July 7th, 2014

I joined Facebook on October 24, 2006, on my 28th birthday. Why I joined is pretty boring: I joined because it was the thing you did. I joined because I wanted to be part of a larger society, and it was this network that allowed me to reach out to all of those people I had long forgotten or missed since graduating from high school.

In the seven-plus years that followed, I saw Facebook go from what felt like the newest version of MySpace to a multi-billion-dollar company that relied on my data and the data of those around me to sell ads, curate content, and promote events and causes from those who are marginally close to me. My friend number went up and down and up and down. I struggled to maintain relevance, gave up trying to be heard, pared back my social circle, and fought with what had become a more and more irrelevant feed.

I got tired of Facebook – of the site’s weird algorithm and of my network’s passive aggressive messages, but I couldn’t let it go.

My relationship status with Facebook? It’s Complicated.

News Feed: Most Recent (A History)

I was like everyone else when Facebook launched: thrilled with the ability to connect with people around me, to share my thoughts and likes, to get closer to people I had only met a few times, or strengthen the bonds between old friends and far-away family members. Facebook was a way for me to live globally, to move beyond Sioux Falls without losing my community.

But, each year, that freedom shifted. Pages were downplayed. My feed was shifted out of order. The idea of a “News Feed” shifted from a river of current content to a curated web of what an algorithm though I wanted to see. And while I love how algorithms have created better search results and more relevant sidebars and a feeling that I can make quick scans of content without subjecting myself to everything, I still have fundamental issues with someone doing that to my friends and family.

When “News Feed” became a euphemism for robot-curated content, I felt betrayed. “Most Recent” became the only way to see a real-time feed of news from your friends. When “Most Recent” was further buried – a seemingly defensive mechanism to force users lock step into algorithm – I felt angry. And when news of emotion experiments surfaced last week, I felt exhausted.

Listen, I get it. I’m getting dramatic and railing against a corporation that is responsible for thousands of jobs and has business goals and all of that. I’m raging against a machine and not offering any answers.

But the content presented by Facebook isn’t just a series of stories written by authors I don’t know, or videos pitched based on what I most recently read. It’s the life and thoughts of the people I know. For some people, it’s the equivalent of a conversation at the bar, or a look into a diary. It’s personal. It’s not anonymous; it’s deeply connected in a way that no other network can claim.

If Facebook actively wandered into a face-to-face conversation and assumed the best lines, rearranging them for maximum impact, what would we think? If they took our stack of Christmas cards and determined who would be the best recipients, what would we think?

The Public Dislikes Facebook’s Link

So then this whole Facebook social experimentation thing happened. To very grossly summarize, Facebook’s research department was using the feeds of 700,000 Facebook members to perform experiments on the effects of positive or negative comments. (“Emotional contagion through social networks,” it was called.) What do we do when things are going great – or horribly? Were we more likely to post if we saw positive things in our feed? Were we less likely to share if we saw too many negative posts?

Rightfully so, Facebook opponents rose up in arms. This was thought experimentation without consent, the flimsy (and vague) terms of Facebook’s terms of service used as some kind of crutch. Who was Facebook to control the output of my friends and family, of my feed, of the organizations I chose to follow? Who was Facebook to use my data in a way that was less than ethical?

In the midst of the discussion, we talked about the morality of A/B testing, the separation between social networking and marketing, and the possibility of opting in to data mining and experimentation. We talked about best practices in research. We talked about “business as usual.” We talked about how maybe we were just blowing this out of proportion.

That last point stuck with me – in the grand scheme of things, is this really something I wanted to raise my ire about? In the grand scheme of things, does this really matter?

Do I care?

Disinterest Has Sent You a Friend Request

I’ll be honest: I don’t. I don’t care about the experiments. I don’t care about the data they’ve used, because I assumed they already used it. I’ve threatened to quit over it before, but I haven’t. Which shows I probably don’t care. Not really.

