Author Archives: Tariq West

Snapchat, Huxley and Orwell

I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while why I find Snapchat unsettling. The crude and narrow observation is that while I’ve received a couple of delightful, clever snaps, I’m bemused by the inanity of the bulk of the snaps I get from otherwise sharp peers – that the medium seems somehow to make infants of them. I’ve often surmised that mediation by Snapchat would quickly make a Nobel laureate insufferable. The broader, and more sophisticated perhaps, assessment is this: Snapchat awakes in me both Huxleyan and Orwellian anxieties.

Huxley deals a lot with man’s “infinite appetite for distraction”, and extending from it, an economy of attention ruled by the inane, that nurtures an unreflective culture and allows power and privilege to operate unchallenged. I’m afraid that Snapchat, in its ephemerality and because of its structural limitations – character limit, no linking off to content, no forwarding, among others  – demands, or at least suggests as primary, vacuousness on a whole other level than media like Facebook or Twitter.

Snapchat suggests that we should share things not worth keeping, and while that informality represents interesting possibilities, including potential for departure in a way from Facebook-age identity curation, and a move towards lower-commitment, unfiltered engagement with intimate circles (closer to an in-person dynamic, some would argue), it also has a much darker possibility set.

Arguably, you can convey a lot with an image or short video and very few words, but if something like Snapchat becomes a core communication medium the incidental benefits of Facebook and Twitter – that people actually surface and converse around things of substance sometimes – will be lost due to limitations of the same.

If a world mediated by Facebook or Twitter is 80% fluff, a world mediated by Snapchat is 99%.

At the same time, there is the belief by many Snapchat users, encouraged by the company itself, in the impermanence and thus confidentiality  of communication, and a safety and liberty that extends from that. That implicit promise doesn’t quite square with the technical reality of the medium, such that it isn’t even a good tool for organizing and messaging dissent. Quite the opposite, it’s perfect for surveillance (in an Orwellian vein, if you will).

Snapchat is evolving of course, and I’m curious to see if it continues to fail at being a medium with incidental benefits, and whether it otherwise contributes to a reduced quality of discourse.

Theatre and Tech in conversation: Stanislavski and UX Design

This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for months. I was inspired to finish it today when I stumbled upon a interview with Jon Wiley (below), a Lead Designer at Google. Wiley, once a professional improv comedy actor, articulates the relationship between Theatre and UX design that I've been toying with. 

I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from some brilliant UX designers at AKQA over the past few months. There is an ethos at play among the best minds in the UX discipline that reminds me of my adventures in the Theatre. 

Jim Zidar, one of the most talented thespians and directors I’ve had the privilege of learning from, introduced me to 'Stanislavski’s system'. This acting methodology is comprised of set of techniques codified by its namesake, the great 19th century Russian actor and director, Constantin Stanislavski

The system has three elements at its core: (1) 'The Magic if', (2) Motivation and (3) Objective. These are analogous to the process of discovery that a UX designer undertakes.

The “Magic If”

The "magic if" is a line of questioning that allows an actor to escape the reality they are living and insert themselves into another. It is an exercise in imagination which answers questions along the lines of, “What if you found yourself in this situation? How would you behave? How would you feel?” 

The UX designer faces a similar task. As one UX designer on my team put it, 'You are an architect, sitting in one building, while designing another. You must design a building with many of the amenities of the one you are sitting in while avoiding the temptation to replicate the one you're sitting in. The client needs a better building, but the light switches need to stay by the door.' 

In re-designing an existing system for instance, a designer might think, "I am not attached to how the system currently works. But what if I'd been using the system for years? What metaphors and mechanisms do I expect? Which ones must be replicated to create continuity of experience? The current system allows a user to accomplish this objective this way, but what if we re-order the steps in the task or automate them?"


Motivation refers to the practice of analyzing the underpinnings of every action and line of dialogue. The actor must look beyond a given movement or articulation and construct a picture of the inner life of the character. This is accomplished by searching out clues in past actions of a character and putting together a narrative of self, a presiding emotional logic that is consistent across actions.

This is an exercise that parallels the approach of the empathetic designer. To get to the motivations of a user, a UX designer looks beyond a given user action to develop a useful theory of motivation that allows them to guess at how a user might behave in a new interface. This often involves sitting with a user and observing how they work generally, and how they complete the sorts of task your solution will need to accommodate. It can also be done through eye tracking and other more analytical tools.

