Instagram, Nextdoor, and “Be Nice” Nudges

One of the first pieces of empathy-building tech* I wrote about was an algorithm built to recognize when comments on a newspaper story went off the rails. It was a tough story to place because it was hard to understand and even harder to explain. (I’m forever grateful for good editors!) The gist was that a group of researchers wanted to see if they could cultivate an environment in the comment section of a controversial story that would facilitate good, productive conversation. Their work eventually turned into Faciloscope, a tool aimed at detecting trolling behaviors and mediating them.

Like many research projects, it’s kind of hard to tell what happened after the initial buzz – grants change, people move, tech evolves, etc. All’s been pretty quiet on the automated comment section management front for a while, but over the past few months that’s begun to change. Now we can see similar technology popping up in the apps we use every day.

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Photo by Randalyn Hill on Unsplash

Earlier this year, Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri announced that the app would soon have new features to help prevent bullying. The official plan was released yesterday, and it boils down to one new function: Restrict. According to Instagram, “Restrict is designed to empower you to quietly protect your account while still keeping an eye on a bully.” It works letting you approve Restricted people’s comments on your posts before they appear – and you can decide to delete or ignore them without even reading them too, if you want. You won’t get notifications for these comments, so it’s unclear to me how you’d know they happened unless you went looking for them, which hopefully you aren’t doing, but let’s be honest… we all do that

Anyway, what about direct messages? DMs from Restricted people will turn into “message requests,” like what already happens when someone you don’t know sends you a message. The sender won’t be able to see if you’ve read their message.

Inexplicably, Instagram also used this announcement to tell us about its new “Create Don’t Hate” sticker, as if that’s an anti-bullying feature… when it’s literally just a sticker you can put on your story. So… okay, cool?

I wouldn’t exactly call this empathy-building tech, but I would hear an argument that it’s an example of tech showing empathy for its users, with the usual caveat that this is probably way too little, way too late. It seems like a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It just should have been a thing much sooner.

This won’t have much use for me, because I’ve already unfollowed or blocked the people whose comments I’d least like to see. What I’d really like is a pop-up kind of like what Netflix has, that alerts me after I’ve been scrolling for more than 15 minutes… “Maybe it’s time for a break?” Or the ability to customize a pop up for when I visit one of my frenemies’ accounts… “Remember why you unfollowed this person??” But I could see it being useful for a teenager who gets bombarded with bullying messages. It’s a start, at least.

Nextdoor, essentially a neighborhood-specific Facebook/Reddit hybrid, did recently release prompts that might encourage empathyLike all social media platforms, Nextdoor has gained a reputation for fostering nastiness, NIMBYism, and even racism. So it launched a “kindness reminder,” which pops up to let you know if your reply to someone’s comment “looks similar to content that’s been reported in the past” and gives you a chance to re-read the community guidelines and rephrase your comment.

Nextdoor says the feature is meant to “encourage positivity across the Nextdoor platform,” but they also seem to suggest that it will make neighborhoods themselves more kind. They claim that in early tests of the feature, 1 in 5 people chose to edit their comments, “resulting in 2-% fewer negative comments” (though it’s not clear to me exactly how they measure negativity). They also claim the Kindness Reminder gets prompted less over time in areas where it’s been tested.

This, like Instagram’s Restricted feature, is an example of a social media company responding to many, many, many complaints of negative behavior and impact. But in Nextdoor’s case, there at least seems to be more transparency. In their post explaining the new feature, Nextdoor says the company built an advisory panel of experts, including Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social scientist who wrote a book about racial bias. There was apparently a session with some of Eberhardt’s students in which Nextdoor employees (executives? unclear) shared their experiences with bias in their own lives as well as on the platform. So, that’s something. If nothing else, I could imagine the Kindness Reminder at least making me stop for a second before dashing off a snarky comment, something that doesn’t happen as much as it used to but is still an unfortunate possibility for me…

One big question about all of this, of course, is why can’t we just use our internal “kindness reminders”? Most of us do have them, after all. But it’s hard when, as Eberhardt notes in the Nextdoor press release: “the problems that we have out in the world and in society make their way online where you’re encouraged to respond quickly and without thinking.” We can create as many empathy-focused tools as we want, but as long as that’s the case, there will always be more work to do.

 

*When I first started writing about this stuff, the concept seemed new to a lot of people and it seemed obvious that the words “ostensibly” or “supposedly” or “hopefully” were implied. Today, not so much, for good reason: a lot of tech that’s advertised as empathetic seems more invasive or manipulative. So, I hope you will trust me when I say I understand that context, and I think about the phrase “empathy-building tech” as having an asterisk most of the time.

Woulda, shoulda, coulda

Twitter co-founder Ev Williams posted a thread yesterday. Not super surprising, since he’s one of the fathers of Twitter, but as he explained in said thread, he doesn’t post his thoughts there much. He sticks to links, because he, “[doesn’t] enjoy debating with strangers in a public setting” and he “always preferred to think of [Twitter] as an information network, rather than a social network.”

That definitely elicited some eye-rolls, but this was the tweet – in a long thread about how he wants reporters to stop asking him how to fix Twitter’s abuse problems – that really caught my eye…

That is… exactly the problem! It’s both reassuring to see this apparent self-awareness, and frustrating how late it’s come, and how defensive he still is…

Maybe he feels like he can’t say for sure whether being more aware of how people “not like him” were being treated or having a more diverse leadership team or board would have led the company to tackle abuse sooner…. but those of us who are “not like him” are pretty confident it would have. Or at least it could have. It should have.

