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Co-founder of Known. These are my 750 words a day of unfiltered, stream of consciousness writing.

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Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: the social graph is not what it says it is

5 min read

I know I'm misusing Sartre here, but hell isn't other people. Hell is exactly the opposite.

The world's most soundproof room is somewhere in Minneapolis. You walk in, and suddenly all you have is what's in your head: the sound of your heartbeat, the sound of your breathing, the little swishing noises of the fluids running around your mouth and your stomach, and your thoughts.

It drives people crazy. People go mad.

We're not designed to be by ourselves. We evolved in groups, and all of our systems are optimized for this. As a result, when the group dynamic breaks down and we find ourselves living alone, it's not just that we get sick - we're significantly more likely to die. Loneliness is more deadly than obesity, even in America. The good news, I suppose, is that if you're tucking into that pint of ice cream because you feel sad and alone, the ice cream itself is not the most unhealthy part of the situation - and if it makes you a little happier, so be it. Tuck in.

We're hard-wired for company, which is one of the ways that the little lightboxes we hold in our hands are so addictive. We want social validation. Post a photo, get some likes - hey, that's a tiny dopamine rush. And then it goes away, and you want another one, so you do it again. And again. And again.

People who are already predisposed to feeling sad need even more of this dopamine boost, so it's not necessarily a surprise that people with depression or low self-esteem are more likely to post to social media. As a world-reknowned social software expert put it to me this week, "the broken people are the early adopters".

I've not just been an early adopter, but I've actually made it my career to build platforms that connect people. I'm not sure what that says about me. Actually, that's a lie: I have an inkling.

The problem, as most of us know by now, is that social technology is not the same thing as really being social. Getting feedback on a selfie, a link you shared, or even a piece of writing like this one, is not the same as getting support in real life. To your brain, it feels a little bit like it's the same thing. But it's not; it's junk food validation.

That's not to say that social media isn't useful. Obviously it is; it's how most of us get our news, and those baby photos from your cousin definitely have a social value. Those things are special. But it's best seen, and used, as an enabler of social experiences. An event on Facebook leads to a party in real life. A link you share leads to a conversation over a pint. A quick IM leads to a hug. When the Facebook chat is the party, or the conversation happens in the comments section, or the instant message is the hug, we lose so much of the value of having a network of people. I mean, it's better than nothing. But only just.

In the business, we call the network of friends that you maintain "the social graph". But the social graph isn't actually the social graph: it's a network of subscriptions. If anything, it's a vague interest graph. I'm interested in what Margaret Atwood shares and writes about, but we're unlikely to hang out. We're not friends; I'm just curious about what she has to say. This is true of many of our online connections, whethere they're with celebrities or people we went to school with: we're interested, but we're not best buddies. We're not even pint buddies.

The whole of the Internet is a vapourware graph: something that looks vaguely like a graph of social connections, but isn't. We've redefined "social". Knowing that the whole thing is just a delivery mechanism - a machine for bringing us more content, products and people we're interested in via relevant connections - means that we can use it to be more informed. It works wonderfully for that. But we shouldn't mistake our friends page for friends.

All of these things can be used to maintain friendships, too. I wouldn't know what was going on in the lives of a lot of people I care about if it wasn't for Facebook, and you can infer a lot from the links they share and the photos they post. But it's still not the same as being in the pub with them. It's still not the same as properly catching up over a meal.

You might say this is obvious, but is it? If we turn our devices off for a second, are our lives richer with people and conversations?

Or are we slowly going mad in the silence of our own thoughts, without even knowing it?

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: #blacklivesmatter

5 min read

Sandra Bland asked what she was being arrested for 14 times, and never received an answer. Days later, she was found dead in her cell. There has, rightly, been an uproar, and in response to protests the police released the officer's dash cam footage. Which appears to have been edited, including what appears to be some repeating footage. Which, in turn, is rightly causing an uproar.

All of this is happening because communities of activists noticed and, through Twitter, spread the word. I have to wonder how many other Sandra Blands there have been that were swept under the carpet, kept under the radar away from us.

People of color have been telling us their experiences since forever. We see it in the statistics we collect to better understand how our society functions, most notably in the widely divergent incarceration rates. And only now - only since Ferguson, really - does it feel to me like it's hitting the public consciousness. Racism is taught and talked about like it's over: like Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement in the sixties made everything better. That it never went away, and that it's an indemic sickness that is in our society, which affects not just overt action but also our unconscious biases, is now more widely understood.

