GOP’s Voter Suppression Playbook for 2017 Is Real and Treasonous

An admission: as an upper-class white male in an unflinchingly Blue state, I was previously naive about the extent to which voter disenfranchisement had already impacted our country over the past decade. But the 2016 Presidential elections, along with a set of court cases in the aftermath of 2013’s Voter Rights Act changes, convinced me the GOP is accelerating their attempts to limit opposition voting. So for 2017, and beyond, I’m interested in putting sweat and dollars behind voter rights. Attacking the ability for American citizens to easily participate in the political process isn’t just unconscionable, but strikes me as symbolically treasonous.  Since my understanding of these issues is still evolving, here’s how I currently interpret what’s happening:

Ok, if you’re sufficiently pissed, here what you can do:

  1. Let America Vote is a new effort from Jason Kander, former Missouri Secretary of State. They’re just getting started but Jason seems like the real deal.
  2. ACLU counts Voting Rights as one of their major issue areas. So continue donating.
  3. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee is being led by former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder and will be fighting back on gerrymandering. Sign up for more info and donate there as well.
  4. The Brennan Center for Justice is another group focused on voting rights and legislation.
  5. Keep an eye out for voter rights changes at your local state level and fight back

No matter what your political or social beliefs, I hope you will fight for the right of every citizen to vote.

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Why Many Companies Mistakingly Think Trolls & Harassment Are Good for Business

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A live mic. They gave me a live mic at last week’s Upfront Summit to interview Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian. Our discussion lasted about 20 minutes but that was sufficient time to cover his open letter on immigration, Reddit’s community standards, his feelings about tech’s role in politics and the opportunity he now has to become more than just “tech famous” if he so desires. But there was one question I’d written down in my notebook that we didn’t have time to cover – did Alexis think the way we measure the success of social products unintentionally result in deprioritizing community safety.

What are the standard KPIs for social, content and community products? The most common for a daily dashboard are a mix of DAU/MAU, page views, impressions, session length, clickthrough, visits per day, engagement. The more sophisticated derivatives of these are retention-related.

What do these measures mostly tell us? That optimizing for clicks, visits, posts and time on site = good. But what happens when these metrics lead us towards more engagement but less happiness?

In the last few months it sure looks like disagreement and flame wars produce more in situ engagement than a simple “like” or read. Your friends rushing to tell off the asshole who just tweeted at you sure looks like a lot of activity when it’s reduced to a daily graph. A hate share of post that makes you go WTF sure does look like virality. Look a lot like a successful product.

But does it make you feel good? Does it make think better or worse of the product you just experienced? Does it increase your NPS for that business? Trolls and harassment drive short-term engagement even though they’re long-term poison.

A few months back I had the chance to speak with the News Product Managers at Facebook. It was when “Trending” felt very TMZ-like (it has since improved in many ways). I told them I clicked on that section a lot but it always left me feeling guilty and shitty for having read some celebrity gossip or inflammatory headline. I clicked more and more until one day I stopped clicking on that section at all. I stopped looking at it. I wished there was a [x] I could use to close the section. It was a piece of candy that Facebook kept putting in front of me. I started off by blaming myself for eating it but you know what, after a while Facebook was to blame as well. Didn’t they care about my health? Didn’t they want the best for me? Then stop giving me candy.

My guess is the best product designers are going to start thinking more and more about the emotional impact of a product feature rather than just the blunt instrument of “did the user interact.” And the next generation of user measurement tools are going to use machine learning to tell us when someone is having a “high engagement, but low quality” experience and try to rescue them before they abandon. Because today I just look like a highly engaged user until the day I stop coming at all.

 

Why I’ve Had Trouble Writing About Politics Since The Election And How I’m Solving It

There’ve been dozens of blog posts I’ve wanted to write since November 9th. Election Week I was working from New York City and had already blocked out Wednesday morning for “recovery.” I fully expected this was going to be a severe hangover from revelry celebrating our nation’s first female President. Instead it meant getting a straight razor shave to clean away a three month old “rally beard” and deleting the entirety of my Twitter history – roughly 50,000 tweets sent over 10 years (as part of a general cleansing, not because I regretted any of the content).

