(Author’s note: you probably have to view this blog post on my site and not a reader or link because the entire body text is an image.)
Many websites today have poor user experiences. Some are annoying. Some are cluttered. A common problem is that they make it difficult for users to do what they want to do. You know what flows typically are very easy? Anything where users are buying things.
It’s not perfect: I have many times dug out my wallet to type in the credit card number on the front of my card, then flipped it over for that XYZ or POS or whatever that number on the back is, then flipped it back over for the expiration date. But sites generally make that “Add to Cart” button very visible, and it’s only a few steps away to check out and give them money. If only we were so well-aligned and practiced in other flows on the internet as well.
Munchery: Take 1
My Munchery journey started from the recycling bin. I found out a few days later that they had mailed coupon codes to apparently everyone, but I had initially ignored the flyer, then dug it out a few days later. I was probably hungry right then. Continue reading Not Too Little, Not Too Munchery
Long ago, humans discovered fire and began to cook their food. Not soon after, they began to complain about eating the food cooked yesterday and why they couldn’t go out and hunt or forage for new food instead.
Fast forward to today, and not much has changed. Basically, there are 2 options: going out or staying in. I grew up in a “staying in” household, where my mom cooked everyday except for leftovers. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the recipe), my mom is not around to provide for me on a daily basis. On the other hand, the options for staying in have changed dramatically. No longer are we restricted to cooking or ordering pizza delivery. We can:
- shop for groceries and cook dinner like always
- skip shopping for groceries and have groceries delivered
- skip coming up with a grocery list and have ingredients for a meal prepackaged with a recipe
- skip the cooking and have an equivalent to a home meal delivered
- skip the delivery and eat in someone else’s home
- skip the “home meal” restriction and order delivery from a restaurant
- skip talking to the restaurant and order through a delivery service
I bet some cavemen would have literally killed to get their meals like that.
I tend to believe that the old ways are the best ways and try to cook more often than not. Despite it just being myself and Julie, I believe in the value of family dinners and cooking at home. We spend time working together by cooking. I think we tend to make more nutritious meals. Meals around the dinner table are a time for bonding and tradition.
But I can understand why many people don’t do it. Cooking requires planning when our lives seem more unpredictable than ever. It takes a long time to prepare, eat, and clean up when we don’t have enough time anyways. Most of us don’t cook well, and almost all of us don’t cook restaurant-quality food. Instead, we go out to eat, or pick up fast food, or microwave a TV dinner.
We make compromises in our daily lives, and new “staying in” options can help to find that balance. Although I come into this with strong biases towards cooking, I also am an adventurous eater and need ways to generate blog content. Therefore, I (and by extension and some duress, Julie) will embark on a months long hunt through many dinner acquisition services to find out what works and what doesn’t. We will judge our meals and experiences and share those thoughts on this blog. Here are some of the criteria we will be considering:
- Nutrition. Did the meal look balanced? Is this a sustainable diet?
- Taste. Did it taste good? Would I eat this every day?
- Convenience. How was the experience of getting and preparing the food? Does it generally fit into my life?
- Experience. Overall, how was dinner? Did it address the peripheral, related aspects of a home dinner?
Julie and I have discussed many options so far (and we’re open to more suggestions, but so far, we have come up with CSA, Instacart, Plated, Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Munchery, delivery, DoorDash, and EatWith. We are open to any other suggestions as well
To spice up our meals, I want to put out an open invitation for dinner guests. I would be worried about regularly having friends try our usual dinners, but this series of experiments seems like a perfect opportunity to share the experience. To fulfill such a role, the qualifications are:
- actually knowing Julie or me
- transporting yourself to be physically, preferably punctually present at our place
- informing us of any dietary restrictions or strong preferences you might have
- helping with meal preparation as necessary for the selected service
- contributing opinions freely to be shared in future blog posts
Note that the requirements do not include paying for your meal. As guests, we will be providing for your meal.
Along the way, I may provide some musings about food, cooking, hosting, or other related topics. Stay tuned, and let me know via any contact method if you wish to join us for dinner. Even you lurkers who I have barely talked to in my life: you’re all welcome!
I once read that lists are a cheap way to write blog posts. They are easy to write because instead of composing 1000 words that flow together, you just have to write, say, 5 200 word snippets that fit together.