Great UX designers understand that interacting with an interface is an emotional experience. Users are motivated by curiosity, frustration, time pressure, familiarity, comfort, esthetic pleasure, accomplishment, uncertainty etc…

This crystallized for me while working on a call center interface recently for a major apparel manufacturer and retailer. Sitting six inches from the agent, I could see when they clenched their jaws, when they cursed under their breath, when they banged on the keyboard because something just didn’t work as expected, even when it did work as designed. 

It takes very little interaction for a human being to start to ascribe human-like characteristics to a technological object or interface. The question, then, is, “If my application is a person, what kind of person is it? Is it stubborn or cooperative? Honest or deceitful? Is my application an ass?” A user forms a relationship with an interface and every action becomes emotionally charged, reflecting the state of that relationship and a user's emotional disposition towards the world more broadly.


The objective refers to a goal that a character wants to achieve. The actor must ask, “What does my character want?” Objectives, in contrast to motivations, are action oriented and externally facing. Stanislavski conceives of different orders of objective dubbed “units”, “bits” and “beats”. 

An actor discovers the character’s objective in any given scene. This objective, the “unit”, could be something like “to reach the front of the buffet line”. The bits and beats are smaller goals that support the overarching “unit” of the scene. The super-objective represents a character’s ultimate goal through the entire play, say “besting an enemy”, and is the connective tissues between “units”.

In capturing and building to user stories, the UX designer creates interfaces that accommodate the user’s objectives. He or she asks the question, “What does the user want?” “Units”, “beats” and “bits” are analogous to steps within a user flow while the super-objective ties it all together. 

The super-objective might be, “the user wants to purchase a pair of shoes.” The “units” could be pages in a user flow. On the first page a user searches for a product, on the next they view the products details, on the third they buy the product etc… The “bits” are the actions that a user must take, like inputting fields or selecting from a set of options, to accomplish the goal of one page in a flow and advance to the next. 

Breastfeeding, Technology and the Symbolism of Progress

Stanford University – Science, Tech & Society Program Commencement – Student Address – June 13th, 2010

A couple of people have asked me to post the address I made at Stanford’s Science, Technology & Society Program commencement ceremony. I do this with some hesitation. Things were incredibly hectic in the days leading up to graduation and I ended up writing the speech, rather hung over, an hour or so before delivering it. That is to say, it’s not my most elegant or elaborated work, but it gets a point or two across I hope.

I’d like to begin by addressing a question to my fellow graduates: By show of hands, who knew coming in to Stanford that they would be an STS major? [only one hand is raised] Obviously, we who knew coming into Stanford that we would study Science, Technology & Society are rather atypical among STS majors.

We are far more typical in the sense that STS represented a disciplinary framework that allowed us, and indeed, required us, to reconcile interests in science and engineering with pursuits in public policy and business and the humanities. In my case, Stanford topped my list of schools precisely because such an interdisciplinary course of study existed.

There was more to it than that, though. I followed in the footsteps of an older brother and sister, who brought the things they’d learned in the their STS courses back to our dinner table in DC. The discussions were lively, colorful and ranged from trivial speculation on the latest gadgets or Internet startups to ruminations on the role of mobile infrastructure in international development and the implications of failures in STEM education to the future of minority communities.

This is to say, even before I came to Stanford, my engagement with STS as a discipline was stimulating, horizon expanding and eminently relevant to people and places I care about. It is no surprise then, that during my time here at Stanford, STS has been more than just an academic discipline, more than just an ivory tower pursuit. It has been personal.

Professor McGinn and many others have encouraged and empowered us not only to understand theories and frameworks in the abstract, but also to engage in a personal sort of inquiry. We were encouraged certainly, to think about lofty questions such as what values are embedded in and engendered by technologies.

But we were also invited to think about the fabric and fibre of our own lives and to be rigorous, deliberate and experimental in deciding which technologies we will use and which we will not, which add richness and variety to our lives, and which have unacceptable costs.