This is what I mean when I talk about a lack of empathy in tech. I don’t know Ev Williams or any of his co-founders; I don’t know many people who have founded anything at all. And I understand that founders and developers are people deserving of empathy too. As I read Williams’s thread, I tried to put myself in his shoes, even as I resisted accepting much of what he was saying. I get that “trying to make the damn thing work” must have been a monumental task. But as I talk about here a lot – there’s empathy, and then there’s sympathy. And as Dylan Marron likes to say, empathy is not endorsement. I can imagine it, but I don’t get it. And it’s little solace to the hundreds of people who are harassed and abused via Twitter every day to hear it confirmed that their safety wasn’t a priority, whatever the reason.

They know this – we know this. The question is, what now? Williams, for his part, brushes off this question. It’s not his problem anymore, he seems to say, and he doesn’t know how to fix it, but if you have any “constructive ideas,” you should let Twitter know (or write about them on Medium, Williams’s other tech baby…)

The toxicity that Williams says he’s trying to avoid – that he says his famous friend is very upset by, that he seems almost ready to acknowledge is doing real damage to many, many other people who use Twitter – was part of what inspired me to write The Future of Feeling. I wanted to know, if it’s this bad right now, how much worse could it get? Is anyone anyone trying to stop this train?

I talked to a lot of people in my reporting for the book, and over and over again I heard the same idea echoed: empathy has to be part of the fabric of any new technology. It has to be present in the foundation. It has to be a core piece of the mission. Creating a thing for the sake of creating the thing isn’t good enough anymore. (Frankly, it never was.) The thing you create is very likely to take on a life of its own. You need to give it some soul, too.

Williams ended his thread with a tweet that actually resonated with me. It’s something I’ve found to be absolutely true:

People made this mess. People will have to clean it up. If Williams doesn’t want to, or know how to, I know a lot of other folks who are getting their hands dirty giving it a try.

Droning on

Hello! Good morning. Let’s talk about drones.

Earlier this year, not long after Christmas, my husband and I went with one of our best friends to a historic village in North Carolina. We hadn’t been there since we were kids and wanted to experience it as adults. (See: walking into a building labeled “tavern” and walking right back out, dejected that there were no actual beers to be had.)

About halfway through the day, we exited an old building into a side yard just in time to see a drone taking off. The guy manning it was just a few feet away. He launched it off the ground and into the air, and I had two simultaneous thoughts:

“Wow, he’s gonna get some awesome photos of this place” and

“Wow, that sound is really, REALLY annoying, especially here!”

Such is the conundrum of life in 2019. There are so many tech things that make our lives cooler, easier, or safer while also being annoying, intrusive, or otherwise harmful. In the past I don’t think the developers of these technologies have done a great job anticipating future issues or needs. I do think that’s changing. But in the meantime, these are the kinds of things we have to deal with (and frankly, we probably will always have some degree of this issue).

I was recently reporting a piece about medical drones (coming soon) and came across this study that determined drones to be the most annoying of all vehicles. And that’s saying a lot, considering we also have motorcycles and 18-wheelers below them and airplanes above.

From a great New Scientist piece on the study:

“We didn’t go into this test thinking there would be this significant difference,” says study coauthor Andrew Christian of NASA’s Langley Research Center, Virginia. It is almost unfortunate the research has turned up this difference in annoyance levels, he adds, as its purpose was merely to prove that Langley’s acoustics research facilities could contribute to NASA’s wider efforts to study drones.

It’s a bummer all around, really. The study found that people (only 38 people, but still) experienced drone buzzes in a similar way they would experience a car that was twice as close as normal. These people didn’t even know what they were listening to, by the way, so we can’t just assume they’re anti-drone.

The piece I’ve been reporting is about the use of drones to save time and money moving blood samples and medical supplies. I wonder if people might find drones less annoying if they knew they were up there to help people? I hope that research is being done somewhere (I would not be surprised, as NASA and the FAA are doing a lot of work to study drone impact right now).

But even if we can get used to the sound of drones, or assuage ourselves with the thought that some of them are saving lives, we still have to look at them. It bugged me to see a black plastic mini-spaceship buzzing around a historic village, but it didn’t scare me or make me feel unsafe. Driving down the road and suddenly seeing a flock of them overhead, and not necessarily knowing their purpose…. would be a different story.

existentialist friday epilogue

I wrote my last post in a fog – a mixture of anxiety, sadness, nihilism and hope. Super dramatic for a Friday night, I know! And reading it today, I’m a little surprised by how intense those feelings were, and how clearly that intensity comes through.

Maybe I should be embarrassed – it was a very vulnerable piece of writing that might be better suited to a private journal. But even after reading it today, and considering that, I decided to hit publish because I do not believe I’m alone in those feelings or thought processes, and I think there are few things more important in this world right now than community with others in our feelings and thought processes.

Not necessarily validation, or reassurance, but community.

That’s what those people in those Christchurch mosques were engaging in last week when they were murdered. It’s what I did at my own church yesterday, feeling sad and uncertain and comforted by the knowledge that I was sitting among a lot of other people feeling the same things. We sang and meditated together, called out the elephants in the room (racism, hatred, violence, intolerance, ambiguity) and continued our ongoing conversation about how to live with and wrangle them. Lately I’ve come to view this as the most beautiful and important thing about being human – existing in community with one another. It sounds pretty and easy but it is one of the most complicated and difficult things I’ve ever done. I am grateful that I woke up today and get to keep doing it.

