Episode One Hundred and Eighty Nine: Ops, Not Apps; The Internet (Of Things); Reviewing Reviewing A Year In Review 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

7:32pm West Coast time, on a flight down to San Francisco for the week. I’ve been – uncomfortably, I think – on hiatus from the newsletter writing, and I’ve been thinking a bit about why. I’d made the decision to not write in the evenings – to leave that for family time – which on balance, has probably been a good thing. I like family time in the evenings. On the other hand, it feels weird not having written. The new job, is taking up a lot of brain space, as if the whole stupendously false premise of Besson’s Lucy – of only using 10% of your brain – had temporarily been true until I started the new job, whereupon everything went into overdrive and sponge-soaking mode.


Opinions and ramblings, and definitely no looking in the corner as to the number of people who’ve subscribed in the meantime. OK, so I lied: but I am dismayed more than interested that even while I haven’t written anything at all, the trend for subscribers has gone up…

1.0 Ops, Not Apps

Go soak up everything they know, he said, so I went and soaked up everything – well, some things at least, certainly not everything, and I took a bunch of colleagues with me. To be fair, it was an invitation, not a self-directed turning-up-on-the-doorstep that led to a Code for America “expedition” to go visit the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service, so there was that going for the trip.

One thing that stuck out was having a think about the “good bits” of advertising and what it means to build a brand. It’s not like there’s a reliable heuristic for the “good bits” of advertising, it’s not like there’s a written-down list somewhere (though I suppose that’s never really stopped anyone from trying, or claiming to have such a list), but in this respect it was even less of the “building a brand” part of advertising as it was answering this question: how do you build a new culture?

Note; not a good culture or a bad culture or a culture that emphasizes super-pumpedness and fierceness[1]. Just, what are the bits of environment that help reinforce, well, that particular culty kind of feeling? What are those soft bits of leadership and of building a group and a team that can rally around a common goal? One particular piece of personal experience comes from what it was like to work at Wieden+Kennedy. The thing about Wieden – and I speak knowing nothing about *other* agency cultures is the whole *feel* of the place. The fact that you can ask a bunch of people, any people, who’ve worked there and they’ll all tell you that The Work Comes First and what that means. Or they’ll tell you that there’s No Sharp Stuff. Or they’ll say that you should Fail Harder and give you an example as to what that means to them.

Or then there’s the weird inverse relationship where people *coming* to Wieden, people interviewing at the place will already know about the culture. They’ll already know the catchphrases, and some people will even understand them. And that’s a bit weird, it’s a bit strange to have company culture extend – even in an industry specific domain – outside the confines of a particular company.This thing about “the work comes first” and “fail harder” and “no sharp stuff” and so on – they came from real things that real people said. You can spot them wherever. You can polish them up a bit, you know, you can have a proper number of things, not a weird number of things like 4 (who ever has 4 things? You can have 3, 5, 7 or 10).

So, here’s a thing. One of my newer team-members mentioned that it was about “ops, not apps” over dinner toward the end of our trip. And that’s been one of the things that have stuck. We (he says, trying to remember to be at least aware of the whole pyramid of privilege he’s sitting on to type such a word) tend to over-emphasise the quick fix. If only, say the makers, we could *make* something that would fix this “thing”.

Well, yes, point out the rest of us non-makers. You’ve been trying to do that, in various guises, since, oh, I don’t know. Since we invented technology itself. But a recurring theme of this newsletter at least is that it isn’t just about the stuff you make, it’s about the way you make it, too. By saying “it’s ops, not apps” we get to say to governments: there is no RFP you can write for a vendor to bid on that will fix this process or make it markedly better. You cannot write an RFP for integrating user research into your daily and weekly practice. You cannot write an RFP for, ultimately, changing your operations. But you can write one for an app that will just be chicken scratching on the surface.

Operations. How you do things. How you work together. Not necessarily even *new* ways of doing things, when it comes to it, but just a better way of doing things that help you get to better things.

[1] A Leaked Internal Uber Presentation Shows What The Company Really Values In Its Employees

2.0 The Internet (of Things)

Matt Webb, who somewhat post-BERG has re-emerged, chrysalis-like into a sort of blogging and coffee-morning powerhouse was thinking about what the Internet of Things should be called[1]. So here’s some idle reckons.