Although her death is an atrocity, it's not just about Sandra Bland. Although its law enforcement was undeniably racist, it's not just about Ferguson.

And I still think people are missing the point.

When Dylann Roof opened fire in a church and murdered nine people in an act of domestic terrorism, we began to have a conversation about the Confederate Flag. Actually it was about the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, a secessionist army that happens to use the same St Andrew's Cross as the Scottish national flag.

That flag is all about slavery, and therefore racism and violence, but a lot of people argued that it was a proud part of their tradition. Maybe so: they argued that it's come to represent defiance of federal authority, but nonetheless, it comes from a place of injustice. It's hard to argue for feeling proud of a symbol of slavery. If racism was "fixed", it would simply be a piece of history, but the injustices that slavery set in motion continue today. It's been argued that the southern armies of the Civil War gave way to genocidal groups like the Ku Klux Klan that continued the work of enforcing racial segregation. In turn, this led to the current association of owning guns with the ability to defy federal authority. It's all about enforcing certain values even when federal law - and the rest of the country, at least to some extent - has long since moved on. I buy it.

The government of South Carolina, as well as anyone who valued equality, was right to take the flag down. But boy, the arguments were fierce. Many people felt that long-held values were being ripped from them.

Good.

Even our supposedly liberal politicians don't seem to be able to get it right. Bernie Sanders, who generally is on the right side of things, declared that "all lives matter", before finally making a more nuanced comment on racial injustice on social media. Hillary Clinton said "all lives matter" too, before eventually declaring that "black lives matter" on social media too.

Of course all lives matter, but white lives haven't been systematically persecuted and discriminated against for centuries. It would be easy to argue that both politicians took to social media to issue corrected statements because that's where the backlash was - and because it wouldn't create a soundbite that would put off their older, more traditional voting base.

I don't understand why "traditional" is seen as a positive attribute with regards to cultural values. We heard it earlier this year, over and over again, in the phrase "traditional marriage". It's often a cipher that simply means "bigoted" or "behind the times" - ironic because the underlying principles in the Constitution are mostly egaliterian, as the Supreme Court has demonstrated repeatedly, and what could be more traditional than that? Racism and discrimination don't get to be preserved just because they were how society worked in the olden days. That tradition is inherently good is a harmful idea. Traditional values, like all values, must be questioned and re-assessed.

So, too, is the idea that we have solved our civil rights issues. Clearly we haven't. And unless we keep fighting, unless we stay vigilant, there will be more Sandra Blands, more Fergusons, and more Dylann Roofs. These tragedies are not context-free, or isolated. They are a part of a continuous history that erases the agency of people of color, and sends them to their deaths, either impicitly by denying them equal access to resources and opportunities, or explicitly, with guns and force.

This can't be where any of us want to live.

 

A note: I'm aware, as a middle class straight white man, that I am shaped by these same unconscious biases, and that my actions are informed by a privilege that has real effects. I'm certain that I've misstepped in the past, and I'm certain that I'll misstep in the future.

This piece, like all my Open Morning Pages pieces, is really for me. Other people have written about these topics much more intelligently. I recommend reading Daily Kos's justice columnist Shaun King for further links, particularly about the Sandra Bland murder right now. I also support the ACLU and invite you to join me.

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: Donald Trump and the power of context

4 min read

I get depressed watching Donald Trump. Not for the things he says, or the spectacle of it; those things are almost immaterial. If you think he isn't part of a carefully-managed media strategy, you're flat-out wrong: there's too much at stake to let a man in a bad toupee and worse ideas climb onto the world stage unguarded.

Instead, it's worth noticing how everyone else has faded into the background. Trump is the warmup guy, designed to frame the other candidates. The Republicans are aware of their association with fundamentalists, and understand they're reaching the limits of this historical strategy. So: stick a crazy dude up front to yell objectionable crap that plays to this crazy base, and then let everyone else look completely sane and reasonable next to him.

Whether Trump himself is in on the plan is up for grabs.

The truth is like the blue dress that blew up the Internet a few months ago. There's a canonical truth, often, but it usually doesn't really matter: a more interesting story can be created by framing facts in a different way. Even a blue dress can seem white and gold if placed in the right context. Everything is about perception. If you know what you're doing, even in the face of bald facts, you can manipulate a story to your advantage.

So, too, our memories. It's hard for us to separate the emotion behind an event from what actually happened; our recollection of a key moment in our lives may take a rainbow of different emotions as our lives progress and take on new contexts and understandings. If you look at a photograph of an event today, you're seeing it differently to how you did when it was taken. Services like TImeHop cleverly understand this, and surface photographs much later, when you'll react to them in an entirely new way.

