A digression about Facebook

Around this time last year, I was contacted by a recruiter from Facebook wanting me to apply for a technical writing position there. We talked for a little bit, I got the job information; it sounded pretty interesting, and the folks I know here in Silicon Valley who work for FB generally love it. They take care of their employees as much as modern tech companies do, and that’s not meant as a slight; while FB is more prone to the “constant frat party vibe woo” stereotype than possibly any other company as large as it is, they pay incredibly well, and have generous benefits with respect to bonuses, vacation, insurance, and retirement. And, at this point, I’d been out of work for a few months; part of that was by choice, in that I didn’t start looking for new work right after being laid off from Realm in September of 2017, but I’d just had a couple dispiriting rejections after trying to get back into the workforce and was feeling a little desperate.

But…I didn’t feel good about working for Facebook.

This is not about politics, per se; it’s about the way Facebook aggregates, synthesizes, and applies data. It is not an exaggeration to say that they’re the biggest intelligence-gathering organization in the world. We willingly tell them who our friends are and what groups we belong to; they can infer information we didn’t explicitly offer, based on who our friends associate with and what groups they belong with. They know what ads you’ve clicked on, even ones that aren’t on Facebook, since they supply advertising networks to other web sites and increasingly run free wifi at coffee shops and other businesses (just log into your Facebook account to connect). They know what you’ve searched for on Facebook, but they kind of know what you’ve searched for anywhere else, because they served you ads based on the search keywords you used and, hey, you’re logged into Facebook, so it’s you, welcome back! They know things you don’t tell your friends, or at least don’t tell all of them. They probably know if you’re gay, even if you’re still in the closet. They know you’re a science fiction fan, or a Golden State Warriors fan. They know you’re a furry. They also know you’re an alcoholic, or that you have a gambling problem, or that you have an STD. You’ve never explicitly told them any of those things, sure, but they’ve designed their platform to be one giant automated private investigation service…all in the service of giving you better, more targeted ads.

They’d tell you that their mission isn’t just to serve you ads, of course, it’s to “connect the world.” But that makes it a little worse in some ways, doesn’t it? That gives them a philosophical backing for their ends-justify-the-means mentality. Isn’t connection good? Does that end not justify virtually any mean? Can’t any problems just be written off as collateral damage?

Well, no. No, they can’t. Again, this isn’t about politics, per se, but on a meta level, it kind of is: Facebook wants us engaged, and we get engaged by clickbait. We’re engaged when we’re outraged. We’re engaged when we see which of our so-called friends are so very, very wrong about whatever’s got us fired up. Facebook has “connected” us with people we probably didn’t really need to stay in contact with beyond the occasional Christmas card. We think we’re expanding our social circle tenfold, but too often we’re fraying it, click after click.

So I called the recruiter back and said that I couldn’t pursue the position.

Nothing that happened since then has made me feel that was a bad call. Every month seems to bring a new story about Facebook’s essentially unethical behavior. And it is hard to overstate how much reach and power Facebook has in our economy and our society right now; the claims critics made just a year or two ago that seemed bombastic and ridiculous keep being proven right. It’s frankly not a good, healthy place to be, either as an employee or a customer.

So far I’ve avoided deleting my Facebook account, because there are still people who I will literally only hear from if I remember to check FB (which I increasingly do not, for the record). It is so woven into the fabric of hundreds of millions of lives that the notion that someone you care about is not seeing your Facebook posts seems almost absurd. But I’m not checking very often, and I don’t expect that to change. It’s not impossible that 2019 will see me deleting the account entirely.

Let's talk about the Tumblrpocalypse

Did you hear Tumblr’s getting rid of all the adult sites?

Yes, the news is going around.

Man, if only Apple wasn’t so prudish!

Come again?

This is all because Apple pulled the Tumblr app in mid-November after they found child porn on the site.

Apple did pull the app because of that, yes, but there’s no evidence Apple is insisting Tumblr get rid of all NSFW material across the entire site as a condition to get back into the App Store. Besides, Apple has a “17+” rating category for apps, which Tumblr has been in since early 2013. There’s no sign that they’ve been purging other apps in that category.

