’d like to see—even if it’s just once—something that looks like a rom-com, but ends up being something a lot more interesting and true to life.  Even more, I’d like my children to see it.  They see it in real life, but a little extra backup wouldn’t hurt.

If anyone knows of a movie that meets these criteria, whether Hollywood-based or not, I’d love to know about it.


Our youngest tends to wake up fairly early in the morning, at least as compared to his sisters, and since I need less sleep than Kat I’m usually the one who gets up with him.  This morning, he put away a box he’d just emptied of toys and I told him, “Well done!”  He turned to me, stuck his hand up in the air, and said with glee, “Hive!”

I gave him the requested high-five, of course, and then another for being proactive.  It was the first time he’d ever asked for one.  He could not have looked more pleased with himself.

And I suddenly realized that I wanted to be able to say to my glasses, “Okay, dump the last 30 seconds of livestream to permanent storage.”

There have been concerns raised about the impending crowdsourced panopticon that Google Glass represents.  I share those concerns, though I also wonder if the pairing of constant individual surveillance with cloud-based storage mediated through wearable CPUs will prove out an old if slightly recapitalized adage: that an ARMed society is a polite society.  Will it?  We’ll see—pun unintentional but unavoidable, very much like the future itself.

And yet.  You think that you’ll remember all those precious milestones, that there is no way on Earth you could ever forget your child’s first word, or the first time they took their first steps, or the time they suddenly put on an impromptu comedy show that had you on the floor laughing.  But you do forget.  Time piles up and you forget most of everything that ever happened to you.  A few shining moments stay preserved, and the rest fade into the indistinct fog of your former existence.

I’m not going to hold up my iPhone or Android or any other piece of hardware all the time, hoping that I’ll manage to catch a few moments to save.  That solution doesn’t scale at all, but I still want to save those moments.  If my glasses (or some other device) were always capturing a video buffer that could be dumped to permanent storage at any time, I could capture all of those truly important things.  I could go back and see that word, that step, that comedy show.  I would do that.  I wanted to do it, sitting on the floor of my child’s room this morning.

That was when I realized that Glass is inevitable.  We’re going to observe each other because we want to preserve our own lives—not every last second, but the parts that really matter to us.  There will be a whole host of side effects, some of which we can predict but most of which will surprise us.  I just don’t believe that we can avoid it.  Even if Google fails with Glass, someone else will succeed with a very similar project, and sooner than we expect.  I’ve started thinking about how to cope with that outcome.  Have you?

The Web Behind

Whenever I meet a new person and we get to talking about our personal lives, one of the things that seems to surprise people the most, besides the fact that I live in Cleveland and not in New York City or San Francisco, is that I have a Bachelor’s of Art in History.  The closest I came to Computer Science was a minor concentration in Artifical Intelligence, and in all honesty it was more of a philosophical study.

To me, history is vital.  As a species, we’ve made a plethora of mistakes and done myriad things right, and the record (and outcomes) of those successes and failures can tell us a great deal about how we got to where we are as well as where we might go.  (Also, from a narrative standpoint, history is the greatest and most authentic story we’ve ever told—even the parts that are untrue.)  The combination of that interest and my ongoing passion for the web is what led me to join the W3C’s recently formed Web History Community Group, where efforts to preserve (digital) historical artifacts are slowly coalescing.

But even more importantly, it’s what has led me to establish a new web history podcast in association with Jen Simmons of The Web Ahead.  The goal of this podcast, which is a subset of The Web Ahead, is to interview people who made the web today possible.  The guests will be authors, programmers, designers, vendors, toolmakers, hobbyists, academics: some whose names you’ll instantly recognize, and others who you’ve never heard of even though they helped shape everything we do.  We want to bring you their stories, get their insights and perspectives, and find out what they’ve been doing of late.  The Mac community has; I hope that this podcast will help start to build an similar archive for the web.  You can hear us talk about it a bit on The Web Ahead #34, where we announce our first guest as well as the date and time for our first show!  (Semi-spoiler: it’s next week.)

Jen and I have took to calling this project The Web Behind in our emails, and the name stuck.  It really is a subset of The Web Ahead, so if you’re already subscribed to The Web Ahead, then episodes of The Web Behind will come to you automatically!  If not, and you’re interested, then please subscribe!  We already have some great guests lined up, and will announce the first few very soon.

I haven’t been this excited about a new project in quite some time, so I very much hope you’ll join Jen and me (and be patient as I relearn my radio chops) for a look back that will help to illuminate both our present and our future.

Vigilance and Victory

After the blackout on Wednesday, it seems that the political tides are shifting against SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act—as of this writing, there are now more members of Congress in opposition to the bills than in favor.  That’s good news.

I wil reiterate something I said on Twitter, though:  the members of tech community, particularly those who are intimately familiar with the basic protocols of the Internet, need to keep working on ways to counteract SOPA/PIPA.  What form that would take, I’m not sure.  Maybe a truly distributed DNS system, one that can’t be selectively filtered by any one government or other entity.  I’m not an expert in the area, so I don’t actually know if that’s feasible.  There’s probably a much more clever solution, or better still suite of solutions.

The point is, SOPA and PIPA may soon go down to defeat, but they will return in another form.  There is too much money in the hands of those who first drafted these bills, and they’re willing to give a fair chunk of that money to those who introduced the bills in Congress.  Never mistake winning a battle with winning the war.  As someone else observed on Twitter (and I wish I could find their tweet now), the Internet community fought hard against the DMCA, and it’s been US law for more than a decade.

By all means, take a moment to applaud the widespread and effective community effort to oppose and (hopefully) defeat bad legislation.  When that’s done, take notes on what worked and what didn’t, and then prepare to fight again and harder.  Fill the gap between battles with outreach to your elected representatives and with efforts to educate the non-technical in your life to explain why SOPA/PIPA were and are a bad idea.

Days of action feel great.  Months of effort are wearying.  But it’s only the latter that can slowly and painfully bring about long-term change.

November 2015