There is no perfect freedom: This week on Track Changes, Paul and Rich sit down to discuss internet censorship on a global scale. We chat about how power impacts technology and information access and whether global software can really exist when countries have such different approaches to the internet. Also in this week’s Hello Postlight segment we meet Liran Okanon, a Senior Product Designer at Postlight, who talks about the importance of empathy in his work.
Paul Ford Well when there were like 50 people on the internet you could have a lot more fun but that’s ok, I could have— you know I had fun in college too and—
Rich Ziade Well that’s cuz you’re a librarian at heart.
PF Well, no, but also like . . . you have fun in college. There’s a couple thousand people there.
RZ It was a wonderful time.
RZ Again, we’re sounding old but—
PF No, no, but there’s like a little box around you; you’re safe.
PF You’re just like— you’re a puppy.
RZ Yeah [music fades in, plays alone for 19 seconds, ramps down].
PF So Rich, you just got back from Lebanon.
RZ I did.
PF Whadya see? What was it like?
RZ Lebanon is a complicated place.
RZ The region’s kinda tense; the economy’s in a difficult place [music fades out]; there’s a heat wave, so everybody’s kinda sticky.
PF What’s the weather like in Lebanon?
RZ The weather is often beautiful.
PF Well, you’re right on the meditterean, so—
RZ That has been—
PF It’s a nice sea.
RZ It’s a perfect sea but the air quality in Lebanon is not great. They use generators for a lot of their electricity.
PF Oh really? No grid; no good infrastructure.
RZ There’s a grid but it’s rationed so it goes off [yeah] and then you pay the guy in the neighborhood to give you fuel.
PF Oh so you’d prefer to like have a little more electricity.
RZ Yeah, and it— I think the environment would prefer it too [chortles].
PF What’s the internet like?
RZ The internet is ok. It’s been I feel like, you know, for years it was promised to be like, “You know, we’re gonna put the fiber lines in and it’s gonna become a technology hub.”
PF [Crosstalking] Yeah, “We’re gonna be the startup incubator—”
RZ Yeah! And there is a lot of that sentiment and motivation but they were really slow on it.
PF Well I mean we have a very— an engineering team in Lebanon that is at parity with a good western team like there’s—
RZ Yup. They’re a great group.
PF There’s definitely— like the skill is there. I just read an article in The Times this morning . . . which was fascinating. And this isn’t Lebanon but it’s definitely the region and it’s especially Africa . . . which is that people are out protesting, and they have some pretty strong opinions, and you know what they do? . . . They shut the internet off.
PF And this is, I think, it’s the opposite of the story that we tell about the internet. And the company that we’ve got— like we tell a story, as Postlight, that the internet is always there, always on, and always good. Like that the infrastructure is kinda gonna be really solid, really reliable, and we’re gonna build on top of it, and even if it’s like slow and you’re in a dis— We build services that get used by people in India and they turn the internet on and off when there are protests movements in India. It’s apparently the number one country at turning the internet off.
RZ Is that true?
PF Mm hmm. And Turkey’s— remember during the protests, Turkey was blocked and stuff—
RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF— and, you know, people were—
RZ Well, first they’d be selective, right? Like, “We’re gonna block YouTube.”
RZ “No more YouTube.”
PF And then you’ve got— on the other side you’ve got the more sophisticated things like the firewall in China.
PF And I think about this a lot, right? Because if you are in this industry— We are in a trillion dollar industry. Ok?
PF And it’s good, and it works, and we have social networks, and we have all this stuff, and then you go look at China and they have their whole other version of everything that we have.
PF And it’s kinda— you can’t build for both. It’s starting to fragment.
RZ It is starting to fragment and I think there’s something wonderfully empowering and also disempowering [chuckles] about it because, you know, it is awesome that a movement can start— and, you know, that usually starts with like, you know, one blog post and then it takes fire. But then you also end up finding out that like the on/off switch is in the basement. [Laughing] In the garage!
PF This is what’s tricky— it’s been going on for years, right? But literally it’s almost a joke when you say, “The global internet.”
RZ Is that true?
PF You talk about like, “The information superhighway!” But like—
RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF Like we’ve been taking for granted that when I say “internet” I mean this global, always on thing that we’re all kind of in agreement, collectively, as a species—
PF— that we should be building towards. And a lot of our decisions as a product company— a lot of everybody in tech’s decisions are just are around the idea that like everybody wants this thing on all the time.
