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I work and write at the intersection of technology, media, and society.

I've been a startup founder, mission-driven VC, engineer, and product lead. Right now I'm Chief Technology Officer at The 19th.

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Build for you, too

I had a revelation about the book I’m writing at about midnight last night: something that elevates the whole idea and ties it together in a way that I didn’t think I’d even been looking for. It makes the idea more resonant for me, which is what I need to emotionally follow through with a project. I’ve been struggling, and I hope this extra motivational push will help me. It turns it from something I think is a good idea to something that is intensely personal for me. It answers the question why should I write this? in a way that isn’t just because.

This led me to thinking about the software projects I’ve built. It’s all well and good to say that you need to build something that people want - which, of course you do - but that doesn’t answer the question of why you will follow through with it. Why is it meaningful to you?

I’ve worked on many things, but probably the two most prominent projects were something called Elgg and something called Known. Elgg was an open source social networking engine, built for higher education, which was originally inspired by LiveJournal: a place where anyone could post to as big or as small an audience as they wanted, and converse, using any media. Known was more of a publishing platform: something like a decentralized, self-hosted Tumblr that allowed you to build a stream of content that any number of people could contribute to. Perhaps by coincidence, I build them a decade apart.

When I worked on Elgg I had a giant chip on my shoulder. I was much younger, and high school was still relatively fresh in my mind. There, teachers had laughed at my ambitions, and more so, at me. I wanted to prove that I was capable of doing something smart and meaningful. More than that, as a third culture kid, I constantly felt out of sorts: posting online had allowed me to show more of myself and find friends. Creating a platform that allowed other people to do the same also carried the hope that I would meet more people through it. Through the software I made, I hoped I would be seen. It won awards, was translated into many languages, and became relatively influential. Because it was fully open source, any organization could pick it up and use it for free. I felt good about it, and it felt like I had done something good that in some ways justified my existence. My photo is on my high school’s alumni website: I showed those teachers.

In some ways, that motivation carried me through Known, too, although with a new chip: although in the early days I’d written every line of code and designed the core mechanic, I hadn’t been the CEO of Elgg. What if I was? How would that feel? What other choices would be possible? As it turned out, it did not feel good, and I don’t think that particular chip was enough to hang a company off of. Elgg introduced the idea of social media to a higher education context - and then NGOs, followed by corporations. Known didn’t really break any new ground; I wonder now if I just wanted to see what happened if I did it again in a different context. I met people through both projects, but one felt like a company - something that could, theoretically, grow and live beyond me - and the other was always just a project. The personal resonance that Elgg had for me could be felt by others. It’s not that Known wasn’t meaningful for me, but Elgg was on another level, in part because I was in another place in my life.

My next project is a book, not a software product. I’m unapologetic about that. I’m sure I will build another software platform afterwards; I think, eventually, I may even have another startup in me. But regardless of the form or the nature of the project, I think that personal resonance really matters. People notice if you’re just trying to make either a point or a buck; if it’s something that really matters to you, that will come through in the quality of your work, the conviction of your arguments, and the time and effort you spend on it. We’re all human, and creating work that resonates with each other is the best we can hope to do.

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Your reading should be messy

“After years of treating my books as if they ought to be preserved in a museum, I now believe that you should honor the books by breaking them. Read them all so messily! Fold them, bend them, tear them! Throw them into your backpack or leave them open in Jenga-like towers by the side of your bed. Don’t fret about stains or torn edges or covers left dangling off the spine after years of reading.”

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Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin

A beautiful novel about work, friendship, love, and identity. I suppose it's about video games too, but not really; it could just as easily be about any creative act. I loved Zevin's writing, the melancholy story, and even the characters (although they've been maligned elsewhere). For me, the work is only diminished by the knowledge that she used concepts from some real-world games (e.g., Train) without credit. It would have been so easy to fix.

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Judge Decides Against Internet Archive

“What fair use does not allow, however, is the mass reproduction and distribution of complete copyrighted works in a way that does not transform those works and that creates directly competing substitutes for the originals. Because that is what IA has done with respect to the Works in Suit, its defense of fair use fails as a matter of law.”

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Non-Disparagement Clauses Are Retroactively Voided, NLRB’s Top Cop Clarifies

“The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board issued a clarifying memo on Wednesday regarding the “scope” of a February ruling by the federal agency’s board that said employers cannot include blanket non-disparagement clauses in their severance packages, nor demand laid-off employees keep secret the terms of their exit agreements.”

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I wish I could claw back time and be there to hug my mother one more time; to talk to her; to be in her presence; to care for her how she needed to be cared for. I wish I could do it over. I wish I could do so much over.

