Wikimedia’s New Leader on Preventing Misinformation

The New York Times published an interview with Maryana Iskander, the next leader of the Wikimedia Foundation (which oversees Wikipedia.) The interview focused on how Wikimedia prevents misinformation and deals with controversial topics in its sites, especially in these polarized times.

Before Wikimedia, Iskander worked in nonprofits dealing with youth unemployment and women’s rights. The interviewer, Davey Alba, asked if “misinformers” could claim this background might influence Iskander’s decisions about what is allowed on Wikipedia. Her answer was illuminating:

I would say two things. I would say that the really relevant aspects of the work that I’ve done in the past is volunteer-led movements, which is probably a lot harder than others might think, and that I played a really operational role in understanding how to build systems, build culture and build processes that I think are going to be relevant for an organization and a set of communities that are trying to increase their scale and reach.

The second thing that I would say is, again, I’ve been on my own learning journey and invite you to be on a learning journey with me. How I choose to be in the world is that we interact with others with an assumption of good faith and that we engage in respectful and civilized ways. That doesn’t mean other people are going to do that. But I think that we have to hold on to that as an aspiration and as a way to, you know, be the change that we want to see in the world as well.

I read two things here. First, there’s a distinction to be drawn between an organization’s purpose and how it manifests in the world — i.e., how the purpose is operationalized. The organization might have lofty ambitions, but its impact will remain unrealized as long as the organization can’t act at scale.

In these polarized times, it can be hard to see beyond the purpose to everything that goes into operationalizing aspirations. But you can’t have one without the other. And what goes into making things happen? Iskander summarizes it nicely: systems, culture, and processes. Unsaid, but assumed: at the core of it all is people.

Which brings me to the second thing I read here. For an organization (or, more broadly, a society) to work, people must collaborate. This requires engaging with each other with humility, openness, and “assumption of good faith.” None of us has a perfect understanding of the world — we’re all on a “learning journey.”

Some of us work for organizations, some lead organizations, and others merely use the organizations’ products and services. All bring different perspectives to the domain. Leaders mustn’t assume it has all the answers — and the people they lead (both inside and outside the organization) owe them at least the benefit of the doubt.

It’s refreshing to hear a leader express humility and openness as a core operating principle. I look forward to following Iskander’s tenure at Wikimedia.

Maryana Iskander, Wikipedia’s Next Leader, on Preventing Misinformation – The New York Times

The Waning File/Folder Mental Model

Monica Chin, writing on The Verge:

[Astrophysicist Catherine Garland] asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

There’s a generation that grew up using smartphones and cloud-based apps as their primary computing experiences, and who have no firsthand experience with “traditional” computer filesystems. The concept of documents stored in local folders is alien to these folks, making some basic computing tasks challenging.

I haven’t encountered this issue (yet?) in my teaching. But I won’t be surprised when I do. As I’ve written before, we can’t assume everyone has the same fundamental understanding of systems.

Even though iOS/iPadOS introduced the Files app a few years ago, the main conceptual model for data manipulation in smartphones has been centered on apps as opposed to directories in a filesystem. Those of us who grew up using file/folder systems have an entirely different mental model of how computers work.

Personal experience informs this understanding, which makes it surprisingly difficult to explain in theory — especially if it’s something you take as a given. As the article puts it,

Directory structure isn’t just unintuitive to students — it’s so intuitive to professors that they have difficulty figuring out how to explain it.

But there are limits to what you can store with the “laundry basket” (as opposed to the “cabinet drawer”) model — at least if you want to be able to find stuff later. A rediscovery of the “traditional” model may be in order.

Kids who grew up with search engines could change STEM education forever – The Verge

The Project Engagement Dilemma

Whenever I undertake a project, I ask myself two questions:

  1. Am I adding value?
  2. Am I growing or having fun?

My confidence in the answers depends on the stage of the project. I’m usually energized in early project stages, so the answer to question two is often a resounding “YES!”

Towards the project’s later stages, I often feel like I’ve learned what I was going to learn. What’s left to do feels rote, so the final stages can become a slog.

At that point, the answer to question two often becomes, “No, I’m not growing or having fun any more.” This is a dangerous state, as suggested by Peak End theory.

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Book Notes: “Mindset”

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
By Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.
Random House, 2006

I’d long heard about Dr. Dweck’s book, but hadn’t yet read it. Coming to it now, I found much of it familiar — but perhaps that’s because the book’s core distinction has been very influential.

What distinction? The difference between two types of mindsets that affect our outlooks on life:

  • Fixed mindset, which asserts that we are who we are, and whatever happens to us results from inherent characteristics we can’t influence. (E.g., intelligence, physical ability, etc.)
  • Growth mindset, which asserts that whatever happens, we can learn, change, and grow to get better. (“growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.”)

Wikipedia has a good explanation of the differences between the two:

individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure. Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure.

Mindset makes a research-grounded argument for adopting a growth mindset.

The first three chapters explain the differences between the two mindsets in depth. The book then explains how they affect three key areas of our lives:

  • Athletic competition
  • Business
  • Relationships

The final two chapters offer advice for helping yourself and others shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. As Dr. Dweck points out, we all have a bit of both. (Which is good, since I don’t see how somebody who is all-fixed could contemplate switching mindsets.)

Again, the key distinction here is well-known today, a testament to this book’s impact. Still, it’s easy to lapse into blame and self-victimizing in daily life. As such, Mindset is worth your attention — for yourself, but especially if you’re an educator, mentor, or coach.

