Tech Life You've been warned

Doomscrolling at Scale

WARNING: The contents of this article might adversely affect your information consumption habits.

A few weeks back, the sitting President incited domestic terrorists to storm the Capitol, so they did. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, this was a relatively straightforward process for the insurrectionists. It was also an incredibly well-documented events thanks to both journalists who risked their lives documenting the riot, a soon-to-be elected official who – fascinatingly – live-streamed his illegal participation, and, finally, the domestic terrorists themselves who were looking to boost follower counts by posting images of their illegal acts in real-time.

The real-time nature of January 6th lent itself to observation via social media. As it became clear the domestic terrorists were breaching the Capitol, I was glued to Tweetbot, my favorite Twitter client, looking for the latest developments. Years ago, Twitter put limits on their API, effectively lobotomizing third party clients. This meant within Tweetbot, I had to sit and wait for slow manual refreshes of the latest tweets on the insurrection. And there were a lot of tweets. It was a rapidly developing, incredibly well-documented event, and it was clear I was missing content as I sat there glued to Tweetbot waiting for my horrifically slow insurrection updates.

The obvious answer was to move either Twitter’s mobile client or move to their website. As I was at my desktop during this failed coup, I moved to Twitter’s website and remembered what I learned years ago: their website is hot garbage.

Twitter Aside: I am thankful for Twitter for banning Trump. It was three years late.

If you haven’t been to the Twitter website, go there now and tell me what you see. I’ll tell you what I see: a lack of place. There’s a promoted tweet dominating half my screen. I see some tweets from people I know, but a robot locked in a basement somewhere decided the order of this particular timeline, so I don’t trust it. The order of a timeline is defined by – wait for it – time. Not robots. Yeah, I get Twitter is trying to help by enhancing the quality of my feed. Yeah, I know it’s configurable. Still, I’d prefer if they spent their valuable cycles patrolling the feeds looking for humans actively working on toppling democracy. Thanks.

I poked around a couple of other parts of the website and was similarly baffled and lost. The Explore section is surfacing trending topics but is mostly ads. It says this section is for me, but none of these topics are click-worthy. What about notifications? This is broken into three sections: All, Mentions, and Verified. The All section is an aggregated set of notifications on things I might be interested in. Again, smooshed into time-ignorant irrelevance by the robots in the basement.

LET ME BE CLEAR WHAT I WAS LOOKING FOR AT THE TIME OF THIS EVENT:

  1. I wanted to see the tweets of those I followed as quickly as possible.
  2. I was very interested in the tweets of trusted humans who were sifting through all the same stuff I saw to find the most engaging tweets.
  3. Finally, I was interested in a keyword search of ALL tweets, but I needed an effective way to reduce noise to find a signal.

After a few hours of reload misery, I remembered TweetDeck. In the back of my head, my impression of TweetDeck was it was for companies who wanted to slice and dice the Twitter firehose into different useful feeds. For example, I’m assuming that many airlines use TweetDeck to proactively do customer support when a stranded traveler tweet rages. I’ve been that tweet rager. I’ve appreciated it when the airline attempts to be helpful.

Installing TweetDeck immediately improved my information consumption. TweetDeck not only defaults to time-based ordering of my tweets, but it also refreshes automagically as it’s part of Twitter and not subject to the lobotomized 3rd party APIs. TweetDeck also provides a multi-column format where you can look at multiple feeds. I’ve since forgotten the default set-up, but it was something like my friends feed and notifications feed.

Problem solved. Real-time doom. Many columns. This is great. Really great. Except TweetDeck didn’t allow resizing columns, and the maximum width was frustratingly narrow. I’d be able to consume far more tweets if they’ve just let me make… those columns… a bit…. wider.

The question was: why was TweetDeck giving me so much space for more columns? It tortured me, so I decided to make some more columns.

OH
MY
GOD
I SEE IT

Some relevant facts:

  1. There are a lot of humans on Twitter, and they are tweeting a crap ton of both informational, opinions, and uselessness.
  2. There are (or were) talented engineers who know/knew that there are humans like me who would want to build and run advanced queries against the entire Twitter fire hose because THAT’S WHAT THEY WANTED.

They did. The ability to build and run random queries exists. You can do it in Twitter, but in TweetDeck, you can build these queries and have them presented as different columns of constantly refreshing tweets.

