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I (finally) read Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. This book had been on my queue for years, and I put it off for the same reason that you have probably put it off: we don’t like to confront difficult things. But the book is superlative: not only is it fascinating and well-researched but given the current level of anxiety about the consequences of technological development, it feels especially timely. Black makes clear in his preface that IBM did not cause the Holocaust (unequivocally, the Holocaust would have happened without IBM), but he also makes clear in the book that information management was essential to every aspect of the Nazi war machine — and that that information management was made possible through IBM equipment and (especially) their punch cards.

I have known little of computing before the stored program computer, and two aspects of punch card systems of this era were surprising to me: first, to assure correct operation in these most mechanical of systems, the punch cards themselves must be very precisely composed, manufactured, and handled — and the manufacturing process itself is difficult to replicate. Second, punch cards of this era were essentially single-use items: once a punch card had been through a calculation, it had to be scrapped. Given that IBM was the only creator of punch cards for its machines, this may sound like an early example of the razor blade model, but it is in fact even more lucrative: IBM didn’t sell the machines at a discount because they didn’t sell the machines at all — they rented them. This was an outrageously profitable business model, and a reflection of the most dominant trait of its CEO, Thomas J. Watson: devotion to profit over all else.

In the Nazis, Watson saw a business partner to advance that profit — and they saw in him an American advocate for appeasement, with Hitler awarding Watson its highest civilian medal in 1937. (In this regard, the Nazis themselves didn’t understand that Watson cared only about profit: unlike other American Nazi sympathizers, Watson would support an American war effort if he saw profit in it — and he publicly returned the medal after the invasion of Holland in 1940, when public support of the Nazis had become a clear commercial liability.) A particularly revealing moment with respect to Watson’s disposition was in September 1939 (after the invasion of Poland!) when IBM’s German subsidiary (known at the time as Dehomag) made the case to him that the IBM 405 alphabetizers owned by IBM’s Austrian entity in the annexed Austria now belonged to the German entity to lease as they please. These particular alphabetizers were important: the 405 was an order of magnitude improvement over the IBM 601 — and it was not broadly found in Europe. Watson resisted handing over the Austrian 405s, though not over any point of principle, but rather of avarice: in exchange for the 405s, he demanded (as he had throughout the late 1930s) that he have complete ownership of IBM’s German subsidiary rather than the mere 90% that IBM controlled. The German subsidiary refused the demand and ultimately Watson relented — and the machines effectively became enlisted as German weapons of war.

IBM has made the case that it did not know how its machines were used to effect the Holocaust, but this is hard to believe given Watson’s level of micromanagement of the German subsidiary through Switzerland during the war: IBM knew which machines were where (and knew, for example, that concentration camps all had ample sorters and tabulators), to the point that the company was able to retrieve them all after the war — along with the profits that the machines had earned.

This all has much to teach us about the present day with respect to the true risks of technology. Technology serves as a force-multiplier on humanity, for both better and ill. The most horrific human act — genocide — requires organization and communication, two problems for which we have long developed technological solutions. Whether it was punch cards and tabulators in the Holocaust, radio transmission in the Rwandan Genocide, or Facebook in the Rohingya genocide, technology has sadly been used as an essential tool for our absolute worst. It may be tempting to blame the technology itself, but that in fact absolves the humans at the helm. Should we have stymied the development of tabulators and sorters in the 1920s and 1930s? No, of course not. And nor, for that matter, should Rwanda have been deprived of radio or Myanmar of social media. But this is not to say that we should ignore technology’s role, either: the UN erred in not destroying the radio transmission capabilities in Rwanda; Facebook erred by willfully ignoring the growing anti-Rohingya violence; and IBM emphatically erred by being willing to supply the Nazis in the name of its own profits.

To bring this into the present day: as I relayed in my recent Monktoberfest talk, the fears of AI autonomously destroying humanity are worse than nonsense, because they distract us from the very real possibilities of how AI may be abused. To allow ourselves to even contemplate a prohibition of the development of certain kinds of computer programs is to delude ourselves into thinking that the problem is a technical problem rather than a human one. Worse, the very absurdity of prohibition has itself created a reactionary movement in the so-called “effective accelerationists” who, like some AI equivalent of rolling coal, refuse to contemplate any negative ramifications of technological development whatsoever. This, too, is grievously wrong, and we need look no further than IBM’s involvement in the Holocaust to see the peril of absolute adherence to technology-based profit.