From a writing perspective, this is true, but I have been thinking about this blog post for a very long time. I have laughed hard at many scenes in movies, but these are the most enduring ones in my mind. Without further ado (or unnecessary effort writing, here’s the list of my top 5 funniest movie scenes.
Honorable Mention: Hot Tub Time Machine – “Crispin Glover’s arm”
This was one of the best running jokes I have seen in a movie, but sadly, a running joke doesn’t count because it isn’t a single scene. Even so, I find it worthy because it integrates suspense really well: after the first time, you never quite know how any scene is going to turn out.
5. Kung Pow – “Radio Shack”
Kung Pow is a dumb movie. The jokes are absurd, but at least the concept of redubbing and working into an old movie with green scene is executed well enough. Some of the movie is too much for me, but some jokes just really stand out. This scene is a one-liner that I find really funny for no particular reason
4. Dodgeball – “The Bar Scene”
There are 2 jokes in this scene that I like a lot: the player introduction at the beginning and Ben Stiller’s comebacks at the end. Sadly, they are split over 2 videos on YouTube. Oddly, I don’t think the jokes play off each other, and independently, they wouldn’t make it into my top 5. It doesn’t really make sense in my mind why they should work together, but they do.
3. Mystery Men – Superhero Training
Just before this scene is the training montage with “All Star” playing over it, and I like that scene, too. Mystery Men is just a strange, strange movie that feels like the 90s, and I really enjoy the self-aware, ridiculous humor in it. Although Ben Stiller usually plays the joker, he happens to be the straight man in this scene, and he pulls it off really well. Humor usually depends a lot on unpredictably, but the over-predictability of this scene build an awkwardness that brings the humor through for me.
2. The Big Lebowski – “We? I!”
Another quick hit of a joke. The feeling of a poor cover-up is very relatable. Overall, I’m only so-so on The Big Lebowski, but there are a few jokes that really work for me, and this is the winner.
1. Men in Black – “Written Exam”
I enjoy physical humor. I enjoy awkward humor. The pacing of this scene just feels right once the written exam starts.
Hopefully you guys enjoy these clips as well. I would be curious to hear what the favorites in the crowd are as well.
(Author’s note: you know that thing I do in my writing where I write about one thing but am actually writing about something else? Yeah, that’s happening below, so even if you don’t care about video games, you may still like the rest of my post. However, you may not like any of it. Just don’t use the topic of video games as a predictor for your interest. Read as you will.)
I was catching up with my friend Reno, and he mentioned that he was, with shame, playing a lot of Destiny. Despite coming from the makers of Halo, this video game was highly criticized by the community for becoming unreasonably difficult relatively quickly. To progress through the game, one had to do a lot of grinding (and not the kind you get kicked out of high school prom for). When I mentioned criticism to Reno, he countered that he didn’t really see it as a grind because the gameplay was fun for him, and he wasn’t too worried about leveling and strengthening his character.
I didn’t know how to respond.
I recently wrote a blog post about how I wanted to move away from video games that require grinding, as many role-playing games do. Perhaps a childhood of video games desensitized me to the joy of watching my character progress, and I recently have been left wishing I could skip past the gameplay and just get to the end goal. In my tirade, I think I forgot that video games are supposed to be fun and worthwhile in its own right. The in-game goal of progressing through levels isn’t supposed to reduce that pleasure. Grinding isn’t grinding if you’re having fun. In fact, just calling it “grinding” presupposes the monotony of it. It becomes a grind if the gameplay isn’t fun in the first place.
I don’t play any games these days that I consider grinding in a traditional sense. I do, however, play some video games relatively seriously and consider it an exercise to improve and get better. For example, I started a blog to catalog my progress and lessons in StarCraft 2. Despite having evangelized the game and related my passion for it, I never actually played that much StarCraft. To have actually improved, I probably should have played at least 5 to 10 games a week. To my shame, I only played that much a handful of times. It’s a common phenomena known in the community as ladder anxiety: it’s intimidating to play, the games are stressful, and the result is exhausting. If that doesn’t sound like fun to you, then you probably have a healthier understanding of fun than many StarCraft players.
Ironically, I think that the gameplay of StarCraft is fun. What I suspect went wrong is that I took a fun activity and reframed it as practice. When my first priority ceased being fun and instead became self-improvement, the games unsurprisingly were no longer fun. Each game was a test where suboptimal performance was a disappointment. I knew that my mechanics weren’t good enough: I needed to practice to click the buttons and react fast enough. Every game against a real human being felt like a recital, where I could hear myself playing the wrong notes all along the way, and whether I finished the piece or not, I could only remember the struggle. By turning StarCraft into an activity to improve in, I made a future goal my requirement for satisfaction–it was grinding. I was grinding to improve myself.
