There’s an old Firesign Theater sketch called “Temporarily Humboldt County.” Some Native Americans are sitting around enjoying nature when the Spanish conquistadors show up with a priest. The conquistadors claim the land for Spain and Father Corona adds, “Oh! By the way, Domini Domini Domini, you’re all Catholics now.”
I was reminded of this sketch on Tuesday when Flickr decided I was a Christian.
Since Tuesday, if you visit any Flickr member’s photos with a modern browser, you’ll see three little snowflakes beside the Flickr logo. Click them and you’ll be treated to a cascade of snowflakes over the page and all its photos, as well as a row of blinking Christmas lights at the top of the page. For an added treat, you can roll over the lights with your mouse and they’ll pop, complete with sound effects. Click the little “[x]” beside the logo and it all goes away … at least until the next page load when the three little snowflakes show up again.
Flickr is the community website that’s closest to my heart. The site’s founders are friends of mine and my wife worked there for five years. But more important than that, it’s a community that I love. I’ve uploaded gigabytes of photos there. My photostream has become a virtual home for me. Our virtual homes are just as important to us as our brick and mortar ones, if not more. I’ve lived in my real house for a few years, but I’ve lived on Flickr since 2004.
So it’s distressing when someone puts Christmas lights on my virtual home. I’m not a Christian. I don’t care how secular the holiday is nowadays. I know about the holiday’s Pagan roots. None of that matters. The fact is, Christmas lights on a home are a signifier that the occupant is a Christian, the same way a mezuzah is a signifier of a Jewish occupant. These symbols have power, which is why we use them.
It’s not just that Flickr is smearing Christmas “cheer” all over itself. As a non-Christian in a Christian country, I’m grudgingly used to that. (Though it would be nice if clicking that “[x]” set a cookie that prevented it from loading on the next pageview.) It’s that my Flickr stream is my personal identity in the Flickr community. That’s my face there at the top. Flickr has added a Christian signifier to my virtual home and I have no way to remove it. In the eyes of the rest of the community, Flickr has turned me into a Christian.
Flickr has done other Christmassy things in the past. For a while, you could add a string to a URL to make it snow on the page. Other years, if you put a note on a photo with a special phrase (“ho ho ho hat”), a Santa hat would appear. But these were all secret easter eggs. (Easter! We can’t even talk about this without more Christian holidays coming up.) And in the case of the notes, I could easily remove them and control who has the power to leave notes on my photos. But this year’s festivities are unavoidable. Don’t like people seeing Christmas lights on your virtual home? Too bad.
When you begin a virtual community, you’re building for yourself. You can safely assume that most of the community is a lot like you. But as it grows, the community becomes more diverse. If you’re extremely lucky, some of your members will invest themselves so much, they’ll come to view the site as a kind of home. This, by the way, is the success case. It’s what you want to happen.
Flickr is now a truly global community. A huge set of their members don’t celebrate Christmas. Heck, it’s summer in half the world right now, so I’m not sure what they’ll make of the snowflakes. Flickr should know this better than anyone.
The decision to put Christmas lights on all of their members’ virtual homes shows a profound lack of understanding for who their users are and what those symbols mean. It’s the kind of decision you make when you assume the rest of the world is just like you, or you’re so enamored with a technology you forget to think through the social ramifications of its implementation. Making your members feel unwelcome in their own homes is the first step in the decline of a community.
The lights and snowflakes will go away after Christmas, but I’ll still be incredibly disappointed in one of my all-time favorite sites.
What Flickr Should Have Done
It’s undeniable that the snowflakes and Christmas lights thing is a cute technology demo. So what should they have done with it? Here are my top five suggestions.
Don’t. Not all your members celebrate Christmas.
If you must, limit it to pages with multiple voices, like the Flickr blog, search results, tags, and the homepage. That way you’re not accidentally converting individual members.
Really, don’t. People see their pages as their homes. Would you put Christmas lights on someone else’s house?