So what course to chart with respect to the (real, human) risks of AI? We should consider another important fact of IBM’s involvement with the Nazis: IBM itself skirted the law. Some the most interesting findings in Black’s book are from the US Department of Treasury’s 1943 investigation into IBM’s collusion with Hitler. The investigator — Harold Carter — had plenty of evidence that IBM was violating the Trading with the Enemy Act, but Watson had also so thoroughly supported the Allied war effort that he was unassailable within the US. We already have regulatory regimes with respect to safety: you can’t just obtain fissile material or make a bioweapon — it doesn’t matter if ChatGPT told you to do it or not. We should be unafraid to enforce existing laws. Believing that (say) Uber was wrong to illegally put their self-driving cars on the street does not make one a “decel” or whatever — it makes one a believer in the rule of law in a democratic society. That this sounds radical — that one might believe in a democracy that creates laws, affords companies economic freedom within those laws, and enforces those laws against companies that choose to violate them — says much about our divisive times.

And all of this brings us to the broadest lesson of IBM and the Holocaust: technological development is by its nature new — a lurch into the unknown and unexplored — but as I have discovered over and over again in my career, history has much to teach us. Even though the specifics of the technologies we work on may be without precedent, the humanity they serve to advance endures across generations; those who fret about the future would be well advised to learn from the past!

“It’s been worse for me than for you.” These extraordinary words came out of the mouth of John Fisher, incompetent owner of the Oakland Athletics, on the eve of getting approval from Major League Baseball to rip its roots out of the East Bay.

I have been reflecting a lot on these words. Strictly from a public relations point of view, they are gobsmackingly disrespectful, plumbing new depths of malpractice even for the worst ownership in sports. And of course, they are obviously wrong, as this clumsy move is worse for literally everyone else than it is for John Fisher. It is worse for the fans having their hearts ripped out; worse for the Oakland employees losing their jobs; worse for the many small businesses that make their livelihood on the team; worse for the players who have been told their entire athletic careers to take accountability only to be forced to watch in silence as their skinflint ownership takes none.

But there is a kind of truth to these words too, in that there are ways that it is worse for Fisher, for we have things that he cannot. Take, for example, the Reverse Boycott, the game on June 13th, 2023 when Oakland fans deliberately attended to show that we are, in fact, not the problem. Everything about that game was extraordinary: the energy was post-season electric as the worst-in-baseball A’s entered the game with a best-in-baseball win streak. The Coliseum was rocking, in a way that only the Coliseum can. Then, at the top of the 5th inning, the fans fell silent in protest of the move to Las Vegas. There was no plan beyond this; no one really knew what would happen when the silence ended. What happened next was spontaneous, straight from a shared heart that was breaking: a deafening chant, rolling and crashing over the stadium. “SELL! THE! TEAM! SELL! THE! TEAM!” (I accidentally recorded this; you can hear the emotion in my own voice — and that of my 11-year-old daughter next to me.) The game ended as only fiction would have it: with Trevor May striking out the best team in baseball to seal an improbable win for Oakland. The biggest surprise of the night was the sheer joy of it all: it was a New Orleans funeral for Oakland baseball, and we were glad to be there as a family. As I told my kids on the drive home, it was a night that they would one day tell their own grandchildren about.

How is it that a baseball game can conjure such emotion, let alone one from a losing franchise with a signed death warrant? Because, simply: sports are about much more than what’s on the field. Sports bring us together — they bind us across generation, disposition, and circumstance. A family that might agree on little else may shout in indignant agreement that that wasn’t pass interference or that he was obviously safe. They give us solidarity with one another: they give us stuff to believe in together, to celebrate together — and to grieve for together. In short, sports are the raw id of our own humanity. The Reverse Boycott distilled all of it into a single, singular night — binding us together in the kind of shared adversity that has always been the stuff of tribal legend.

And it is in this regard that John Fisher might be right: it is, in fact worse for him, because this shared humanity of sports eludes him. His camera roll is not filled with A’s-themed birthday parties, or of selfies with his kids in rally caps, or of toddlers running the bases late on a Sunday afternoon. It would be tempting to say that he instead sees sports as only a business, but even this gives him too much credit: the only business he knows is assuring the mechanics of inheritance — of hoarding the spoils of his birth. In this regard, he is at least passably capable: he took MLB at its word that it would cut off his welfare payments if he did not secure a stadium deal by January 2024, and dutifully secured a deal, however obviously disastrous. It’s worse for John Fisher because this has all been laid bare: the real cost of securing his allowance is that his ineptitude is no longer merely an open secret among beleaguered A’s fans — he is now MLB’s famous failson, the Connor Roy of professional sports.

