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internet

When remote workers get sick

Steven Kurutz, writing in the New York Times:

Working from home may sound relaxing, but the “working” part of that phrase underscores the expectations that accompany it: being available to check and respond to email, hop on a conference call and generally be productive, even if you feel lousy.

Last week, a colleague caught a nasty bug. It wasn’t hard to tell he was sick; we may live and work five states apart, but conference calls have a way of exposing congestion and coughs. His symptoms grew more severe, hour after hour, and it became clear that he should close his laptop, brew some tea, and crawl into bed.

Even in the most accommodating remote work environments, telecommuters may hesitate to call in sick. Consider the unique factors at play:

  • Online meetings are hard to cancel. After all, I can’t just pop my head over the cubicle wall the next day and get caught up. So instead of allowing the flu to wreck my agenda, I’m more likely to suck it up and just dial in. That avoids the nightmare of finding another time slot that’s open on everyone’s calendar.
  • Workers who commute to a traditional office sometimes call in sick solely out of courtesy—i.e., not because they feel particularly ill but rather to avoid infecting their colleagues. There’s no such social more at work for the remote worker; rhinovirus can’t be transmitted through Skype.
  • Even when my symptoms are miserable, working from home makes it easier to slog through and save those precious PTO hours. With a few simple adjustments, I can dial back the energy required to endure the workday. For example, just stepping off the treadmill desk eases the effort level. When you’re curled up on the couch, triaging email feels far less draining. ◾
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internet

Your Instagram feed makes people sad.

From MarketWatch (last year), “New study claims Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are linked to depression”:

Why does social media make so many people feel bad? The study didn’t analyze this, but Hunt offers two explanations. The first is “downward social comparison.” You read your friends’ timelines. They’re deliberately putting on a show to make their lives look wonderful. The result: “You’re more likely to think your life sucks in comparison,” says Hunt. The second reason: FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out.

On Instagram, I filter my life through the rosiest possible light. Here’s a theoretical example: one night last winter, my family played “Go Fish” by firelight. It was totally a “’grammable” moment—if I first cleared away the clutter, staged the shot, and heavily edited the photo.

But that post would conveniently leave out the seven failed attempts to ignite the logs before they finally caught. And it wouldn’t include the tantrum my daughter threw when we refused to top off her fireside milk cup. Or mention the fact that we hadn’t touched the fireplace for years before that night.

Is it dishonest to share only the joys—and hide the annoyances and heartbreaks? And if others get jealous when scrolling through my curated feed, should I feel guilty? ■

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internet

When is an ISP rate hike not a rate hike?

I have a love / hate relationship with our internet service provider, Frontier Communications. On the one hand, it’s amazing that we can even get a legit broadband connection here; we live on two wooded acres in a remote rural valley, surrounded on all sides by National Wildlife Refuge. Fifty megabits downstream may be laughable in suburban areas, but it’s heavenly compared to what’s available to many of our neighbors. I’m genuinely grateful.1

On the other hand, I hate that our provider has no real competitor. With no other game in town, Frontier has little incentive to improve its network. In fact, when we first bought our house, the best connection Frontier offered delivered less than 3Mbps. Only after we organized a neighborhood petition and recruited our senator’s office did Frontier prioritize upgrades to our local infrastructure.

You might expect Frontier’s local monopoly to impact service rates, as well. After all, there’s no real market pressure to keep their pricing strategy in line. But honestly, I’ve been pretty happy with the price I’m charged for broadband. Sixty bucks a month for a 50Mbps connection is highway robbery in the city, but I’m willing to accept that it’s more expensive to serve rural households.

Just this past year, though, Frontier has started to play fast and loose with its billing scheme. They haven’t changed our base rate—that’s still $59.99 per month. But they have tacked on a phantom fee: an “Internet Infrastructure Surcharge,” which started at $1.99 per month and recently doubled.

By labeling it an “infrastructure surcharge,” Frontier makes their fee sound like some government-imposed. That’s not the case; Frontier invented this surcharge out of thin air. As far as I can tell, this is their way of raising customer’s rates without raising the “sticker price.” That’s deceptive, consumer-hostile behavior—perhaps a way to stem the financial bleeding?

