The Impersonality of Personal Profiles

I enabled the Twitter profile yesterday and was happy that nothing horrible happened: my old header picture appeared crisp and nothing in particular needed editing to fit the new format. Nonetheless, my sense is that Twitter is no longer Twitter, though that's not particularly surprising given that Twitter has been inching away from being Twitter for a long time.

Putting on your social media Sunday best

Twitter no longer feels like Twitter because it aims to be a personal profile now instead of a stream of thoughts. Profiles are different: they are a place to present yourself to the world, a place to appear palatable/approachable/hirable to the largest number of people. They are the Sunday best section of social media, but as such they are heavily constructed, pressed, vulnerable to staining, and therefore must be meticulously maintained. Personal profiles in this moment of social media are actually the least personal spaces there are, because they are shaped so heavily by what the platform considers is important to say about you (the reason profile 'rollouts' are such a big deal for social platforms is because what is being rolled out is the format that determines how you will be able to represent yourself). On Facebook, that is social graph information: who you know, who you are related to, who has tagged you in photographs. To Facebook, a person is a node and the Facebook profile wants to describe where the node fits in the global social graph. Your purpose in Facebook's vision of the world is to provide detailed social data that helps Facebook understand that bigger social graph, so that it can better manage and monetize it.

The Social Utterance Graph

Twitter is creating another kind of social graph, which is a kind of social utterance graph. Twitter now displays utterances in various sizes according to their appeal to the largest numbers of people. If you have been using Twitter for any length of time, you know that utterances that "make it" on Twitter are more social than personal: a tweet, regardless of whether it has a hashtag, is nearly always indexed to an imaginary hashtag or meme, a concept that people are talking about at the time. Tweets that perform particularly well as representations of a concept/meme do particularly well in the graph. They loom larger, so to speak, and perhaps this is why Twitter is now registering that "largeness" in font size. The journalistic practice of pulling tweets to "describe" a story was an early version of the large-font profile tweet: a tweet that was deemed to represent a social concept or group. In this sense, Twitter has been a forum for amplified social meme representation for some time. 

So while I have a sense that the new Twitter profile is intended to promote the display of personal data over politics, I imagine that it will go the opposite direction: towards the continued politicization of Twitter as a place where individuals interact publicly and politically with the body politic. And thus, given the going social media platforms' focus not on the individual but on the graph, for in-depth personal representation the throwback personal website (or newsletter, which has also made a comeback) may still be the internet user's best bet.


The Speculum of the Other Brogrammer

It isn’t an accident that the term “brogrammer” gained usage around the same time as the current media obsession with tech companies, tech power, and tech money. The "brogrammer" is a media fantasy that coincides with the mass interest in programming for those outside of the industry; the term serves more to advertise the mainstream media’s fetish for a familiar model of masculinity as it does to critique tech culture's real issues.

Organic vs. Mass-mediated Tech Culture

Before the current media craze around the tech industry, media and culture around tech was largely created from within. Tech workers communicated with one another on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook (as well as forums and channels like IRC and instant message). Even the ra-ra tech blogs had a modicum of modesty given that tech was still an industry affair and not the mainstream media obsession it is today. As a result of this lack of attention from the outside, tech culture and memes came from within and largely remained within the culture, undistorted by the fetishizing lens of outside media.

Enter the bro

For most of the 2000s, the term “bro" was an unironic term for the average frat dude; but towards the end of the 00s that changed. Around 2008-2009, popular alt-culture blogger Carles began widening the usage of "bro" to refer to a range of types of people. “Bro” was modified by typological terms-- "tank top bro", “altbro", “indiebro". Bro moved from being a term for an average frat dude to being something like a unit of being within the culture, the substrate of a subculture. There were many types of bros, and with the de-articulation of the bro from its fratboy origins, there was a craze for rewriting any and all terms in "bro” to see what kinds of bros one could identify in the cultural wild. The intention of much of this early work was humorous blog play (I wrote a blog that itemized emergent bro styles in Dolores Park); at its most utopian and optimistic, the discourse of the bro was expansive, unfixed, self-aware. “Bro" was silly, playful, open-ended, a chain of cultural significations, a site of inquiry: what kind of bro is this? What kind of cultural brand is he trying to implement? What does this type of bro "mean"? Implicit in these questions was a postmodern sense of shifting identity in a branded digital landscape: a bro who was one thing might brand as something else the next season. To be a bro was to be, like everyone in our branded society, a person in search of community, however temporary.


