There has been a lot of griping about Facebook lately.  IPO trouble, privacy concerns, the “what is this doing to society and do I really want to contribute?” crowd.  They’re getting slaughtered in the press, on Wall Street, and in the court of public opinion, and they seem to be doing shockingly little about it.

I’m not a heavy Facebook user; I go on mostly to answer messages or, if I’m travelling, to see which friends are in town (I can never keep track of where people are).  And as a social psychologist, I have serious reservations about any system that propagates a curated life, because people start thinking that it is reality and wonder why their life sucks in comparison.

But all that said, I’m not trying to burn Facebook to the ground.  So here’s my tip for making the world not hate them: tell us, in several very short sentences, how you make money.

I actually think the business model mystery is a huge part of Facebook’s PR nightmare.  A good friend recently pointed out that Amazon also has a ton of data about us, but we’re not concerned, and that point is fundamental to my theory here: people hate Facebook because they have no idea how it works and yet it is big and important.  So they invent bogeymen.

If you ask the average person on the street how Amazon makes money, they’ll tell you.  Sure, it might not be in incredible detail and they may not have a great understand of why they are a high volume, low margin business (they may not even know what volume and margin are).  But they still essentially understand how stores work: they sell us stuff for more than they buy it for, and the difference is profit.  They get why it is a $100B company.

Ditto Google, which may be a more fair comparison.  Google is a huge internet name that confounds most folks, but when you ask my parents how it makes money, they’ll blind stab “advertising”.  And they’d be right; that’s a huge source of revenue for Google.  $200B, lots and lots of advertising, scary because they are big but not because we don’t understand them.

Advertising is a huge source of revenue for Facebook as well.  85% vs Google’s 95%.  But how many people in America can tell you that?  Facebook never says “we’re an advertiser” in the same way Google does and consequently, people can let their mind run wild.  Maybe they are selling our data!  Maybe it is the next credit score or background check!  Maybe they are simply going to blackmail everyone!  $50B market cap, smaller than either other country, but entirely black ops.  And entirely scary.

There is abundant psych literature that should remind Facebook that faced by the unknown, people will get scared, hostile, and generate “things that go bump in the night” pretty quickly.  The best thing they could do right now?  A simple infographic and a short statement that says “this is how we make money now, and how we plan to make money, and anytime you have questions, let us know”.  People know who Zuckerberg is, so make him deliver it.  The Facebook fireside chat.

Young black men are hacking the internet.  Not the code itself, but the actual process.

Repeatedly, while taking the subway in NYC, I have overheard groups of young men talking about the truly interesting ways that they are paying attention to technology and they are almost always black.  Five stops on how to get the highest resolution of video uploaded to YouTube.  Three stops on how to unlock phones.  A stop on sites they hate.  Two stops on sites they love.

I know my way around a computer, but I’m famous for not actually using the consumer web all that much; no Pinterest, no communities – it is a miracle that I’m on Facebook more than one a month.  So to listen to how completely the web permeates these groups is amazing.

One of the groups I overheard this week was talking about how badly their school sucked at technology (their school, after some internet search, appears to be in Queens), and it occured to me that frankly, if their teachers bothered to ask them, these are precisely the youngsters I’d choose to implement tech in the classroom.  They wouldn’t use it to teach, but in using it and helping other kids use it, they certainly would be taught.

Some educators are excited about the idea of encouraging students to act as experts and to learn through teaching.  But that requires believing that kids have areas of expertise, and honestly, I’m not sure how many teachers are going to ask their urban, black kids if they can help them manage their tech.

But they should.  Because if the NYC subway is any kind of sample, scratch a young black man, find a potential engineer.  Pay attention.  These are the sort of users that, with molding, can become the people behind the next iteration of what tech is and does.

I got invited to talk to a group of 90 high schoolers at Columbia yesterday, and as usual, I didn’t prepare slides but just took a walk and thought about the things I’ve learned (and repeatedly not learned) along the way.

For one, I’ve learned always to curse when talking to either high school or college students.  They’re old enough to hear it and it makes them pay attention.  In this case, I somehow also managed to work in a comment about breast implants during this talk.

It made sense at the time.  One student asked what the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur is and I replied that, for me, it is knowing something that can make the world better and simply not having the resources to get it implemented.  To which another student followed up: when that happens, how do you get the attention of the people with resources?  I talked a bit about sources of resources, how pitching works, and then…breast implants.  As in “don’t get breast implants to impress a guy, don’t change your morals to get an investor.  Do, however, take showers and wash your clothes and be willing to be more conventional than you might want to be in order to fit in well enough to get heard.”