I have a high school reunion coming up, that I'll miss because the airfare is too much for me right now. As a result, all kinds of photos from 20 years ago are showing up on my Facebook stream. It's interesting to see them now: the anxiousness of high school has faded into nostalgia, and a genuine curiosity to see how everybody is doing. A lot of people seem to have children; I bet the way they look back on their school years has changed even more radically than mine.

It might not shock you to learn that I didn't always have a great time at school. I often felt singled out for being different (although I now suspect that everyone at high school feels that same way). I was certainly awkward, and as a result I was very nervous that people should like me; of course, teenagers will pick up on this, and it probably led to my being singled out more. I choose to think of the friends I made that I'm proud to still have to this day, and my framing of those memory means I think of high school fondly.

Some of my friends had a worse time than I did, and have simply chosen to close that part of their lives off. It's dead to them, in the same way that some people simply cut old partners out of their lives. I have to respect this, of course, but I can't imagine cutting any part of your life away. Every experience makes you who you are, and unless you feel like your life went south and stayed there - which isn't the case for any of my friends - I find myself grateful for where I am, and all the things that led there. In the case of cutting away old partners, you're either saying that the totality of that experience was worthless, or that the experience still hurts, and you haven't moved on from it. (Of course, in the case of abusive partners, getting the hell away makes a lot of sense.)

Something the Internet isn't particularly good at is creating ways to help you frame the memories and facts it finds for you. Context is lacking, both when you're sharing an article about Donald Trump, and when you're looking back at old photos (or having them TimeHopped back to the forefront for you). It's easy to click and share, or click and replay, without bringing any of the subtext or the relevance back with it. Content is still a series of disconnected atoms, and it's up to us to make them into molecules, and then something substantial. Sometimes that's just too hard for us.

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: take the dark thoughts

5 min read

When I was a teenager, maybe 15 or so, I started to be overcome with a feeling that something was wrong with me. I couldn't figure out what it was. I just knew that I wasn't right, and that because it was obvious, everyone else had to know, and they weren't telling me in order to save my feelings. I was frustrated: if they would only tell me, then I could do something about it, and then there wouldn't be this thing that was obviously overtly wrong with me.

It took me years to understand that the thing that was wrong with me was my feeling that something was wrong with me.

This chronic low self-esteem followed me for most of my life. I'm not sure how many hours I've spent lying awake in bed wishing I was someone else completely, but it certainly adds up to days; possibly even weeks. Some mornings I'd wake up weeping because I was trapped inside myself, yet again, for another day.

The irony was that this manifested as a self confidence deficit, which in turn changed the way I interacted with people. For a lot of people, there was something wrong with me, because I was conflict avoidant, timid, and would give in easily. This became fuel for my self-doubt.

There's a phenomenon in flying where, if you have no visibility and aren't paying attention to your instruments, you can easily find yourself circling towards the ground without even knowing it. That's what I was doing: with no way to step outside myself, or trust feedback from anyone else, I was heading groundwards faster than I realized. 

Like any demon, it loses power if you give it a name. For me, the turning point was understanding that this was a kind of disease, and the thoughts in my head weren't authentic. Rather than distrusting feedback from the outside world, I came to identify the patterns of thought that would lead to these dark places, and distrust them instead. Identifying harmful thought patterns - and they are patterns, repeating themselves again and again, digging grooves in your brain - is the biggest step towards unchaining yourself from them.

I still have dark moments; if I've been particularly exhausted for days on end, for example. But they're moments, few and far between, and twenty minutes later they'll be gone. I think those bubbles of self-doubt are more normal, and even a part of learning. The key is how you interact with them and choose to carry on. Sometimes I'll write them down, because taking them out of my head and seeing them on paper reveals their ridiculousness. And sometimes I'll just talk to someone, because, these days, the single best way I have to feel better about anything is to talk to the people I care about.

One thing I've realized about myself through being more aware of my thoughts is that I'm energized by people. On paper, I should be an introvert: I have a risidual shyness that worrying about my wrongness for years has left me with, and choosing to work in front of a screen rather than with other people is often a sign that not dealing with people is easier. In reality, the opposite is true for me. Every time I spend time with other people, I come away feeling refreshed and excited; if I'm alone for too long, I feel drained. People are good. In social situations I still have to quieten the lingering worry that they don't want to talk to me. But other people are the best part of life.