In this play of significations, the moment when someone said “brogrammer” is where, if one were making an MTV documentary on this topic, the record would screech to a halt. In the midst of this tongue-in-cheek game of bro-ology, a few new engineers at Facebook made a Facebook page that was called "Brogramming”, taking an ambient pastime that was about mocking the importance of any particular kind of bro and centering it on one: the supposed “bro” (in the old, fratboy sense) programmer. The thing is that the “bro” programmer didn’t exist: to be a programmer at all involves an attention to detail, focus, and often a disregard for heavily masculine representation that would be lost on the caricatured “brogrammer” who bullies his podmates into going to the gym or the club.

It was thus that “bro” went from being a term of play to an aspirational term used by a few guys who wanted to will the carefree, obnoxious “brogrammer” into being. Unlike most programmers, these aspiring "brogrammers" attended to their physiques, created "lounges" in the office that simulated Vegas clubs, and listened to Pitbull, posting his videos on the Brogramming page (for historical comparison, Facebook’s original golden boy programmers were more forum-kid than gym-rat, pulling their culture from the deep internet and not from the pages of Maxim).

For a while the office was split between people who still used "bro" lightly and those who were making the "brogrammer" a caricatured reality (as the old saying goes, "first you mock it, then you stock it"). Eventually, the easy, Facebook-aided virality of the Brogramming page to outside observers meant that the term "Brogramming" had been cemented in the aspirational, unironic meaning of the term. Journalists followed the page and assumed that a stereotypically masculine programming practice was a widespread phenomenon, and at that point we entered the media fun-house tunnel of the "brogrammer", where journalists gleefully adopted the fantasy identity created by a few anomalous Pitbull-imitating programmers and extended it to an entire Valley of technologists.

The problem is that aside from those few guys reveling in their spray-tanned fantasy "brogrammer" masculinity, very few people in programming identify with the term "brogrammer". The brogrammer is always someone else-- he is THOSE Facebook guys who yell too loudly at parties and wave bottles in the air, he is not the nice, shy guy who gets paid 30% more because of his race, gender and appeal to the boy-genius fetishes of VCs. The loud and tacky "brogrammer" is a false flag-- if you are not a brogrammer, the logic goes, you must be an outcast genius who has suffered long and would never oppress a fly. The industry is full not of the former but the latter-- programmers who are smart and may present as harmlessly "nerdy" but whose sense of themselves as being "the underdog" means that it is very hard to see the ways in which they participate in unconsciously but potentially harmful ways in an industry that has coded them as kings. In reality, programmers in Silicon Valley can be fully and invisibly privileged without ever touching a Grey Goose bottle-service setup or a tube of hair gel. 

Meanwhile, the mainstream media's rapid adoption and celebration of the imaginary “brogrammer"-- imagining him as the updated version of a Wall Street man, rich, callous, and central to a new American story of wealth-- means that this fantasy character is being rapidly heroized and glorified across popular culture. This means that shows like Silicon Valley that claim to "critique" the “brogrammer” only end up re-centering the self-centered young male as American hero, failing to see or critique the deep, coded subtleties by which power in the Valley really works.

Who cares, tho?

All of this is to say that the creation of the mythical brogrammer has had very real consequences. New classes of startups in the Valley, anxious to "fit in" to a culture that is now shaped as much by external media as by internal community, are emulating the same flat stereotype imagined by the Brogramming page (a sponsored ad in my Twitter feed recently read "seeking brogrammers" :/). The "joke" becomes real, the brogrammer becomes the flat, oppressive ideal, and the fact that "bro" was originally a term of complex, critical affection within a community is lost, replaced by a distorting mirror in which people see themselves reflected as comic Hollywood caricatures, while disavowing their own, very real participation in what remain very real cultural issues.

Some thoughts on PM-Shaming and the Technical Imperative

Ellen Chisa wrote an excellent post about the real work, preparation, and skill that go into being a Product Manager at a tech company, and why it is disturbing when this work is portrayed as less difficult, "softer", or less important when women do it (as Chisa points out, when men do this work the role is often imagined as more masculine and evidence of CEO potential). In reality, as Chisa argues, Product Management requires a full array of both technical and management skills that are as important to product development as engineering, and thus Product Management should not be considered a stepping-stone or fallback role for people who haven't "made it" to engineering.

