Media Layoffs Galore

My heart goes out to the journalists at the multiple organizations laid off this week (and more). Something like a thousand laid off in the space of a week. Fast Company has a solid (and scathing) article about the recent Buzzfeed layoffs: BuzzFeed’s layoffs and the false promise of “unions aren’t for us”. It paints a pretty bleak picture of where things are at, why, and what we can expect more of in the future.

But as an outlet largely dependent on social platforms like Facebook, BuzzFeed was forced to follow platform trends. When Facebook announced it was focusing on video content, BuzzFeed turned its resources just to that. Brands like Tasty were born, which force-fed ubiquitous birds’-eye view videos of generally unappetizing food to the masses. And for a while, this seemed to work. Videos were performing well, thanks to Facebook’s algorithmic push, and BuzzFeed once again looked like a digital trailblazer. But this bet was predicated on the whim of a social network known for pendulum strategy shifts at the expense of its clients; this pivot didn’t take into account what would happen if Facebook changed course. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Facebook did precisely that.

Human-Scale Online Games

Over at Lost Garden, Daniel Cook has a fantastic piece looking at how to create “human-scale” online games, and why that’s a better approach to MMOs. This is some really fantastic, well thought out stuff, and not just for games: what they’re really talking about is how to build community.

One way of thinking about the constraints suggested by Dunbar’s Layers is to imagine you have a budget of cognitive resources that can be spent on relationships. The physical limits of your human brain mean that you only have enough mental budget for a total of roughly 150 relationships.

Humans have developed a few tools that have expanded our ability to organize into groups well past our primate cousins—most notably language—but also large-scale systems of government and economics. In the early 2000s, people assumed that new technologies like online social networks could help break past Dunbar’s Number; by offloading the cost of remembering our friendships to a computer, we could live richer, more social lives, with strong relationships to even more people.

We now have copious data that this is not the case. Studies suggest that there’s still a limited budget of cognitive resources at play and even in online platforms we see the exact same distribution of relationships.

If anything, social networks damage our relationships. By making it possible for us to cheaply form superficial relationships (and invest our limited energy in maintaining them), such systems divert cognitive resources from smaller, intimate groups out towards larger, less-intimate groups. The result is that key relationships with best friends and loved ones suffer. And, unfortunately, it is the strength of these high-trust relationships that are most predictive of mental health and overall happiness.

Daniel Cook

It’s a long read (which you might have guessed by the size of my pull quote), but well worth it.

The End of Leisure

Over at The Hedgehog Review, Charlie Tyson writes about the Virtuosos of Idleness, and the nature of leisure (and its loss in modern society). It’s an interesting read. There are a number of articles about the coming work-pocalypse of increased automation and the massive inequalities introduced by the “gig economy,” but it’s also worthwhile to look at how we spend our off-time. One choice bit that struck a chord:

Most Americans today find work drudgery and leisure anxiously vacant. In our hours off work, we rarely achieve thrilling adventure, deliberate self-education, or engage in Whitmanian loafing. At the same time, faith is eroding in the idea that paid work can offer pleasure, self-discovery, a means for improving the world, or anything more than material subsistence.

Charlie Tyson

I mean, they’re not wrong. I’m lucky enough to have a decent job with some flexibility to learn and grow, but jobs like that are decidedly not the majority of jobs out there. And while the work side might not be terrible at the moment, the “vacant leisure” is real. The author continues:

Recreational pursuits more demanding than fleeting digital absorption are, increasingly, acts of consumption. Leisure is not something you “do” but something you “buy,” whether in the form of hotels and cruises or Arianna Huffington–vetted mindfulness materials. The leisure industry provides work for some while promising relaxation to others, for a fee.

The sorry state of leisure is partly a consequence of an economy in which we are never fully detached from the demands of work. The category of “free” time is not only defined by its opposite (time “free” of work); it is subordinated to it. Free time, Theodor Adorno warns, “is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labor.” Free time is mere recovery time. Spells of lethargy between periods of labor do little but prepare us for the resumption of work. Workers depleted by their jobs and in need of recuperation turn to escapist entertainment and vacuous hobbies. And the problem of figuring out when work is “over,” in an economy in which knowledge workers spend their job hours tweeting and their evening hours doing unpaid housework and child care, has never seemed more perplexing.

