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Thursday, September 19 2019. Evening. The kids are asleep. They’re probably horizontal or upside down by now. Who knows. They’ll just end up with their feet in my face by 5am. That reminds me, I need to look up whether or how badly our health insurance covers vasectomies.
I am feeling very proud of myself because I have not upgraded to iOS 13 today and am going to try very hard to wait until next Tuesday, which is only (counts) a number of days away, when 13.1 is supposed to come out. This is in spite of the fact that What The Golf is an Apple Arcade game, which you can only play on iOS 13 or above, and oh my god, it looks amazing and I want to play it so much, just click and watch the video trailer, I’ll wait.
I am sure that there are wonderful, smart, compassionate people who work at Nextdoor, and they're a company that is in a really interesting space doing a bunch of interesting stuff.
But this is one of those pieces that starts with "Look, I don't mean to be..." and then is. So.
Nextdoor announced recently a feature called Kindness Reminder which is, on the level of paternalistically positioned, downright condescending shit, nearly on the level of how if you want to, iPhone can tell you that it's time for bedtime because you know, iPhone is the parent you never had.
In a reminder about how the world looks like right now, I first found out about Kindness Reminder reading about it in The Verge, and when trying to find the original source, or a piece from Nextdoor about it, found coverage in AdWeek, which just goes to show how confused the ad industry is about things that happen “digitally” or “online” these days. If it’s not clear, yes, I still have opinions that are probably on the one hand out of date, and on the other potentially irritatingly true, about certain parts of the ad industry and how it “does” digital. I guess this is because NextDoor is social? Sure, why not.
Anyway. What is Kindness Reminder? It’s a feature to “promote kindness in neighborhoods!”! Who could be against such a thing? Who doesn’t want to be kind? Certainly not me, an apparent curmudgeon with a keyboard and an internet connection. Oh, the irony is not lost on me. In Nextdoor’s words, Kindness Reminder is
a new feature meant to encourage positivity across the Nextdoor platform. If a member replies to a neighbor’s post with a potentially offensive or hurtful comment, Kindness Reminder will be prompted before the comment goes live. The member is then given the chance to reference our Community Guidelines, reconsider and edit their reply, or ultimately refrain from posting.
I mean, great, right? It sounds a bit like that Grammarly or whatever ad you get in front of YouTube videos.
So far, so… well-intentioned but about as awkward as many Silicon Valley-style products and features. “But Dan,” I hear you not saying, “why are you writing about this? Surely there is something more here that has animated you.” And who am I to disappoint you, dear reader.
This is a full para excerpt, with my emphasis added, from Nextdoor’s blog post (blog post. It’s a post):
With Kindness Reminder, we’re breaking the rules of something they tell you not to do when building a social platform and adding a little friction for users. While this could lead to some members refraining from posting comments, a dip in engagement is something we’re willing to trade for stronger connections among the people with whom you may share a sidewalk or footpath. It’s important to note that the majority of interactions on Nextdoor exemplify the community we want to build and the neighborhoods we want to live in, and that’s something we are continuing to invest in.
Hey everyone, gather around. Nextdoor’s gone crazy and they’re breaking the rules of something they tell you not to do when building a social platform. They’re adding friction. This is a big deal because it could lead to some members refraining from posting comments but it’s okay because Nextdoor are really great and they’re willing to trade for stronger connections amongst the people with whom you may share a sidewalk or footpath. Oh and just in case you were worried for a minute, it’s actually okay, we’re only talking about a few bad apples in a verdant constantly increasing in valuation orchard because the majority of interactions on Nextdoor exemplify the community we want to build and the neighborhoods we want to live in. (Hey Siri? Remind me to ask Nextdoor who “we” is)
I mean, I tweeted about this yesterday, but now I have the benefit of sleeping on it and waking up and continuing to be annoyed.
There are a couple of pieces of feedback here. One is about the writing and the, uh, “positioning” here, which is to say, if I were back in college and this my essay that I was discussing with one of my law supervisors, I would be made to feel very ashamed and inadequate. I am going to try to not do this.
When you say that you are breaking the rules of something they tell you not to do when building a social platform, appropriate context to note is that you’ve been following the rules to date and, crucially, who is this “they”, who is telling you the rules? I mean, I have a guess about the kind of people who “they” might be. And, you know, why is this a rule? What’s the rule for? Could it be a rule about growth? Could it be a rule about Metcalfe’s law? And this is before I even put on my parent hat of “well, if they told you to jump off a bridge, woudl you do it?” or “well, if they told you to tell software to Nazis, would you do it?” and clearly in the latter case, the answer for some people has been: yes, yes I would do it.
