Tracking technology and the vote

I originally wrote this for the Mathys+Potestio blog, this really cool employment agency based in Portland, Oregon. Here’s the link to the original post.

I’ve noticed that, for the first time in my life, I’m overwhelmed by politics. In high school, it was just a topic that sometimes came up among my debate-team friends. In college and my early years of employment it was a side conversation.

Now I can’t go a day without someone mentioning a candidate at least 3 times, and my Facebook news feed is covered almost exclusively in images, GIFs and video clips lampooning or praising candidates. Maybe I’m just at that age now when we begin to center conversations around politics unlike when we were young. Maybe it’s all media buzz. Maybe, even if it’s overwhelming, it’s actually a good thing: voter turnout since 2008 is up from where it was in the 90s.

Regardless, I find myself asking the question more frequently: why are so many of my friends and colleagues suddenly in tune with the election? What changed to make this a central part of our lives again?

You could easily argue that the trying times we live in begets political action in itself – but during every time of significant political activity in American history, technology seemed to come along for the ride. Think about the 1960 Presidential debates, during which technology (that is, television) presented candidates in a wholly new light: everyday people could truly see the candidates in person for the first time. This almost single-handedly swung the election in favor of the younger, more energized JFK – it gave apathetic or indecisive voters a new context in which they could base a political stance.

After the major TV broadcast networks got stale in terms of their political coverage, other players started to get involved. During the 80s we saw niche Cable television networks spring up everywhere covering virtually every popular interest. MTV found an opportunity to politically engage its audience in the early 2000s with Vote or Die, a campaign run by Puff Daddy aimed at young popular music fans to get out the vote. Had cable television never come to be, enabling specialty networks like MTV, that would never have happened.

Of course, Vote or Die is basically dead and gone at this point, but that’s only because the idea also went stale. In a blog post written before the 2014 midterm elections, Benjamin Studebaker suggested that “when P-Diddy tells young people to vote or die, he can give all sorts of reasons why millions of young people should vote, but no reason why any given person should vote.” People were able to easily ignore the message on an individual level – while strong in tone, it falls flat. However, “there are many ways to get the influence you need to make a difference” – Studebaker doesn’t necessarily fault the program or any candidate tactic, per se – but perhaps a more intimate connection with voters to clearly understand and respond to concerns was the next place to go.

While Vote or Die was briefly capturing the attention of America’s youth, Facebook was plotting its eventual cultural takeover. Facebook feels like it’s been around forever at this point, but its influence on social behavior and pop culture is obvious; just 8 years later, it hosted its first Town Hall meeting. This was yet another way for disengaged citizens (specifically, younger, tech-savvy ones) to engage with politics and find reasons to vote. The rapid expansion of the social media space has introduced yet more interactive solutions for candidates to interact with potential or apathetic voters – for example, every candidate in the 2016 election has Instagram, Periscope and Snapchat accounts, and their marketing teams are finding new ways to leverage these platforms to interact with young voters.

Technological and cultural innovation has, quite literally, given apathetic citizens new reasons to vote by presenting new contexts on which to base voting decisions.

If social tech is hugely influencing my network to get out and vote, is it affecting the same change in other demographics throughout the country? Are fervent Trump supporters in the Midwest endlessly posting about their fervent Trump support to their friends, like how my friends are nonstop blabbing about their liberalism? Software is eating the world, and the world has a smartphone and a Facebook account, so why don’t I see this?

Much of it has to do with context-setting, and much of that can be done by friends and family. In 2010, a single Facebook message got over 300,000 people to vote because that message got stuck in a viral loop – the original writer shared the message to his closest friends, who then shared the message with their own friends, and so on. In the past 2 years, various people have speculated on Facebook’s massive direct impact on voter turnout. Facebook’s audience tends to skew younger and female, so the impact on voter turnout is naturally felt most in these demographics. There are also plenty of businesses out there whose sole purpose is to thrive on “viral” content – and some of them, like Upworthy, focus on the most viral content with a meaningful underlying message. These topics also generally skew more liberal – perfect for the young, predominantly female audience on Facebook and other networks on which this content is shared.

