I am curious how social distancing is working out in Finland

General

Have a question for my Finnish friends. First some quick context for others.

Finland really confused me at first. Social distancing seemed to be part of the culture. Walking on the street, no one even made eye contact with me, let alone smile. If I smiled I would just get a blank stare. If I was standing anywhere, no one came close to me. I felt very much unseen. I felt like a ghost. I didn’t even realize how much passive social validation I was used to in my everyday life until then. Just that sense of being acknowledged. I wondered if I was being subject to passive hostility. I am not paranoid and I wouldn’t have allowed myself to go that far had it not felt so jarring and odd.

After some time as I got to know people they told me to not take it the wrong way “That’s just how we interact socially. We give each other a lot of space and even engaging in non-verbal communication with a stranger would be a little imposing.”

That made sense. And it made me see things totally differently. I also noticed that within bars etc, people were super friendly and very talkative and would spontaneously approach me to talk to me.

I remember once when I was driving in the north, in Lapland, I stopped at a gas station. There was no eye contact, no small talk, just a transaction involving transfer of goods and currency. Someone pointed at signs in stores as part of a campaign that said “If you greet the cashier, you get 0.5% off” or something like this. There are attempts at making the culture less distanced.

So the question I have is to my Finnish friends. How is the social distancing etc working for you? Does it feel as disruptive as it would feel in other cultures where not being able to see smiles on people you encounter makes you feel like something is terribly wrong?

This is going to take longer than we think, and that’s ok

General

[Skip this if you don’t like bad news. I don’t enjoy saying this one bit. And I don’t want this to be true. I’d like things to go back to normal next month. But they are not.]

I believe things will not get back to normal until we have a vaccine.

The various treatments undergoing trials will help, but they are not “cures”. They help reduce the duration and the mortality rate by some percentage. But they don’t reduce the numbers enough to allow us to end social distancing.

We have flattened the curve. But that just means we have pushed the surge further down. We are propping up the dam walls. The minute we ease up, the waves will come crushing through. We have to keep holding up the dam until we have a vaccine. Even gradual easing will result in the numbers surging again. We are talking millions of lives in months if we let go.

We need to do everything we can to ease the stress it creates for all of us. We need to provide a monthly “stipend” to all that empowers everyone to sustain themselves and keeps commerce ticking and for new patterns and behaviors to emerge spontaneously from the bottom up. We need to adapt society to this new reality so that it becomes easier to live through it.

It’s like a meteor about to hit earth. And we are using a tractor beam to delay the hit until we have time to build the lasers to disintegrate it first. We can’t fall for the false sense of safety that the delay creates. We cant turn off the tractor beam.

Think of the movie Independence Day. When aliens attack, we don’t talk about the economy. We figure out how to defeat the enemy. And we all make sacrifices.

Now for the good news. At worse this takes 24 months. Which is really nothing if we can detach from it and see the big picture. And the more quickly we can embrace this possible reality, the easier it will be for us. This is a test for us. Can we demonstrate the human ingenuity and adaptability that has made us one of the most successful species on the planet? Can we help each other get through this?

Impact of Design: Link previews in Facebook feed and how it changed the world

General

An example of the impact of design choices and the evolution of habits around them.

When we post a link on Facebook, it shows us a preview of that link right here in the feed before we even click on it. Can we imagine what the world would be like today if Facebook had never implemented link preview?

This was a design decision Facebook made in 2008 when people went beyond posting just status updates on their Facebook. The goal was to make it easier to see what the link points to so we can decide if it’s worth clicking.

Then over time we started to trust the headline, image, and description enough that we didn’t see much value in clicking on the link. We also started to see a lot more links in our feeds and we didn’t want to click on each one. Also, it is always gong to be faster to browse Facebook if we never clicked on any links. Especially within the apps. So it slows down our dopamine wagon when we click on a link and wait for a page to load and we don’t like to wait.

But when we stopped clicking on links, the producers of the content stopped getting traffic. So they started tweaking the headlines, images, and description to stand out more in your Facebook feed. FB initially allowed a lot of customization. e.g. The headline in the feed preview didn’t even have to match the headline on the web page. This accelerated the attention war – distortions and click bait were needed to counter our laziness to click on links within the Facebook feed. Also, Facebook always has a disincentive in helping us get off Facebook. So deep down it never really wants us to click on a link. Unless it’s sponsored and earns them revenue.

Over the last few years, we have stopped going to the sources of information directly. Everything comes curated from our social media feeds. But because of the added friction, the extra step of representation, and the more time we now spend inside apps, we are engaging with websites in a fundamentally different way than we used to.

