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Baratunde Thurston

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 7:30am

December 15, 2012 to January 8, 2013 I left all email and social media. It was 25 days of relative digital quiet, and I loved it. The experience was so profound, I wrote about it for Fast Company. The piece launches online this week, and is accompanied by related stories and Twitter activity around the hashtag #UNPLUG.

Here's a more digestible version I and my colleagues at Cultivated Wit made for Tapestry.

Update: here's an audio performance I posted to SoundCloud 

Oh, and they made me the cover of their July/August 2013 issue which hits newsstands June 25 and looks a little something like this:

 Actually, the cover looks looks exactly like this.

Actually, the cover looks looks exactly like this.

Saturday, June 11, 2016 - 7:40am

This is a cool event (Moth StorySLAM) within another cool event (Afropunk). However, I've been told that it's sold out. The website, however, seems to want to accept your money, so maybe it's not sold out? I don't know. Take a risk, and tell me what happens! 

 Cool event you can't see. Sorry!

Cool event you can't see. Sorry!

Saturday, July 18, 2015 - 9:30am
 A photo taken with my smartphone in the NYC subway system. Photo credit goes to me and my ancestors and the scientists that developed my smartphone along with the underlying technological developments on which they innovated. Thanks history! 

A photo taken with my smartphone in the NYC subway system. Photo credit goes to me and my ancestors and the scientists that developed my smartphone along with the underlying technological developments on which they innovated. Thanks history! 

That's about all I have to say. This show makes me laugh out loud a lot, and Nick Kroll is ridiculous. It's because of his name.

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 9:00pm
 My custom winter hat by Satya Twena

My custom winter hat by Satya Twena

I just got my cranium upgraded with this custom hat by NYC hatter Satya Twena. She saved one of the last hat factories in the city, and just launched a Kickstarter to help improve and maintain the business. Support local manufacturing and stylish head coverings. She's very good at this.

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 9:00pm
 "You're Doing It Wrong" by  Peter Dahlgren via Flickr

"You're Doing It Wrong" by Peter Dahlgren via Flickr

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: None of this happened. Skip to end for update. Overall point is still interesting so read for that. Or don't because maybe this blog post doesn't exist. Maybe I'm not real. Maybe I'm just another dumb Internet meme sucking up your time)

Ross Luippold over at Huffington Post Comedy has a great replay of the Twitter interactions between comedian Kyle Kinane and Pace Foods that went down this weekend. The exchange centers on the fact that Pace was auto-favoriting tweets mentioning its product, and that made for the favoriting of pretty ridiculous tweets. 

It all started when stand-up comedian Kyle Kinane, who counts the likes of Patton Oswalt and Marc Maron as fans, noticed that the Twitter account for Pace favorited a 10-month old tweet insulting their salsa.


Left unsaid in Ross's overview and underpinning why such exchanges were funny in the first place are two basic problems in the design and architecture of Twitter. Allow me to elaborate/rant at length.

First, "favorite" has always been the wrong term for that Twitter action.

"Favorite" implies enjoyment and endorsement of content that stands out above the rest for being not just noteworthy but good. Orange is my favorite color. Kale is my favorite vegetable. Non-conflicted black republicans are my favorite non-existent political group. However, people don't actually use the Twitter feature to mean this in all cases. Often we're just remembering, marking, saving, flagging, storing, bookmarking or otherwise more neutrally noting a tweet. We are long overdue for Twitter to change the verb from favorite to something more neutral.

Know where else we've seen the misuse of verbs in social media? Facebook. "Like" needs to become something else. I don't "Like" when a friend posts that his uncle has just died. I empathize. I feel. I support. I don't like. It's especially problematic with Facebook Pages. I don't like Mitt Romney. I chose to follow his page to keep tabs on what he was up to (someone had to). A like is not an endorsement. 

And don't get me started on "friend." Facebook has done more to destroy the meaning of the world "friend" than all the rumor-spreading, backstabbing, and two-faced behavior of the world's people combined.  