I’ve continued being outspoken on social media about my political beliefs and will remain vocal. Loudly and without fear. But it’s been difficult to write anything longer. Why? A combination of reasons. My emotions are raw. There were many other hot takes. I didn’t want to speak on behalf of Silicon Valley. I wanted to suggest specific actions and was still figuring out my own plans.

But writing helps me think and helps me commit, so waiting for the “perfect post” became a bigger and bigger obstacle. Instead of attempting to craft something, I’m going to try a different route.

With a hat-tip to Ryan Dawidjan, I’m gonna just keep a single Google Doc where I dump in thoughts, feelings and suggestions about how we can move forward as a progressive political community -> http://bit.ly/HunterWalkPolitics. Maybe every once in a while I’ll write a standalone post here and include a link within the Google Doc, but otherwise I’ll tweet out updates every now and then if I think there’s something useful.

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“Monopoly” Board Game Was Invented By a Woman, Who Was Then Written Out of the Story

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Growing up I LOVED the board game Monopoly. We’d keep a legal pad to track the side deals, such as allowing one player to raise money from another in order to fund the purchase of houses & hotels. But I’d never heard the actual story of its beginnings until recently when I read about The Landlord’s Game, a precursor from which Monopoly was essentially copied.

The Landlord’s Game was invested by Lizzie Magie who actually received a patent on her design in 1904. This was at a time when fewer than 1% of US patent applicants were female. She was also quite the radical, campaigning for equal wages and against a capitalist system which transferred wages away from workers. From The Guardian:

The gender-based disparity in wages upset Magie and she had no hesitation in speaking out against it. Shortly after receiving her Landlord’s Game patent, Magie staged an audacious stunt in which she placed an ad auctioning herself as a “young woman American slave” off to the highest bidder. The goal of the stunt, she told reporters, was to make a statement about the dismal position of women. She described the $10 a week she earned as a stenographer as “slavery of one kind or another” and also said that men were blind to the plight of the victims that the capitalist system created.

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“Stay away from just making what the market is asking for” – How SF Gear Company DSPTCH Thinks About Design

I’ve got a backpack problem. In the sense that I buy too many. My current bag is one that Charles Hudson turned me on to from DSPTCH, a local SF company. DSPTCH founder Richard Liu saw me talking about the bag online (I love it!) and reached out. We had a blast covering all things gear and tech – while drinking coffee from Ritual, a few blocks from DSPTCH’s first store. 

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Hunter Walk: DSPTCH started in 2010 as a side hustle out of your apartment. What gave you the confidence to start scaling and make it your fulltime gig?

Richard Liu: There just came a point where I knew the extra time would be quantifiably better for the company. I think the idea of going full-time is often romanticized and becomes an emotionally-driven decision. But for me, I wanted to wait until the last possible moment where I absolutely could not take it further running it in the arrangement at the time.

Practically speaking, the burning need was to begin hiring employees so that I could spend more of my day on product development, partnerships and driving sales. The majority of my hours was previously being spent on the logistical side. At some point along the timeline, it’s absolutely necessary to bring on a team you can trust so that you can focus on other areas that will help grow the business.

HW: For a few years you were online only but now have SF, NYC and Tokyo stores. Why take on the costs of space, salespeople, etc? Do you think about them as showrooms for your brand or does physical retail still matter?

RL: Physical retail absolutely still matters. I’ve spent most of my corporate career in online acquisition marketing and while the numbers always start out nice, there will always be a ceiling of how much profitable marketing one can do through the web. We don’t have a budget that has to be spent so I wanted to think outside of online acquisition. I still believe that people want to get out of their house and experience a tangible buying process. In addition, since we never had a need to show a certain amount of growth (or any growth for that matter), I was able to think and invest in more long term thinking like nurturing and establishing a profitable retail store.

