Twitter Needs a Public Police Blotter

Twitter’s general policy is to not comment on the actions taken against a specific account deemed to be in violation of its Terms of Service. Occasionally in high profile or controversial cases they’re forced to present clarifications, such as yesterday’s tweets from @Safety regarding Rose McGowan’s suspension.

Screen Shot 2017-10-13 at 11.51.32 AM

Today there exists a trust gap between Twitter’s professed interest in decreasing abuse on the platform and the community’s experience day-to-day using the product. There are lots and lots of blog posts about why Twitter has struggled in this area and plenty of suggestions as to how to revise their product and policies. In fact, two of them are mine — My House, Your House and Don’t Let Abusers @ Name, informed by my longtime on the Twitter platform as a user and my product leadership stint at YouTube. But this next suggestion actually reaches further back in my career to a social creative environment which in some ways was more challenging to manage than Twitter….. the virtual world Second Life.

I had the pleasure of working at Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, during approximately its first three years of existence. We were a small team – got as large as 30 people during my tenure – and I had the chance to work on product, marketing and whatever other issues became pressing for the startup. We considered the product to be a platform, not a game, and the immense freedom of the virtual environment meant it would be impossible for us to programmatically enforce all our community standards; we were going to have to rely upon user reporting in addition. And the team wanted to make sure that the world felt open, guided by norms and personal preferences rather than a place where we enforced a strict standard of interactions.

This left us with a challenge – how to signal to the users that we cared about the ToS without creating the feeling of a police state, which limited creativity and made us solely responsible (not in a legal sense, but removed the feeling that Second Life was only going to be successful if users took accountability for their actions too)? How to provide a feedback loop while still protecting the identity of individuals on the platform? Since we were creative a virtual world we ended up borrowing a construct from the real one: a crime blotter.

Up until Second Life, the vast majority of online communities, especially massively multiplayer online games, didn’t want to discuss how they handled griefing and misbehavior. They worried that it gave fame (an incentive!) to the griefers – ie an achievement mindset where you’d want to prove you were ingeniously destructive enough to do something that the community managers had to address publicly. One byproduct of this silence was that it eliminated the important feedback loop of a platform’s owners signaling they cared, and thus enrolling the public in maintaining the norms of the platform. Mutual trust.

To combat this within Second Life I reached into my grad school days at Stanford and my bemusement with the police blotter of the local newspaper. The attraction, as you can see below, was initially because Palo Alto was generally so bucolic that tiny little annoyances made the crime reports. But even this helped support the sense of peace and quiet. The neighborhood was so safe that “annoying children” were an investigable report.

palo alto police blotter

So we created the Second Life Incident Reports summary where we summarized the number of violations on the service for a given time period (during the early years we experimented with also noting which server they took place on – sort of the “neighborhood” portion of the Palo Alto blotter). Here’s a snapshot I found online presenting the types of infractions summed over an unknown time period.

sl community

Like many of our design decisions this feature was [pats self on back] quite innovative and I know it influenced other game/community designers down the road. But back to Twitter…

I’m of the belief that Twitter should publish a “This Quarter in Trust & Safety” four times a year. It should summarize some of the features and improvements they’ve made to help keep the platform productive. It should talk about what they’re working on for next quarter. And it should contain some version of the Twitter Police Blotter, which lets us know aggregate numbers of bots taken down, accounts warned, accounts blocked and so on, perhaps even with some categorization for cause. We need to know that our flagging of tweets matters. We need to know that Twitter takes this more seriously than “thoughts and prayers.” And we need to meet in the middle on this – I respect Twitter’s rights to not want to always comment on individual situations and that there can be situational grey areas which require policies to be updated or decisions to be reversed. But sharing more data publicly would be a good step towards making the black box a bit more transparent.

How This Anxious Introvert Handles Large Events

If you only kinda know me you might think I’m a confident extrovert, but if you really really know me, it’s more clear: I’m an introvert, and one who gets slightly anxious during prolonged exposure to large groups. Introversion isn’t shyness and it’s not a like or dislike of people generally. For example, I really enjoy public speaking. Introversion is quintessentially “does being around other people give you energy or take energy away?” Introverts can be proverbial life of the party but then need time alone to recharge.

