Introductions in the Age of Social Networks

Brad Feld, writing about how to best be introduced to people online:

[Double opt-in email intros are] the best and simplest way when you know the person asking for the intro and think the intro would be a good one.

What follows is a short and simple set of rules for the etiquette of introducing people online. The whole post resonated with me, but the following lines stand out:

how about the situations where you don’t really know the person. In that case, someone is asking you to do work and use some social credibility in a situation where you don’t really know how much to provide.

I’ve been in this situation before, and it’s something I’m not comfortable with.

One of the challenges of life online is that we often have the illusion of familiarity with people who are, in fact, strangers to us. We read a lot from the person and so come to think we know him or her when we actually don’t. More to the point, they don’t know us. A brief interaction in Twitter, Facebook, or over email isn’t enough to establish a solid relationship.

Whether it’s acknowledged or not, being asked to make an introduction to someone is a way of transferring credibility. If I know you and you know me, and I ask you to introduce me to a third party that you know, you are implicitly vouching for that person. I’m happy to do this when I know and trust the two people being introduced, but not at all comfortable with doing it for people I barely know.

My reticence manifests most obviously in my approach to managing connections on LinkedIn. I’m more open than others with the connections I accept on that social network, but I do have a bar. I often get requests to connect with people I’ve only ever met through a single interaction via email, Twitter, or some other channel. This is a problem because LinkedIn provides formal mechanisms for people to reach other people through their connections. This chain of credibility is only as strong as its weakest links, and if all we’ve got is a single interaction online, then the connection isn’t strong at all.

Bottom line: please don’t be offended if you’ve asked to connect with me on LinkedIn and haven’t heard back. I have a higher bar than most for these connections — and you should too. In this age of cheap, quick connections, credibility and trust are more important and valuable than ever.

So how do you connect with people you don’t know? I like Mr. Feld’s common-sense approach. When his acquaintances are asked by people they don’t know well to introduce them to him, he recommends:

simply say “I think Brad is pretty easy to reach – his email is public – just send him a note.”

Yes, this means you’ll be starting from scratch. That’s fair. What’s not fair is asking an acquaintance to vouch for your credibility. And by the way, my email is public too; here it is.

How To Deal With People Asking For Intros To Me

Marc Andreessen’s Guide to Personal Productivity

How we organize our personal information ecosystems impacts our productivity. Everyone does this a bit differently, and some patterns work better than others. (I’m always looking for ways of being more productive, which is why I started a podcast on this subject.) Although everyone does this a bit differently, not everyone gets the same results. I’m especially keen in finding out how very successful people organize themselves.

Few people have been as successful in the tech world as Marc Andreessen. He’s the co-founder of several influential companies, including Netscape — which helped usher the web revolution — and Andreessen Horowitz, one of the leading investment firms in Silicon Valley. Mr. Andreessen published a blog post twelve years ago that lays out his productivity principles. Given how successful he’s been, this post is worth studying.

Mr. Andreessen’s advice includes some counter-intuitive ideas. For example, he suggests not keeping a schedule. By this,​ he means not committing to appointments in advance. Instead, he proposes you focus your attention on whatever is most important or interesting at any given time. While he acknowledges that this may not work for everyone, it’s an intriguing notion. I live by my calendar, and this post has me wondering what it’d be like to just go with the flow. (My work doesn’t give me much leeway here. But it begs the question: what would I need to change to allow me to eschew my schedule?)

I also love the idea of managing just three to-do lists. (Mr. Andreessen suggests a Todo List, a Watch List, and a Later List.) I follow my own take on David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” approach, which means I have per-project lists; that’s too many at any given time. So I’m drawn to this idea of boiling it down to three. Also, he suggests writing down the 3-5 most important things you must do every day to keep your priorities straight. This is something I’ve been doing for a long time, to great results.

However, my favorite of Mr. Andreessen’s nuggets of advice is this: Only agree to new commitments when both your head and your heart say yes. I’ve been guilty of taking on too many things because I’m excited by the possibilities or interested in the subject (the heart saying “yes!”), only to find out later that I’m overcommitted and en route to disappointing myself and others. Giving the head a veto would’ve solved many difficulties for me.

It’s not a long post, and it’s aged well. (Just replace “iPod” with “iPhone”.) Well worth your attention.

Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity

Design 3.0

My friend Stephen Anderson gave a talk at SXSW 2019 about the future of design. I’ve not seen the presentation itself, but he posted a transcript on Medium. The gist:

Design is in the midst of a shift. A shift that will make much of our present skills obsolete, and demand we learn new skills, or become… irrelevant.

He refers to this as Design 3.0, “a shift from Products to Experiences to Outcomes.” It calls for designers to develop new skills. What sorts of skills? Training machine learning algorithms, monitoring outcomes, modeling possibilities, and reframing the contexts of our work to see the bigger picture. In other words, systems thinking. Design at a higher level of abstraction: designing the thing that designs the thing.