I really don’t understand this. There’s a book I read — or had read to me — a long time ago as a kid about a bunch of pigs who really loved ketchup called Mrs. Pig’s Bulk Buy. It is not, as you might suspect these days, a treatise against the siren call of Costco, but is instead is a sort of 80s era parable about giving children exactly what they want, until, more or less, you’re charged with child neglect or endangerment through force-feeding them ketchup, and only ketchup.
The reason why I bring this up is this stupid goddamn rule about “adding friction for users”. You know that thing about how too much of anything is bad? Removing all the friction is bad. For one, if you removed all friction from the universe, then a) life wouldn’t exist, and b) some of the most potentially fun parts about life like making more life would be considerably less fun, because, well, no friction. Friction is good! Why is friction bad? Oh, right. Friction is bad when it leads to a dip in engagement and dear reader let me tell you how long I could write about all the evils and inadvisable things and things that look like flies from far away that have been done in the name of the god engagement.
The implication here to my confirmation-bias mind is that Nextdoor knew very well what they wanted, which is the same thing I kind of tell myself when I look at Newsfeed, which is: more engagement is good, because engagement is people doing things and the more engaged people are, the more profit a product or service whose monetary success is predicated on data can make. Engagement is time-on-site. Engagement is click-click-click. Engagement is, even, making you angry and making you stay there and making you argue.
And yet at some point, someone somewhere realizes that hey, maybe, just maybe we’re getting a bad rap for this because although I would like to give Nextdoor the benefit of the doubt it’s just really weird that at this moment, out of all moments so far in their eleven years of history, they happen to put together an advisory panel that includes Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, “a social scientist and Stanford professor whose work explores the mechanisms and effects of racial bias”.
Here’s Nextdoor on where the “idea for this feature” came about:
The idea for this feature was developed as part of a greater exploration of member feedback we received about racial profiling on Nextdoor. To understand this better, we built an advisory panel of activists, academics, and experts, including Biased author Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social scientist and Stanford professor whose work explores the mechanisms and effects of racial bias. Teams at Nextdoor paired up with Dr. Eberhardt’s students; we shared bias we saw in our lives, we detailed incivility surfacing on the platform, and they worked with us to apply academic research to actual problems. As Dr. Eberhardt points out: “The problems that we have out in the world and in society make their way online where you’re encouraged to respond quickly and without thinking. That is exactly the kind of condition under which bias is most likely to be triggered.” We know Nextdoor has a role to play in shifting that paradigm and are testing Kindness Reminder as a tool to encourage mindfulness in the simple act of having a conversation with your neighbor.
I mean, look at the quote they chose to use from Dr. Eberhardt! Just look at it! “The problems that we have out in the world and in society make their way online where you’re encouraged to respond quickly and without thinking. That is exactly the kind of condition under which bias is most likely to be triggered.” [my emphasis]
Gee, are you seriously saying that when you made the conscious decision to reduce friction because they told you to, you really didn’t know that you were encouraging people to respond quickly and without thinking? Am I really supposed to believe that nobody thought: well, I guess this might be another way in which people might expose some sort of bias!
And that’s not even the worst of it, because who knows who else was on the panel of activists, academics, and experts? I bring this up because apparently this work was because Nextdoor got some flack (rightly!) about racial profiling on Nextdoor, but let’s just say that ever since people started talking to each other on the internet, well, it was not the cyber utopia that we thought it might be, and people can be just as racist as they are offline as they are online, and this was before Web 2.0, never mind before mobile internet and applications hit the more-than-mainstream. Anyone who’s been around for more than about ten years in the online community space will tell you that maybe introducing friction is totally a valid technique if you care about the quality of the community you’re creating.
It’s this kind of not-invented-here bullshit that really pisses me off. For example, since 2004, Microsoft Research has been holding a Social Computing Symposium, which I’ve always been jealous about and have been hearing about from my friends who’ve attended. None of this is new! None of Nextdoor’s revelations about introducing friction are new!
I mean, would it surprise you to learn that back in 2015 - which is FOUR YEARS AGO - The Verge reported on Riot’s efforts to improve the community experience in the online multiplayer game League of Legends? There’s a telling point in The Verge’s coverage, which is that “overly toxic players only accounted for about 1 percent the community, and even if you ban them all, it still only reduces negative behavior like harassment by 5 percent.” Remember, though, that Nextdoor’s blog post said “It’s important to note that the majority of interactions on Nextdoor exemplify the community we want to build”. I mean, sure, but show me the data?
What’s darkly hilarious here is that it’s not like Riot games isn’t without its own problems (hi, toxic, sexist workplace), but you know, here’s a presentation from Dr. Kimberly Voll, a Senior Technical Designer at Riot Games from 2018’s Game Developer Conference: Honorable Intentions: Player Behavior Today at Riot Games [pdf].
But, you know. They tell you not to add friction for users when building a social platform.
Bullshit. You decide not to add friction for users. And again: it’s a bit goddamn disingenuous to write a blog post that makes it look like you deserve brownie points if you don’t say what their rule is for.