It’s also amazing to me how clear these ideas are after a couple of days of letting them simmer inside me. I avoided social media as much as possible this weekend. I exercised while listening to an audiobook, watched people of all ages fly kites in perfect weather, watched my husband make sourdough bread for the first time and beam with pride, ate delicious crab cakes and pizza, toasted to friends’ birthdays, read, sat in community with my friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, drank a lot of water, took a bath, and let my brain breathe a little.

On the other side of all of that, I feel like things might be OK. I wonder what I can do to bring this feeling with me into every day, not just Mondays after a social media detox, while also respecting and cultivating the community that exists right there on social media too. They are different kinds of communities, but they overlap in so many ways. This is more true for me now that I live outside the New York City bubble than ever before, so maybe that’s why it might seem like I’m grasping for something others have known all along. But again, something tells me these things I’m wrestling with are more common than we like to admit.

Do you have your tech accountability buddy yet? Maybe you can admit it to each other?

just a little tech existentialism on a friday night

Note: I wrote this on Friday night (3/15) but didn’t want to post right away, to avoid seeming to make the Christchurch tragedy about me. That is not my intention at all. Rather, my intent is to share some of what was going through my mind that day (and frankly, many days) in hopes that it resonates with others and contributes to a broader conversation.

 

Who/what do you turn to when you feel overwhelmed or exhausted or afraid? When you feel overrun by information and opinions, how do you protect yourself?

I realized today that I don’t really have an answer to those questions.

It’s been a really long work week, and I’ve been channeling my stress into two things that I’ve noticed have become crutches for me when I don’t want to sit with my feelings: Instagram and podcasts.

This morning, by the time I got to work at 8:30 I had already watched about half an hour of Instagram stories, which is how I found out about the Christchurch shootings. I had heard a bit more about the horror on the short morning news podcast Up First, which I usually listen to while I get ready for work. I had also scrolled through Twitter for a few minutes, taking in but not quite digesting takes from dozens of people about what had happened, takes that made me feel, for a few seconds each: sad, sick, disgusted, embarrassed, guilty, defensive, angry, and heartbroken.

In the car, I put on Pod Save America and absorbed about 15 minutes of dudes yelling about politics and reminding me how untenable our current political situation is.

By the time I got to work I was feeling pretty anxious, but that’s nothing new for me so I just accepted it. I read some news, looked at Twitter some more, watched some more Instagram stories. Then I put PSA back on so I could listen while I did some editing. It’s like muscle memory.  Do some work while listening to a podcast, check email, get stressed about something, reach for phone and flip over to Instagram, feel guilty for doing that, get back to work and podcast, remember the world is burning, head over to Twitter, see something horrific, go back to Instagram for comfort, fill head with more and more and more of other people’s stories, ideas, and priorities.

I started reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier earlier this week and I’m only on page 16, so I don’t 100% know where the book is going, but the tone is already, “this is not what we meant for you when we made the social web.” And I know that’s true, to an extent. I don’t think anyone imagined this in the beginning, though I’m certain some people predicted it 10 or so years ago and helped usher it in because it makes lots of money. But it also makes people crazy.

I feel crazy, and when I say that I don’t mean it in the mentally ill sense (although we already know I am that, in some ways) but I mean frazzled, unmoored, grasping. I feel tethered to something for comfort but that thing is what makes me need comfort in the first place. I’ve seen several others compare their relationships with their phones and social media to abusive partner relationships, and I don’t think that’s far off.

Today, when I was overwhelmed by the bloodshed and hatred and extremity of the world all around me, I “retreated” via social media and podcasts into even more of the same. At 9:34am I sent my husband this message:

“I feel so overwhelmed today. I just want to crawl under my desk and cry.”

“I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way,” he messaged back.

But I feel that way almost every day around that time, because I set myself up for it. I know this, and yet I keep doing it, because it feels mandatory for being an active citizen of this world.

I know I’m not the only one in this cycle, and I really don’t think it has to be this way. But one of the things we’re going to have to do to change it is to gather the courage to break out.

On the first page of You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier writes:

“I want to say: You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”

Right now I get the sense that many of us feel that sharing ourselves is part of what makes us somebody. I’m reminded of this recent piece in The Atlantic about young kids coming to terms with their own online-ness. One 13-year-old said, of trying to find information about herself with a group of friends in fifth grade: “We thought it was so cool that we had pics of ourselves online…We would brag like, ‘I have this many pics of myself on the internet.’ You look yourself up, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, it’s you!’ We were all shocked when we realized we were out there. We were like, ‘Whoa, we’re real people.’”

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that last part really resonated with me. I grew up online, and have been sharing things about myself there since high school, maybe earlier. Having an online presence, an online self, has felt natural to me for half my life. I’m also a writer, so it might feel more natural to me than most to share my thoughts with the world. But something has shifted over the past few years, and the way the internet – and especially social media – is tied to my identity scares me a little. I find myself wondering if I’m doing certain things because I want to do them, or because I want to share them. When something big happens, I sometimes find myself imagining how I’ll describe it on social media before I even realize what I’m doing. Like I said, tethered. 

Online is where the validation is, I guess, even when we have partners and spouses and families and friends. The silent, pretty, no-strings-attached validation so many of us millennials simultaneously crave (because it’s a normal thing for a human to crave) and cynically joke about not caring about, or not being able to attain. But a lot of us seem to be grabbing for that validation in place of actually dealing with things. And I get it – there is too much to deal with. Mass shootings, climate change, racism, income inequality, mental and physical health problems – it’s all too much. But now that we have been performing for each other online for 30ish years, I’m worried we’re starting to forget not just how to be around each other, but how to feel. As a kid, my identity was so wrapped up in feeling – I cried all the time, was so emotional it scared some of my teachers, and later on definitely scared off a few boyfriends. I don’t cry as much anymore, which is probably healthy, but I also don’t really feel anything stronger than hunger or anxiety for more than a minute at a time. As soon as it pops up – sadness, anger, hurt, shame, worry – there I go, reaching for my phone.