RZ It is on all the time. I think what’s materialized is sort of the technical equivalent of borders. Like, you look at, you know, a map. Most maps aren’t sort of your topographical— they usually have the lines that have been drawn out and those lines get enforced through immigration and passports and all the kinds of things that allow goods and humans to move in and out and I think—
PF Mm hmm. I just went to the DMV this morning, right? Like I have to show ID in order to—
RZ That’s the Department of Motor Vehicles.
PF That’s right and I was getting an ID. I needed updated ID. My ID has expired and I had to go show all this paperwork.
RZ Of course.
PF And I couldn’t get a real ID cuz I only had my social security card and not my birth certificate.
RZ Yup, yup.
PF So like that’s fine, I’ll get my regular ID and then go back later, right? But it’s the same— like is that going to be the future for people where like I wanna get my internet access.
RZ I think that . . . we’re moving away from sort of the borderless scenario. I think that’s real. I think for a lot of countries, there is censorship, there is blockage because frankly the powers in place are under threat as a result and so you end up—
PF Well they see a lot of like young people in the street getting really angry and they’re like, “Woah, woah, woah! We— I can’t have a conversation like that!”
RZ For a long time governments were caught flat footed.
RZ For many years, it was like, “Woah, woah, woah! What is this?!” I mean a handful of dudes who didn’t tuck their shirts in in San Francisco put out a tool that let you tweet and the next thing you know, entire, you know, town city squares were filled with people mobilizing because the organizing tools . . .
RZ It really was less about sort of the communication because communication tools had been out there.
PF I think it’s very hard for the west too because we tend to— when we see that, we see a kind of excitement and rebellious energy and I think, in our heads, we’re like, “Oh, Tahrir Square that’s like Woodstock.”
PF And then you don’t really—
RZ It’s very complicated.
PF The tanks never rolled in at Woodstock.
RZ Very dangerous.
PF Right, like—
RZ Absolutely. What you realize is as those movements take hold, they don’t have a next chapter. They don’t have sort of like, “Ok, we’re done with the first part of the playbook. Now for the like actual change part of the playbook.” There’s— it’s not in there. And it’s really nasty.
PF No, they’re angry.
RZ They’re angry!
PF And it’s not like there’s this democratic apparatus that they can suddenly engage with [yes] and it’ll work. Like you saw that [yes] Egypt was the case here, man, cuz it was like— who was the guy they got rid of?
RZ There was Mubarak initially.
PF Mubarak, right? So, he’s like in the hospital and like, you know—
RZ Yeah, and then they got rid of the guy who replaced him [chortles and laughs].
PF Well, that’s the thing, like if you’re— and this is me too, like as a naive westerner, I’m like, “Wow, change is coming . . .”
PF “Wow, the internet really did something here!” [Yeah] And then like four months later, you’re like, “Uh oh.”
PF Turkey the same, right?
PF And the story is different than the one that we told ourselves for like 20 years.
RZ Well, cuz I think for 20 years— here’s, I think, when it tipped: I think, to me, it was about publishing for the first 15 years.
PF The web is— it’s pages.
RZ It was pages.
PF “Have some pages!”
RZ “Have some pages.”
PF “Oh my God, they’re so much cheaper than the paper ones. I can get ‘em anywhere I go.”
RZ It was pages and then like, “Woah! Video works!” Like that took years. And then video worked and then—
PF Video was kinda fascinating because . . . I dunno if you remember but at first all the video services were like, “Have as much as you want.” And then that went global and they were like, “ . . . We don’t understand what they do in India.”
PF “But we can’t continue to host video in India because the amount of bandwidth that everyone’s using—” They would just sort of leave it on. Like the different way that the different plans lined up and—
RZ Yeah, we’re saying as if like ok, government got involved and clamped down, but the truth is . . . humans down to the guy in the basement who has bad ideas was actually fermenting really horrible things and—
PF Well, also we—
RZ— it got away from us! Not just on a macro level but on a micro level as well, and so now— and we’ve talked about this before, the idea of like—
PF Also, let’s not forget, like US telecommunications was one giant company that worked in close partnership with the government a lot of the time [yeah], like up until the eighties [right]. And like the idea that your telecommunications is this completely unconnected to the government thing where everybody can kind of like choose their plan [yeah] isn’t the way the rest of the world works.
RZ No. And frankly it probably won’t be the way the US works either, eventually.