But we keep hearing about how strict Apple is! Walled garden and all that. They keep cracking down on user-generated content.

Apple’s actual guidelines prohibit services “that end up being used primarily for pornographic content,” so sure, there’s not going to be a Pornhub iOS app any time soon. But “incidental NSFW content” is explicitly (stop it) allowed.

Tumblr’s NSFW stuff is more than just incidental.

Arguably, but Tumblr’s iOS app has been on the App Store since 2009–almost since there was an App Store to be on. Tumblr said Apple found child porn hosted on Tumblr in a “routine audit”; the word routine implies they audit a random sample of Tumblr sites through the iOS app at least semi-regularly. So it’s damn unlikely it took nearly ten years for Apple to be prudishly horrified by a naughty catgirl pinup.

Well, if it’s not Apple’s fault, why would Tumblr do this? It’s going to kill their site deader than a doornail.

Were doornails ever alive?

It’s just an expression.

Right. Well, okay. “Tumblr is for porn” has become received wisdom, but there are conflicting reports as to just how much porn is there. In 2012, Tumblr creator and then-CEO David Karp estimated it at 2–4% of the blogs. A web analytics firm a year later estimated it at 11.4%, and a study in 2016 estimated it at a mere 1%, but estimated 22% of the audience was there for the porn.

That’s all over the map.

Yeah. The analytics firm used “explicit domain names” as a marker for porn production, which is likely to overestimate, and the later study classified Tumblrs as porn if they could be found by “a large number of search engine queries containing pornographic keywords,” which I suspect underestimates. The chances are that Karp’s estimate was likely the best. While it’s an old estimate, I doubt the percentage of porn Tumblrs increased under Yahoo’s watch, given the Great Tumblr Porn Crackdown of 2013. Let’s keep it on the high end and say 5%, though.

No way. There are millions of pornographic Tumblrs!

It’s easy to lose track of just how big the numbers involved are on an absolute rather than percentage basis. There are about 250 million Tumblr users. Suppose only a quarter of them actually post, and only 5% of those post porn. That’s still millions of pornographic Tumblrs.

What about that figure of 22% of the audience being there for the porn? Is that suspect, too?

This is really difficult to quantify, because the vast majority of Tumblr users who look at some NSFW content don’t look exclusively at NSFW content. Also, thanks to Tumblr’s reblog feature, you may see NSFW content you don’t explicitly (stop it!) intend to see; that 2016 study estimated more users saw porn that way than saw it by following Tumblrs they’d categorized as pornographic.

So the real question isn’t how many people see NSFW stuff on Tumblr, the question is how many people will stop using Tumblr if they stop seeing NSFW stuff on it.

So what’s the answer?

No idea. I guess we’ll know in a year.

I still think it’s gonna die. look at sites like LiveJournal and MySpace. Once people start leaving, they don’t come back, especially if the creators they follow aren’t there.

That’s the million-dollar question, right? They’re going to take a big hit initially, but they probably figure it’ll be balanced out. But there’s a real chance that the big hit gets followed by a slow slide.

You sound pretty sanguine about this. Doesn’t Tumblr making this move bother you?

It does. I have a soft spot in my heart for Tumblr; my old tech blog wouldn’t have taken off if it hadn’t been hosted on Tumblr (and probably wouldn’t have survived a few initial “Fireballings” when John Gruber linked to it). I’ve always thought it was underrated as a pure blogging platform. And, yes, I think it’s worthwhile to have a place to share NSFW content.

But the bottom line comes down to the bottom line. Tumblr is on its third owner at this point and still largely resists monetization, and current owner Verizon is not going to keep running it as a social good. As risky as it might seem to bet that kicking off the pronz will increase ad revenue, it wouldn’t be a bet they’d make if Tumblr as it is now were a sustainable business.

Do you think it’ll work?

Maybe? I mean, if you’re asking if I think Tumblr will “die in a month,” or even a year, absolutely not. LiveJournal, MySpace, and Digg are all still around. Fucking Ask.com is still around. Tumblr could have an indefinite life ahead of it as an irrelevant artifact of internet history.