See Mindset in Google Books
See Mindset in WorldCat

Managing Tags When Integrating Obsidian and DEVONthink

This post is part of the series in which I share aspects of my personal information ecosystem. Read all the posts.

Most of my work centers around ideas. Whether it’s an article I’m writing or research for a design project, I’m always learning new stuff. I collect and nurture ideas in an information garden. (Other folks use the term digital garden, but I’m not keen on this usage, since my garden isn’t exclusively digital.)

My garden has two central components:

  • Places to store and process information. Includes links to web pages I’ve read (or need to read), PDFs from academic papers, books, audio/video files, etc.
  • Places to write. Includes notes to self, meeting minutes, outlines, blog posts, etc.
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An Idea from Computer Science That Can Change Your Life

Years ago, I learned about an idea from computer science that has helped me in other areas of my life. It’s called the robustness principle, or Postel’s law (after Jon Postel, who formulated it while working on TCP.) The principle states:

Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

In this case, “conservative” and” liberal” aren’t political positions. Instead, they refer to the laxity of an application’s communications with other applications.

An application sends and receives data. Its designers have some control over the format of the former, but not so much over the latter. Incoming messages may be malformed either through noise or lack of care.

The application’s outputs should be well-defined and consistent — but it can’t expect the same from other applications. As a result, the application should be disciplined in what it emits and flexible with what it takes as input.

If all applications follow this principle, the system should hum along with few misunderstandings. At least in theory — as I understand it.

One area where the robustness principle has helped me is in relationships with other people. I aspire to be conservative in what and how I share (i.e., avoid drama) while understanding that other people will say all sorts of unmindful things.

The other person may have even been unreasonable or rude. But you have no idea what they’re going through. Their kid may be sick. They may have lost their job or been in a car accident. You don’t know their context. You can’t know their context.

As a result, it’s best to be patient with people. Often, they’re not trying to offend you — they’re just having a bad day/month/year/life. Or maybe they didn’t benefit from an education as good as yours. Whatever the case, give them leeway.

This isn’t to say you should take anything that comes your way. Sometimes, you’ll deal with truly malicious actors who are trying to “hack” you or mount a DDoS attack on your attention. Alas, distinguishing the (temporarily?) unskillful from the sociopaths takes practice.

But practice you must, because most people aren’t malicious. They’re just suffering — humans living messy human lives who haven’t prioritized communicating effectively. But you can. Be conservative in what you do and liberal in what you accept.

The Informed Life with Karl Fast, part 2

Episode 70 of The Informed Life podcast features the second part of my conversation with Karl Fast about embodiment and interaction. (If you haven’t done so already, also check out part one.)

Both conversations focus on a key subject for interaction designers: the relationship between mind and body. As Karl put it,

the big idea with embodiment here is that the mind is not the same thing as the brain. Our bodies, our tools, the space around us — how we move and act in the world — this is all part of our cognitive system; that our brain might be in the head, but our mind is embodied. Our mind extends out into the world. So, the systems and the tools, the information we have… all the things that we design that are exterior to the body, those should also be understood as part of the mind. They’re not just out there.

These two episodes serve as a good primer on key issues about our understanding of how we make sense of (and interact with) the world, and the limits of our current framing as practitioners. As Karl summarized it,

we need to have a better conceptual toolkit when we’re designing, when we’re creating these different things. We need to think about how what we are making is not just out there, but is connected in a meaningful way to what our brains can do. So, we should think about certain definitions — certain words — and try to understand them and develop new concepts for how we talk about this.

I hope you get as much value from hearing from Karl about this subject as I did.

The Informed Life episode 70: Karl Fast on Interactionism, part 2

How to Find Older Files in Figma (and Other SaaS Apps)

Figma is great for collaboration. And one of the challenges when collaborating with others — especially when working with highly generative teams larger than two people — is that lots of stuff accrues quickly, making it difficult to find things later. Figma has gotten better about this, but I still have a hard time locating older files.

I posed this observation yesterday on Twitter and got several useful replies. Christian Bergstrom suggested using naming conventions for files and folders. In my experience, naming conventions do help, but they present challenges of their own.

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Can Twitter Communities Prevent Context Collapse?

Casey Newton, writing on The Verge:

One of the most useful concepts for understanding why social networks so often drive us to despair is context collapse: taking multiple audiences with different norms, standards, and levels of knowledge, and herding them all into a single digital space to coexist. Predictably, this regularly leads to conflict — and, at the scale of an entire country, may even make us more polarized.

[…]

But what if you could build a version of Twitter that kept out the Reply Guys and the sea lions, and included only people who had some shared context around a subject or interest? That’s the idea between the company’s launch of Communities, a way to create semi-public groups where only members can participate in conversations.

Twitter is my favorite social network. I learn more — and have more meaningful interactions — there than in Facebook or LinkedIn, the only other two networks I’m on.

But part of the reason I get value from Twitter is that I’ve learned not to take things there personally or too seriously. I’ve also learned to tune out people spewing toxicity — i.e., to lower the Sturm und Drang. This new Twitter feature sounds like a great way to increase the signal-to-noise ratio in the network.

That said, context collapse can also be an advantage. I like seeing thoughts from people I follow from different fields. For example, I follow lots of economists and designers, and enjoy seeing the contrast (and occasional overlap) between the two in my timeline.

So, I hope that Twitter implements this feature in a way that allows us to dip into focused topics but also enables the serendipitous collisions afforded by a mixed timeline. Much comes down to conceptual models (how Twitter’s designers structure this place to enable certain types of interactions) and how those models manifest as UI. The architecture of information!

How Twitter’s communities could bring context back – The Verge