Whatever success John Fisher may find in Las Vegas, he will not be able to outrun the wreckage he is leaving behind here in Oakland. In John Fisher’s obituary, it will not speak of what he built, but of what he broke; not of what he gave, but of what he took away. He will be a stain on his family, who will spend their lives trying to apologize for him. He himself will find that no amount of success will absolve him of the scar that he is leaving on the East Bay’s heart. And the much more likely scenario — abject commercial failure — will merely confirm for him his own nightmares: that he is exactly the klutz and dunce that he surely fears himself to be. And if John Fisher will always be searching for what he cannot get, we Oakland A’s fans will always have what cannot be taken away: our solidarity with — and love for — one another. We are raucous, brainy, creative, and eclectic; our lives are richer for having one another in them. John Fisher has none of this, and never will. As terrible as it is for us, it may indeed be worse for him.

One of the most persistent cycles in the history of computing is the oscillation between centralization and decentralization. This cycle becomes entrenched because each has distinct advantages and disadvantages: centralized solutions often yield better economies of scale, allowing for higher quality artifacts — but they can also easily become stifled, reluctant to innovate for fear of disrupting the good thing they have going for themselves. Decentralized ones, by contrast, can be a mess but they democratize innovation, where a “worse” solution by some metric is in fact vastly preferred because it is much better by another metric (e.g., cost or convenience).

With the collapse of Twitter, we are seeing this oscillation in spectacular fashion in a new domain: social networking. In our Oxide and Friends discussion with Kris Nóva, Nóva made the observation that the decentralization of the Fediverse allows for people to experiment with different ways of doing things by running their own instance — “the control and freedom to build your own community” — and that she particularly loved the influx of folks with large scale internet experience into the much smaller scale of running a Mastodon instance. This observation was a bit of an aha moment for me, because it made me realize the stunning resemblance that Mastodon bears to a much earlier revolution: the homebrew computing movement of the late 1970s.

Homebrew computing — as epitomized by the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley — consisted of hobbyists designing and assembling their own computers. But like Nóva and her fellow Hachydermians, these hobbyists were in fact experienced engineers; their “homebrew” was just them building for themselves, for fun. Yes, homebrew computing was fragmented and incoherent; the participants at the time were not possibly thinking that the machines that they developed would form the basis (for better and for ill!) for all future computing. But by the late 1970s, the time for radical decentralization of compute had indisputably arrived — and its spirit would burn so bright that it would endure long after the homebrew became commercial, as viscerally expressed in Apple’s iconic 1984 Superbowl ad.

So it is now with social networking, where centralization is frankly long past its “Disrupt By” date. The progression here now seems painfully clear in hindsight: advertising-based models demand engagement — and algorithms will naturally observe that when we are enraged, we stay engaged. If follows that when algorithms are promoting content that enrages us, the social network will — either implicitly or explicitly — select for those that are most divisive. Not only has this has encouraged us all to be more divisive (viz. “hot take” entering the lexicon), it has embraced people who are divisive to their core, elevating them to heights that frankly would have been impossible without centralized social networking. The net effect of all of this is that while we may find this engaging, we certainly don’t find it to be enjoyable: I (like many, I suspect) have resented the attention of mine that it has held — like an extraordinarily bad reality TV program that I can’t stop myself from bingewatching. So while it is tempting for us to look at the destruction of Twitter as a catalyzing event, in truth I think it’s merely an accelerant: the model has been broken for a long time, it’s just now being speedrun to the logical extreme. (I would also add that GenZ may have already figured this out — and that my own kids view the destruction of Twitter the way I might view a collapse of LinkedIn: with ironic detachment and some sense of disbelief that anyone could really care that much.)

What does homebrew decentralized social networking mean in practice? As he has so many times before, Tim Bray has an excellent piece on this. Part of what makes decentralized social networking so appealing is that there is no algorithm deciding engagement. Rather, the stuff that’s promoted — boosted, in Mastodon’s parlance — comes purely from folks that you follow. That is, you only see a strict timeline. The effects of this are both surprising and refreshing. I have said that it’s harder for things to go viral on Mastodon, but my own experience is in fact more nuanced: things can go viral because boosting is a lighter operation that retweeting — and when they do go, they seem to go further and longer. Take, for example, Tim’s post on his blog entry: as I write this, that has 295 favorites and 595 boosts. Tim has 7.1K followers on Mastodon; you would never see numbers like that on Twitter, where likes will essentially always dwarf retweets.

