After the Flood: Finding the Path to Healthy Communications Technology

The cost of information transmission has collapsed. As a result of the profit opportunity this presented, human interaction has been centralized in platforms of truly enormous scale. Centralization makes it possible for these platforms to monetize our clicks and eyeballs to the tune of billions of dollars, through billions of users. We are only beginning to see the effect of this on human brains.

So YouTube […] set a company-wide objective to reach one billion hours of viewing a day, and rewrote its recommendation engine to maximize for that goal.


Three days after Donald Trump was elected, Wojcicki convened her entire staff for their weekly meeting. One employee fretted aloud about the site’s election-related videos that were watched the most. They were dominated by publishers like Breitbart News and Infowars, which were known for their outrage and provocation.

YouTube Executives Ignored Warnings, Letting Toxic Videos Run Rampant (via Bloomberg)

This raises some inevitable concerns about how to handle information responsibly when it moves at 21st century speeds. If maximizing reach and reducing friction yields profit while compromising individual and societal health, then when is reach a liability and who bears the costs of its downsides? At what scale does reach become unsafe?

Developing a framework for safety under 21st century communication paradigms opens up several questions.

Throughput is the measure of data transfer in an information system. Is it possible to devise a means of quantifying throughput through the human culture both today and historically? If so, what change over time would we observe?

If it were possible to quantify throughput filtered collectively through human brains, have we exceeded the measure for safety, and how could we tell? Is there a way to measure change over time, and can a heuristic be developed for maximum safe reach?

Physical information systems have limits to what they can process, and when they’re surpassed, items are dropped or queued. A webserver can only handle so many requests per second, and when that threshold is maliciously exceeded, we call that a denial of service attack. If we are also physical beings with physical limitations, why should we be exempt from limitations seen in other information systems?

Computer networks are deliberately partitioned for safety and security. Should human networks be deliberately partitioned for the safety of our brains? Are there lessons we can learn from the domain of network administration?

Does decentralization inherently create safety?  Are there specific design patterns that should be adopted or avoided to prevent replicating the problems seen in current social products?

Mark Zuckerberg, trying to get ahead of the inevitable, recently put out an article proposing a regulatory framework for entities like Facebook. In the US, previous regulation on media companies tried to limit consolidation to mitigate monopolies holding overwhelming sway of public opinion. The originators of that regulation could never have dreamed of the reach of a platform like Facebook, which is largely uncontested. Are there historical precedents for regulating media companies which are applicable to 21st century problems, even though they have a very different shape?

None of these questions has clear, immediate, or straightforward answers. Still, as we grapple with the impacts of centralized communication platforms, they represent only the beginning of the hard problems we need to grapple with to ensure we build communications technology responsibly.


From Point A to Chaos: The Inversion of Information Economics

If it’s really a revolution, it doesn’t take us from point A to point B, it takes us from point A to chaos.

Clay Shirky, 2005

In 2019, we reel from a series of improbable outcomes. Whether it’s the 2016 US election, Brexit, the resurgence of the theory that the earth is flat, or the decline of vaccination, turns which once seemed unthinkable have arrived in force. Culture war blossoms around developments which some see as progress, and others find threatening and absurd. This coincides with the rise of centralized communication platforms that reward compulsive engagement, indiscriminately amplifying the reach of compelling messages—without regard for accuracy or impact.

Historically, composition and distribution of information took significant effort on the part of the message’s sender. Today, the cost of information transfer has collapsed. As a result, the burden of communication has shifted off the sender and onto the receiver.

Interconnectedness via communications technology is helping to change social norms before our eyes, at a frame rate we can’t adjust to. If we want to understand why we’ve gone from point A to chaos, we need to start by examining what happens when the cost of communicating with each other falls through the floor.

A brief history of one-to-one communication

The year 1787 offers us another moment in time when the communications technology of the day stood to influence the direction of history. The Constitutional Convention was underway, and the former British colonies were voting on whether to adopt the hotly contested new form of government. Keenly aware that news of how each state fell would influence the behavior of those who had yet to cast their votes, Alexander Hamilton assured James Madison, his primary collaborator at the time, that he would pay the cost of fast riders to move letters between New York and Virginia, should either one ratify the Constitution.

