Monday, November 24, 2014

Learning to Code

First off, I'm not one of those people who thinks EVERYONE MUST LEARN TO CODE.  That said, if you don't know anything about programming, it can help to learn a little so you don't feel like everyone is speaking a language you don't understand.

I wrote up a little page on how to start if you know absolutely nothing.  TL;DR: work through this book.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Unintended Consequences

Paul Graham recently decided to change the way comments work on Hacker News, a popular and influential link aggregator website used by programmers and other techies.  Getting to the "top of Hacker News" is a big accomplishment in tech circles; I even hear people in my lab talking about it.

The change means that by default, comments are not shown on the website, and instead multiple users with a high enough karma must endorse a comment before it becomes visible.  Users seem to receive karma by posting and commenting things that get upvoted (I don't know the details).

I believe the users of Hacker News are mostly male.  I hypothesize that users with karma greater than the endorsement threshold skews even more male; I wonder if the percentage of women in that group is even over 1%.  If my hypothesis is correct, an interesting consequence of this policy change is that a woman's comment cannot appear on Hacker News without a man endorsing the comment.

How does that sit with you?  

I haven't even stated any opinions yet; I just pointed out a result if my hypothesis is true.  You might think that statement is fine; I find it troubling because it means that it's possible some users' voices and opinions won't get heard on a site that is influential and important, perhaps because the majority finds them controversial.  It also just feels wrong.

Sometimes criteria that appear to be based on "merit" have troubling consequences.  We should encourage people and companies to think deeply about unintended, potentially troubling consequences of their actions.

Disclaimer: My PhD advisor also runs Hacker News.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lowest Common Denominator

This post probably won't say anything that hasn't been said before, but I was thinking about Whatsapp and their success.  A lot of people I talk to here at MIT find the whole thing insane and really don't understand how on earth this could happen.

Most people understand international SMS (and even SMS within some countries) is expensive.  But I've heard so many people ask "Why not Gchat?  Why not Facebook Messenger?  Doesn't almost everyone already have one of those accounts anyway?"

When it comes to group communication, you have to look at the lowest common denominator.  If you have 5 friends who all want to communicate and one of them is on an old Nokia, it doesn't matter if the majority of you have iPhones -- you install Whatsapp because it has an iOS and J2ME client.  It's the only thing that will work across all the phones in your group.  Once you're using it for that, if it doesn't suck, you'll use it for everything else.

Even if 99% of the world were on Facebook, if anyone wanted to talk to that 1%, they would have to use something besides Facebook Messenger.  Or leave them out, of course.  One person I talked to said in the above situation he'd obviously just drop the Nokia user as a friend :).  But for most of us, that's not how small group communication works.

I think this effect, combined with a decent chat experience, is what made Whatsapp grow so fast.  Think about that next time you consider only doing an iOS or Android app.