Looking back, I thought that framing StarCraft into practice was a brilliant move without consequences. I could take something that I enjoyed (StarCraft) and add structure and progress to it. I fooled myself into over-optimism about the idea by glossing past the potential downsides. Looking back, I think I undervalued the intrinsic value of video games as a source of fun, and by reframing it otherwise, I diminished the driving factor to play in the first place.
Extrapolating to the rest of my life, I see the same pattern across many of my activities. Whether it’s board games or fantasy football, activities lose their charm when I figure that I need to be good at them. It changes epiphanies into research, participation into performance, mistakes into disappointment. It doesn’t even need to be competitive (though the competition doesn’t help, either): I can induce this attitude in isolation, and it results in me stopping out of an activity entirely when I have gone too far and no can longer enjoy it at all.
For example, I was a tuba player in high school. I really enjoyed band and playing music, but it was mostly structured as a lot of hard work. I learned a lot of work ethic through it. Since then, I have picked up the tuba a handful of times, but never really sustained it. I tell people that it is because I will never be as good as I was when I was practicing a half-hour to an hour daily, and that’s just disheartening. That explanation makes a lot of sense until realizing that I want to play music again to have fun, not to be good, and those two things don’t necessarily need to be tied together.
The same is true for racquetball: I only picked it up again in the past 2 months after a few years of not playing. I kept telling myself that I would never be as good as when I was practicing with my friend Dave twice a week. Despite being a competitive game, I forgot that I can have fun with it without playing at my best and beating everyone.
To self psych-analyze, it comes from my upbringing in primary and secondary education. Our system is totally a rat race, where even extra-curricular activities are competitive because we are all putting together college resumes and trying to get ahead in any way possible. My band director put this thinking together succinctly as something along the lines of “We have fun, and it’s fun being good.”
My director was right: it can be extremely rewarding to be good at things. However, I think there’s a dividing line between activities that we do for pleasure and for gain. In our education system, it turns out that everything is done for gain. In real life, this is it. This is our lives, and some things are worth doing without a greater goal. My yoga instructor in college often reminded us, “Remember, this is adult fitness: do what you’re comfortable with.” Yoga class isn’t about having the best downward facing dog in the room: it’s exactly what each individual wants it to be. Sometimes, it isn’t work that leads to fun: it’s the fun that leads to the work.
I was traveling for the past 2 weekends, and I had plenty of time both to visit with friends and family and to reflect on my own during long car rides. I was so excited when I got back home with a list of things that I wanted to learn to do or to do better: driving a manual, going rock climbing, speaking another language. I even made a bucket list for them so I could work through them methodically and become the modern-day renaissance man. Looking at the list now, the entire exercise feels ridiculous. Not only do my backlog lists usually fail, I realize now that I didn’t put things there because they sounded like fun. I put them on my list because I wanted to be good at more things.
Not to say that I shouldn’t do any of these things. But maybe I should do them because they sound fun. Maybe that way, I won’t be grinding until I’m disheartened. They can be the fulfilling lifelong activities I imagined instead.
What a Super Bowl. The game literally game down tot he last minute after several momentum swings throughout the game. With an acrobatic catch on the ground and a few interceptions, football doesn’t get much better than that.
Of course, I was largely neutral and only slightly favoring the Seahawks, so barring a total blowout, I would be hard to disappoint. Apologies to the Seahawks fans out there for the disappointment. Even more apologies to those around Seahawks fans who have listened continuously about Pete Carroll’s poor playcalling, where Marshawn Lynch didn’t get the ball on the 1 yard line. I know how it feels. I was at Big Game 2009, where we threw an interception in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown when we had a running back averaging almost 7 yards a carry. It happens.
While I’m at it, sorry to those around Patriots fans as well. Following Ballghazi/Deflategate, I think we all understand what sore winners are like as well. Or so my east coast friends have claimed based on their Facebook feeds with endless Patriots-related posts. You also have my sympathy: my Facebook is strongly Texas-biased, and for 2 years, my Facebook feed could have been mistaken for a Johnny Manziel biography.