One thing I've noticed that makes the PM-shaming problem even thornier is that PM-shaming is endemic not just in external media representations, as Chisa notes, but among technical people, including product managers. This is to say that the first thing a PM often has to do is justify herself not as being an excellent PM in particular but as sufficiently technical. The assumption about PMs even from PMs is often that she is an "imposter until proven legitimate", where legitimacy means a convincing cocktail of technical background, product proof, career success, respect from engineers, etc. Unfortunately this reflexive policing-- are you a "real" PM or one of those soft ones-- replicates the same assumptions about "real/technical/valuable" employees and "fake/nontechnical/low-value" employees that have led PMs to feel their work is unfairly devalued or feminized in the first place.

As with all patriarchal problems, the problem of the devaluation of "feminine labor" (however "feminine" and "labor" are being defined at that particular moment-- as we know, even programming itself was originally defined as feminine labor until it became masculinized and valued more highly in the 1970s), won't end as long as that labor is considered less legitimate because of its association with the feminine.

Thus the solution to the problem of Product Management being seen as a lesser role given to people who couldn't cut it in engineering will be to undo the binary in tech between valuable technical skills and devalued other skills. Great products require both technical and cultural aptitude; however tech companies in their current form are organized to value and venerate the work on the farthest technical end of the spectrum, thus leaving PMs to fight for legitimacy and respect not just from the media but from their own teams and sometimes, from each other. This is why the Technical Imperative in tech-- where it is assumed that the more "technical" you are the more respect you are due-- is hurtful to everyone, not least because it keeps PMs continuously having to argue their own legitimacy when they could be building cool products.



What Reclaimed Wood Meant

In my earlier post on the aesthetics of the tech industry, I traced the recent history since 2005 of tech design from a plain, post-bust utilitarianism in the mid-2000s to its gaudy Orange period circa 2007 to its return to a self-consciously industrial style by 2010. In this post I will describe what happened next. What happened next can be summed up by one now-ubiquitous material: reclaimed wood.

When I left San Francisco and the tech scene in 2011 it was not because I did not like my job (my job by that point required me essentially only to make aesthetic pronouncements like the ones I am making now) but because I did not like how the tech aesthetic at the time was making me feel. This was the high Bunker period of tech aesthetics, in which I spent my days in a renovated Hewlett Packard building whose design function was to be as heavy, enclosing, and neo-industrial as possible, and this mirrored how I felt after four years of building an enclosed digital network, an "operating system for our social lives" as a coworker put it, that had left me feeling digitally dominated. The office environment, if ironically pleasing in a NSA-esque 1960s data center way, was the physical manifestation for me of this technical dominance: heavy, dark, consuming, wanting all of me and my time in service of the company mission.

This, essentially, was an aesthetic problem, and it had an aesthetic solution: which was to change environments and surround myself with another for a while. Out of instinct I went to the desert, to Texas, and I can now see why: the aesthetic answer to the heavy, concrete enclosure of the Hewlett-Packard building (and its digital manifestation in terms of the walled web we built there) was an endless horizon, a place with no cover or enclosure, where space seemed infinite. In West Texas you can see forever and there is no shade. People go there because the one luxury they can't buy in infinite quantities in New York or San Francisco is space, and in West Texas space is in decadent abundance, acres upon acres of luxurious, inexpensive space. The richer people are, the more space they buy: Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin space center occupies an enormous plot of land 100 miles north, which in Texas isn't very far away, because, again: there is so much space.

West Texas sky. These cisterns almost seem like an installation, but they are actually  part of a ranch. 

West Texas sky. These cisterns almost seem like an installation, but they are actually  part of a ranch. 

But if I went to the desert for space, when I got there I discovered another element that is abundant in desert architecture that was visually startling to me in its newness after the hard, gray-green industrial tones of the Bunker. This "new" material-- wood-- seemed so interesting to me that in 2011 I made a Facebook album called Reclaimed Wood to chart the material and its aesthetic progress to popularity, of which I was already certain. The first photos I took were of the ceiling in an old Ice Locker that Donald Judd, the original gentrifier, had purchased in Marfa. Built in the early 1900s, the locker had heavy white stucco and iron walls but the most beautiful, heavy, old, vintage wooden railroad beams in its ceiling; the effect of the wood was to soften what would be a hard industrial space into a pleasing, welcoming, artisanal atmosphere, and this is why Judd bought the building and converted it into an artist workshop and studio space. Judd, in a sense, predicted Reclaimed Wood forty years before everyone else caught on. All of the buildings he purchased in Marfa are masterful, original, unstudied versions of what has now become a national craze: the American industrial building with a soft, artistic and artisanal side. In Marfa these buildings were built for the railroad and then abandoned, decayed, and converted to art functions later. Thus their combined hardness/softness has had decades to develop.