For me, STS has provided principles and insights that will actually inform the way I live my life. It has grown my ethical mind and my ability to recognize nuance and complexity, perspectives and stakeholders. It has taught me to balance exuberance with healthy skepticism and to be lucid about convenient equivalencies – to understand that an email is not a letter, nor an ereader a book nor the human mind a computer.

It has taught me that technology cannot be the chief barometer of human progress, lest we sucomb to the tragic ironies embodied in the fact that food production and prep technologies have created for us the problem of obesity, without solving the problem of hunger; embodied in the fact that technology has increased the variety and abundance of food we can eat, but in many cases degraded its nutritional value.

In our time, the symbolism of progress has become deeply intertwined with science and technology, but we we must not confuse the symbols of progress, for actual progress.

As we go out into the world we must understand that technology will play some part in the way we solve entrenched global problems. But let’s not forget the place of sweat and labor and paradigm change; let’s not forget that the most important endeavors facing us are not technical ones, but rather have to do with expanding and re-drawing our circles of empathy to be ever more inclusive.

As practitioners, if you will, of Science, Technology & Society in the world we must subscribe, in the words of one great public intellectual, to “a sort of blues inflicted hope rather than a cheap American optimism”.

That is to say, we must live the Sensheimer-Baltimore debate – tempering an optimism around technology based in the faith that somehow technology will solve the very problems that it engenders and perpetuates, with an understanding that we and our world are actually delicate and impermanent, that we are constantly threatened by our own genius.

These are some of the things that STS has taught me. But to return to the idea of how STS has not just been lofty and abstract, but also personal – let me share with you in closing, a story that is both deeply personal to me and quintessentially STS.

I am one of eight breastfed children. Bear with me here, I know the mention of breasts discomforts the puritan in every American. You see, in our times, this is a highly unusual occurrence. For over 30 years my mother has counseled mothers and families on the challenges of maternal and early childhood health. Much of her work has been in teaching poor, minority women about the benefits and practices of breastfeeding.

This is pretty bizarre in the sense that, only a generation or so ago, breastfeeding was the primary nutrition for infants. Today, breastfeeding has to be taught and advocated for, even among experts such as pediatric doctors. What happened over the course of one generation that disrupted the transmission of a vital practice which had gone uninterrupted for millennia? The answer, is manufactured infant formula and its lobby.

At a time in American history where the ability to consume manufactured industrial goods became the ultimate measure of upward mobility, nutrient dense and far superior human breast milk was replaced with expensive, manufactured, dairy-derived products. This is a perfect case study for the STS discipline. In this instance a food technology, infant formula, taken as a symbol of progress, won out over actual progress with deep cultural and health repercussions.

And with that story, I leave you. To my fellow graduates, I wish you joy and abundance. To the STS department professors, lecturers and staff, thank you, thank you and thank you. To our parents, families and mentors, thank you, thank you and thank you.

Digital Camera + Facebook + Alcohol = Augmented Reality

On Saturday I spent a delightful evening at Stanford's Senior Formal – it was a pretty spectacular affair. I didn’t bother to bring my camera because I can always rely on every young lady at the party having one – you've seen it: cute, pink, canon

As I eagerly wait for the photos to post to Facebook, some musings I've had at the intersection of FB, digital photography and college culture (read as alcohol) are beginning to crystalize.

The jestful adage ”if it’s not on Facebook it didn’t happen” is becoming a powerful statement of reality for young people. Many can attest, for instance, to the sort of ripples that an announcement that “so-and-so is in a relationship with so-and-so” creates in a FB social circle. 

A recent study aptly titled "Look at us: Collective Narcissism in College Student Facebook Photo Galleries" explores the ways in which FB has transformed the way we use and share personal photos. 

Authors Andrew Mendelson and Zizi Papacharissi (of Temple and U. Chicago respectively) conclude from looking at some 20k+ photos, that "the central objective among college students on Facebook was the recording and posting of their participation in the social rituals of college." No surprise there.

Certainly photos are narrative aids in telling a social-status garnering story about participation in college life. More than that, I suspect that photos serve as a sort of cognitive aid or reality augmentation. The emergence of cheap digital photography and a nearly ubiquitous sharing medium increasingly shapes the way young people parse lived experience. Bear with me here:

Over the past several years I've had dozens of day-after-the-party conversations. What I've concluded from these is that many of my peers dramatically overreport “how good a time” they had last night. Part of this is semi-conscious – tales of epic nights of mayhem are an important cultural ritual in college and people play up the "good" parts while skipping over the bad. There may be more to it than that though.