I think there are a lot of remedies to this. One would of course be to just go cold turkey, cut ourselves off from all social media and not look back, but that kills all the good along with the bad. And there is so much good.

Another idea: the people who make this stuff, these products designed to pull us back for more and more, triggering dopamine receptors like slot machines, could…you know…stop. They could pull back and be more mindful – more empathetic – about how their users experience their products. I’m far from the first to suggest this, but given the slowly growing exodus from platforms like Facebook (by both users and employees), it might be about time for them to listen.

Or maybe something more communal is more realistic. Maybe we can get the human connection and validation we crave by helping each other be kinder to our brains and gentler toward our emotions, while also keeping up with all the memes and Trump tweets. What if you had a tech accountability buddy who texted you once a day to ask about your internet activity and how it was making you feel – not to shame you, but to empathize, acknowledge, validate, and encourage you? There are apps that do this, and chat bots, but as much faith as I want to have in empathetic technology, I know they don’t really care. Maybe a friend does, or wants to. Maybe we can get to a healthier place – a place where we can demand better from those who design the tools we use, and figure out how to use them without becoming dependent on them, and get back to feeling the difficult feelings – together.

By the way, you can support Christchurch victims and families here.

Power drills vs. dental drills

At the beginning of this year I went to the dentist for the first time in… a while, and learned I had five cavities. Five! I brush my teeth – I even floss! – but somehow three of my old fillings had failed me and two new ones were needed. This wouldn’t have been that big of a deal except… and now you’re really going to judge me… I am afraid of Novocaine.

Now, let me say as clearly as I can: this is a 95% irrational fear. Novocaine is extremely safe and I trust my dentist to use it properly, and I am even fairly certain if I used it nothing bad would happen. But because I have an anxiety brain, this was my thought process upon learning I needed five fillings:

Shit, that’s going to be expensive and take a while. Also, crap, they’ll give me Novocaine, and that has the potential to cause heart palpitations, and I’ll probably already be having them because I’ll be nervous, and that could create a dangerous situation, oh shit shit how do I get around this?

Again, Novocaine is extremely safe. Irregular heart beat is a very rare potential side effect associated with many medications – it’s part of the generic list of allergic reactions a step above itchiness and swelling. But since I’ve dealt (rather poorly, I’ll admit) with heart palpitations caused by stress and anxiety for years, I am hyper-vigilant about avoiding situations that might cause them. So, how did I get around it? I opted out. I said no to the Novocaine and sucked it up. And yeah, it hurt. I spaced the procedure out into three visits to spread out both the cost and the pain. In the end, each procedure took less time than it would have with numbing, and I was able to eat and drink right afterward. Most of all, I survived (which of course I would have regardless). The dentists and hygienists kept calling me a badass and saying how well I handled the pain, but I wasn’t proud; I was honestly a little embarrassed, and exhausted, and sore.

As I waited in the chair for each procedure to start, I stared at a flat screen monitor. The first time it scrolled through pictures of cute kids and puppies (including a truly awesome slideshow of dogs that look like other things); on my second visit it was a silent presentation about my dentist’s trip to Haiti, complete with facts about the country; and on the third and final visit I was treated to calming videos of waves crashing on sand.

During each procedure, there was a moment or two when I thought I couldn’t handle any more – when the drill would hit a specific spot on the tooth that was just too close to a nerve. During those times, I had the old calming television standby to distract me from another monitor on the ceiling: HGTV. (I have seen this in at least one other dental office and several specialists’ offices – there’s just something about Chip and Joanna…) And I have to tell you, these things worked. In the moments I would have gritted my teeth at the pain (which was obviously impossible) I instead focused all of my energy and attention on the wall demo or sconce selection happening on the ceiling screen. And it worked, in the sense that avoiding a full-on panic attack or biting off my dentist’s fingers = “working.” Which… I’ll take it!

It’s not shiplap that helps with pain and anxiety in the dental chair – it’s that shift in energy and attention. And it still works on me even though I know this. And I actually found myself thinking, as I left the dental office for the last time (for a while, at least…I hope…) that I really wish more medical offices had this kind of programming. Not just HGTV, but slideshows and silent videos made with the explicit goal of helping patients calm down. Not just cheesy quotes about serenity, but soothing images that are scientifically correlated with lower blood pressure and cortisol. Imagine if more clinicians acknowledged that we might be anxious, and rather than ignoring that or explaining it away, just empathized with it and tried to set a calmer tone. This sort of thing is relatively common in dentistry and in pediatrics; imagine if our anxiety and potential medical trauma was taken more seriously even in cardiology, physical therapy, dermatology, and other offices! I think it’s something to work toward.

 

Is AOC right about AI?

Conservative Twitter is up in arms today over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying at an MLK Day event that algorithms are biased. (Of course “bias” has been translated into “racism.”) The general response from the right has been, “What a dumb socialist! Algorithms are run by math. Math can’t be racist!” And from the tech experts on Twitter: “Well, actually….”

I have to put myself in the latter camp. Though I’m not exactly a tech expert, I’ve been researching the impact of technology like AI and algorithms on human well-being for a couple of years now, and the evidence is pretty clear: people have bias, people make algorithms, so algorithms have bias.