All of this points to an even larger decentralization: that of the social networks themselves. In the last few years, some began looking at the ratio of their followers to the number that they follow, seeking to maximize it as a show of social dominance. If it needs to be said, there is a really easy way to do this: just unfollow everyone! This act feels innocent (if juvenile), but it is in fact deeply isolating: it is opting to be fed exclusively by the algorithm, losing any tether to genuine social connection. It is perhaps unsurprising that the people that I saw do this rapidly descended into dark, bizarre thinking, where they saw the world as increasingly conspiratorial and contentious. Being stingy with follows also nullifies one of the important values of social networking: hearing entirely new voices. Speaking for myself personally, this was especially important after #MeToo in 2017 and George Floyd in 2020, when new people that I followed elevated yet more voices that needed to be heard, leading to more new follows — and more new voices in a virtuous cycle. In decentralized social networking, this virtue is elevated, if by default: there is no algorithm, so if you insist on following no one, you will see… nothing. (As my mother was fond of saying when I found an empty mailbox as a kid: “If you want to receive a letter, you need to send a letter!”) There is something beautiful in this, and I would like to believe that a world in which people need to simply follow more people — to listen more! — will foster more temperance and less divisiveness. (And perhaps even the occasional apology?)

All of this brings us back to another point that Nóva made: “any large change has been uncomfortable and unexpected.” This was true of the homebrew computing movement where, important as these machines historically were, they were not easy to use! We can expect some discomfort in our future, but we can also expect fruitful experimentation — and surely some important interactions that centralized social networking never would have allowed!

Finally, a programming note: Adam and I were early adopters of Twitter Spaces, turning it into our Oxide and Friends podcast. We, like Tim, are leaving, and will be moving to Discord. Fittingly, for our first Discord recording tomorrow (Monday November 28th, 5p Pacific), we will be joined by Tim to get his perspective; join us!

I, like many people, have a complicated relationship with Twitter. As Adam and I regaled in a recent Twitter Space, it started when debugging the Twitter fail whale in the offices of Obvious in 2007, where I became thoroughly unimpressed with their self-important skipper, Jack Dorsey. In part because I thought he was such a fool, I refused to join Twitter out of principle.

That changed when after I left Sun, and — acknowledging Twitter’s importance — I passively/aggressively created an account. I quickly learned to appreciate it: for example, at conferences (RIP, #surgecon), live tweets brought an important new element to technical presentations. After giving a talk, you could read feedback in real-time! While there was the occasional nasty remark, I found most of this engagement to be really valuable: because the people who had tweeted feedback on your talk were in the room, they tended to be pretty civil, and if they didn’t have anything nice to say, they didn’t say anything at all. (A reserve seldom summoned for YouTube comments, which turned into a hellhole.) And as an attendee of a talk, it remains fun to tweet the bits that really resonate — which I did as recently as a month ago during Rachel Stephens’s terrific talk at Monktoberfest.

When we started Oxide, Twitter was our marketing department: @oxidecomputer is how we have connected with all sorts of communities — technologists, fans, and future customers alike. It’s been fun to offer up some swag and especially gratifying to watch others discover what we’ve built!

And then came social audio. The Twitter Space that we started as a loony experiment that I talked Adam into has proved really important for Oxide: we have turned it into our Oxide and Friends podcast, which has allowed for some incredible discussions. With Spaces, Twitter felt fresh again: the Spaces team was really thoughtful (especially given that we were so frequently complaining about it!), and it was clear that the product just meant a lot to them — that they saw the same promise that we did. Twitter was flawed, of course, but things seemed to be generally headed in the right direction…

But then, Musk. It’s a tribute to the platform that the first place I wanted to discuss the takeover of Twitter was on the platform itself, and I started an impromptu space on Twitter’s fate. As I write this, that discussion was only a little over a week ago — but it sounds like it’s from another era: we were wildly off the mark about how much damage would be done in just a week!

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising, but Musk has absolutely no idea what he’s doing, having screwed up the most basic element of the business: he doesn’t even know who the customer is! (It’s, um, the ad buyer, stupid.) Instead of doing what any sane new CEO of a troubled entity would do (namely, determining what changes need to be made by spending a bunch of time listening to customers, users, and employees — and then carefully plotting and executing those changes) he seems to be just… making it up as he’s going along. (Who knew that Stephen King is such an effective price negotiator?!) Maybe this would work where customers don’t have a choice or are locked into long contracts, but that isn’t the case here: customers can walk immediately. And advertisers themselves don’t want to be anywhere near controversy, which is why — as Josh Marshall points out — the Drudge Report never had mainstream advertisers, despite having plenty of eyeballs on it. Add to this that Twitter isn’t essential for advertisers and that the macroeconomic environment sucks, and it’s very easy to see how ad buyers would take a wait-and-see approach — reticence which, in the instant world of ad buys, means an immediate decline in revenue.

It’s bad enough that Musk seemed to be surprised by this, but what happened next is truly next-level in terms of executive incompetence: he reacted to the revenue drop by threatening those that are reducing their spend! (Does it need to be said that menacing customers who choose to buy less from you doesn’t really work in a free economy?) And as if this fecal pie were wanting for a topping, there is a fetid cherry on top: deep, bungled layoffs. Even if Musk could plot a path out of this self-inflicted disaster, he will likely lack the team and know-how to do it quickly enough to make a difference for controversy-adverse advertisers.