For a while, years ago, I decided that someone was only as good as the things they made, because that was the impact they had on the world; that was what they would leave behind long after they died. I don't think that opinion is uncommon in developers. And it's completely, 100% wrong. Our legacy is in the relationships we make; who and how we love. We're all connected to each other, and the biggest way to make a dent in the universe is to leave an impact on the people around us.

This presupposes that we should all be trying to make a dent in the universe, which I think is another fallacy, which I think partially comes out of the kind of self-doubt I experienced. The idea that you are insignificant if you don't have an effect on the way people live their lives is flawed, and even harmful; every single person makes an impact and changes the world around them through everything they do. Nevertheless, if you are trying to make that dent, making more things is not necessarily the best way to go about it.

I'll say it again: it's about who, and how, and possibly why, you love. In the words of the great Kurt Vonnegut, writing in God Bless You Mr Rosewater:

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies - 'God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"

You've got to be kind. To the Earth, to the people around you, and perhaps most of all, to yourself.

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: you'll be happy hearted once you get started

5 min read

The other night, I had a dream that someone asked me to come up with a bulletproof business model for news. I literally woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of night, existentially terrified that I couldn't come up with a way for news to be profitable on that kind of deadline. What were they thinking?

Then I went back to sleep and found myself in a hot tub full of developers, who tasked me with writing a 100-page book chapter that definitively solved identity on the Internet. Some nights, you can't win.

Those are two of the roles I play at work: someone who thinks a lot about business models and go-to-market strategies (although, thankfully, not for news) and someone who thinks a lot about technologies on the Internet and where they need to go. Another role is the guy who looks at the source code and figures out why it's not working; probably the role I play the least is the guy who writes the source code to begin with.

Ideally, all of these people would actually be separate, but one of the things about startups is that the founders end up playing the role of everyone who's missing, until you can find enough money to pay someone.

It's like you've got to be a hyper-generalist, which is lucky, because that's what I've always been: I'll happily write you some code, but I'll also put together some visuals in Photoshop, or create an audio story, or write a book. (Two, so far.) And it's fun. I'd actually hate to be pigeonholed into just being one thing. It's not something that's ever happened in the history of my career.

A long time ago, when the universe was younger, I was the Web Administrator at Oxford University's Saïd Business School. I was hired to manage the website, and I did that. But I also ended up writing a lot of code to power the website, which wasn't technically in my job description. And then, for some reason, I created one of the desktop wallpapers for the institutional computers. And word got around that I could do that, so I ended up creating images for events. And then people realized I was a useful person to have in conversations with visiting entrepreneurs, so I started being pulled into those. And that's how I met Ev and Biz, among other people, who were working on Odeo at the time. Biz became an advisor on Elgg, my first startup.

A lot of emphasis is put on founders saying "no" to things and having focus. But sometimes, if you just keep pulling on threads and following opportunities, you can find yourself in completely new places.

The personality trait that really works in your favor is optimism. I'm a hopeless optimist. Not so much about myself, necessarily, but certainly about the projects I'm working on. I tend to think that if I can only keep pushing in a certain direction, as long as I'm smart about it, keep evolving based on feedback and maximize the possibilities of meeting someone who might be able to throw the project in a whole new light, something amazing will happen. This is certainly a position of privilege (there is no such thing as a meritocracy), but the nice thing about the Internet is that "maximize the possibilities of meeting someone" doesn't have to mean being in the same room. Being social and loud can happen from afar, across many different kinds of media.

Having written this, I think this is also probably a problematic statement. Only people with certain lifestyles and resources can afford to do this. It's not, unfortunately, open to everyone. I do think that if you are able to have optimism, and to not just publish but discuss, in an open way, at length with people, you can create projects that move you forwards. I'm lucky as shit, and that's important to acknowledge - but getting the most out of that luck is still important.

More importantly, I think what I'm saying is that cynicism as a personality trait doesn't work. If you're constantly looking for the reasons why something isn't going to work, or why something out of the ordinary isn't going to be as good as the status quo, you're never going to get anything off the ground. The real answer is that, no matter how much research and planning you do, you don't know until you put something out there, and probably not until you've put something out there and continued to hammer on it at length. It's like a long, difficult experiment where the people who succeed are largely the ones who have managed to last the longest, by hook or by crook - and if that isn't optimism, I don't know what is.

