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.

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