I do care, however, about Facebook’s assumption that they know better than I do what I want to look at.

As danah boyd writes in her wonderful article about the growing anxiety around data manipulation, “What does the Facebook experiment teach us?”:

I get the anger. I personally loathe Facebook and I have for a long time, even as I appreciate and study its importance in people’s lives. But on a personal level, I hate the fact that Facebook thinks it’s better than me at deciding which of my friends’ posts I should see.

This was never an issue of experimentation and consent – this was a clear reminder of what I don’t like about Facebook. This was not the straw that broke the camel’s back, but a catalyst for my justification. This was what would send me, finally, after years of threats, away from Facebook.

Facebook’s algorithmic adaptation of my friends’ lives is a model unlike any other used on the web. News sites and blogs use algorithms to force certain stories to the top, but that is the type of editorial curation we expect from a journalism source. Search uses algorithms to assume solutions, but in those case we’re typically not sure of the solution we’re looking for in the first place.

But this? This is full-scale reinterpretation of actual lives: a kind of dramatized version of my social circle, like a classic book being remade into a film with a happier ending and a few extra sex scenes. This is not what I signed up for; I signed up for the full feed – the flaws, the bumps, the happy and the sad. Internet, you can go ahead and curate and editorialize the things that are not directly connected to me: the world of search, the editorials on TechCrunch, the assumptions of movies I might want to see.

Just don’t fuck with my friends.

Corey Vilhauer Has Updated His Relationship!

The reason I still cling so closely to Twitter is that they do not depend on Facebook’s algorithms of assumed value – that I need someone else to filter through my friends’ thoughts, like a warden pre-screening an inmate’s mail. Twitter gives me a running feed of everything my friends say. It is up to me to negotiate that feed – to pare it down and curate in order to retain some value. Instagram does this too – it’s just every picture from every friend – and despite the hypocrisy of fighting Facebook and keeping Instagram, I’m still okay with Instagram.

Facebook is where the worst opinions are surfaced. It’s where platitudes go to die, where everyone has an opinion, where long rambling diatribes are all the rage, where companies compete to pay their way to my heart and friends compete to gather sympathy. This is not the fault of Facebook. This is not the fault of my friends. This is simply what the ecosystem has become, and it is an ecosystem that I no longer feel the drive to be a part of.

Yeah. The experiments matter. They are news that we need to focus on. They are a betrayal of trust, and while most people don’t care (and only a very small portion of people awere actually affected) they still represent the first step toward wanton abuse of personal data.

But the experiments are not why I’m quitting Facebook. They are just the reason I remembered to do it in the first place.

Category: Technology

July 5th, 2014

“This must be what the Londoners felt like during World War II,” I said to a friend last night.

She corrected me and said, no, actually, they were probably scared shitless, and we’re just sitting in the backyard. We fully understand that they these are just fireworks. They will not harm us. They will not take our home or family or country.

Yet, as the third straight night of slow rumbles lull me to sleep – booms and crashes off in the distance, seconds apart, like we’re living in the suburb of a warzone, with lights flashing and the occasional close rock of noise, our dog ruffing and huffing as if he too thinks it’s a warzone – I still find it unsettling.

It’s a miracle that our children have already fallen asleep, but they haven’t watched the war movies I have. It’s a weird way to celebrate our nation’s birthday – by recreating the hell that our country went through to get to this point.

Then again, I don’t care about motorcycles or power tools or heavy machinery. Neither does our dog. We’re just built to lie in the dark and remember that this is all part of being free. Free to blow things up. Free to enjoy a little release. Free to feel anxious, forever, for always.

January 14th, 2014

Up until last April, I had never touched the ocean.

1.

I had been close to the ocean. I had travelled under the ocean. But I had never actually ventured out to it – never tried to take in its size, or let the salty remnants of millions of years of biological change wash over my feet. The ocean was a thing outside my realm. The ocean was as foreign as India or Japan.