PF I mean it isn’t now, right? Like the NSA went in there and said, “We’re gonna help ourselves,” and then everybody went, “Actually, that’s not cool [yeah].” But longer term, it does feel like legislation is moving towards internet borders and systems.
RZ And regulation of behaviour.
PF Mm hm.
RZ I mean—
PF We have it now with certain kinds of threats. You can’t threaten the president; you can’t distribute certain kinds of like—
RZ These are things that grounded in like constitutional law. I mean [yeah] Supreme Court precedent has limits on free speech, you can’t just go and say whatever you want.
PF Well and this is where it gets very, very tricky from both a technical and cultural point of view which is that we have a tool that allows you to distribute the evil stuff; the stuff that just about everybody says [sure] that is truly bad. And there’s— maybe there’s a technical solution; maybe I can have the computer look at images or have somebody monitor every picture [mm hmm]. This is what the giant . . . What we’ve done is take that cultural standard and sort of push it onto the giant platform companies and they’re willing to take it on because they can set up 50,000 people in The Philippines to look at pictures because they’re gonna make an enormous amount of money [they are!] from the ad transactions that happen with all the other content.
RZ Yeah, yeah.
PF So, I feel that we’re kind of in this liminal space, in between— We’ve talked about this a lot, like we talk a lot about regulation. Talking about this particular issue and then the way it plays out globally, we’re in this space where like we’ve let the platform companies deal with it cuz the government doesn’t know what to do.
RZ I don’t think the platform companies knew what to do for a while—
PF Nobody does. Nobody does.
RZ For a while and then they were like, “Ok, we gotta get ahead of this.”
PF The fundamental decision that we’re gonna make as like a species with the internet is: where do we block things? And everybody’s making that decision sooner or later. There is no perfect freedom. Even when you go— and then you go decentralized with your dark web and so on and then law enforcement gets involved, it almost makes it easier for them.
PF So here we are in this world, where evil things get said and done, or! Things that powerful people don’t like get said and done. You institute blocks and firewalls and stuff like that. What’s that gonna look like, man? Cuz you’re way more of a world traveller than I am and you have more experience like what does that look like for people like me who came along and were like, “I like publishing ideas on the internet”?
RZ Look, I think there are restrictions with good intentions and restrictions with bad intentions [mm hmm]. I think restrictions with bad intentions are, for example, societies like some of the countries in the Middle East, Russia, and others where they pretty much systematically stifle communication and speech.
PF If you question power— If you say, “This person has been president for 42 years, I don’t think they should be president anymore.”
PF They’re like, “Hey, [knocks on table] can I talk to you for a minute?”
RZ Yeah, I mean it’s no different than like, “We’re not gonna give you the license to do the protest in this square.”
RZ “We’re not gonna give you the ability to—”
PF Well we get silly too. Like there are— I love when America— when we have like big events and they set up like this cage and they call it the “free speech zone”.
RZ Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF I mean, just c’mon. Right?
RZ Yeah, exactly, exactly. I think in those cases, I mean I think they’re always gonna play. I mean there’s always— power’s gonna impose itself [mm hmm], whether it be through a big, powerful water cannon, or through, you know, limiting communication. You know when we used to have— and this is, now I’m talking ten years back, right? When Readability came out, it was this reading tool. It’s the reading view on your what’s it called. And we used to look at our logs and they HTTP headers had the nation that was in there and US was far and away the first, and the second was Kuwait.
PF Mm! Because they couldn’t get web content without putting it through the reader view.
RZ They couldn’t get the actual article.
PF I’ll bet if we could see the logs for pocket built into Firefox—
RZ I’m sure it’s a similar thing . . . And so— and we debated internally like, “This is kinda cool, we should tell everyone,” and like, “No, we’re not gonna tell anyone about this because then they’ll block us too.” [Yeah] So we actually never said a word, now it’s moved. The system’s down and everything but [yeah] yeah I mean everybody— people want information . . . people wanna educate themselves.
PF I mean the minute you tell somebody that they can’t see something, the desire to see the thing goes up about a billion times.
RZ Yeah, from the time you’re four years old, [chuckles] until you die that is pretty much how it’s going to work, right? So, I think, that is always gonna be there because that’s like saying, “Well, is power gonna impose itself?” Whether it be through a water cannon or whether it be through the internet. Of course it’s gonna impose itself.
PF I think there was this moment where a fantasy emerged that somehow this technology would break through that . . .