But it’s fairly obvious that social networks have also had their negative effects on the political process – namely, they’ve encouraged polarization and filtered confirmation bias.

That begs two questions:

  1. As social media hype starts to lose its luster in the face of content overload and social upheaval, what is the next technological advance that affects the political participation?
  2. How does technology encourage voter turnout within those who are generally more resistant to technological change?

I certainly can’t answer either of these questions today – but some startups are exploring them now. Startups like Agora and Civis Analyics are working to bring better opportunities for voters to engage with their candidates, and better data to those candidates such that they can reach out to untapped audiences. Perhaps that’s the next major area of innovation that will affect the vote – rather than presenting the candidates in different ways to the voter, reconfigure how the voter and candidate interact. Elsa Sze, founder of Agora, positions the platform as a means to a voice every day: live streaming town hall meetings that anyone can set up at any time, publicly-accessible Q&As, detailed insights for officials. It makes sense, given our current sociocultural landscape, driven by interactivity and choice and media over-saturation; what’s better than being able to easily target your perfect voter and engage in a wholly two-sided, honest dialogue with him or her?

Only time will tell how these advances affect how citizens engage (or not) in our political process. The challenge (as many have mentioned when attempting to disrupt the political process) is adoption – how do you engage reluctant citizens while also providing new value to candidates and their supporters? How do you provide meaningful connections that influence positive social and political change while still capturing an increasingly distracted public’s attention?

Questions aside, it’s hard to deny that, regardless how directly technology is aiming to disrupt the vote, changes in each go hand in hand. I’m curious to see how, in the modern political landscape, how new advances in app development, virtual/augmented reality, hyper-local social networking, and political science bring voter turnout to its next natural progression.

Eight months, in an office

10 months ago, I was living what I thought was a dream: working remotely for a decently-buzzed tech startup where I was the lead product guy. I could work in my underwear, start and end whenever I wanted, have free reign to work and travel wherever I pleased.

Then in May, said startup laid me (and pretty much everyone else) off with a week’s notice.

I had seen this coming for almost a year for various reasons I won’t get into – but what did surprise me was the ease of getting back on my financial feet. Those of us who got laid off were offered a new job pretty quickly by Wayfair, an e-commerce giant also based in Boston. So that’s where I ended up.

Eight months later, I find myself finally in my element again. The first three months in this job were total culture shock: I was uncomfortable around so many people, all of them wanting to talk to me all about the work and nothing but the work. I was frustrated with having to commute to an office at all, let alone walking down the street like I would regularly do in New York.

But over the last few months, I figured out a rhythm to make it work for me. It’s certainly not a perfect situation – but then again, what job is, really? – but I’ve had some time to reflect about being in an office again.

(Disclaimer: this is primarily about the experience of working in an office environment, particularly after a stint in startup culture, and is in no way intended to be a reflection of the work I do, or my employer, at all.)


Wayfair employs thousands of people and has an office right next to Copley Square in Boston. When you walk into the office for the first time, it’s hard to not feel like you’re part of something massive, given just how many people are flocking to the Copley Plaza complex between 8 and 9am. You’d think one of the stores in the Copley Plaza Mall was having a blowout – nope, these are just Wayfair employees trudging into work.

After a few weeks, though, the awe of big company size and impact turns into drone-like fatigue…especially as wintertime sets in. Droves of sleepy, freezing employees passing through subway turnstiles, huddling underneath half-broken umbrellas and avoiding puddles of slush (and being forced above ground to avoid MBTA construction), just to stare at a PC screen and talk in corporate-speak.

Simply having to be at the mercy of weather sucks. When I was working from home, if it was snowing out, I could just stay inside. I technically have the facilities to work from home in my current job, too – so it can be frustrating to eschew all this technological capability just to be present in the office culture. Wayfair has offices in several locations around the US and Europe; I can’t tell you how many times I questioned my battling of snowstorms to get into the office, only to sit on calls with my Berlin colleagues all day.

