The (online) social network I wish we had

I work at Google. Everything posted here is my personal opinion and content, and in no way Google’s official take on anything at all.

March 15, 2020

Over on Twitter, Jim posts about the Decameron and Erik is discussing pandemic math. My group chat with my writing group covers the challenge that is lunch at home; Kate posts east coast beach pictures to Instagram; my cousin Angela links to a diagram about the safest way to greet someone (middle finger up: no germ transmission! ha); Adam posts a poem that causes me to tear up because it is so right and exactly what I needed to read right now; Estee lists food it might be helpful to have at home in case of quarantine, and how to grow micro greens because you’re going to want something fresh. There are suggestions for how to help out your favorite small local businesses; there is advice for what to tell your children. Everyone who cooks posts pictures of stew; everyone who bakes posts pictures of pie (and other comfort-food desserts).

We’re at home in a way we’re not used to. We’re online in a way we are used to, but in this week’s pandemic-focused world, our online-ness matters more. Online, we’re doing the most human thing there is: gathering together to face down fear. We’re gathering virtually because that’s what we can do right now. We’re gathering, and we’re checking in with the people we care about. Are you there? Are you okay? Are your parents okay? Your kids, the people you love? Your home? Here’s how I’m doing. What about you? I’m scared. I thought of something funny, want to hear it? How are you? Are things okay?

And most of all:

We’re going to get through this, right?

In the middle of all this real-time person-to-person connection that can potentially help us feel less alone, less isolated in our strongly-recommended-social-distancing, gatherings-over-50-people-prohibited and gatherings-over-10-people-strongly-disrecommended context:

Advertisements for vans to go on vacation in

Ads for food delivery

Ads for a new type of women’s undershirt

My hometown’s declaration of a city-wide emergency

Something about real estate

Ads for work-from-home productivity tools

Ads for a startup selling something that I actually cannot tell what it is

 

There are two problems with this:

First, when did it become okay to merge a bunch of commercial demand-generation nonsense in with messages from people we actually care about? In tech we talk a lot about the need to separate work from life – the more I think about it, I think the real split we need is commercial from non-commercial. The mix has snuck up on us so gradually that it’s easy to assume it’s always been this way, that it’s inevitable, but if we were designing this from scratch, is there any way we’d choose this? A discussion about the Decameron that cheers me up because it reminds me of everything I loved about college, a photo from a friend who’s grateful she got her family back to their beach-town home, my cousin’s sense of humor – those are fundamentally different from that undershirt ad. When I want people, I want people.

Note, this isn’t about relevance; most of that commercial stuff is arguably relevant to me, and might even be something I’d be interested in (when I was a kid, I convinced my parents to acquire an RV – the advertised van is four-wheel drive, and I had fun looking at the pictures on the company’s website!). It’s not that I necessarily don’t want this stuff. I might have fun browsing it, the same way I used to enjoy browsing magazines. But if I do want it, I want it somewhere else, not mixed in with messages from people I care about.

Second,  it is just plain frustrating and a bad user experience that all these updates from people I care about are scattered all over the place. I want some kind of hub. I want to not have to think about whether a particular person is on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or has a blog or a group chat or whatever. I want to look at one thing and have everything show up, photos and comments and all. I want to reply or comment or like or send a heart or a hug or a smile or some kind of emoji for sympathy (I don’t know what emoji that would be, advice welcome) from within the single hub I’m looking at, and have it reach the person I send it to on whatever app (or other hub!) they use.

I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t have a particularly great path forward in mind. But – if I’m hopeful that the pandemic brings out the best in us as humans, and I am, I’m also hopeful that it may also cause us to rethink some of the directions we’ve been sending our interactions with each other.

Tech is awesome.

We can do better.

Peace and planning in 2020

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Hiking at the Pinnacles, Dec 2020

A few weeks back I re-read Getting Things Done. It’s a classic of productivity, and I’d been feeling overwhelmed: not by big things, which happily have settled down, but by daily life’s minutia. I needed to wrangle things into place, and make space to move forward.

Getting Things Done is interesting. The core idea involves capturing all the things, getting them out of your head and into some other system so you can free up your brain for other tasks. This resonates with me. I tend to shy away from looking at what I’ve signed up for – I just don’t want to know. But really, I do know, and that knowing drags at me.