We started small and tested the market for retail before jumping right in to a long term commercial lease. Once I was able to feel confident that we would be able to break even at the very minimum, it felt that the brand awareness and recognition would almost be a residual benefit (less the stress I endured opening these things up).

So the short answer is: the costs and burdens of physical retail are acceptable to us since we have a clear and short path to profitability for each location. Being able to showcase the brand, build awareness, and create more face-to-face interactions are all important ways to build the brand for a physical good.

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HW: The last few years we’ve seen the rise of new brands using technology to own their supply chain, create direct relationships with their customers, manage their back office and so on. How have you leverages tech and software to grow DSPTCH? Where has tech fallen short for you?

RL: At a high level, technology has created many ways to increase our productivity while also providing freedom to run the business from anywhere in the world. I’m able to create shipping labels, answer customer emails, coordinate product development from any computer with an internet connection (I’ve actually had to do this many times from various internet cafes while on travel).

As far as where there’s further opportunity for technology in our business, I’m definitely looking forward to better ways to interact with customers. We still rely heavily on email for interactions which can be cumbersome. Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time looking into what our best options are for a company of our size but my perception is most of the solutions are made for larger companies with dedicated support employees. If I could build anything, it would be something like an external-facing Slack channel where a customer could pop in, chat with any of our employees and then disengage once the issue or question was resolved.

HW: How about the role of social platforms in spreading the word about DSPTCH – Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat? Where have you invested energy for a brand presence and why?

RL: We’ve invested most heavily in Instagram by far above the rest. Given that our early products were all in the realm of photography, it was a natural attraction. The viral nature of it has been incredibly fruitful in building awareness and oftentimes conversion as well. We use Twitter also but it’s basically like the digital version of the sign we tape up the store window. Pinterest has been great organically but its long term strategy with brands hasn’t been clear to me, as well as what I’ll get back by actively managing the platform. There’s so much great stuff that happens organically on Pinterest.

Snapchat/Story-based social media has been an interesting challenge. We’ve held back on all forms of that since I’m still not totally comfortable with the idea of an ephemeral marketing channel. Yes, great for adding personality but when you spend most of your days trying to drive sales, not always the clearest path to a conversion. And honestly some(most) days I really don’t have anything that interested to show on it. Somebody wants to look at me going through spreadsheets, Google analytics, and paying bills? It might shatter some illusions that running a company is mostly spent on fun stuff like doodling and coffee with hip people. I heard Casey Neistat refer to this as “forced positivity” which I think can be dangerously misleading, especially to young entrepreneurs. It is a hard, hard road.

HW: So far you’ve bootstrapped DSPTCH but we discussed how you periodically get approached by investors. What factors into your decision to continue without outside capital? Can you imagine taking on investors in the future?

RL: The main factor has been whether I will have the freedom to go where my intuition and research tells me to go. DSPTCH has largely been run with a foundation of trying to stay away from just making what the market is asking for. The financing side is certainly an attractive angle, but I’ve never acquiesced to the idea that our company needs to always grow and try to be a household name. I’m enjoying our current adolescent stage and things continue to chug along without a need to bring outside help in. My main factor would be how it would impact our decision-making process and whether I could continue to lead the company down the path I choose, even if it’s dark and narrow.

I wouldn’t completely write off bringing in some type of investment later down the road but it will take some changes to the landscape for me to bring considering it as necessary to achieve the goals I have for the company.

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Internet Troll?