Vintage wood ceiling in an old Texas army base converted to art gallery (this is NOT the locker plant, I need to dig up some pictures of that to post as it is the most beautiful).

Vintage wood ceiling in an old Texas army base converted to art gallery (this is NOT the locker plant, I need to dig up some pictures of that to post as it is the most beautiful).

After some months in Texas, I returned to the city and noticed that wood was steadily appearing everywhere and spreading. It began in small coffee shops like Four Barrel coffee shop (along with its textile counterpart, nautical rope, which often accompanies wood as a nod to wood's ship-ly connotations of pirates and sailors) and spread to restaurants and finally, back to the same tech company offices that I had left in pursuit of space and more organic forms. That's to say that the irony of all of this is that no environments have been more committed to retrofitting themselves with reclaimed wood than the very spaces that drive the technology that drives people to seek refuge from technology in more open, organic spaces. As technology filled our lives, so did our lives become increasingly filled with soft wooden beams and forms, a kind of reverse de-industrialization of the technical space using organic materials. We now plant these warm-colored, gnarled wooden objects like talismans amid our screens, a reminder of organic shapes, something to touch that, reassuringly, can't be swiped on.

Reclaimed wood elements on heavy display at the Square offices in downtown San Francisco. 

Reclaimed wood elements on heavy display at the Square offices in downtown San Francisco. 

It is thus that we have reached Peak Reclaimed Wood, where some restaurants and coffee shops are so plastered in vintage wooden planks and beams that there is no room for a single new plank of wood (in these spaces, the wood becomes less an accent than an attempt to create the illusion of living in a cabin, which is a related desire to reclaimed wood, but not identical. The desire to live in a coffee-house-as-cabin-- or to import actual cabins into your tech cafeteria, as Twitter did-- is something like a desire to live in the country or the past, without actually living there). And so, because aesthetics have to shift when they become saturated, what is next?

In my next post I will address what comes after Reclaimed Wood and why I think the next turn will be to 80s Hilton-esque business hotel stylings and what that means about us and what we need now.

Without a business idea to assess, Paul Graham lists "naughtiness" as one of the things he looks for in a founder. “They tend to have a piratical gleam in their eye,” he says, invoking the pirate’s omnisexual trickster appeal, embodied by Johnny Depp’s performance in Pirates of the Caribbean.

- my new piece, Sex and the Startup: Men, Women and Work is up at Model View Culture

Tech design futures

So, news dropped today that Twitter is importing log cabins into its cafeteria. This is an entirely predictable development given the fact that we are in the High Reclaimed Wood period of tech aesthetics. The Reclaimed Wood trend began with reclaiming pieces of wood; now designers are reclaiming entire wooden buildings and importing them into high-rise offices.

It is interesting to speculate about the next aesthetic trends after Reclaimed Wood dies down (this trend has definitely reached its peak, as almost every hip bar/restaurant in any city is now plastered in it).

Two interesting old "authentic" materials that would be interesting to bring back are adobe (mud bricks covered in stucco) and tabby, which is a material made out of sand and shells that was used historically in the American South (pictured). 


photo (4).JPG

Facebook IRL: A Short History of Facebook's Design Aesthetic

I wasn't inspired to write on the occasion of Facebook's 10th birthday until I saw Christopher Butler's post regarding the fetishization of vintage objects and vintage-looking environments in Facebook's marketing videos. That's to say that in 2014 the way that Facebook markets Facebook is through showing us images of pre-digital technologies: paper, typewriters, etcetera, nestled in scenes of modern, cabin-lit vintage perfection. It is a perfectly on-trend aesthetic, neither fresh anymore or out of date yet, but Facebook's attachment to the aesthetic of the vintage is fascinating for a number of cultural and technical reasons.

Facebook Aesthetic Pre-History

Facebook's interest in the vintage is relatively recent. When I began working at Facebook in 2005 the physical aesthetic of the company was as yet undesigned (at least by anyone whose primary job at the company was physical design) and consisted largely of furniture culled from the Design Within Reach store across the street in Palo Alto. But since it was 2005, the furniture was less mid-century modern and more along the lines of a nameless futurism: gray, modular, somewhat uncomfortable couches strewn with blankets made out of inorganic materials (the Berkeley trend of superorganic fabrics was not happening in Palo Alto, which preferred synthetics).

