Communication & relationships

Talking to friends, for no reason at all

[Originally sent out to my brilliant mailing list, to which dozens of people are subscribers.]

I snuck out for lunch the other day and grabbed pizza at a new favorite brick oven spot in Harajuku which happened to be silently projecting Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes on the back wall of the restaurant. (Unrelated, his upcoming film might be the best thing in cinematic history) It’s minimal black and white scenes making for a nice backdrop to the minimal black and white design of the dining room, though I don’t know if that was intentional. If you haven’t seen it and you enjoy people analyzing the subtleties of simple conversations then it’s worth adding to your watch list. I love it, but I can also sit and watch people all day long. It had been a while, but as it played silently I started remembering how fantastic some of the scenes are and decided to rewatch again soon.

Soon turned out to be last night. Michael Booth from the Denver Post originally wrote that “At least three of the spots make the hour and a half worthwhile through an addicting blend of hilarity and beauty” and before last night I would have agreed with that. The movie is made up of these short vignettes, conversations between 2 or 3 people that are completely unconnected, but begin to reference each other as they go. It’s hard to tell what is improvised and what is scripted, and if the actors are playing themselves or characters of themselves. Before I would have said it was worth watching just for the Iggy Pop & Tom Waits, and the Bill Murry & RZA & GZA scenes alone but something else struck me during this viewing.

In the episode entitled ‘No Problem’ Alex Descas and Isaach De Bankolé play a pair of old friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time, but are meeting up because apparently Alex called Isaach out of the blue recently asking to talk. Isaach expresses how happy he was to hear from his old friend Alex and the two agree it’s wonderful to see each other. Isaach then asks his old and obviously dear friend what the problem is, assuming that must have been the impetus for the call. Alex says there is not a problem leading Isaach to question why his friend can’t trust him with whatever the problem must be. This goes back and forth a bit, Isaach obviously cares for his friend and is visibly hurt by the silence, and Alex seems put off by the questioning leading to awkwardness that extends until Isaach decides to take off, leaving the invitation to confide in him open. This is a really long way to getting at the point – there is a notion here that is more powerful than immediately recognizable. The idea that we all have these friends, best friends, who we can not talk to for years and still consider them to be friends.  People who we wouldn’t hesitate to call if we had a problem and would expect the same from them, but in practice don’t even call otherwise.

And why not? Especially as adults the important interactions become fewer and farther between. Somewhere along the way catch up calls became text messages and social media likes.

I started wondering why that is. When I think of my very favorite people on this planet, I’ve actually spoken with very few of them in recent memory. Some I’ve interacted with online, liked a photo they posted or made a quick joke in an ongoing group email thread, but we haven’t really talked. Sure, I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of my very best friends while traveling through their cities but that requires planning and effort, and it’s the exception, not the norm. Living on the other side of the world now only makes that separation feel deeper, the distance that much more tangible.

“These days the people I love are spread so far apart. All out of reach.” – Ache, Jawbreaker

When I was younger, as I imagine many of you will remember, long distance calls were expensive and you had to hack pay phones to have any kind of meaningful chats with friends anywhere outside of your city. I still clearly remember the hours I spent at payphones when I lived in Florida talking with my friend Sean McCabe who lived in Philly at the time. I’d sit outside for 3-4 hours in a stretch. Talking about nothing really, but it meant everything. This was circa ‘95 and while we’d become friends online, when we wanted to talk we still picked up the phone.

And here we are all these years later with a million essentially free ways to video chat and I can’t remember when the last time I had a call with a friend without a specific preplanned purpose. When I think of the last people that I’ve had calls with who aren’t right in my physical vicinity it’s 90% work, 10% family and nothing else. Meanwhile I watch my 9yo son spend every second he can on the weekends FaceTiming with his friends in the US and Europe – time zones be damned. They play video games and watch YouTube on one screen and have another propped up with video just to hang out with each other. He doesn’t realize it now but these are precious, beautiful interactions that at 9 I couldn’t have even imagined having. At that age I was excited to steal 5-10 minutes on the phone with a friend from school, not much more was allowed because those were the days before call waiting and tying up the home line for any extended period of time was not cool.