If you must, make it an easter egg. Trigger it with a search, like Google’s “do a barrel roll” or other hidden behavior. Let people discover it and pass it along on Twitter and Facebook. It’ll be seen as cool and special by those that find it, and it won’t annoy the others.
In 1986, when R.E.M. released Life’s Rich Pageant, I was 13 and not nearly cool enough to know about R.E.M. But by the time I was 18, I’d met a girl with far better taste, who turned me on to a number of things, including R.E.M. She gave me a tape with Life’s Rich Pageant on Side A and Murmur on Side B. (Kids, ask your parents if you don’t know what a cassette tape is.) It’d be going too far to say it changed my life, but fair to say it give me a soundtrack to some of the best, and worst, moments of my life for the next two decades.
Life’s Rich Pageant contains a humble song, “Swan Swan H,” that stands out not just from the rest of the album, but from the whole of R.E.M.’s catalog (though it’d fit in quite nicely with today’s Decemberists). It begins with a simple old folky 12-string guitar, and Michael Stipe’s haunted words.
Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah, we’re all free now
What noisy cats are we
Girl and dog he bore his cross
The lyrics go from there on a long chain of poetry that, to this day, I can only understand on an emotional level. Some sources say that the song is “about the Civil War” but that’s as much insight as I’ve ever found.
I listened to the song so often, it just became part of my subconscious. I learned how to play it and would often serenade myself with it on lonely nights in between cigarettes. I owned a 12-string acoustic for a time in college, so I could play it right. I had to sell that guitar later when money was tight. I still miss it.
Skip ahead to now and the song is still with me. It plays when my wife calls, the only custom ringtone on my iPhone, because it was the song that reminded me most of Heather. (Or did I marry Heather because she reminded me of the song? Either way, they’re both gentle, beautiful, and deep.)
I don’t believe that songs have to be perfectly understood to be enjoyed. The lyrics wander, with layers of references no one could fully understand unless they’re Michael Stipe. But of all the song’s mysteries, the one I’ve thought about most is the first three words. What the hell does “Swan Swan Hummingbird” mean? Now, after 20 years of it rattling around in my head, I think I finally know.
Swan, swan, hummingbird
Hurrah, we are all free now
A long, low time ago, people talk to me
I’ve been trying to wake up earlier lately, using my iPhone as an alarm clock. I was getting tired of being woken up by the buzzing, so I shut vibration off and then realized I could set a ringtone to play instead. Of course, I picked “Swan Swan H.”
This morning, as the alarm was beginning, the song entered my mind as I was still somewhere in between sleep and reality. And in that synesthesia, for the first time, I saw the words as literal shapes: a swan, a swan, and a hummingbird. And you know what those shapes look like? Musical notes. Maybe even the first three notes of the vocal melody.
I jumped out of bed and drew this on the whiteboard in the hallway, my eyes still adjusting to the light.
Could this be it? An insight to what those words mean, finally, after 20 years of wondering? Could I be right? Only Michael Stipe would know for sure. (Confidential to MS: Email me. I’m “fraying” at the gmail dotcom.)
I take a lesson from this experience. Some mental puzzles have long timeframes. So long that, sometimes, when I’m feeling down, it can seem like nothing’s making any progress. But that’s not true. I’m working things out as fast as I can. Sometimes that’s just not very fast. Some things have to simmer. Some questions can’t be answered without a few more years under your belt. That’s just the way it works. So be patient. The goal isn’t to figure everything out right now. The goal is just to survive long enough to have a chance a finding an answer or two.
A pistol hot cup of rhyme,
The whiskey is water, the water is wine
In her prime, Spoo was a lap-warmer, fearless explorer, lover of boxes, occasional houseplant destroyer, hunter of moths, neighborhood cat brawler, and playmate to our dog, Chieka. I got her a couple years after I moved to San Francisco, and she’s been with me through every major life change – from apartment to house, girlfriends to wife, and more startups than I can count. She was always there.