Last April, I finally did it. I touched the ocean. The Pacific Ocean, scene of a million surf wipeouts and Instagrammed sunsets.

And now, here I was. Ready to do the same on the opposite coast. I got out of my car and walked toward the water.

2.

I used to dream of airports. Each was something new – a way to experience the thrills I had only encountered in a Choose Your Own Adventure. There was freedom in knowing that, given the right situation and the right funds, I could go anywhere. ANYWHERE. Any damned where I pleased, with just a few hundred dollars and the proper identification.

I still do dream of airports, but in a different way. Now, they’re weird nightmares, where I miss my flight or I show up too late to conduct a meeting.

At some point last year, travel became an occupational hazard; each ticket was a debt to my life, and though I enjoyed myself when I was supposed to enjoy myself, I had unwillingly traded my dreams for anxieties. I measured each new city by the number of days I had remaining – the number of days until I could return home. And I began to fear the consequences of enjoying travel too much, of getting too comfortable being on the road.

There’s no way to be peaceful with a new city if you’re rushing to do business and counting the days. There’s no more discovery: there’s only debt.

3.

When I was in grade school, I almost drowned at Wall Lake. I was floating on a neighbor’s inflatable pool lounger when, as I reached for a toy in the water, I fell off. The water was shallow enough to stand in, but the wake and action of thirty other swimmers forced the inflatable pool lounger away from shore.

As I chased it, the water became deeper. Each grasp pushed the lounger further away. Each step I took increased the panic, until, flailing around, my host for the day – our neighbor, who moonlighted as a lifeguard – saw me struggling. She dove in and saved me.

I had graduated from swimming lessons a few years before. I knew how to swim. I knew that I was in danger. But I still kept trying to make things right, to prevent loss, to be safe instead of smart, pushing myself just a little further into the water. In doing so I nearly lost everything.

I was still a kid. I never knew how much this would haunt me.

4.

I neglect to tell Sierra and Isaac about my work travel until the last possible moment. Sierra is riddled with the same anxieties I am: an irrational fear of natural disasters, a belief that when her loved ones leave they may never come back, a super-sensitivity to being embarrassed. Isaac carries those same concerns out of love for his sister; he’s concerned when she is, over-exaggerating each issue in the way a four-year-old does.

My kids become irrational when I’m ready to leave – clinging to me as if I was joining the foreign legion – and they become pills when I’m gone, pushing buttons on every issue. Each trip is a change to routine. Each trip is an added level of stress for Kerrie. Each trip forces the questions I never thought I’d ask.

Do I want to do this?

Do I want to travel?

Am I doing all I can to be a good father?

Of course I am. I never doubt my efforts for long. But that doesn’t mean the same thoughts don’t creep in every time I stand in a security line, one hand throwing my belt and shoes into a bucket, the other chancing upon a bracelet Sierra made, or a few coins I found hidden under Isaac’s rug. I collect these things as I toddle around the house, picking up after myself, but I always assume there’s a bigger reason they end up in that security bowl.

Then I shake it off and shove them back in my pocket as I walk to my gate.

5.

I parked a block away from the Atlantic Ocean, near a beach that shared my name. I stumbled through the sand, wondering how I would remember this moment. I felt proud. I was charged. I was going to surprise my kids by saying LOOK AT WHERE DAD ENDED UP! because I had already decided that the ocean was too much for this bummer of a weekend. I felt empowered by my sudden change of heart. I felt like the lead role in a Springsteen song.

Until I instinctively checked Foursquare.

If I hadn’t tried to check in, I’d have never known that I wasn’t at the ocean. I’d still think that Corey Beach is on the Atlantic and that I’d scored a completed pair. I’d never know that, despite that sudden change of heart, this wasn’t one of the fun Springsteen songs.

I did check. And the ocean was over there, in the distance, on the other side of the outer barrier across Patchouge Bay.