Here’s the thing: despite all this, I’m sympathetic to our ISP’s sorry state, and I’m rooting for them to pull out of their apparent death spiral. I’m even willing to pay a bit more to help them survive. I’d just rather see them hike their rates honestly, instead of slipping in a bogus charge and hoping that customers don’t ask questions. ■


  1. When Frontier rolled out VDSL locally, I immediately signed up for the fastest connection they could offer—50Mbps download and 5Mbps up on a good day. Since then, I’ve made it a quarterly habit to ask Frontier if they’ve provisioned our local loop for even faster speeds via VDSL. The dream, of course, would be for Frontier to roll out FiOS in our area, but given our rural neighborhood and Frontier’s financial woes, I’m not holding my breath. ↩︎

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internet

Best buy: on Facebook and Instagram

Back in 2012, many observers scoffed at the billion-dollar price that Facebook paid for Instagram. Who’s laughing now? That acquisition seems more and more prescient as time goes by—as M.G. Siegler remarked recently, “The smartest thing Facebook ever did was buy Instagram.” The social networking giant managed to secure its own life raft, long before most of us noticed that the seas were getting choppy.

Now, Facebook itself is sinking. My friends, at least, have long since stopped posting there. The conversations that do happen on Facebook tend to be politically-charged and impolite. As Seigler notes, many teens never even join the service. At the same time, the company faces increasing pressure from government watchdogs—both for its role as a Russian lever in the 2016 election and for alleged censorship of particular political viewpoints.

Happily (for Zuckerberg & Co.), Instagram has avoided these problems. The service’s exclusive emphasis on photo-sharing—formerly Facebook’s best feature—has made it irresistibly sticky—even to the Snapchat generation. Plus, because Instagram only does photos (i.e., no text posts and no links), its conversation threads are less political, less controversial, and generally less fraught than on Facebook. Meanwhile, the branding firewall between the two companies has prevented Facebook’s regulatory controversies from engulfing Instagram. Six years post-acquisition, many users still don’t know it happened.)

Facebook’s strategy has worked perfectly on me, at least. I visit Facebook only rarely—and often only for a few seconds each time. There just isn’t much there for me.1 But Instagram remains a daily habit; who doesn’t love seeing snapshots of friends and family?  ■


  1. To be fair, I may not be the best anecdotal example, since I’ve worked hard to detach myself from Facebook these past few years. I’ve deactivated my account multiple times, I refuse to install the app on my phone, and I run content blockers to prevent the news feed from showing up on the web.

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internet

Hotel wifi is the worst

I’m traveling for work this week, which means I have a cheery room at a generally pleasant extended-stay suite hotel. The accommodations are clean, the breakfast is reasonably tasty, and the amenities are generous—with one exception: the hotel wifi.

Speed tests on my internet connection peg at 5Mbps downstream or so—embarrasingly slow for this tech-centric city. The network also forces me to reauthenticate multiple times each day—an unwelcome reminder that the connection is locked down. Yes, as I’m repeatedly nagged, I can upgrade to “premium” internet service for $5 a day, but I refuse to pay three times more for a connection that’s noticeably slower and flakier than what I enjoy at home—in the mountains of rural Appalachia.

Why do hotels still nickel and dime their guests when it comes to connectivity? Don’t they know that every guest has an LTE modem in her pocket, and that we’ll fall back to it at the slightest sign of trouble?

Funnily enough, the internet service seems to get worse as the hotels get nicer. This past weekend, I crashed at a $75-per-night hotel in a sketchy neighborhood. Overall, the experience wasn’t great: a breakfast overloaded with processed carbs, pungent whiffs of weed in the halls, and a cigarette-burned bedspread were among the highlights. But the internet at that dive easily beat the pants off what I have at this business-class hotel. Speeds were snappy, and authentication was easy.

I’m not sure why cheap hotels offer better connections. It’s as if hotels have resigned themselves to the fact that value-conscious clientele won’t pay extra for things that ought to be complimentary. By contrast, those customers for whom the experience is paramount might surrender five bucks for convenience’s sake.