So it’s easier than ever now, and yet I feel more out of touch than ever as well. I don’t think I’m the only one. One of my standout memories from the last few decades is a call a received from a friend out of the blue for no reason, just to say hi. This is stand out because it’s one of the only times post 2000 that I can ever remember it happening. But why? Are we so busy that we can’t spare a few minutes to reach out to people we love? Are we so stressed that the idea of trying to schedule something is monumental and the mere idea of calling out of the blue unsolicited feels monstrously rude? But maybe we need to be monsters if that’s the case. Scheduling a call for next week seems like it requires a purpose. An out of the blue call today, right now seems like it needs an urgent problem. But maybe the problem is that we haven’t talked recently and that urgently needs to be resolved.

I guess I strive to be both Alex and Isaach, from their own perspectives. I want to be there for my friends if they need me, and I want to be comfortable just calling them out of the blue for no reason. I’m better at the first thing than the latter, but I could be better at both. We probably all could.

Anti-Social Media

No small amount of pixels have been spent talking about social media and a stroll through the Networks or Communications categories on my own blog will  expose much navel gazing. Nabil is continuing to think about these things which I found because Warren mentioned him, while adding some of his own sage advice. I’ve been doing more thinking and less acting on those thinkings recently and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the current state of things. If anything I’m more aware of nuance than I used to be, that is I’ve always been quite up front that my own perspective is just that and shouldn’t be applied to or against anyone else who certainly has their own perspective as well which is equally as valid or invalid as mine. The issue now is that I’ve got more than one use case personally and so what works for my left hand is sometimes more complicated for my right.

People still talk about a blog post I made 7 years ago about why I stopped using Facebook which I still stand behind, for myself, but I also understand how that reasoning in a different context with different people doesn’t make as much sense. I used to think it was a privilege to use social media and I’m much more aware these days that in fact it’s a privilege not to. If your car breaks down in the middle of no where and after walking for miles you find a restaurant and go inside for a drink of water do you complain because they only have bottled water from the brand you dislike and no running water, do you throw the water back at them and keep walking? Or do you drink it so that you don’t die of thirst and then try to find a better option next time? I don’t know what I’m really saying there other than that I can make a weird analogy about anything.

When I lived in Los Angeles if I wanted to see friends I had 100 different places I could go to in a few minutes to do that. If I wanted to talk to people they were all awake and online. If I wanted to see familiar people but didn’t know or care who they were, I had a list of places I could go and for sure would stumble into someone I hadn’t planned on seeing that day. Living in Tokyo is different. I don’t know as many people, the people I know are asleep when I’m awake and coordinating social anything is a struggle. How that translates into online usage is that I find myself missing people that I can only connect with on social media. I went back to using Instagram before leaving LA because I wanted to use it as a portfolio for my photography because that’s where people were looking. I’ve done that, but I’ve also connected to friends new and old and been invited to participate in projects I never would have otherwise. I have conflicting and mixed feelings about this.

I walked away from Twitter for a while at the end of last year which I think was a good hard reset, but I find myself now realizing some of the value that I’m missing from it. I have private Slack teams and mailing lists, but there’s something different about the stream you get from the same people and the stream you get from the open world of the unexpected. I don’t know how I will continue to use these things, but it’s something I’m thinking about. I need to understand the balance between consuming and publishing, for myself. What is it that I want to say, and where & who do I want to say that to? And what do I want to read? I fired up an old RSS reader today too, but I have no subscriptions. I don’t know where to even find a list of my friends feeds anymore. I don’t know who to follow, who to mute, who to ignore. By all this I mean to say that for the last 19 years or so I’ve carried lists from one place to the next, with preset groups to follow and communicate with. I don’t have any of that now, and it’s like slowly wading into an ocean that I know I’ve been in before, but so long away I forget where the drop off is, so I’m being cautious.

On Leaving Twitter

Over the past few weeks I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m effectively done with twitter for personal use. If you know me, you know this is a big deal and I tell you it was not a decision I came to easily, nor one that I’m happy about making. I quit Facebook in 2012 because I didn’t like what the company and the site was doing but I didn’t really use much to begin with so it wasn’t that big of a deal, this however is heartbreaking, and I feel like I’m on some level admitting defeat.