The thing – ha – about the internet-of-things is that it’s a weird descriptor. For starters: any things connected to the internet *right now* is more denoted by the fact that it’s “smart” for certain really quite dumb values of smart, most of the time, or just by the fact that it’s “internet” – cf. the internet fridge. ie: is the major distinguishing feature that this lightbulb is an IoT lightbulb, or just that it’s got wifi that means it connects to the internet?And for the latter case: from a consumer point of view, for most things, why would it have wifi if it *couldn’t* be connected, in some way, to the internet? Which is sort of the position that all of this IoT business is a temporary blip an d that instead you’ll just be looking for “doorbells” or “lightbulbs” or “locks” and you won’t really get a choice about whether they “come with internet” or not.

This isn’t a particularly new position, but what I feel like I’m figuring out is that – as other people smarter than me have pointed out – the internet is the thing that things plug in to, and at some point, it may well be that just everything – in some way, and not in a perfect way, either – plugs in to it. This is how it works: in Home Depot or B&Q or Homebase or whatever your local geographically accurate home improvement store is, there’ll be first a section of an aisle for “internet connected / smart devices” and then there’ll be a whole aisle and then there’ll be two aisles and then maybe, if you’re lucky, there’ll be an aisle for things that don’t connect to the internet.

And it won’t necessarily be an “internet” and an “internet of things” but still, just, and only, the internet, at least I hope so, because the whole point of the internet – or at least, just *one* of the points of the internet is that things can link from one thing to another thing and that’s why the superset – the internet of networks of things – will be the one that wins. Hopefully.

[1] 10:48, Tuesday 13 Jan., 2015
[2] Fuck Yeah Internet Fridge

3.0 Reviewing Reviewing A Year In Review

Enough time – ha – has passed for me to weigh in, inexpertly, clumsily and fashionably late on the Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty[1, 2] that is the now yearly tradition that is the Facebook Year In Review, or How One Startup Learned Over A Number Of Years How to Quantify Sensitivity In A Utilitarian Fashion.Quick recap for those following along: Facebook, for a number of reasons (including but not limited to genuine interest in helping its users positively review and reflect upon the past twelve months and self-interest in increasing engagement in their platform) encourages you to post a “Year In Review” from a selection of “content” that has been posted to its platform over the past twelve months. Because Facebook is a set of computer programs running on a computer, the range of content that you can choose from is derived from an algorithm which probably takes into account both signals visible to the user (likes, comments, etc.) and signals invisible to the user (dwell time spent by the user and other users, for example).

Let’s be clear: there’s a moral calculus going on here. Meyer correctly points out that some potential fixes could be:

“don’t pre-fill a picture until you’re sure the user actually wants to see pictures from their year.  And second, instead of pushing the app at people, maybe ask them if they’d like to try a preview—just a simple yes or no.”

but those of us who have been on the other side of the looking glass know of *many* reasons why there isn’t an opt-out. We know the reasons for pre-filling what would be called a “hero” image. It’s to drive engagement. It’s to get you to click on the thing. It’s because we know that large images with call-to-actions work. It’s because *more* people would engage with the thing if it included a large image – a personal one, if possible! – rather than an empathetic, text-only and discreet chance to opt-out first.

The algorithm is doing *exactly* what it’s *designed* to do. This is not inadvertent cruelty, this is cruelty that in all likelihood would have been considered in the set of possible results, and in a utilitarian moral calculus would have been seen as collateral damage. My suspicion is that whilst it might get easier to permanently dismiss the coming Year In Review prompt, it’s still going to show pre-selected content – likely imagery – along with a call to action.

There’s an argument, of course, that when you get to Facebook’s size – god knows how many billion-and-a-bit of monthly active users they have, now that it’s been six months since I’ve been in a client brief – you’re bound to fuck up a few times. But the point is this: they have no way of knowing what’s “good” content and what’s “bad” content, at least not really. Not until Zuckerberg’s bet on AI pays off.

Of course, one of the best ways to figure out if content might be upsetting to you would be to train you on it. Which might be a bit uncomfortable. So it might make more sense for them to, you know, train a simulation of you.

[1] Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty
[2] Well, That Escalated Quickly

I’m just going to hit send on this one.

Whilst I was away, Debbie Chachra wrote a fantastic piece on why she’s not a maker[1], and Dan Williams started a newsletter that you should read[2].

[1] Why I Am Not a Maker
[2] Postcards from a Supply Chain

I’m not sure if this is the return of the weekdaily newsletters. But, I’ll try.

Until then, as ever, send me notes.