PF And it was a really powerful fantasy that caught a lot of people. Like it drove the industry.
RZ I think humans understand the power of influence and the power of information that resonates with people, and I don’t think you need systems to do it or your finger on the big switch, I think if you write a good article that can get someone really pissed off about an immigrant . . .
PF Mm hmm.
RZ And put the right headline in there, I think you’ve got a weapon on your hands. And you don’t have to be anybody. You don’t have to be in D.C.
PF It used to be that the media was the middle man for getting messages out there. Right?
PF So you’d have to write a letter to the editor or a PR firm would have to say, “You should interview this academic; he’s got some stuff to say.” And then now distribution is available in new ways.
RZ It is! And there are— I mean I feel like I can count the sources I can trust on my hand, on one hand. I’m not— without getting— I’m a complicated person, in terms of like political position, it’s kinda all over the place. But thank God for The New York Times.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ The work that they are trying to do— I mean who else? How many are doing it?! The Post maybe! The Washington Post?
PF Yeah, no, I mean the thing with The Times—
RZ The Guardian?
PF The things with The Times is it’s— it’s big. And it has a lot of multitudes in it. But boy, does it have a mission. There is a sense— a shared sense— same with The Washington Post— that there’s such a thing as facts and there’s such a thing as like human beings saying things and writing that down accurately. Like it’s really basic stuff that’s gotta be there—
RZ I think it’s hugely important. I think it’s hugely important.
PF You get fired if you don’t do it right.
RZ Look, without that, what do we have on our hands? Sources of power are going to exercise that power across all means, including on the ground, at a protest, and including through press, and including through the internet, and yes, does that mean that they’re gonna carve out stuff? I mean I think the Chinese are just sort of like freaked out about the rest of the world and they’re like, “Well, we could just hit control-C, control-V and just copy it and make it our own and then we’ll do our own thing, this way we don’t have to worry too much about it.”
PF Look, the ultimate argument that people in power tend to make, right? Is like, “Absolutely, absolutely, I get it. You just gotta give me a minute.” And then everyone’s like, “You just arrested everybody in my family, I can’t give you [Rich laughing] a minute.” And they’re like, “I know, I know, I know, change comes slowly. You gotta wait.” And it’s like this is, you know, Martin Luther King’s great essay like, “Why We Can’t Wait,” is just him going, “Yeah, no, I’m done. I’m kinda done. [Music fades in] [right] I’m gonna have my rights, thank you.”
RZ Right [music plays alone for six seconds, ramps down].
PF Rich, this is the time of the show [music fades out] where, thank God, we talk to someone who isn’t you or me.
RZ Thank. God.
PF It’s very important. It’s very important.
RZ It is. It is. You know?
PF Like God, it’s just— [almost operatic] “Blah blah blah”
RZ We have a lot of listeners which means people like us in their ears.
PF I think they just accept it’s us and they probably fast forward quite a bit.
RZ That’s fine. Or play it at 1.5x speed.
PF [Chuckling, rich also chuckles] I mean, you know, how many— I’ve probably made— there are probably like four points I’ve made about 250 times. Anyway, it’s not about us [Rich chuckles], it’s about the people who work here at Postlight.
PF So, we have with us today, Liran Okanon, who is a Senior Designer here at Postlight. Liran, welcome.
Liran Okanon Thank you.
PF Liran, can we talk about your portfolio?
PF It was a very good portfolio. You’ve been with us [Liran laughing] about two months, right?
LO Coming on the third now. Yeah.
RZ I freaked out. I’m gonna reveal something here that you haven’t heard yet, Liran, I was like, “We can’t hire this guy, he’s gonna sell perfume . . . or sell lotions.” It was so varied and so interesting and cool that I was like, “He’s not gonna do this.”
PF Again, this is not about you and me talking, but yes [laughing] this is like— I remember looking and you had like sort of three portfolios in one. One was like, “Cool, I’m a designer, I can do good design work.” Two was, “I’m actually pretty serious about product and I can go pretty deep.” And then we actually asked you like, “Well, what other things do you do?” And then it was like you went in. You went in.
RZ Yeah [laughing] had a clothing line.
PF No, it was like cannabinoids for dogs. There was a lot of stuff. And we were like, “That’s unusual.” But here you are.
LO Here I am.
RZ Tell us how you got here. I mean we get the ocasional, “I majored in design,” but oftentimes design’s a journey . . . that people went through to get to where they were. So give us a little bit of background about yourself.