When I was a kid, my dad had this new-fangled job as a “computer programmer”. The most vivid and lasting evidence of this vocation was huge stacks of perforated printer paper and dozens upon dozens of floppy disks. But I also remember him saying this phrase enough times to get it stuck in my head: “garbage in, garbage out.” This phrase became popular in the early computer days because it was an easy way to explain what happened when flawed data was put into a machine – the machine spit flawed data out. This was true when my dad was doing…whatever he was doing… and when I was trying to change the look of my MySpace page with rudimentary HTML code. And it’s true with AI, too. (Which is a big reason we need the tech world to focus more on empathy. But I won’t go on that tangent today.)

When I was just starting work on my book, I read Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (read it.), which convinced me beyond any remaining doubt that we had a problem. Relying on algorithms to make decisions for us that have little to no oversight and are entirely susceptible to contamination by human bias – conscious or not – is not a liberal anxiety dream. It’s our current reality. It’s just that a lot of us – and I’ll be clear that here I mean a lot of us white and otherwise nonmarginalized people – don’t really notice.

Maybe you still think this is BS. Numbers are numbers, regardless of the intent/mistake/feeling/belief of the person entering them into a computer, you say. This is often hard to get your head around when you see all bias as intentional, I get that, I’ve been there. So let me give you some examples:

There are several studies showing that people with names that don’t “sound white” are often passed up for jobs in favor of more “white-sounding” names. It reportedly happens to women, too. A couple of years ago, Amazon noticed that the algorithm it had created to sift through resumes was biased against women. It had somehow “taught itself that male candidates were preferable.” Amazon tweaked the algorithm, but eventually gave up on it, claiming it might find other ways to skirt neutrality. The algorithm wasn’t doing that with a mind of its own, of course. Machine-learning algorithms, well, learn, but they have to have teachers, whether those teachers are people or gobs of data arranged by people (or by other bots that were programmed by people…). There’s always a person involved, is my point, and people are fallible. And biased. Even unconsciouslyEven IBM admits it. This is a really difficult problem that even the biggest tech companies haven’t yet figured out how to fix. This isn’t about saying “developers are racist/sexist/evil,” it’s about accounting for the fact that all people have biases, and even if we try to set them aside, they can show up in our work. Especially when those of us doing that work happen to be a pretty homogeneous group. One argument for more diversity in tech is that if the humans making the bots are more diverse, the bots will know how to recognize and value more than one kind of person. (Hey, maybe instead of trying to kill us the bots that take over the world will be super woke!)

Another example: In 2015, Google came under fire after a facial recognition app identified several black people as gorillas. There’s no nice way to say that. That’s what happened. The company apologized and tried to fix it, but the best it could do at the time was to remove “gorilla” as an option for the AI. So what happened? Google hasn’t been totally clear on the answer to this, but facial recognition AI works by learning to categorize lots and lots of photos. Technically someone could have trained it to label black people as gorillas, but perhaps more likely is that the folks training the AI in this case simply didn’t consider this potential unintended consequence of letting an imperfect facial recognition bot out into the world. (And, advocates argue, maybe more black folks on the developer team could have prevented this. Maybe.) Last year a spokesperson told Wired: “Image labeling technology is still early and unfortunately it’s nowhere near perfect.” At least Google Photos lets users to report mistakes, but for those who are still skeptical, note: that means even Google acknowledges mistakes are being – and will continue to be – made in this arena.

One last example, because it’s perhaps the most obvious and also maybe the most ridiculous: Microsoft’s Twitter bot, Tay. In 2016, this AI chatbot was unleashed on Twitter, ready to learn how to talk like a millennial and show off Microsoft’s algorithmic skills. But almost as soon as Tay encountered the actual people of Twitter – all of them, not just cutesy millennials speaking in Internet code but also unrepentant trolls and malignant racists – her limitations were put into stark relief. In less than a day, she became a caricature of violent, anti-semitic racist. Some of the tweets seemed to come out of nowhere, but some were thanks to a nifty feature in which people could say “repeat after me” to Tay and she would do just that. (Who ever would have thought that could backfire on Twitter?) Microsoft deleted Tay’s most offensive tweets and eventually made her account private. It was a wild day on the Internet, even for 2016, but it was quickly forgotten. The story bears repeating today, though, because clearly we are still working out the whole bot-human interaction thing.

To close, I’ll just leave you with AOC’s words at the MLK event. See if they still seem dramatic to you.

“Look at – IBM was creating facial recognition technology to target, to do crime profiling. We see over and over again, whether it’s FaceTime, they always have these racial inequities that get translated because algorithms are still made by human beings, and those algorithms are still pegged to those, to basic human assumptions. They’re just automated, and automated assumptions, it’s like if you don’t fix the bias then you’re automating the bias. And that gets even more dangerous.”

(This is the “crime profiling” thing she references, by the way. I’m not sure where the FaceTime thing comes from but I will update this post if/when I get some context on that.)

Update: Thanks to the PLUG newsletter (which I highly recommend) I just came across this fantastic video that does a wonderful job of explaining the issue of AI bias and diversity. It includes a pretty wild example, too. Check it out.

Musings on The American Meme and my Instagram Addiction

In the past 7 days, I’ve spent 8 hours and 35 minutes on Instagram, according to my phone’s Screen Time tracker. That’s an entire workday’s worth of minutes watching celebrities talk and friends feed their babies and advertisers try desperately to get me to buy Allbirds shoes (at this point I’m not buying them on principle). And my usage is down 11% from last week!