I didn't mean to write about startups here; I have another website for those topics. I think I want to say something much broader: I believe in optimism, whatever you're doing. Not blind optimism - I also believe in research, feedback, personal evolution and, perhaps most importantly, not sticking with lost causes to your own detriment - but optimism, nonetheless. Let's call it informed optimism: it's stupid to not research what you're doing, get a realistic sense of your odds, and create contingency plans. Nonetheless, the people who always jump to the worst thing that can possibly happen are the people that rarely make anything substantive happen at all. You've got to be able to fill all the missing gaps yourself, in life as well as in work, and that only really works if you can know that tomorrow will be better.

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: land of crazy sleeves and disempowerment

5 min read

One of the things I've found hardest since moving here has been losing my sense of humor. I don't mean that I found everything deadly serious as soon as I moved to California (that would be insane, because, well, it's California) - but my sense of humor is somewhere between sarcasm and surrealism, and I find that people just kind of stand and stare at me if I start using it. Maybe they always did, internally, and were too polite to mention - it's kind of hard to tell, to be honest, because it was Britain - but here it's overt.

What I'm left with are some weak dad jokes and terrible puns, which at least elicit rolled eyes and low, gutteral groans. I mean, at least I have that.

Except John Oliver exists, who is basically nailed-together pieces of surrealist sarcasm, so if I'm going to be honest with myself, which everybody should be, at least when it's not emotionally inconvenient, it's probably that I was never that funny to begin with.

Ouch. But you know what? At least I know this. Now I can finally move on with my bland, witless life.

One of the nice things about living in America is the way they wear things on their sleeves. You're never going to be left wondering if someone is interested in what you have to say, because they will literally interrupt you halfway through saying it if they aren't. If someone hates you and wants to undermine your work, they will tell you explicitly before they do it, like an extremely frank James Bond villain.

That's in stark contrast to Britain, where they'll be very polite to you, and you'll only find out three years later and completely by accident that they think you're boring or they want to undermine everything you stand for as a human being. And if it's the latter, it's because you've broken some unwritten rule that you didn't know existed, had no way of finding out existed, and is probably handed down from generation to generation through subaural whispers. I don't know. I broke the unwritten rules like a bull wandering amiably through a china shop looking for a gift for the owner of the last china shop it wandered amiably around.

I don't think America is actually crazier than many other countries, but because it wears everything on its sleeve, the crazy is there too. It's hard to argue that this is refreshing, exactly, but to be honest I'd prefer it to be out in the open than hidden behind closed faces.

Take Jade Helm, the realistic military training exercize that's commencing in Texas today. If you go and search for it on Twitter, as I did this morning, you'll find a stream of racist lunatics yelling about Obama invading America, as if that was semantically even possible. But at least you know: here are the lunatics. You can stay well clear.

What doesn't make sense to me is why, when America is so open about being crazy or violent or bigoted, it's so completely uptight about sex. Perhaps it's because it's so religious, but I don't think that's it: there are plenty of religious populations that have a much healthier attitude. It's a lazy point to make because so many people have made it before, but if you're questioning the citizenship of the democratically elected political leader because his dad was African, it's totally fine; if you're showing a nipple, or suggesting that a 16 year old should have access to effective birth control so they don't get pregnant at a time that could derail their entire lives, that's taboo. Movies where people literally explode are considered to be less offensive than movies where two people have sex with each other. (Moral conundrum: if there was a movie where two people exploded while having sex, what would be the most shocking part? Could two explosions make love? What then? But I digress.)

The real, sober answer: it's not so much sex that's still taboo but the empowerment of women. Things that in other developed nations aren't even real conversations are still core values here, and the same people who question citizenships and use the Bible as a go-to justification for anything they can think of (irregardless of the true meaning or intent) consistently vote against a woman's right to choose what happens to her own body.

These two things collided yesterday when a bigoted right-wing campaigner known for releasing videos that were loose with the truth (there's the crazy) released one about Planned Parenthood (there's the womens' empowerment). Immediately, the Republicans (there's the crazy) started talking at length about how Planned Parenthood should be defunded (after all, their entire reason for existing is to empower women). The Republican Party has become the party of right-on-the-sleeve lunatic bigotry, and disempowering women is something that appeals to their core base. The video was misleading at best, but truth, facts and research aren't things that crazy cares for.

Sometimes I find the transparency refreshing. Other times, like yesterday, I find it irredeemably depressing. Maybe I have lost my sense of humor after all.

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: in polite celebration of Destructo's birthday

5 min read

Some years ago today, I was woken up by a family friend, who explained that she was going to be taking me to school today because my mother was having a baby. It was a home birth, and the action was all happening in my parents' bedroom down the hall. As I emerged from my bedroom, dressed and ready for school, I could hear the sounds of a baby being born through the door.