The constraints of communications technology back then meant it was possible for an event to occur in one location without people elsewhere hearing of it for days or weeks on end. For this single piece of information to be worth the cost of transit between Hamilton and Madison, nothing less than the future of the new republic had to be at stake.

From a logistical standpoint, moving information from one place to another required paper, ink, wax, a rider, and a horse. Latency was measured in days. Hamilton and Madison’s communications likely benefited from the postal system, which emerged in 1775, to provide convenient, affordable courier service. Latency was still measured in days, but by then it was possible to batch efforts and share labor costs with other citizens.

Around 1830, messages grew faster, if not cheaper, with the advent of the electric telegraph. The telegraph allowed transmission of information across cities and eventually continents, with latency clocking in at a rate of two minutes per character. The sender of a message was charged by the letter, and an operator was needed at each end to transcribe, transmit, receive and deliver the message.

With the telephone, in 1876, it became possible to hold an object to your ear and hear a human voice transmitted in real time. The telephone required an operator to initiate the circuit needed for each conversation, and once they did, back-and-forth could unfold without intermediaries. This dramatic acceleration from letters carried on horseback to the the telephone took place in the space of 89 years. By the early 20th century, phone switching was automated, further reducing the cost of information exchange.

By the 2000’s, mobile phones and the internet enabled email and texting, and instantaneous communication was within reach between anyone in the world who was lucky enough to have access to these technologies in their early days on the consumer market. For these, no additional labor is needed beyond the sender’s composition of the message and the receiver’s consideration of its contents. Automation handles encoding, transmission, relaying, delivery and storage of the whole thing. The time between a message being written and a message being received has been reduced to mere seconds.

Constraints to communication at this phase come to be dictated by access to technology, rather than access to labor.

A brief history of one-to-many communication

While Alexander Hamilton wrote copious personal letters, he also leveraged the mass communications medium of his day, the press, to shape political dialogue. He was responsible for 51 of the 85 essays published in the Federalist Papers. By 1787, publishing had already benefited from the invention of the printing press. The production of written word was no longer rate-limited by the capacity of scribes or clergy, or restricted by the church. Those who were educated enough to write, and connected enough to publish, could do so. Of course, only a select handful of people in the early United States met that criteria.

It’s not that fake news is a recent phenomenon, it’s that you used to need special access to distribute it. Samuel Adams was the son of a church deacon, a successful merchant, and a driving force in 1750s Boston politics. Benjamin Franklin apprenticed under his brother, a printer, and eventually went on to take up the trade, running multiple newspapers over his lifetime. In 1765, Samuel Adams falsely painted Thomas Hutchinson as a supporter of the Stamp Act in the press, leading a mob of arsonists to burn down Hutchinson’s house. Meanwhile, Franklin created a counterfeit newspaper claiming the British paid Native Americans to scalp colonists which he then circulated in Europe to further the American cause.

Soon, other media emerged to broadcast ideas. By the 1930’s, radio was a powerful conduit for culture and news, carrying both current events and unique entertainment designed for the specific constraints of an audio-only format. Radio could move over vast distances, and it did so at the speed of light. At the same time, radio required specialist engineers to operate and maintain the expensive equipment needed to transmit its payload. It required more specialists to select and play the content people wanted to hear.

Television emerged using similar technology, with additional overhead. As well as all the work needed for transmission, television required additional specialists and elaborate equipment to capture a moving image.

Radio and television both operated over electromagnetic spectrum which was prone to interference if not carefully managed. By necessity spectrum is regulated, which creates scarcity, making the owners of broadcast companies powerful arbiters of the collective narrative.

So between print, radio and television, a handful of corporations determined what was true, what would be shared with the masses, and who was allowed to be part of the process.

Force multipliers in communication

Eventually, innovations in the technologies above began to cannibalize and build off of one another, helping the already declining cost of information transfer fall even faster.

By the late 1800’s, typewriters allowed faster composition of the written word and clearer interpretation for the recipient. By the late 1970’s, the electronic word processor used integrated circuits and electromechanical components to provide a digital display, allowing on-the-fly editing of text before it was printed.

Then, the 1980’s saw the rise of the personal computer, which absorbed the single use device of the word processor, folding it in and making it just another software application. For the first time, the written word was now a stream of instantly visible, digital text, making the storage and transmission of thoughts and ideas easier than ever.