As backstory for those less familiar, I joined what was then called twttr on July 14, 2006 making me one of the first 140 people to sign up for the service, which is only notable really because tweets used to be restricted to 140 characters. Twitter has been a major part of my life since then, redefining relationships and how I interact with people and reshaping communication online in ways I can’t even begin to describe. How I used twitter changed over the years [pt 1 & pt 2] and I spent a lot of time thinking and talking about how it might be used by the world at large. I got engaged over twitter (though I met my wife in person like a normal human). I’ve felt passionately about features that were added, some I loved and some I hated. At one point I changed all of my contact forms to tell people if they wanted to reach me really the best and only way was over twitter.

In 2015 then CEO Dick admitted that Twitter was terrible at dealing with the growing abuse problem and I wrote up some suggestions begging for someone to take note and fix things on this site that I loved. I took a break from Twitter for a while after that when things didn’t seem to change and then a management shake up and reorg changed some things and I hoped for the best and found my way back using it regularly.

My usage of the service has surged and plunged. When I hit 100,000 tweets I reflected on the ephemeral nature of twitter and deleted my entire history and set up a service to automatically delete all tweets once they reached 90 days old. Since enabling that, I’ve never had more than 30 tweets live which is a reflection of how my usage has dropped off. This isn’t because I got bored and went elsewhere, it’s because the site has become such a cesspool that depresses me anytime I use it. And that seems to be the overwhelming feeling others I talk to about it are having as well.

Recently, it’s become very obvious that Twitter’s management has no interest in fixing things, and perhaps they never did. Looking back now it should have been obvious, though I’ll admit I always wanted to give the benefit of the doubt because of how much the site really does mean to me. Earlier this month I announced through my mailing list that I was going to take stock of how I was using the site and refactor. I unfollowed everyone and made a few new lists to try and keep track of what I needed to keep track of, and removed the app from the front screen of my mobile devices. I didn’t use them. I felt better staying away. I’d thought I’d slowly find my way back again, but what I found was that I didn’t want to.

In an ongoing conversation with some friends we decided it really was time to just walk away. They agreed on using a hashtag to rally people around the idea, and I supported them on that but I didn’t use the hashtag myself because for me it was more personal. I wasn’t leaving because everyone else was leaving , I was leaving because that was the only thing left to do. I’ve tried, I’ve begged, I’ve hoped and nothing helps. The site I loved is gone, maybe it’s been gone for a lot longer than I want to admit. Maybe I’ve been hanging on longer than I should. It truly hurts to do it, but it’s time. So I’m done. Personally. I’m out.

There’s talk of “twitter alternatives” and last year I wrote a bit about Mastadon which is the most promising though it’s not perfect and nothing ever will be. I don’t really know if I want to just shove something else in the twitter sized hole in my chest right now. I don’t how how I’ll do the things I’ve come to rely on twitter for. How will I find relevant news or find out what my friends are doing. I’ve entirely given up on “networking” because I found it was easier to just ping people on twitter when I needed to, so I’m really cutting off some of my ability to find people. I hope I find a better way to do that. Maybe it’s linkedin. Maybe it’s an RSS reader. Maybe it’s lots of different private slack groups. A massive chunk of my adult life has revolved around this site, so I feel a little lost without it. But I feel better without it, so I know finding a new path is the way to go.

[This is also posted on Medium if you want to share it there.]

I’m going AFT for a while

(This is excerpted from my latest email newsletter. No way I’m tweet storming this.)

“I’m done, for now, with spending lots of time in the public online space.
I want conversations, in DMs or emails or channels. I want time to think.
I want to look at the sky and listen to the world.”
Warren Ellis, Blood Work

I think the above sentiment captures a lot of what I’ve been feeling and have alluded to here and elsewhere. For me it boils down to a few things – “social media” as it were, just isn’t fulfilling for me anymore. I feel like I’m chasing something that no longer exists. What once provided community now feels empty. It makes me frantic because I’m not satiated, so I refresh, reload, keep looking and eventually walk away worse off than I started. It’s disappointing because I feel like there was so much promise. Maybe I just miss what once was, and want something more than it can provide. And realizing that, or perhaps accepting it, means continuing to look for something in a place you know it doesn’t exist is silly.

