Episode One Hundred and Fifty Nine: She Who Wears The Digital Crown; Designing Community

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

12pm on a Sunny Wednesday. Portland is putting on its glad rags for the just-over-a-thousand arriving for annual indie hug-fest XOXO, I’m sitting in a deli thinking to myself: why, with what Apple launched yesterday pundits can keep themselves in business for *years*. It’s enough to make you change your name to Lunkwill or Fook and get on that gravy train. And yes, it’s a bit like Apple-watching is a certain kind of Kremlinology, or the new kind of Kremlinology, but so. Apple is only just a little bit of what’s happening, and as a friend remarked the other day, “it is a miserable tiny future that a small number of men in a corner of California plot.”[1]

An attention-bound species, only able to shine a light onto one thing at a time, a giant searchlight of this-is-the-thing-that-matters. False, of course – just a story to explain a particular point of view. Lots of other stuff going on. Always lots of other stuff going on.

[1] https://twitter.com/moleitau/status/509544905694515200

1.0 She Who Wears The Digital Crown

I knew what I’d do with a better personal music player. All of my music, everywhere! Well, at the time, it was all of my music. I knew what I’d do with a better phone, too: all that stuff that I wanted to do with a Nokia or Palm at the time, but had to jab ineffectively at the capacitive touch-screen to do. Or navigate through frankly abusive menus to accomplish simple tasks. Or set things like Access Point Names.

I’m not sure what I’d do with a WATCH, though. That’s not to say that there *aren’t* things to do with that watch, but I go back to what the story is about this thing. Tom Armitage sent an interesting note – after going through Ive’s Ivesplaining of what the new thing does, he had a different take on the repetition of the 50-millisecond accuracy. To which all of us geeks say: well, I should bloody hope so, it’s a fucking *computer* connected to the internet. But to everyone else, to people perhaps less literate in things like clock slew and network time protocol, a watch that’s accurate is a good thing, and the kind of thing that people who’re into watches talk about. So Armitage’s observation was: look at the breadth of this thing. Who’s it for? Watch people! But not just watch people. App people too! And health and fitness people!

Ben Thompson has beat me to the punch here in a great article[1] at his Stratechery site. He asks essentially the same questions: in all of Apple’s recent product introductions – ones that brought the company into new categories – they’ve done a great job of persuading you why you need it. Why you need the iPhone, the iPod or the iPad. The market might not have been large enough or ready yet, certainly in the case of the iPod and the iPhone, but it got there, because there existed the fulfilment of a genuine need.

I’m aware of adventuring into the whole you-can’t-say-what-Steve-Jobs-would-have-done-territory, and it’s possible to pretty much pull out any anecdote that will back whatever position you want to take (he took forever to buy a washing machine, questioned what they were even for and what they were supposed to do, ditto furniture) or even the counter-indication (the Flower Power iMac G3, still).

But, you know. They’ve been working on this “for three years” and, well, Steve died around three years ago. And everyone knows you’re supposed to do *something* with a wearable. And sure, Apple have done it, kind of, on their own terms. As much attention to design and fashion – and bets are already coming in on the inevitable high price of the fashion EDITION pieces – as to the user interface. Ish. I mean, it’s not bad. But does it fill what you recognise to be an aching watch-sized hole in your life? And not even *watch*-sized or shaped, but the whole idea of: there is a thing on my body, that is always on my body (if things work out) and that I can move about with slightly less effort than getting the thing out of my pocket. What kind of things can that thing do, on my wrist, that make sense?

I mean, sure, I *can* look at and reply to email on my wrist. But it felt like Apple would be the kind of company that would take a fairly principled position (whether right or wrong – Jobs would always reserve the right to change his mind in rather obvious ways). Bigger iPhone? Never. Tablet? Never. Smaller tablet? Never.

But, you know, strong opinions, weakly held and all that. And never, ever give away the product roadmap to the competitors. If you can see where the puck’s going, then head straight for it and misdirect all the way.

There are certainly a bunch of interesting things: what are the kinds of things a wrist-mounted always-sensing thing can do? New kinds of gesture recognition? How sensitive are the gyros and accelerometers? The Taptic Engine itself is intriguing if only for the somewhat outlandish thought of a whole new generation of people learning and creating new Morse Codes and a hidden backchannel of information.