LO Yeah, for sure. I went to school just a few blocks from here at Parson’s . . . for Communication Design but the intent was actually to get into Art Direction and through a series of random freelance gigs, I started getting into UX design, and every gig, I’d say, “I’ll do Art Direction the next time, I’ll focus on this.” [Rich chuckles] And then it ended up just becoming my career and now I love what I do.
RZ Do you regret that?
LO I don’t. I don’t at all. It’s actually one of the few decisions of my life or the few happenstances that I’m very happy about. I would not make a good Art Director, nor do I wanna be an Art Director anymore.
RZ So, we’ve kind of firmed up around the term Product Designer here at Postlight. I guess I’m gonna ask every Product Designer how they define it. So how would you define it? Cuz there’s a lot of flavors of design out in the world.
LO I think Product Design encompasses digital products, whether it’s a website app, service, that people have to interact with for some type of functional purpose. As a Product Designer, you are guiding users through that journey, both from experiential point of view but also from a visual point of view.
RZ Advice to someone that wants to go in this direction cuz this is a hot field. I mean, Product Design is where it’s at.
LO I’d say the first piece of advice is you have to be empathetic. If you don’t understand who you’re designing and what the intent is, it’s kind of hard to be a good Product Designer or UX Designer, I think. [Hmm] So I think that’s a very important aspect before getting into this type of role.
PF You have to have a basic understanding of your fellow human being and what might motivate them.
LO For sure. Yeah. It’s kind of psychological.
PF So, Liran, you’ve got very good personal style— just wanna say that outright.
LO Thank you.
PF You guys aren’t in the studio with us but with us but Liran is consistently— thought it through. You have a very broad but a pretty specific aesthetic that I think is kinda your own and what are your sources? Where do you go to look? What’s your inspiration? What are your things?
LO Just the street. You know, being in New York, I just walk around. I get inspiration from people all around me. Whatever looks good I try to emulate somewhat, make it my own.
RZ And New York, man, what better place to be just walk around [Liran laughs]. It’s great.
PF Whatever you’re looking for, you’re gonna see examples.
RZ Yeah, and I feel like you can pick another corner of the city and it’s— I feel like a tourist and I live here. If you pick certain parts of the city and just decide go and dig into ‘em. Even Queens.
LO Oh yeah.
PF Even Queens.
LO I started revelling this weekend and I made my way to Ridgewood which I’ve never been to.
RZ It’s cool, right?
LO I mean now that I’m revelling, I’m just going all over the city—
PF Oh! Revel, the scooter?
LO Yeah, yeah.
PF I’m like, “Oh, he’s into ren fairs. He’s a jester.” [Laughing]
LO Scooting all around.
RZ Wait, wait, what is this now?
PF It’s like a—
RZ An electric scooter?
LO A moped. An electric moped.
PF You just hop on.
LO You pay like 50 cents a minute, I think or—
RZ You just pick ‘em up wherever they’re laying around?
RZ With an app and such.
LO Pick ‘em up, go wherever you want, in Brooklyn, Queens, and then just drop it off.
RZ Drop it off anywhere? You just leave it on the street.
PF Just throw it in a river.
LO You have to back it up onto the sidewalk but that’s it.
LO Yeah. I’m very into it.
PF Ok, you know what? Just random fun fact, you ready?
PF Remember a couple of weeks ago we had Adrianne Jeffries on the show, she talked about—
RZ She was very entertaining.
PF Completely serendipitous connection: actually, can you explain it?
LO So, Adrianne’s fiance worked with me and my fiance now and my fiance now and Adrianne Jeffries have their own podcast called Under Understood and Adrianne’s fiance and my fiance own a bar together called Getaway Bar.
PF What makes Getaway different?
LO It’s the only bar in New York City that does not serve alcohol.
RZ Is it the only one in New York City that does this?
LO That’s right.
RZ And it calls itself a bar [Liran laughs].
PF Flavorful cocktails.
RZ That’s fine.
LO Yeah, they’re all very uniquely crafted cocktails. They make—
PF What’s the fake beer situation?
LO They don’t serve it.
RZ Fake beer is bad.
PF It’s hard to get a good one, that’s for sure, yeah.
LO They’re all about like zero percent and they wanna cater to a sober clientele, so anything that resembles alcohol might be triggering so they don’t even wanna include it.