I also talked a lot about the fact that startups aren’t just their CEOs.  The media tends to talk a lot about the public faces of companies, because they are public and because we like our heroes.  But the majority of people at startups are not founders or CEOs.  They are employees who found a niche and learned to fill it well.  Startups are a collective endeavor and we need to get serious about training the next generation of employees.  Not just founders – employees.

My point to the students was to find what you’re naturally good at and do that.  Don’t just pick a title off the board and say “marketing sounds cool, I’ll do that.”  Actually look at what you are uniquely suited to do.  And of course, because I didn’t talk enough about how to do that, one girl actually wrote me afterward to ask how to know what you’re good at in the first place.

Which is actually a tremendously hard question.  Until you get into college and are able to experiment with different areas of curriculum, it can be very difficult to know where you fit into the workplace.  Which is why internships play such a critical part of our tech employment ecosystem: they allow people to see what different roles at a company actually do, day-to-day.  Education needs to look more like internships, and until it does, the only recommendations I can make are about experiencing as much (with as much diversity) as possible, listening to where people give you positive feedback, and carefully looking at your own projects for where they have succeeded and failed.

In some ways, that is also a challenge to innovators, HR people, and the entire adult community.  While education sorts itself out, try to create at least one new internship every quarter and do your best to make those valuable, not just “copy this” jobs.  People in tech complain there isn’t enough talent around?  If you can’t find it, make it.

I went to see Woody Allen’s new film last week and I have to say that you should never, ever see a Woody Allen film in New York City, unless you are a born-and-bred New Yorker.  It will ruin the experience.

For one, because it was “indie”, the theater was literally the length of a football field but incredibly narrow.  Which means that in a screen-size-to-viewing-distance ratio, it was considerably larger in my living room.  And being a Sunday evening, it was packed entirely with people who looked like they belonged in a Woody Allen movie: hipster girls and their boys, ancient New Yorkers, the French.  All of whom kept coughing, randomly changing seats, and occasionally texting during the film.

The quirks of the people paled in comparison, however, to one simple fact: they all loved Woody Allen so much that they laughed at literally everything.  Bad jokes, good jokes, things I’m not even sure were jokes – they all brought them to hysterics.
But too many laughs will ruin a movie, just like too much applause will ruin an encore.  We need to feel that happiness, joy, life, is authentic and excess so rarely is; very few things in life will really make us that orgasmically happy (orgasms, for one).  So when everyone is going crazy over something that truly doesn’t seem worth it, my brain wants to know what the heck is wrong with those people.

Our brain wants to learn certain things, even when the truth is staring it right in the face.  You can give rats chemicals to make them feel sick and flashing lights at the same time, but they will never make the association between lights and sick – it just isn’t the right kind of lesson.  But make their food taste funny and couple it with sickness, and they are quick to learn to avoid that food.

I think of overlaughter in the same way.  If there is just a bit too much laughter, my brain may actually make me laugh myself: it is close enough to how I actually feel to nudge me over in the direction of extra joy.  But when it is so unreasonably much, my brain rejects it: rather than assimilating, it contrasts, and insists that something is wrong with these people.

This is one of the dangers of the brain, its willingness to bend reality to fit its own model of what the world should be.  If people tell you food tastes great, even if it doesn’t really taste that good to you, your brain will make it taste good over time.  It likes to fall in line, to believe what the filter tells us.  People have been writing a great deal lately about how the internet’s tendency to serve up things it thinks we will like may be denying us access to diversity and new things and our brain is complicit in that; it loves to believe that a recommendation really is made just for us.

But do not despair.  Unless, like a bad Woody Allen movie, the prompt-response paradigm is so far off that your brain can’t even get it to match up, this also means that your brain will make diversity worthwhile.  In a world where we have to work to get rid of the filters and explore, cognitive dissonance (your brain’s tendency to make actions and thoughts line up) suggests that when we work to experience diversity, our brain will say “we worked to do this, it must matter!”.

Which ultimately suggests: do the work.  Seek out things you wouldn’t normally have sought out.  And for the love of god, don’t go see things with a group of people who have already decided to like them exuberantly.  Instead, find explorers like you: ready to experience the world, but not having defined yet what those experiences will be or mean.  Let their experience push you around enough to assimiliate towards happiness, not contrast yourself into the back of a movie theater, pretty much hating everyone else sharing the movie.

Which, ironically, may make me into Woody Allen.  He would have walked out of that movie theater neurotically complaining about the people, just like I’m doing now.  Damn.

