Online community biases


There are a lot of discussion online about a huge number of different topics. That’s fantastic news, I’d love to had a learning tool that powerful when I was in school. To share some of my interests, and have other people to talk about “cool stuff” and learn from them. Online communities have speed up personal and technological growth intensely, allowing people from around the world to share knowledge and to feel close. But, on the other hand, these kind of communities get naturally and subtlety biased. While this is normal, and probably unavoidable, anyone participating should be aware that the so-called “real world”, or even the community as a whole, is not a perfect extrapolation of it.

Totally scientific data, properly labelled

Totally scientific data, properly labelled

It is quite spread the idea of the “1% rule” over the Internet. A1% of the community will be the most active, driving the discussion, generating the subjects that will be provoke discussion, etc. ~10% of the people will collaborate, comment, retweet, add their impressions… And the rest will just consume it and learn from it. This distribution seems to be present in any community big enough. It makes sense, there’s only a very limited number of people that can be creators (I’ll call them leaders), there is a bigger group of people willing to spend time and effort collaborating (I’ll call them participants), and then the rest that are interested, but not willing to spend a lot of time (I’ll call them consumers).

But, here is the interesting part. The 1% is not a perfect representation of the whole.In fact, it can (and normally will) be pretty biased. That’s something quite natural. After all, leaders are different from the majority of the community, or they won’t be leaders. But other than their tendency to stand up, to speak up, they can have a lot of significative biases.

For example, a clear example of that are so-called “hardcore gamers”. While the statistical profile of a “gamer” (someone that enjoys video games from time to time) is very very broad, the “hardcore gamer community” is the most vocal. The discussion about games is centred into big AAA games (GTAs, CoDs…), and, to a lesser degree, to big casual games (FarmVille, Candy Crush…) and interesting indie experiments (Gone Home). The main idea someone will get is that “gamers” are mainly young, male and like to play for hours, when that’s not a good statistical representation of the community. Keep in mind that 45% of players are female, and a third have over 35 years. There are discussions about “what is a game and what is not” (meaning, “I’ve decided that you’re not playing games, OK?”), entire genres that are often ignored by everyone, and a general perception on what “real gaming” should be. A very good indication of that are the recent rants against microtransactions[1]. Sure, they feel wrong for a lot of people that is used to get a whole game for a price, and play it all. But I’m afraid that a lot of people right now spend a small amount of time playing and they just don’t feel like committing to a game, and Free to Play model present advantages to that kind of player.

I really don't see the point denying that this a game. It may be a BAD game, though.

I really don’t see the point denying that this a game, even if is a BAD one.

I am not arguing that biases are good or bad. Some will be good, because will bring focus to a chaotic community, some will be bad because will represent a minority that think they are the only “real” members of the community. Probably each of us will have a different opinion about which ones are positive or negative. What I am trying to say is that they are unavoidable.

Let me focus in development, as is the one community that I am most interested in. In the general online developers community, there are some biases that I think are quite strong, and probably not perceived from leaders and participants (after all, it mostly resembles them).

The community is young. This is clearer in the participants group than in the leaders one, after all, wisdom and insight are a good qualities for being a leader, and those comes mostly with age. With youth comes new views to change the world, but also naïveté and inexperience.

It is driven mostly by Americans (and foreigners living in the US, to a certain degree), not only by the strong position US has in tech, but also because the online lingua franca is currently English. In particular, it is very centred into Silicon Valley because is where the most discussion-driven companies of the world are based. Both well established companies and start-ups.

The most talked technologies are web tech (both front-end and back-end), with mobile apps in a second place. There is comparatively few discussion about desktop applications (which are the basis of everyday work), and even less on areas like embedded systems or commerce backends (including banks).

All those biases (there are more, of course, but just to limit to these three) work together in ways that some times are curious. Like assuming that most people are able to earn a Silicon-Valley-level salary, or that access to a computer (or even worse, Internet) in your teens is granted. Also, grammar errors are unforgivable mistakes a lot of times that should be pointed (and forget about things like transcript conference talks). Products are only relevant when they’re launched in the US, and everyone went to an american High School (which, as depicted on media and comments seems to be the Worst.Place.Ever.). That hardware come, out of the blue, from time to time, so we can run software faster. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

I may have a biased idea on how US High School is.