Twitter Trolls Should Lose Ability To Include @Names in Tweets

The @name is one of Twitter’s most powerful mechanisms for generating conversation and the @ convention has transcended their platform to become identity shorthand (if not actual protocol). Last summer in the midst of Leslie Jones’ harassment episode, I suggested that Twitter doesn’t do enough to think about how @names (and intent of the tagging) factor into their abuse policy. Basically the concept that when an @name is inserted into the tweet, it becomes targeted, the difference between just expressing an opinion about a person and the desire for that person to see the opinion. For example imagine these two tweets:

“Hunter Walk is an asshole” vs “@hunterwalk is an asshole”

The former doesn’t appear in my mentions. The latter does. I never see the first unless I’m actively searching for my name on Twitter. The latter does regardless of my desire to interact with the sender. Accordingly, once an @name is included, the standard for harassment should be lower, because intent can be assumed.

I still don’t understand why this seemingly doesn’t factor into Twitter’s policies and why they’re not stricter about harassing messages including @names. But witnessing a woman I follow on Twitter deal with yet more harassment gave me another idea that builds off of this previous post: Twitter users who troll should lose the ability to use @names in their tweets. That is, if you tried to include @hunterwalk in your tweet after being put into this purgatory, it would either be blocked all-together (ie you’d have to remove it in order to send the tweet) or it wouldn’t register as a link/mention. (While the second option makes more sense IMO, I think it’s much harder to implement technically).

So a Twitter account state in-between “in good standing” and “suspended” would be “lost @name privileges.” These accounts would lose the ability to hurl their invectives and vileness in a manner which forces their victims to see the words through their normal use of Twitter.

Generally, Twitter continues to miss their chance to rebuild trust that they’re working to combat harassment on the platform. Outside of some high profile banning of racists, I’m struggling to think of major commitments made by the executive team. I know Twitter management cares but there’s more to be done. Why not start 2017 with a public roadmap of what’s going to be delivered and the appointment of an Ombudsman/PublicEditor employed by the company who will blog periodically about their view of how Safety at Twitter is functioning?

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Once You’ve Raised a Series A, Add an Outside Director

I’ve seen an unexpected benefit to founders of Homebrew’s ability to serve on your Board from Seed until B Round — you get an easy opportunity to add an outside Director earlier than most startups. Let me ‘splain.

If you have a seed fund and/or founders who aren’t interested in creating a Board together, you’re likely waiting until Series A to add an investor. That traditionally means a three person Board (two founder seats and the Series A investor). When the startup then raises a Series B, you’d see the Board expand to five with the inclusion of the Series B fund and a common seat that will likely be awarded to an independent.

So, I think this is suboptimal and handicaps the founders. We’ve already written about why a good Board can be of help to even a seed stage venture, but now a few years into Homebrew, there’s an interesting side effect — you get to a five person Board faster, which eases the addition of an outside Director. See, take the math from the paragraph above and just advance it a stage – three person Board at seed and five at Series A.

For example, BuildingConnected, which completed its Series A, has a Board consisting of the two founders, me (seed), Crosslink (Series A), and an extremely impressive industry executive as the independent. He’s added a lot to the strategy, puts in time & sweat outside of Board meetings and is an excellent truth-teller to rest of us.

I’m not the only VC who believes — Foundry’s Brad Feld wrote about the value of an excellent outside Director. Sometimes I have founders ask me for advice about Boards and early stage companies which veers into the “I don’t want to lose control of my company” fear. My general belief is that a good Board is 10x better than no Board and a bad Board is 10x worse than no Board, so it all comes down to your investors and whether you’re creating a Board composition that will be there to help you. At the earliest stages there’s very little way to “lose control” of your company when it comes to the actual ownership and Board, unless you’re taking non-standard terms and working with investors who aren’t traditional, ongoing tech VCs. Don’t do that.

Another proof point here – if I was evil, I’d want a small Board where investors have outsized influence. Instead we’re suggesting you add an outsider that founders and investors think can add value but isn’t beholden to anyone. OMG!!!! 🙂

Anyway, if you’re a Series A or B company and you don’t yet have an outside Director as part of your Board, I believe you’re losing out on an opportunity to get input, guidance and credibility from an addition that goes beyond just bringing someone on as an advisor.