Alongside the PC, the emergence of packet-switched networks opened the door to fully-automated computer communications. This formed the backbone of the early internet, and services ranging from chat to newsgroups to the web.

The arrival of the open source software revolution around the year 2000 enabled unprecedented productivity for software teams. By making the building blocks of web software applications free and modifiable to anyone, small teams could move quickly from concept to execution without having to sink time into the basic infrastructure common to any site. For example, in 2004, Facebook was built in a dorm room using Linux as the server operating system, Apache as its web server, MySQL for its database, and php as its server-side programming language. Facebook helped usher in the current era of centralized, corporate-controlled, modern social software, and it was built on the back of open source.

The pattern seen in the evolution from printing press to home PC is repeated and supercharged when we encounter the smartphone. By 2010, smartphones paired the ability to record audio and video with a constant internet connection. Thanks to the combination of smartphones and social software, everyday consumers were granted the ability to capture, edit and distribute media with the same global reach as CNN circa 1990. This had meaningful impact during the protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Local residents and citizen journalists streamed real-time, uncut video of events as they unfolded—without having to consult any television executives.

In the end, this is a story of labor savings. Today, benefits from compounding automation and non-scarce information technology resources, like open source code, have collapsed the amount of human labor needed to reach mass audiences. An individual can compose and transmit content to an audience of millions in an instant.

This leverage for communication does not have a historical precedent.

Dissolving norms

As the cost of information transfer grows rapidly cheaper, structures and dynamics which once seemed solid have become vertiginously fluid.

In the pre-internet age, you had producers and you had consumers. Today, large-scale social platforms are simultaneously media channel and watering hole, and power users may shift between being both producer and consumer in a single session. The distinction between one-to-one and one-to-many communication has also become far less clear. A broadcast-style message may result in a public response from a passerby which catalyzes an interaction between the passerby and the original poster, with lurkers silently watching the exchange unfold. Later, the conversation may be resurfaced and re-broadcast out by a third party.

The intent of our communications also aren’t always fully known to us when we enact them, and the results can be disorienting. We’ve become increasingly accustomed to mumbling into a megaphone, and people may face lasting consequences for things they say online. Ease of distribution has also blurred the lines between public and private communication. In the past, even the act of writing a letter to a single individual involved significant costs and planning. Today, the effort required for writing a letter and writing an essay seen by millions is functionally identical—and basically free.

Meanwhile, professional broadcast networks are no longer the final arbiters of our collective narrative. Journalism used to be the answer to the question “How will society be informed”? In a world of television, radio and newspaper, those who controlled the exclusive organs of media decided what the audience would see, and therefore what it meant to be informed.  Defining our shared narratives is now a collaborative process, and the question of what is relevant has billions of judges able to weigh in. Today we have shifted, according to An Xiao Mina, from “broadcast consensus to digital dissensus”.

Uncharted waters

In 2019, we face an inversion of the economics of information. When the ability to send a message is a scarce resource, as it was in 1787, you’re less likely to use those mechanisms to transmit trivial updates. Today, the extreme ease of information transfer invites casualness which begets the inconsequential. Swimming in these waters is leaving us open to far more noise masquerading as signal than in eras past.

Many of us can attest that the time between considering what we want to say and getting to say it has shrunk to minutes or seconds, and the messages we send are increasingly frequent and bite-sized, thought out on-the-fly. When this dynamic compounds over time and spreads across the human culture, with both individuals and institutions taking part, we find ourselves experiencing the cognitive equivalent of a distributed denial-of-service attack through an endless torrent of “news,” opinion, analysis and comment. Just ask the Macedonian teenagers making bank churning out fake news articles.

To make sense of this, we need new design patterns, technologies, narratives, and disciplines. The decline of broadcast consensus leaves us grappling with a painful loss of clarity, yet it simultaneously creates opportunities for voices who were missing in eras past. We’ve sailed off the side of the map, into waters not yet charted. Now, we’re called on to relearn how to navigate, even as our instruments are rendered useless. And we need all the help we can get.


