Brian Willis

What Comes After Instagram

Pro photographer Peter McKinnon posted a great video on his YouTube channel about how photographers like him aren’t being served well by Instagram any longer. I won’t rehash the outrage brought on by the Instagram team’s incremental changes to the app over the years, but starting with the algorithmic timeline in 2016 it’s been clear that their priorities are out of whack with their longest-serving community members.

McKinnon talks about how back in the day he’d post to a self-run blog, but that was cumbersome and hard to get eyeballs on, so he started posting to Instagram instead. All was good for a while, with a steadily increasing follower count and hundreds of thousands of likes on each post, and then Instagram’s priorities shifted and the attention he received dropped off sharply. He then goes on to say that he’s shifting his attention to Vero, one of the smaller upstarts in the social media space.

I’ll give it to you straight—Vero isn’t coming to save you. If you’re a creator who cares about building an audience, social media sites shouldn’t be treated as any more than the first step of the sales funnel. You have to meet your customer where they are, and right now they’re all on Instagram and TikTok, so by all means have accounts there; but as we’ve been saying in the tech industry for year’s now, you have to own your bits. Start that blog, maintain a mailing list, write your own app, do something that can’t be controlled by someone who isn’t you. Otherwise, you’ll always be beholden to the whims of platform owners.

The 512KB Club

This project reminds me of the web back in the mid-90’s when Yahoo was all the rage. A lot of people remember Yahoo as a search engine, but it began life as an index—literally a human-compiled list of sites organised by hand. You’d type in your search terms, and each link that you got back would include a one or two sentence description that a Yahoo employee had written.

The 512KB Club is a similarly compiled list, requiring each site to have an uncompressed payload of less than 512KB. The web’s become a slow and bloated place, and this sort of thing should be encouraged.

I go back-and-forth on whether this site should keep using Adobe TypeKit and Google Analytics. Is the performance cost really worth it? As time has gone on and more people have started using ad-blockers, including Google Analytics has become increasingly pointless.

The Allbirds IPO

I’ll start this by saying that I’ve bought the shoes, and they’re decent. If you’re looking for comfortable shoes and can stomach the price tag, Allbirds are worth trying.

Now with that out of the way…

From the Allbirds S-1 filing:

We have incurred significant net losses since inception and anticipate that we will continue to incur losses for the foreseeable future.

We incurred net losses of $14.5 million and $25.9 million in 2019 and 2020, respectively, and we had an accumulated deficit of $113.1 million as of June 30, 2021. We expect to continue to incur significant losses in the future. We will need to generate and sustain increased revenue levels in future periods to achieve profitability, and even if we achieve profitability, we may not be able to maintain or increase our level of profitability.

It takes a special kind of psychopathy to say “we have never made a profit, we have no plans to make a profit, now give us two billion dollars please”.

It’s an even more damning indictment of the current state of the market that they got their two billion dollars and then some.

The asset price bubble that we’re living through right now will pop eventually—presumably when printing money starts causing more problems than it solves. When that happens, we’ll find the public markets full of these dud companies, and the venture capitalists that pumped-and-dumped them will have taken their profits and left retail investors to absorb the losses.

Investing in Happiness

If you’ve not yet been acquainted with Ben Felix’s brand of information-dense videos then you’re in for a treat with this one. This is what you get when you take an unusually focused person and have them try and solve happiness. He talks quickly—make liberal use of the pause button and take notes as you go.

The University of Minnesota Got Themselves Banned From Contributing to the Linux Kernel

The short version of this story is that two researchers at the University of Minnesota thought it would be a fun idea to contribute “hypocrite commits” (i.e. bug fixes that deliberately include security holes) to the Linux kernel to see if the kernel maintainers would spot what they had done and reject the commits. They did this without the consent of the university’s Institutional Review Board (which they have since gone on to obtain retroatively), and without permission from anyone on the kernel team.

Needless to say, the kernel maintaners didn’t appreciate being treated like lab rats, and responded by banning the entire university from making contributions to the kernel, and—because why just burn the crops when you can salt the earth too—they then began the process of reverting all previous commits made by anyone with an @umn.edu email address.

It’s worth noting that the researchers in question did prevent these hypocrite commits from making it into the production kernel, and at the core of their research is a concerning idea about the nature of security in Free and Open Source software projects. They have also appologised, though the sincerity seems questionable given the University of Minnesota’s general unwillingness to take preventative actions to stop this happening again.

I’ve written before about the ambivalence toward ethics that exists in the software industry. It’s frustrating to see this sort of thing keep happening. Progress is not being made here, and it desperately needs to be. I’m with the kernel maintainers on this one. There’s a time and a place for deception in scientific research, and this wasn’t one of those times.

For a more complete overview of the whole mess, this article at The Verge by Monica Chin provides a good run-down, and this comment thread at Hacker News makes for interesting reading.