I caught up on the first three episodes of The Newsroom over the weekend and it has been fertile ground for reflection (which, besides strict entertainment, is the thing I love most about good stories).  But one theme has preoccupied me more than most: Newsroom’s reflections on the modern American working relationship.

I don’t mean the romantic underpinnings of the show, which I’m entirely uninterested in.  I mean the actual relationships that grow between people working together on a project, and in particular the primary importance of having a good boss.  Whatever his personal faults, newsman Will McAvoy is meant to be the show’s lodestone, its anchor as much figuratively as literally.  The show may be just a smug opportunity for Aaron Sorkin to tell us how to get America right, but he certainly gets one thing right: we all want to work for a badass.

Everyone on the show works for a badass; they all think their immediate boss is awesome.  And that’s something I think has been missing from all the recent interest in the workplace as a creator of meaning.  People have latched onto the psych research that shows that mission, more than money, keeps people happy and satisfied at their jobs but I’m willing to bet that looking up to your boss is a surprisingly large component of that.

After six months of relaxing, I’ve been starting to look at jobs again.  Having said “maybe” to a bunch of offers, I’m trying to get good at saying “no” and narrowing them down.  And I’m finding that the primary factor in my decision is precisely my estimation of the quality of that relationship: is this a job where I get to work for someone I believe in?

I’m a Mac, not a Will.  Which is to say that while I will certainly lead a team within a larger organization, I have no desire to be the man at the top.  Consequently, I need someone at the top that I can trust and respect and encourage to fulfill both the potential of the product and their own potential.  And I don’t think I’m alone in that job desire.

Asking “what makes a good boss?” may be a bit like asking “what makes a good teacher?”, in that it may vary largely with the person you’re asking.  But before we even start thinking about what makes someone a good boss, I think we have to start asking why so few bosses actually think about their role.  That is, most bosses in the American workplace have to manage both up and down: they are simultaneously someone’s boss and someone’s employee, and it is the employee role that tends to take up the majority of their energy.  Even when they are managing those below them, it is with the purpose of impressing those above them.

So maybe that’s the call to action: be a better boss.  Or at least think about what being a boss means, and how you can serve those who you manage.  What kind of leader would you like your boss to be?  Who would you follow?

Side note: instead of saying “someone’s employee”, I almost said “someone’s bitch”.  Isn’t it odd that we don’t have a nice word for someone who reports to someone.  The thesaurus suggests: aide, assistant, attendant, deputy, flunky, gofer, helper, inferior, lackey, minion, peon, scrub, second, second fiddle, second stringer, serf, servant, slave.  With the possible exception of deputy, I don’t want to be any of those.

Recently, a friend was in town with his new girlfriend and she was particularly interested in locally-sourced, organic, vegan food.  Since I care about none of those three things, I didn’t readily know of any options and so hopped on Yelp to guide me.

Alas, the best option near us didn’t take reservations and so when we got there, it would have been an hour wait.  Across the street was some sort of vegan cafe, so rather than sit around in the heat for an hour, we just crossed and went with it, even though we knew nothing about it.  And it was great food, perfect for the group we were with, and an all around happy accident.

A great deal has been written lately about how all the filtering and guidance may make it such that we end up with products that are mostly designed to replicate a combination of our previous experiences and our expressed wants.  The implication for news, for example, is that the NYT website surfaces stories it thinks we will like, exposing us to a worldview that is increasingly monotone.

I get it.  The tyranny of choice has made decisions rather difficult and regretful, so we’ve created products that remove that issue.  And that isn’t an all bad thing.  But I’m starting to think that the shift we actually need is moving from endpoint to opportunity.

What I mean by that is that data models (and therefore products) tend to treat experiences as a commodity.  Just like in The Sims, you are feeling hungry, the model analyzes your hunger and comes up with a remedy, and then gives you that remedy with the full expectation that you will then be not hungry.  It doesn’t think of going to a restaurant as an opportunity for a larger experience (additive) but rather as a solution to a problem, an elimination of a deficit.

Lest that sound entirely philosophical, let me try to put that into a product design.  Most of the work being done right now on these types of engines is around products and services. You want to go to a movie?  We will pick the right movie for you and buy you some nice tickets.  Yum yum, tasty lead gen.

But imagine moving farther back up the funnel to the need behind the need.  What if the true guidance wasn’t “here’s a movie” but rather understanding that you have Friday night free, looking around and saying, “Hey, you haven’t seen Joe in awhile and he also has Friday night free, why don’t you guys go get a beer at this place?”  You still get the lead-gen, but it isn’t about satisfying a deficit.  Instead, you create an opportunity.  Rather than waiting to scratch an itch that you can consciously articulate, products can start with a base understanding of what is good for people, monitoring how much of it they have, and then introducing more.