Charlie Tyson

Yep. The conversation continues from there, and is worth the time to read.

The Existential Void of the Pop-Up

Over at the New York Times, Amanda Hess writes about The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’. (This came out in September and has been sitting my tabs waiting to be blogged about since then. Oops.) It’s an interesting look at the panoply of “pop-up experiences” that have been popping up [sic] lately, where it’s all about the curated, Instagrammable experience. It kind of gets at something I noted when I lived in the Bay area: people doing things less for the participatory doing, and more for the being seen doing. You hear folks talking about their “platform” and “personal brand” and the optics of things. Even things we do to appear authentic end up being to some degree performative. (As an aside, Lindsay Ellis has a recent and excellent video talking about this from the perspective of video blogging, called Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!).)

The central disappointment of these spaces is not that they are so narcissistic, but rather that they seem to have such a low view of the people who visit them. Observing a work of art or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished. Stalking through the colorful hallways of New York’s “experiences,” I felt like a shell of a person. It was as if I was witnessing the total erosion of meaning itself. And when I posted a selfie from the Rosé Mansion saying as much, all of my friends liked it.

Amanda Hess

I don’t know, maybe I’m just not the target demographic, and I’m just an old curmudgeon who doesn’t “get” it. But there’s something that feels kind of funky about these manufactured, curated experiences. Hmm, that’s not fair: We’ve always curated experiences, chosen how we present things at both small and grand scales. I think there’s a distinction: there’s participatory interaction, and then there’s performative interaction, and these pop-ups seem to fall into the category of the latter more than the former, and that leaves us feeling… empty.

Link: On Editing (Your Own) Fiction

Naomi Kritzer has a solid article on editing your work, with advice about doing your post-first-draft edits. A lot of advice out there is focused on just getting the first draft done, but glosses over the essential editing/rewriting process that takes it from a messy first draft to something you’d actually want to show someone else, so this is a welcome addition to the conversation.

I think this is a worthwhile thing to remember:

One of the really magical things about writing is that sometimes, that throwaway bit that didn’t mean anything when you put it there turns out to be the key that holds everything together. I think of those moments as gifts from the muse. Editing isn’t always about making the thing Not Suck; it’s also about spotting the really brilliant bits and polishing them up and focusing the lights on them so people can notice how very shiny they are.

Link: Aqua Screenshot Library

This is for the UX and UI nerds out there: the Aqua Screenshot Library. It’s a collection of various windows, dialogs, screens, and other UI elements in Apple’s Aqua interface in each major version since the Mac OS X public beta. I’ll be curious to see how they handle cataloging Mojave, since there’s light and dark modes for everything. It’s really interesting to see how the interface has continued to evolve (and which aspects remain largely unchanged). You can really see where and how this:

Became this:

Link: Bourdain Confidential

Found via Kottke, Maria Bustillos has an excellent interview with Anthony Bourdain, from not too long before his death. I’m late on the Bourdain train – I hadn’t really caught any of his shows or books, and only started exploring it all after seeing how impacted people were by his passing. By every account, though, he sounds like someone I would have sincerely enjoyed, and I always appreciate the stories and insights and approach he seemed to bring.

A few favorite bits:

I do not need to win. I am not a competitive person. I need to survive.

Were you ever?

Never. Sports, fucking hated them. Always hated sports. Again, it goes back to that Sixties thing… I just wanna fucking survive. I don’t need to be number one. I don’t need to beat the fuck out of somebody. I don’t need to be ahead. I just want to still be here at the end of the fuckin’ day, doing what I’m doing, without anybody hassling me.

(I hear ya. I’m inherently not a competitive person — which isn’t to say that I don’t like to succeed, but it’s almost never a competition for me, and trying to turn it into one is a surefire way for me to stop giving a shit.)