But as someone in the middle—a value-conscious and picky guest—I resent the “freemium” hotel internet model. ■


  1. Suitcase and wifi artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

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internet

Should I feel bad about blocking ads?

As Internet ad-blockers have grown more popular, online publishers have gotten aggressive—even passive-aggressive—about fighting back.

Frequently, after following a Twitter link, I’m greeted by a pre-content pop-up, explaining how the publication’s ad-funded business model works. “Please whitelist us,” the message begs, “so that we can continue delivering great content for you.” Sometimes, this plea can be dismissed; too often, it prevents viewing the content until I manually disable my ad-blocking extension.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to journalism’s plight. As the newspaper business has collapsed, online revenue hasn’t closed the gap. Ad blockers represent a real threat, since a blocked ad will never get clicked. Fewer clicks leads to lower ad rates—and fewer well-paid creatives.

But despite the publishers’ predicament, and despite their interstitial pleas, I don’t feel guilty enough to voluntarily view ads. I’ll keep running ad blockers as long as they work, for two reasons:

  • I never click on ads, anyways. As far as I know, I have literally never clicked on a web ad—at least not intentionally. If these sites and advertisers are using clicks as their metric, my ad-blocker shouldn’t affect them (right?).
  • If web marketers are measuring views (instead of clicks), my ad blocker could have an impact. But I don’t feel obligated to surrender my attention just because I clicked a link. Ads undermine my focus and squat in my imagination long after I navigate away from a page. As I’ve written before, I consider that headspace to be sacred. Whatever responsibility I have to “pay” for articles with my attention is outweighed by my obligation to be present for those around me.

Of course, somebody’s got to pay for good content. As the ad-blocking arms race continues, I may eventually be forced to either a) buy premium, paywall-bypassing memberships or b) accept the degraded attention caused by overexposure to advertising.

Given these two options, I know which I’d choose. Heck, I’d pay anything to never see this on the web:


  1. Eyeball artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

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internet

Only monsters speed up podcasts

Most modern podcast clients let listeners speed up playback, and the resulting audio is surprisingly decent. The pitch doesn’t shift (remember the “Chipmunks effect”?), and the average podcaster is still intelligible.

Faster playback gives listeners time for more podcasts—a welcome perk, since the library of available shows continues to grow exponentially. As the market explodes, faster playback seems like a no-brainer: more great conversations, no additional time commitment. What’s not to like?

My advice? Don’t do it. Keep that playback speed locked at 1x. While you’re at it, turn off clever features like Overcast’s “Smart Speed”, which saves time by cropping out silence.

Yes, enabling these options saves you time, but they have nasty side effects better left avoided. Consider:

  • Fast playback discourages thoughtful listening. Artful speakers use long pauses and measured cadences very intentionally. By slowing down, they give the audience time to sit with an intriguing idea, to chew on a tough concept, or to ask introspective questions. You lose all that by artificially rushing past the quiet.
  • Fast playback makes you a worse speaker. Because we spend so much time with them, podcasters have become our models for normal human speech. If your favorite podcast’s hosts are chattering away at 2x, your own speaking cadence will likely speed up, too. You might not notice the difference, but others will. “Why is Matt talking like a crazy person?”
  • Fast playback accommodates overconsumption and busyness. Podcast accleration treats the symptom without addressing the underlying cause. Solve the real problem: you’re too busy. If you can’t get through your podcast queue at 1x, consider paring down your list instead of rushing through it.

Of course, as a podcaster, I’m conflicted here. On the one hand, I want my listeners to hear my normal speaking cadence. On the other, if fast playback gives them time to catch today’s episode of Careful Tech? Who am I to judge? Accelerate away. ■


  1. Bunny and headphones artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

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internet

Facebook escape: tips for deleting your account

Yesterday, I finally deleted my Facebook account.

The great divorce

I’ve flirted with deletion for months now, repeatedly deactivating Facebook, only to come crawling back a few days later.