Facebook Moderation and the Unforeseen Consequences of Scale

Parable of the Radium Girls

In 1917, a factory owned by United States Radium in Orange, New Jersey hired workers to paint watchfaces with self-luminescent radium paint for military-issue, glow-in-the-dark watches. Two other factories soon followed in Ottawa, Illinois and Waterbury, Connecticut. The workers, mostly women, were instructed to point the tip of their paint brushes by licking them. They were paid by the watchface, and told by their supervisors the paint was safe.

Evidence suggested otherwise. As employees began facing illness and death, US Radium initially rejected claims that radium exposure might have been more damaging than they’d first led workers to believe. A decade-long legal battle ensued, and US Radium eventually paid damages to their former employees and their families.

The Radium Girls’ story offers us a glimpse into a scenario where a technological innovation promised significant economic return, but its effects on the people who came into daily contact with it were unknown. In the course of pursuing the economic opportunity at hand, the humans doing the line work to produce value wound up doubling as lab rats in an unplanned experiment.

Today, regulations would prohibit a workplace that exposed workers to these hazards.

The unforeseen consequences of unplanned experiments

This week, the Verge’s Casey Newton published an article examining the lives of Facebook moderators, highlighting the toll taken on people whose job it is to handle disturbing content rapid-fire, on a daily basis. The employees at Cognizant, a company contracted by Facebook to scale the giant social network’s moderation workforce, make $15/hour and are expected to make decisions for 400 posts each day at a rate of 95% accuracy. A drop in numbers calls a mod’s job into question. They have 9 minutes/day of carefully monitored break time. The pay is even lower for Arabic-speaking moderators in other countries, who make less than six dollars per day.

Facebook has 2.3 billion global users. This means, by sheer size of the net being cast, moderators will encounter acts of graphic violence, hate speech, and conspiracy theories. Cognizant knows this, and early training for employees involves efforts to harden the individual to what the job entails. After training, they’re off to the races.

Over time, exposure is reported to cause a distorted sense of reality. Moderators begin developing PTSD-like symptoms. They describe trouble context-switching between the social norms of the workplace and the rest of their lives. They are legally enjoined from talking about the nature of their work with friends or loved ones. Some employees begin espousing the viewpoints of the conspiracy theories they’ve been hired to moderate. Coping mechanisms take the shape of dark humor, including jokes about suicide and racism, drugs, and risky sex with coworkers. There are mental health counselors available on-site, however, their input boils down to making sure the employee can continue doing the job, rather than concern for their well-being beyond the scope of the bottom line.

“Works as intended”

When Facebook first started building, they weren’t thinking about these problems. Today, the effects of global connectivity through a single, centralized platform, populated with billions of users, with an algorithm dictating what those users see, is something we have no precedent for understanding. However, as we begin the work of trying to contend with the effects of technology-mediated communication at unprecedented scale, it’s important to identify a key factor in Facebook’s stewardship of their own platform: the system is working as intended. I’ve long noted that if scale is a priority, having garbage to clean up in an online network is a sign of success, because it means there are enough people to make garbage in the first place.

The very reality that human moderators need to do this work at such magnitude means Facebook is working extraordinarily well, for Facebook.

Let’s explore this for a moment. The platform’s primary mode has long been to assemble as many people as possible in one place, and keep them there as long as possible. The company makes money by selling ads, so number of users and quantity of time on the site is their true north. The more people there are on the site, and the longer they spend there, the more opportunities for ad impressions, resulting in more money. They are incentivized to pursue this as thoroughly as possible, and under these strict parameters, any measure which results in more users and more engagement is a good one.

Strong emotional reactions tend to increase engagement. The case study of the network’s role in the spreading of rumors which led to mob violence in Sri Lanka provides a potent look at how the company’s algorithms can exacerbate existing tensions. “The germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind,” said one person interviewed. So on the one hand, Facebook is incentivized to get as many users as possible and get them as riled up as possible, because that drives engagement, and thus profit. Some of the time, that will produce content like that which moderators at Cognizant need to clean up. To keep this machine running, human minds need to be used as filters for psychologically toxic sludge.