Over the last year, she drew inward and became confused, sometimes not even recognizing Heather or me. She stopped going outside and her world got smaller and smaller. Vet visits and tests confirmed that there was no treatment to be had – she was just old. We lived with the early morning yowling and occasional litterbox miss. We tried different food, little kitty houses, and even cat Prosak. But when she pissed in the hallway twice in one day, and sat in it crying in sadness and confusion, we knew we couldn’t continue this way.
She was put to sleep today at 9am. She was purring in my arms at the end. As Heather and I held hands, crying and petting her, saying goodbye, she let out one final, tiny, rebellious fart.
She did not go quietly. I’m going to miss her like hell.
The other day I was talking to my uncle. He’s my dad’s age, a boomer. I was struggling to explain the importance of Steve Jobs’ death to my generation (“Generation X”, more or less) when this popped out of my mouth:
“He was our generation’s John Lennon.”
Ever since I said it, it’s been rattling around my brain. Could it be so?
It’s true that both men were visionaries who changed the world. And both men were taken before their time. Plus, they had similar taste in eyewear. But their differences also say something about their respective generations.
John Lennon started as a teen heartthrob and evolved into a political leader, but he was always an artist. And the way you interact with a famous artist is fundamentally unequal and passive. I don’t mean to diminish this experience in any way. I had a mind-blowing experience listening to Beatles records on my dad’s turntable wearing giant headphones when I was a kid. I poured over the dust jackets looking for clues, lost in the world they created. But it was a world where I was fundamentally a visitor.
Steve Jobs, in his life’s work at Apple, was also an artist. But his art was creating tools for other people to use. You’re not an audience when you use a Mac, you’re a creator. It’s an active experience. An iPhone connects you to the people you love, and to the world in general. Even the iPad, erroneously derided as a “consumer” device, is still a tool you use to make and do things. You’re in charge.
John Lennon’s gift was opening our minds with music. But Steve Jobs’ was about connecting our minds to technology and each other. He spearheaded the creation and mainstream adoption of tools that, just a few years ago, would have been considered science fiction. Both men were leaders. And, of course, both men did not achieve these things alone. But they both became emblems of their epochs.
This is something a lot of the eulogies (and the haters) have missed. It’s not (just) that Steve Jobs was a great artist, it’s that he gave us the tools to become great artists. Maybe the way you become a superstar in the modern world is more like Jobs and less like Lennon. You can’t expect to stand in the spotlight by yourself anymore. The way you change the world is to create environments where other people succeed. It’s less Zappa and more Zuckerberg. Less Fellini and more Flickr. Instead of standing in the spotlight, build a stage. Personally, I like it this way.
Or: A Personal Reflection on the Past, Present, and Future of Names on the Internet
I got my first email address in 1991. I was a freshman at UC Santa Cruz and a friend took me to a basement office where you had to fill out a paper form to get your ucsc.edu email account. In the box labeled “User-name” I started to write “Derek.” My friend stopped me. “Nobody uses their real name.” He said it like he was talking to a child.
So that’s how I became firstname.lastname@example.org. (Yes, I used to listen to a lot of Pink Floyd. I was in college!) I was “Floyd” on every email system I used for the next decade. Outside of some early flirtations with identity deception, I never pretended I wasn’t Derek in those places. Having “floyd” as my username was just, as Grandpa Simpson says, the style at the time.
When I launched fray.com in 1996, hacker culture was still going strong and the masses were not yet online. Back then, it was normal to have a pseudonym or “handle” that you went by. Most communication online was hidden behind handles, which it reinforced the idea that the internet was not “real” in the same way real life was. People treated everything online like a game. It was “cyberspace,” not reality.
Fray was about true stories from real life, so it made sense to use real names. I required that our authors use their real names. (We made only one or two exceptions when it was necessary.) It changed what they wrote. They stopped pretending to be something they weren’t. They became real.
(We were so naive back then, we even showed our actual email addresses on comment pages. Email addresses right there on the page for all to crawl! Those were innocent times.)
