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

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

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

Brexit Explained

Are you confused by Brexit? I am. This short video from the folks at Information is Beautiful clarified for me the conundrum the UK finds itself in now:

Information is the lifeblood of democracy. People can’t effectively govern the system if they don’t understand the choices before them. I wonder how many people who voted in the Brexit referendum truly understood the implications of their decision.

Brexit Explained

Bertrand Russell’s Advice for Future Generations

Bertrand Russell, in a 1959 interview for the BBC:

Interviewer: Suppose, Lord Russell, this film would be looked at by our descendants, like a Dead Sea scroll in a thousand years’ time. What would you think it’s worth telling that generation about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?

Russell: I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only — and solely — at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say. The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other; we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

Although the interview is sixty years old, Russell’s advice is more relevant today than ever before. These instructions should be part of the onboarding process of all online social platforms:

  1. Look only at the facts and the truths they bear out.
  2. People will say things you don’t like; practice charity and tolerance.

Love is wise, hatred is foolish.

Bertrand Russell’s Advice for Future Generations

The Role of Structure in Digital Design

Andy Fitzgerald, in A List Apart:

design efforts that focus on creating visually effective pages are no longer sufficient to ensure the integrity or accuracy of content published on the web. Rather, by focusing on providing access to information in a structured, systematic way that is legible to both humans and machines, content publishers can ensure that their content is both accessible and accurate in these new contexts, whether or not they’re producing chatbots or tapping into AI directly.

Digital designers have long considered user interfaces to be the primary artifacts of their work. For many, the structures that inform these interfaces have been relegated to a secondary role — that is, if they’ve been considered at all.

Thanks to the revolution sparked by the iPhone, today we experience information environments through a variety of device form factors. Thus far, these interactions have mostly happened in screen-based devices, but that’s changing too. And to top things off, digital experiences are becoming ever more central to our social fabric.

Designing an information environment in 2019 without considering its underlying structures — and how they evolve — is a form of malpractice.

Conversations with Robots: Voice, Smart Agents & the Case for Structured Content

A Bold Example of Semantic Pollution

Sometimes language changes slowly and inadvertently. The meaning of words can change over time as language evolves. That’s how many semantic environments become polluted: little by little. But sometimes change happens abruptly and purposefully. This past weekend, AT&T gave us an excellent example of how to pollute a semantic environment in one blow.

Today’s mobile phone networks work on what’s known as 4G technology. It’s a standard that’s widely adopted by the mobile communications industry. When your smartphone connects to a 4G network, you see a little icon on your phone’s screen that says either 4G or LTE. These 4G networks are plenty fast for most uses today.

However, the industry is working on the next generation network technology called — you guessed it — 5G. The first 5G devices are already appearing on the market. That said, widespread rollout won’t be immediate: the new technology requires new hardware on phones, changes to cell towers, and a host of other changes. It’ll likely be a couple of years before the new standard becomes mainstream.

Despite these technical hurdles, last weekend AT&T started issuing updates to some Android phones in their network that change the network label to 5G. Nothing else is different about these devices; their hardware is still the same and they still connect using the same network technology. So what’s the reason for the change? AT&T has decided to label some advanced current-generation technologies “5G E.” When the real 5G comes around, they’ll call that “5G+.”

This seems like an effort to make the AT&T network look more advanced than those of its competitors. The result, of course, is that this change confuses what 5G means. It erodes the usefulness of the term; afterward, it’ll be harder for nontechnical AT&T customers to know what technology they’re using. It’s a bold example of how to co-opt language at the expense of clarity and understanding.

AT&T decides 4G is now “5G,” starts issuing icon-changing software updates

Book Notes: “The Evolution of Everything”

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge
By Matt Ridley
HarperCollins, 2015

Designers are called to tackle increasingly complex problems. This requires that we understand how systems function and how they came to have the configurations we experience. I put it this way because complex systems (at least those that stand the test of time) don’t come into the world fully-formed. Instead, they evolve step-by-step from earlier, simpler systems. (See Gall’s Law.) Because of this, it’s essential that we understand the distinction between top-down and bottom-up structuring processes.

That distinction is what drew me to The Evolution of Everything. While not written specifically for designers, the book addresses this subject directly. Per its jacket, the book aims to “definitively [dispel] a dangerous, widespread myth: that we can command and control our world.” It pitches “the forces of evolution” against top-down forces for systems definition. What sorts of systems? Any and all of them: the universe, morality, life, genes, culture, the economy, technology, the mind, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money, the internet.

There’s a chapter devoted to how top-down vs. bottom-up approaches have played out for each of these complex subjects. Mr. Ridley aims to demonstrate that advances in all of them have been the result of evolutionary forces, and the hindrances the result of intentional, planned actions. I don’t think I’m doing the author a disservice by describing it in such binary terms. In the book’s epilogue, Mr. Ridley states his thesis in its “boldest and most surprising form:”

Bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves. The things that go well are largely unintended, the things that go badly are largely intended.

Examples given of the former include the Russian Revolution, the Nazi regime, and the 2008 financial crisis, while examples of the latter include the eradication of infectious diseases, the green revolution, and the internet.

While the whole is engaging and erudite, the earlier chapters, which deal with the evolution of natural systems, are stronger than the latter ones, which deal with the evolution of social systems. The book’s political agenda becomes increasingly transparent in these later chapters, often at the expense of the primary top-down vs. bottom-up thesis.

If you already buy into this agenda, you may come away convinced. I wasn’t. Sometimes bottom-up forces enable command-and-control structures and vice-versa. But you’ll find no such nuance here; the book offers its subject as an either-or proposition. This leads to some weak arguments. (E.g., “While we should honour individuals for their contributions, we should not really think that they make something come into existence that would not have otherwise.”)

Understanding the difference between top-down vs. bottom-up structuring is essential for today’s designers. The Evolution of Everything doesn’t entirely dispel the myth that we can command-and-control the world, but it does provide good examples of bottom-up emergence — especially in its earlier chapters. Still, I’d like a more nuanced take on this critical subject.

Buy it on Amazon.com

A Community In Search of a Home

Earlier this year, Google announced plans to shutter Google+, its failed social network. While this decision won’t affect many of us, some folks consider Google+ home. A post on Medium by Steven T. Wright highlights the plight of these communities that will go away when Google+ shuts down in April of 2019. Can they find a new place to meet?

The story profiles developer John Lewis, who built a group on Google+ with the purpose of trying to find a replacement information environment for these folks. Some are finding their trust in large companies as stewards of their information environments has eroded as a result of the way Google (mis)managed G+:

“Some are going to platforms similar to Facebook like MeWe, some are going to open-source sites like different Diaspora pods,” he says. “I think people are a bit wary of the big companies, after seeing what the rest of Google did to Google+. With their divided attention, Facebook was able to take all of their cool features and cannibalize them. I think we want something that will last for a while, that won’t be shut down by some exec.”

People invest real time and energy in these places. While on one level they are “products” to be “managed,” they’re also infrastructure where people build out important parts of their lives.

The Death of Google+ Is Tearing Its Die Hard Communities Apart