And then our family friend did something inexplicable: she opened the door, just briefly, so I could take a look.

Holy shit.

It was a bewildered four year old that turned up at the Squirrel School that day. I remember standing at the top of the slide set, just staring. When I was asked what was wrong, I calmly explained, "my mother is dead".

Spoiler alert: my mother wasn't dead. Instead, I had a brand new sister.

Her introduction into my life was traumatic, but I can't imagine my life without Hannah. Sure, my nickname for toddler-her was Destructo, owing to her penchant for stomping over my Lego like Godzilla. But sometimes your Lego needs to be stomped on. I was an amiable child, with my head often in the clouds; she was head-strong and adamant. Her first word was "no". In other words, she had so many qualities that I could learn from.

That pattern has continued throughout our lives. Her musicianship inspired me to keep nurturing my artistic side. Her individuality - which is fierce, and awesome - taught me that being my own person was not just possible, but better. And today, when I'm feeling crappy, she's the first person I turn to. She's even putting me to shame by learning Swift, with no programming background, and building her own app. We're family, in the figurative as well as the genetic sense of the word. It's nice to have someone out there who really understands you.

We moved to California more or less together, when ma started to need to use an oxygen tank. It was hard for both of us, and for a while we were pretty much just hanging out together, watching dumb movies on iTunes and ordering pizza. And our whole nuclear family was there for the operation, including her partner Peter, who may be alarmed to know that I consider him family, too.

I say it so often that it's a broken record: family is my religion and my nationality. I don't consider myself to be in any one place, and I don't believe in any sort of god, but I do believe in the people who have been there for me for my entire life. I know I'm lucky to have a family that I can depend on, and that can depend on me; some families are estranged, or emotionally distanced from each other. We're not, and it makes everything about my life better than it possibly could be otherwise.

My belief is that life is only as good as the people in it. Although I struggle from time to time, because everybody struggles (it's a part of being human), I consider myself very lucky to have a great life.

A lot of people have what they call found families, and I think that's a lovely thing: people who are every bit as close and as important as the family you might be related to. The importance I place in my genetic family isn't meant to be any kind of value judgment on anyone else's life, or anyone else's family relationship: the important thing, I think, is having that tight-knit community of mutual support and understanding.

On my dad's side of the family, we maintain a family tree. It's literally a tree: a giant painted one on a great big canvas, hanging on the wall of an old family home. (No, we don't have one just hanging up in our living room. For one thing, it's actually outgrown its canvas, and now stretches across three.) You can trace it back down to the 1400s, and when I found myself looking at it again last month, I wondered about all the people closer to the trunk. Would we still understand each other, across generations and centuries? I think, on some level, we probably would. Not necessarily because of genetics, but because values and shared experiences ripple between people. Before we talked about them in the context of social networks, network effects were real. Events echo through relationships.

As a family, we went through some seismic events over the last few years, and they're practically still ringing in our ears. I'm sure they'll continue to echo for some time to come, and throughout it all I'm glad we were together. I'm grateful.

Tonight, we're going to hang out and eat pizza with her friends. Damn right. Happy birthday, Hannah.

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: funhouse identities and the real version of ourselves

4 min read

The piece of your identity that you surface on Facebook or Twitter (or your own website) isn't even the tip of the iceberg. It's like a funhouse mirror version of a fragment of a fragment of you.

"I kind of want to throttle the online version of you," someone I trust told me last year. "It's like you're always trying to sell something." It was a sort of throwaway comment, but at the same time it wasn't, and I took it to heart. The Internet is full of people, but that isn't worth a damn if the only pieces of us that come into contact with each other are little, distorted fragments. It becomes a collider for funhouse identities; an amplifier for the bullshit we tell the world about ourselves.

I'm on the Internet a lot.

I can't stand those pre-fab quotes that people post on their Facebook profiles. For one thing, they're usually a transparent way to get likes and clicks on a Facebook Page that will probably later be sold to the highest bidder. (The more asinine the meme is - "Share if you remember wearing trousers. America!" - the more likely it is to be some kind of scam.) But even more egrariously, they're a junk food version of identity: a way to present something to the world without having to do any intellectual or creative work yourself.

Of course, link sharing is a lot like this too: we're resharing things that reflect on our identity. There's a component that's just bookmarking in public, but it's a lot like making a patchwork quilt out of our opinions. Look how smart I am, I'm making commentary on this thinkpiece. The effect is impressionistic: a never-ending river of memes, shares and one-liner opinions that add up to some form of self-image that tends towards, but will never actually reach, being an accurate depiction of who we are. Or at least, who we are this week.