PF Alright, so where is that bar?
LO It’s in Greenpoint on Green Street and Manhattan.
PF Now, now, ok, good, good, good.
RZ Liran, this was great.
PF Liran Okanon.
LO Thank you for having me.
RZ A man of the world.
PF Senior Product Designer at Postlight.
RZ I just see a Renaissance man when I look at Liran [Liran laughing]. Liran, thank you so much.
LO Thank you for having me, guys [Rich chuckles, music plays for six seconds, ramps down.
PF So, lemme make this really complicated [music fades out] for a second: what are the true global products, right? Cuz we build products; we build software.
PF And frankly some of our software runs in India; some of it runs in Mexico; some of it run— like we build things that do run globally, we do build things that focus on specific markets, but for the most part, you know, US, English speaking is our homebase. And I don’t think we’ve ever shipped anything into China, like that’s really hard.
RZ No, we haven’t. We haven’t.
PF So, pause on software for a second: what are the global products? Like Avengers movies are a global product.
RZ Massive. Utterly massive.
PF Nike! Like shoes, apparel is global.
PF FIFA, that’s right. Soccer is—
RZ Is a two to three billion spectator—
PF The Olympics.
RZ The Olympics are kinda global.
PF And they actually have like they all have political negotiation built into them.
RZ Oh yeah!
RZ It’s a whole thing.
PF I mean The Olympics are essentially a political act around sports.
PF FIFA too—
RZ They’re outlets.
PF And so like what does software do? Cuz Facebook has trouble in the world; Google has trouble in China, China has its own— and China like draws the line. It says, “Don’t you get in here,” China’s a very specific case. Like, is it possible, given that most software is about information access, like to make a really big consumer platform and get it out to the world. I don’t think so.
RZ I don’t think so cuz I think it turns out that like the really megaphones are still the same ones.
PF Yeah! Right? I mean this is the thing: so there’s homegrown . . . and then there is like the very carefully constructed global product. Like for entertainment or—
RZ It’s usually in media. And sport, I would consider it a form of media.
PF And I think also apparel. I think like Givenchy and Hermes and things like that are absolutely—
RZ The Chinese have really embraced high end . . . brands and status symbols.
PF Toyota . . . is another one.
PF I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of a country that doesn’t include like one of those Toyota minibus pickups.
RZ Just to round it out with my visit to Lebanon, just to kind of show you how it’s demarcated. So, coming out of the airport, there’s a massive poster on the side of a building for Huawei. Apple’s almost nowhere to be found. There is no Apple Store in Lebanon. So you have like—
PF There’s Apple Store in Beirut!
RZ There’s no Apple Store in Beirut. There are a lot of like knockoff, it’s like iHappy! And it’s just the Apple logo.
PF Oh yeah, yeah.
RZ Just these fake— cuz nobody’s enforcing trademarks or anything so you’ll see those but they look like I mean it was clearly a coffee shop that got replaced [chuckles] with an Apple Store, like fake Apple Store. The other thing you see a lot of is . . . four dollar a month phone that only works with WhatsApp.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ Like you gotta understand in Lebanon there is a huge population of people who don’t—
PF I see it cuz you talk to your family and it’s all WhatsApp.
RZ It’s all WhatsApp. WhatsApp dominates. I mean but there is also just— my family happens to be able to afford a smartphone. There are phones out there—
PF It’s the WhatsApp phone.
RZ It’s a 2012 Android phone that just has WhatsApp on it.
PF Just runs fine.
RZ It’s enough to communicate with your family wherever they are. So you’ll see these like four dollar a month flat fee type of like offers and stuff.
PF When the Irish used to leave for America, they would hold a funeral because you were never gonna see them again.
RZ Is that true?
PF Yeah, we’re talking 1800s.
RZ Yeah, that makes sense.
PF You’re never gonna see them again. And now I watch you. You are on WhatsApp with your extended Lebanese family on a regular basis.
RZ It’s bizarre. It’s actually bizarre.
PF You’re in a conversation with them and there’s the time difference and we have our Lebanese team in the office and like they’re very present and it’s just wild. Like the immigrant experience is fundamentally different cuz you actually don’t leave the country. Like you’re first generation but if you had come across like two weeks ago, you’d be having a lot of the same conversations.
RZ Oh yeah, for sure. And look, Lebanon is a place that actually has tried to mobilize and use protest and the youth have tried to make changes there. There was a you stink movement. Do you know about this?