So it feels like we are at or near a tipping point. I will date myself here, but I am reminded of the extraordinary days leading up to November 9, 1989. Something that had seemed important but small — the opening of the Austrian-Hungarian border in August — led to a chain reaction of change, with each day seeing a larger change than the one preceding it, until it finally reached an unfathomable crescendo: the wall fell. If this predates you this may be hard to appreciate, but no one ever thought the wall would come down, let alone that Germany would reunify. For me personally, it was an early lesson in the dynamics of change: yes, the status quo can maintain itself for a very, very long time — but when change finally arrives, it can happen faster than anyone would have thought possible.

For Twitter, the wall is about to come down: the world is going to change — and it’s not going to change back. I keep wondering about “what is going to replace Twitter”, but I am increasingly of the belief that this is the wrong question, that no single thing is going to replace Twitter. That is, Twitter as an idea — a single social platform catering to all demographics and uses — will become like the evening nightly news or the morning newspaper: a relic from a bygone era. Instead, we will find different venues for different kinds of interaction: where there was one social network, there will be several, if not many — and not all will be open to everyone. Why am I confident about this coming fracturing? Because my kids — ages 18, 15 and 10 — think that this is just stupidly obvious. (As my 10-year-old daughter is fond of saying: “Duh, DAD!”)

So there will be a replacement for social audio (we will gladly pay for a quality service here!), and there will be a replacement for brands building their community, and there will be a replacement for those who want to shitpost or those that just want to engage with folks with similar interests — and they may or may not have overlap. But all of this still leaves me looking for something to replace that personal connection with people I have known over Twitter…

Like others, I created a Mastodon account in early 2017, but (frankly, like others) hadn’t used it really until this past week. And after a week… I like it! Yes, the Fediverse is different: it isn’t trying to glue your eyeballs to the screen, and it’s harder for things to go viral. There is less media, fewer memes, no advertising. And there are humans explicitly in the loop: Mastodon instances are moderated on an instance-by-instance basis — and should an instance descend into a hellscape, it may find itself defederated. But because of all of this, there is also less opportunism, less trolling, less dunking on your enemies, less nastiness. So it also feels more relaxing, more earnest — and easier to put down. It feels a little civic, like BBSs back in the day. It also feels raw, like Twitter did, years ago. And a good reminder that so much about Twitter — the retweet, the quote tweet, the tweetstorm — was invented by its users. So no, Mastodon isn’t the replacement for Twitter, but that’s a good thing, and I intend to be diverting my energies there.

While I won’t be using it as much, I will still be on Twitter, and it will still be around — but I don’t see how this embodiment makes it as a going concern. Musk will surely tire of it, and thanks to the debt that Musk has heaped upon it, it will go bankrupt. And then, like Friendster before it, it will probably be kicked around, bought and sold a few times, before it finally lands as a SlideShare-like ghost town, where you need to watch a 15 second ad before every dril tweet.

In the meantime, you can find me on Mastodon as See you in the Fediverse — or wherever the new world finds us!

As a kid, I listened to a lot of talk radio. This was in the 80s, before the internet — and before the AM dial became fringe. I have fond memories of falling asleep to the likes of Bruce Williams who just gave damned good, level-headed advice. It was, at essence, both optimistic and temperate: a cool head to help people work through a tough spot.

Nothing really replaced the call-in show: talk radio devolved into poisonous echo chambers, while social networking gave people other outlets (too many!) to have conversations. But these online conversations — the written word — lack something: Twitter’s tight form gives us the hot take, blogs (ahem!) give us the longer form, but it both cases, the conversations that result seem to either lose their sizzle or go thermonuclear. Video is really great for some stuff (I have spoken about the rise of video and the preservation of oral tradition in software engineering) — but the discussion quality there is even worse. (When did YouTube comments become such a hellhole?!) And of course, TikTok has given us social, short-form video, which can be very entertaining, but isn’t really designed to induce any meaningful discussion.

And of course, I love podcasts, and one of the reasons I was excited to start a company was to get an excuse to make the podcast that we ourselves always wanted. Podcasts are particularly great because you can do something else while listening to them: they fill in that time when you’re doing the dishes or picking up the kids or whatever. But podcasts obviously miss the interactivity entirely. (Or mostly: let us not so quickly forget TWiV reading my letter on-air!)