This past weekend, however, I made the first change that couldn’t be easily undone: deleting all 500+ friend connections using a Google Chrome script. That step had “weight” to it, since rebuilding my social graph would mean starting from scratch. I would have to manually, painstakingly send each individual request, and confused friends would hesitate to accept, since they’d wonder whether my account was legit (“Wasn’t I already friends with Matt? Is this a spammer?”)

As it turns out, the great unfriending purge lent me just the momentum I needed. Once that was done, I felt liberated to finally delete my account for good. Of course, as Facebook eagerly reminded me, I haven’t escaped quite yet. There’s a two-week waiting period; if I log in again, my old account will instantly be resurrected (“It’s a MIRACLE!”). This is the last Facebook face-off; the company leaves the door unlocked for those whose willpower can’t last the fortnight.

But, again, the unfriending step has given my Facebook departure some inertia. Because that old account no longer has any friends, I’m not tempted to come crawling back. Even if I did log in, there’d be nothing to see; Facebook’s a ghost town to the friendless.

Facebook deleted, but

I do have a confession. At the same time I was deleting my old account, I was creating a new one—a “dummy” account that’s 100% undiscoverable and nearly empty. It has no Facebook Messenger history (by which old friends could track down my profile). It has no ‘like’ history or profile info for Facebook to target advertisements against.

Why maintain a dummy account at all? I’d rather cut ties with Facebook completely, but there are three reasons I’m keeping my toe in the water:

  1. IMing with my wife. We use different chat services for different purposes. iMessage works well for on-the-go contact. Google Hangouts serves as our ‘work chat’ solution. But we still need an asynchronous conversation for sharing articles and links. Divorced from the grossness of Facebook itself, Messenger is actually a pretty decent messaging app. More importantly, it’s one my wife is already using. So my dummy Facebook account has one (and only one) friend: my wife.[1]
  2. Promoting my online work. Although Facebook isn’t for me, others have found ways to make the service tolerable—even valuable. I want them to be able to enjoy my work; a reader is a reader, no matter how they find me.
  3. Keeping tabs on new tech developments. Like it or not, Facebook is a major player in the online space. They’re likely to be influential for years—even decades—to come. If I want to understand the features and products that Facebook will announce in the future, I’m going to need an account. I might as well have it ready to go.

Summary: tips for deleting your Facebook account

Quitting Facebook is hard. The service is optimized for capturing and recapturing human attention; it’s literally engineered to keep you from leaving. But it’s possible to ease yourself out the door, so that the actual account deletion feels anticlimactic. To summarize, here are my recommendations:

  1. Try account deactivation first. Short-term Facebook “fasts” are a good first step. They wean you off the service’s constant, algorithmic stimulation. Plus, you may be pleasantly surprised how much more time you have and how much better you feel. These realizations will make it easier to take the deletion step.
  2. Unfriend everyone before deleting. Taking this step makes it less likely that you’ll reverse your decision after the fateful click. One note: Facebook makes it infuriatingly difficult to unfriend people in bulk. Fortunately, there are browser extensions that can speed up the process dramatically.
  3. Consider using a “dummy” account. Facebook’s orbit is hard to escape. You may need to manage a Facebook page for work, or Facebook Messenger may be your family’s default chat platform. For these one-off needs, create a replacement account, locked down and hidden from everyone you choose. Just remember that Facebook specializes in increasing user engagement; it will do everything it can to suck you deeper into its ecosystem. ■

  1. It sounds kind of sad when I put it that way, huh?  ↩
  2. Pencil artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

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internet

Twitter bankruptcy: skipping unread tweets

My weekend was busy: a bike ride down a remote mountain canyon, riotous with fall color. Delicious meals shared with family and friends. Home projects to prep our cabin for the winter. A mile-long hike to waterfalls, interrupted repeatedly by toddler discoveries (and potty breaks).

Good things, every one of them. But the weekend’s activities left very little time for checking Twitter. By the time we settled down last night, I had fallen a full day behind my timeline, and I was too exhausted to wade through the 500+ tweet deficit.