Aerosmith screams “life’s a journey, not a destination.”  So why do all products seem to assume the opposite?  (And yes, that is a clumsy ending, but come on, can you blame me for wanting to work in Steven Tyler?)

I love building things. Teams, products, solutions, meals: if there is a way to see it as construction, that is almost certainly the perspective I’ll take. And given that love, I spend a tremendous amount of time working directly with engineers, both to build my own projects and helping with others.

As a whole, I tend to like engineers, which is perhaps unsurprising given my own perspective as a scientist. They like logic and rules, have a problem solving approach that is slanted heavily towards the analytic, and their geeky side interests are appealing to me.

But lately, I have the growing feeling that something has turned the corner in tech. Engineers are starting to suck.

I don’t mean they are becoming bad coders; if anything, the average ability of even a junior engineer has risen and that should continue as higher education and other training programs reorient themselves to practical, rather than theoretical, computer science. Rather, I mean that engineers are becoming disappointingly lame people. Not because they are losing their geekiness, but because they are becoming prima donnas.

Engineers are seen as indispensable by companies and are constantly told by the startup community that they make or break many startups. There is a culture in tech right now of engineers being somewhat like wizards: if you have really good ones, you are bound to win, even against overwhelming odds. They are the single most recruited position, no successful startup goes without them, and they are allowed remarkable freedoms in terms of where they work, how they work, and personal grooming.

And then there is the economic reality of engineer scarcity: we need more than we have and that results in heavy competition for them. The average pay for a starting engineer in Silicon Valley is literally twice or three times as much as other members of a startup team (marketing, product, design, etc.). And according to strict economic principles, it should be: scarcity governs price.

But teams are not strictly economic. When you take kids fresh out of college and start paying them eighty thousand dollar starting salaries, bad things happen. They do it in finance and look how well that has been working for us. When people don’t know what to do with their money, they generally choose incredibly stupid things that are not need (or even really want) driven. As anyone walking around Silicon Valley right now will tell you, it is a good time to be in luxury goods.

And praise is the same way. Even if we stopped paying them too much money, if we continue to tell engineers that they are the only thing that truly matters, it will ruin them. That’s just part of human nature: if one cog thinks it is THE COG, it will start and stop when it damn well feels like it, just to exercise some control in the world.

In reality, this is a love letter to all the engineers who don’t suck. Sumit Ahluwalia. Bill Cromie. Will Koshuta. Hilary Mason. The legion more that I know. They are all the more awesome because it would have been so easy for them to slip into being a “brogrammer”, but they didn’t. And by and large, what distinguishes them is that they actually care more about the machine than their own little cogdom. They aren’t coding as part of making a million dollars, they are coding in service of something that generally actually believe in. Like me, they love building, and I suspect they’d be doing it if even if it paid a heck of a lot less.

So what’s the takeaway?  Treat engineers like you would treat other employees you are leading.  Sell them on the mission, not their individual fiefdom.  And for the love of god, stop paying them so much – to quote The Streets, when playing blackjack, “He might get the ace or the top one / So organise your two’s and three’s into a run then you’ll have fucked him son”.  Take a few junior engineers with one good leader and train them to be the kind of people who will make things better.

So after I wrote about the in-group references in Diablo III, Melissa Anderson asked my opinion about “aggressive” in-groupness and how it turns off new members.  Which then got me thinking about what makes some in-groupness awesome and some dramatically less awesome.

When we think of in-groupness as “aggressive”, I think it is actually behavior that has a specific function: keeping people out.  But there is another kind of in-group reference, which is more about layers of meaning – and technically, the Diablo III sort is that.

Take the treasure goblin.  It stands alone as a great game feature and character; you don’t have to know anything about the Golden Axe connection to enjoy it.  What being weird/geeky/old enough to know about Golden Axe does is add something.  That’s the key: addition.  An in-group reference is meant to make you feel that warm buzz of inclusion and recognition, but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean that it makes others feel that harsh note of rejection.

But you could make the treasure goblin obnoxious.  First, it could actually be a detriment to the game by either a) not being a standalone good (like a secret level that gives you infinite power for no good reason) or b) being actually stupid, like a joke that isn’t bad because it is a reference but rather bad because it just isn’t funny.  Second, you could make other people feel actively bad for not knowing what it was.  You could make the treasure goblin, for example, ask you “Gilius?” and force you to type “Thunderhead”.  Not only would that be not standalone good, but it would actually make out-group members feel dumb for not knowing what the heck is going on.  Like the first few seconds of a flash mob, but lasting forever.