That said, if you’re stuck on calls all day at home, you might never leave the house. Get this: working in an office forces you out into the world. This is something I completely took for granted as a remote worker – I would occasionally run out to a coffee shop for a while to get stuff done, but nothing was more comforting than parking it on my couch for 9 hours straight save bathroom and lunch breaks.

Speaking of which, when you begin to compare home-work and office-work life, tiny subtle details start to surface about your lifestyle. For instance, The cost of your utilities start to become something you scrutinize monthly – I drastically underestimated how much I was spending to run electricity and heat during the ’14-’15 winter while working at home. Finding food to eat in an office is a really hit-or-miss thing, depending on where your office (or home) is located. I have the benefit of being right near Copley Square, where food trucks and solid restaurants abound. My last office job was in an awkward part of East Cambridge, MA, where our best culinary options were in a mall food court. At home, you’re really at the mercy of your grocery list or what (if any) restaurants are nearby; back in NYC, this wasn’t a problem, but in quieter parts of the world, this could certainly be a drawback.

Everyone who Product Manages knows the difficulty of trying to herd cats – oops, I mean colleagues – toward a shared product vision, and this difficulty is only amplified when doing it from afar. Being in the office ensures presence from everyone who matters, including my/yourself. I find myself more productive overall, simply because I had face time with colleagues working on projects with me – and no at-home distractions, like my guitars or my television. I can also use my commute to unwind and/or focus on things I’d never be able to focus on given those distractions. I’ve started writing again simply because I have over an hour of “free time” on the train every day.

Working in an office can be painfully social. To avoid talking only about the work, you need to find common interests with your colleagues: in Boston, it’s generally assumed that this is Boston sports. If you’re not actively following the Bruins/Pats/Sox (or worse yet, following another city’s team) you’re already at a disadvantage. I’ve come to develop a personal brand around music snobbery, pop culture savvy and a more casual tone, which people seem to appreciate outside of my general apathy for sports.

Once you figure your general vibe out, though, working in an office can be delightfully social. You actually start to make friends and engage in social conversations and outings you never would’ve had sitting at home or in a coffee shop all day long. Sure, there’s spontaneity involved with serendipitously meeting new people at your local coffee shop, but there’s something equally spontaneous in the side conversations that happen at work. My aforementioned music snobbery may manifest itself during a discussion of weekend plans, which may lead to a colleague/friend to check out a band with.

And what happens when the work gets to be too much, and you find yourself stuck at the office all day? Isn’t that the beauty of working wherever you choose? What about those giant cultish companies who directly incentivize their employees to spend all waking hours at the office, or even sleep there?

Well, so, you can just leave. If there’s more work to be done, and your company has a VPN, you can catch up on work at home after having a lovely dinner at a reasonable hour with your significant other. I’ve come to realize (again) the importance of balance – not necessarily the lofty, unattainable “work/life balance” construct of 9-5, but finding a personal balance where I’m challenging myself and working hard, but not burning myself out and still finding time to reflect and find fulfillment elsewhere in my life.


Certain parts of the tech/startup industry paint office culture as a thing of the past, rendered unnecessary by new collaboration technology. Fully-distributed organizations are popping up everywhere, promising uber flexibility and balance. I admire these companies’ ability to embrace technology to try and bring more happiness to their employees – though it is certainly not perfect either. Remember that distributed companies (or remote work at all) is a fairly new concept, far from perfected by any one organization – and the larger the company is that you work for, the harder it is to adapt the necessary processes and technology to enable that flexibility.

All in all? I certainly don’t hate everything. My commute is sometimes frustrating, as can be the work, but that’s part of dealing with everyday life. I genuinely like quite a few of my colleagues (both in and outside of work), which after being remote for a while is quite refreshing. And I’ve achieved a balance that, at least for now, I’m happy with.

The question I now find myself asking more frequently is: where does this go? Do I advance up the food chain of a strong brand with its corporate quirks, or do I keep my hand in some things that could result in more personal freedom? What will ultimately make me a better, happier person?

