Welcome aboard, new Normcore readers! As it says on the tin, this newsletter is all about the less-examined parts of tech written from the perspective of me, a random data person out there in the interwebs. I write 1-2ish newsletters a week. For more, check out the archives. Onward!
Art: Rice-Cake Making, Asano Takeji, 1949
Last week, the Wall Street Journal had a piece about how Slack made chatting at work easier, but that it has also surfaced patterns of abuse because they’re easier to detect in text-based communication.
But when everyone is working virtually, instant-messaging platforms like Slack can become a dumping ground for grievances, passive aggressiveness and other exchanges that are best left for private conversations, says Victor Cho, Evite’s CEO.
But the casual nature of many interactions also means some people let their guards down, trash talk and act unprofessionally on the channels, some executives say. Since the pandemic, California employment lawyer Amber Bissell says she has noticed an uptick in harassment complaints related to online communications. Some companies say they have installed tracking tools to police online channels for signs of bullying.
This article was sad, but unsurprising, in part because digital harassment has been going on for years, as long as digital communication has existed.
A person is smart. Humans are dumb.
This was proven in a Clay Shirky talk, back in 1993. I’ve written about this talk before, but it’s worth bringing up again because it is just such a good way of explaining the internet.
Clay Shirky argues that we are still in the very early stages of understanding social software, and that in any social software setting, people will follow the rules of people in a group.
And people in a group both act in their own self-interest, and in that of a forming group. Shirky lists several behaviors, based on analyzing previous real-world psychology studies, that people in a group will always engage in once the group forms, that thwart the forward momentum of the group:
the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of members
The group starts identifying and vilifying external enemies (“Nothing causes a group to galvanize like an external enemy.” )
And 3, the group starts engaging in religious veneration—the nomination and worship of a religious icon or a set of religious tenets. The religious pattern is, essentially, we have nominated something that’s beyond critique. (i.e. “Lord of the Rings cannot be criticized in a Lord of the Rings fan website”)
If this behavior is not paired with good moderation, with moderators who have the power to enforce rules, it becomes very bad.
And when this kind of behavior is reinforced even more by the rigid hierarchies of the workplace, where people really can’t speak out in some cases if their corporate hierarchy lets managers and malingeres do whatever they want, or they simply don’t manage the problem, it’s a recipe for disaster.
There have been hundreds of public cases and hundreds of thousands of millions of smaller, unreported cases of harassment, frustration, and just general unease over digital communication in the workplace over the past 20 years.
There is a lot more to explore here, but what surprised me was not any of this. It’s that recently, it’s become trendy, including in This Newsletter,to talk about the impact that Slack is having on the workplace in this way, and in many others.
But how about the tools we’ve been using for the past 20 years? There has been so drastically little breathless coverage of the way the tools we use every day - Outlook, text messages, Excel, git, Google Docs, and other mundane, boring pieces of technology shape the way we work, talk, and think.
Why are there no thinkpieces about how Google Drive is production? Or how the fact that we can receive email on our phones now makes us liable to give up information in court cases? Or even smaller stuff, like what happens when we can track coworkers’ sick days in Excel sheets and they see it? Or coworkers who obsess over your email calendar? (Ask a Manager is an amazing site for stuff like this, and an absolute treasure trove for workplace advice in general. )
Or, the fact that a change in a recent Microsoft Teams retention policy meant that basically all of KPMG’s past chat history was immediately wiped out? (Aside from Ask a Manager, the Sysadmin Subreddit always has the best stories, too.)
Evidently, the accountancy giant's Global Technology & Knowledge (GT&K) group attempted to remove a single user's account from an active retention policy on Saturday, August 15. But the operation didn't go as planned.
"In the execution of this change, a human error was made and the policy was applied to the entire KPMG Teams deployment instead of the specific account," said the internal memo. "This error resulted in the deletion of chat history from end users throughout KPMG."
You truly hate to see it.
And by the way, speaking of Teams, another interesting thing is that no one in the mainstream tech media is talking about Teams breathlessly the way they’ve been talking about Slack for the past five years.
Which is insane, because Slack has only ~12 million active users (if they really are active). Teams has SEVENTY FIVE MILLION. That’s even more users than there are existing Amazon Web Services. Let’s even assume that a lot of those users are only “on” Teams because their company has an Office subscription, and it’s really half of that. That’s almost 40 million users. Still more than 3 times the amount of users that Slack has.
And yet, aside from my extremely astute tweets about Teams, I have not seen much coverage of it or how it’s impacting office life, at all.
Why does this happen? Because I’m Shiny
There are two answers to this question, I think.