I know that I have a problem. It’s not that I can’t go an hour without looking at Instagram. I could put my phone in my purse and stare harder at my computer screen, or go for a walk, or sit and think for a few minutes about what’s actually behind my urge to open the app. I’ve spent enough time thinking about this that I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that, though: I’m anxious, bored, sad, frustrated, or tired. Instagram has become a little security blanket for me. It’s a place to get lost in other people’s lives for a few (or 30) minutes at a time so I don’t have to consciously think about what’s bothering me or, more importantly, do anything about it.

Yes, this is terrible! I sound like a jerk. The worst part is that now that I’ve psychoanalyzed myself to the point of understanding this, almost every time I open the app I feel guilt on top of it all. I should be treating myself better. I should be more authentic. I should be spending more time on actual work. This spiral is exhausting, and that feeling just makes me want to see if any of the people I follow have posted a new Instagram Story while I’ve been typing this…

I’m not unique in this. Instagram and its fellow social media platforms were built to become indispensable to us in this way, to cause little dopamine rushes that keep us coming back. Maybe that’s sinister, or maybe it’s just business.

On Sunday night I tried to put my phone away for a little while and watch a documentary. Naturally, the doc I chose was Netflix’s The American Meme. It’s essentially Behind the Music, for social media influencers – people who hawk brands and destinations and their own lives for money on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat (and formerly Vine, RIP).

The doc follows a few different influencers, some I had heard of and some I hadn’t. I was most surprised by how much I learned about Paris Hilton, and what a sympathetic character she was, especially in comparison to some of  the other people in the film. I had heard of comedian(?) “The Fat Jewish” before, and even followed him for a little while until he was outed for stealing other people’s memes and passing them off as his own. When the interviewers asked him about this in the documentary, his answer was basically, “yeah, so?” Among other things, he now runs an apparently very successful wine business. Lesson (from TFJ and several of the others): lying sells!

Is this new? No. But as with a lot of millennial-focused content, what’s unique is the sense of nihilism that permeates this documentary. There’s a feeling that nothing matters, nothing is real, no one actually cares about anything or anyone, so why not spend your nights pouring champagne on women’s bare asses at night clubs and making fun of fat people for money? Why not create elaborate hoaxes with celebrities and trick entertainment news organizations into covering them as if they’re real for attention? Why not do the most ridiculous and physically dangerous stunt you can think of, for followers?

One of the things that struck me most was a quote from the mother of Kirill “slutwhisperer” Bichutsky, who, defending what her son does for a living, said something along the lines of, “he’s like an actor playing a bad person – you don’t judge the actor as if they really are that person.” Don’t we? Where is the line, really? I’m not an influencer, but should I be judged by how I present myself online, or in person? Is there actually a difference? It seems to depend who you ask.

I didn’t want to relate to these people, but ultimately I couldn’t help it. The story of Kirill, a photographer and Instagram influencer who pours champagne on women’s asses and calls them sluts, among other charming things, broke through to my empathic heart despite my best efforts. The Kirill in this documentary is exhausted, ashamed, and depressed. He seems like he’s ready to give up being an asshole for a living and meet someone he can make a life with. He says this is what he does because it’s what he has to do – because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. I feel trapped by social media because it helps me escape, but I can’t imagine feeling like I truly had no other choice.

When Kirill posted something that made it seem like he might be suicidal, fans told him not to kill himself – they still wanted to party. He was 33 when the doc was being filmed, in 2017. After watching, I wondered if he’d hung up his champagne bottles, but a glimpse at Instagram shows that slutwhisperer is alive and well, with a new slogan: Assholes Live Forever.

There’s no big lesson from The American Meme. It probably doesn’t teach you anything you don’t already know if you follow these people. But watching it felt like it might have felt to watch a Behind the Music about a drug-fueled 1970s band in the middle of the 1970s. That’s one of the wildest things about our media landscape now – we can analyze things so much more easily in real time. We can watch ourselves be taken over by “addiction” to social media, realize it’s happening, but not really know how to get away from it.

At the end of last year I finally deactivated my Facebook. I don’t miss it at all. But that’s partly because most of the people I was interested in following there had migrated to Instagram. Over the past year I have also spent a lot more time with people in real life – coffee dates, dinners, book clubs. I wonder, if I gave up on Instagram too, would my obsession turn to in-person hangouts? Or would I finally succumb to Snapchat?

Anyway, it’s been a long day (and a long post). I’m really looking forward to going home, sitting on the couch, and catching up on Instagram Stories. Maybe that’s OK. Maybe it will help me relax. More likely it will make me feel anxious and lacking. But I’ll do it anyway.

What a year.

Happy New Year, folks!

It will not surprise you to read that I’ve been struggling a bit with how to approach this blog over the past year or so. I love writing about empathy, but while writing a whole 60,000-word book on the subject the thought of also writing blog posts on the topic was exhausting. I also felt like I didn’t have much new to say here that I wasn’t saving for my book. I love summarizing research that I come across, but a) I don’t often have the time to do the proper reporting and make sure my analysis is accurate and b) that’s frankly kind of boring to a lot of people!

I think I felt like because I was writing a book about empathy I needed to specifically brand my blog that way, but it ended up just constraining me. There are so many things I want to write about in more than a few tweets, but that probably won’t get picked up as freelance articles. That middle ground is what blogging is best at, and I think as I continue to grow as a writer it makes sense to flex that muscle here more often.

I’m not going back to long descriptions of my weekend activities (lol, 2012 me…) and I’ll continue to avoid long political rants, but I need to do more here than just post links to empathy-related science articles every once in a while. I’ve been thinking a lot about transparency – as it relates to tech, but also as it relates to journalism – so in that vein, why don’t I tell y’all a bit about what this book writing process has been like?