Well, how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

On malaise in tech, or how I learned to find products that embrace true problem-solving

I originally wrote this for the Mathys+Potestio blog, this really cool employment agency based in Portland, Oregon. Here’s the link to the original post.

Apple and Google and Facebook and Microsoft and Amazon.
These are the big 5 in consumer tech, and the most commonly used apps on your phone are probably made by some or all of them. Nobody is going to knock them out of their ivory towers. If you go on any tech blog you will almost certainly find no less than 3 articles in the last week about each of these 5 companies (okay, maybe a few others – but you know which ones they are).

I’m a product manager by day, so I spend a lot of time analyzing and collecting feedback on the products and how they solve real user problems. Part of my job also involves being aware of other products solving similar or other problems, so I read about those products the top tech businesses are working on, as well as new ones via sites like Product Hunt. But this is starting lose its luster for me – as I recently wrote on my own blog, I’m becoming less and less impressed with the true problem solving being done by makers of products. It gets old to read about a new photo sharing app every week – why try and address the growing wealth inequality problems in the US? Or the terribly slow pace of government action? Or even the racket that is the wedding industry (a problem currently near & dear to my heart)?

Turns out I’m not alone in my jadedness, so much so that some are quitting the “tech journalism” beat altogether. If you feel jaded by this stuff too, it’s valid – but, again, I don’t blame anybody in particular. Tech products, and those who make them, have just as much a tendency to follow trends as any other sector of popular culture – social products, smart on-demand services and lists of resources are hot right now, so all the makers are trying to make those things. (Oh god, what if someone builds a social network for on-demand delivery workers?)

Behind all the throwaway social networks and overpriced delivery apps, though, there’s even more people building truly interesting, difference-making things for the world. This is probably not a huge surprise, given the number of charitable organizations, biotech firms and activist groups out there. But hold up – you don’t need to look only at these types of groups to find great, innovative solutions being developed to solve tough social and economic problems. Startups (and even individuals) are building these things, using the same cutting-edge (and overhyped) technology and design and business models you read about on tech blogs. You know those things called “hackathons” that media has portrayed to us as high-energy bro-outs? (Thanks, The Social Network…) These people are actually using those to address social problems with great technology.

In fact, if there is a social, political or economic issue that interests you, there’s probably at least a few startups or products out there aiming to tackle that issue in some way or another in some new way. Here’s just a few products that are solving real problems in critical spaces that are worth checking out (each of which even use some buzz-wordy tech or design concept you might be sick of hearing about!)

Interested in helping out a charity? Compute for Humanity uses your computer to mine cryptocurrencies, then automatically donate the output to charities. I recently installed this on my own Mac and was pleasantly surprised that it required absolutely nothing of the machine or my time, and yet in a few hours I had generated a couple bucks. I’ve generated $22.64 so far, again, for doing literally nothing.

Why is this remarkable? Cryptocurrencies! No work for the end-user! But also real money going to real, unsketchy charitable organizations like Pencils of Promise and GlobalGiving.

Want to help people with disabilities? Be My Eyes is an app that lets you help out a blind person from anywhere. Remember this thing? It got a fair share of journalistic praise a year ago but naturally fell out of the limelight – not for any reason in particular other than that people’s attention moved elsewhere. It’s worth reminding ourselves, however, that this is an app that literally helps blind people see. That in itself is an amazing feat we shouldn’t forget about.

Why is this remarkable? (Sort of) social networking! Unconventional use of the iPhone camera! But also it helps blind people.

Want to be more socially conscious? Archives + Absences is an app that notifies you anytime a cop kills a minority in the US. This is based on real data from The Guardian – it’s not a joke. If you are interested in the struggle of minorities in this country, you should download this app now, if anything to set context for yourself.

Why is this remarkable? The most minimal design ever! Push notifications! But also they’re about actual deaths surrounding a controversial social topic.

Know somebody with substance abuse issues and want to try and help?Addicaid is an app that aims to make drug & alcohol recovery a little more comfortable. You can find recovery groups nearby, get tips, maintain a plan, and evaluate your progress toward recovery, all while completely anonymous if desired.