Facebook could make structural platform shifts which would reduce the likelihood of disturbing content showing up in the first place. They could create different corners of the site where users go specifically to engage in certain activities (share their latest accomplishment, post cooking photos), rather than everyone swimming in the same amorphous soup. They could go back to affiliations with offline institutions, like universities, and make your experience within these tribes be the default experience of the site. Or they could get more selective about who they accept money from, or whom they allow to be targeted for ads. But I’m sure any one of these moves would damage their revenues at numbers that would boggle our minds. Facebook’s ambition for scale, and their need to maintain it now that they have it, is working against creating healthier experiences.

Like the Radium Girls, Facebook moderators are coming into daily contact with a barely-understood new form of technology so that others may profit. As we begin to see the second order effects and human costs of these practices and incentive systems, now is a good time for scale to be questioned as an inherent good in the business of the internet.


Will voting functionality on Facebook solve anything?

Word came out earlier this week that Facebook is running an experiment, giving a small number of users in New Zealand upvote/downvote buttons on comments. I’m wondering what Facebook is looking to learn.

Upvotes and downvotes have been around since forever on gamified platforms like Reddit and Stack Overflow. Voting introduces a sense of right or wrong in a community. It quantifies the value of your participation, turning your popularity, or lack thereof, into something measurable. It’s opinionated. Fittingly, voting is a functionality which took root in technical, programming-focused, and gaming-adjacent communities.

Facebook has a whole different premise than gamified discussion sites do. They built their social network around sharing and staying in contact with loved ones. They made it frictionless to share anything about yourself, in the hopes that you would share everything about yourself. Facebook makes money by using the data they have about you to show you extremely tailored ads. What you see in your Facebook timeline is algorithmically generated and optimized for content which you are most likely to react to, fueling engagement. Facebook has, of course, been under scrutiny since news of the data leak to Cambridge Analytica and investigations into how the site has been used to organize local violence in Sri Lanka.

So on the one hand, you have platforms which are about getting people to post and quantify the value of each other’s words (Reddit, Stack Overflow), and on the other, a social network which aims to make you observable and reactive (Facebook). And voting, a core functionality from one is being essentially air-dropped over to the other. Where could that be helpful? Where could that be harmful?

There’s been a lot of talk about fake news lately. I tend to think the definition of “fake news” is far more slippery than most of us care to believe, but that’s a post for another time. Point is, there’s concern that there’s no way to discredit something posted in bad faith on Facebook, and in the form of voting, there’s functionality which allows every day users to do just that. I get why added opinionated functionality might seem like the right counter-measure.

What I wonder is, will the mob mentality which tends to form up during user voting ultimately help or harm the nature of the interactions taking place? When asked, a company spokesperson said “People have told us they would like to see better public discussions on Facebook, and want spaces where people with different opinions can have more constructive dialogue…Our hope is that this feature will make it easier for us to create such spaces, by ranking the comments that readers believe deserve to rank highest, rather than the comments that get the strongest emotional reaction.” The idea that folks will believe the posts which should be ranked highest aren’t also the ones which emit the strongest emotional reaction runs counter to everything I’ve ever known about humans and keyboards.

Furthermore, when a post gets heavily downvoted…what happens? Will there be someone on the other side, at Facebook, able to step in? I’m guessing not. Will there be anything that happens when a comment is heavily downvoted? Unclear. Is this all about making sure we just keep clicking things? Maybe.

All in all, this sounds like an interesting experiment and I’m glad to see Facebook do something. I really hope they speak publicly about their findings. But I also see how this feature could cause users to double down on their existing disagreements, grudges, and gripes.

Finally, copping to the fact this is an experiment, this measure strikes me as misguided because voting sets users up to reach for a goal which Facebook has not defined. Whether you’re trying to drop the best meme, or the most articulately explained physics equation, seeking votes means you’re aspiring to be something valuable in the eyes of the group. What is it people are reaching for when they seek upvotes on their Facebook comments? What kind of discussion space is Facebook looking to create? How do the answers to the previous questions vary based on the demographics and context of the folks doing the posting? Without answering these, Facebook is simply bolting another tunnel onto the multi-level hamster mansion, and hoping the novelty of its presence gets the critters to stop fighting.


Commit History

This is primarily an exercise in record keeping. Two years ago I wrote a post about burnout and went silent. Here are some things which have transpired since:

I found work which fits the parameters outlined here.