I may have a biased idea on how US High School is.

I don’t know, from my point of view, given that I don’t share a lot of those biases (I can’t honestly consider myself “young” anymore, I am a Spaniard living in Ireland, and I spent half of my career working on non web technologies[2]), sometimes I get baffled by online discussion, especially the ones that talk about the community (as opposed to the tech, which is a different issue). My main concern with all the system is that everyone (participants and consumers in particular) will assume that every single issue raised by leaders can be translated directly into the general community.

Just to show an example, there is a lot of discussion about what makes a great developer and the proper strategies to hire them. Some ideas that could work for hiring a young front-end developer in San Francisco may not work as well on other places, for different technologies. There is always discussion about being a founder in different countries, and, as you can imagine, the experiences are quite different. Different legal system, different business cultures, etc…

Being in contact with communities where you’re talking to what in many aspects are your peers is absolutely fantastic, You can relate to them in a lot of things. That’s why you’re part of the community. Heck, I learn a lot everyday. But we also need to take some distance some times, be a little critic on some subjects and try to adapt what we learn to our particularities. Because  chances are you’re  biased in a different way than the leaders and participants of the community.

1.I don’t like the microtransactions thing, but I just think that there is a business case for it.

2. Embedded software related to satellites and industrial control systems.

“Blog is dead” and the change in information consumption


I read this post about the “Blogs are dead (we’ll not really/but they are)” thing…

Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.

Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.

It is curious, because I’ve never used blogs (or RSS, for what matters) as a way of “reading the news“. I think all the alternative ways of communication (Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, etc) are very good for talking about the now.

Twitter is great, but a timeline is really focused in what’s going on today. That’s great, but I can easily miss articles, because, for any low number of people you follow, you simply need a lot of time to be “updated”. And is hugely biased over people tweeting a lot. Again, is a great tool. It’s fast and it’s great for provoking conversation. And incredibly funny. I use it everyday, but it is not a good tool for deep thoughts, or for learning.

Facebook? It’s oriented to friends and family. It’s great to keep in touch, to share photos, but it is oriented on the personal side.

Reddit or Hacker News? Great curating content and discovery, but I lack control over what is displayed there. I can’t follow someone that I (not a community) find interesting.

Those are all great tools for discovering. For sharing content. But I still value a lot my personal RSS selection, when I have been selecting channels for years. I think is (so far) the best way of following articles that aspire to talk about something more permanent than this week sensation. I have an automatic reading list of “things I don’t want to miss“.

It is probably true that blogs (and RSS syndication) are not “hot” and that now teens start using other tools, and public spotlight is in other technologies. I’m fine with that, I understand that the rest of the tools are fantastic and fill different needs. But I still think that blogs are the best posible tool at the moment for the kind of deep exposition of ideas that I still like, including the strongly personalised selection of my sources. 

I’ve also argued that they are good for creating a community of readers and the comments on blogs typically add value to the original article. I know that I am on a minority here, but I think that the comments on blogs belong with the article, not on a external service.

I guess that I think that just because something is not “the next hot thing in tech”, we shouldn’t be treat it like it is dead.

Rockstar programmer and Rockstar teams


There has been some discussion about the so-called Rockstar Programmer. You know, that awesome engineer (also called 10x engineer) that can produce what 10 other, average engineers can.

This post by Scott Hanselman[1] fueled some discussion on Hacker News. What has been overseen about the original post is that he advocates about 10x teams.

That resonates a lot, because I think that we should agree that, while there is people with potential to be ninja programmers, that’s not something that can be achieved without the proper care on the environment.

A good team is one that reinforces the good points of their members while hiding away (or at least mitigating) their weaknesses. It makes not sense to talk about a guru engineer that can come in a parachute in a project (any project), replacing an average Joe on a 10 members team, and simply double their output! And, after a while, she’s probably take her umbrella and fly away to the sunset (to a better payed work, one can only imagine)

If we use a low-level warp bubble around that code, we could reduce its gravitational constant, making it lighter to push!