It looks like this:

From left to right, the columns are:

  1. My time-based friend-based Twitter feed.
  2. Notifications: likes, retweets, replies, and follows to my Twitter activity
  3. Reporters: this is a Twitter list, which is a collection of Twitter accounts that I’ve curated.
  4. Keyword search on “inauguration”
  5. Keyword search on “#BREAKING”
  6. Keyword search on “youtube.com”

Notes on these columns:

  • The list feature in Twitter has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until I saw it in the TweetDeck context to understand the value. These reporters’ tweets show up in my time-based feed, but I am often missing things in that feed. I don’t want to miss these humans tweets.
  • Simple keyword searches can be problematic because they predictably return a crap ton of results. Shortly after the President committed the impeachable offense of inciting a riot, I started a column for the “25th amendment”. This was full of noise until I discovered I could set engagement filters on the column. Only show me tweets that have at least X retweets, likes, or replies. Setting this to 5 likes immediately decreased the noise. For particular noisy settings, setting a higher engagement threshold helped a ton.
  • The “#BREAKING” search is abused a bit but has revealed some gems in the past weeks. It was that column where I discovered the rumor that the PGA would strip Trump of his PGA championship. Ya’know… because he incited a riot. On the Capitol. As the President of the United States.
  • There is a slew of other filtering options, including location, language, and a bunch of different knobs and dials to allow crisp filtering of your columns. Go explore.

At a time where, well, shit is going down, I am thankful for TweetDeck. A side effect of my newly found doomscrolling at scale are the columns which are not filtered by my friends. The keyword search columns are regularly showing me opinions I disagree with, lies designed to terrify, and other popular tactics of those who are more interested in fear than facts. I mute some. I block others.

However, I am discovering brand new humans. Who are fired up and good to go. I’m in awe of the work of journalists seeking and reporting the truth. There have been some good Bernie memes, too.

My doomscrolling has calmed since the inauguration. Nothing is fixed, but we are heading in the right direction. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve noticed the tone has been uncharacteristically political. That’s not changing. One of the many lessons I’ve learned over the past four years is the seductive power of lies. I’ll be using every tool at my disposal to remind everyone of the power of the truth.

You’ve been warned.

The Important Thing Three acts

The One About Small Things, Done Well

In our 44th episode, we walk through the first chapters of Lopp’s 3rd book. Learning to deal with endless meetings, understanding The Situation™, and learning that people often just want to be seen. Spend 45 minutes with Lyle and Lopp talking about important things.

Enjoy it now or download for later. Here’s a handy feed or subscribe via Overcast or iTunes.

Rands Don't think. Don't analyze. Don't assess. Just be scared.

Fear is a Liar

He says things so sweetly. He knows all your failures. He remembers your emotional scars. He sounds like you. And he craves your attention.

The Thursday after the election, I woke up, grabbed my phone next to the bed, and scanned the latest news. We were still two days from announcing the winner of the election, but there was good news. Some media site had called the election, and the hourly trends on ballot counting in Pennsylvania looked very promising.

A sigh of relief. The briefest moment of early celebration in a year where celebration was scarce. I shared this relief with close dear friends, and the reaction was swift and crushing, “Don’t celebrate. Let me explain to you in great detail how this is going to go simply horribly.” And then they explained the terrifying opinionated detail.

Fear is a liar.

She knows what scares you. She was iteratively designed over billions of years to prevent you from being eaten by a cave bear. She’s still around. She has impressive controlling strength over you. She sounds helpful. She sounds smart. She moves so fast.

Early in the pandemic, I was part of a hastily thrown together Zoom interview. The host opened with a softball, “How are you?”

A guest, “Spent the morning doomscrolling.”

An internal mental giggle. Yeah, it was the first time I’d heard the word: doomscrolling. It perfectly described a regular act for me. Sitting down at my favorite device and just soaking in the doom, the fear. Pick a topic: elections, racism, democracy, civil unrest, or a pandemic. It’s trivial to find a steady flow of content to confirm and stoke my worst fears. I do this daily.

Fear is a liar.

The early builders of the Internet had a hit on their hands. They quickly realized they had two critical challenges. A lot of data was being generated by humans using the Internet, and there was an infinite gold mine buried inside that data. Billion-dollar data storage, management, and analysis businesses emerged to tackle these challenges.

Machine learning also flourished as businesses learned how to use machine learning to look at vast data sets and learn. What were they learning? Very simply, these ‘robots’ learned to predict things that you like with increasing precision.