I’m taking a break from twitter for a while. I’ll be AFT. Away from twitter. That’s a terribly hard thing for me to say, and to accept. That site changed how I communicate with the world, it helped me find my voice, helped me find an audience, and helped me see the world through so many others eyes. It’s not the site it was anymore and I need to stop hoping it magically will be. For ages now I’ve pointed people there first and foremost for me. I was one of the first 140 people to join the site and now, 9 years or so in, I can’t even imagine how much of my life has been spent pinging their servers. I’m not sure what I have to show for that either. A few fantastic friends for sure – but can I say I wouldn’t have met those people elsewhere? I don’t regret any of it and I’m not saying this to be remorseful, rather I just need to walk away for a bit to get some perspective. I wasn’t really using Facebook when I quit it and I’ve never regretted that decision. I don’t ever think about it and don’t care what I’m missing. Right now I can’t imagine Twitter not being a part of my life, but I need to be able to do that. I need to figure out how I think through ideas and how I relate to other people without it revolving around a single website. Maybe I won’t be able to stand it and I’ll be back. Maybe I won’t. We’ll see how it plays out.

As I mentioned in my internet vacation thoughts, I’m not going offline – just rethinking what and when I use which things – and for what purpose.

What are we so afraid of?

Why are we so sure we know, and why do we care what everyone else thinks of us?

Road Closed

 

I’ve been noticing this come up again and again recently. It’s entirely possible it’s been a common topic before I noticed it but since I started paying attention, I see it everywhere. Last January I wrote a blog post/confession coming clean to the notion that I assume everyone around me has it all figured out and by some stroke of chance no one has realized that I’m just making it all up as I go. Yet. And the subtle back of your mind stress that goes along with such a thing. I number of people reached out to me and thanked me saying they were so happy they weren’t the only ones who felt that way. These were all people I respected and looked up to in ways, and people I knew had it all figured out— something didn’t add up.

Some people told me to look up impostor syndrome which I’d never heard of before but haven’t gone a day without hearing about it since. Remember in 2007 or whenever when every single person you met claimed to have ADD and that was the excuse for some weird personality fluke of theirs? I feel like impostor syndrome is the ADD of 2013.It keeps coming up in conversations, conferences, podcasts and blog posts. Everyone is an impostor it seems, or are they?

There is a terrific episode of WTF with Marc Maron where he’s chatting with Dan Savage, and they discuss that— at least in the US— only in-the-closet gay guys and straight dudes are constantly worried what other people think about their sexuality. Constantly worried that some action, some comment or some ill perceived glance will make everyone around them think they are gay. (Or in the case of the closeted ones, something will give away their secret) He added that women don’t generally have this concern because society is largely cool with a little girl/girl action without any assumption that either girl must be a lesbian for this to happen. And similarly no gay guys are worried about being accused of being straight, regardless of wether they ever had a straight sexual/romantic relationship. A gay guy can admit to dating women in college and not have their sexuality questioned, yet some straight guys are worried if they sit too close to another dude everyone will assume they are gay.

Tara just wrote a heartfelt post here on Medium about being afraid of turning 40. About thinking her age somehow reflects her usefulness, and the assumption that people are constantly judging her because of it. She points out that she never considers other peoples age, but is sure everyone is thinking about hers and afraid that they will assume she’s too old and thus must be out of touch. Of course she’s amazing and talented and has a line of people fighting for her time and attention. That’s not something that will suddenly change when she has one more candle to blow out on her birthday cake — but that doesn’t play into her fears.

I think with all of these examples, what it boils down to insecurity, but why are we as a society so insecure? Why do we care what anyone else thinks? It’s as if we can’t be comfortable with ourselves without someone else’s approval? Do we really think that lowly of ourselves?