Into all of this, enter Clubhouse and the rise of social audio. I had immediate Bruce Williams flashbacks, and was excited to participate. But my choice of device makes me unwelcome in Clubhouse’s eyes: their lack of an Android app is clearly not a mere temporary gap, but rather a deliberate deprioritization. (I certainly honor a young company’s need to focus, but how else can one describe an exceedingly well-capitalized company adding in-app payments before addressing 75% of the market?!) To me, the deprioritization of Android reflects Clubhouse’s deeper problem: it is fundamentally elitist and exclusionary. Avid Clubhouse users may claim that this was not always so, but it says it right there on the tin: it is, at the end of the day, a clubhouse — not a cafe or a town square. I personally have no interest in participating in venues that deliberately limit the participants: I want to engage with the broadest possible cross-section, not some subset that has been manicured by circumstance or technology choice. (For this same reason, I do not give talks unless the talk will be recorded and made freely available.)

Given all of this, you can imagine my enthusiasm for Twitter Spaces: it captures the promise that I see in the medium — but addresses many of the problems with Clubhouse’s implementation. I have been participating in them for the past few weeks and (excitingly!) found last week that I have the ability to create Spaces. Here are my takeaways so far:

  • This is an even bigger deal than I thought it was. All of the strengths that I perceived in the medium seem to be even stronger than I thought they would be, and in particular — as with podcasts — I can have a conversation while I do something else. It is really nice to have social networking time after which one looks back at a clean kitchen or a prepared meal!

  • Spaces have broadened the people I follow. In every Space I have been in, I have come away following someone new. I find one of the most interesting aspects of Twitter to be able to be a part of conversations and social circles that broaden our perspectives (socially, technically, or otherwise) — and Spaces takes this to a new level: I find that I’m following people based on a comment that they make that I wouldn’t otherwise see in the din of my feed.

  • Spaces have felt very playful. In so many ways, this reminds me of early social networking circa 2003 — or of first getting online a decade prior. It just feels new, and fresh, and… fun! For example, I was in one space where a security researcher that I revere was with their crew, all trying to find ways to hack the captioning. (They made some interesting discoveries: because the captioning is done locally, they can actually reveal more about you than what you actually say!) I was more or less laughing the whole time; it was delightful.

  • The content is golden. If I have one complaint about Spaces, it’s that they aren’t publicly recorded — because there’s some great content here! I am hoping that this gets added over time (obviously, opt-in and clear to all participants!), because speaking personally, I want to go back and listen to an awesome Space that I might have missed — and I want others to be able to do the same with any Space that I host.

  • People have been really nice! Okay, this is a little one, but I think an essential one: in every Space I’ve been in, the people have just been incredibly friendly and welcoming. One of the challenges of the written word is that it’s too easy to be nasty: our mirror neurons don’t fire when our damage is inflicted at a distance. (Take it from the guy still trying to apologize for a Usenet comment from several decades ago!) While it’s still obviously very early for Twitter Spaces, being in a spoken conversation makes us much more predisposed to empathy — and I’m optimistic that the medium will retain the decency that we have lost elsewhere, allowing us a venue to listen to and learn from other perspectives. I also really like Twitter’s emphasis on safety — and I’m hopeful that the inevitable bad behavior that does crop up is taken care of pretty quickly.

  • Clubhouse is in trouble. I have been in a couple of Spaces where Clubhouse comes up (indeed, one of the Spaces I was in was a security researcher reporting how poorly Clubhouse handled a pretty serious safety issue that she had found), and in all of those conversations, the tenor is more or less the same: there was a brief moment last summer (especially, post George Floyd) when Clubhouse felt really important — profound, even — but their poor execution since has driven people away. In this regard, my early social networking metaphor may be apt in more ways than one: Clubhouse feels like Friendster. And just as Friendster hit on something huge (social networking!) for the wrong reasons (the founder’s desire to find dates!), Clubhouse’s focus on listening to famous people feels misplaced. (Speaking for myself, I am looking for conversations, not outtakes of Behind the Music.)

  • Hosting has been rewarding. So far, I have hosted one Space, convincing Adam to join me so I wouldn’t die alone. I think it’s fair to say that Adam was somewhat skeptical going in, but came out seeing promise in the medium. For example, one participant was dialing in from central Asia (where it was 4a!), and we ended up in a discussion on how insulated kids can become from the underlying mechanics of how computers actually work. He decribed that growing up needing to rely on second-hand computers was an essential part of his own technical education — that having less made him need to understand more. It was a moment that had everyone reflecting, and I’m honestly not sure how else that little interaction would have happened.

All in all, very positive and promising! Of course, there are still lots of things to stub your toe on; this is still new, after all, and lots of stuff doesn’t work quite right. And there’s also a lot to be figured out by those of us who will use the medium (reminder: retweets were invented by users, not by Twitter!). For my part from a hosting perspective, I am going to take some inspiration from talk radio and experiment with both regularity and time-bounds: Adam and I are going to host a Space again tomorrow (Monday) at 5p Pacific, keeping it again to about an hour. (We appear to be aided in our time bounds last week by a memory leak that caused my app to abort after about an hour!) So if you’re interested, drop on by — we’d love to hear what you have to say, which indeed is very much the whole point!

