Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Slack’s Information Architecture Redesign

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to work remotely. The crisis has made digital collaboration environments more critical than they’ve been before. Many of us are spending significant portions of our days conversing with colleagues in places like Slack and Microsoft Teams. The latter’s usage has more than doubled during the crisis. And in a Twitter thread, Slack’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, noted a surge in demand due to the pandemic:

When you have that many people working in an information environment, the structure of the place matters. Clunky navigation systems can lead to confusion, wasted time, misunderstandings, increased need for support, and more. The pain is especially acute for new users, who may be unfamiliar with how to find their way around such environments.

Last week, Slack announced a redesign that aims to clarify the environment’s navigation systems:

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Banning Targeted Advertising?

Gilad Edelman writing in Wired:

The task of regulating an increasingly out of control digital environment often looks like a multifront war against various enemies: privacy breaches, hate speech, disinformation, and more. What if we had a weapon that could bring all those armies to their knees?

The article highlights a “nascent movement” of people who believe the business model underlying these environments — targeted, personalized advertising — is the main problem. Rather than focusing on front-end efforts to legislate what happens in these places, a more impactful approach would be to make the business model itself illegal.

If you’ve read Living in Information, you won’t be surprised to know I agree with the assessment that business models are critical. That said, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue. I can easily imagine targeted advertising would make some information environments more useful while also supporting user goals.

As a user myself, I’m willing to give up some of my privacy if I get something tangible in return, and I clearly understand who’s using my information and for what purposes. For example, I don’t mind if the place where I do my shopping shows me ads that meet my needs. I’m there to buy stuff, after all, and the place knows who I am and my preferences and shopping patterns. Knowing those things, it can tell me about new products that will make my life better. That has value to me.

I don’t feel the same way about places where I meet with family and friends or have civic conversations with my neighbors. The general idea behind targeted advertising — that the system will learn my preferences so it can better persuade me — is profoundly at odds with my goals in those environments.

Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?

Leading in Information

Chip Cutter and Jennifer Maloney writing in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

The new coronavirus’s spread in America has prompted corporations to close offices, factories and stores, sending tens of millions of people home, where a swath of the workforce—from customer-service representatives to chief executive officers—have had to figure out new ways to work.

The result is perhaps the most radical and swift change in U.S. business in living memory. That’s posing a monumental management challenge of leading employees—those lucky enough to have kept their jobs—to sustain operations from home while also keeping them calm and safe.

The article goes on to profile CEOs of companies of diverse sizes, and the challenges they and their employees are facing as their workforces move to work remotely. These challenges include the loss of camaraderie, feelings of insecurity, managing young children while trying to work, the loss of structured daily routines, and more.

Instilling a sense of direction and purpose is hard enough in normal times when regular communication channels are intact. But leading during difficult times, when conditions are changing fast, and normal channels break down, can be extraordinarily difficult.

Thinking about the issue of leading remotely, I’ve been reflecting on this tweet, which highlights New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s communication style during the current crisis:

This list strikes me as an excellent communications guideline for leaders. But not all digital channels will lend themselves equally well for each attribute. For example, I’d expect authenticity, tone, and empathy to work best over synchronous video calls, where people can hear and see each other. Conversely, asynchronous channels lend themselves to frequent, clear communications.

The times call for leaders with excellent communication skills, but also who can adapt those skills to this new world in which we all interact over digital channels all the time. We can learn communication skills, but adaptability is a harder attribute to learn. I expect people to give each other the benefit of the doubt in the early days of the crisis. We’re all trying to cope with the changes, and will be more patient with each other’s clumsiness. But as time passes, we’ll expect leaders to get their stuff together. The sooner, the better.

With Business Turned Upside Down, CEOs Face Monumental Leadership Challenge

Come Together (in Information Environments)

Priya Parker writing in The New York Times:

It’s possible to make remote gathering a worthy competitor of traditional events. The bittersweet truth about all the gatherings and meetings and parties and conferences being canceled is that many of them would not have been particularly meaningful to begin with. And so if we are willing to bring to the time of Covid-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.

