Danah Boyd on algorithms and emotional manipulation
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Danah Boyd on algorithms and emotional manipulation

Danah Boyd thinks deeply about Facebook emotion experiment: What does the Facebook experiment teach us? Here’s a bit of it:

Somehow, shrugging our shoulders and saying that we promoted content because it was popular is acceptable because those actors don’t voice that their intention is to manipulate your emotions so that you keep viewing their reporting and advertisements. And it’s also acceptable to manipulate people for advertising because that’s just business. But when researchers admit that they’re trying to learn if they can manipulate people’s emotions, they’re shunned. What this suggests is that the practice is acceptable, but admitting the intention and being transparent about the process is not.

There’s even better stuff further on, and you should read the post.

The expense report
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The expense report

I really enjoyed Camille Fournier’s post about the implications of exercising authority as a manager. In short, being told you screwed up by somebody who can fire you can lead to pretty serious anxiety. She nails it when she says this about her role has the head of engineering:

In fact, it is important that I’m seen as an inspirational figure to my team, someone they look up to and look forward to interacting with, and not vice-versa.

Her post also reminded me of a powerful lesson in management I learned awhile back. I heard a story about why a developer really didn’t like our head of engineering. One time, the executive was approving expense reports, noticed an odd $30 line item on this person’s expense report, and rejected it asking for an explanation. The oddness was easy to explain, and the expense report was ultimately approved, but the fact that the executive had rejected the report rather than giving this person the benefit of the doubt permanently set in their mind that the executive was a jerk.

I took a few things away from this incident. First, you can run into problems doing the right thing. The executive was being a good steward of the company’s money, and questioning the expense wasn’t wrong. Perception was the problem, as it so often is. Secondly, this person had very few interactions with the executive, and so there was no established expectation of trust that may have made this OK. If I’m only going to talk to someone a few times a year at most, I don’t want one of those interactions to be negative, especially with so little at stake.

The third was that people should be mindful of what’s expected of people with their job. Had the executive in question forwarded the expense report to accounting and had them send it back, feelings would not have been hurt. People expect accounting to carefully review expense reports. When an executive does it, it can seem petty or vindictive.

This is one of the toughest aspects of a manager’s job. You have limited chances to communicate with people, and what matters most is the outcome of those communications. Everything you do when managing people ideally helps to do their best work, whether it’s getting them the right keyboard, insuring that they’re fairly compensated, or giving them advice on how to get unblocked when they’re trying to solve a tough technical problem.

If it seems like I’m saying that as a manager, it’s important to be almost painfully deliberate in how you approach communicating, I am.

The dangers of over-reliance on perks
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The dangers of over-reliance on perks

My colleague Melissa Santos and I wrote a piece for Model View Culture about perks and how they can be divisive, in spite of the best intentions of the people offering them. The article really cautions companies about building their culture or even their recruiting pitch around perks, it’s a dangerous shortcut to take.

Melissa has a blog, Allowed to Apply, which encourages people to just apply for things that interest them. It’s a great message. She’s @ansate on Twitter.

How the sharing economy affects workers
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How the sharing economy affects workers

The Case Against Sharing

Illustrated piece by Susie Cagle on the effect that the “sharing economy” (think Uber, Lyft, AirBnb, etc) is having on the overall economy. Here’s the bottom line:

The sharing economy has painfully noble goals. But a society and an economics that truly values civic engagement, the commons, and trust between people is one that invests in the protection of those people so they can really prosper, even when something goes wrong.

I would agree that in the presence of a strong social safety net, the sharing economy would look very different. As it is, it looks like a way for rich people to exchange the opportunity for workers to steal some crumbs from other workers in service of shrinking the overall pie.

Google’s software approach to self-driving cars
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Google’s software approach to self-driving cars

Alexis Madrigal has written an interesting look at how Google’s self-driving car really works. Google has figured out that rather than building a really smart car, they could instead build a really rich digital representation of the roads on which the car will drive. Obviously there are big questions about whether this approach can be scaled to work for a larger geographic area than Mountain View, California, but I love this approach, which only software engineer would come up with. I agree with the article that collecting and storing large amounts of this kind of data is a problem we understand better than the problem of building really intelligent machines. If this approach to controlling self-driving cars takes off, it also puts Google in a great position to make money licensing data to any company that wants to build them, rather than building cars itself.