Compensation: the word alone is enough to trigger a fight-or-flight reaction in many. But we in technology have the good fortune of being in a well-compensated domain, so why does this issue induce such anxiety when our basic needs are clearly covered? If it needs to be said, it’s because compensation isn’t merely about the currency we redeem in exchange for our labors, but rather it is a proxy for how we are valued in a larger organization. This, in turn, brings us to our largest possible questions for ourselves, around things like meaning and self-worth.

So when we started Oxide — as in any new endeavor — compensation was an issue we had to deal with directly. First, there was the thorny issue of how we founders would compensate ourselves. Then, of course, came the team we wished to hire: hybrid local and remote, largely experienced to start (on account of Oxide’s outrageously ambitious mission), and coming from a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences. How would we pay people in different geographies? How could we responsibly recruit experienced folks, many of whom have families and other financial obligations that can’t be addressed with stock options? How could we avoid bringing people’s compensation history — often a reflection of race, gender, class, and other factors rather than capability — with them?

We decided to do something outlandishly simple: take the salary that Steve, Jess, and I were going to pay ourselves, and pay that to everyone. The three of us live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Steve and I each have three kids; we knew that the dollar figure that would allow us to live without financial distress — which we put at $175,000 a year — would be at least universally adequate for the team we wanted to build. And we mean everyone literally: as of this writing we have 23 employees, and that’s what we all make.

Now, because compensation is the hottest of all hot buttons, it can be fairly expected that many people will have a reaction to this. Assuming you’ve made it to this sentence it means you are not already lighting us up in your local comments section (thank you!), and I want to promise in return that we know some likely objections, and we’ll address those. But before we do, we want to talk about the benefits of transparent uniform compensation, because they are, in a word, profound.

Broadly, our compensation model embodies our mission, principles, and values. First and foremost, we believe that our compensation model reflects our principles of honesty, integrity, and decency. To flip it around: sadly, we have seen extant comp structures in the industry become breeding grounds for dishonesty, deceit, and indecency. Beyond our principles, our comp model is a tangible expression of several of our values in particular:

  • It has set the tone with respect to teamwork. In my experience, the need to “quantify” one’s performance in exchange for justifying changes to individual compensation are at the root of much of what’s wrong in the tech industry. Instead of incentivizing people to achieve together as a team, they are incentivized to advance themselves — usually with sophisticated-sounding jargon like OKRs or MBOs, or perhaps reasonable-sounding (but ultimately misguided) mantras like “measure everything.” Even at their very best, these individual incentives represent a drag on a team, as their infrequent calibration can prevent a team from a necessary change in its direction. And at worst, they leave individuals perversely incentivized and operating in direct opposition to the team’s best interest. When comp is taken out of the picture, everyone can just focus on what we need to focus on: getting this outlandish thing built, and loving and serving the customers who are taking a chance on it.

  • It is an expression of our empathy. Our approach to compensation reflects our belief in treating other people the way that we ourselves want to be treated. There are several different dimensions for this, but one is particularly visceral: because we have not talked about this publicly, candidates who have applied to Oxide have done so assuming that we have a traditional comp model, and have braced themselves for the combat of a salary negotiation. But we have spoken about it relatively upfront with candidates (before they talk to the team, for example), and (as the one who has often had this discussion) the relief is often palpable. As one recent candidate phrased it to me: “if I had known about this earlier, I wouldn’t have wasted time stressing out about it!”

  • It is (obviously?) proof-positive of our transparency. Transparency is essential for building trust, itself one of the most important elements of doing something bold together. One of the interesting pieces of advice we got early on from someone who has had outsized, repeated success: modulo private personnel meetings, make sure that every meeting is open to everyone. For those accustomed to more opaque environments, our level of transparency can be refreshing: for example, new Oxide employees have been pleasantly surprised that we always go through our board decks with everyone — but we can’t imagine doing it any other way. Transparent compensation takes this to an unusual (but not unprecedented) extreme, and we have found it to underscore how seriously we take transparency in general.

  • It has allowed whole new levels of candor. When everyone can talk about their salary, other things become easier to discuss directly. This candor is in all directions; without comp to worry about, we can all be candid with respect to our own struggles — which in turn allows us to address them directly. And we can be candid too when giving public positive feedback; we don’t need to be afraid that by calling attention to someone’s progress, someone else will feel shorted.