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We're throwing a free event on tech, justice, and economic mobility - and you're invited. It takes place online and in-person in Chicago from May 18-20. It's free to attend. This is a save-the-date announcement - but trust me, you'll want to meet our speakers.

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How Loneliness Reshapes the Brain

“The problem with loneliness seems to be that it biases our thinking. In behavioral studies, lonely people picked up on negative social signals, such as images of rejection, within 120 milliseconds — twice as quickly as people with satisfying relationships and in less than half the time it takes to blink. Lonely people also preferred to stand farther away from strangers, trusted others less and disliked physical touch.”

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Here’s the full analysis of newly uncovered genetic data on COVID’s origins

“The full analysis provides additional compelling evidence that the pandemic coronavirus made its leap to humans through a natural spillover, with a wild animal at the market acting as an intermediate host between the virus's natural reservoir in horseshoe bats and humans.”

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Iraqi journalist who threw shoes at George W. Bush says his only regret is he "only had two shoes"

“Al-Zaidi says he didn't throw his shoes in a moment of uncontrolled anger, but that he had actually been waiting for just such an opportunity since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion. He said Bush had suggested that the Iraqi people would welcome U.S. forces with flowers, which left him looking for an adequate reply.”

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Women are less likely to buy electric vehicles than men. Here's why.

“Given the current legislative and judicial situation in our country and my home state of Texas, as a LGBT woman it could be important for me to drive hundreds of miles without even stopping for gasoline, much less a charging station that might not be available.”

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To All the Novels I Never Published

“William Faulkner wrote two failed novels (his words) before he famously gave up writing for other people and began to write just for himself. The books he wrote after that volta are the ones that students still read for classes around the world.”

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Scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate crisis: act now or it’s too late

“The comprehensive review of human knowledge of the climate crisis took hundreds of scientists eight years to compile and runs to thousands of pages, but boiled down to one message: act now, or it will be too late.”

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Starting to get cold VC outreach from funds I've never heard of who allegedly want to invest in the organization I work for, which is a non-profit newsroom that is wholly unsuitable for venture capital investment. So, uh, how's the VC market doing, guys?

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Press conference statement: Brewster Kahle, Internet Archive

“The Internet is failing us. The Internet Archive has tried, along with hundreds of other libraries, to do something about it. A ruling in this case ironically can help all libraries, or it can hurt.”

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Meta's lack of vision

A man holding a pair of binoculars with the Facebook logo in each lens. It's a subtle metaphor for Meta's vision. Get it?

Axios reports that Facebook - sorry, Meta - is putting the metaverse on the back burner:

This week the firm announced a massive second round of layoffs. It recently killed off its Portal platform. And CEO Mark Zuckerberg, while not disavowing his metaverse dream, sounds more eager to talk about AI.

[…] “Our single largest investment is in advancing AI and building it into every one of our products,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Our leading work building the metaverse and shaping the next generation of computing platforms also remains central to defining the future of social connection.”

My working model for Facebook’s growth is that it is closely tied to the growth of the internet: as more and more people came online, Facebook was there to help them connect with each other. When the internet was new, there wasn’t much in the way of nuanced mainstream criticism of it as a platform. People were excited to connect and share and a minority thought it was the devil. There wasn’t much in-between.

These days, though, most people are already online. The internet isn’t new or exciting: it’s a utility that just about everybody has. Correspondingly, the ways society interacts with and on the internet have become more nuanced and thoughtful, just as the ways in which people have interacted with any media have always evolved.

Meta isn’t that thoughtful or nuanced a company, and this change in how the internet works in the context of most people’s lives has laid this lack of vision bare. The concept of the metaverse was driven by the hype over web3. Now that crypto has become less popular, many of the same people are excited about AI. In turn, AI will face a downturn, and they’ll be on to the next thing. This is expected and normal for the kinds of cash-driven charlatans who have swarmed Silicon Valley since venture capital rose to prominence, but it’s more surprising for the leadership of a multi-billion-dollar company. I’d expect it to have more vision, and it just doesn’t.

To be a little charitable to it, perhaps Meta is subject to the same kinds of winds that led to its layoffs. We know that layoffs aren’t helpful or profitable, but we also know that shareholders want to see them if other companies are doing them. So it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that shareholders may also see other companies pivot to web3 or AI and want Meta to do it too. A strong enough vision - something that carries shareholders and employees alike along - could counteract these expectations, but in the absence of that, the company is flotsam and jetsam to the hype cycle.

