This website was archived on July 21, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.

Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Remote Mentorship

I read a lot. And I learn a lot from what I read. When I discover a writer I really like, whose work is particularly insightful, I glom onto them — I’ll tear through their whole archive, or if they’re particularly prolific, read all of their classics (defined as the pieces they themselves reference the most).

The internet’s casual and iterative blogging culture encourages this behavior in a way that the offline world doesn’t. Sure, you can read every book an author has written. But what about doing that and following their life on a day-to-day-basis? Social media lets you get to know someone in real-time even when they have never registered that you exist.

Map of the internet via Bill Cheswick. Remote mentorship is possible because of this technology.
Map of the internet via Bill Cheswick.

The term I use for this process is “remote mentorship” — it’s similar to traditional mentorship, but without the constraints of time or place. The mentor doesn’t have to be interested in the mentee or pay any specific attention to them. There’s no need to meet for coffee or exchange letters. In fact, this is scalable mentorship: someone can post once and influence many, without having to dispense one-on-one advice to each enthusiast.

I maintain a public list of people who shaped my intellectual growth. Some of them have mentored me in the traditional sense, and some are friends, but the majority are busy professionals who have maybe acknowledged me once or twice on Twitter. It’s not the same as dedicated hands-on mentorship, but I get just as much out of reading Slate Star Codex as I have out of personal coaching relationships.

Remote mentorship is a combination of the intellectual hero-worship that’s been around forever (boosted by the printing press), and today’s burgeoning influencer economy. It’s like the nerdy version of lusting after Instagram stars.

I’ve been thinking about this for literally years, but I owe a hat-tip to Venkatesh Rao’s “Cambrian Explosion of Consensual Realities” for the immediate inspiration. Guess what Rao qualifies as 😉

Bots Should Punch Up

I came across another delightful Creative Commons post! (The last one was “Just Your Typical Startup Acquisition Announcement”.) It’s called “Bots Should Punch Up”, written by Leonard Richardson, and Beau Gunderson is the person who linked me to it. I’m republishing the essay here, unedited except for one set of punctuation marks. My comments are in brackets. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Over the weekend I went up to Boston for Darius Kazemi’s “bot summit”. You can see the four-hour video if you’re inclined. I talked about @RealHumanPraise with Rob, and I also went on a long-winded rant that suggested a model of extreme bot self-reliance. If you take your bots seriously as works of art, you should be prepared to continue or at least preserve them once you’re inevitably shut off from your data sources and your platform.

We spent a fair amount of time discussing the ethical issues surrounding bot construction, but there was quite a bit of conflation of what’s “ethical” with what’s allowed by the Twitter platform in particular, and website Terms of Service in general. I agree you shouldn’t needlessly antagonize your data sources or your platform, but what’s “ethical” and what’s “allowed” can be very different things. However, I do have one big piece of ethical guidance that I had to learn gradually and through osmosis. Since bots are many hackers’ first foray into the creative arts, it might help if I spell it out explicitly. Continue reading “Bots Should Punch Up”

The Privilege of Being Myself Publicly

In the wake of the Samantha Bielefeld debacle — which, to summarize various Twitter threads, involved a man posing as female tech blogger in order to stir up drama and possibly make money — I’m reflecting on anonymity online. (It’s not important that you be familiar with the whole SB thing in order to read this post, but if you’re interested you can learn more here, here, here, and here, in addition to the link in the first sentence.)

It benefits me tremendously that I’m able to reference my personal Facebook account on this website, that I’m able to post selfies and meet people in person. If I were in the situation that Samantha claimed to be, and I needed to conceal my identity so my bosses wouldn’t object to my internet life, it would be harder to be trusted. Maybe when I chose to criticize popular men, people would wonder, “Is this another scam artist? What’s her ulterior motive?” (Although I suppose this problem doesn’t afflict Taylor Swift’s infosec account.) Being able to reveal my face makes it easier for me to be taken at face value.