Sadly, I missed watching the Super Bowl with friends at home while hypocritically harassing my very international coworkers to find a party themselves to truly understand American culture. I spent my weekend under several inches of snow, some of which came at me sideways. It took less than 15 seconds and a 20 foot walk from a cab to the hotel entry for me to conclude that I would never live in Chicago.
Due to the forbidding weather conditions and excellent use of Marriott membership by my traveling companion, I watched the game in the hotel lounge with endless wings, tortilla chips, bean dip, and carrot sticks. And an open bar. Fun fact: I gave up my label of being mostly vegetarian.
Less fun fact: I still don’t drink, but I did let loose and drink some ginger ale and sierra mist. Out of glass bottles.
Anyways, I watched the game with a bunch of older, female librarians. The crowd was mostly rooting for the Seahawks. One was a hardcore Bears fan, so I guess she like me doesn’t really have a team.
At first, it was strange. Having gone to library conferences for several years, I have met many librarians, and they largely fit the stereotype. They look like the people who would “shh” you in a library, and not so much the people I would laugh about a Kim Kardashian commercial with. But it turns out they’re pretty normal. We cheered and booed and commentated on the games and commercials. I would talk about the 2008 Super Bowl, and I would hear about the 1985 Super Bowl. Despite not being asked my age, they rightly determined I wasn’t even born yet and gave me a hard time about it. When the 50 Shades of Grey trailer came up, I heard about an apparently wonderful discussion one library had and the local controversy it caused. In return, I explained the economics of mobile games and how they could afford Liam Neeson and multiple commercials.
Were it not for the weather and free food, I would never have picked to watch the game with librarians, but it ended up being a lot of fun. I never got any of their names, but we were so familiar and casual that it would have seemed awkward to introduce ourselves and point out that we didn’t actually know each other. There’s a lot wrong with our sports culture, but it is an institution and shared experience that cuts across all ideologies and communities. There’s some comfort in the absurdity and depth of our passions for some event that ultimately has no bearing on our actual life. We embrace rivalries so much that we manufacture and overplay them, but they work so well in a system bound by hard rules with highly random results.
As that guy who laments the state of modern society, I want to point out how intolerant our society has become of different ideologies, particularly political ones. Despite obvious progress on social issues, it feels like the left and right wings couldn’t be further apart, where we’re increasingly unwilling to date between political parties despite being tolerant of different religions or races. And I sense that the development of online communities filled with people who largely think like ourselves has weakened local communities and the bonds we build with people unlike ourselves except for having picked to live in the same dang latitude and longitude.
At a time like this, maybe we need sports to be that institution that anyone can talk to anyone about. People pay attention to in-depth analysis and can debate predictions because the sports are so random, and we can trust the facts of the game. About the games themselves (not counting the off-field shenanigans), sports have some of the most open and honest discourse and arguments in modern culture, and although it’s mostly about nothing, there’s something to be proud about because no matter who you root for and what side you are on, we can all sit down and watch a game together because we all just want to see a good game.
Anyways, I think I overstayed my moment on the soapbox. I enjoyed the half-time show quite a bit. I saw it coming, but it turns out that I’m a big fan of Katy Perry’s music. A childhood of top 40 music stations means I just can’t resist catchy songs. And apparently, neither can librarians based on their enthusiasm for singing along. Maybe they should pipe top 40 music through libraries. How much fun would that be?
I like statistics. Statistics don’t lie. Out of context, they can mislead, but they can’t lie.
I like stories. Stories create meaning. Out of context, they can mislead, but they are just as impactful.
Unfortunately, stories and statistics are very different approaches and often conflict with each other. Here are a few examples.
Baseball loves statistics. Sabermetrics is the usage of advanced statistics to analyze player performance, which led to the idea of Moneyball. By calculating Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), we can compare players controlling for various conditions and better quantify their performance. On the other hand, there really is something to watching a batter’s swing or seeing a clutch performance in game. Both are approaches to analyzing a prospect’s future potential or a retired player’s hall of fame candidacy.
Charity, fundraising, and non-profit organizations have to convince regular citizens and philanthropic organizations to contribute. They might tell us that there are 5.2 million Americans had Alzheimer’s in 2014. Or maybe they will play Sarah MacLachlan’s “Angel” while talking about animal cruelty. Somehow, we have to be convinced about the saliency of a problem to want to take action.
