The Internet as Echo Chamber

… and social media even more so. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one I’ve been realizing first hand over the last few weeks. While the Internet makes it possible to contact and communicate on an unprecendented scale, it’s easy to simply walk in the same circles. It’s easy to hear and say the same things over and over again. It’s easy to follow the same sorts of people on Twitter, to be involved in a single, mostly homogenous community. And while this can certainly be interesting and enjoyable for a while, in the long run it is at least boring and (I suspect) even actively harmful.

Perhaps the truth is that I’m just bored. I’m bored of shiny Apple stuff, I’m tired of the newest Nexus hardware. I’m tired of startups whose products and services mostly just make me go ‘meh’. I’m tired of Twitter and Facebook dumping endless streams of I don’t even know what into my brain 24/7. I’m tired of endless discussions of best vs worst. I’m tired of vapid claims proclaimed as gospel truth without any proof or logical chain of reasoning. I’m tired of blandly homogenous groups of mostly mediocre individuals claiming to be “the best of the web” without a shred of evidence or a hint of irony. I’m tired of people expecting for-profit corporations to behave like public utilities and then being outraged and surprised when they act in favor of profit rather than social good. I’m tired of the Internet as an echo chamber.

No, I’m not quitting the Internet. Or going on an “information diet” as seems to be all the rage nowadays. No, I still love the Internet. Without it I would have known far less about computers than I do today. Without it I wouldn’t be where I am today. Without it I wouldn’t be talking to my parents and my friends on a daily basis basically free of charge.

I love the Internet, but not all of it. I love Wikipedia (please donate today), I love Google Search, I mostly like Lambda the Ultimate. I love the wealth of technical information and good books online, mostly for free. The Onion is killer. Reddit has its moments. But I could do without Hacker News. The Internet may be an information superhighway, but I really don’t want to go to all the places it leads. In fact, it’s best used when I have a clear(ish) idea of where I do want to go.

In some ways, the Internet is two things: it’s an information resource and it’s a communication tool. The two can be quite separate. Lately I’ve been finding myself using the former aspect more and more. As I throw myself into research and hacking and building, the Internet seems more like a library than it does a meeting place for all and sundry. This Internet is quieter, less chatty, slower, calmer. There are still voices, but they’re time-shifted, they’re softer, there’s a certain distance between me and them. In this Internet, the ideas come first, the voices later. This is the Internet in which people are building hobby operating systems for new hardware platforms. This is the Internet where people write programming languages and complex systems for fun. This is the Internet where I discovered Lisp and Linux and functional programming. This is the Internet as I first remember it.

Things change. To hold on to the old (or expect a return to it) is a fool’s errand. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of computer technology and the Internet. But perhaps part of the magic of the Internet is that the old can coexist with the new and you can choose one, or the other, or both. I’ve been choosing the new for a while and it’s been good. But I think it’s time to look back at the old again. For a while, at least, I need to leave the echo chamber and find a nice quiet corner of the library.

Fake it till you make it

Yesterday I went to a workshop entitled “Finding Balance in the Everyday of Being a Graduate Student”. To the logical, rational, goal-oriented version of my self the workshop was less than stellar. There was little I learned that I didn’t already know and I didn’t walk away with an actionable, checklisted, 12-step plan for being more balanced and productive as a graduate student.

However two useful things did come out of it. First, I remembered the reason I had come to graduate school in the first place – because I want to learn and grow both as a researcher and as a person. Second, I think I realized what “fake it till you make it” means, at least for me personally.

Cornell has a student-run, peer counselling program called EARS – Empathy, Assistance & Referral Service. At the end of yesterday’s workshop, one of the instructors told me that I should consider joining it. It would be an interesting, enriching experience and a good way to meet and work with people from across Cornell. Normally I would have politely declined. I don’t see myself as much of a people person and I’ve never done anything of the sort. The closest I’ve come to something like that is being a Residence Advisor at Lafayette. Though that experience was interesting, it’s not something I care to repeat. I also can be very zealous when it comes to cutting “unnecessary” things out of my life (and keeping them out).