I got back in my car and stared at the beach.

6.

I was afraid of water until, one day, Kerrie forced me to buck up and jump in.

I was afraid to travel to a conference and speak until, one day, my boss told me to just go do it already.

I was afraid to leave home until, one day, I came home and my kids were cool with it all and excited to get presents.

But I still remember the time I pushed it too far. I’m still afraid of going too far past the buoy. I still stay up at night wondering when one step will be one too far, when my charge has slipped past my reach, when my energy has run out and all I can muster is a hand raised in the air as I slowly sink.

7.

When I was a kid, I took one trip a year. My family would pack up the car and we would head to Jackson. It would be stomach-turningly early when the lights came on to leave – a feeling I still encounter on the eve of a trip, where the excitement of discovery is mixed with the fear of the unknown, a queasy churning that’s only solved through a few cups of coffee and an hour of driving into the sunrise.

I knew what travel was, but my scope was limited. It included a car. It included going west. My destination was filled with loving family. It was safe, and it was comforting, and it was always beautiful.

My destination moved wherever my grandparents did, whether it was Wyoming or Kentucky or Minnesota. It was college before I knew what real travel was. I found myself in Paris, struggling with a new language. I found myself in London, seeing things I’d only seen in movies. I was in Seattle, taking mini-pilgrimages to the sites of my favorite bands. I was in Washington DC. I was in New Orleans. I was everywhere.

I wasn’t comfortable, but I was willing to learn. I was an anomaly, I think: my desire to keep moving overcame my fear of the unknown, so I just jumped on a plane and did it.

I want my kids to have a enjoy that kind of movement. I don’t want them to fear the unknown.

I want them to fall in love with countries I’ve never visited. I want them to go on trips that expose them to great friendships. I want them to wonder. I want them to understand that the Midwest is beautiful and perfect in nearly every way, but that they’ll never understand just how perfect it is until they’ve stepped outside its border.

I don’t want travel to be a fearful thing, despite the fact that I now dread traveling without them.

Because instead of enjoying the time I spend in a new city, I now fear the nights they crawl into bed and I’m not there. I fear the dinners when they ask when we’ll be a real family again. And I fear the point when I hate traveling by myself and, as an extension, hate what leads me to travel in the first place.

More than that, I fear that they will see that fear, and they will understand it as a part of traveling. I fear that I will affect their sense of adventure. I fear I will kill discovery before it starts.

8.

My heart sank.

This wasn’t the ocean. I drove here for nothing.

I saw that my short car ride had been for naught, that I had fooled myself in thinking that I was close, and I saw that my only real recourse was to head back to the hotel and watch Netflix and drink a beer and feel shitty and disappointed. It was Labor Day weekend, and I was working, and I thought I didn’t really care but suddenly I did.

But everywhere I looked I saw small people spending the holiday on the beach, making castles and diving into the waves and doing other cliche small people things as their parents looked on, exhausted from the wind but happy that they could sit back and look on. Those small people on the beach reminded me of my small people back home, which reminded me of everything back home, which reminded me that I would be doing my entire family a disservice to ditch this mission – to shake my head and give up, to admit failure. To let the pool lounger go.

So, for once, I refused to give up.

“Fuck it.”

“I’m going to the ocean.”

And I got in my car and drove south.

January 10th, 2014

Sometimes I make lists of lists. I did one in 2011. I did one in 2012. So, hey. “Tradition.”

As always, these lists are not in order.