In my work on web applications, my team is always trying to learn more about our users and what they do. One way we can do it is with analytics by counting how many times users click on this link over a month, or what percentage of our users are from Europe. Another approach is with user testing by looking over a user’s shoulder as they use our application. Analytics provide a complete picture, but they don’t explain why. User testing details a user’s behavior, but it’s just one.
In all of these examples, we have quantitative and qualitative approaches of analysis. Quantitative approaches tend to rely on numbers over a broad sample to appeal to our rational nature. Sadly, we are not very rational. Qualitative approaches tend to rely on a small set of narratives to appeal to our sensitive nature. Sadly, they are empirically not particularly valid.
It’s paradoxical that humans tend not to have good statistical intuitions, largely because of our bias towards causal reasoning. A classic example of bad statistics is in guessing conditional probabilities: we aren’t good at integrating the data together. On the other hand, we tend to look for reasons and patterns behind all sorts of data. In daily life, it’s helpful, but it makes us susceptible to a good story and our desire to see things where there is just chance.
The two ways of thinking aren’t always in conflict: they can be used in tandem. FiveThirtyEight is a data journalism organization that does the work to find good numbers and present them in a digestible format. The good numbers of often statistics, and the presentation puts together a story for us to understand. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about how he uses a classic science journalism format. Each finding begins with an anecdote for the reader to attach to, then transitions into methods and results of the study. It makes the topic both gripping and valid.
This is all very troubling because I tend to see storytelling by nature as a lie to get to a deeper truth. I believe in good quantitative analysis and understanding of randomness. There’s the truth about how the world works. Stories build on top of that. Sometimes, they invent connections that don’t exist in reality. In any case, they affect us as humans deeply and can overemphasize an idea. Playing “Angel” in a commercial is intended to touch us without any regard for the relative importance or impact of ASPCA over any other issue or organization.
Of course, statistics get a bad reputation because some representations can deceive, and excluded data can present a biased perspective. As a whole, however, quantitative analysis is intended to capture representative data. Stories deliberately present limited perspectives.
To ground this entire discussion, my recent interest in storytelling has been very troubling to me because of my preference towards quantitative ways of thinking. I most recently have been biased towards them because of my studies in college: despite being in an interdisciplinary major, I leaned more heavily on engineering and social sciences rather than the humanities. The fact that I barely read fiction in college tells you what I was mostly exposed to.
So it seems like there’s something to stories. Stories are a natural way for us to communicate, whether in conversation, journalism, science fiction novels, or commercials. Although I think my skepticism is probably healthy, stories can evoke responses that even the greatest light bulb moments can’t quite replicate. Besides, I wouldn’t have much of a blog if I didn’t believe in telling stories.
I recently have been engrossed by storytelling. Finding stories everywhere has been awesome.
My fascination started with joining a book club about 2 years ago. Before book club, I hadn’t read fiction since high school, and most of that was mandatory. In between, I read various nonfiction and enjoyed the epiphanies and moments of wonder. That type of engagement was very different, however, from what I experienced when I picked up The Orphan Master’s Son, a Pulitizer Prize winner for fiction. I couldn’t put it back down, as the suspense and pulled me through the (digital) pages. I had forgotten how compelling a good story can be and what it was like to really live in another world, another life.
Around then, I got back into tabletop roleplaying games and began running my own games. As a dungeon master, I was responsible for creating the adventures for my players. I had a hard time at first: I was so focused on creating a big, inhabitable world filled with its own vitality that I couldn’t add enough detail about what might happen during an actual session. My next campaign was set in the world of Tekumel, and I wanted to scope it better. In that world, I crafted an epic story arc as a framework to progress through each session. In learning how to DM, I read this post from The Angry DM, which suggested that a boss fight could use a three-act structure to add drama to typically monotonous processes. It was a revelation that storytelling techniques could drive a game.
Then came “Welcome to Night Vale”, a podcast about a fictional town where surreal and horrific things happen and are presented in a fake radio show. It has a Lovecraftian sense of psychological horror but presents it in a humorous way. The different stories in each podcast are ostensibly unrelated, but there’s often a common thread between them and between episodes. Julie and I listen while we do laundry, and we laugh and puzzle together about it. As a purely audio format, so much is conveyed in Cecil’s (the narrator) voice, and we can only imagine what horrors he talks about.