Come on, give me an actual prediction.

Okay, here’s the thing. Tumblr hasn’t really changed much in years, and that’s a risk. Making an unpopular policy change that drives high-follower-count users off the site is also a risk. Tumblr can survive those as long as there isn’t anything else that does the job it does, but both of these moves open up space for disruption.

But as usual with disruptors, we shouldn’t expect The Thing That Replaces Tumblr to look like Tumblr. It might not even be just one thing at all. In fact, LiveJournal’s decline might be a good study: they, too, opened up space for disruption through a combination of site stagnation and stupid policy decisions, but their users didn’t end up all migrating to some LJ-but-better service. LJ was ultimately rendered irrelevant by the one-two punch of Twitter and, ironically, Tumblr.

So what do you think the lesson is that anyone trying to disrupt Tumblr should draw from all this?

Money first, naughty catgirl pinups later.

The new iPad Pro

So I bought a new iPad yesterday.

After a lot of waffling, I made some seemingly counter-intuitive choices:

  • The 12.9” model (up from my original 9.7”)
  • Only 64G of storage
  • WiFi only, not cellular

The rationale for the first one is simple enough. I’ve been using my iPad more than my laptop, and moving to the bigger screen pushes it that much closer to my only-needed portable computing device. Over the last two years I’ve knocked down nearly all the “showstoppers” that keep me from doing my personal work on the iPad, although there are still clunky points–many of which are more due to constraints in iOS.

So if that’s the case, why go with the big iPad but the baseline version? That’s crazy!

Well, okay. It is, sort of. But when I checked my previous iPad just a few days ago, you know how much of its 128G storage I was using? 30G. And the three biggest apps were Grim Fandango (which I haven’t played in a year), Garage Band (which I don’t use), and iMovie (which I don’t use). By either deleting or “offloading” a few of the biggest apps, I’m now using less than 24G. The reality is that I don’t edit media, I stream it. When I travel, I’m more likely to have podcasts or books with me on planes than movies. And I keep a lot of documents in cloud storage. I’m not a big photographer, but even if I start seriously using iCloud Photo Library, the iPad isn’t going to need to keep all or even most of the photos on it–that’s what the point of “cloud” is, right?

Honestly, if Apple had had a 128G version for just $50 more, like they do with the iPhone XR, I’d have taken it. But they’re playing their stupid storage pricing game, as usual, and I’m not.

As far as the cellular radio goes: I’ll be honest. That was tough. I’m still not positive I made the right call. I end up using cellular tethering a fair amount; I’m using it right now, in fact, typing this at lunch at the office (I don’t want to connect the iPad to the corporate network). Doesn’t that make me a perfect candidate for this?

Well, sure. But it’s a $150 option now, and after paying that upcharge, then it’s either add it to my cell plan for another $10 a month or pick a “pay as you go” option. A lot of folks do that, treating the cellular radio as insurance and almost never using it. Well, okay, but if you almost never use it, you have less reason not to just put up with the inconvenience of tethering. I use it enough that I’m still considering taking the iPad back within the 14-day window and exchanging it. But it just feels like a lot to pay to save five seconds–yes, those five seconds could add up to a minute or two a week. But even so. Again, if this was a $50 upgrade, I’d have taken it almost without thinking about it.

So how am I feeling about the new iPad? After less than 24 hours, I love it. I’ll see how it goes in real world usage, but it’s pretty awesome paired with the Canopy and Magic Keyboard (it is so close in width to the Magic Keyboard it almost looks like they were meant to go together). Do I worry I haven’t “future-proofed” this purchase? A little. But I think in practice I’ll be more than okay.

Edit: I exchanged it for the 256GB iPad Pro, still no cellular (and still in Space Gray), on November 20th. Yes, I decided I needed a little future-proofing, just in case. As of February 2019 I am still not using very much space on it, though.

Low cognitive load blogging

Hey, did you know I used to be a blogger?