Why is this remarkable? Material design! But also it helps people with real, crippling problems get a little closer to solving them.

Interest in the problems of America’s legal system? Ravel, Everlaw, Judicata and others aiming to make the practice of law, and lawyers, more affordable. The first two are building tools to help make law firms more efficient in their operations, and the third is aiming to capture the “law genome” to simplify complex legal decisions for lawyers and everyday people. As Judicata says, “Legal research isn’t just about finding needles; it’s about understanding the haystack too.“

Why is this remarkable? Big data! But also, lawyers are really expensive and law firms are incredibly inefficient right now.

Generally interested in major social issues and understanding their impact? SumAll.org, a tech non-profit hellbent on “empowering change makers to maximize their social impact through data.” They build amazing, sometimes-interactive studies on key humanitarian issues including human trafficking, homelessness and the Syrian refugee crisis. Its founder, Dane Atkinson, wanted tech to create a tangible impact for social good, and formed the foundation out of a portion of his social marketing tech company, SumAll (including its technology).

Why is this remarkable? Data science! But also, the topics they’re covering are, like, really bad things.

Products and businesses, when done right, are about solving problems, not chasing ideas. It’s worth reminding ourselves that in the midst of product/maker overload, that there are millions of people making great, incredibly important products, and they’re even publicizing them – they’re just a little bit harder to find.

Product Hunt for abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

The other day I came across Telescope, a product that lets anyone launch their own community site, Product Hunt-style. Just when you think you’ve seen too many “Product Hunt for X” sites, someone gives you the ability to generate as many of them as humanly possible.

It’s not inherently a bad or stupid idea, I swear. But every time someone develops some sort of platform that “lets you make your very own X”, I get a little terrified at the implications that platform may have on society – or, more specifically, the silly ideas that the platform enables. If the “Uber for X” mentality gave us things like this, I can’t imagine what a well-marketed “Product Hunt for X” solution gives us.

Because I get bored during my commute sometimes, I came up with a few ideas for Telescope sites that I thought might be good1. Yay for rapid brainstorming!