The main feature of the office at this time was the screen, and lots of them. The more screens the better. One's status at the company was delineated, in fact, by the size of one's screen and how many one had on one's desk. Entry-level employees had 25" monitors while engineers had 32 or 36" monitors. Some engineers had more than one extra monitor on their desk. Some people flipped their monitors vertically resulting in a cascade of code flowing down the screen. By 2007 monitors had been added to every wall of the office that had space to fit a monitor. We were always monitoring something. This aesthetic, ironically, is the closest Facebook ever got to the aesthetic of "Hackers", which is one of Mark's favorite movies.

The Orange Aesthetic

2007 was also the year of F8, the Facebook Platform launch, and the aesthetic of that conference was the defining one for Facebook and tech for several years after. I call it the Orange aesthetic: it seemed to rely on the presumption that orange and red and other bright colors were the colors of TECH and the NEW. You knew you were at a tech event because there would be orange, and yellow, and always and only a sickly day-glo green. No organic colors were allowed during this period in tech aesthetics.

Photo of F8 2007 from the Oodle blog which covered the event

Photo of F8 2007 from the Oodle blog which covered the event

The Primary Aesthetic

In 2008 we moved to a new office at Hamilton and University in Palo Alto. The office looked to be in what was an old 1960s bank building, with massive poured concrete columns and lots of glass. This was the first time that the office could be designed in advance of our occupying it (when we moved to 156 University in 2005 there was nothing but desks in an empty room). The Hamilton office was fitted with bamboo floors for skating and ripsticking but that was the only organic element in the space. Everything else was in primary colors of red or blue. When my internationalization team moved in we added flags to the rafters for texture and color, to break up the monotony of all the hard edges. It was a pretty space due to the views of Palo Alto and the mountains (we were on the fifth floor), but it was cold in tone like the bank it once was; sometimes I would go eat lunch in the garden at my apartment complex for greenery and to get away from all the glass. The heart of this space was the game room full of wierdly garish yellow and orange furniture where boys would play video games, visible to everyone behind glass walls. It was the only room with any carpet or softness of any kind, really, but the blankets and carpet were still synthetic. Tech had not yet gotten into organic materials.


The Bunker Aesthetic

In 2010 we moved to the "bunker" in what was an old Hewlett-Packard building. It was another massive concrete structure but low to the ground, and buried behind trees. It reminded me of the old 1970s Motorola building where I did a technical writing internship in college, but unlike that building this one was somewhat weirdly updated to an aesthetic that was neither old or new, industrial or white collar. The primary colors had been thrown out in favor of muted colors like dark green and gray. Floors were concrete or industrial carpet. There were many dark corners and yet it still always seemed full, each room a mass of desks and monitors. The air had that subtle sound of HVAC that you often hear in industrial buildings, and the sound seemed to intensify the quieter the room was. I moved around a lot in this building, I think looking for someplace warm and cozy to work, and often ended up in the cafeteria, which was full of fluorescent white light and long white cafeteria tables, but always had good desserts on deck.

When the time came that year to design F8 I told Ben Barry, who now occupied the role of Physical Designer at Facebook, that the aesthetic for this F8 should be more organic because the Orange Aesthetic (which I never liked anyway lol) was getting so tired. He agreed and incorporated a more organic looking aesthetic for the "graph" with finer lines (think of trees, I said) and green instead of orange. It's still a bit lime green but it was an improvement.


This marked the slow and steady turn in tech design to what I will call The Reclaimed Wood Period.

The Reclaimed Wood Aesthetic

We are now firmly in the Reclaimed Wood Period of design, in which every available surface in hi-tech environs is covered not with monitors but with reclaimed wood (or wood that at least looks reclaimed). This aesthetic is mirrored in Facebook's turn in its branding away from orange images of screens (which was actually an F8 t-shirt design around 2007 and 2008) to images with no screens, as in the Paper promotional video.

What does all of this mean? I have thoughts on what it means that there are no screens in Facebook advertising anymore but I will have to post those in a followup as I have to run to Sightglass (a coffee shop composed exclusively of reclaimed wood, speaking of being in the High Reclaimed Wood Period) to meet about an app...