Correction. It’s not like. It’s engagement. How likely are you going to engage with a piece of content? The content could be a link, advertisement, but – important point here – it’s not relevant whether you like the content or not; it’s whether you engage. The more you engage, the more signal you send, the more data you create, which means more data for the robots to learn from, which means they do an even better job find more engaging things to click on.

I’m delighted and a little in awe when Instagram presents me with pitch-perfect advertising. I spent the first fifteen years on the Internet, avoiding engaging in all advertising, but Instagram ads are good. Really good. Why yes, those navy blue leather boots are precisely what I want. Right now. It’s magical. It’s nice that Instagram made my shopping experience better. Still, it’s horrific that the same mechanisms have created a generation of humans who believe doomscrolling is anything but compulsive consumption of weaponized fear.

And fear is a liar.

You’re worried about something. Very normal. Very human. You have a moment, so you sit down with your favorite device and take a gander at your friend’s activity, whether that’s a social network, a messaging thread, or any number of means that keep us connected.

What are they up to? They’re worrying, too, because there is a lot to worry about these days. One friend found a particularly worrisome piece of content and has shared it. Oh dear, how worrisome. You click on the link (engagement), read the opinion (not facts) piece, and it echos your worry, so promptly share it with another group of friends (sharing) who need to read this critical content.

Every sentence, every action in the prior paragraph, involves creating useful data for the robots to figure out more what this group of humans cares about to push more engaging content targeted explicitly at these humans.

Those who peddle fear understand precisely how these robots work and have come to expect how you will react. They throw a thousand lies into a social network and let the robots do their work. Humans react, robots notice and adapt, and the peddlers of fear create a fear-based echo chamber where they’ve discovered the very best lies that will efficiently engage the broadest audience.

We’re talking about a planet full of humans mostly unknowingly generating data that robots are sorting, filing, analyzing, and search for that one piece of content that instantly engages you. These robots don’t care if that content is a new pair of boots or a lie.

Those who peddle fear are counting on the fact that your reaction is fear and that you’ll get mad and want to take action. Quickly. Urgently. Irrationally. They don’t want you to think; they want you to hate. They want to divide. They want you to believe the act of consuming, engaging, and echoing anger, fear, and hate is a productive act.

Don’t think. Don’t analyze. Don’t assess. Just be scared. Hate an amorphous someone. Fear.

The thing is – if you choose…

Fear is a teacher.

I think of that bully in my 6th-grade class who randomly stood up during lunch, walked across the courtyard, and bullied me. First, I was scared, then I was embarrassed in front of friends, and then I was mad.

Today. Many years later, it’s the only thing I remember about the 6th grade. It’s a permanent mental scar, but I’ve chosen to learn from that scar. I’ve thought about what it means to be a bully, how they are motivated, and how they should be treated. I now treat them appropriately. Quickly and with directed informed purpose.

I act because I’ve considered, I reflected, and I’ve learned. This is the bizarre gift of fear: it teaches you. It ferociously highlights a situation where you must pay attention. It’s an unforgettable opportunity to learn when the danger passes because you absolutely do not want to be here again. That’s the lesson.

Fear is a teacher.

He says things so clearly. He understands you completely. He knows what motivates you. He speaks with confidence. And he wants you to be safe.

Fear is a teacher.

She knows how to get your attention because she knows what scares you. She was there when it happened. She remembers how you got that scar and she wants no further harm to come of you. Fear is a reminder that it’s time to learn and then act.

Management A simple concept for an impossible job

The Metronome

Tick tock.

Morning. Sit down at the desk. Hit the spacebar and wake up the displays. Calendar first. What is happening today, and how do I need to prepare? Any last-minute edits? Conflicts? New meeting additions to the day? Ok, which meetings are unfamiliar? Look at attendees—map names to the organizational chart. Assess political machinations. Look for traps. Three to five minutes to complete. Takes more time earlier in the week.

Slack now. Anything new and unread in the Fires section gets an immediate response. Give either a calming “I am looking at this” emoji or, in the moment, considered response. Direct messages next. Everyone gets a response because this communication is pointed directly at me. Finally, glance at any channel with anything new. Scanning really. Not reading. It’s not going anywhere—ten minutes to Slack Zero.

Mail next. Thanks to obsessively updated mail rules, my inbox is mostly high signal and usually actionable. Make a call on each mail: respond in mail or bounce the thread to Slack? The latter choice sends a strong, intentional signal that is hard to ignore, but I triage and act much faster in Slack. Inbox Zero before 9am is the goal. The goal takes ten to twenty minutes because email is often an annoyingly and unnecessarily long form.