My own introversion is compounded by low level anxiety in large group settings, especially when the social dynamics start to approximate high school – you know, groups of people, some of whom know each other and others who don’t. A bit of hierarchy and peacocking starting to play out, alcohol flowing (I don’t drink much).

introvert

Over time, and in the interest of self-care, here’s how I’ve approached my own expectations and behaviors at events, especially day-long or multi-day conferences:

A. Depth Not Breadth When Meeting New People at Conferences: The routine went like this – end up at a conference with 100+ amazing people. Assume that “doing a good job” meant meeting and impressing all of them. Then beat myself up when I retreated from this goal after shaking a bunch of hands and finding myself unfulfilled, exhausted. So I changed my definition of success. It’s fine if I end up seeing a bunch of people but, really, if I can have meaningful conversations with just five, 10, 15 people over the course of a day, that’s a win.

B. When I Feel Ready to Ghost, Stay 30m Longer: Before I’d quietly slip away whenever I felt the first tingles of “uh I don’t want to be here anymore.” Now I recognize that impulse, honor it, exhale and see if I’m cool staying another 30 minutes. Once I do this check-in I’m totally ok bouncing after 30 if that’s still the way I’m feeling, but often I’ll end up hanging out much longer without even knowing it.

C. Take 30-60 Minute Recharges: Look for points in the schedule where it’s ok for me to go take a walk, grab a coffee, take a shower or exercise. Things that put me in another headspace and recharge me. Yeah so it’s not that I wasn’t interested in your panel topic, it’s that I needed some Hunter time.

D. Pull People Aside for 1:1s: As Joe Greenstein knows from an annual conference we both attend, I’m a big fan of catching up over a 1:1 walk, even offsite from the event. I find this technique especially good at evening events where instead of a loud noisy drinking circle, I’ll find someone I wanted to spend time with and we’ll find a location to just sit and chat for 20-30 minutes before releasing back into the frenzy.

E. Don’t Go In the First Place: With Homebrew, Satya and I kind of ‘divide and conquer’ when it comes to events, and we’re more likely to both decide not to go to something versus “arguing” over who should attend a fancy event. When we do both attend the joke is that I’m good 6am to 4pm and he then takes over 5pm to 2am. Near 24/7 coverage! But the pressure that I might have felt 10-15 years ago to attend every conference is gone. And you know what, the types of early stage founders we tend to resonate with most substantially aren’t on the conference circuit either. So instead of taking that week-long international trip, I’m in SF putting sweat behind our investments or meeting founders back home. Investing is generally about being self-aware enough to run your own playbook and pushing yourself when you need to, but not being all things to all people.

goldfish leap

How about the other anxious introverts out there – what are your strategies for conferences and events?

Suggestions from the Crowd: 

  • Get attendee lists in advance to identify folks you know who are attending or people with whom you have mutual friends/interests
  • Asking people I know at the event to introduce me to people I don’t. Even if I only know 1 person at first, this lets me have many convos…
  • Also use a buddy system – Bringing a guest puts me at ease and makes it easier to meet new people

Hey Tech Industry, Let’s Focus Less on UBI & More on Minimum Wage, Portable Benefits & Vocational Training

Lots of continued buzz these days in technology circles about Universal Basic Income because it’s assumed UBI is the best (or only) solution for a future where automation and AI dramatically shrink the number of jobs available. Although the American economy has already experienced a pretty significant shift in jobs over the past half-century towards roles that are thought to be less exposed to these risks, there are many signs of economic dislocation among the middle and lower classes today.

photo (4)

I’m actually quite bearish near/medium term on UBI as the right solution. Not because of any philosophical opposition and certainly not because I think it’s economically impossible, but rather because UBI tends to ignore the self-worth aspect of a job. We’ll make the numbers work far sooner than we’ll be able to change the societal aspects of how, in our culture, your job is a source of identity, pride and connectedness. My best guess is that any UBI initiative is going to need to coincide with a pretty dramatic and sustained cultural shift where we start to value other ways of contributing — volunteerism and civic participation, artistic expression, mastery of skills outside a work environment.

Large portions of America right now doesn’t believe the institution of government works for them or respects them. And our current President is exploiting this feeling to further suggest government is broken, perhaps irreparably. In 2018 and 2020 the Democrats need to unify behind a platform that is aggressively worker-friendly. We’re not going to navigate further technology-driven disruptions unless our country’s citizens believe we’re doing it together. Otherwise I fear we’re going to continue to break apart or regulate away innovation and put the US economy at risk of missing the coming advances in robotics, AI, automation and bioscience.

The technology industry is no longer an underdog. It’s a giant. A clumsy giant when it comes to fully understanding the attention and skepticism our power is attracting. For both moral and strategic reasons, we should be lining up to support progressive politicians on three main platforms.