If I use a low-level warp bubble around that code, I could reduce its gravitational constant, making it lighter to push for the rest of the team!!

Real life just doesn’t work like that. Everything is a little more complex. A toxic team or project can be beyond salvation. A regular programmer can achieve a lot just by giving some motivation and direction. A great engineer can be disastrous working in a particular area.

Do you want to see someone transformed from an x programmer to a Nx programmer? Just take a look on the same engineer the first day in a new job and then again after a whole year. The first day she’ll have to ask lots of questions. After a while, she’ll be committing patches, and, later, she’ll reach a cruise speed much much faster than the first couple of days. Or… maybe she is an x programmer, and during the first days she was a x/N programmer. Mmmm….

I also like how Haselman he approaches the subject talking about “titles” and “loud programmers”.  The Rockstar Engineer idea is more a recruitment-marketing issue. It is used to hype possible hires: “Hey, we are a Rockstar company and we are looking for Ninja developers. Maybe you’re an Stellar Programmer”. It has been so used that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. I’ve even seen a job offer asking for a Python Admiral[2]. It is currently more a way of signalling spam than any other thing. [3]

But there is still the myth of “the 10x programmer”, not as a way of describing that there are obviously people more productive than other (and who can reach high notes), but taking for granted that is mostly a characteristic of the programmer itself, while the truly stelar results are achieved mostly when the environment is the  adequate. A lot of the great results in a team is not a magical increase in productivity by some gifted individual, but more the constant improvements in the good directions or good vision to focus in what’s truly relevant. A single good developer can move quite fast in the good direction not because she’s wildly more productive but because she has a clear view and focus.

Because an average programmer can be at least a 5x programmer when the proper details fall in place, and a great developer can be a 1/5x programmer in the wrong place.

1 – He’s also referencing this very interesting article by Shanley.

2 – Mmm, I have two offers, in one they got good salary, decent benefits. But the other one is offering a fleet command. Tempting.

3 – Not to talk about salaries, of course. We talk and talk about 10x programmers, I’d love to see some place offering 5 times an average salary.

Notifications and emails


Air Mail Envelope

Yet another vintage representation of Email

We all now that email, being a technology created a long time ago and developed organically into some sort of lingua franca of Internet persona and communications, has a series of problems. No easy ones. Manage the email is a problem of its own, and there are lots of articles about it on the Internet.

One of the most annoying is the notifications. We all receive too much email that are only reminders of something relatively interesting in a different app. That could be a new comment on a blog post, an update on LinkedIn, or even a new post on a forum (yep, that used to be a huge thing). GMail’s recent move to group together all notification email is a great example that this system is quite inefficient. It is difficult to find the balance between keep a user informed and not sending spam.

To increase the annoyance, notifications typically will be produced in bursts. There is some discussion in a blog, with 4 or 5 messages in an hour, then it stops for several hours, and then someone else post another comment, producing another couple of comments.

My impression is that any serious app that produces a significant number of notifications (not even very high, something like twice a week or more) and wants to show some respect to their uses should move to a notification system. Hey, Facebook has done it. Remember when Facebook used to send tons of mail everyday with new likes, friends and posts? They changed that to make a notification system in their page. That mean you can always close Facebook, and when coming back, you can easily go to everything since last time.

But, of course, Facebook is a special case, because most people keeps it open or at least check it regularly. Most of other apps that are not that frequently used needs to use email, or no one will check them.

So that’s the deal. Send only one email. One saying “You have new stuff on app X. go to this link to check your new notifications. No new email will be sent until you visit our page” And maybe send another reminder after a week (that can be disabled). This way, if I don’t want to go immediately to the page, no more spamy notifications are received. If I’m interested in the app, I’ll check every time I get that email, but the email is not spam. It allows a very interesting natural flow. And it also shows up respect for your users.

PD: Yes, I know that this is inspired by the way phpBB works, but in a more high level approach. Not sure why that way of doing stuff is not more common.