For some people, that’s no problem; just skip past the older stuff to the current tweets, right? But that’s tough for me; I’m a Twitter “completionist”—i.e., I try to read every tweet in my feed, and I hate jumping ahead. Skipping a Twitter backlog feels like a loss: what clever observations will go unobserved? What news stories will I never even hear about? What blog post ideas will go uncaptured and unwritten?

But although I hate feeling out of sync, Twitter debt provides several benefits:

  • That high unread count indicates that I’m staying active. I spend too many weekends comatose on the couch, checking Twitter so frequently that I’m always caught up.
  • Twitter backlogs remind me to follow fewer people. If my timeline’s unread count skyrockets every every time I disconnect, I’m probably following too many people. Twitter completionists must ruthlessly cull their follow lists, dropping tweeps who overpost (or underdeliver).

Even being forced to declare “Twitter bankruptcy” can be good:

  • People get the priority. It shouldn’t be difficult to choose between reading strangers’ tweets and being present for loved ones. My daughter won’t be two forever; she won’t always chirp, “Come play?” When I skip unread tweets, it feels like I’m prioritizing what really matters.
  • Good content tends to resurface, anyways. Even if I miss an amazing tweet when it’s first posted, chances are that someone else will retweet it later. If it doesn’t come around again, it probably wasn’t worth my time, anyways.

This morning, I finally let go. With some reluctance and a bit of grief, I tapped the status bar, then watched Tweetbot scroll past hundreds of unread updates. After a moment of respectful silence, my unread count silently started ticking upwards again. ■


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internet

The everyday annoyance of quitting Facebook

I first shuttered my Facebook account a few months ago. For the most part, I haven’t felt tempted to reactivate, even though I miss reading friends’ comments on our kid’s photos.

But Facebook isn’t just “sticky” from a relationship perspective. There are also some practical annoyances that make it difficult to resist the blue behemoth. From time to time, I’ve even given in and and temporarily reopened my account (then immediately deactivated it again). Here’s what keeps dragging me back:

  • Many web services rely on Facebook identity for authentication. When I sold my old Apple Watch a few weeks ago, I was forced to reactivate my Facebook account in order to log into Swappa. Lesson learned: whenever possible, avoid using third-party services (e.g. Facebook, Google, or Twitter) to create accounts for new apps and web services. If an app forces you to connect to Facebook, consider skipping it (and letting the developer know why).
  • Some meatspace (i.e., real-life) groups only communicate via Facebook. For example, my local ultimate frisbee “league”[1] drums up attendance each week by posting to a shared Facebook group. Without an active account, I can’t chime in—or even check whether anyone else is planning to show up. Lesson learned: I only have myself to blame here, since I was the one who originally created the Facebook group. Looking back, a shared text message thread would have accomplished the same thing, while remaining platform-agnostic.
  • Similarly, many local businesses use Facebook as their only web presence. I’ve occasionally been tripped into logging in, just to get at a restaurant’s operating hours or menu. Lesson learned: fortunately, most Facebook page info is accessible to anonymous users, though it’s not hard to imagine Facebook someday locking this data behind their authentication wall. In that case, there’s not much you can do, unless you want to (a) pester business owners by complaining about their skimpy web presence or (b) offer to help them establish a “real” website. And even if you have the time for this, many business owners are reluctant to pay for web hosting, when so many of their customers live in Facebook anyways.
  • Since I started blogging again, I’ve wondered whether I ought to be promoting my posts and podcasts on Facebook. I don’t want to do this, but it would drive more traffic. Lesson learned: no good solution here. If I want Facebook users’ eyeballs, I will have to reopen my account and cross-post there. There’s no way to update a Facebook page without maintaining an active personal profile.

Of course, if I were really serious about quitting Facebook, I could simply delete my account. At that point, it would be a chore to re-join, since I’d have to rebuild my friends list and repopulate my profile. Momentum would likely keep me from getting sucked into Facebook’s orbit again.

But for all the reasons listed above (and especially the last one), I haven’t yet had the courage to quit, cold-turkey. ■


  1. And by “league”, I mean “a dozen people who like to drop frisbees and jog meekly around an elementary school soccer field.”  ↩