As I made my list, beginning to clear the clutter in my head (and make things actionable: it’s not “clean up office,” it’s “put away shoes & makeup”), I started to think about how similar the ideas are to other practices of mental clarity. From Marie Kondo’s “does this spark joy?”, to the early Arts & Crafts movement & William Morris’ “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” to traditional rhythms of spring cleaning or breaking or burning possessions at various celestial or cultural milestones, to cleaning up one’s desk before beginning work – the notion of streamlining, getting things in order, creating a fresh start by creating a fresh sense of place is fundamental. As humans, we tell ourselves this story, these instructions, over and over again.

And so. It’s New Year’s. I don’t have New Year’s resolutions; I’ve learned I don’t think in years. Instead, I have a short list of goals for January and some habits I’m banking on to get me there. I’ve cleaned out my closet and the pantry, and detailed out the spreadsheet that tracks the house remodel. Tonight I’ll celebrate with hot cider and fairy lights on a rosemary tree, and watch my breath steam up in the outdoor cold.

What does your fresh start look like?

The Garden So Far (I)

Or, a few things I’ve learned in the last four years.

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Four years ago, my husband and I bought a house. The upsides of the house were location, views, and the land itself: a third of an acre (in the SF Bay Area, this is immense) on the side of a gently sloping hill, just south of San Francisco’s fog line, angled to get plenty of sunlight. The garden had an established orchard, small green lawns in front and back, border plantings with cheerful flowers I still don’t know the names of, lots of wood-bark mulch, a gazebo, and views out over the southern end of the bay. (Downsides included the physical structure of the house itself, but we didn’t know that at the time, and that’s another story anyway.)

I’d never had a sunny garden before. Growing up on the beach, my childhood home’s yard was all sand. As an adult, I lived mostly in apartments, with one exception of a shady bungalow with a tiny patch of grass and ivy, not much else.

In other words, I had no idea what I was doing.

I had no idea how to go about keeping a third of an acre going. I didn’t even realize that keeping a third of an acre going was a thing. I didn’t know about seasonality, or how it would play out in my new space. I didn’t know about pruning, or fertilizing, or native or non-native plants, or repairing a sprinkler system. I didn’t know about mulch. I didn’t know about when to plant, or not plant, anything at all. I loved sunlight, and plants, and trees, and the idea of growing my own food. I was all in.

Here are the things we learned in the first few months:

  • Before selling the house, the owners and/or real estate agent had done the usual thing (that we didn’t know was the usual thing) of overwatering the yard so the grass would be emerald green but squishy underfoot; planting a bunch of brightly-colored flowers from Home Depot or similar that might or might not thrive in this climate, and might or might not have anything to do with the overall layout and plan of the garden; and weed-whacking all the weeds before covering the remaining weed-leftovers with wood-bark mulch. They had also torn down, then covered with mulch, a small bedraggled shed-like structure made primarily of construction debris from who-knows-when. In combination, all this made the yard as a whole look much neater and better cared for than it actually was.
  • I love sunlight and a big yard even more than I’d realized I would. This was absolutely a worthwhile thing to spend money on.
  • Taking care of a big yard is so much more work than I’d realized it would be, or even thought about.
  • Sprinkler systems wear out, are attractive chew-toys/water sources for miscellaneous animals when the weather gets hot, and generally involve a lot of upkeep.

“Here’s the contact info for the gardeners the previous owners used,” said the sellers’ agent when we bought the house. We nodded, set it aside, and eventually lost it. We didn’t want a gardener. In our previous rented home, the property management company hired gardeners, and we hadn’t liked them. They showed up at unpredictable times, used a leaf blower I didn’t like (I dislike noise, and don’t mind leaves), pruned the plum tree right before the plums got ripe (seriously, who does that?!), and at several points actually removed plants I had carefully purchased and hopefully dug into the front garden. No gardeners for us!

That first year, we turned down the sprinkler frequency and let the lawns dry out a bit. We took out some of the mulch. The front yard got messy. I planted tomatoes in the planters in the back. We talked about what to do with the back meadow. We bought bare-root peach, nectarine, and plum trees; as a side-effect of that, I read several books about pruning fruit trees in general. The first year, I pruned our trees; in a subsequent year, when I broke my ankle on a treadmill (which shouldn’t even be possible, unless you fall off it or something, which I didn’t!, but whatever), we hired an arborist to do it, but after that I went back to doing it myself. I learned that I love pruning trees. I spent hours repairing the sprinkler system. We upgraded our trash pickup service to the large-size yard waste bin, then to two large-size yard waste bins, then three.

The second winter in the house, we learned that all of the windows leaked and began to realize what a disaster of a building we’d bought. We started looking into the large scale remodel we’re doing now, and of necessity shifted our focus away from the garden – mostly.

But this year, I’ve been shifting back. And that’s what I’ll write about next.

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