Only external comments allowed?


where_are_my_comments

No spoilers will be tolerated. Thanks.

I’m noticing that recently there are a lot of blogs out there that are not allowing comments.

I am not talking about specific subjects that could be controversial, and have the comments closed to avoid flame wars or trolls. But the total removal of comments, since the beginning. I must confess I don’t understand it, as my way of approaching a blog is not as a closed book, but a place where discussion can improve the original post. Sure, when the number of comments reaches a point, there can be lots of duplicated or low level comments. But I don’t think that a reason to not allowing any. That’s why there are moderation tools.

But, ok, let’s say that I get the idea that a blog post is something complete, and nothing needs to be added to it, as it clearly expresses an idea. In that case, why are there some blogs that, instead of having their own comment system, they are linking Hacker News as a way to encourage discussion? Well, Hacker News is awesome, the community is great and there are lots of interesting discussions there. I check it frequently. But there are problems with that.

First, that you don’t have any kind of control over it. For example, I like to know what are the comments from the original writer. Sure, you can explicitly say it, but it’s not evident. I also like avatars, they help me keeping track of people writing more than one comment or in more than one post. I also like trackbacks. Maybe you prefer those details in a different way, in the exact way that HN is making them. But you cannot decide it.

You also don’t “own” the comments in any way, so if HN decides at some point to delete old comments, you can’t do anything about that. You can’t move them. You are also not notified with new comments.

And finally, my impression is that Hacker News favours the “for new content only”, making people not commenting old posts. That is probably happening everywhere, sometimes I feel that is “not proper” to comment after a couple of days has passed, or if the post is old. With HN comments I think that is exacerbated.

Again, I love Hacker News. But I think that only allowing discussion there is giving away too much.

 

UPDATE: As someone stated on the comments, there are also comments on Hacker News. So feel free to comment here or there! (This blog post wouldn’t be complete without this! :-D )

Say NO to web pages adapted to iOS


I really really don’t understand why there are people that think it’s “better” to replace a perfectly good web look and feel for a stupid “adaptation” to iOS with sliding pages and different layout.

I mean, c’mon, If your page does not have a good design to start with, why not changing that? For both web clients and iOS devices. I remember when there the wordpress plugin for iOS was activated by default and all the blogs changed totally their appearance for a kind of “magazine” that, yes it looked good, but was much more difficult to read.
I get to have a responsive design to adapt the web to some sizes (like a mobile device), but changing fundamentally how your site looks and is designed is totally pointless…

There is one thing that is even worse. Apps that wraps a web site, removing all the functionality of the web browser for a stupid and independent, limited app. And even worse, they will constantly will bother you with reminders to download and install a pointless app.

No, just don’t. It is totally stupid. Work on your web page, get a great design, and make easy for the people wanting to read it, well, easy. After all they’re the ones interested in you….

PD: I think the Android ecosystem is similar. The same applies.

Google Reader as a “Be careful with the cloud” tale.


20130321181637!Google_Reader_logoI have been hit by the recent “readerpocalipse”. I use Google Reader daily heavily, and it is THE main access I use to consume information on Internet. I am taking a look at alternatives, and I (and everyone else that used it heavily) will survive. But I am worried about what impact can this have in the perception and operations of cloud services, specially by Google, but also in general.

During the last years, we have seen a lot of cloud services that the perception has been “this is going to be available forever”. Of course, we knew that it was not necessarily the case, something catastrophic can happen, like the company going out of business. But, in general, if it was from a big, profitable and established company (like Google) and it has a critical mass of followers, the feeling was that maybe it was not going to be upgraded, or could have availability problems, but it will be still there. We awake yesterday in a different scenario.

This is going to make me change my perception of cloud services. From now on, I’ll add an extra care when choosing a service, and that will probably make me use them less that I was doing it before. Specially if I start using it a lot, I’ll try to evaluate more seriously plan B’s and ‘what ifs’. Probably that’s a good thing, as I was probably being a little naïve about all this. I was keeping some minimum backups “just in case”, but I will now probably take everything more seriously and try to store less things in “the cloud”.