It has been long. That’s something a lot of people told me to prepare for at the beginning but I still don’t think I was ready. I am an impatient person. It’s something I’ve kind of embraced about my personality but it doesn’t always serve me. It can be great for project management and even for reporting; it’s not so great for long projects whose steps I can’t always control. I started working on the book that became THE FUTURE OF FEELING in 2016. I think it was summer, and I was at a bar in Brooklyn with my husband talking about the next thing. That year’s thing for us had been getting married. I always seem to have a thing, and my brain was itching for the next one. I had always known I wanted to write a book, but I assumed I’d have to work diligently as a reporter at a newspaper or magazine for at least 10 years before I would know enough about anything to write a whole book on it.

I don’t know if it was the atmosphere or the beer or my obsessive need to start on something new, but that day I just decided – I’m gonna do it. I’m just gonna start. I’d been thinking a lot about how natural empathy can seem but how hard it can actually be to practice, and how the extremely online life I’d led since age 14 or so had seriously complicated how I related to and understood other humans. This idea itself wasn’t new and had been written about a ton already. But what about what was coming next? I’m always thinking (read: worrying) about the future, and looking back at how quickly tech – social media, especially – had taken over my own life and those of my peers, I wondered what was in store for us next. I’d tried to find books about this, but mostly came up empty. So, that day at the bar – Abilene, in Carroll Gardens – I just decided I would write one.

I did not suddenly feel qualified, or smart enough, or talented enough to write a book. But I had decided to go to grad school and made it, decided to move to New York and survived…maybe I could do this the same way. Make the decision first, figure out the details later. And that’s what I did. Frankly I’m still figuring out the details, but I started by googling “how to write a nonfiction book.” I also asked for help from a huge Facebook network of writers I was part of at the time. I ended up finding several websites that helped me figure out the basic process – initial reporting, proposal, find an agent, revise proposal, go out on submission, (hopefully) secure a publisher, write book, make a few bucks if you’re lucky, start again.

The first part – initial reporting and writing the proposal – took the longest. I’d say I started seriously reporting in mid-2016, and then I started the proposal on December 29, 2016. I remember because I took a photo of my laptop and coffee at the coffee shop I was at and posted it on Instagram, of course. (Funnily enough, that coffee shop was in North Carolina not too far from where I now live.) I followed a couple of guides that I found online to create a format for the proposal (overview, chapter outlines, competing titles, sample chapters, author bio, etc.) but I was kind of lost as to how to really fill it in. I was lucky to have an amazing writing group in New York that met every week – unheard of, really. Without their encouragement, accountability and criticism I might still be working on the damn thing. Thankfully they helped me get it into shape throughout 2017 and by the end of the year I was ready to send it to agents.

2018 was the year of the book. It all happened. I queried 12 agents during the first and second week of January. I got a couple of very encouraging rejections, a bunch of no-replies, and two requests for the proposal. Of those, one agent never responded again, and one said yes. I could have kept going, but I really liked the one who said yes (she had experience with books like mine, understood what I was trying to accomplish with this project, and we got along on a personal level), so by the end of January I was agented. My understanding is that this was relatively quick, but not out of the ordinary for a nonfiction book. (Fiction is a whole other story.) I remember I got the call from my agent – Jill Marsal – at work in Brooklyn while I was waiting for another call, from my now-boss in North Carolina. When my phone rang I didn’t really look at the number and just picked up, expecting an answer about the job in NC. When I heard Jill’s voice I was so surprised that I didn’t know how to respond to her telling me that yes, she wanted to represent me. (Later I got the other call, and in a couple of weeks I was down here in NC – 2018 really started off wild.)

Jill and I worked for a few weeks on my proposal, and when it was ready to go on submission she kept me updated with the responses – lots and lots of rejections! But one thing I’ve learned is that if people are rejecting you it means they’re reading your work and considering it. They know your name, they know your work exists, they read and thought about it – in the creative world, that’s no small thing. But eventually someone said yes – Little A, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. It was early May when I signed the contract to officially write THE FUTURE OF FEELING.

Then…I had to finish it. I had written a couple of sample chapters and done some research, but I hadn’t wanted to pour too much time into reporting a book that may or may not be published. Now that I knew it was real, I had to get serious. I created a more detailed outline that changed approximately 7,239 times throughout the process only to end up basically the way it was at the beginning. I set deadlines for myself for each chapter and section. I read other books, gobbled up google alerts for “empathy + tech” and “empathy + study” and reached out to dozens of people for interviews. I was happy to find that most of the experts and practitioners I emailed were happy to get on the phone or Skype and talk to me about empathy – or the lack of it – in tech, and about what they were doing to try to fix this. I interviewed people in the US, Canada and Ireland. I went to a VR conference in New York and tested some of the tech I was writing about. I had piles and piles of printed out articles and notes and thousands and thousands of words of transcribed interviews. It was a lot, but honestly, it was not as hard as writing the initial proposal. I had the foundation, I just had to build the house. Sometimes I felt like I was following very well-designed blueprints; sometimes I felt like I was throwing sticks at concrete and hoping they’d somehow form walls. Toward the end, I started just throwing my notes to the side and vomit-writing, just getting ideas out in a stream of consciousness so they’d at least be on the page. If I’m honest, that’s how I wrote most of the first draft. I just threw it into Word, questions to myself and musings about my interview subjects and all-caps reminders included.