While not a wholly new direction (Gordon Pask was writing about this stuff fifty years ago), technology has finally caught up with the possibilities. So these ideas are very much part of the current zeitgeist. (I’m reading Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown’s fabulous Design Unbound, which argues along similar lines. More on that soon.)

Even though the objects of focus for design are changing, the things that make us good designers aren’t. As Stephen rightly points out, designerly approaches such as problem reframing, human-centeredness, and the embracing ambiguity are perennial. They’re also key to doing a good job in this complex new environment.

I’m glad to see design at a higher level of abstraction becoming a thing in the world. I’ve seen few introductions as accessible and compelling as Stephen’s talk; it’s worth your attention.

The Future of Design: Computation & Complexity

From the Digital Town Square to the Living Room

Mark Zuckerberg, in a blog post on Facebook:

I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.

The post lays out a vision for the future of a privacy-focused Facebook platform built around the following principles:

  • Private interactions
  • Encryption
  • Reducing permanence
  • Interoperability
  • Secure data storage

Ultimately, these principles will enable “the digital equivalent of the living room,” in contrast to today’s “digital equivalent of a town square.”

Interesting and laudable. Alas, there’s no mention in the post of changes to Facebook’s business model. As long as the company’s revenues are tied to selling our attention, the goal of serving as our digital equivalents to physical meeting places — be they town squares or living rooms — remains suspect.

A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking

Environment-Centered Design

Dan Hill on the impact of technology on the urban experience:

the smartphone, as the most obvious manifestation of the broader tech sector, is shaping the way we live and interact with each other, and thus our cities and habitations. And it is becoming clear that this is not necessarily all good.

User-centered design is partly to blame:

Our design practice is not yet sufficiently advanced to handle what economists call the ‘externalities’ of tech (somewhat misleadingly, as if an iceberg’s tip is ‘external’ to the rest of the iceberg.) The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

So interaction design and service design produce insight and empathy for individual experiences, but produce little for collective impact or environmental empathy.

Mr. Hill argues that an effective approach to using technology effective in these domains requires looking beyond user-centered design towards an “equal and opposite” approach of environment-centered design:

The core ideas of strategic design – of integrative thinking and practice; of framing questions and challenges appropriately; of working at multiple scales, paces and vehicles; of taking on complexity and making it legible and malleable via synthesis; of addressing systemic change; of stewardship – means stretching design’s definition in this direction, perhaps just as design has stretched to drive tech forward.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, the way we use technology at urban scale will effect profound transformations on the day-to-day lives of the majority of people in the planet. “Tech” won’t be something they’ll be able to opt out of; it’ll be the infrastructure of their lives. It’s imperative that designers start to think beyond the effects of technology on individual users.

The city is my homescreen

Stephen Wolfram’s Personal Information Ecosystem

Some people manage to get more done than the rest of us. These folks are constrained by the same 24-hour days you and I are, but use them more effectively. How do they do it? What can we learn from them so we, too, can be more productive? I’m always excited when a super-productive person gives us a glimpse into their methods. (So much so that I’ve started a podcast to elicit stories about people’s setups.)

Recently, Stephen Wolfram published a lengthy article that explains how he’s configured his personal information ecosystem to help him be more productive. Mr. Wolfram is a world-renowned computer scientist. He’s the creator of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language — among other things — and the author of A New Kind of Science. Besides being a rigorous scientist and scholar, he’s also a successful entrepreneur: his company, Wolfram Research, has been going strong for the past 31 years. He’s a textbook example of a super-productive person, and someone I’ve looked up to for a long time.

Mr. Wolfram’s blog post is a real treat. It covers everything from his software and hardware choices to the ways he’s configured his physical environments to help him get things done. As the CEO of a software company, some of Mr. Wolfram’s software choices are particular to his job (i.e., he uses his company’s software for much of his work.) However, there are also many insights in the post that apply to anyone who needs to work with computers. The core insight is simple:

At an intellectual level, the key to building this infrastructure is to structure, streamline and automate everything as much as possible—while recognizing both what’s realistic with current technology, and what fits with me personally.

I’m particularly impressed (though not surprised) by Mr. Wolfram’s long-term approach to information processing. Some aspects of his ecosystem (including his approach to file storage — both physical and digital) have evolved over three decades. He also mentions some intriguing products, including a pair of glasses that have helped him conquer motion sickness when working in the back of cars. (A problem I deal with more often than I’d like.)

This is a long read, but an inspiring one. Well worth your time.

Seeking the Productive Life: Some Details of My Personal Infrastructure

The Cognition Crisis

Adam Gazzaley, co-author of The Distracted Mind (which I cited in Living in Information), argues that we are facing a cognition crisis:

A cognition crisis is not defined by a lack of information, knowledge or skills. We have done a fine job in accumulating those and passing them along across millennia. Rather, this a crisis at the core of what makes us human: the dynamic interplay between our brain and our environment — the ever-present cycle between how we perceive our surroundings, integrate this information, and act upon it.