I published Contributions to put myself on the hook for figuring out more purposeful work, aiming at either of two broad categories: #1 enabling networks of people to help each other or #2 helping the technology industry be a better version of itself. I’ve now clocked nearly two years as a Community Manager at Stack Overflow. Both sets of parameters are being met surprisingly well.

Better attention management.

Our attention spans don’t scale to the size of the internet. In March of 2014 I took the month off Twitter, which gave me a chance to examine how it was re-patterning my brain. The silence was delicious, and the hiatus equipped me to make clearer decisions about where I spend my cognitive resources. My relationship to social media hasn’t been the same since.

The start of a thesis.

In May of 2015 I presented at CMX Summit East on the five traits of enduring communities. This was the first time I’d done any speaking since taking time away, and it was rewarding to lay down a cohesive set of ideas which were the product of several years of work. I also couldn’t have asked for a better place to do it. (To David, Carrie, Yrjathank you!)

These are subtle but significant changes which come from focused effort. I look forward to continuing to put in the work.



About three weeks ago, I said goodbye to my team. I’ve been in need of a break and after spending a year and a half working on technical infrastructure for the dev community, the company is increasing their focus on enterprise products. It was a good time for me to step back.

Since leaving, I’ve been able to think more about what the last few years of my working life have looked like. In the span of the last three years I’ve helped two companies move from early-stage to mid-stage. I’ve handled user shitstorms, overseen dozens of launches, pulled all nighters, been through the fundraising process twice, managed people, turned customers into close friends, and kept countless moments of high emotion from tearing people apart. Along the way I developed a knack for breaking down silos between technical and non-technical teams. I love watching organizations grow and flourish. I’ve been humbled at what it is to be a manager, and to serve those who have entrusted some part of their career to me. This work is a privilege.

I’ll also be the first to say it. I’ve burnt myself out, hard.

I drove myself to unhealthy levels of exertion too hard for too long in pursuit of the next milestone.

I was over-investing myself in the organizations I was part of. I was making my work the one single point of failure for my ego.

After awhile, my friends never saw me anymore, I forgot why I ever liked the things I liked, and crossing off virtually any ‘to do’ list item took an excruciating amount of effort.

Why did this finally dawn on me? Historically, one of my biggest assets is my ability to think deeply about a messy problem, and formulate a single response that makes things click into place. I’m also good at simulating other people’s experiences and modeling interactions. It’s part of what made me a good community manager. After driving myself too hard for too long, my ability to do those things dulled.

I also realized I wasn’t fully listening to the things people would say to me. I caught myself categorizing what kind of conversation I thought I was entering ahead of time, associating a few normal behaviors with that type of interaction, and going on autopilot. Upon realizing this, I responded by pushing myself harder in an attempt to recoup lost productivity. Soon the combined momentum and pressure were taking on a life of their own. I was doing the next thing that presented itself because it seemed easiest at the time, and I was too harried to synthesize what the pieces added up to. I was struggling to connect with people.

You own your tools

If I stop, and think (which I haven’t done in years), I know damn well there’s a problem with all that.

The always-on, drive yourself into the ground, race to the top of Hacker News, pwn Demo Day approach is a specific tactic, and not a long term strategy. It needs to be implemented at certain critical points in a company’s life-cycle, assuming you’re trying to build a venture capital-scale business.

This tactic needs to be employed when:

1) you’re first starting out and successfully doing or not doing certain things (making a product, getting money in the bank) determines whether or not you have a company at all.

2) your entire company is pushing to meet a discrete and time sensitive deadline, the outcome of which is has been deemed similarly pivotal as the very earliest stages of your business. (in the style of #1).

That’s it. Those are the only times when the approach to work that I was taking are appropriate. (If you’re running a lifestyle business, you’re playing a different game all together, and more power to you.) And if you’ve convinced yourself that you’re always working in one of the two sets of parameters I described, thereby creating constant life or death urgency, you’re doing it wrong.

There are extenuating circumstances, but if you’ve made your working life into one long string of extenuating circumstances you’re designing for diminishing returns and eventual failure. You can either become amazing at self-regulating and prioritization overnight, or pull the plug, make a full stop, and engage in some serious self-assessment. Personally, the former wasn’t working for me, so I eventually chose the latter.

Well, what now?