Then I did the unthinkable – I let people read it like that. With the caveat that it clearly wasn’t done (and the persistent thought that I really didn’t know what else to do and it might actually just stay in this state forever) I emailed chapters to friends and fellow writers and asked them what they thought. I got some niceties and a lot of “oops I forgot to read it!” messages, but I also got some really helpful feedback. I started revising, using a red pen to make structural changes and tiny line edits. Then, about halfway through, I put it aside and ignored it for a month.

I felt kind of paralyzed. I was working full time throughout this whole thing, plus reading the news every day (which is exhausting in itself these days) and by November I was burnt out. I asked myself nearly every day for a couple of weeks whether I had made anything remotely readable and if I should just give back the advance and pretend this never happened. This is a very common – and some would argue necessary – part of book-writing, I’m told! And I did snap out of it. At the beginning of December I took a solo trip up north. I made the rookie mistake of telling my editor I’d be in town. She wasn’t, but suggested I send her what I had anyway. I was so close to the end…I decided I would send her the whole thing, even though it technically wasn’t due until January 4.

I went to New York for one night and one day to see a concert and connect with a couple of writer friends. We commiserated and confessed our insecurities to one another. It was exactly what I needed. I headed to my grandmother’s house in Connecticut and on the train ride there and over two days in her sun room I finished revising, reorganizing and rewriting the whole damn thing. I subsisted on Christmas candy, bagels, and ginger ale. I barely moved from the wooden table except to watch a movie with her one evening in the living room. My trip was cut short by an impending snowstorm and just as I was freaking out about this my editor emailed to say she wouldn’t have time to read anything for a few more days. With a huge sigh of relief, I booked it back to North Carolina and just as the storm descended, I finished. And I sent it. And I breathed.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was done. (That should probably be on my tombstone.) Then all I had to do was wait for my editor’s verdict. Would she see huge problems and ask me to make major revisions in the few weeks before my official delivery date? Would she love it and tell me I didn’t need to make any edits at all? (Ha! Obviously I spent significantly more time on the first what-if.) I had a lot of work to do at my day job in the meantime, and Christmas festivities were beginning, so I was blissfully distracted a lot of the time. Then on the 21st, the day before my long holiday break from work, my editor emailed to say she wasn’t done, but she liked what she saw so far, and I could consider myself submitted. I cried a little, I’m not gonna lie. And then I went to a Christmas party and got very drunk with some of my best friends.

There is still a lot of work ahead. Revisions start next week and will take a couple of months. Then there are all the parts I know have to be there but I don’t know how they work – the cover, marketing, actually getting the book in stores, etc. The pub date is still a year away. (I told you – it’s a long process!) I’m already thinking about my next book (or 2…) and a podcast project I want to do this year. And my husband and I are house hunting. And yet I still feel like I don’t have “enough” going on for 2019…!

I hope this was interesting for some of you. Maybe you’re thinking of writing a nonfiction book and you didn’t know where to start. Or maybe you just enjoy reading about my meltdowns throughout the process. I still feel new at this, but if you have any questions I’d be happy to try to help. And look out for more in this space in 2019!

Tech is a tool – turns out empathy is too.

One of the most confounding things about researching empathy is that it’s often talked about as if it’s an obvious Good Thing. I constantly read and hear that empathy will help fix this problem or improve that relationship or better that industry. But the reality I am coming to understand is that empathy is a mechanism, a tool of our brains and hearts, that does not have an inherent value. It comes up most often in a positive context because we see understanding others and putting ourselves in their shoes as a good thing, which it often is. But this kind of perspective-taking is also used for negative, manipulative reasons all the time. We don’t usually call that empathy, but in many cases the mechanism seems the same.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since my June trip back to New York for the Games for Change summit. I eagerly consumed as many virtual reality experiences as I could in my one afternoon there, surrendering myself as much as possible to the narratives they immersed me in. I was a fly on the wall in the bedroom of a white supremacist teenager; I followed along with nonprofit workers as they helped to free a family in India from servitude; I embodied the virtual experience of a young black man. All of these were trying to teach me about a human experience I was unfamiliar with, and they all had positive intentions. But if the makers behind these VR projects could bring me close to tears for a former white nationalist and a young black man dealing with daily microaggressions in the same afternoon, what else could they do?

The major caveat to this line of thinking is, in my view, the fact that how we come to VR experiences – our own personal backgrounds, our expectations, or hopes for what we will see and feel – plays a big role in determining how they affect us. I don’t think many people are putting on VR headsets totally unencumbered by expectations or opinions about the content of what they’re about to see. As this technology becomes more ubiquitous, though, it might become easier to sneak these experiences on people; pulling the same levers that trigger empathy can trigger other things as well: hatred, anger, fear. We already do it with less fanciful technology, don’t we? Digital advertisers work to try to understand how we view the world so that they can put t he best ads in front of us; communications teams for politicians write certain words and phrases into speeches that they guess, by putting themselves briefly in the shoes of their base, will generate a reaction. Perspective-taking in service of manipulation isn’t new, but as technology evolves, the capacity for doing this on a larger and larger level grows.

This concern really started bubbling up for me a a couple of months ago, after I experienced a couple of rough days of trolling on Twitter. I realized that while I had always seen internet trolls as lacking empathy, what they were doing actually required a certain level of it. They just wielded it a different way than we’re used to thinking about. So of course, I tweeted some thoughts:

 

 

This gets at a lot of what’s been swirling around in my head as I write this book about the future of empathy and technology. The people I interview often remind me that technology is a tool, but I’m realizing that empathy is one too.

As I wrote in my last post, it feels like a weird time to be writing a book about empathy. But conversations like the one described above make me feel like it’s worth it, no matter how it turns out. Stay tuned for more.