These are (some of!) the overwhelming positives; what about those objections?

  • Some will say that this salary is too low. While cash compensation gets exaggerated all of the time, it’s unquestionable that salaries in our privileged domain have gotten much higher than our $175,000 (and indeed, many at Oxide have taken a cut in pay to work here). But it’s also true that $175,000 per year puts us each in the top 5% of US individual earners — and it certainly puts a roof over our families’ heads and food in their bellies. Put more viscerally: this is enough to not fret when your kids toss the organic raspberries into the shopping cart — or when they devour them before you’ve managed to get the grocery bags out of the car! And speaking of those families: nothing is more anxiety-producing than having a healthcare issue compounded by financial distress due to inadequate insurance; Oxide not only offers the best healthcare plans we could find, but we also pay 100% of monthly premiums — a significant benefit for those with dependents.

  • Some will say that we should be paying people differently based on different geographical locations. I know there are thoughtful people who pay folks differently based on their zip code, but (respectfully), we disagree with this approach. Companies spin this by explaining they are merely paying people based on their cost of living, but this is absurd: do we increase someone’s salary when their spouse loses their job or when their kid goes to college? Do we slash it when they inherit money from their deceased parent or move in with someone? The answer to all of these is no, of course not: we pay people based on their work, not their costs. The truth is that companies pay people less in other geographies for a simple reason: because they can. We at Oxide just don’t agree with this; we pay people the same regardless of where they pick up their mail.

  • Some will say that this doesn’t scale. This is, at some level, surely correct: it’s hard to envision a multi-thousand employee Oxide where everyone makes the same salary — but it has also been (rightly) said that startups should do things that don’t scale. And while it seems true that the uniformity won’t necessarily scale, we believe that the values behind it very much will!

  • Some will say that this makes us unlikely to hire folks just starting out in their career. There is truth to this too, but the nature of our problem at Oxide (namely, technically very broad and very deep), the size of our team (very small), and the stage of our company (still pretty early!) already means that engineers at the earliest stages of their career are unlikely to be a fit for us right now. That said, we don’t think this is impossible; and if we felt that we had someone much earlier in their career who was a fit — that is, if we saw them contributing to the company as much as anyone else — why wouldn’t we reflect that by paying them the same as everyone else?

  • Some will say that this narrows the kind of roles that we can hire for. In particular, different roles can have very different comp models (sales often has a significant commission component in exchange for a lower base, for example). There is truth to this too — but for the moment we’re going to put this in the “but-this-can’t-scale” bucket.

  • Some will say that this doesn’t offer a career ladder. Uniform compensation causes us to ask some deeper questions: namely, what is a career ladder, anyway? To me, the true objective for all of us should be to always be taking on new challenges — to be unafraid to learn and develop. I have found traditional ladders to not serve these ends particularly well, because they focus us on competition rather than collaboration. By eliminating the rung of compensation, we can put the focus on career development where it belongs: on supporting one another in our self-improvement, and working together to do things that are beyond any one of us.

  • Some will say that we should be talking about equity, not cash compensation. While it’s true that startup equity is important, it’s also true that startup equity doesn’t pay the orthodontist’s bill or get the basement repainted. We believe that every employee should have equity to give them a stake in the company’s future (and that an outsized return for investors should also be an outsized return for employees), but we also believe that the presence of equity can’t be used as an excuse for unsustainably low cash compensation. As for how equity is determined, it really deserves its own in-depth treatment, but in short, equity compensates for risk — and in a startup, risk reduces over time: the first employee takes much more risk than the hundredth.

Of these objections, several are of the ilk that this cannot endure at arbitrary scale. This may be true — our compensation may well not be uniform in perpetuity — but we believe wholeheartedly that our values will endure. So if and when the uniformity of our compensation needs to change, we fully expect that it will remain transparent — and that we as a team will discuss it candidly and empathetically. In this regard, we take inspiration from companies that have pioneered transparent compensation. It is very interesting to, for example, look at how Buffer’s compensation has changed over the years. Their approach is different from ours in the specifics, but they are a kindred spirit with respect to underlying values — and their success with transparent compensation gives us confidence that, whatever changes must come with time, we will be able to accommodate them without sacrificing what is important to us!

Finally, a modest correction. The $175,000 isn’t quite true — or at least not anymore. I had forgotten that when we did our initial planning, we had budgeted modest comp increases after the first year, so it turns out, we all got a raise to $180,250 in December! I didn’t know it was coming (and nor did anyone else); Steve just announced it in the All Hands: no three-hundred-and-sixty degree reviews, no stack ranking, no OKRs, no skip-levels, no numerical grades — just a few more organic raspberries in everyone’s shopping basket. Never has a change in compensation felt so universally positive!

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