The vanishing point of video chat

Boooooodey! Bohhhdeeeeeeey! I’m calling to your dog through the video screen, like an idiot, but he doesn’t recognize me. Sometimes, I can get him to cock his head and glance over at the screen. Today I get no response at all. It doesn’t seem to matter that when I was there last he followed me around all day, wagging the place where his tail would be if he had one. “I have to go” I mumble, and get out of bed, half expecting the floor of this surreal life to drop out from under me as I lower my feet to the ground.

It’s been eight weeks since I last saw the non-digital representation of your face. When people ask me what we’ve learned in doing long distance from Berlin to California for nearly three years, I just tell them about this vanishing point of three dimensionality that appears abruptly after six weeks apart. It’s as if humans haven’t quite evolved enough to keep the full texture of a relationship in our heads for that long. Your face on the screen pulls my mind backwards in time, like looking at the flowers we picked on a hike this summer and pressed between pages of my pasta cookbook, left out from pappardelle the night before.

I’m standing in front of the mirror now, brushing my teeth. One of the secret languages of people who have been in long distance relationships is an obsession with the quality of various time differences. We’re on nine hours, which is actually one of the more coveted ones over four because it means when I’m waking up you’re going to bed and we have this time where we can just relax together, me waking up and you going to sleep. So now I’m looking at my face in the mirror and I’m having this recurring moment where I regret not being more present in our call, not soaking you in more to get me through the day. The mirror triggers me because when I drift from the present during our calls I find myself looking at my own face more. Maybe it’s just an easier image for my eyes to hold as my mind wanders to happier times when we weren’t so far apart.

It doesn’t feel natural somehow, resting my eyes on myself to let my mind wander. Maybe that’s why I have this regret, and I wish I could wake you up just to stare at you for a moment before my day really begins. When we showed my grandma FaceTime for the first time, she was positively appalled by the fact that she could see herself. She refused to do it for a while. “Only audio” she’d say, but then “please send lots of pictures of your face by email.”

They say that hearing your own voice for the first time is painful because it sounds different than when it’s in your head, and that seeing your own face on the screen makes you cringe at first because you never look the way you think you do. Maybe that’s all my grandma was thinking, but after years of daily video calls with you I believe that initial reaction may also be your brain warning of something deeper. How much of “Zoom fatigue” could be mitigated if these companies made the standard feedback an outline of yourself, so that you know if you’re still in the screen but can’t see yourself fully? Would anybody think it’s natural if we all started walking down the street with mirrors attached to our chests so that others can make sure they look ok as they talk? I worry that the world may never know, if we’re so used to this that we’d feel the loss of our own faces, if facilitating narcissism is a differentiator for video software companies.

Grandma has come around to FaceTime, especially since it’s too risky for any of us to visit her now. On our last call she told me how much she likes my longer hair, and that she’s praying every day for you and me to be back in the same place soon. I hardly notice or think about myself when I call her, despite the fact that I’m the only thing she wants to talk about. I just watch her pull the thread of my life through the screen and weave it carefully into the unimaginably patterned tapestry of her legacy. With you I have this craving to push through the video into the future when we’re together again, but with her I’m gripping my phone with both hands; she’s telling me she doesn’t want to keep me and I’m holding the phone closer to my face, smiling, telling her there’s nowhere else I’d rather go. But I can’t convince her, and we say goodbye.

When you and I look back on this time, one of the biggest tragedies will be that the first few years of our relationship coincided with a period where we can’t spend time with grandma. Nobody in the nursing home is allowed to move around or see other people, and I have this feeling when I talk to her that whether she makes it to 97 or fades back to lay down under the cloth of her life will be a decision she makes consciously. I’m going to try and call her every week. I’ll dial you in next time – she’ll be so excited to see your face.

You still take up most of the space on my recent calls list, but since the start of covid the rest of my life has increasingly crept in: red and black names joining our two dimensional world, learning to cope with the vanishing point.

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The double edged sword of personalization, as told through Spotify Discover Weekly

It’s one in the morning. The party has moved from the dining room to my living room. If I had to point to why I gave up on semi-professional cooking to keep it a pure passion, it would be dinner parties like this. Fifteen or so people, probably ten different accents mixing in with that reverberant, waterfly-landing-on-water rippling beat of “Zealots” by The Fugees. Berlin is magic. I remind myself to notice the full texture of this moment in the hopes that it increases the chances that some shred of this night sticks in my memory forever. 

My “Kitchen Vibes” playlist on Spotify is at this point somewhere close to a prized possession. When I was cooking pop-ups in San Francisco, my co-creator Peter and I put the list together through trial and error over countless hours of events. It bumps and glides, it flows from top to bottom, it mixes well-known with pleasant surprise. It starts smooth and groovy with Wilson Pickett, Gramatik, and others and by the end it’s meant to be the soundtrack to the “I probably had one too many glasses of wine and this event is fucking incredible and please God let me tip these chefs”… think “Int’l Playeres Anthem” and “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk.” Shuffle in the privacy of your bedroom, but if you want to host an event please start from the top.

The reason I tell you this is because I’ve heard “Kitchen Vibes” hundreds of times, and I happen to know that when the Fugees drop the beat it means I need to look around and see if the party is still on the up and up, because my playlist is nearing the end. And on that night in Berlin, the party is most certainly still on the up and up. One day I’ll have a ready-made sequel playlist, but for now it’s time to hit the search. 

