More thoughts by Erin Kissane
I was going to post something else here, about time and travel. But all I really want to say now is that our world is less bright without Aaron Swartz in it. He helped make RSS, Markdown, Creative Commons, OpenLibrary, and Reddit. He did critical work in the open access world. He was extraordinarily generous with his time, which turned out to be heartbreakingly short.
He was a maker and an activist. He helped stop SOPA and founded Demand Progress and illustrated so clearly that change in the world is about more than shouting on the internet.
Rick Perlstein explains a few of the ways in which Aaron strung together our web:
smart, dedicated people like him worked very hard, often with no thought of personal profit or gain, making ours a world of useful data, making data useful, making it possible to have a record of the world as it goes by, making the world more meaningful by making data more human and shapable and direction-ful
There’s so much more, but this isn’t a list. I have no personal remembrances; we never met. The world was better with him in it. There is so much left to be done.
For the last couple of years, I’ve traveled too much. Granted, I was on the road much less than many of my colleagues, who live mostly in airports and hotels and on intercontinental flights. But for me? Too much. I got to too much by saying yes to a ton of interesting things—client work, conferences, unconferences—that made my work life richer and more interesting. But the cost was a sense of constant fragmentation: the feeling that I was always preparing for a trip, or on a trip, or scrambling to catch up after returning. I love exploration, but my ability to think clearly and stay healthy depends on long stretches at home, where I can browse my own bookcases and cook my own food and enjoy my cat and neighborhood and local friends.
Just because I can squash 20 work trips into a calendar year or work full-time plus three crunchy side-gigs doesn’t mean I can do it endlessly or without damaging my capacity for creative work, synthesis, and other things that require a rested, resilient brain. So when I can, I’m going to try to build a schedule that works less like a merry-go-round and more like a vivarium: something quieter and a bit more protective of my energy, my time, and the projects I’m already committed to. And that will mean saying no to even the most enticing new opportunities when I know they’ll send me off course in ways that take days or weeks to repair. It’s not an easy thing for me to do—I’ve been an overscheduler since grade school—but the rewards of doing a bit less are too important to ignore.
In the US, last week was pretty horrible—a bombing, a major industrial explosion, a serious flood, and a stack of bad legislation. On my slice of the internet, the sum of our reactions to a string of awful, nervewracking events was a deafening howl of anger, dramatic opinion, blame, defensiveness, and so on.
But there were also essential things. Friends in Boston sent reassuring messages while a manhunt went on in their neighborhoods. Verified reports from journalists in Massachusetts and Texas arrived to clarify confusions and replace speculation with fact. When things are rough, it’s certainly possible to turn the computer off and walk away, but with so many of my people online, it’s also where I go for comfort and connection.
So in the last week, I’ve thought a lot about what I might do as a listener and a speaker on the internet to try to preserve the good while saving my head and heart from the worst of the shouting.
This is a very sketchy first draft, but it’s what I’ve come up with so far.
Edit the outgoing channel
The only thing I can directly control is what I say. My instincts aren’t always trustworthy in moments of intense anxiety, so I’ve tried to make myself a little list of what to do: ampify emergency relief information, pass along ways to volunteer; send brief words of comfort; do very little else.
Filter the incoming channel
I don’t like what anger and fear—mine and others’—do to my brain and my body, so I filter like crazy:
- Twitter muting: I use clients that allow keyword and user muting, ideally for set durations. I mute specific keywords, hashtags, and people, especially when something crazy happens in the world. It’s a private, non-judgy way for me to keep following people I like but whose responses to crisis events is too loud for my addled brain to handle. (I use TweetBot on iOS and YoruFukurou on the Mac, and I hear good things about Janetter for Windows and Android.)
- Twitter blocking: I’m fine with opinion that sharply differs from mine, but only when it’s civil. I block strangers who appear in my stream yelling at me. I block people who regularly enjoy trolling, and I mute their usernames as keywords so I don’t see hate-retweets. (And I turn off retweets for people who do a lot of hate-retweeting.) I even block people who abuse my friends online. I block a lot. It helps.
- Editorial trolling: On the web, I use host files to prevent blind links from directing me to sites that exist to troll us. If someone links to a piece on Gawker or Slate, my computer hits a nice blank page instead of the article, giving me a chance to realize that I’d really rather not. This is how I edit my Hosts file on the Mac. Windows users can do a version of the same thing, and there are also plug-ins for FireFox and Chrome that block sites, if you don’t feel like messing around with the command line.