There's something odd about these social platforms being so neutral in so many of their operations (seemingly) in that they don't endorse movements per se; they want to get out of the way and let users express themselves. Yet they force a non-neutral stance on every user when they make language choices such as favorite, friend, like across a set of interactions that can and do mean so much more than that. Facebook takes the cake because it has forced us into "liking" brands then goes back and sells our likeness in an ad for that brand saying we actually like the brand! Way to juke the stats, Facebook.

Second, favoriting activity is public and social if your Twitter account is public. This is overly simplistic and bad.

In the Security and Privacy section of your Twitter account settings, you're allowed to make your entire account private. You can also choose to conceal the location of your tweets and determine if people can even find you on Twitter based on your mobile number or email address. Twitter could, and I think should, add an option to keep your favorites private. There's a role for you keeping a secret file of tweets you want to come back to. No doubt part of the decision to keep this activity public is to drive more activity. Favoriting is an entirely new category of interaction the company can track, report, and use to populate activity streams. Many people use Twitter in a read-only mode. Favoriting lives in the gray area between true lurker behavior and posting tweets like an addict (aka me). The added twist is that while the word and button design of Favorite on Twitter has remained the same, its meaning has changed dramatically.

Favorites used to only be visible for folks who visited your profile page and explicitly clicked on your favorites. They were technically public but practically hidden if not invisible. Now they act more like a mention, proactively alerting (snitching to?) the party whose tweet you've favorited about what you've done. 

 The activity of people favoriting my tweets now shows up in my Twitter experience. Twitter be snitchin yall. 

The activity of people favoriting my tweets now shows up in my Twitter experience. Twitter be snitchin yall. 

That's what happened with Kyle. In a sane and less noisy social world, he should not have even known that Pace had marked his tweet.  Twitter created a social interaction where none was intended. They changed the meaning of the word favorite when they launched the feature then changed it again to make it a form of communication. 

Who does this the right way? Instapaper, sort of. Your "likes" don't have to be publicly exposed. What I don't like is how they couple this choice with people finding you through connected services. Those are not connected choices.

Google Chrome.png

There should be an experience of these services that doesn't force blanket meaning on our actions, or if they do, they do so with the lightest possible meaning and the clearest possibly explanation of consequences. When I like or favorite the first few times, the service should explain to me what that means and where this action lives on. "Like" sounds innocent, but it isn't. "Favorite" is innocuous until you're caught favoriting something offensive or dumb (like U.S. immigration policy).

There should be an experience that doesn't force our actions to be both public and social as well because in so doing they force us to answer for behavior that has largely been implicit or passive or silent or all three. We're pouring so much of our lives, our business, our politics into this machinery, but we're still learning how the machinery changes those lives and businesses and politics. 

Just consider the physical books and magazines you've read. What if when you folded a page or highlighted a passage or placed a bookmark, that book reported your activity to the author and the publisher and told them that "Baratunde Is Over The Moon about page 43 in Mein Kampf" because "Is Over The Moon" is the way they've chosen to lable the action. That's what UX can do when it's done wrong, and a much much milder version of that is what happened to Pace. 

I love Kyle Kinane. He's super funny and had a great and creative way of handling his exchange. He was performing. He was doing real Twitter comedy--not just tweeting out standup bits over Twitter as a transport layer, but using the native interactions of the platform to inspire creativity. He was speaking the language. However, in a world where social platforms use the right language and give us control over both the public and social settings of our actions, this incident would never have happened. 

Update @ 17:39 2nd December 2013

.@baratunde Totally agree that "favorite" is an awk word, but aren't random public interactions a good thing about Twitter? cc @kylekinane

— HumorCode (@HumorCode) December 2, 2013

Love this question from @HumorCode, and I tend to agree. I've re-read the above, and it's slightly more categorical and absolute than I intended. Twitter is fun. New types of interactions aren't always a problem. They are interesting and create new opportunities for expression and communication. I'm for all that. 

More than a restriction on user interactions, I think what I'm calling for is clarity. I'm pretty sure (and certainly hope) that Pace might have set their auto-bot differently had they known it would proactively alert the users whose tweets it was favoriting. 

Good followup point @HumorCode. 

While we're at it, what substitute words could social platforms enable to replace these generic overly broad forced meanings? 

