Unexamined Privilege is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”
UNEXAMINED PRIVILEGE is the real source of cruelty in Facebook’s “Your Year in Review”—a feature conceived and designed by a group to whom nothing terrible has happened yet. A brilliant upper-middle-class student at an elite university conceived Facebook, and college students, as everyone knows, were its founding user group. The company hires recent graduates of expensive and exclusive design programs and pays them several times the going rate to brainstorm and execute exciting new features.
I’m not saying that these brilliant young designers are heartless, or that individuals among them haven’t personally experienced tragedy—that would be mathematically impossible. I have taught some of these designers, and worked with others. Those I’ve known are wonderful people who want to make a difference in the world. And in theory (and sometimes in practice) a platform like Facebook lets them do that.1
But when you put together teams of largely homogenous people of the same class and background, and pay them a lot of money, and when most of those people are under 30, it stands to reason that when someone in the room says, “Let’s do ‘your year in review, and front-load it with visuals,’” most folks in the room will imagine photos of skiing trips, parties, and awards shows—not photos of dead spouses, parents, and children.
So it comes back to this. When we talk about the need for diversity in tech, we’re not doing it because we like quota systems. Diverse backgrounds produce differing points of view. And those differences are needed if we are to put the flowering of internet genius to use actually helping humanity with its many terrifying and seemingly intractable problems.
If we keep throwing only young, mostly white, mostly upper middle class people at the engine that makes our digital world go, we’ll keep getting camera and reminder and hookup apps—things that make an already privileged life even smoother—and we’ll keep producing features that sound like a good idea to everyone in the room, until they unexpectedly stab someone in the heart.
1 Of course, not all my former students and employees work at Facebook; most don’t. But those who have gone there had other, equally lucrative options; they took the job to make Facebook, and maybe the world, a little better.
In April of 2009, in a post every web designer, publisher, or business person should read, Joshua Schachter told how URL shortening services like TinyURL and Bit.ly came to be, and why the latest ones were so addictive. (Missing from Joshua’s account of their utility is the benefit URL shorteners can provide when sharing an otherwise obscenely long link on the printed page.)
The prescient post concludes that, despite their benefits, such services ultimately harm the web, decreasing clarity while increasing the odds of linkrot and spam:
[S]hortening services add another layer of indirection to an already creaky system. A regular hyperlink implicates a browser, its DNS resolver, the publisher’s DNS server, and the publisher’s website. With a shortening service, you’re adding something that acts like a third DNS resolver, except one that is assembled out of unvetted PHP and MySQL, without the benevolent oversight of luminaries like Dan Kaminsky and St. Postel.
There are three other parties in the ecosystem of a link: the publisher (the site the link points to), the transit (places where that shortened link is used, such as Twitter or Typepad), and the clicker (the person who ultimately follows the shortened links). Each is harmed to some extent by URL shortening.
There’s more, and you should read it all.
One of Joshua’s recommendations to minimize some of the harm is that websites do their own URL shortening instead of relying on middlemen. I’ve done some of that here, via the ShortURL plug-in for WordPress. Thus I use zeldman.com/x/48 instead of a much longer URL to notify my friends on Twitter about a new comment on an oldish thread. Likewise, zeldman.com/x/49 redirects to yesterday’s big post, “Write When Inspired.”
Rolling your own mini-URLs lessens the chance that your carefully cultivated links will rot if the third-party URL shortening site goes down or goes out of business, as is happening to tr.im, a URL shortener that is pulling the plug because it could neither monetize nor sell its service.
tr.im is now in the process of discontinuing service, effective immediately….
No business we approached wanted to purchase tr.im for even a minor amount.
There is no way for us to monetize URL shortening — users won’t pay for it — and we just can’t justify further development since Twitter has all but annointed bit.ly the market winner.
The Short URL Plugin for WordPress installs automatically. It provides simple statistics, telling you how many times a link has been clicked, sets up redirects automatically, allows you to choose a custom link style, and more. You’re not limited to shortening your own URLs, although that’s mainly how I use it; you can also shorten third-party URLs, turning your site into a miny TinyURL. I’ve used this plugin for months, with nothing but joy in its cleverness and usability.
Fast high-speed access for NYC internet professionals
I’m home watching a sick kid and waiting for Time Warner Cable to come make a third attempt to install a cable modem. If you’re good at math, that means Time Warner Cable, the market leader in my city, has twice failed to install the correct cable modem in my home.
Because the web never sleeps, even web professionals who work in an office need reliable high-speed access when they are at home. Speakeasy provided that service via DSL in our old apartment (our previous DSL provider having been wiped out, literally, on September 11, 2001), but, as documented in old posts on this site, it took two months of comedic mishap for Speakeasy to get our home DSL working. And after Best Buy bought Speakeasy, it became harder and harder to contact the company’s technical support people to resolve service problems—of which there were more and more. By the time we moved out of our old apartment in December, 2007, frequent gapping and blackouts made our 6Mb Speakeasy DSL service more frustrating than pleasant to use.