This post beautifully articulates a feeling I’ve had over the past few days: that the current crisis is an inflection point in how we meet and collaborate. It’s not just that we’re working online; we’re experimenting with all types of social interactions. (This evening I’m planning to attend my first virtual happy hour.)

It’s still too soon to tell what the effects will be in the near-term. That said, some seem obvious. Digital communication platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc.) were already important before this crisis, but now they’re essential. How long would we stand the isolation if it weren’t for these systems? The companies that operate these systems are now central to our social infrastructure.

Also, we must be more mindful of what should be a meeting. Now that most communications are happening in information environments, the choice between synchronous and asynchronous communications seems less stark. It’s all happening on the same plane, after all. Why not just start an email thread, or reach out to folks on Slack, instead of scheduling a meeting?

That said, I expect a reaction when this is over; a resurgence of big festivals, fairs, concerts, etc. I sense that after weeks (and hopefully it’s only weeks) of meeting people exclusively through video chats, we’ll be longing to be in the physical presence of others. Digital is too narrow a medium to convey the richness of full interpersonal interaction. For now, we are truly living significant parts of our lives in information environments — not by choice.

(I found out about this op ed through my publisher’s newsletter; you should subscribe.)

How to Be Together Apart In the Time of Coronavirus

Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Legislating the Structure of Information Environments

Proposed legislation in the U.S. would constrain the structure of online spaces aimed at children:

Platforms either targeting a designated audience or providing covered content would be prohibited from using tactics that promote prolonged engagement such as auto-play, push alerts, or displaying “the quantity of positive engagement or feedback that a covered user has received from other users”—so no “likes” on a teen’s Instagram account. That goes for “badges or other visual award symbols” that show off engagement, such as awards for streaks on Snapchat.

The bill defines children as anyone under 16 and takes a broad lens towards what it considers content aimed at them.

I’m all for information environments that strive to more closely align the interests of their creators and their users. (This is one of the main arguments of my book, Living in Information.) This bill seems to do that for children using attention-driven information environments.

I do wish industry would adopt such measures without the need for regulations. People can be ingenious at following the letter of such laws while skirting their spirit. Also, laws change more slowly than technology and tend to stick around longer; they’re on different layers in the pace layer diagram. (But moving more slowly and deliberately in this area might not be a bad thing.)

That said, it’s good that lawmakers are paying attention. Hopefully, the threat of legislation will nudge organizations towards greater alignment with the interests of their users — especially the most vulnerable.

Proposed bill would end “likes” for young teens’ online content

Coronavirus and Remote Collaboration

In early February, Azeem Azhar asked a provocative question in his blog, Exponential View:

How might the new coronavirus change our world?

The post lists six significant changes the outbreak might usher. Among these, one stood out to me:

Remote everything – we’ll travel less.

This point has aged well. Just in the last week, several major conferences and industry gatherings have been either cancelled or postponed. Large organizations like Amazon and Facebook have banned nonessential travel for employees. Some companies, like Twitter, are encouraging employees to work from home.

Near-term, these measures will negatively impact the travel and hospitality industries and local economies that rely on event-based tourism. That said, other industries might see a surge in demand. Businesses that provide remote collaboration systems and services are sure to experience higher usage. (In a subsequent post, Mr. Azhar noted that Zoom “has added 2.22 million monthly active users in 2020, compared to 1.99 million in all of 2019.”)

It’s still too soon to tell what will happen with the coronavirus. That said, one undeniable immediate effect is an increase in remote collaboration over digital systems. While some conferences have been cancelled outright, others, like Google’s Cloud Next conference have already been refashioned into digital-first events. In Living in Information, I highlighted several ways in which we’re moving towards working in information environments. A significant outbreak of a contagious disease would accelerate this trend, by unfortunate necessity.

I hope for quick and effective containment of the coronavirus and relief to people who are suffering. I also can’t help but wonder: will these new work modalities stick as we discover better ways of collaborating remotely? Will the relaxation of remote-work policies outlast the crisis? What will be the effects of the virus on how we work in the mid- and long-term?

Six ways coronavirus will change our world – Exponential View

Worth Your Attention

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.