[1] Apple WATCH: Asking Why and Saying No – Stratechery, Ben Thompson

2.0 Designing Communities

So it turns out that when we ask “what kind of society do we want to build for ourselves”, some of our leading online communities turn out to have a pretty definitive answer. GoFundMe, a sort-of crowdfunding site has decided to ban fundraising for abortions and “sorcery”[1] but is OK with raising funds for public officials who maybe, just maybe, might have conducted an extra-judicial execution under the guise of “well, I guess he looked black at me.”

A few days ago, CEO of Reddit Yishan Wong stuck his head above the parapet to declare that the site was a sort of Government 2.0[2], and wrote sentences like this: “[we] consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community.”

So it turns out that Government 2.0 is instead not just Responsive Government or Smaller Government but instead a sort of pared-back internet-service government where like karma ranking, weak anonymity and threaded comments. Not anything as substantive as saying that there might be unalienable rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.

In Redditland, the worst thing that can happen to you is that you lose karma or you get banned. But that’s okay, because you can always come back, rez in as another pseudonymous individual. The best thing that can happen to you is you can get recognition or Gold, gifted to you by other grateful members of your micro-nation.

On Reddit, each individual, as Yishan says, is responsible for their own moral actions. Curiously, the administrators appear to be above reproach – the equations of utilitarianism don’t apply to them, the fact that they govern and operate systems that affect millions doesn’t figure into *their* personal moral successes or failings.

This isn’t new. I mean, it’s depressing, but I guess it isn’t new. There are certainly wonderful things that happen on Reddit, and a lot of those wonderful things are in spite of the action and tactics that the site’s management have taken. They are less, I think, things that reflect well upon Reddit and instead things that reflect well upon communities of people. For every Reddit thread showing progress in acceptance of trans men or women, there’s another doxxing or abusing. People, I suppose.

The beauty of Reddit, though, and the beauty of at least this part of the internet is the inadvertent transparency. Redditors – and most other people on the internet – are living in the public now. When we see examples of domestic violence ripple through media, when we see misogyny, verbal abuse, bullying, all of the terrible tragic things that we’re capable of, it’s not like they weren’t there before. We can just see them now. What makes us different – if anything does, I suppose – is that when we see things like that, when we see things that we don’t agree with, when we see something in the world that we wish weren’t like that, more often than not we actually have the power to do something about it.

If there’s a compromising middle-ground in Reddit’s position it’s this: yes, it’s better when people do the right thing for the right reasons and understand why, as opposed to doing the right thing because someone else told them to. But to do that is to disregard at the same time a whole bunch of experimental cognitive neuroscience and behavioural psychology research that shows that a lot of the time, we just do what other people are doing. That behaviours can be normalised. That things can be made okay, and you don’t even need to read or agree with Malcolm Gladwell to go along with that.

The difference is one of participation. Reddit is big, and it’s a lightly-moderated site that relies upon devolution of power, of federation. The admins are rare, and it’s frequently a free-for-all. Mods are ground-up grown, and if I’m going to stretch an analogy even further, it’s that Reddit is a playground for kids where the adults hardly ever check in. There aren’t that many good examples. Wong says that Reddit’s *intent* is that they want to teach by example, that they want to highlight the good stuff. You want a good example of that? It’s Metafilter.

Good community management, *raising* a good community, teaching them and helping them discover what’s right and wrong versus just *telling them* (and, you know what, sometimes you *can* just tell people that abuse is wrong and not at the same time have to give up your ideals) is a thankless task that’s akin to parenting.

But the type of site that’s Metafilter, the type of site and community that relied and grew based *upon* that never-ending job of community moderation and parenting has proven, in our current model, to be unsustainable. It’s too expensive. Good moderators, like good teachers, are priceless. And moderation in the internet age is a 24 hour affair. You think it’s exhausting chasing after one toddler. Imagine chasing after thousands of them. Millions of them.

Of course, you could decide to make the environment safer. You could choose to bias it toward good behaviour, whilst not out-right banning or making impossible bad behaviour. You could choose to do all of those things. If, like Wong says, every man is responsible for his own soul.

In the meantime, more sunlight. Gradually, slowly, imperceptibly, even. Maybe not progress as fast as some of us would like. But free speech – whether it exists or is required on Reddit’s platform or not – is helping us understand exactly what communities people want to build on the internet.

[1] GoFundMe, the site that has raised money for convicted murderers, will draw the line at abortion and ‘sorcery’ – Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey
[2] Every Man Is Responsible For His Own Soul – blog.reddit

XOXO starts tomorrow, opening night party and then the traditional tour of Portland on Friday, then conference on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully I’ll still be writing tomorrow and Friday, and then it’ll be a massive brain splurge next week.

Dan