And I'd wager that we still, deep down, just want to make a connection. We want someone to see us for who we are and give us a thumbs up: a big, blue "like" for the essence of who we are as a human being. Validation at last, at least until we need another dopamine hit to re-up our self-worth.

Or maybe it's just me.

The pieces of us that count - who and how we love, what we believe in, what truly drives us every day - will always stay hidden well below the surface, hidden from each other. And that's probably a good thing. We worry about privacy and being tracked, and rightly so, but the pieces of us that are truly being monitored are superficial. What we like to buy should not say a lot about who we are as people. Our humanity is not our spending demographic. Facebook will never know what makes me cry.

I'm still bullish on social media. (NB: the real me would never use the word "bullish".) I learn so much from the Internet, and from the people I'm connected to. Those impressionistic identities may be echoes of the real people who pull their strings, but they keep me informed. I know more than I would by watching the news, from all kinds of different sources. Facebook is actually becoming the best for this: whereas I get more tech news from Twitter, I'm connected to my friends and family on Facebook. That's actually less of a filter bubble: while my friends are mostly on the left (I don't think I have a single conservative friend, now I think about it - how's that for a filter bubble?), I have family members who are full-on socialists, and family members who are full-on Tea Partiers, and everything in-between. And I get to see what each of them thinks is important to share.

But we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that the profiles we see online are anything like the people we would see in person. And those people we see in person? They're nothing like how those people really feel inside.

We're all just projecting funhouse mirror versions of ourselves to each other. Deep down, that real version of us is still gasping for air.

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: photo roulette

4 min read

I got my first digital camera in 2002, so that's how far back my digital memory goes, give or take a scan here and there.

The very first picture is my parents' then-new living room in Turlock, California, where they lived for a little over a decade. The camera wasn't happy with low-light conditions as severe as "inside in the middle of the day", so it's more noise than not. In the corner, my thumb. A real test photo. The camera took six AA batteries, which lasted for thirty photos or so. Still, having previously owned a cheap point-and-shoot, a cheap digital camera was an amazing upgrade.

A few years ago, I moved all my photos into Dropbox, where I pay for extra space. As well as giving me easy access to all of my photographs from every device, the Dropbox app on my phone now automatically uploads every picture I take, so I don't need to worry about archiving them. Most importantly, it gives me a gallery view on every picture I store there, ordered by time.

Sometimes, I pull up the gallery on my computer, and just click.

What was I doing in June, 2004? My pictures tell me that was the month I had my photo in Scotland on Sunday, posing as an exam cheat stealing answers from the Internet (I was working at the School of Education at the time, and I was the person there who looked most like a hacker, along with Sonia Virdi, who would later design Elgg's first public logo). September 2006? I was my friend David's best man, and there I am in a full coat and tails. March 2009? I fell through a hammock in my sister's garden, and there's a picture of my girlfriend laughing uproariously at me.

Click, click, click.

The continuous, chronological stream means that what would be islands of memory are joined together in context. If my memory is the Tube map, with destinations abstracted away from real-life metrics like distance and time, the photo gallery is the equivalent of a street map. Sometimes things that in my head were aeons away from each other turn out to have been part of the same week.

Sometimes, of course, memories will come flooding back and I'll suddenly be overcome with regret about how I handled something. The timespan of my digital archive is enough to encompass every one of my relationships, so often I'll remember a situation and wish I had been kinder or more understanding. Sometimes I'll even want to write them and apologize for something I said, but of course, that would be unfair in itself. Nobody wants someone randomly emailing them about something hurtful they did in 2004. We live with our mistakes.

Click. September, 2005: there's an okapi, and a whole, joyful wedding around it. And then the very next week, a foggy drive up to White Horse Hill. Scroll up a bit, and there's the time we walked the whole British Monopoly board.

Most of the stream is dominated by gatherings: parties, festivals, family gatherings at Christmas and midway through the summer. Sometimes it's just my friends and I hanging out in the pub, or in the park, or along a river somewhere.

In a lot of ways, this is more meaningful to me than my blog. It's intensely personal: each picture is a window into a deeper memory. I don't need these pictures to remember these things, but my mind has its own tracks and grooves; my photo stream is like a soundboard to my life, randomly bringing up things I might not have thought about in years, but that are still important to me.

In 2011, the photo stream abruptly changes to be all California, all of the time; the stream changes seismically, as I did.