Instead of Favorite and Like, I nominate

  • Goddamn Love
  • Hug
  • Grind Up On
  • Flick
  • Pinch
  • Stash
  • Stow
  • Tuck
  • Fondle

What say the rest of you? 

Update 17:52 2nd December 2013

@baratunde @HumorCode Regarding that update, shouldn't the Pace social media people have known that was going to happen if that's their job?

— Bart (@bart_smith) December 2, 2013

Yes yes Bart. The well-funded Pace Foods corporation should have invested in humans and machines that knew better. That's the least interesting part of the story for me, but it's a valid point. Dear Internet, stop making valid points which expand and occasionally shift but never quite undermine my main point!

Update 18:01 2nd December 2013

Well ain't that some sh*t. The entire thing was a hoax pulled on Kyle. Pace account was fake. Life has no meaning. None of this matters. Nothing matters.

That's annoying to say the least. So strip out the part about Pace, and my overall point remains valid and interesting, I think. Favorite and Like are the wrong verbs. We need more understanding of our how actions ricochet through the digital ether. 

I'm going to go burn something now. 

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 9:00pm
 Check out that baller illustration by Álvaro Domínguez!

Check out that baller illustration by Álvaro Domínguez!

No, I'm not recommending the show because it has the word "black" in its title. I discovered this show based on a friend recommendation. It's out of the UK. It's darkly satirical and deeply important as it paints a picture of the mildly distant future in which technology has had terrible effects on our society. I devoted my latest Fast Company column to it

“Black Mirror is the perfect show for our times. We’ve created a self-fulfilling technologyadoption engine where things are faster, more connected, more immersive—and, presumably, relentlessly better. Watch Black Mirror and be reminded that we apply the word progress to undergird what is more objectively change.
” — My words from elsewhere on the Internet. Yes I just quoted myself.

Here's a panel discussion with the show creator about the episode in question. Those of you in the UK can watch full episodes at 4oD

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 9:00pm
 Derrick Ashong shows me around the largest newsroom in the United States at Fusion

Derrick Ashong shows me around the largest newsroom in the United States at Fusion

I recently snuck in and out of Miami for a few hours and spent some time with Derrick Ashong, formerly of Al Jazeera English's The Stream as well as Oprah Radio. Derrick's new show launches with this new network (an ABC News/Univision collaboration) October 28. It's called DNA TV, and I think you're gonna love it. Meanwhile, enjoy this motion! 

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 9:00pm
 Momma was a rollin stone

Momma was a rollin stone

I can't think of too many single images that best capture the journeying spirit of Arnita Lorraine Thurston. She was a traveler to the end and beyond, through the clearing at the end of the path. 

This photo was taken in Iowa on one of our mother's last big journeys. She had finally made her way west in a move to Washington State. My sister and I caravanned with her in a cross-country drive, and had a love-filled and charmed stop in Iowa.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Iowa for a show at Iowa State. The student assigned to bring me from the airport and I got to talking, and I mentioned this epic family road trip and the organic farm and restaurant we stumbled across outside of Waukee, Iowa. The student not only knew who I was talking about but knew the man himself, L.T.

I was saddened to hear that L.T. had recently had a stroke, and the fate of his business remains unclear to me, but on this day I choose to remember the joy he brought three hopeful and open travelers from DC as they journeyed together into the future.

Miss you ma.

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 8:52pm
 Baratunde lightly gestures at Arianna Huffington then fist bumps Matt Welch on the teevee

Baratunde lightly gestures at Arianna Huffington then fist bumps Matt Welch on the teevee

The headlines are:

"Had Fun"

"Enjoyed Watching Sister Simone Take Dinesh D'Souza To Church"

and "They Gave Us Bath Robes"


Being on the show was actually great. The live audience was, well, live! Bill was a mix of smart and hilarious and wrong. The staff was great to work with, and I met the first ever makeup artist to carry eyeglass cleaner in her kit. Hugs forever. Most of the world missed my appearance, but here are some options.