But at the same time, I have been wanting to get more involved in campus and social activities. I’ve been wanting to meet more people outside of computer science and engineering. I’ve been wanting to be part of a larger community. And this was the perfect opportunity. What I realized was that even though I didn’t consider myself to be a natural listener, a counselor or a people person, I didn’t have to be those things right away. Hypothetically, a future version of me is an EARS counselor, involved with the community and has a range of skills and interests outside of programming and computers. But I didn’t have to quietly sit around and wait for this person to magically emerge. I could just do the things that this imaginary version of myself would do. I could sign up for EARS and get more involved in campus and graduate school organizations. In other words I could fake it till I made it.

I could start saying things like “I should act like my highest self” but I think the point is simpler and doesn’t need to be dressed up. There is me. And there is the me I want to be. The best way to close the gap is to do the things that future me does. It’s throwing myself in at the deep end. Now of course, I can’t take this quite literally. Wanting to be a marathon runner doesn’t mean I should go run 26.2 miles tomorrow. But it does mean that I can start running regularly and start eating like a marathoner would.

If I want to be a more socially active and responsible person, then I should do more social activities and take on more responsibilities. Even though I’m no counselor, I think I will sign up for the EARS program next semester. I think this works for more academic matters too. I’m not an expert researcher, but I can start emulating one. I can dive deep into the literature, I can start making small experiments to try out new ideas, I can talk to experts to get a better idea of the open problems, I can take up their work ethic and research thinking.

As I write this, I realize there’s a thin line between pushing myself to improve quickly and overburdening myself and collapsing. I don’t know where that line lies for myself, but I think I’ll find out. I don’t think “fake it till you make it” is a good idea for all things in life and all professions. Taking it very literally is certainly a recipe for trouble. But there is something to be said for pushing yourself and taking the most direct route to the person you want to be. Is this the most direct route? I don’t know, but I’ll found out. Time to fake it till I make it.

An Unexpected Error has Occurred

There are a number of web services I use on casual basis. These are services that I find interesting and somewhat useful, even fun. Every now and then I learn interesting things from them and they don’t require me to devote large amounts of time or energy to them. At the same time, they’re not services I depend on and I wouldn’t be disappointed if I lost them.

I was using one such service the other day, in the form of a Chrome plugin, when I got an error: “An unexpected error has occurred. Please try again”. For a number of reasons, I think that is a particularly bad way to handle an error. I was not told what the error was or why it occurred. I wasn’t told if it was an error on my part, or if something was wrong with the service. I didn’t know if I could do anything to fix it (other than to try again, which didn’t work). There didn’t seem to be any way for me to report this error and I didn’t know if the developers were aware of the error.

Now, I don’t pay for this service and like I said, I probably wouldn’t miss it if the service ended. This is definitely a first-world netizen problem. That being said, I’m assuming that the people running the service want it to grow and prosper (and maybe someday make them money). But I can’t help but wander: how are they dealing with user-end errors? Looking at their website it looks like they’re a pretty small team. Maybe they don’t have the manpower to track down and solve each and every error. As a user (and early adopter) I understand they’ll have growing pains and rough edges, that things won’t work perfectly every time. I’m not very disappointed by the fact that there was an error, but I am annoyed that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I like this service, I think they’re doing a good job. If I could, I would help them by reporting errors. I’ve filed bug reports in the past and I would do it again for a service I like. But I simply have no way of doing it. Almost anything would be a better error message than “An unexpected error has occurred”. Perhaps they don’t want to scare away users by dumping error codes or long error messages, but in that case let me know that the error has been logged. The way things stood, I didn’t know what the error was or that the developers were aware it had occurred.

So here’s the message I would like to give to this startup (and others like it): your users are smart and some of them want to help you. Especially if you’re a new webservice, many of your early adopters may be technically adept people who can file good bug reports and diagnose errors. But they can only help you if you let them. If you don’t want your users seeing long error messages, at least let them know that you’re aware of the error (you are logging errors, right?).

I ended up not using the service for several days because I didn’t care enough to track down the error. I later realized that the error could have been because I wasn’t in logged in to the service in Chrome. This is really something they should have just told me (or even not let me use the plugin till I was logged in). As a final word of advice: don’t be afraid to tell the user when they’re doing something wrong (but do be polite about it).

Postscript I tried to email the startup telling them about this issue, but I couldn’t find an email address either on their website on their blog. Their About page only has Twitter handles for the people that work there. Another note for startups: make it easy for your users to get in touch with you. I’m starting to reconsider the original goodwill I had towards this company.