Episode One Hundred and Two: Structure; The Thing About People

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I have to admit, I started this one not knowing what I was going to write about. But I’m pretty happy with it.

1.0 Structure

NOSTROMO BLACK is the name I’ve given to a project that I’m consulting on at the moment – putting together a technical feasibility study for something that’s quite exciting if it all comes together. It touches on a whole bunch of things I’m interested in: a kind of top-to-bottom strategic view of a nice, meaty problem that’s required at times putting together a shopping list of technology that’s already out there, but just hasn’t been used in this particular domain yet.

I’m lucky to be working with two good friends on this project, one of whom is based in Portland with me. So we’re doing that thing where we’re meeting up every so often and camping out in coffee shops, when I realised that one of the things that I miss about full time employment is a sense of structure, and I’m thinking about how I can replicate it.

By structure, I mean this sense of being able to wrap myself in organisational infrastructure – whether I’m fully integrated into it or not – but at least the feeling of being surrounded by it or nestled within it. At the agency I worked at, it was a sense of having the photocopiers and meeting rooms and phone systems and all of this *stuff* – as well as people and teams and other sorts of resource. But it feels like there were intangibles as well, a sort of psychogeography on an architectural scale that comes with working inside an organisation of around 600 people. Day-to-day, at Wieden, you might never really interact with people outside of your account group; certainly when I started and found myself immersed in the Nike team I could’ve never really needed to interact with anyone else in the building who wasn’t working on the same account.

Some of my friends, I think, had this same thought and ran a mailing list for a while called Pretend Office. It’s not a secret, I don’t think – it’s got a website[1] and the mailing list was for a while designed to give that sort of feel of an all-staff mailing list for freelancers who weren’t employed by an organisation but still, I think, wanted to feel like they belonged to one. In the end it turned out to be pretty hilarious as it was mainly populated by the kind of insanely creative people who were good writers and ended up being email improv comedy neatly parodying and skewering the sort of all-office email about reminding everyone that the fridges were going to be emptied this Friday and you really should remove your leftovers from them. Or that a new meeting room was about to be christened and could people submit suggestions.

At this point I wanted to reach for a word a bit like *mouthfeel*[2] to describe that sort of internet sense of belonging to an organisation. There was a feeling I had when I removed my work Exchange accounts from all of my devices and unsubscribed myself from various Facebook groups that felt like the cutting of an umbilical (in a way, I suppose, it was), but there was a rhythm to the messages, notifications and impulses that directed my life for the last three years that is gone now.

A different set of friends I have – also freelancers, mostly – have a ritual where they get together once a week, roughly, and do a group Skype call where they each talk through what they’ve been doing. Ritual is an important thing here, I think. I’ve been thinking about space and how camping out in coffee shops is good for some things, but not for others. So this afternoon was spent doing some ridiculously satisfying work down in the basement, getting it ready for a corner for me to call the place where I do work, so I’m not colonising the den (you can tell how American I’ve become by adopting that name for “the room with the television in it”).

But the/an office can be like a city but on a smaller scale. It has the same infrastructural requirements writ smaller, design for spaces, open and closed areas, high and low traffic areas and, bluntly, “bad” areas that people just plain don’t like. And being a freelancer that *isn’t* in an office – something I’ve only really done for the last four weeks – feels a bit like a hermit, rather than something with lots of freedom.

[1] http://www.pretendoffice.co.uk

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mouthfeel

2.0 The Thing About People

A long time ago, I thought about dating websites because one of my jobs was to think about, well, I’m not sure exactly. But, I had a thought about dating websites and it meant that for a while I was maintaining multiple accounts on everything from J-Date to Christian Mingle, Guardian Soulmates and OKCupid.

I had a whole bunch of thoughts at the time – this was around 2010 – and, now that for some reason it’s popped back into my head I thought I’d revisit them to see if my intuition was accurate or not.

The basic insight was that 2010-era online dating services had done a pretty terrible job – OKCupid included – of representing people. And by that, I mean we were still in the era of online services essentially being “here’s a view of a database record”, albeit that record might be JOINED across however many other records you wanted. But essentially, the way of describing a person on a dating website was here’s your primary key UID of your person, and here’s a bunch of VARCHAR fields that you can write answers to, like “what’s your favourite movie”. In essence, trying to describe a human being through a whole bunch of text strings.

Turns out, people don’t really like reading that much – no, that’s not true: people read a lot and bad Dan for supporting the misapprehension that people don’t read – they do, they just also like looking at pictures. Reading is a complicated thing that takes concentration.

2010 was around the time that Pinterest was launched and fairly early on it was pretty clear that the founders were on to something. It might have been a number of factors like internet access *finally* being fast and pervasive enough, but it turns out that, hey, people are pretty visual people. And they like looking at pictures. And they like to keep them.

So my dumb-as-a-sack-of-nails thought was to wonder if you could do dating “right” by forgetting about all the text fields and instead doing everything visually. Profile photos, interests – everything.

Of course, now you can look at stuff like Tinder that combines a highly visual interface (hardly any text! Lots of pictures!) with a nice fast mechanism to browse through a large set and act on it quickly, and hey, I get to feel like I should’ve just gone and actually executed that dating idea back in 2010. Because, as we all know, ideas are ten a penny and it’s all in the execution. But hey: free idea.

The other thing that strikes me about the whole people-are-visual thing is this: pictures, images, photographs – they can all convey subtlety in a very easy to understand and parse way. That sort of subtlety either requires someone who’s very good at writing, or someone who’s very good at understanding and picking apart hidden meaning from multiple textual sources. But a photograph? A photograph can do that *instantly*.

What I’m getting at is this: databases are terrible things for telling us about humans when we’re reduced to *fields*. We’re vague things that don’t operate on a binary continuum – we can hardly keep our minds or opinions straight from one moment to the next. So to reduce us to n (whether n is small or very large) fields in a database that are boolean or VARCHARs or whatever, doesn’t really do us service and, my gut tells me, insufficient in terms of modeling us on a personal level.

All this is to say is this: perhaps it was something like the cheap availability of easily scaleable storage, where you could just keep provisioning s3 buckets to store all of those images and you didn’t have to worry about buying all of those giant 3U disk servers, but when you’re dealing with *people* and *people things*, photographs convey a lot of nuance that is hard to render in Unicode or ASCII and that is still hard for computers to understand. I can say, for example, that I’m a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation and I could write a whole screeds about what I like and don’t like about it, but if you want to understand me as a *person*, this is a pretty efficient way of going about it:

(originally at https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/469553163440111616)

And that type of array of images – lots of them – especially when they’re picked by me and curated by me to show off different aspects of my personality (just like, say, on Tinder) communicates a lot more about me, a lot more quickly, than a lot of words.

It’s Friday the 13th, so you should send me notes unless you want an axe murderer to come and visit you. Unless it’s not Friday the 13th where you are, in which case it’s too late and you should send me a note to tell me how you survived.

Have a good weekend,

Dan