At some point I started to use “Fraying” for most of my accounts, mostly because I listened to less Pink Floyd and “Fray” was usually taken. I still use “Fraying” for most usernames, but nobody really calls me that. Every time I consider using “Derek” or “Powazek” for account names, I still see that look on my friend’s face 20 years ago.
The idea that the internet is a place that’s separate from reality has faded. People generally have online identities that map to who they really are. Outside of a few legitimate edge cases and the occasional sci-fi fantasy, who we are online is simply who we are.
Facebook has done more to influence this than any other site, and I’m glad for it. When someone in the mainstream media quotes a tweet from “SexxxyDude3030” it only reinforces the idea that people online are idiots you only talk to when you’re covering the latest dumb trend story.
Recently Google launched a Facebook competitor called Google+ (a name I hate writing so much, I’m going to just call it “Plus”). And they made two interesting decisions on names.
First, there are no usernames, no handles. Who you are is simply who you are. I think that’s a bold move, and I’m interested to see how it plays out. Facebook also started this way, but later had to introduce usernames to allow people to create unique URLs (like mine, facebook.com/fraying). Without unique usernames, Google Plus has had to use nonsensical strings of characters (like mine, plus.google.com/100817955763300677682). Clearly the named URLs are better, but it also introduces a land-grab mentality, and when you start a service that plans to host millions of people, having all the good names taken is a real concern.
Second, Google is asking people to use their real names. The official policy is to “use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you” which is entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, the policy has been enforced in a manner that could charitably be called “error-prone.” When people have to start reverse engineering the rules, you know things have gone sideways.
In any new community system, it’s up to the founders to set the rules they think are best. It’s then up to us to decide whether to participate or not. And while I believe both of these decisions (no usernames, only real names) were made with good intentions and an honest desire to create a better community experience, the combination results in a few sticky wickets:
The member’s real name has to hold the entirety of their identity. So if someone only knows me as “fraying” I may be difficult to find, and I may not feel that my profile really represents me.
The real name you enter into your Plus profile isn’t just used for Plus – it’s used for all of Google’s services. Change your name to “Bob” in your Plus profile, and then send a mail from Gmail, and it will go out from Bob. This is very confusing for people who are used to maintaining different names in different places, and it places additional pressure on Plus.
If, for whatever reason, I am someone that cannot use my real name online, it means I cannot use Plus at all. If I do, I might accidentally reveal my name when I didn’t mean to. And if I use a fake name, I could get my account yanked.
It’s worth acknowledging that Google’s got a uniquely hard job here. Usually a community startup has a period of slow growth where they can work out their tools and policies. People forget that both Twitter and Facebook had years of obscurity to grow organically before they became household names. Anything Google does is immediately front page news. It’s impossible to get a community system right on your first try. People are just too unpredictable in groups.
Fortunately, I think there are some easy solutions for Google.
They could use the same privacy widget for real name that they use for almost every other piece of data on your profile. The widget allows you to set who sees what, and it’s the best of breed I’ve seen in any social network. (That they didn’t use it for real name shows how important they think that information is.) There’s a chance this could happen. The widget is already on the real name field, it’s just stuck on the global setting. At launch, Google Plus also had the gender field stuck on global, and they changed it after getting a lot of negative feedback. Maybe they could use it here, for the last name at least.
They should allow the Plus profile to be independent of your greater Google account identity, at least for now. In a conversation with Tim O’Reilly today, Bradley Horowitz, VP Product for Google Plus, repeated that Plus is in “limited field trial” and asked for patience, which is absolutely fair. But if the service is limited, then the information I enter there should also be limited. Take the pressure off Plus by letting their profiles be separate from the rest of my established Google identities.
For the love of all that is good and holy, hire a community manager and empower them to speak frankly to the community and to the company about what’s going on. Community management is a specialized skill, different from product management and engineering. Your members are freaked out, and when they’re freaked out, they can believe any craziness they read. It needs to be someone’s job to say, in a soft pleasing tone of voice, “No, Google is not breaking into your house to scan your passport.” The communication with the larger community has been atrocious, which is unforgivable when you’re building a communication platform.