I recently posted about how my video game preferences had changed to put greater emphasis on stories rather than gameplay itself. I just finished Alan Wake, a survival horror video game. You play Alan Wake, a horror writer who goes on vacation but finds out that the story he is writing is coming true. As you play through the game, you find pages of the novel along the path, either describing things that have happened from a different perspective or foreshadowing future events. It was brilliant: the overall presentation had a very cinematic feel to it, but I felt even closer to the characters because I controlled Alan through the events. Minute for minute, it was slower than reading an equivalent novel or watching an equivalent movie, but the interactivity and immersion of playing it was phenomenal. And even the time itself was well-spent as I became more invested in Alan himself.
Most recently, I picked up Marvel Unlimited because I have been absorbed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe of movies and tv shows and wanted more background. I haven’t read comics since high school, and even then, I was reading scattered comics that I found at used bookstores rather than working sequentially through story arcs. I read through several major events, then got into Captain America, reading at least a half-dozen comics every day. With issues coming monthly and spread over years, the comics strung together story arcs that both had the satisfaction of resolution while also immediately pulling me into the next one. I foolishly kept reading to find a stopping point but always ended up reading another when the last page left me hanging.
Once I started to see storytelling in several different forms, I began to pay more attention to it in the regular media I consume, like movies and television. There are the shared elements of storytelling, but the different media add allowances and constrains as well. The format, whether written, audio, or visual obviously has a huge impact. Whether it’s a one-shot, like a movie, or serial, like a TV show, affects how the storyteller keeps their audience’s attention. And with video and roleplaying games, the interactivity adds immersion and unpredictability to the story.
There’s something about storytelling that really resonates with us as humans, and I’m somewhat amazed at how well I had distanced myself from it during college. Even so, the nature and influence of storytelling is somewhat troubling to me and my recent ways of thinking.
But that is a story for my next post.
On my long drive back down the west coast this past holiday season, I listened about 20 hours of podcasts. Most of them were political and current events, including “Left, Right, and Center”, “The Bugle”, and my favorite, “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” I also listened to several episodes of “Political Gabfest”, and one segment about outrage caught my attention since I had been thinking about similar issues in this blog post.
Roughly, the segment was a discussion about Slate’s feature piece, “The year of outrage 2014,” where they catalogued social media outrage from every day of 2014 and turned it into a nifty interactive. It turns out that there was a lot of outrage.
It’s ironic that Slate decided to appeal to a culture of outrage, in part derived from our preference for minimal context and easily digested information, is a massive infographic and 10 long essays. I almost didn’t read it myself despite citing it as the starting point for this article. Here’s the thesis:
…Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us. When something outrageous happens—when a posh London block installs anti-homeless spikes, or when Khloé Kardashian wears a Native American headdress, or, for that matter, when we read the horrifying details in the Senate’s torture report—it’s easy to anticipate the cycle that follows: anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology … and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home…
Not being a heavy Twitter or Facebook user, I miss out on a lot of the excitement. I do, however, use reddit quite a bit, and it’s fascinating to see outrage there. Although the 140 character limit is a factor, longer discourse doesn’t fix it. The reddit community tends to be contrarian and smug, which builds in the “second opinion bias” that also causes outrage. The Slate essays explain this much better than I can, but I would attribute a culture of outrage to 2 things. First, we have a lack of context and research that we would expect from journalists but can’t expect from social media and citizen journalists. Second, we have a natural bias towards evidence and opinions that confirm our worldview.
Who’s fault is it: the medium or us? The internet as a medium has no intention or agenda: it simply facilitates human thought and communication. Even so, the medium has constraints that play into outrage, and it’s tough to blame individuals when we are presented with information (such as in 140 character snippets) that we intrinsically react rashly to. We have cognitive biases: we know them, and we have had them well before the internet, from sound bites on TV to parlor room arguments before that. An important difference is the exponential influence of the internet, which scales previously limited instances of outrage from the mind of one person into a viral phenomena across the world.
I would like to present a challenge to the platforms that exist out there. I think sites like Twitter, Facebook, and reddit publicly take a hands-off approach to these issues and push for democratized, unregulated platforms (short of illegal activity). With my limited knowledge of user experience, however, I find this position disingenuous: the interface and platform itself can bias our behavior tremendously. Sometimes it is implicit, like the positioning of buttons, or explicit, like Facebook filtering our newsfeed. I think these sites should accept both the role they play in facilitating discourse and what we know about human biases. We need platforms that encourage better discourse.
Of course, maybe they are looking into these things: smart people work at these companies, so I hope they’re doing their homework. I just write a blog.