Brent Simmons on the history of UserLand
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Brent Simmons on the history of UserLand

Brent Simmons posted a really nice recollection of his days at UserLand back in the late nineties. I was a Mac user at the time, and I was building sites using Frontier. It really was something completely new. The idea of having “Edit This Page” buttons on sites was pretty radical at the time, and eventually became a compulsory part of any decent content management system.

One slight correction — I think amphetaDesk was the first desktop RSS aggregator. Its creator, Morbus Iff, is still around, tweeting.

Danny Sullivan on Google and MetaFilter
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Danny Sullivan on Google and MetaFilter

Search engine analyst Danny Sullivan applies his expertise to analyzing the penalties MetaFilter that might have cost the site a huge chunk of its Google search traffic. It’s a really interesting look at how Google penalizes sites that try to game the system.

The section on how Google penalizes publishers for inbound “unnatural links” is really interesting:

It’s insane because it has allowed the same sites that charged people to get links to now charge for them to be removed. Or for the rise of an entire link debuilding industry. Or for publishers who have long suffered terrible link requests to now get messages from people asking for links to be removed.

The article has some really good advice for Google in how it manages its relationship with publishers. I also liked this bit:

Earn respect. That’s your best defense if things go south with Google. It’s also your best offense for doing well in Google.

As Sullivan points out, people cheered when Google lit Demand Media on fire and set them adrift.

Maybe you should be afraid of Google
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Maybe you should be afraid of Google

One of the big stories in my small world over the past week or so has been the layoffs at MetaFilter. Matt Haughey broke the news in a MetaTalk post on the state of the site. Here’s the bottom line:

While MetaFilter approaches 15 years of being alive and kicking, the overall website saw steady growth for the first 13 of those years. A year and a half ago, we woke up one day to see a 40% decrease in revenue and traffic to Ask MetaFilter, likely the result of ongoing Google index updates. We scoured the web and took advice of reducing ads in the hopes traffic would improve but it never really did, staying steady for several months and then periodically decreasing by smaller amounts over time.

The long-story-short is that the site’s revenue peaked in 2012, back when we hired additional moderators and brought our total staff up to eight people. Revenue has dropped considerably over the past 18 months, down to levels we last saw in 2007, back when there were only three staffers.

Today, he posted more details on Medium, both about the drop in revenue and Google’s recent classification of MetaFilter as a content farm. This has been happening to other reputable blogs as well. I haven’t gotten any of these requests, or if I have, they have gone unread.

I don’t really think of Google as a monopolist, but it is true that Google holds the fate of any number of Internet businesses in their hands. This is true whether they rely on Google-served ads for revenue, or they rely on organic search traffic from Google to grow their visitor base. I oftentimes tell people that Google is to Internet businesses what weather is to farmers. You can have fertile soil, plant the right crops, and run your farm incredibly well, but if it doesn’t rain, you’re not going to have anything to harvest in the end. By the same token, if Google makes a change that directs traffic away from your site, you’ll find yourself in the same situation as MetaFilter.

That’s scary. I don’t really have any solutions to propose, but the degree to which the Web publishing industry has become almost wholly dependent on Google demands more attention.

Comparative risk
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Comparative risk

Walking on a high wire is inherently dangerous, but you’ve said that you prepare so much that death is not a risk.

No, it’s not. I think this is very wrong to put your life in danger or to gamble with your life. I cannot do the first step not being absolutely sure that I will successfully perform the last.

That’s from a Jessica Gross interview with Philippe Petit, the tight rope walker who was the subject of Man on Wire.

Relatively speaking, the risk assumed by Petit isn’t any greater than the risk you or I assume when crossing a busy street. The thrill is in the fact that for regular people, doing what Petit does would be impossibly risky. Preparation is everything.