PF Mm nmm.
RZ The garbage collection was corrupt and it was like private companies doing deals with the government and for like months nobody collected the garbage, and when they did collect it, they put it on the beaches. It was really bad.
PF You can’t have corruption and then not pick up the garbage.
RZ Exactly. Exactly. That’s like a baseline. Right?
PF Cuz people can’t roll— they’ll roll their eyes at corruption cuz it’s like, “Well, that’s just the way the world works [correct]. That’s where his bread is buttered.” But if there’s garbage piled up on your beautiful beaches in front of the mediterranean. . . then it’s like, “I wanna— why am bribing you?”
RZ It all starts to crumble. Right. Exactly. So, the youth really essentially started to mobilize and again, found a movement through— someone put up— they called it You Stink. They branded it well. This is what I’m realizing because they all fail. All these movements fail. They all fail. Either they fail very horribly and violently or they fail— they just fizzle out and everybody’s tired because they’re tired and there’s another thing to watch on their phones.
PF Lebanon always strikes me as relatively, democratically intended until Syria gets involved. Like—
RZ Iran and Syria, I mean that’s the geosphere but here’s I guess the thing I’ve kind of taken away from the empowering effects of the internet: the internet allows you to communicate and organize, right?
PF Mm hmm.
RZ So like I can setup the meeting. It’s at 2pm in meeting room x. I can setup the meeting and everybody’s gonna show up!
PF I can send a Google Calendar for everyone to come to Tahrir Square.
RZ Exactly but now what? And the internet really, really breaks down. Communicate and organize the tool, we aced it. It is amazing. Like it’s happening and it continues to happen but there is no resolution tool. There is no tool—
PF Interesting. You know where you saw that was Occupy Wallstreet. The idea was that everyone would get together in Zuccotti Park and then they would create the movement.
RZ They would create the movement and it was a real movement but the problem you have is this: there are two ways you can have a leader that can actually be annointed as the voice of a group of people, right? One way is through elections, right?
PF Mm hmm.
RZ “We voted you in, you’re gonna make the calls, we’re listening to you talk.” Right? The other which is far, far, far more rare is a [sic] inspirational leader that comes out. Far more rare. I mean what you need to rise out of a You Stink movement in Lebanon or the Hong Kong protests of Tiananmen Square is a Martin Luther King.
PF Yeah, I mean it’s impossible though, right? You can’t make those.
RZ You can’t make those. And we’ve tried different ways of using Share and WhatsApp [laughs].
PF The whole point—
RZ None of them work! There is no resolution tool. So what happens is they all go and it’s this incredible feeling of— I talked to some of our team in Lebanon about the protests in Lebanon, the Cedar protests [mm hm] and they were like, “It was incredible. People were crying because it was so emotional and intense,” and then they did it for days and then after like day six they were like, “What do we do now?”
PF Can I get really meta for a minute? Social networks and platforms like this tend to arise from like western democracies. We like a good social platform here [mm]. We kind of assume— and this, look, this is very reductive cuz China’s got its own thing going but like we kind of assume that the products are built so that the conversation that will happen and then the system will step in to take action. So it’s like, “Let’s have a big conversation about our democracy and then people will vote.”
PF Right. That is how we architect our products.
PF We architect our products as if a decision is going to come, especially at the global scale, we assume it will come from relatively benign systems.
RZ That will embrace [mm] the sort of source of pressure.
PF And what you see— and Twitter— it’s easy to blame Twitter now but my God it started as a little blogging tool to tell people that you were on your way to the party. Now it has state actors that are opposed to our system [yeah] getting involved and trying to sway the way the conversation moves in order to kind of hack that larger outcome. So this is what we’re up against if we’re thinking globally.
RZ I just wanna use my phone. I’m tracking new movies that are coming out. I found a really cool tool— I like to plug tools on this podcast. You ever hear of this tool called Trakt? T-R-A-K-T.
RZ It’s actually a community built tool that lets you search for any movie or show and then plug it in and you can track stuff that you wanna see down the road cuz it’s getting hard to find things. I just wanna use the internet for innocent things, Paul.
PF Me too.
RZ The world is— there’s a lot of good stuff. There’s a lot of good stuff.
PF There is—
RZ There are excellent recipe tools we’ll plug in a future episode [laughs].
PF There’s just too much stuff.
RZ There is too much stuff.