Okay, it’s not quite fair to say that I’m no longer a blogger; if you check the Journal tab of my website, I’ve made about a half-dozen posts this year. But that’s way down from the original Tumblr-hosted Coyote Tracks; in the earlier parts of this decade I was at least managing a few posts a month, and occasionally even a few posts a week.

Ironically, this post is going to join the rest of this year’s flock as another post about blogging. The truth is that I simultaneously miss it and don’t want the cognitive burden of committing to it again.

I’m edging toward making this microblog my “real, canonical” blog; after all, it can accept long posts like this one, it crossposts to Twitter and can be followed via Mastodon, and it would let me quietly move my main web site off WordPress onto…well, frankly, I don’t know yet, although I’m perversely considering saying to hell with “generators” and moving to pure hand-coded HTML.

But the main advantage that moving to the microblog—as well as moving to the static site not-a-generator—would give me is freedom from that cognitive load. Okay, too strong: a reduction of that cognitive load. I don’t have to worry about templates more complicated than what BBEdit handles for the main site, and the journal can be updated with any Micropub client (including, of course, Micro.blog’s own client).

The million-dollar question: if I go ahead and make this change, will I actually start blogging again? When I think, “I should write about the problems I see looming ahead for Apple,” or “maybe I should write about why I’m considering going iPad-only for portable computing despite that last thought,” or “I feel a little like ranting about how ridiculous it is to deride Nancy Pelosi as a toothless centrist,” will I actually do it?

I don’t know. But I know that making it easier for myself to get there probably can’t hurt.

Apple's topsy-turvy iPhone lineup

I started thinking about this yesterday, and originally was going to say crazy, as in irrationally expensive. William Schuth expresses this well:

My strategy had been to buy the mid-tier spec of the best iPhone offered. My iPhone 6S Plus cost me $849 at launch; the mid-tier XS Max is $1,249. That’s a whole Apple Watch worth of price inflation in three years.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it’s not as simple as “Apple jacked up the price of the best phone a lot.” They did do that, no question. But they also made the “less-best” phones a lot better. In the iPhone 6, 6S and 7 years, the calculation was pretty straightforward:

  • Get the normal model
  • Pay extra for the Plus model, which got you a bigger screen, bigger battery, and better camera

Last year, though, the calculation changed a little:

  • Get the normal model (iPhone 8)
  • Pay extra for the iPhone 8 Plus, which got you a bigger screen, bigger battery, and better camera
  • Pay even more for the iPhone X, which got you Face ID, an OLED screen, a bigger battery, the Plus’s camera, and an edge-to-edge screen bigger than the iPhone 8 but not as big as the iPhone 8 Plus

This year, though, things are even weirder. All of these phones now have Face ID and an edge-to-edge screen. So:

  • Get the presumably normal model, the iPhone XS, which is “iPhone X with some bumps” (like most “S” model years)
  • Pay extra for the iPhone XS Max, which gets you a bigger screen and bigger battery (but the same camera)
  • Pay less for the iPhone XR, which still gets you a bigger screen and bigger battery than the iPhone XS, but drops back to an LCD screen and a slightly worse camera

So while Schuth’s heuristic ostensibly leads to the $1,249 XS Max, this isn’t the same scenario as we had with the iPhone 6, 6S and 7 where the difference between normal and Plus was obvious, nor is it like last year’s scenario, where the iPhone 8 and iPhone X were starkly different. This year, you have to really want that OLED screen and dual lens camera to make the XS worth it, and you have to really want the Galaxy Note-sized screen to make the XS Max worth it. In many (albeit not all) ways, the XR is the true successor to the Plus versions of years past, and it’s priced like it. The mid-tier XR is $849.

I wonder how this is going to affect iPhone sales next year. Does the ASP go up, because of the Max, or down, because of the XR? I’m betting the latter is at least possible. Unlike the iPhone 8 vs. the iPhone X, the XR provides a huge chunk of the ooh cool new shiny of the iPhone X, it’s available in unique colors, and it’s not a grimace-inducing price. (Well, no more than the Plus phones were, at the least.)

This is my upgrade year (I’m on an iPhone 6, no “S”), and it’s going to be a tough decision for me.