  • Anxiety Hunt: submit what’s making you anxious at any particular moment; others can upvote the things that they’re also anxious about. Let’s all be upfront about our insecurities, k? (Speaking of which, is Post Secret still a thing?)
  • Bitch Hunter Hunt: Upvote the best lines from the amazing, non-existent movie starring Will Ferrell, Bitch Hunter.
  • Crack Overflow: Stack Overflow, but for people who periodically suffer from plumber’s crack. (What do you post on a site like that? I don’t know, I wear skinny jeans.)
  • Duck Duck Hunt Hunt: post and upvote screenshots and videos of your favorite moments from the classic game, Duck Hunt.
  • Ethan Hunt: Product Hunt for all things Mission: Impossible.
  • Fuck Hunt: Basically, Product Hunt for porn. V2: import the top voted porn images into a live web version of Duck Hunt!
  • Grunt Hunt: Inspired by Eugene Mirman’s I’m Sorry, You’re Welcome, this gem lets users upload and vote on the best interpretations of various sound effects performed by their own speaking voice.
  • Helen Hunt: Product Hunt for all people in the world named Helen. Vote which ones you think are the best! Except Helen Hunt, of course.
  • I Hunt Myself: For the ultimate narcissist, this platform allows you to submit virtually anything you care about and upvote them based on your personal ranking of those things. The twist? You’re the only one who can access your list. And every upvote triggers a little “Me me me!” sound effect.
  • Jerk Hunt: Product Hunt for douchebags. You literally post about a shitty person and something shitty they did, and people agree with you. The worst people are highest voted. We’re terrible people, right?
  • Karma Hunt: Post something good you did for somebody, and people upvote the most charitable acts. Do you get any actual good karma from this? Probably not. It’s mostly self-serving.
  • Luck Hunt: Product Hunt, but if you're the Xth person to upvote something, you win money. THIS IS THE NEXT LEVEL OF FANTASY SPORTS, BABIES.
  • Meta Hunt: Product Hunt for “Product Hunt for X” sites. Product Hunt is sort of already this, but I figure let’s cut out the BS and make a site dedicated to this thing.
  • Nuck Hunt: Same as the aforementioned Fuck Hunt, but for Canadians.
  • Oregon Trail, Telescope Edition: This version of insanity takes the original beloved computer game, The Oregon Trail, and puts every possible scenario in a list. You have a limited number of upvotes and can use them toward rations, game, diseases – literally everything the game has to offer – and the game returns a likeliness of you surviving the Oregon Trail with those decisions. Basically, a way less fun version of the game.
  • Problem Hunt: Upvote actual problems around which people should build products to solve – they can be any problems, large or small. (Disclaimer: this one’s kind of a real idea, and it already existed once as Real Problem Hunt but was shut down – I think this deserves to come back at some point.)
  • Quote Pilot: You know all those sites with huge lists of inspirational quotes? Ever want to make your own soundbyte-y quote? Submit it here and people upvote the most moving ones. Because we need more inspirational quotes every day!
  • Reverse Hunt: Vote for the least cool things. The less votes, the better. Countercultures, unite.
  • Sidetracked: the Game: submit something that distracted you today – anything at all. Other people upvote the things also distracting them. The test: seeing how many of those things you can avoid clicking on. It’s totally a game!
  • Telescope Hunt: Product Hunt for all sites made with the Telescope platform. (No relation to Meta Hunt, of course…)
  • Uber Hunt: Product Hunt for Uber drivers. Or is it Uber for Product Hunt fans? THE WORLD MAY NEVER KNOW!
  • Viral Hunt: Product Hunt, but with auto-sharing upon every upvote. You thought you couldn't post any more content to your followers? Think again!
  • Witch Hunt: Post people you think are witches, and then others can upvote if they agree with you. Then we burn the highest-voted ones at the stake!
  • X for Product Hunt: Post and upvote features for Product Hunt. (This isn't actually that bad of an idea for a feature request tool…?)
  • Yerba Hunté: Upvote the best kinds of maté…?
  • Zoo Hunt: Zoo animals. Which ones are the best? I’m done with this list.
  1. That is, ideas that will probably get made regardless of whether they’re actually good. In fact, most of these are completely ridiculous. But so are people who insist on making their own “hunt” sites for every possible niche they can think of. Yay products! ↩︎

Share that you’re still learning (because everyone else is, too)

The Internet is amazing, and Twitter is amazing. I know someone just wrote a post about how Twitter is dying, but the communities of people who are using it in the correct, intended way are great.

I bring this up because earlier today, for the first time, I tweeted something that sort of went viral. It didn’t actually go viral (the numbers were clearly not large enough to be considered viral), but for the first time:

  • I shared something I thought could be valuable to others
  • it got picked up by an influencer (thanks, folks at Product Hunt!) who similarly thought it was valuable
  • it then got picked up by several dozen others (58 favorites and 13 retweets, to be specific)
  • I was thanked by many people for sharing, despite not knowing these people at all

Again: chump change in the world of Twitter, but it still made me happy. Happy that I got some attention, but even happier because I provided value to some people I don’t even know. This all happened because I shared the fact that I’m still learning.

It’s been written ad nauseum that startup/tech journalism has a tendency to focus on successes. I had assumed that tech thought leaders and sites like Product Hunt only cared about actual products and results; I figured I’d learn to code so that I could eventually build products that changed people’s lives and brought me financial stability and fulfillment on my own terms. The reality is that I’m probably years (at best) away from pulling this off.

But starting somewhere is important, and sharing this (even if you’re still at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole) is worth doing. There’s millions of people trying to build their own products and know as little or less than you do, so why not make it known? You may be able to help each other out, bounce good ideas, test each other’s works in progress or even make some friends in the process. Now that I’m public about my learning how to make iOS apps, I’ve got a little more community around me, and while the path forward still isn’t totally clear, it feels a little clearer now.

Thanks Product Hunt and everyone who liked what I had to share!