  1. If you have Home Box Office To Go, you can watch the full episode (#317) at your leisure
  2. You can watch the "Overtime" post-show segment on YouTube
  3. And HBO has a collection of clips from my episode they don't charge you for, so let's hear it for proprietary video players, am I right??
  4. Or you can come over to my apartment in Brooklyn, and we can watch together. I have a TV.
Friday, July 17, 2015 - 8:52pm
  Photo via Flickr , by WhatDaveSees

Photo via Flickr, by WhatDaveSees

Last year I took part in a live stage show and podcast called Ask Roulette. It was my second time appearing, and I got hit by host Jody Avirgan with an unexpectedly deep question

“In unrequited love, would you rather be the person who is in love with someone, and it’s unrequited, or would you rather know that someone is madly in love with you and just not be in love with them?”

I'm not going to do be Internet-annoying and bury the answer so deep in embedded media that you have to hunt for it. You can hear the audio starting around minute 22 in the player below or on this page. Ask Roulette just posted a supercut highlighting exchanges from several shows, and my response made the cut (or supercut). If you prefer ingesting words with your eyes, just keep reading. Here's a near-exact transcript of my response:

“To be on the receiving end of love that you don’t want is its own form of awkwardness at a minimum, and you have to make certain/different types of choices about how to behave and how open to be and how much you trust and how much you share. Whereas you being on the giving side of that love, whether it’s requited or not, you’re giving. And you’re not choosing whether to return. It’s still a difficult choice, but it’s not really a choice. You just feel compelled. So, I would choose compulsion over active denial in the area of love. ”

@baratunde @askroulette lovely write-up - but you should have also transcribed @elibolin's "Fuck. Yes." response!

— Jody Avirgan (@jodyavirgan) January 14, 2014

The full version of the original show where my answer first appeared is here

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 8:50pm
 A lovely view of 30 Rock from the streets. Lots of cameras up in there!

A lovely view of 30 Rock from the streets. Lots of cameras up in there!

It's been a while since I've mouthed off on cable news about anything, and it was nice to return to Chris Hayes's show on MSNBC to think out loud about NJ Governor Chris Christie's presidential prospects in light of the George Washington Bridge controversy.

I joined Sam Seder and the actually, truly, legendary Charles Pierce (of Esquire Magazine). Happy fun times via moving images and recorded sound below. 

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 8:50pm
 Some technology. 

Left: Moshe Kasher. Right: Neal Brennan. Center: Some technology. 

Wednesday was a long and hard day. The shock of no indictment from the Staten Island grand jury in the homicide of Eric Garner was weighing heavily on me. Having spent all day immersed in the story for discussion on TakePart Live that night, I was exhausted. So when Moshe Kasher reached out to invite me onto The Champs, I initially wasn't sure I'd have the energy to add 90 minutes of podcast talking at the end of the day.

I was wrong, and I'm so glad I joined. Moshe, Neal, and I went in. It was real and rough and somehow funny. One of my friends heard it on Facebook and said, "It's funny how The Champs is far and away the most important and interesting black podcast in the game right now."

This episode is definitely my most interesting and important podcast moment of 2014. Take a listen. Revel in the discomfort. Be relieved by the jokes. And then do something

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 8:50pm
 Baratunde gets stippled by the Wall Street Journal, and he likes it.

Baratunde gets stippled by the Wall Street Journal, and he likes it.

Several weeks ago I got an email from someone claiming to work for the Wall Street Journal who wanted to interview me. "Too soon!" I thought. I had not yet perfected my doomsday domination of all the world's capital nor fully implemented my plan for reverse colonialism (which imposes a hefty licensing fee when people like Miley Cyrus decide to twerk or whatever). But, "better too soon than never!" I thought.

So I spent about an hour on the phone with their reporter discussing the broad topic of "independence." We ended up talking a lot about the shame of dependence, and the section they printed reflected that part of our conversation. They interviewed six "luminaries" which means I'm a luminary! I need to start saying more luminarious things like "The key is not to open the door but to let the door open you!".

Anyhow, they interviewed Jonathan Adler, Nadya Tolokonnikova (Pussy Riot), Diane Von Furstenberg, Richard Ford, and Diana Nyad. We had very different things to say. I'll pull quote my own but you should read the entire page. It's quite thoughtful and dare I say illuminating. 