Tick.

Grab my favorite pen and current notebook. Turn to the bookmarked page and flip back the last few pages to re-cache thoughts, tasks, and important doodles from the prior day.

Now back to calendar. First meeting now. Click on the video conference link and be in the room two minutes before the start time. Every time. Smile.

Tock.

A Collective Impression

Towards the end of last week, you learned that your boss is taking this week off. She announced her well-deserved vacation in her staff meeting. My question is: describe your first reaction to learning this news. Don’t worry; I won’t tell anyone. A weight lifted, right? A decrease in perceived future stress? You respect your manager, but her absence for five days is a brief opportunity to take a breath, take your foot off the gas, and take a moment to gaze at the sky and let your mind wander.

Not delight about her absence, just relief.

I’ll explain shortly why this hypothetical but probable scenario is mostly bad news. First, let us understand that your ability to foresee how the week-sans-manager is based on your manager’s impression. Who she is. How she acts. What she values and what she’ll ignore. Her popular turns of phrases in meetings. The professional lines she will not cross.

Every leader builds a collective impression with their team. It’s different for each human as each human sees slightly different versions of a leader and values different aspects of the leader. This collective impression is not just your opinion of your leader; it’s your internal working model for how they work. In Situation X, she usually does Y. Knowing this allows you to better prepare for her. She always asks about Y, so we shall prepare by digging deep on all Y questions. The best application of this collective impression is when you can use your leader’s prior experience and learnings to address a problem without their intervention. She capably solves it like this, so shall I.

I would argue that the collective perception of who you are as a leader is as important as your daily visible leadership acts. Better said: the more the team can get the work done without you there, the more effectively you are scaling as a leader. This takes us back to our hypothetical vacation scenario.

Not delight. Just relief. Because your manager is absent.

The absence of leadership is a relief? You can see why this common perception is problematic. The absence of the human accountable for leading the team’s productivity, morale, and efficiency is giving the team relief by not being there.

Tick.

Of course, you need a vacation. The last three months have been hell. You vastly underestimated the time required to plan the project. You had no idea how many different teams would need a charm offensive to get them aligned with the vision.

Tick

It’s no wonder they are relieved by your vacation. They are getting stressed just watching you work. They can see the stress in your face. They can hear it in your words. They are stressed because they are your team, and a team listens in every direction and every manner possible for signal on how they are doing and your frantic sprint to a temporary finish line tells them, “Something is fundamentally wrong.”

Tock.

Your Hidden Job

It’s your job to show up as an effective, principled, and fair leader in every working moment so that you can teach them how they can do their job when you are not there. This takes us back to the beginning of this article: my Monday morning ramp.

Two minutes early to a meeting. As much as possible. The last act of my morning opening productivity ramp. What lessons do I demonstrate to the meeting attendees by being there two minutes early? A couple: beginning on time is respectful to attendees, and meetings are expensive affairs, so let’s invest our time wisely. There’s a more fundamental lesson I am teaching: Leaders are capable of showing up to meetings on time.

Table stakes, right? How many managers have you worked with who are apparently incapable of showing up to a scheduled meeting on time?

The value built within your company is a function of the quality things the talented humans build. They build these wonderful things with their hands, and proper building requires time. Time is like air: essential and taken for granted until it is in short supply. After hiring and building a diverse set of humans, your primary job as a leader is to give them as much time as possible to do their creative work. My small act of meeting timeliness demonstrates that I value everyone’s time equally.

Tick tock.

You’re the metronome. A metronome’s essential but straightforward job marks time at a selected rate by giving a regular tick… or tock. A leader’s job is defined by the professional means by which a thing is done via visible, repeated, and consistent actions. A mandate never defines these standards, but by actively demonstrating you understand the business value of time – precious time – with your actions.

The metronome’s job is constant. Tick. How long does he take to respond to something? Tick. Do meetings always fill the time, or are they done when the work is done? Tick. When he says he will do something, what is your gut reaction to whether or not he will do said thing? Tick. Why is he always five minutes late to every meeting?

Tock.

A metronome is a simple tool. Your job is mind-bogglingly, complex, and ever-changing. It is perhaps overwhelming to consider the responsibility of showing up as an effective, principled, and fair leader in every working moment so that you can teach them to do their job when you are not there. The more they can effectively handle complex situations themselves, the better.

A simple concept for perhaps an impossible job…

The less they need you to do effectively do their job, the better.