I also really liked:

Look, the minute everybody in the room agrees with you, you’re in a bad place, so I’m a big believer in change just for its own sake, just to show that you can change, to move forward incrementally, but ain’t nobody gonna make everything better. Whoever has the intestinal fortitude or the megalomaniac instincts, uh, sufficient to lead any kind of a revolution will inevitably disappoint horribly.

And, of course, talking about the sublime little human moments, the ones that immediately become special to you but are so hard to describe why:

I do find that my happiest moments on the road are not standing on the balcony of a really nice hotel. That’s a sort of bittersweet—if not melancholy—alienating experience, at best. My happiest moments on the road are always off-camera, generally with my crew, coming back from shooting a scene and finding ourselves in this sort of absurdly beautiful moment, you know, laying on a flatbed on those things that go on the railroad track, with a putt-putt motor, goin’ across like, the rice paddies in Cambodia with headphones on… this is luxury, because I could never have imagined having the freedom or the ability to find myself in such a place, looking at such things.

To sit alone or with a few friends, half-drunk under a full moon, you just understand how lucky you are; it’s a story you can’t tell. It’s a story you almost by definition, can’t share. I’ve learned in real time to look at those things and realize: I just had a really good moment.

Link: Patterns for Organization of Writing

Over at A List Apart, Richard Rabil writes Order Out of Chaos: Patterns of Organization for Writing on the Job, which drills into some of the core concepts behind organizing your writing. Considering my current profession (and continuing interest in information architecture), I found it pretty topical.

Recently I had an extremely frustrating user experience. While consulting some documentation to learn about a new process, I encountered a series of web pages that gave no introduction and dove straight into undefined jargon and acronyms that I had never heard of. When I visited related pages to get more context, I found the same problem. There was no background information for a newbie like me. The writers failed in this case to anticipate my questions and instead assumed a great deal of prior knowledge.

Don’t make this mistake when you design your structure. Like a journalist, you need to answer the who, what, where, when, how, and why of your content, and then incorporate the answers in your structure. Anticipate common questions, such as “What is this? Where do I start? What must I know? What must I do?” This sort of critical reflection is all the more important when organizing web content, because users will almost certainly enter and exit your pages in nonlinear, unpredictable ways.

Link: Balancing Time

Over at CSS Tricks, Sarah Drasner has a nice article going over some productivity tips (in particular if you’re the type of person who likes to have a lot of projects happening at once). For instance:

Push outside of your comfort zone, but slowly

Work on a few things that you know and understand, and a few things you don’t. We should foster personal growth in our projects, but without some semblance of comfort, it’s easy to get discouraged. Let your projects push the limits of your boundaries, but don’t go overboard. Give yourself a foundation to spring off before floating into space.

Megaquests and Goals

William Van Hecke has an evolving article discussing their approach to productivity called Megaquest. The name may sound a little silly, but the concept is a good one. Read the article for details, but the gist is to have a large, long term goal (intentionally abstracted into a perfect moment or period of time) that informs the other work you take on. That jives with my own views on broader goals, and feels good to have some validation from others who’ve come to the same conclusion.

In particular, I really needed to hear this:

The moment can be specific or fuzzy. You might already have an idea of the details you want to realize, or you might just know the kind of things you want to have in place later in your life. The megaquest can come in and out of focus as your situation and your values shift. But it should always give you something distant and meaningful to hang quests on.

[…]

You might not get the moment. Plenty of things won’t go as expected. Plans will change. Your ideas about what you really want will change. Some variables might never fit perfectly into place. The moment is, in fact, a macguffin — a catchy plot device to keep you moving toward putting everything in its place. So the secret, which you shouldn’t think about too hard, is that it doesn’t really matter if you get it. What matters is that the more earnestly you pursue a truly perfect moment, the more you put everything in its place, the more nearly perfect moments you’ll have along the way.

I’ve been feeling kind of aimless lately, and struggling to figure out whether my idea of who and how and where I want to be is still what I want. It may be that I never actually get to that exact moment, falling into sync with myself in an Ohayō moment, and expecting to do so is unreasonable. At its core, it still feels like a good moment to strive for, but are some of the surrounding details changing? Maybe. I need to do some long thinks, I’d say. But maybe that’s okay.