What’s causing this crisis?

While the sources fracturing our cognition are many, we are faced with the realization that our brains simply have not kept pace with the rapid changes in our environment — specifically the introduction and ubiquity of information technology.

A lucid explanation of the dynamic between cognition and technology, and how evolving conditions are making things more challenging for us.

The Cognition Crisis

Twitter as a Public Square

Managing an information environment like Twitter must be very difficult. The people who run the system have great control — and responsibility — over what the place allows and encourages. In a conversation platform (which is what Twitter is at its core), the primary question is: How do you allow for freedom of expression while also steering people away from harmful speech? This isn’t an easy question to answer. What is “harmful”? For whom? How and where does the environment intervene?

Episode 148 of Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast features a conversation with Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, that addresses some of these questions head-on. I was very impressed by how much thought Mr. Dorsey has given to these issues. It’s clear that he understands the systemic nature of the challenge, and the need for systemic responses. He expressed Twitter’s approach with a medical analogy:

Your body has an indicator of health, which is your temperature. And your temperature indicates whether your system more or less is in balance; if it’s above 90.6 then something is wrong… As we develop solutions, we can see what effect they have on it.

So we’ve been thinking about this problem in terms of what we’re calling “conversational health.” And we’re at the phase right now where we’re trying to figure out the right indicators of conversational health. And we have four placeholders:

1. Shared attention: What percentage of the conversation is attentive to the same thing, versus disparate.
2. Shared reality: This is not determining what facts are facts, but what percentage of the conversation are sharing the same facts.
3. Receptivity: Where we measure toxicity and people’s desire to walk away from something .
4. Variety of perspective.

What we want to do is get readings on all of these things, and understand that we’re not going to optimize for one. We want to try to keep everything in balance.

I’d expect the idea to be to incentivize “healthy” conversations over “unhealthy” ones. This would be implemented in the design of the environment itself, rather than at the policy level:

Ultimately our success in solving these problems is not going to be a policy success. We’re not going to solve our issues by changing our policy. We’re going to solve our issues by looking at the product itself, and the incentives that the product ensures. And looking at our role not necessarily as a publisher, as a post of content, but how we’re recommending things, where we’re amplifying, where we’re downranking content.

Twitter has a great responsibility to get this right, because in some ways the system is becoming key public infrastructure. As Mr. Dorsey acknowledged,

Ultimately, I don’t think we can be this neutral, passive platform anymore because of the threats of violence, because of doxxing, because of troll armies intending to silence someone, especially more marginalized members of society. We have to take on an approach of impartiality. Meaning that we need very crisp and clear rules, we need case studies and case law for how we take action on those rules, and any evolutions of that we’re transparent and upfront about. We’re not in a great state right now, but that is our focus. I do believe that a lot of people come to Twitter with the expectation of a public square. And freedom of expression is certainly one of those expectations. But what we’re seeing is people weaponize that to shut others’ right to that down. And that is what we’re trying to protect, ultimately.

As a Twitter user, I was pleased to see the depth of the thinking and care that is going into these issues. I learned a lot from this podcast about the reasons for some of Twitter’s controversial design decisions. (E.g. I now know why Twitter doesn’t have an “edit” button.)

Unfortunately, the conversation didn’t address the elephant in the room: Twitter’s business model. Ultimately, Twitter makes money by showing ads to its users. A good public square shouldn’t attempt to sway our opinions; it should provide the venue for us to form them through engagement with others. How might “conversational health” might be used as a means for persuasion?

Making Sense Podcast #148 – Jack Dorsey

The Way to Proficiency in Complex Environments

Esko Kilpi, writing in Medium:

In complex environments, the way to proficiency is to recombine successful elements to create new versions, some of which may thrive.

As a result, not just the user interfaces, but the operating system of work is starting to change in a radical way. The traditional industrial approach to work was to require each worker to assume a predetermined responsibility for a specific role. The new approach represents a different logic of organizing based on neither the traditional market nor a process.

I’m drawn to systems that favor emergent structures over predefined top-down structures, for the same reasons Mr. Kilpi highlights in his post. Alas, important parts of our societies are still organized around somewhat rigid top-down structures.

Top-down structures can work when domains are simple, contingencies minimal, significant changes infrequent, and one has some degree of agency over the context. That’s the opposite of many current environments. Emergence – how natural structures come about — offers us an alternative approach to designing systems that address complex, evolving environments more skillfully.

The key is clarity on the purpose(s) the system is working towards. How do you achieve clarity of purpose in situations where multiple stakeholders have conflicting interests? You need leadership with vision. Top-down in service to emergence.

Collaborative and Competitive Creativity