On the internet, nobody knows you're a baked-goods enthusiast! Illustration by Surian Soosay.
On the internet, nobody knows you’re a baked-goods enthusiast! Illustration by Surian Soosay.

I feel weird about this. I’m not a huge privacy advocate — we don’t have any inherent right to conceal information about ourselves and insignificance is the best protection — but I’m also not a moron, and I recognize that society’s preexisting power systems determine who gets to conceal themselves and who must be open in order to be believed. The main reason I don’t have to worry about demonstrating my genuine legal identity is that I’m not discussing anything controversial, and I’m a middle-class white girl. (Imagine if I wrote about feminism, or video games!) There are risks, but minimal enough that I don’t worry about it.

I’m guess all I’m saying is that structural inequalities are a bummer, and the dynamics of anonymity reveal that. What an exciting and tötally nëw revelation!

There’s more! An update from Samantha herself and my position on it:

Commentary on Samantha Bielefeld coming out as trans.
So much of this is happening and being discussed on Twitter.

Inspiration, Stymied

The Awl
Photo by Andrew Magill.

Yesterday I thought of a really good premise for an article. Now I can’t remember the idea. It arose after I listened to the first episode of The Awl’s podcast on the way to work. Editor John Herrman served as the show’s host and interviewed Jenna Worthman, the New York Times reporter who profiled Instagram gossip rag The Shade Room.

They talked about how weird and exhilarating the internet economy is, how platforms like Facebook respond to the way users interact on them more than the companies innovate independently. This dynamic makes room for miniature entrepreneurship in the cracks between the code — for instance, The Shade Room.

Facebook getting into news
Quoting Stratechery on Twitter.

As Herrman said in The Verge’s profile of the publication, “Our entire economy is just a giant science fiction writing prompt.” (The editor should have hyphenated “science fiction” — I can’t turn off my proofreading brain after work.)

And yet, for the life of me, I can’t remember the idea sparked by his discussion with Jenna Worthman. I suppose I could just replay the podcast and hopefully retrieve my notion, but that seems tedious. I’d rather be uninspired than bored. So I’m watching The Good Wife instead.

It’s fun to have a blog because I can document inanities.

The Awl
Another awl. Photo by Kevin K.

Will Social Media Habits Transfer To Labor?

Sam Biddle wrote for GQ, “When even our genuine friendships are being quantified, what hope can we possibly have for treating labor as more than a pack of pixels?” This is an obvious reference to Facebook and all the other social networks. Personal relationships are uploaded piece by piece — voluntarily, it’s worth noting — and then rigorously monetized.

road worker signs
Image via morgueFile.

We are eager to feed snapshots of daily life into websites or apps that promise to show our acquaintances. Soon we learn to rely on digital hearts and stars when defining our social value.

Biddle seems afraid that the same laissez-faire, click-happy attitude will apply to labor and transform the American job market. The evidence behind this notion is ample. Worry has spread so widely that I don’t feel like I need to substantiate with a link. But I do want to help tweak the argument’s focal angle.

Biddle touched on this topic again when he responded to a “gig economy” advertorial on Medium’s tech site Backchannel. The article, called “The Full-Time Job Is Dead”, was sponsored by Upwork, a middleman freelancer market created when Elance and oDesk merged. Biddle wrote, addressing the Upwork authors, “What you’ve described is a societal nightmare in which the only employment is deeply precarious, and only employers benefit.”

I don’t disagree. However, as far as I can tell, we are just seeing the repercussions of supply and demand. (Upwork still bears responsibility — like Biddle, I think their business is heinous.) There are more workers than jobs, so employers have leverage. It’s that simple, right? Of course the people hiring can do whatever they want. The only way to deal with the problem is regulation. (Or is there another solution that I’m unaware of?)

Alternatively, we could wait for the market to change on its own… which might not happen. Unless some bizarre disruption takes place.

Hat tip for the concepts: “Rebuilding the world technology destroyed” and the affiliated podcast.

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