I like to think that heavy doses of punk rock growing up was something of a don’t-give-a-fuck vaccination and I now have a healthy immunity to a lot of this. And I also feel fortunate to be able to quickly suss out what I can control and what I can’t, and then not stress much about things that are outside of my hands— what someone else thinks of me is planted firmly in the latter category. But even then I occasionally find myself wondering what people actually think of me. And I’d be lying to suggest I wouldn’t prefer that those opinions are positive, but I’m also not willing to compromise myself in hope of that. Perhaps that’s a different conversation but it took me many years to be comfortable in my own skin, as a kid I certainly wasn’t. I wish I could point to a single thing that helped me turn that corner but I can’t really put my finger on it. I don’t know what advice to give people, I don’t know what advice I would want to hear. Or would listen to now or then.

I think the main the thing is— we have to be comfortable with who we are. If we like ourselves then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks because we know we have value, we know we’re worthy. If we don’t like ourselves, we’ve been listening to the wrong people and need to tell those people to GTFO of our lives. Or change the channel. For me, I think I’m just going to try and be more vocal about telling my friends and people I care about that I like them, not what they can do, or what they can do for me. Maybe I can’t change the world, but I can start with my circle of friends.

(cross posted to Medium too)

Message Boards might just be the solution to Comments

In the mid 90’s the community where I spent the most time online was Alen Yen’s ToyboxDX. This site was the epicenter of the Japanese toy collecting world, and naturally in our pre-twitter, pre-blog, pre-social networking world, the message board there was where all the action was. This was also a pre-wikipedia world so research was much trickier and that message board was invaluable for those of us trying to figure out what toys which companies released and when. I still have good friends who I first met soaking up details about rare chogokin and sofubi there. We had built a vintage toy nerd utopia… and then the Transformers kids showed up with their unrefined discussion about toys made in the 80’s. People threatened to leave the site because it had become a cesspool of US released plastic toy talk. It was a nightmare as you can imagine.

Until someone had an idea – what if, all Field of Dreams style – we could build something for those Transformers dorks that would be more appealing to them and would get them out of our faces. We made a special “Transformers” section of the message board (along with an “off topic” ghetto) and instantly the problem was solved and the classic toy threads returned to their previous unmolested toysnob glory.

In the years since then I’ve thought about this strategy time and time again when working with communities online. Adjusting where someone hangs out is easier than adjusting how they hang out. It’s not about getting someone to talk about something else, rather finding the right place for what they want to talk about.

Encryption and Privacy – What I’m Using

Texture

[Originally posted on Medium] Can you imagine if an email program shipped today without a “reply all” feature? Or a browser shipping without tabs? It’s a crazy prospect because those things are used so frequently used, to not include them would ensure instant death for this new software. I’ve often complained publicly that privacy and encryption tools aren’t thought to be just as crucial, and expressed some annoyance that developers don’t consider them mandatory. Afterall, if these options were baked in and simple people would use them all the time, right? Or at least much more frequently. Recently a friend threw this back at me and asked if we, all of us, are not to blame for these things having a low priority because we neither use them regularly nor demand their inclusion in our software?

I initially objected to this idea, but the more I thought about it the more it rang true. Saying “it’s too hard to use so I’m not going to bother using it” doesn’t provide any motivation for people to make it easier because hell, people aren’t using them anyway. On the other hand if people used these things regularly and “how hard it is” became a common gripe, then making it easier would suddenly be very attractive. Looking at it this way, maybe we really do only have ourselves to blame that these technologies and assurances aren’t ubiqitus. And when faced with a realization like that, I always feel like I have to at least try.

So I spent a few days looking back over the tools I’ve used in the past, the tools I want to use now and bringing things a bit more up to date. There’s always a balance between convenience and usefulness because I know myself and if something is a pain in the ass I’ll eventually stop using it. So one of my main criteria here is that is has to be easy to use, even if there are a few hoops to jump through in the initial set up stages. I’m a Mac users and do a lot of my work in the browser so I have a preference for tools that “just work.”

As I have these conversations with others from time to time, I thought I’d share what I found and what I implemented so that perhaps others might find something useful in the mix. I don’t pretend to be an expert here and welcome suggestions for improvement.