  1. Increase the minimum wage to $15. That’s the message – $15. If you end up indexing that geographically against cost of living, that can be figured out in the details. But the top-line message is $15.
  2. Portable benefits cosponsored by public and private (health, disability, unemployment, etc). Your safety net isn’t tied to employment, it’s tied to citizenship. And businesses will pay their portion proportional to the percent of hours or income they provide.
  3. Vocational training. Rethink government-subsidized student loans and employer tax breaks to provide incentives for continuous upskilling of employees. There are going to be jobs, we just can’t always predict the skills needed. So let’s rebuild our education system to think about keeping people employable.

I’m also a strong believer in small business (with an emphasis on women and non-white entrepreneurs who traditionally haven’t been supported in wealth creation), immigration (especially into America’s colleges and universities), collective bargaining via unions and simplified tax codes. I lack expertise in these policy areas generally and also acknowledge there’s always a study or think tank which argues the other side of any of these issues. But at both a system-level (what set of changes do we need to make in concert) and at an emotional one (what is going to bring us back together), this is where I land.

If we can get behind a small number of  understandable and implementable benefits for the majority of American workers I believe we can cross party lines and unify those who feel destabilized by wealth inequality. And with that renewed trust and new leaders, we can create the foundation to longterm implement UBI or other more radical notions. But we can’t start there today and we can’t get there if we don’t do something now.

“Convince Me” said the Investor. “No” said the Founder.

It’s in a founder’s natural disposition to want to convince people of their point of view. And while engaging substantively with those who disagree is often an excellent way to both stress test your assumptions and increase your ability to tell your story, figuring out when to stop and disengage is critical for your productivity and sanity. Especially during fundraising.

Earlier this summer an engaging and forward-thinking founder told me a story from her in-process seed fundraise. Operating in a technology market that most would consider nascent, she had encountered a variety of responses to her pitch. Spoiler alert, more than enough were positive and she soon closed an oversubscribed round, but of course she also encountered rejection. We talked a bit about what she’d learned from those conversations and then the founder confided her most useless investor meeting to me.

“We sat down to discuss my company and he basically said, ‘I don’t think your market is going to exist. Convince me.'” Her response? “I told him I didn’t want to work that hard, and wrapped up the meeting.”

You know what? She was right. With some additional context, it was clear this wasn’t going to be the right investor for her company. He had no experience or basis for his assertion, just wanted to test her and/or establish a position of power in the discussion. This wasn’t a thesis defense. This wasn’t 15 minutes she’d finally finagled with a respected CEO in her industry. This was a man who, despite agreeing to take the meeting, established within the first few minutes of their conversation that he wasn’t someone who was likely to end up on her cap table and even more importantly, probably someone she didn’t want there. And she respectfully but firmly made a judgment call to not throw good time, and good energy, away.

So maybe pause this afternoon and think about one employee, one customer, one investor who is not critical and the source of disproportionate stress for you. And say Bye Bye Bye….

Screenshot from Bye Bye Bye (cover)

Fake Cues: Why The Next Photo Innovation May Be Helping You Tell a Lie

I want to share something which might be a bit unsettling – whenever I’m looking at you, I’m judging. Whether it’s in person or a static photo. I just can’t help it. It’s how I’m wired. By the way, it’s how you’re wired too. Perhaps our most basic survival skill is the near constant assessment and reassessment of other people based on their facial structures, their demeanor, slight changes in their movement. Which makes one wonder: can I “hack” this evolutionary necessity and influence the way you react to me?

For example, “microexpressions” are defined as “brief, involuntary facial expression shown on the face of humans according to emotions experienced. They usually occur in high-stakes situations, where people have something to lose or gain.” Perhaps you remember “Lie to Me,” the Tim Roth tv show where he played the world’s leading expert of microexpression-reading (now THAT would be a good LinkedIn Endorsement).

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 2.27.58 PM

But it doesn’t even require the fidelity of a realtime interaction for our monkey minds to start forming an opinion of someone else. All it takes is a face, even a static picture or artistic representation. Did you know we typically find facial symmetry more attractive because it potentially signals high breeding status? Side note – I’m fairly certain I’m asymmetrical AF.