The monopoly wins the bid
So when we moved to the new apartment, we decided to immediately install cable modem access as a baseline, and then secure reliable DSL access for redundancy. Time Warner Cable had set up a deal with our new building, and no cable competitor was available to service our location (you read that right), so the Time Warner got the gig. They came quickly and the system worked immediately. The digital HD cable fails once a week, probably due to excessive line splitting, but that’s another story, and we don’t watch much TV, so it doesn’t bug us, and it isn’t germane here.
Unwilling to repeat the failures and miscommunications that marked our Speakeasy DSL installation, I went ahead and had Time Warner Cable set up the wireless network. It costs extra every month, and Time Warner’s combination modem/wireless/Ethernet hub isn’t as good as the Apple Airport devices I own, but it makes more sense to pay for a system that’s guaranteed to work than to waste billable hours debugging a network.
Due to the thickness of our walls, the wireless network never reached our bedroom, but otherwise everything was hunky-dory. Within a few days of moving in, we had reliable, wireless, high-speed internet access. Until Time Warner told us otherwise.
Last spring we received a form letter from Time Warner stating that they’d installed the wrong modem, and that we were not getting the service we’d paid for. Apparently this was true for all customers who chose the service. Some of our money was refunded, and we were advised to schedule a service appointment or come to the 23rd Street office for a free replacement modem.
I went to the 23rd Street office, took a number, and within about fifteen minutes I was sitting in front of a representative. I showed him the form letter and requested the new modem.
He asked me for my old modem.
I said I hadn’t brought it, and pointed out that I hadn’t been instructed to bring it.
We both reread the form letter.
“It’s implied,” the rep said.
“Implied?” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “If we’re going to give you a new modem, of course we’ll want your old modem.”
I guess it was implied. But it wasn’t stated. And when you charge an installation fee, a hardware fee, and a monthly service fee, and then give people the wrong modem, you probably shouldn’t rely on inference in your customer support copy. To avoid compounding your customer’s frustration, you should probably be absolutely explicit.
I didn’t say these things to the rep, because he didn’t write or approve the copy or send the wrong modem to all those homes. I left empty-handed and continued to use the modem we had. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. Whatever the poorly written form letter had to say about it, as a customer, I didn’t have a problem with the modem.
A visit from a professional
As summer ended, Time Warner Cable sent me a new form letter. This time I was told, rather darkly, that if I failed to replace my modem, I definitely would not get the service I was paying for. Indeed, my service level would somehow be lowered, although it appeared that I would continue being billed a premium price.
So I called Time Warner, arranged a service visit, and spent the day working at home.
Around the middle of the service window, a Time Warner Cable authorized technician showed up with a regular DSL modem (not a wireless modem).
“You have wireless?” he asked in amazement.
“Yes,” I said. “Doesn’t it say that on your service ticket?”
“Hey, I’m just a consultant. I don’t work for Time Warner Cable,” he helpfully informed me.
“So are you going to get a wireless router from your truck?” I offered after a pause.
“I don’t have those,” he said.
We looked at each other for a while, and then he said, “Besides, you don’t need to replace your modem. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your modem. You don’t need to replace it,” he said.
Then he called someone to inform them that he hadn’t swapped modems.
Then he asked me to sign a form.
“What am I signing?” I asked. “That you didn’t do anything?” I said it more politely than it reads.
“You’re signing that I was here,” he said. So I did.
That evening, as I was bathing my daughter, Time Warner Cable called to ask if I was satisfied with the experience.
I said frankly I was confused why I’d had to stay home all afternoon for a service visit on a modem that didn’t need to be replaced.
The nice lady said she would talk to her supervisor and run some tests.
I was on hold about five minutes, during which my daughter found various ways of getting water out of the tub and onto me.
The nice lady came back on and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but we just ran tests, and you do have the wrong modem. We’ll need to send someone out.”
So here I am, two weeks later, waiting for a technician to come try again. Will this one bring the right hardware? The suspense is awesome.
Although New York is a leading creator of websites and digital content, the town’s home and office internet connectivity lag behind that of practically every other U.S. city. Two factors account for it:
An aging infrastructure. It’s hard to deliver best internet services over a billion miles of fraying, overstretched, jerry-rigged copper line.
Monopoly. How hard would you try if you had no real competitors?
In future installments, I’ll discuss our adventures securing high-speed access to our studios at Happy Cog New York, and discuss the pros and cons of Verizon home DSL.