Look, I get it. Some of this might sound like sour grapes. A bunch of people who were involved in the early internet and got community and built great communities weren’t also part of the wave of “successful” (ie: extremely rich-making) companies that came about when mobile internet finally became a thing. Sure. But, you know. These people also know their shit, and yet again, there’s a whole story of not invented here and we’re smarter than that, we can figure this out, as if there isn’t a whole bunch of history.
Here are some of the Other Things that have caught my attention but didn’t animate me as much as that goddamn Nextdoor blog post.
I mentioned that I’d sincerely used the word “sensemaking” in a meeting this week and it’s stuck in my head (yes, I’m aware it’s a term of art, I just think it might have been the first time I said it out loud in the manner in which it’s professionally intended), and @Prufrock451 pointed out that “If you said it and the other person got it, congratulations, it’s English now”, which you know, should make you think, and also you should listen to them anyway because they wrote Rome Sweet Rome, inspired by a Reddit comment about What If A Modern U.S. Marine Battalion, But Suddenly Transported To The Roman Empire, and also because they wrote the novel Acadia, which I have written about before as really liking.
The BBC recently updated its news channel's onscreen graphics to use Reith, a new typeface. But I bet you probably didn't know the Beeb's Global Experience Language (UX&D) team have a YouTube account and they posted their second ever video last year about the new typeface. If it sounds like I'm dunking on the Beeb a little it's because I am - I'm dunking on the institution and particular aspects of its leadership, and not the generally excellent people working there who, if I’m being rude, are being constantly thrown under the bus by Traditional Media People Who Are In Charge.
"The Whip's Office" [pdf] , a UK Parliament report for members of Parliament and their staff who (impliedly) aren't toffs and need to learn up on their history if they've any chance to survive in an establishment institution, found in response to my partner asking: "isn't taking all this whip stuff a bit sado-masochistic?" and the answer being: yes, because it's about dogs being whipped while on the hunt, because of course it is, it's Britain.
I’m thinking about FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) as a principle applied to patent licensing (of which there’s a fair argument prevents competition as much as it is supposed to enable it), and how it FRAND might be applied to, say, search algorithms and Apple and Amazon etc not favoring their own products in search results. My undergrad law student experience is all tingly at the thought of What Might A Legal Principle Of Search Algorithm Behavior Look Like as an essay that I would’ve written (counts) 20 goddamn years ago and feel like I’d have gotten hardly any credit for but oh no, look at where we are now, etc.
Jay Owens has a good thread on passive, “hanging out” video conferencing, which, is hanging out and not video conferencing in the old model of deliberately making a audio/video connection with someone with an express, maybe transactional, purpose that you also have to think about because it Costs Money, and is irritating because Google even called their thing hangouts and it was not entirely like hanging out. Jay’s noticed that teens call each other on Facetime just to be with each other, which is exactly the kind of video-conferencing type installation I was totally behind at Wieden, wanting some sort of always-on window into another office: what is it like when you can just walk past and see people and wave? When there’s no effort or intentionality, just sitting there, being quite and in each others’ presence? Anyway. Jay’s thread says all this better than me.
Jason Kottke the idea of Apple’s Airpods as augmented reality wearable computers, and linked to s07e04 of this newsletter, with the tidbit about Star Trek TNG combadges being unrealistic, as they should be mostly camera by the 24th century. Jason disagreed - he thought combadges are more Airpod than iPhone and it turns out I agreed too. Pretty much exactly a month ago: “Huh, just realized a single larger AirPod you can wear with tap-for-Siri is basically a Star Trek combadge.” I tried sticking wearing one Airpod with tap-for-Siri for about ten minutes before feeling stupid and realizing Siri doesn’t actually do that much these days. Other than stuff like “Hey Siri, tell my wife I’m leaving work soon.” I mean, that’s useful-but-boring.
This looks interesting: Swift CoreML implementations of GPT-2, which if you know what that means, then yeah, interesting.
Ars Technica reported on Volkswagen creating a “car operating system” of which sure, car companies getting good at software and realizing that cars are, I dunno, computers with wheels and engines, so sure. But this quote stood out to me: “For instance, some models simply won't run if the infotainment system is broken; the navigation GPS provides the vehicle's master time counter, and without that, the powertrain won't function.” and I can only facepalm and repeat my mantra that the reason why the universe is empty and devoid of life is because no one, nowhere, ever, can actually write good software.
Okay, that’s a wrap on this episode! I appear not to have run out of things to write about. Thanks to the internet and Twitter for providing me something to get angry about, I guess.
I’m out until next week, I hope everyone has a nice weekend, and uh, I guess remember to be kind to other people when you have interactions with them, and don’t lubricate too much, some friction is good I guess?
Oh, and thank you for the notes. I’m still replying to them! Send some! Say hi!