So when hearing that the new photo sharing app Polygram reads the facial reactions of the viewer to tell you whether they liked or disliked your photo, well, that set off a bunch of ideas. We’ve undoubtedly already trained machine learning models to predict the “attractiveness,” “honesty” etc of people depicted in a photo. What happens when we start running this software not just in post-photographic analysis but in photo creation and editing? For example:

  • Selfie mode of a camera could let you select what emotions you want to provoke in the average viewer, give you some basic facial motions to mimic and then shoot a burst of photos, selecting from the burst the pictures which are most likely to work.
  • Photoshop could have buttons for “honesty,” “attractiveness,” “happiness,” etc and move your facial bits around in the smallest ways needed to “enhance” this aspect of your person. The changes likely wouldn’t need to be very significant – they’re called “microexpressions” for a reason.
  • Run software against models in commerce site, Tinder profiles, realtor photos and so on. ID any photos where the viewer would have real but imperceptible negative reaction. Prime them to buy, to swipe right.

So yeah, if software is going to help us read emotional reactions you can be sure it’s going to be used to manufacture them as well.

The Markets Ignore Inputs But Over Time, Not The Means

When asked for advice about a career in tech my feedback varies based on the individual’s goals but always ends with “…you can recover from any failure except one where you ruined your reputation.” Basically, trying to make sure that the desire to succeed, to impress, doesn’t overwhelm someone young in their career and cause them to compromise their ethics or values.

My friend and frequent co-investor Semil Shah wrote a good post this weekend called The Market Ignores Inputs. He writes,

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 10.33.55 AM

Absolutely true. Satya and I often describe how we’re thankful of the solid personal relationships we maintain with our investors and the shared values, but also know that ultimately our returns are the primary point of evaluation for the continuing business relationships.

The majority of investors I respect (Semil included) are output-focused but with a clear and consistent morality. For them the ends don’t justify the means, if that includes operating in a manner which is poisonous, ethically troubled or illegal. And it’s not about getting cute and trying to avoid knowing (ie “The doctor turned around so he could have deniability“). The Hippocratic oath of Venture Capital extends to helping founders maintain their true north, sometimes in the face of immense pressures and economic consequence. That’s an input you don’t compromise on.

Thinking About Bodega

As investors, we hope to help founders see around corners in order to assess and predict outcomes. Startups, especially early stage startups, are in the weird position of simultaneously trying to reduce known risks while embracing new risks. Today, one of our portfolio companies launched and was met with a strong, unexpected reaction, one I didn’t anticipate. This post is primarily about trying to understand that lack of anticipation on my part, and secondarily, providing some insight into why I believe in this company.

The company is called Bodega and their goal is to use technology to extend commerce to spaces where today you can’t put a store, or where an existing impersonal vending experience can be improved upon. Bodega’s vision is that these flexible devices can do several things at once (and here’s some more in their own words):

  • Provide better item inventory driven by local preferences, data analysis and curation
  • Support not just sales, but item rental, item exchange and so on
  • Be price competitive with delivery-service alternatives
  • Give store owners, property owners and individual entrepreneurs a chance to run a micro-business in an updating of the classic vending model

Bodega’s vision is not, and has never been, to compete with or replace the urban corner store. Bodega doesn’t want to disrupt the bodega. Some instances of today’s press coverage suggested that element, a soundbite which, exacerbated by Bodega’s naming, pissed people off as another example of tech startups being at best tone-deaf, and at worst, predatory. This article in Forbes explains Bodega well while appropriately critiquing the challenges they face in succeeding. We – and the other investors – committed capital, sweat and reputation behind a team that absolutely is working on a problem that matters to them and we believe can be meaningful to customers. And that’s the founder-market fit we seek.

So, About Our Name is CEO Paul McDonald’s explanation and introspection of the Bodega brand. Let me tldr by saying I agree with Paul’s commitment here to listen to and understand the feedback. And I believe they want to build a durable and thoughtful company where the decisions they make – brand included – represent their values.

But even though I looked at this name for several months pre-launch, why didn’t I anticipate the ways it could be interpreted? When I first heard it my biggest concern was, would anyone outside of NYC understand it? The early part of my childhood was in Queens, NY and bodegas were beloved, but did it translate outside of the five boroughs? The team’s market research suggested that it did – and in doing so they also spoke with consumers of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Once that research came back positive, I was sold. It didn’t occur to me that some people would see the word and associate its use in this context with whitewashing or cultural appropriation. I heard it in a different way than some others are hearing it today. And that leaves me wondering why, because as an investor, and even more importantly as a human being, it’s an awareness that I need. So like the founders, I too want to listen and better understand the lines between homage and respect versus exploitation and insensitivity. Today tells me it’s a personal blindspot and to assist founders, to help them see around corners, I need to see clearly.