It would be lovely if I could explain to you all the things I’ve figured out and the wisdom I’ve found. The reality is I’m still pretty turned about, and clarity takes awhile to cultivate. Fortunately, I’m already feeling more like myself than I have in a long time. After just three weeks, the haze is clearing. I’m also resisting the urge to dive back into a full time job at the first sign of relief. I can’t do my best work if I’m not a whole person, and I think I owe my future teammates that much.

My life’s work is too important to go through it mindlessly. That’s what I started doing, and I don’t want to keep compromising. I view work as a calling, and jobs are individual vehicles to help materialize some piece of the puzzle. I’ve proven that I’m incapable of doing anything half-heartedly. It lets me rally myself and those around me, but the dark side of this tendency can get seriously bleak.

I need to learn better self-management, so I’m going to keep taking time. I’m going to keep spending long aimless afternoons in the park, reminding myself of what makes me smile, and letting the bits of understanding filter in, packet by packet. I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep talking, I’ll keep renewing friendships, and I’ll keep thinking about how to do work that pays respect to either of the problem sets I outlined here.

I’ll keep you posted.



So You Want to Work With the Developer Community?

When I transitioned into working with technical communities, I was pretty sure I was a weird outlier who was suddenly getting to explore my passion for developer culture. Then I noticed something funny; some of my peers followed the same track shortly after I did. Investment in developer tools has also been on the rise, so demand for this work looks like it’ll keep on flowing.

If it’s going to be a trend, I’d like to help newcomers serve the developer community better and be more successful in their own right. Here are a few things I wish someone had told me.

Developer community management isn’t new

What is somewhat new is early-stage venture backed companies concerning themselves with it. For a long time, this was the domain of enterprise software giants. Community management has been core to successfully run open source projects since open source emerged, and in OS, community decisions and engineering decisions are often been inextricably linked. Your developer-focused company might not be driven by open source specifically, but if you’re trying to facilitate any kind of collaboration, you’ll need to understand how open source works.

If you want to study some of the roots (and you do), go read about the Java Community Process, find out what Ubuntu’s community efforts entail, and get to know the backstory between Sun and Oracle. This may sound outlandishly academic and arcane, but I promise you this is imprinted on the developer community’s collective subconscious, and is affecting how technology gets made today. If you show up and behave as though there’s no history or cultural precedents, your efforts wont go as far.

The incentives are different

If you’ve been working with a non-technical community, you’ve likely been investing time and effort into helping your community members feel close to your brand. Developers don’t care about brands as abstract entities. It will matter whether you connect with your community in the mediums they’re most comfortable in. It will matter whether or not you try and hard sell them. If you’re a developer, everybody wants a piece of you, both from a positive standpoint of being able to set your price in the market, and from a negative standpoint in the commoditized and transactional ways people will approach you as a resource. The things that made your old community feel appreciated might not transfer. Developers want to build good systems and be recognized for their contributions. Prepare to understand and respect that.

It’s not a spectator sport

The only way to be a facilitator is to be a member. I don’t believe you can successfully work with the developer community if you’re not actually part of it. Building with code is the act of assembling individual actions into a process that can be repeated whenever desired. You should have at least some understanding of those components, of the technical facets of your specific ecosystem, and a few opinions on them. It’s far better to fail at hacking tiny things together than it is to not try at all. Prepare to show up to events, just be there, and get your hands dirty. It may be tempting to think that as a community manager you can just deal with the big broad picture. I believe that you need to understand the granular components in order to make your vision real.

Creating a space where people know and care about one another, and interaction is high is still the name of the game, whether or not you work with the developer community. Just get ready for the social mores to look and feel different.



I’m obsessed with work. Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) that means I’m a workaholic, for better or worse. When you get to the heart of the matter though, I’m driven by a sense of my ‘life’s work’. As in, what will I make with other people, over the course of my lifetime, which will elevate other human lives? How do I know what to work on? How do I maximize time spent working on the right thing?

In my career so far, I’ve thrown myself into some very different parts of the world. Consumer startups, enterprise software, and open source are some prime examples. The people who reside in each of those sectors don’t usually sit down and have real conversations with one another. While jumping between silos has sometimes been a shock to the system, and has occasionally been very lonely, it has given me the opportunity to understand the experiences and motivations of disparate groups of people who usually would never cross paths. Standing at the crossroads of these tribes and playing in the ambiguous space in between them has allowed me to stress test many of my own assumptions, and has afforded me a much bigger picture of reality.