- Comments: It’s easy to say “don’t read the comments,” but it’s a lot of work for the brain to ignore words that appear at the bottom of an article. On news sites and magazines I read frequently, I use user styles and content-blocking plug-ins to remove comment sections, lurid “Elsewhere On the Web” sections at the bottom of articles, and even “Recommended for you” navigation that tries to lure me into reading more articles. I think of it as moving processor-intensive work from the client side (my brain) to the server side (my technology).
- Facebook: I don’t use Facebook. That’s not the right choice for everyone, but the political extremes in my immediate family alone make it a source of high-volume quarreling and invective for me, so it’s an easy decision.
By using rules to guide my participation and tech to block the interactions that stress me out the most, I open up time and energy for longer, better conversations with people I love and respect, and I preserve my focus for the projects I choose to spend my attention on.
Most of all, I try to remember this: publishing my worries might let off a bit of emotional steam for me, but if it worsens the anxiety of those in my community, it’s a net loss. I get this wrong more than right, but it’s something I think about a lot.
Breaking news pragmatically: Some reflections on silence and timing in networked journalism, Mike Annany
Quaker Mode, Mike Monteiro
“How are you?”
“Great! Busy. Really good, though.”
“Oh, you know. Tired.”
“Not so well.”
“Fine, fine, how are you?”
We ask each other how we are, how we’re doing, sometimes how we’re “holding up.” When someone asks it in a formal, professional context, it means little more than “hello.” When our friends ask, they usually want to know a bit more, if not every single detail of recent lives. Weirdly, I suspect most of us aren’t in the habit of asking it of ourselves. We question extreme emotions, maybe—“why did that garden-variety comment troll make me so angry?”—but we mostly don’t have a culture of monitoring our well-being in any disciplined way.
This despite the fact that we know, thanks to scads of well-designed and -documented behavioral studies, that the many little, boring ways in which we’re “good” or “great” or “tired” or “fine” affect everything else we do: our judgment, our situational intelligence, our creative ability to synthesize, our emotional resilience.
I developed habits of checking in—of trying to regularly, honestly assess how I am—as a way to deal with being naturally twitchy. My hunger signals don’t keep up with my metabolism, and if I don’t have set reminders to eat every few hours, I get spacier and spacier till I’m useless. Sometime in my 20s, I finally figured out that I could work around the problem by adding checkpoints to my day: Do I have a headache or feel dizzy? Am I having trouble concentrating? Am I writing overlong emails?
That simple idea has gradually evolved into something more central as I’ve observed the differences in my interactions with colleagues who were “inexplicably” cross after a night of insomnia or “mysteriously” unable to make decisions when they skipped lunch. It’s not just me, it turns out—we all have bodies and they mess with us constantly. And it’s not just the physical stuff. Everything we experience affects our ability to focus, do our work, and react reasonably, whether we’ve been arguing with a family member or just refreshing Twitter too much.
So before starting a work session or going into a meeting or making a complex decision, I’ve been trying to check in. What’s going on in there, physically and mentally and emotionally? Is any of it something I can improve by eating a banana, or spending ten minutes reading, or taking a walk? It’s basic stuff, but helps—and it forces me to admit that just as I’m sometimes irritable only because allergies are making my head feel like a bag of bees, the same thing is true of everyone else, too.
How are you?
It’s college graduation season, so there’s been a lot of advice circulating for young designers/coders etc. on how to get a first job and how to succeed at it. A lot of this advice is really good. I want to add a few things from a perspective that doesn’t get much direct attention: what it means to come to a professional world from outside, and how that outsiderness can be both difficult and helpful.
“Outside” can mean a lot of things, and many, many of us who work on the web grew up poor or very far away or without a formal design education or one of a million different outsides. The early web attracted weirdos and misfits like you wouldn’t believe, and many now run successful companies. This is a malleable field, and if you’re interested enough, there’s probably a place for you—but it won’t necessarily be easy to find it. But you don’t have to do it alone.
If you are coming from outside the usual pool of people who work in Field X, you’re going to hit culture barriers. Some of those barriers need to be rattled and eventually demolished, but some are just about a lack of shared context. Open secrets are the hardest ones to crack when you’re coming in from outside, because no one will take you aside and whisper them in your ear. They’re the air everyone else is breathing. If you’re feeling out of place or you don’t know where to begin, don’t freak out. There are ways to pick up the context you need to thrive.