My Discover Weekly is the only thing in my list of playlists that is truly alive, changing on its own every week. Perhaps that’s why I feel it’s staring back at me at this moment as I look through my Spotify library. To be honest I can’t even remember what’s in there right now, but I do know that I’ve been playing it on repeat. I can remember at least three isolated instances of dancing by myself this week – it flows and there are definitely jams. I put it on.

I don’t know whether it’s mostly better machine learning models, period, or also the progress of more data on me entering Spotify, but my Discover Weekly playlists are absolutely incredible these days. When I was young, every once in a while I’d get a new album that just hit right, and for about a week I’d play it on loop. These days I have that experience probably one out of every three weeks. Increasingly, it feels like an album that flows rather than just a collection of songs, which makes sense because the point is to play it like one.

Anyone who loves to host events or parties knows what it’s like to watch the energy build or dissipate out of a room, and also how easy it is for small things to change the direction of that flow. Adjusting the lights, changing the music, or forcing a soft reboot (for example by moving people to another room) quickly turn the tide.

And on that night in Berlin, as the third song plays from my Discover Weekly, I’m watching the energy fade as if something impermeable was suddenly removed from under the cracks in the floor of my old apartment. 

In the moment, I have no time to think. I’ve done this enough – I just react. Without looking panicked, (nothing kills a party faster than the realization that everyone is wondering whether the party is dying) I casually excuse myself from my conversation and slide back over to my phone. I pull out one of my life-rafts, Rumors by Fleetwood Mac. I put it on and everyone climbs in; we’re floating again. Eventually the party really turns and other people take over the music to play songs that people can dance to in my living room. An incredible evening, with just one brief energy crisis.

Days later, I’m looking back at that moment and I realize that my Discover Weekly would not be a well received playlist if it was released publicly. I’m not saying my music taste is anything more than fairly basic, but that playlist is so personalized to me and to a moment in time that mass appeal has been lost in favor of personal relevance. 

There’s a concept in science that most scientists’ unique research interest can be described by placing them at the center of some number of overlapping topics. For example “art therapy * PTSD * earthquakes” (I actually met this person recently). But since that center of the venn diagram is a lonely place, they tend to collaborate and attend conferences and such in parts of the diagram where you’ll find more people.

I love my Discover Weekly, and I’m listening to far better and more interesting music than I would without it. My library would be what people used to call “cool” in that it’s unique, diverse, opinionated, not just a reflection of the Billboard 100. And each week my Discover Weekly is the center of my ever more complex venn diagram – the exact reflection of my taste.

But as with science, the bullseye of my interests is a lonely place. When I used to find albums or artists I loved, I could easily find other people that loved them too. My taste was more basic, more influenced by whatever CD was placed front and center on the display table or popular amongst my friends. These days I hardly know who or what I’m listening to – I only know I like it, a lot. 

For me, music makes the complexity of the discussion around recommendation algorithms clearer and easier to grasp. There may be fake news but there’s no fake music, but the exactness of my Discover Weekly gives me the feeling that so far, personalization is turning the dial in a somewhat zero-sum game of relevance vs connectability. Spotify is learning how to deliver amazing music directly to the center of my unique intersection of interests, but I’m sacrificing the connective power of the outer layers in the process. I can no longer see over the top of my musical ditch to connect with other people. But please don’t force me entirely back to the surface – I love the sound down here.

Music helps frame the challenge ahead and the need for balance. Can Spotify figure out how to continue advancing the algorithms and deepening people’s personal taste while also maintaining the social element of music discovery which relies on some inefficiency in personalization? The gradual abandonment of the social features in Spotify would suggest it will be an uphill battle. Can personalization and connectability be more than zero-sum? As an optimist in the power of great products and a lover of Spotify, I think so.

Today, I listened to my Spotify Weekly for an hour or so while I was writing. It’s a good one. But then later I also started building the sequel playlist to Kitchen Vibes, and I invited a few friends to build it with me. That feels like a good balance for now.

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From Einstein to Bezos: What Science Can Teach Us About Creating and Disrupting Growth Models

This post originally appeared on Reforge, and can be read in its entirety there.

One of the things that has struck me in my transition from neuroscience labs to tech is the deep connections in tech to the way the world of science operates (including heavy adoption of scientific terms and techniques), but a general lack of depth in the understanding of what science can really teach us about how to do these things well. Even at ResearchGate, the largest platform at the intersection of tech and science, the awareness of the analogy of our work to science rarely extends past experimentation techniques. I believe this misses a great deal of insight; there is a lot more that we in tech can learn from how science has worked for hundreds of years to build knowledge and drive human progress. 

Read more at Reforge…

How to Run Your Growth Team Like a Scientist

This post originally appeared on Reforge, and can be read in its entirety there.

Recently, a colleague was telling me about a “successful” experiment they were excited about. They hypothesized that the best time to encourage users to upgrade from a free trial was while they were using a certain common feature.

To test this they put a big button on that page and saw a measurable lift in conversion compared to users who didn’t see the button. Based on this result, they were attempting to drive more free users to that feature.

I asked if they had experimented with putting the same button on other commonly used features, and they hadn’t. They hadn’t controlled for the risk that the lift was simply a result of putting a prominent CTA in front of more users.

Read more at Reforge…

The Growth Experiment Management System that Tripled Our Testing Velocity

This post originally appeared on Reforge, and can be read in its entirety there.

All the fastest growing companies move at lightspeed.

Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, and Facebook are some of the fastest growing companies in history, in part because they built high velocity testing into their cultures from day one. Lindsay Pettingill, a data science manager on Airbnb’s growth team, reports that her team has increased their experiment cadence from 100 to 700 experiments per week over the past two years.

Read more at Reforge…