The first is that we humans love new, shiny stuff. We love to think about it, to swim in it, particularly the tech press. And the tech press is following what the Tech People are doing. And for a long time, what the tech people were doing was Slack. For a brief period of time, Slack was new and hot (now it’s become more or less a standard part of work life, and so less prone to breathless examination, although if there are some depths of psychology that need to be plumbed, you can bet it will be through the lens of Slack or TikTok.) There were even Slack airport ads (remember airports?)
This is not the fault of the news - we humans are always looking for new patterns, new things to get excited about. We love to be insiders, and to share that insider knowledge with other people. Where this gets tricky is that our internet today is a mindless, forgetful internet.
Thanks in part to Google’s dominance and the ecosystem it’s created, relevance is directly tied to how fresh and new something is. If it hasn’t been covered in the past two minutes, past two hours, past two months, forget about it. It’s in the Internet Vault, locked away, which makes it harder to find and add context from whatever historical period of the internet you need to reference.
Sometimes we just need to read a book. For example, anyone looking to understand workplace harassment or the difficulties in digital communication at work in highly technical settings could read either Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine or Skunk Works by Ben Rich.
If they’re looking to understand why bad content proliferates on online platforms in the first place, they could read the part of Uncanney Valley where Anna Wiener describes what work was like on GitHub’s content moderation team and the problems of moderating user-generated content in general.
At the risk of rebuilding an entire Computing History class, I don’t want journalists to read an entire library before writing. But I feel like there should be some familiarity with the field, to add just a bit of context to articles.
The Systems Make the Rules
The second reason that the major news sites are analyzing Slack, still, when Teams is on an enormous growth curve, is that it is very hard for humans to think in second-order effects and systems (which everyone knows Normcore loves).
The biggest example of this recently that I’ve seen is The Zoomening. Were you there? I was, when all of the school districts on the entire East Coast of the United States tried to log in all at once to start remote classes for the year and the platform fell over.
Kieran Healy @kjhealyThis is like the good old days of the Twitter Fail Whale except now large tracts of educational and other service organizations depend on this startup to operate properly. https://t.co/vzdcSc93b4
The tech press has been covering Zoom pretty much non-stop over the past three months. There are articles about Zoom trivia and dating on Zoom, Zoom exhaustion, and what your Zoom background says about you.
But what it hasn’t covered in a larger way is that Zoom has now become, not just our social infrastructure, but our legal and educational, as well. People can now get divorced over Zoom. Legal bodies are deciding whether lawyers can take the bar exam, over Zoom. I have personally had a child’s head examined for ticks by my pediatrician, also over Zoom (false alarm). The Illinois Supreme Court is hearing legal arguments over Zoom.
This startup is shouldering the entire burden of our societal infrastructure in a way that it should very much not be. But that’s not even the important part.
What’s more, is that all of that infrastructure is now hosted on Oracle Cloud, which is a subdivision of Oracle, which is headed by Larry Ellison. Our nation’s educational infrastructure currently relies on a platform which is headed by a guy who’s running a company from a former pineapple plantation in Hawaii.
Over the past eight years, he’s spent at least half a billion dollars on a Hawaiian island, Lanai, that he has turned into a laboratory for health and wellness powered by data. “Wellness is our product,” says Ellison, speaking as if the secret to good health is achieved through processing bytes of raw data—which, for Ellison, it is. He named his wellness company Sensei, the Japanese word for “master,” and the sensei in Sensei, according to Ellison, is (you guessed it) data.
In a very roundabout and second-hand way, Larry Ellison has now become the Department of Education. And, also, maybe, soon the head of Tik Tok.
Ostensibly, this is an exaggeration, as cloud providers generally don’t control the infrastructure running on them. But they could. In a world where having enough servers to serve content and connect people around the world means you get to make the rules, you are the super-highway. I don’t think any comment gets it more right than this one:
Imagine an unusually well-attended AWS all-hands was hit by a freak meteor. What do you even do? Take enough engineers off the oncall rotation and things will eventually fall over. I think the government would actually need to take emergency action at a level we don’t understand to prevent the collapse of our financial system beyond god knows what else. It would be utter mayhem. Globally.
That said, no one takes this more seriously than AWS. I really believe this. I sat in meetings regarding how to recover if we lost entire states, like literally what if we lose the Virginia to a catastrophe. (I worked on the Key Management Service or KMS which underlies much of the rest of the infrastructure.) But it is good and correct that our representatives are questioning our tech giants about their role in the future of our civilization. They’re playing perhaps the most critical role, and that should scare you.
Let’s talk about all of that. Pretty please? I’ll be waiting on Teams with my closest 75 million friends to read it.
What I’m reading lately:
Reid Hoffman has a manager README
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once or twice a week. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!