I’m in the middle of writing my second book (I hope I’m at least in the middle), so I haven’t done much blogging lately. This site lay fallow for almost a full year. Okay, I also played a lot of golf and skied a ton, among way too many other hobbies, so I can’t really blame it all on my book, to be fair.
Today’s topic is how we can take back the internet. Holy hyperbole, Batman! Take it back from whom, and why such dramatic language, anyway? Sorry, I’m going to need more than 280 characters for this one. Let me start with today’s post-breakfast coffee hour.
Remember Google Reader?
This morning I saw on Twitter that Neil Richards had published some thoughts about three of his recent visualizations on his site ‘Questions in Dataviz’, and I took a break from writing to read what he wrote. I hadn’t seen the debate about his pet ownership un-map, so it was cool to get his take on it. In the blog post he references another great blog post by Bridget Winds Cogley on the mathematics of the imposter syndrome that she wrote last month. Also a great read. “We are the kraken to our own ships.” Very true. I love how both of these two people write. It’s very insightful writing, and highly personal. You get a sense of where they’re coming from, and you can learn about their backgrounds and what motivates them in general, or in relation to something they’ve created.
This mini weekend blog reading binge made me reminisce about when I first started blogging here back in August 2011. It wasn’t that long ago, but in internet time, it was eons ago. Back then I would publish my thoughts, often with a visualization or two, and then I’d describe how I made it, and what I learned in the process. I’d try my best to research and link to other people who had done related things that I found helpful. It took time, but I know it was a good use of my time. How do I know? Because I have a very bad memory and I’ve been able to reference my own simple tutorials multiple times over the years. It turns out last-year-me is much smarter than this-year-me. That’s true pretty much every year that goes by.
The Great Social Takeover
Thinking back on those early days in the dataviz community, there was a link to an RSS feed prominently featured in the top right corner of our home pages so that people could be notified whenever we published something. Remember RSS readers? I used to use one myself quite often. I think it was called Google Reader. Yep, that was it, and yes, I had to check (I told you I have a bad memory). But Google killed Reader, so we all switched to Feedly. Except the switch never quite happened for me. I think it’s partly because I wasn’t thrilled about learning a new RSS reader and migrating all my links, and partly because right around that time, everything started to switch to social. That good old orange RSS feed icon is still there on the top right corner of my blog posts, but I don’t think anyone has used it lately.
But even with ‘The Great Social Takeover’ in full swing, I didn’t really see Twitter and Facebook as a way to actually share what I had made, but just to share a link to my work and have quick conversations about it. My hope was that people would navigate here, to this now-dusty blog, to experience the data themselves. At first that’s what happened, and social was a suitable alternative to RSS because social feeds were mostly chronologically ordered, if I’m not mistaken. Then, slowly but steadily, algorithms started to modify and reorder our social feeds, and paid content started appearing in the middle of the snippets from our friends and associates. The algorithms aren’t all bad – they alert us to interesting conversations that happen while we’re away. And it’s not like ads are totally unexpected on a free platform – we get that we’re the product, not the customer.
So I’m not trying to tell some dystopian techno-horror story or anything. Well, I hope not anyway. Truth is I’m still not quite sure why I’m seeing what I’m seeing on social, or exactly which actors and incentives are involved in that presentation of content to me at any moment in my digital life. The bottom line is I don’t know how I totally missed the debate about Neil’s un-map viz, because it’s exactly the kind of content I’d like the algorithm to show me.
The Great Mobile Migration
One other huge shift that happened was the shift from desktop to mobile. Call it ‘The Great Mobile Migration’. It happened at the exact same time as ‘The Great Social Takeover’, and it meant that I had to think differently about what I create. What I create suddenly needed to work on tiny screens. It was a thrilling design challenge, and promised to reinvigorate our space. It still does. New innovations, new techniques, even some really old ones like gifs are suddenly useful and relevant. In response to this shift, software vendors like Tableau (where I work) came out with powerful features like Device Designer to help people create richly interactive data graphics that work well on multiple platforms at the same time – Genius! But much more time and effort is required to get it right as an author. To make sure the experience isn’t just “not broken” on mobile, but “works great” on mobile.
So, to be honest, many times I don’t take the extra effort to do that. I just share my work on social media as a static image from a screenshot, or maybe a gif. I’ve more or less given up on the hope that my followers will click on a link in my post and navigate to a more engaging experience. To a place where they can interact with the data in the same way I do. To a place where I can explain what I made, why I made it that way, how I did it, what I learned, and what questions remain. Who has time for that anyway? I don’t have time to write it, and you probably don’t have time to read it. So we don’t.
We see each other’s posts (if the algorithm gods are in favor of it) for 2.5 seconds or so. We click a small icon of a thumb, a star, or a smile, maybe tap the word ‘Nice!’ into our smartphones, and we move on.