What if today, just for a day, the link previewer in our Facebook feed stopped working. Look at your feed. Imagine no website previews. Just text links everywhere. Wouldn’t we automatically feel less stressed? Then we realize that’s why people like Instagram. No links ☺️

The intense scrutiny Facebook added on people posting political ads

General

Facebook, in principle, has a very solid premise. An online social graph where every individual is a real person and has the same social norms and consequences as in the real world is a social graph that is good at regulating itself. But they added in non-people into this graph to generate revenue and ended up with a highly profitable business model where a highly engaged audience of all humans on earth can be targeted and reached by a business.

All this is fine if the only evil is businesses trying to get you to buy things. But this got totally upended when a “business” is a foreign government and what they are trying to “sell” is just chaos, polarization, divisiveness, voter self suppression etc. So Facebook finds itself in this very unfortunate position where the tool they have built for a different purpose is getting weaponized in a way that is beginning to destroy the world.

I was doing an experiment and was very happy to discover what they are doing now to address this problem. I am very critical of Facebook but I also want to give them credit where credit is due. And here I am very pleased by the effort and the sincerity behind it!

The ad I was trying to post is this:

Turns out I can not just go and post a political ad. It is reviewed by a human and then gets flagged in the following way.

When I opt in to confirm my ID, it gets into quite an onerous process.

I have to upload my drivers license / passport, answer a bunch of ssn-related identity questions, then FB scrubs my timeline to verify that I indeed seem to be living in the US based on my entire history of posts and social graph, and then still it wants me to share a physical address where they will send a letter with a code to confirm I have physical access to that address. Then and only then can I make a politic ad!

This step brings some of the strengths of the original social graph. When identity is tied to a constraint, like in this case real physical people, then the social norms can be a powerful way to self-moderate. Of course there’s always a flip side to this and we do lose anonymity which is freedom. These two things will always be in tension it seems.

Facebook investing in people feeling inspired and positive

General

Facebook is investing in features that are bound to reduce “engagement” as it was measured the old way. The old metric was “time spent”. Now the new metric is time spent “with intention, being inspired and feeling positive.”

Short-term investors saw this and decided that it’s a bad thing – as engagement goes down, so will revenue. And FB stock took a hit. But if we take the long view, we can see how this strategy is like to pay off.

(FB’s revenue model was similarly questioned several years ago when users were moving from Desktop to Mobile. The fear then was that they couldn’t show as many ads on mobile as they could on desktop. But what actually happened is that as the number of ads went down the price of ads went up as there was limited space to show them on mobile.)

Social Trust Based Transactions in Tanzania

General

  
These are keys to my Lexus 4WD and my 3 bedroom apartment with a view of Mt Meru. I haven’t signed any papers so far. And hardly fronted any money.

CAR 

  • 8am – I text a guy that rents out cars.
  • 10am – he shows up at my door, hands me the keys and leaves. I ask, when do I pay? He says you can pay me later.
  • 5pm – I grab $$ from an ATM and pay him, along with a copy of my passport.
  • Done.

HOME

  • 5pm I stop by to take a look at a house (along with many others)
  • 8am (next day) I decide that’s the one I want
  • 4pm I show up with my stuff and am handed a key to a just cleaned house. When do I pay you? He says: today I’m busy. Tomorrow I am going somewhere. How about the day after?
  • So I will pay him in 2 days.

In Tanzania, trust is important. Relationships matter. The system doesn’t require you to distrust each other. Social reputation systems, and people’s reliance on them, remove the friction (and extra cost) associated with doing things more formally.
Western systems, however, are more universal. Not relying as much on social systems means there’s less biase, better exception handling and more scale.
As technology-mediated reputation systems get better, successfully avoiding all their traps and pitfalls, we can expect more Tanzania style personal, human service at western style scale and access.

Thoughts on the Trayvon Martin case

Uncategorized

Please listen to this audio clip before you continue.

This is a picture of a glacier on Mt. Kilimanjaro which I took when I was there last year. It clearly shows that the glaciers have shrunk in the past years. I believe climate change is real. I believe at a minimum some amount of it caused by humans. The popular documentary “The inconvenient Truth” uses Kilimanjaro as a poster example of climate change. Makes sense? Unfortunately that is bull shit. Scientists have shown that the shrinking glaciers on Kilimanjaro have nothing to do with climate change. Even though climate change is real, Kilimanjaro is a bad example because it doesn’t apply here.

Kilimanjaro glaciers

When we believe something strongly, we are always looking for facts that validate our assumption – that’s basic human nature and scientific experiments show that we are likely to accept something that confirms our hunches than something that challenges it. Using Kilimanjaro as an example of climate change is an unfortunate waste of energy and detracts from actual facts that should instead be considered.

When I first found out about the Trayvon Martin incident I was outraged that they hadn’t even filed charges. I joined in to the Internet activism and was happy to hear that 45 days later they did file charges. I admit I didn’t watch the trial closely but was confident all along that Zimmerman was caught red-handed and of course he will be found guilty.