I’m sure there are people at Google who have thought of all these things already. It’s always easier to sit outside a giant community system and say “this is how it should be” without knowing the specifics. Community management is the process of making decisions with good intentions and then cleaning up after the explosion. Google has smart people who have thought deeply about this, and they’ve shown a willingness (albeit a quiet one) to make changes. I hope they continue to.
I think we’re witnessing a fascinating shift in online culture. The era of hacker handles is over. We’ve grown out of it the same way I grew out of Pink Floyd. (Even though I still listen to Animals occasionally. It’s the sheep.) The internet is not a second life anymore, it’s your first one. You don’t slip into a pseudonym when you use the phone, why should you be someone else online? Hacker handles were training wheels, and they’re off the bike now whether you like it or not.
This doesn’t mean that there will be no anonymous or pseudonymous conversation on the internet. There will always be a need for anonymous speech, just as there’ll always be a need to pay in cash. It’s just not up to giant multinational corporations to provide that for us, nor should we trust them to do so.
There’s no denying that this has huge implications for how we live our lives, the data trails we leave, and the privacy systems we’ll need in the future. But that future is coming no matter what rules Google decides to implement for Plus. I’d like to see us spend more of our collective energy building that future, and less beating up on Google for their mistakes.
It’s important to remember that, as big and powerful as Google is, the internet is bigger and more powerful. It’s still a big web out there, and every community that feels unwelcome in Plus is a potential audience for someone else’s startup. Don’t like the rules of their playground? Go build your own. The web still gives everyone the opportunity to build something great, using whatever name they want, whenever they want. No one is stopping you.
If you have an hour to kill, watch the video conversation between Tim O’Reilly and Bradley Horowitz about Google Plus I mentioned earlier. There are some great ideas in it, especially in the latter half.
Jillian C. York from the EFF makes a convincing case for pseudonyms which I mostly agree with. Pseudonymous speech is important and there’s lots of it on the internet. Whether Google and Facebook implement it is up to them.
A thought I wasn’t able to work in above: The de facto standard for most current online community systems is that there’s a first name field and a last name field and members can put whatever they want in them, and they only get reviewed if someone complains. It seems to me that this can and should be done better. At least Google is trying something here. Even if it fails, it’s still an interesting experiment and I appreciate that.
Because someone’s sure to ask: Comments are currently disabled on powazek.com. Here’s why. I encourage you to post your thoughts on your own site. Don’t have one? Get one. That’s kind of the point.
UPDATE: A fellow alum tweeted me to point out that UCSC no longer allows students to choose their own email usernames. Now they’re just assigned one that’s their first initial, middle initial, and last name. Another nail in the hacker handle coffin.
Derek Powazek has been designing and building community systems online since 1995. He is the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places. The views expressed here do not reflect his company, Fertile Medium, or its clients. Just his. And he’s not entire sure about them, either.
The news that Google may be retiring the Blogger identity prompted me to go through my archives to find the original Blogger designs I did for Pyra in 1999. This is all I could find. It’s like looking through a window into an alternate universe.
Because I’m a media dork, I’ve listened to NPR’s On The Media since its debut. It’s the first podcast I listen to when it’s new. I became a paying member of WNYC to support it. The show’s cohosts, Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, are two of my media heroes.
But I’ve noticed over the years a vibe on the show, especially from Bob. Whenever the subject turned to the net, the tone became dismissive at best, outright hostile at worst. I’ve observed this problem in many journalists who got their start before the rise of the web, and struggle with the idea that the audience can talk back. Most of them came around eventually. And Bob has, too, a bit. He went from mocking Twitter to posting to his own Twitter account, albeit infrequently. Still, I cringe when I hear the words “Brooke Gladstone is away this week” at the top of the show, because it means no one’s going to counter Bob’s anti-internet tone.