So what? Is that really so bad? Shouldn’t we just embrace these changes and move on with our lives? Let’s consider the impact.
On the bright side, thanks to ‘The Great Social Takeover’ and ‘The Great Mobile Migration’, we’re able to have many, many more interactions with others all over the world. We’re also able to have these interactions on the go, instead of just at our desks. Data dialogues are everywhere like never before. The content I create is discussed by way more people than my first blog post’s two commenters, who also happen to be my brother Matt and my childhood pal Levi. Great guys, by the way.
On the dark side, though, each one of these interactions is far shallower. And “on the go” often means “at the playground while our kids yell ‘Check it out, dad!!'” That’s not super great, is it? I’m sure glad I didn’t grow up in a world with adults who stared at tiny screens. Furthermore, while more interactions with data are taking place, fewer ‘rich interactions’ with data are taking place. Or certainly a smaller percentage of all interactions are rich ones. No, I don’t have data on that, by the way, it’s just a hunch. By ‘rich interactions’, I mean the kind of experiences where we explore the data for ourselves, finding insights beyond what the original publisher found – me building on your knowledge and you on mine. We’re spending a higher share of our internet time on our phones, and it’s just a really tough medium to have those kinds of exploratory ah-hah moments. You tell me if you think I’m wrong about that.
On the darker-than-dark side, we’ve learned that on these social sites we look at on our tiny screens while pushing a kid on a swing at the park, we’re being sent messages that are carefully designed to make us afraid. Messages that are custom-tailored to psychological profiles built about us by people who bought data about us that we didn’t explicitly approve to be gathered. Data that was gathered from otherwise fun personality quiz apps that our friends used and that we may not have even used ourselves.
So what? Well, it’s not the internet we would create if we were to start from scratch now and build it from the ground up. That’s what.
So What Now?
Where do we go from here? How can we, as Tim Berners-Lee, the actual inventor of the internet (sorry, Al) challenged us on a 9-tweet thread on Twitter of all places, ‘remain hopeful’ and ‘fix the bugs in the system’?
Well, that’s a question that’s far bigger than I can answer, especially in one blog post. And as much as I love Rage Against The Machine I don’t know if some drastic revolution is what’s called for just yet. But here are eight things I’m going to try with the goal of placing myself in a position where I feel more in control of what I share, what I consume, and when:
- I’m going to return to sharing what I create on this site again, a site I have full control over (and that has no personality quizzes).
- I’m going to take the time to make sure it’s a good experience for you, even if you read it on your phone. (I have a LOT of work to do on this one!)
- I’m going to share what I create by posting links to my Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts. If the algorithms show them to you, great! If not, so be it.
- I’m going to keep all my social accounts (hey, I’m no Elon Musk), but I’m deleting these apps from my phone. I’m addicted to checking them, anyway. Yeah, even on the freeway. I know, it’s ridiculous. So I may be slower to read or ‘like’ your comment on social. It’s nothing personal.
- I’m keeping FB Messenger and WhatsApp on my phone, but because there’s no Twitter Messenger app, I’ll be slower to respond to your DMs. Sorry about that. Lots of people get ahold of me with Twitter DMs right now, so that’ll be an adjustment. Go ahead and text me if you need to get ahold of me quickly. If you want my cell phone number, just message me and I’ll give it to you.
- I’m going to try to start using Feedly again. I think it’s still a thing. I hope it’s great and lets me see your awesome content in chronological order. I’ll find out, I guess. If not, I’ll be pretty depressed for a moment or two. Time will tell.
- I’m doubling-down on my usage of data.world. I can share my content AND my comments there, and we can have a dialogue in which you post your own version of the data story. Expect to see a link from my vizzes and blog posts to pages on data.world that contain the raw data, the interactive vizzes, and my discussions with readers there.
- I’m going to tell everyone who will listen about the Manifesto for Data Practices. I was in the room when the first draft was written, and the group who wrote it were seeking to provide a credo of sorts that would prevent the very types of unethical uses of data that we’ve seen in the news recently. Call me naive, but I’ll choose to believe I’m a member of a species that can get it right. Or at least hold ourselves accountable when we don’t.
Will this help me “take back the internet”, or is the internet even a thing I want to take back, as Neil posed to me just now? Who knows? It feels like these changes could help. They’ll definitely help if you also decide to write more long-form content on your site, too, and if you let me know one way or another so I can make sure to check it on a regular basis. Feedly of 2018, please don’t suck, or I’ll have to resort to good old bookmarks again. Here’s hoping.
Thanks for reading this. It would’ve been SUPER painful for me to turn into a Twitter thread. Maybe one day there will be an app for that. But then again, even if there were….