Sadly, there is a lot of that sort of in-group behavior in the world – the kind that says “haha, fuck you for not knowing this, newb”.  It has a reason for existing, which is that sometimes we want to be part of small, exclusive groups.  But honestly, isn’t that what esoteric knowledge is for?  If you really want to be part of an exclusive in-group, go join a truly obscure community.  Where we get into trouble as a society is when we start trying to make in-groups that sit somewhere in the mainstream context.  The whole point of the mainstream is that it is inherently inclusive.  It is the actual meaning of the word.

When creating communities around a product, then, the key is fairly simple.  For any reference, ask yourself two questions:

1) If I have no idea what you are referencing, does this still make sense?  Can it stand alone, without the reference?
2) Is there a way someone could feel bad about this?

The only exception should be if you’re making a specifically in-group product, in which case: feel free to make it as bizarre and exclusive as you want.  And rest assured, if you do, someone will write fanfiction about it.

Though I suspect few people actually stop to think about it, titling blog posts is actually quite a bit harder than writing them.  In reality, most of what is interesting about a post boils down to a few words: NYC soda ban is not an issue of freedom pretty much says it all.  But you want people to read, to understand the finer point that you’re trying to make.  So a truly good title gets people in the door, but doesn’t give away the whole plotline.

That isn’t actually all that easy to do.  As I remember one of my content-heavy friends noting, statistically the best titles are the “list” titles: 3 ways to shoot your dog, 6 things never to do on a date, The 100 most creative people in cajun music.  They tell you what you are going to be reading about, without actually imparting any of the important information, so that you’re forced to click-through if you’re interested.  And the click-through, the view, is the metric of all things holy in commercial blogging.

Where title writing gets interesting to me is for non-commercial bloggers.  You could argue they don’t exist, in that even those who do not make direct money off their blogs are still trying to get people to read it (otherwise, why write it at all?), but I do think the motivation set is different.  The longer I’m at this, the more I realize I don’t really mind if people get the main point from the title, since my whole endgame is to nudge people around with the knowledge contained in the points themselves.  So the title is actually a fairly good means to that end, provided I can do it well.

But that presents its own set of problems.  Writing your main point down into a few words that are difficult to misconstrue is not an easy thing, especially if your chief talent is in science rather than communication.  In the long format of a post, I feel that I can be forgiven for rambling; as any writer will tell you, it is the concise, dense prose that is the hardest.  And what could possibly be more concise than a title?

I finally got around to buying Diablo III (which really does have some serious connection issues) and the first hour made me feel all warm and geeky, mostly because of references that reinforce in-group identity.

Teaching in-group identity is fun, because everybody gets it at an instinctive level: competing against the desire to be a unique individual is the desire to be part of a group, a group that is defined in opposition to others outside the group.  Everybody’s group has the shared knowledge that reinforce these, like what Avi means when he calls me an alien or burritos from “down space town”.  And when instances of those shared knowledge come up, they make us feel special, because we’re in that group of people who know what they mean.

Geek culture (like movie culture, music culture, etc.) is rife with these sort of references, and in our minds, they sort out who is a “true geek” and who is just a pretender to the crown.  It isn’t often conscious: only with really identity-threatened folks do you see aggressive sorting into in- and out-groups.  But there is that thrill of discovery, that “oh, the Diablo guys know that?  I know that too!”

Like the mad king’s name in Diablo 3 being Leoric (which I took to be a reference to the mad elven king Lorac in the Dragonlance books).  Or the treasure goblin, which runs away with treasure and you are rewarded for killing it before it portals away.  Golden Axe, anyone?  Also, can “portals” be used as a verb?

Ultimately, these references may not even be true conscious references: the person who named the mad king may never have read Dragonlance.  But that doesn’t actually matter – even falsely identified references still make us feel special, part of the group that truly knows the subject matter.  And our brains love these puzzles; some psychologists have even suggested that this is evolutionary and that we get a little shot of pleasure hormones every time we resolve something ambiguous or make a difficult knowledge connection.

Which argues for why in-jokes are worth spending some time creating in products.  Moments that bind us closer to the communities that form around a product create product loyalty and make us feel a little special.  I always think of them as “pirate squirrels”, which were the bizarre, cute error screens that we used in place of 404’s at Thrive.  And chances are, if you are a geek, you just got a little tiny rush of pleasure for knowing what a 404 was.  Knowledge is power…but it is also pleasure.