This week’s show was no better or worse than the last few, but the combination of lamenting the speed modern news travels, the continuing refusal to understand that a tweet is not a news story, the mocking of the internet archeologists, the “see, I told you!” subtext of the interview with Brewster Kahle, and then the complete flashback of covering Second Life four years after it became a punchline for no other reason than to gawk at the people who spend all their time there … well, I lost it.
I tweeted this.
It was a joke. Like all jokes, it contained a bit of truth and a bit of exaggeration. I thought the exasperation of “Bad! Terribly bad!” made that obvious.
So imagine my surprise when Bob Garfield responded with, essentially, “nu-unh.”
I tried to clarify my point – an impossible task in tweet-length.
And then I did what anyone would do when they get caught criticizing someone they respect – I backpedaled. I thought if anyone would understand someone criticizing because they care, it’d be a critic.
At this point, I still thought I might be able to engage with him in a real discussion. Does he hate the internet? Maybe he’d be interested to hear that he was coming off that way from someone who’s been listening intently for a decade. Sadly, no.
So, let’s review.
My “feelings” deserve quotes. Are they not my real feelings? Perhaps Bob knows me better than I know myself.
I’m “demonstrably wrong.” Bob always uses the word “demonstrably” when he’s criticized, as if there’s only one way to interpret his body of work.
I’m “annoying to put up with.” Dude, my wife has to put up with me – you do not. You know how to block people on Twitter, right?
And then there’s this: “for crying out loud, use your head, not just your mouth.” Assuming that someone is not thinking because you disagree with them is arrogant in the extreme, but it is a great way to avoid considering their point.
After that, I followed Bob on Twitter, but regretted it when he direct messaged me something that I won’t screenshot out of respect for the assumed privacy of a DM. Let’s just say it wasn’t a peace offering.
This is a case study in what happens when traditional journalists come face to face with the the immediacy of the current media landscape and just can’t handle it. It’s especially ironic because, in the most recent OTM, traditional journalism’s inability to handle Twitter was discussed for ten minutes!
This is also a great example of how to turn a fan into an enemy in under 140 characters. I’m not going to go all Joker to Bob’s Batman because of a single insulting tweet, but I probably wouldn’t have started this site if he’d responded in any sort of reasonable way.
I tell our clients this all the time: there is something worse than getting criticized online – total silence. People criticize when they care, and that’s good. Every criticism is an opportunity to turn a critic into a lifelong believer by simply responding with respect and showing that you’re listening.
You’d think that someone who once penned a manifesto called “Listenomics” would take the time to, yaknow, listen. But Bob has made his hatred of online comments quite clear. So to him, I’m not a loyal listener, or a valued member, or even a published author with a long history of running newspapers, magazines, and websites. I’m just another online troll, spewing vitriol because that’s what people do online.
That he didn’t take the time to see who he’s talking to, hear what I was saying, or even calm down enough to disagree without insult, makes me sad. Not just to lose a personal hero, but also because it shows how much work we all have yet to do before we can really fulfill the promise of the great networked world we’re building.
Still, I should thank Bob for giving me the inspiration to start a new project. I’m also going to use his words in the future, when a client asks for advice on how to handle criticism online: “use your head, not just your mouth.”
I’m thinking about starting a podcast or something called “On The Network” to counter all the idiocy I hear in traditional media about the internet. If I did, here’s the beta version of the 10 principles that would guide it.
The internet is neutral. It is neither good nor bad. People have motivations, the internet does not.
We change the internet more than it changes us. Human motivations may change, but they change very slowly.
People are messy. The technology we invent is messy, too. Deal with it.
The internet is not in opposition to traditional media, it’s just more media. All media works better when it works together.
All reality is virtual. Thought is and has always been virtual. The internet enables us to think together.
Technology is not the opposite of humanity. Inventing and using technology is one of the defining characteristics of being human.
The internet can be used for good or bad, but it is a net positive force in the world, because it connects us to each other.
More information is better than less. Freedom to connect to others is a fundamental human right.
Access to the internet broadens horizons. Hearing other people’s stories makes us more empathetic, smarter.
People make the internet what it is. If you don’t like it, make it better.