Based on my learnings,  there are two classes of problems that I would like to spend the next 10+ years of my life’s work focused on. This is an early attempt to articulate the two different problem sets that I find most compelling. They may change, but its a start. 

1) Peer to peer empowerment via large networks.

How do we help individuals create things, make themselves useful to one another, and live better lives because of it? Since the financial crash of 2008 many of the economic paradigms that we’d come to take for granted, like employment and the value of a college degree, have largely stopped working. This is slowly breeding a generation of micro-entrepreneurs and DIY-ers, and a trend towards sharing and collaboration so that resources can be used effectively. Current examples are the Etsy’s, the Shapeways’, and the Kickstarter’s of the world, but what comes next? There are certainly a multitude of ways to help people lift themselves up at scale in the current landscape which have yet to be implemented. Helping people adapt to and thrive within this new climate is one of the things I would most like to do with my time.

2) The global technology community

I recently read a post called After Your Job is Gone. Check it out, I highly recommend it. It helped me to understand how very lucky I am, as is every other person employed in tech, to be in this sector. We’re in a great place while the divide is deepening between us and much of the rest of the world. It’s easy for us to slip into thinking that our bubble is the world. This loss of perspective can lead us to waste our remarkable abilities on non-problems, or much worse, waste each other’s time on destructive in-fighting. The question here is, how can we, as this privileged part of the global population be the best versions of ourselves? This is something I’d like to spend considerable time devising solutions for.

I hope that by sharing this, I’ll have an easier time aligning my small daily decisions with big these priorities. 

If you’re trying to figure out where you’d like to contribute, perhaps we should talk.


Things I Believe

Roughly a year ago, I wrote these down. I was in a tangled confusing mess. At the time, I was trying to determine an outcome to something I couldn’t control. It just wasn’t in my hands. Recognizing this uncertainty, I tried for hours and days with my analytical abilities to play chess with reality, calculating each move until I had a known outcome. This left me more frustrated and mentally exhausted than I’d started out.

I couldn’t force it. So instead, I asked myself what would endure, with or without the temporary situation I was wrestling with. What would matter 40 years into the future? These were my answers, and I decided the time was right to share them:

  • Business works better when a company is a medium to express what you stand for.
  • Business works better when you care about the people you work with, and create a product which is an expression of those relationships.
  • You can never have ownership over someone else in work or in love. You can only choose to spend mutually beneficial time together.
  • When there’s no longer mutual benefit, reassess your terms.
  • Simple decency always trumps formal protocol.
  • Generosity, and creating experiences which make people smile, usually get you more than you started with. 
  • If you love what you do, you’ll profit more.
  • If you want to make big gains you have to be vulnerable.
  • Define your standards. When push comes to shove, maintain them.

The world will always be too complicated for us to know every answer ahead of time. Pick your axioms, and in moments of doubt, fall back on them.

Thanks to Buster Benson for his ’A Few Rules I Try to Live By’ which helped inspire the thoughts above. 


An End to 2012

When 2012 began, I was determined to make it a year of change.

Professionally, I switched companies and roles: a change from an e-commerce/manufacturing marketplace to an open source driven cloud computing company. I dove into JavaScript and Git, got to know servers a whole lot better, and learned how to collaborate with a remote team. I began leading our support engineers.

Personally, I forged relationships with people who I expect to know for years, and strengthened existing ones with friends and family. Some fell apart, and came back stronger. I can honestly say I’ve never been surrounded by better people than I am today. I started a yoga practice. I began weight training. I’ve been experimenting with how personal discomfort can be a teaching tool.

2012 has been exceptional. My only regret is not having been present for more of it. I’ve dug into whatever’s come my way, and sometimes, I’ve let the hours and days pass me by. I haven’t taken sufficient time to think.

My hope is that 2013 will be similarly dynamic, but I want to increase how much I synthesize the experiences I’m having. We only get one life, and I want to make sure I’m feeling the seconds.

Here’s to lots of laughter and learning in 2013. I’m glad to be on this ride with all of you.