How do you tell the story of a night you don't remember very well? You reconstruct it using the clues available to you.

You have a neon-yellow drink bracelet so you know you went to the Sigma Fratty Psi party. You have a receipt for five milkshakes and $30 worth of chicken tenders in your pocket to you know you hit up the LateNight eatery. The receipt has a name scrawled on the back, so you know you hung out with a girl named Mindy (or Minty?) who could only remember 9 digits of her cell number.

Then you go on FB. There are a couple of photos of you with buddies, with pretty ladies – you were all smiling and apparently having a good time. You vaguely remember some unpleasantness, but a dozen pictures of smiling, fun-having people assure you that a good time was had all around.

Not so. That vague unpleasantness you remember – shortly after the last photo you lost track of your buddies. You wondered around feeling alone, disoriented, miserable. Then you marked your territory around a palm tree…in vomit. Having lost your keys, you then called your roommate, almost unintelligibly drunk and maybe crying a little bit, and got him to retrieve you from the hallway.

Ok, so I took this scenario to a ridiculous extreme, but this is I suspect, representative of an actual phenomenon. Facebook photos don't just tell other people what we experienced – they tell us what we experienced. And like Fox News, they're only truthful in a fun-house mirror sort of way  – the photos are out of context, plus, who doesn't try to put on a good face for those conspicuously staged, destined for FB snapshots?

How to blog about social media, gen-y and other buzzwords – a satire

There are certain essential elements which anyone who writes about social media, web 2.0, gen-y, personal branding, careers or closely related subjects should be aware of. They form a canon, a sort of tao, if you will.

Let's begin at the beginning. Well, before the beginning really. Mark Twain once wrote,"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." Start by putting on your clothes. Before you write you must establish your ethos.

This means settling on a good head-shot, coming up with a compelling story around why you're unemployed (referencing "The 4-hour Workweek", of course), deciding what niche you'll be a self-proclaimed expert in and creating a profile on every social media site. With your ethos firmly established, now you may begin to write.

Titles are what really draw people in, so use one or all of the following conventions around title writing. The best is generally "X ways to do Y" (e.g. "5 ways to be inane on twitter while gaining followers"), but sometimes the urgent  call to action like "X things you/your business needs to know in order to do/avoid Y", is a better option (e.g. "5 social media tools every business should use to avoid bringing about the twit-pocalypse").

gen-yAlso, if you are afraid your title is a little too vanilla, throw in a buzz word or two -"social media" or "web 2.0" will usually do just fine. If there is a new mobile media device coming out soon, like an iphone, ipad or netbook, you can use that too, even if it doesn't have much to do with the content of the post (e.g. "5 ways the ipad will revolutionize your love life"). Also, consider adding "2.0" to any noun or verb to make it somehow new, exciting and hip (e.g. "Detroit 2.0" or "Gutter Cleaning 2.0"). 

Then there is the somewhat more trivial matter of content. Try these out as rules of thumb. It's rarely a good idea to write anything longer than 300 words – it makes people's heads hurt, especially if you use big words, like "rigorous". Begin, or end, your post with a common quote or truism like "we all know how important it is to be yourself" or "we can do anything we want if we stick to it long enough" – anything you've seen re-tweeted or on a refrigerator magnet will do. Also, consider a selection from any number of self-help books.

Next, create a list – numbers are better, but bold sub-headings will do. This breaks the post up into chunks telling your readers, "this is a blog and narrative flow has no place here". If you don't have anything to say, that's fine – interview a pseudo celebrity or self-proclaimed expert.

Alternately, share a story or experience about how motivated and smart you are – remember to add in some buzz words (I suggest "personal brand" or "Millennials") to make it topical. Also, add an inspirational take-way or call to action, like "What would you do if you were as beautiful and talented as me?" at the end so as not to seem self-centered.

If you are writing about careers, talk about "passion" and "loving what you do". Be careful not to define concepts too clearly. Also talk about the importance of developing a unique brand and putting yourself out there with social media tools – it's been said before, but you must be brazen enough to say it again.