I hope 2013 will remain the most emotionally demanding year of my life. I still have flashbacks to my mother, sitting bolt upright on a gurney, telling me to look after my dad, and then being whisked through the double doors into the operating room. I still have flashbacks to losing my relationship even as my mother fought to get better. I don't have photographs of these things, but they show up from time to time, full-screen and vivid, as if some unseen hand was clicking to access my gallery. The pictures I do have of that year are full of glazed-over eyes, smiles that aren't quite real.

Across 2014, and 2015, you can see those smiles come back to life. Fires are re-igniting. My mother is healthy; I am happy; more and more faces become a part of the stream. Poutine missions. Holidays in Monterey. Strolls in Bodega Bay. Even trips back to revisit some of the old faces in Oxford, London and Edinburgh. The stream continues; the flow is unabated.

Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: why did the chicken cross the road?

5 min read

I try and walk seven miles a day. Some days I succeed, or even go over; some days, or weeks, I fail miserably. Last week was so-so, and for the last month I've averaged a little over five miles a day.

That sounds like failure until you compare it to the previous month, which was a little over four miles a day. In other words, if you take the long view, I'm actually getting closer and closer to my goal, even if the short-term view doesn't look as rosy.

Of course, you could ask why I don't just walk seven miles a day, no matter what. It's just seven miles. This is fair criticism, but I don't just want to walk seven miles a day for the next month; I want it to be a structural part of my lifestyle, and it takes time to become a real, enduring habit. Also: I run a startup, and have other things in my life, and shit keeps coming up. Or at least, that's what I tell myself. It's okay to fail to hit my goal on one day, as long as the trend continues towards success.

Walking has always been a part of my life. When I lived in Oxford, at least for the period when I lived by myself, I'd go on sweeping walks that would circle the city. A few miles into town, via the University Parks cycle path, up through Jericho and Port Meadow (still Britain's largest area of common land), then across and up through the schmancy North Oxford neighborhoods, admiring the big houses and the beautiful gardens, and finally down the Marston Ferry Road and home.

Walking calms me down, and I find it useful for processing whatever's going on in my life.

I've found the kind of walking I like to do less possible here, although the Berkeley hills do work well for this kind of uninterrupted strolling. But in general, I find that my urban walking is full of interruptions. And here's a confession: I'm scared of jaywalking.

Jaywalking isn't a thing in most other places. When I was back in the UK for a while last December, I switched back quickly to the idea of using my own skill and judgment to decide when crossing the road was okay. It meant there were fewer stops; I walked more continuously. I also didn't die. It's how I've walked around cities for most of my life.

I understand why jaywalking is policed here; whereas British urban roads are tributaries that you can more or less hop across, American roads are often raging, wide rivers. American drivers, at least in this part of the country, are much more considerate towards pedestrians than British drivers are, but nontheless, the roads are bigger - and cars are more structurally important.

The police are also orders of magnitude more scary (they keep shooting black people, for one thing). So I stop when the sign tells me to stop, and walk when the sign tells me to walk. The only other place I've seen people do this so obediently is Germany, and I'm pretty sure the Germans are less ardent pedestrian rule followers than the Americans. (Of course, the big difference is that Germany is culturally a very orderly society, whereas American cops are just shit-scary.)

I'm not so much into cars. I drive a hand-me-down 1996 Dodge Caravan, which is pushing 275,000 miles (and gets pretty great mileage). The air condititoning doesn't work right now, which doesn't turn out to be a big problem in the Bay Area, also because I hardly ever use it: if I can, I'll walk or take public transport. I have a Trader Joe a few blocks away from me, and a fantastic fresh vegetable market a few blocks more. There's a convenient bus into work (although I want to have an office I can walk to again). The only routes I ever really drive are between Berkeley and Santa Rosa, every week or so, and into the hills or the coast to go hiking, and I resent the lack of easy, public ways to do those, too.

I don't understand why cars are interesting, which is probably an odd thing for someone who spends so much of his life fascinated by machines to say. It is freedom to be able to jump into the driver's seat and zoom off in some direction, particularly when there are so many amazing hikes in the vicinity. And it's still worth it for me to have one, because renting a ZipCar, say, on overnight trips is much more expensive. I guess I'm looking forward to a time when there are communal electric cars that we can just pick up and use for the duration of a one-way trip, a bit like car2go in Portland or Austin. And it would be nice if those were public infrastructure, too.

Meanwhile: seven miles a day. My cold is still in full force, so maybe I'll take it easy. Or maybe I'll take myself out for some fresh air anyway, climb up into the hills, and watch the light bounce off all the cars on the bridge.