The Unofficial Album of the Year

  • Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Favorite Albums From 2013

  • Soulcrate Music – “Welcome Back From Wherever You’ve Been
  • Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  • Russian Circles – Memorial
  • Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork
  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
  • XXX – XXX

Favorite Albums From Before 2013 That I Didn’t Pay Attention To Until 2013

  • Morphine – Cure For Pain
  • Uncle Tupelo – No Depression
  • Mogwai – Young Team
  • Big Star – #1 Record
  • Daft Punk – Alive 2007

Albums From My “Favorite Albums From 2012″ List That I Haven’t Listened To Since 2012

  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist
  • Heartless Bastards – Arrow

Albums From My “Favorite Albums From 2011″ List That I STILL Haven’t Listened To Since 2011

  • tUnE-YarDs – whokill
  • Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Genres I Didn’t Fully Understand Because I Didn’t Pay Attention To Genres, Apparently (In Order of How Much I’ve Listened To Them)

  • Post-Metal
  • Post-Rock
  • Alt-Country
  • Shoegaze

Bruce Springsteen Records I Ended Up With This Year

  • The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle
  • Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
  • Nebraska
  • Live / 1975-85

Best Vinyl Acquisitions (Non-Springsteen Edition)

  • Threadbare – Feeling Older Faster
  • Whirlpool – Liquid Glass
  • Hot Water Music – Live in Chicago
  • Built to Spill – Live
  • They Might Be Giants – Apollo 18

Album I’m Embarrassed I Purchased But Haven’t Yet Listened To

  • Kanye West – Yeezus

Category: Music, The Top...

January 1st, 2014

The ball has dropped and nothing has changed.

I still love how my children challenge my every word. I’m still amazed in the friends I’ve made through my industry. I still wonder why Kerrie puts up with my crap and cherish her for it. I still want to be better, still want to fight for the future, still want to protect my kids from everything, still struggle against that protection so my kids can make up their own mind.

The ball has dropped. It’s a new year. I just learned to add “2013″ to my files, but then again I just learned – for what feels like the millionth time – that the year means nothing. That we’re all tied to our own timelines, and that if we don’t move accordingly we forget that resolutions are worthless.

The ball has dropped? I guess I should write something. Or, I should just keep being aware.

Category: On...

November 16th, 2013

It’s midnight and my family has taken up the entire bed. So I’m sleeping in my 6YO’s bed. It’s nicer than ours.

I saw a boy tonight, surrounded by friends, as he threw up in an arena stall after an asthma attack. I waited for adults, but his friends took care of him. It made me feel very good about The State of Today’s Youth.

I worry my kids will grow to ignore me. Then they pile in my bed, just for the chance to be close. And I can’t be mad.

Because they are kids. They are kind. They are compassionate. And because of that, I can sleep anywhere I end up.

Category: Isaac, Sierra

November 5th, 2013

Yesterday, Sierra picked up a book on the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Though the book was in English, the captions were still in French. She read them anyway.

“Less troys rosettes noter dayme dee paris est lun dess grands chefs dee lah churn-ten.”

Sierra is six, yet here she is, fearlessly hacking through incomplete French sentences as if they were just another set of words she hadn’t yet learned in first grade. To her, she’s simply learning to read, and these are new words. She doesn’t know it’s a new language because every word is part of a new language.

In each new incarnation of my professional career, I’ve been dropped into a new language, and I’ve pushed forward with fervor. When I first tasted call center middle management, I was eager and ready to work. When I became a copywriter, I devoured every resource. Now, in the impossible to contain web industry, I still find myself going off on tangents, assuming I’ll need to know everything about everything.

These early days allow us to work without history. They allow us to do what we think is right, without censorship, because we haven’t yet been proven wrong.

This happens with films and books and music. We launch ourselves into genres without regard to what’s considered “legitimate.” We fall in love with bands like Coldplay and Pearl Jam before we hear the negative reviews and backlash. We take it all in, because it’s all new to us.

Each failure tempers our exploration. We cut back on tasks and narrow our vision. We stop taking chances, because we know what we’re supposed to do.

But maybe we should just keep reading on, regardless of the content, regardless of whether or not it’s within our bounds. Of course we should learn from our mistakes, but maybe we should spend less time trying to prevent them in the first place.

Maybe we should pretend we’re French, even if only for a caption or two.

Category: Career, On..., Words, Writing