For posts on the value and potentials of social media, either be exuberant or damning. Do not be nuanced – it might be confused for a lack of an opinionated stance. Alternatively, be completely ambiguous.

The same is true about writing about Gen-y; make broad generalizations about either how unrealistic, un-disciplined or illiterate we are or pine about how digitally enlightened and natively skilled we are. Also, consider writing about how to manage or market to Millennials – they do not speak English but rather English 2.0.

Never forget to note the "fundamental differences" between Gen-Y's approach to anything, and every one else's. If Baby Boomers shaved with straight razors, Gen-y will buck that and do it using the power of the social web.

Your audience is the most important element, so keep in mind that, for the most part, you are preaching to the choir – most of your readers are other bloggers who write about the same things you do. Do not critically analyze anything – by doing so you risk being critically analyzed yourself.

To appeal to your audience, raise your credibility and as a killer starting (or ending) point for a post on just about any topic, quote Penelope Trunk, Dan Schawbel, Chris Brogan or Seth Godin. Finally, fluff is the stuff that fills your stuffed animals and your pillows – it is comforting and it is good! 

What do you think are the essential elements for blogging about social media, careers, gen-y and personal branding?

– – –

Over the past several months I've read dozens of blogs and hundreds of posts, many of them around topics like personal branding, careers, social media and gen-y/millennials. In this piece I share some observations I've taken away about how to write on these topics. I make this entry into the public record in the tradition of "How to write about Africa" and "How to write about poor people", hoping it is received in the playful (if somewhat satirical) spirit in which it was conceived. I am guilty of most of the things I satirize.


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Walt Whitman, Jeans and the Ethos of Gen-Y

Every once in a while someone conceives of a commercial campaign that hits with the realness, poignancy and vision reminiscent of the Great American Novel (adapted of course for a commercially saturated generation with a 30 second attention span); a commercial which captures the frustrations and aspirations of its time and holds them to the light of the nation’s most cherished ideals.

In its summer campaign titled “Go Forth”, Levi’s achieved this in a poetically compelling and commercially brilliant way. The two commercials produced by Wieden+Kennedy (of Old Spice fame) are set to grainy 1890s recordings of Walt Whitman reciting two of his masterful odes to the intrepid American spirit, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” and “America”.

The first commercial opens with a young man standing in the wilderness at dusk, flaming torch in hand. As thunder rolls in the background, Whitman’s words, “Pioneers! O Pioneers! Come, my tan-faced children, Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,” sound like the rallying call of a generation and in every corner of the nation young people look up as if suddenly alert to the possibility and adventure in the world. Whitman’s recitation continues over images of young people gathering, suiting up in jeans, and preparing to emerge from concrete cities into nature, danger and the unknown.

The second commercial opens to a night scene, dimly lit by a flickering neon sign that reads “America”. The sign is crooked and half-submerged in water and the debris in the background suggest a city in decay. As flares explode over the sign, alluding to a certain poignant verse in the national anthem, Whitman begins, “America. Center of equal daughters, equal sons. All, all alike endear’d”. The images that follow – derelict apartment buildings, violent protest – tell of troubled times while others – young, vibrant, muscled people flexing, climbing, jumping, kissing – allude to an enduring strength and beauty in the American character.

The commercials tap deep into the consciousness of today’s youth – teens and twenty-somethings increasingly disillusioned with the world they are inheriting; they tell a story about corruption and decay, crisis and stagnation but also about great American ideals, how they endure and how they can be recaptured. “What happened to that pioneering American spirit?” the commercials seem to beg of the viewer. “What happened to that brazenness that looked west across America at danger and the unknown and saw opportunity?”

As much as I hate to see great American literature coopted to sell clothes, I have to hand it to Levi’s and W+K for feeling the pulse of a generation. What’s more, I really hope Gen Y can recapture some of these ideals, and more than just aesthetically. For the web piece of the Levi’s campaign, W+K invented the fictional character Grayson Ozias. At the risk of elevating a commercial gimmick to art, maybe there is something valuable we can take from him:

“I left my home and all I knew because I feared the complacency that was growing in me. I feared that I would be content to never experience anything of America beyond the city in which I was born. But after hearing Whitman, this complacency became unthinkable, and my comfort became my greatest burden.”


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