PF I think the grand idea was RSS. Like, “We’ll just have a lot of feeds.” And that became completely untenable.
RZ I think RSS put on a mask and now runs the internet.
PF Yeah. I think that’s basically it.
RZ [Laughs] To me, when I look at a Twitter feed, I just see RSS.
PF It’s just RSS. Yeah.
RZ That’s all I see.
PF It’s in JSAN and it moves really fast.
RZ It’s— the Facebook feed had to have been inspired by RSS.
PF It’s RSS plus a follower thing. That’s all.
RZ A follower thing and a comment thread on each node.
RZ Fine. To close it out, Paul, we do need to go through a deeper dive of WeChat on another podcast.
PF Oh! There’s a world inside of a world inside of a world.
RZ Phenomena in and of itself. And it is something.
PF I think also it’s like imagine if Facebook was developed in partnership with the United States government.
RZ [Laughs wheezily] And sold bowling pins!
PF [Laughs] And sold bowling pins. Yeah. Exactly. And it was your bank.
RZ Close it with what WeChat is.
PF Ok, so WeChat is like a truly vast app, it’s like a mega app.
RZ To me it is an operating system. It is a social operating system where you pay your rent, you buy stuff, you read stuff, all in one place.
PF So the company that makes it is Tencent which is a little bit of Google and a little bit of Facebook and a little bit of Amazon all at once. It does everything. It does messaging. It’s sort of like your account of record—
RZ It’s your bank.
PF It’s your bank, WeChat Pay is a big thing.
RZ You shop; you read.
PF There’s an enterprise version.
RZ Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It is— I mean essentially what they did was they said, “You’re in here, you’re chatting here. Why do you need to go elsewhere to message your landlord and just pay the rent . . . Right there and then. And call it a day.” [Paul sighs] And it is— let’s be clear: it’s billions. We’re talking billions and billions of dollars—
PF And a billion people. And not just like a billion occasionally hitting “like”, like a billion people like paying their rent and buying socks.
RZ I mean I don’t know maybe the Chinese government’s probably watching you do everything. I guess. Is that true?
PF But I mean the US government’s—
RZ I’ve taken this position before: I’m not that interesting. You wanna watch me pay rent? Watch me pay rent.
PF It’s just log files, right? It’s what you do with them that matters.
RZ Exactly, exactly.
PF Yeah, I dunno, man—
RZ I just wanted to end this on an up note!
PF No, I think what’s wild is— here’s the up note which is there’s still lots to do, there’s lots of products to build, it’s just that, I think that when you tell the story about global product development, like it’s more complicated than, “I put a thing on the internet and now the world’s gonna come to my door.”
RZ Yes, absolutely.
PF That era is over and now we have to build for the complicated, really weird world where people misbehave and you can’t really— the systems can’t all be trusted, and you have to be really careful. And that is different. It’s not a utopian medium anymore, it’s part of the real ass world with things like, you know, oil and national defence [oh yeah] and you’re in the middle of it. You know when we started this company we built a lot of products.
PF You know what’s happened over the last four years?
RZ What, Paul?
PF We’re still building products for the same people and sometimes we’re working on the same products.
RZ Well, you know, products keep going.
PF That’s the thing!
RZ If they’re succeeding, you keep making new stuff: new features; new capabilities.
PF You know what I think about a lot is that when you launch a product everybody has champagne. [Music fades in] And when you release a new feature, they give you a little champagne emoji in Slack.
RZ Voof. I thought you were gonna say apple juice.
PF It shouldn’t be that way.
RZ Keep drinking champagne.
PF You should keep celebrating those new releases.
RZ I agree. I agree.
PF I mean that’s just the point we’re making for the listener here is in this advertisement that we’re doing is that we’re in it with you for the long haul, and we often didn’t talk about that in the past but the reality is if you look around our office, you see lots of product themes working for people over the long, long stretch because we’re there to help you keep evolving, and keep building your revenue driving products.
RZ We’re a digital products studio based in New York City with clients everywhere. And we design . . . engineer; build; support amazing platforms and apps.
PF We are your trusted product partner and we’d love to talk to you! Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and that goes straight to me and Rich. So—
RZ Reach out.
PF Yeah, I’m glad you’re back safe from Lebanon!
RZ I am back safe, yes. It’s nice to be home.
PF Alright, and I’m not going anywhere.
RZ [Laughs] Clearly, after this podcast.
PF No, let’s get back to work [music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end].