For starters, figure out who your role models are, even if they’re not doing exactly what you want to be doing. Use your role models’ processes and tools in your own experiments, and credit them when you do. Find out what work-related blogs and books they read, what conferences they go to, and how they talk about their work. Read all the things. Watch all the videos. Develop opinions about what you’re reading and hearing—and try to balance negative criticism with generosity, because there are always complexities that are easy to miss. If the stuff you find this way makes you excited to wake up in the morning, you’re heading in the right direction. If it makes you want to barf on your shoes, maybe try a different part of the industry.
You don’t have to try to sound sophisticated or jaded to fit in. People who are paying attention can tell, and it’s better to just be honest and work at gaining the knowledge you need. When stuff comes up that you don’t know, cop to it and then go look it up or ask questions about it during downtime.
And while you’re at it? Build hard skills other people don’t have. There’s a difference between being literate and having a decent editorial eye and knowing how to professionally copyedit and offer kind, helpful, effective editorial feedback to writers. There’s a difference between knowing the basics of a lot of web stuff and being really really good at writing fast, stable applications. Being a generalist is awesome, but you need to work toward clear specializations as well. It’s not either/or.
Do what you say you’ll do. Make yourself as indispensable as possible by actively tying up loose ends and helping with others’ work. Help the people you work with be awesome. Don’t wait for things to come to you—but you probably already know that, or you wouldn’t be here to begin with.
When good jobs go bad
Some companies are amazing places to work. Some are soul-destroying hellmouths. Most are in the middle, but it’s the second I want you to watch out for. At these companies, you will hear that it’s important to be “a team player without an ego,” which is often code for “you will work late nights, weekends, and holidays because that’s how we do it.” You will find that project and product managers don’t have the power to negotiate reasonable deadlines, that contracts go unsigned, and that executive whims regularly derail projects. And sometimes a company is reasonably healthy, but you’ll wind up working with—or for—someone whose workplace behavior would make perfect sense if he or she were five years old.
The hard reality is that you will probably have at least one terrible job, if you haven’t already. And you probably won’t be able to quit immediately, especially if you don’t have financial support from your family, or if you’re reliant on a sponsored visa, or you have kids of your own, or a dozen other things. This is hugely stressful even for people who aren’t particularly vulnerable, and no easy advice helps.
But you won’t be stuck forever. Our industry includes boatloads of kind, generous human beings and plenty of organizations that will support you in having a healthy life. You just have to make a path to get to them. How? Learn all you can where you are. Be good to people. And above all, get outside your company (or regional) bubble, talk to people who are doing amazing things, and ask how you can help. Sometimes you can do it all at the same time. Sometimes you’ll have to take a deep breath and leave a bad situation to get to a better one.
The fact that you’re reading this website suggests that you’re working in one of the few professional sectors that’s actually booming right now, which makes you luckier than most people in the world. You don’t have to settle for misery. Which brings me to your secret advantage.
The dangers of being valuable
There are a lot of open jobs in tech right now that pay a lot of money and offer a lot of perks for people with the right skills. If your background hasn’t prepared you to assume that you’re destined for a high salary job with a prestigious company, this may feel especially surreal. This is good! One of the hidden strengths of being from not-around-here is that some things that seem normal to most people in the field may seem weird to you. And sometimes, sensitivity to weirdness can save you.
You may, for instance, already realize that if you’ve been hired into a prestigious, high-paying job as a junior designer/programmer/whatever, this probably has as much to do with a fluctuating market as with your own skills. If the people you grew up around don’t have access to that kind of job, you probably already know that you can be extremely skilled and work very hard and still barely make a living.
So why is that awareness useful? Leaving aside minor things like empathy and wariness toward entitlement, you’ll be better prepared for inevitable changes in the market value of your own skills. More importantly, you’ll be significantly less vulnerable to one particular flavor of manipulation: When you internalize the idea that you’re precious and irreplaceable in a company or an industry, it’s easy to be wooed into life-altering decisions like handing over years of 80-hour weeks to companies whose work you don’t actually care about. The more you accept this flattery as your due, the easier it is to be hypnotized by interests that conflict with your own.
Keeping the rest of the world—including the part you came from—in your peripheral vision can keep you from getting bewitched.
Here are the dates of Erin Kissane's future thoughts
- Friday, 12 July
- Monday, 12 August
- Thursday, 12 September
- Saturday, 12 October
- Tuesday, 12 November
- Thursday, 12 December