Even so, I should also do my best to encourage discourse through my blog. Like the Slate writers, here’s my story. A few months back, I started writing less about personal events and more about issues and ideas in my blog. I don’t have any hard numbers, but I noticed an odd trend through various metrics. There was a negative correlation between audience engagement and the thought I had put into the post. In other words, my less thoughtful pieces tended to get more activity than my more thoughtful ones.
Here’s my theory. When I put more thought into a blog post, the result is usually messy, and my blog post ends without firm conclusions and having argued both sides. Less thoughtful pieces end up more polemical that leave reader with stronger feeling, either in agreement or disagreement. I think they’re less interesting, but they’re easier to get into and respond to.
I could also be totally self-centered in my analysis. Truth be told, I don’t really know what my audience likes to read about. I just write and hope others find topics as interesting as I do.
(Author’s note: I embrace the irony that most of my readers will come from the facebook link)
I often use my younger cousins to find out what’s going on with kids these days. A few weeks ago, I asked them to explain what “ratchet” meant. They tried to explain. I still don’t think I get it.
Something I understand but don’t really get is that kids these days don’t use Facebook anymore. Apparently they use Instagram and Snapchat instead. When I was their age, we were all about Facebook because it had just expanded membership to high school students, and it was the cool thing that our recently departed college friends had. Consequently, I think that most of my Facebook friends to this day are high school friends. In any case, apparently Facebook is for their parents now, so kids don’t want to use it. Instead, they prefer newer, hipper services that old people haven’t caught onto, albeit with much more limited functionality.
However, it is disingenuous for me to tease my cousins for not using Facebook when I myself am not a heavy Facebook user anymore. The truth is that I honestly am not that interested in most of the content and don’t feel the need to share much myself.
I detailed most of my behavior in this blog post. To recap, I do like Facebook as a public address book that doesn’t require explicit exchange of contact details. Most regular status updates are uninteresting because I’m not close to most of my Facebook friends anymore. And for links to other content, I trust the masses on reddit to filter content better than suggestions from individuals, even if I do know them personally
In that blog post, I mentioned that I am in a group chat on Google Hangouts with some college friends. With about 20,000 messages in 5 months, it has been very active. I describe it as all of us sitting in a room together talking, except that we can all talk at the same time without interrupting each other. As such, there are usually several active topics, and they range from deep to ridiculous, significant to mundane, sports to politics. When we meet in real life, we refer to the group chat like regular conversation, which we expect everyone to keep up with despite the volume.
Interestingly, I have been posting content to the group chat that is similar to Facebook statuses: random pictures from events and daily life, links to interesting content I find on the internet, and thoughts off the top of my head. Despite my reluctance to share on Facebook, I’m happy to chat about the minutia I scroll past on Facebook.
I think the difference is the audience and context. Instead of sharing or consuming with hundreds, it’s the 10-ish that I actually talk to and interact with on a regular basis. And instead of an open platform more akin to public broadcast to newsfeeds everywhere, I’m in a more synchronous exchange with others. Although social networks offered new and exciting ways to connect, I’m reverting to a medium more in common with traditional face-to-face.
As for Facebook, there are a few types of commonly bemoaned content that I see. One is the controversial or politicized link or comment that inevitably leads to strongly-worded arguments. Another is the sad, vaguely-worded post about something bad that happened that isn’t elaborated on. And there’s the rallying outrage post about some issue.
These topics are similar in that they are best shared in smaller settings, yet we find some ego-directed satisfaction in sharing them publicly. Politics are always tricky to discuss, but it’s better to sit face-to-face with the intent to understand and not to argue. And yet we know that it’s bait for the most ardent responders who care to write long responses. Misery does need company, but I think most people actually respond better to a heartfelt conversation rather than a short, sympathetic comments and likes. And outrage on social media seems to be the new norm that makes us feel good in garnering likes while often doing little to enact change.
Facebook as a big platform is good for big things. For engagements and pregnancies, it’s a efficient way to share news with a lot of people. And social media has also been an effective forum for organizing political activism. But for most people, daily life isn’t that exciting, and a network that gives everyone a soap box (with status updates) and a feeling of impact (with the “Like” button) isn’t conducive to meaningful communication.
Despite my dire misgivings about Facebook, I still can’t quit it entirely. I often can’t even resist typing it into my address bar when I already know there’s not much for me. There are just too many darn people on it. I guess, in at least one way, I can relate to kids these days.