Meta didn’t invent social networking, and it didn’t invent the best social networking platform. It was in the right place at the right time, and was smart enough to buy Instagram when mobile internet was in its relative infancy. I’m sure it can be profitable off the base of those platforms for a long time to come. But at the same time, it’s not clear to me that lightning can strike twice for it without major leadership changes. Not when its strategy seems to be “throw shit at the wall”, and certainly not when the shit it’s throwing is the same shit everyone else is throwing.

I’ve been publicly critical of the company for 19 years now, but I want to make clear that there are lots of very talented people who work for it. Running a platform at this sort of scale requires a unique set of technology chops; it also requires all kinds of social and legislative infrastructure that other tech companies can barely even imagine. It’s not like it’s easy. And that’s how it found itself facilitating a genocide. Every single one of those people deserves stronger leadership. The internet does too: whether we like it or not, Meta has a leading role in how the internet develops, and it has not risen to that challenge. Over time, that will become clearer and clearer. It will be interesting to see what happens to it in the long term.


Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

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The Iraq War Began 20 Years Ago Today. Phil Donahue's MSNBC Show Was One Of The First Casualties

“The story I heard was that Welch had called to complain after he had been playing golf with some buddies and they began asking why MSNBC had some "anti-war kooks" on the air. I was never able to officially confirm the story, but the fact MSNBC employees believed it is an indication of the pressure they felt to conform to the national narrative.” Conforming to a “national narrative” is exactly what journalism should not be doing.

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Antisemitic tweets soared on Twitter after Musk took over, study finds

““We’re seeing a sustained volume of antisemitic hate speech on the platform following the takeover,” said Jacob Davey, who leads research and policy on the far-right and hate movements at ISD.”

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Why L.A. podcast firm Maximum Fun is going employee-owned

“On Monday, Thorn — who has co-owned Maximum Fun with his wife since it was incorporated 2011 — announced his company would become a workers cooperative, a novel business model in the podcast industry, but one that has been tried by many small businesses including bakeries and pizza places. The ownership will be shared equally by at least 16 people, including Thorn, the company said.”

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Decentralized Social Media Rises as Twitter Melts Down

““You basically lose your entire social graph to go [to another social network], which is a super high wall,” says Tim Chambers, Principal and Co-Founder of Dewey Digital and administrator of the Mastodon server “However, when things become sufficiently chaotic on platforms as Twitter is seeing now, that is a force strong enough to incite such migrations.””

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Why the Press Failed on Iraq

“As the Bush administration began making its case for invading Iraq, too many Washington journalists, caught up in the patriotic fervor after 9/11, let the government’s story go unchallenged.”

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War and peace

Revisiting my grandfather’s obituary:

‌But this is not Sidney’s first obituary. In May 1945 when he returned home from a four-month internment as a POW in Hitler’s Germany, the twenty-year old Sidney was surprised to find that his hometown Pennsylvania newspaper had published an account of his death at the hand of German troops during the Battle of the Bulge in December of the previous year. Considering that some 75,000 American soldiers did perish during that battle, that Sidney was in fact on the front lines, and that the German soldiers were reportedly under orders to take no prisoners, this was not an irrational conclusion; however, it turned out to be an erroneous one. Sidney was one of the lucky few who were captured, shipped to Germany and survived starvation, disease and Allied bombing of the prison camps until being liberated by General Patton’s army.

‌[…] Sidney’s father David Monas had first emigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 1913, primarily to avoid conscription in the Tsar’s army. David found work in a clothing factory, where he caught the attention of early union organizers due to his ability to communicate in Yiddish, Russian, and English. Following the 1917 revolution in Russia, David and his brother Harry traveled the long way via Japan and Siberia back to Ukraine, arriving in the midst of the Russian Civil War. David was promptly elected to the local soviet; but when the notoriously anti-Semitic White Army began to close in on their region, David, Harry and David’s new wife Eva emigrated/escaped once again to the United States. After an unsuccessful attempt to run a paint business in Brooklyn, David had a long and successful career as a union organizer and ultimately General Manager of the Pennsylvania Joint Board of the Amalgamated Shirt Workers.

I’ve been very lucky to live in a time of relative peace: going to war is not something I’ve ever had to worry about. I hope our child experiences the same. I hope every child, one day, can experience the same.

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Anti-Racist Starter Pack

A list of anti-racist books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and interviews.

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Negativity drives online news consumption

“The tendency for individuals to attend to negative news reflects something foundational about human cognition—that humans preferentially attend to negative stimuli across many domains.”

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The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank hit women- and minority-owned start-ups the hardest

“Silicon Valley Bank was one of the few that would give venture-backed start-ups led by women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people a line of credit. After the bank’s collapse, they are now being hit the hardest.”

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