Independence means nothing without the concept of dependence. Independent from what? In this country, we're fond of the idea of independence being founded in opposition to something. We've got all these legends and myths in America about rugged individualism. There's almost a sense of shame associated with dependence. But dependence is where society comes from, why families stick together, why churches work. Things are shifting, and some of the tools and language of emerging businesses are more about interdependence than independence, but the overall narrative of the country is still very much: We're on our own.

—Thurston is the author of the book How to Be Black and cofounder and CEO of the digital agency Cultivated Wit.



Friday, July 17, 2015 - 8:50pm

When Facebook decided to copy Twitter and launch its own version of trending topics, I was all whatever about it. Then I noticed the brief but absolutely helpful context Facebook offered in its version. It reminded me of the short-lived Twitter client Brizzly which I used mostly because it explained what the fuck people on Twitter were talking about. Just take a look at Twitter's trending topic (left) list vs. Facebook (right) to see why this is helpful.

twitter trending topics.png
facebook trending topics3.png

But then the World Cup (like it did for vuvuzelas) changed everything. Without a doubt the Twitter mobile experience of the World Cup is superior to what Facebook offers through a full browser.

Facebook basically gives you non-prioritized feed of crap related to the current match, which is something Twitter used to be known for -- feeds of crap. Facebook also offers recent match results and a countdown timer to upcoming matches. The latter is useful and interesting, but doesn't come close to what Twitter provides. Here's the Facebook World Cup page:

 Facebook's inferior curation of World Cup-related Facebook content leaves much to be desired. 

Facebook's inferior curation of World Cup-related Facebook content leaves much to be desired. 

Meanwhile, unlike the noisy and confusing generic trending topics list, Twitter has bothered to organize your experience of the World Cup on mobile. The main screen says "Get instant updates and all the behind-the-scenes action from World Cup 2014," then offers three tabs: Tweets, Photos, and Matches.

When you go to Matches, like Facebook you see the score of any current match, and you see the upcoming time for the next three matches. Most interesting, you can click on a match and just look at Tweets and Photos for that match. Bonus offer is the "People" tab under a single match which shows and gives you the option to follow accounts related to either team. Here's what that People tab looks like. 

 Twitter shows you how it's done when offering deep social coverage of a live event series.

Twitter shows you how it's done when offering deep social coverage of a live event series.

The World Cup really drives home the differences in what Facebook and Twitter offer. For a surface level understanding of a trending topic list, Facebook wins hands down. With Twitter, you're left wondering, "WTF is #5SOSTheAlbum, and why should I care?" Facebook solves it with a caption, and if you click on a single topic, you get actual news stories that are relevant and not just a bunch of Blieber wannabes declaring their love.

But when it comes to depth of coverage for a live event, at least one on the order of a World Cup, Twitter shows you that it can truly help you make sense of that event and bring you closer to it by bringing you the images and people involved. 

Now I just have a few demands of both companies:

  • Twitter, please copy the Facebook/Brizzly model of offering a 60-100 character explanation of what the fuck is going on in your left column from a trending topic perspective.
  • Facebook, please copy the investment Twitter has made in the World Cup. You've got too many users across the planet to not help them all make more sense of what's happening. Do a better job of integrating, packaging, and segmenting all the bits. You'd be much better if you simply copied the Twitter build, but given your size and relationships, you could integrate media (especially video) and my friend network in more interesting ways. Just at "see which of your friends gives a shit about the World Cup" would be valuable and might lead to some un-friending of folks who can't be bothered with the greatest event series in world history.
  • Twitter, please don't limit your organization of the chaos to the World Cup. I would love to see this model applied to other major shared events like the Super Bowl, Oscars, Presidential Debates, and more. It helps if the event is more than a few hours, so the NCAA Tournament seems especially worth it, but long term I'd love to see it applied to anything truly newsworthy, as opposed to just popular-among-children-who-neither-vote-nor-know-anything.

That seems to me a pretty humble request, and as an active user on each of your platforms within the first year of your existence, I feel justified in saying, come on let's get to it! 

Baratunde Thurston is the CEO, co-founder, and hashtagger-in-chief of Cultivated Wit. He wrote the New York Times bestseller How To Be Black and served for five years as director of digital for the satirical news outlet, The Onion.