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.

Fifteen Years

Disclaimer: I work at Google; the opinions expressed here are my own, not Google’s.

I just passed the fifteen year mark for working at Google. This seems crazy to me – how can it have been that long? That’s longer than I’ve done just about anything.

When people I’m interviewing ask me what I like about Google, why I’m still there (although admittedly not many interviewees think to ask about how long that actually is), my usual answer has two parts:

1. The people
2. The variety

Google has grown immensely since I started working there, and with that growth has come a bunch of new projects. When I started, Google had about five total products (Search, Ads, AdSense, News, the Toolbar, Images, and maybe one or two others I’m forgetting). Now it has… I have no idea how many. Lots. Hardware & software. Cloud stuff. Enterprise stuff and small-business stuff. Consumer stuff. Video stuff. Mapping stuff. Lots of stuff!

And with that variety has come the ability to move around, to change projects, to experiment and try things. My estimate is that I usually spend about two to three years in any given role (sometimes it’s hard to define what a role change really is; some shifts are more obvious than others). I’ve worked on sales tax systems and enterprise administration systems and mapping and search and news and partnership stuff and abuse and payments and for a brief moment while I was trying to figure out what to do next, hardware. In addition to projects, I’ve changed job roles. I’ve taken two leaves of absence and been part of I-don’t-know-how-many teams.

There are areas I haven’t worked in – most noticeably, ads & core search (the big ones!).

Some of my favorite people from the early days are still around. Some aren’t. That’s okay – I’ve learned that the people I most want to stay in touch with, I mostly stay in touch with, and some of the brand-new-hires turn out to become some of my favorite people too. I’m pleased that some of the people I first met on a difficult project over ten years ago are people I work with on a completely different project today.

I’ve always been officially based in Mountain View, but I’ve travelled to offices in Australia, India, Israel, Japan, and in the US, New York. Later this year I expect to travel to Indonesia.

Every so often somebody asks me, “what was it like when…?” and I find that my answers are mostly lightweight. Most recently, somebody asked “was that in your Noogler orientation?” and I replied, “we didn’t have Noogler orientation,” without realizing initially what a big shift that really represents. We didn’t have orientation, or videoconferences, or a homegrown Calendar app, or multiple cafes serving three meals a day, or Android. We didn’t always have enough desks.

But overall, we were held together then, as we are now, by the threads connecting each of us to each other. (Also an enthusiasm for food. We used to have lobster pasta at lunch sometimes. And donuts, dammit!) We are in my experience an opinionated, vocal bunch of well-intentioned people trying to build and do interesting things. We argue, we debate, we try hard to get it right. We put in effort and time and intention. We care.

And I think that’s why, when somebody asks me, “how was it different then?” that I always come up short on an answer. In a lot of ways, of course, it’s very different. The company is something like sixty times bigger than it was when I started. Of course it’s different.

But in a lot of ways, it’s very much the same. And I suppose that’s why I’m still there.

Huh.

Have just discovered that Facebook requires cookies to log in. Contemplating next actions: enable cookies, log in, then delete account? enable cookies, log in, set computer to delete all cookies on logout? do not log in, move on with my evening?

Had been feeling very pleased about last week having blocked Facebook cookies, and hadn’t tried to log in since. Now thinking that blocking said cookies was clearly a good move, that requirement to have cookies pretty clearly indicates direction of Facebook’s business model (as if it weren’t clear enough already). and that accepting cookies is pretty clearly not in the cards as something I’m likely to do.

Well. At the least, I pretty clearly don’t feeling like dealing with this at the moment, so browsing whatever people-just-at-the-edges-of-my-social-circle are up to is clearly not going to happen. Net result is that avenue of procrastination is closed to me for the moment. Not all bad, I suppose.

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