Playing with Negative Space

Hearts, stars, and trumpets: the things I “favorite” but don’t “like”

Twitter recently changed "favorites" to "likes".

We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, especially to newcomers. You might like a lot of things, but not everything can be your favorite.

It's true - not everything can be my favorite. For me, there are three categories for tweets I "favorited": tweets talking about something I like, tweets about something important, and tweets that make me want to offer the author support. I probably didn't favorite anywhere near all of the tweets that talked about something I liked, but I find there's only so many times I'm interested in actively clicking to like a gif of a cat rolling around.

The other two categories - tweets that are about something important and tweets that make me want to offer the author support - are not always things I categorize as things I "like". In fact, the ones that I think are most important to favorite are definitely not things I like, such as commentary on Sandra Bland's death or a friend struggling with her workplace's sexism.

By favoriting, I could help highlight something important, especially since favorites/likes are one of the "engagements" that influence Twitter's "While you were away" selections, and I could highlight anything I found important, not just the easier topics I found "like"able. There are a lot of important stories I want to tell that social media algorithms overlook because they are not "like"able, and in my circles, Twitter was one of the places that was less affected than average by this phenomenon. By favoriting, I could increment a counter. That counter makes it easier for the author to see that myself and 54 other people found their thoughts important and supported them. As the type of person who can internalize metrics better than scattered - though thoughtful and appreciated - notes, I can attest to the positive impact a high (or even just non-zero) favorite count can have. By favoriting, I could express support with a mere click. I enjoyed being able to provide that support when I didn't have the energy to do more than that or couldn't find the time to phrase my support correctly, and I felt a little bit better when friends did the same for me. These nuances are lost when I have to "heart" someone's comments instead of "star" them.

More granularity for our reactions can be helpful. Slack employs a very liberal "do whatever you want with an emoji" reaction, and thanks to Emily Price's creativity, my favorite channel - XOXO's #ladies - uses the trumpet emoji to express emotional support. It works well because we've agreed that "the emotional support trumpet" is sounding our support and because we also agree that we do not need to say anything more to show meaningful support. This is awesome beacuse it's much easier to give support when you don't have to turn often complex feelings into words first. I feel intrinsically empowered to give emotional support trumpets to others, and I feel warm and fuzzy when I receive emotional support trumpets, too.

Maybe adding something like the emotional support trumpet to Twitter's responses could replace the support usage of "favorite"; maybe adding another different thing could replace using "favorite" to highlight something important. But that's just covering how I used the less specific "favorite" where I won't use "like". With an audience as large as Twitter's, we might not even be able agree on a finite set of specific reactions. Whatever the next steps, I miss "favorite" a lot and feel like we've lost something important.


The “doing good” framework: a manifesto against saying “good people” and “bad people”

I remember the first time I reflected on "doing good": I was watching the final scene of a sitcom I grew up with, Boy Meets World. The main characters, who've now come of age, speak with the teacher that has been with them through every phase of their educations and lives:

Mr. Feeny: Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.
Topanga: Don't you mean "do well"?
Mr. Feeny: No, I mean "do good".

It's the kind of scene that sticks with you after years of investment in a show. I cried. (And I cried again when I rewatched the scene to write about it.)

A few lines later, Eric tells Mr. Feeny how because of him, he's going to be a "good person who cares about people". At the time, this felt like the pinnacle of personal goals. And in a way, it still is.

But when Eric says he wants to be a "good person who cares about people", I think he actually means he wants to be a person who cares for people by doing good. When Mr. Feeny says "do good", he's referring to caring about people as an action, not an idea. This distinction is important because there are many fallacies in framing people as "good people" and "bad people".

When we call someone a "good person", we tend to idolize them. The overly simplistic model of the "good person" only allows them to do good things, so when they inevitably do harm - we all make mistakes - we either need to categorize them as a "bad person" or to ignore their harmful actions so they can remain a "good person". Since we usually don't want them to turn into an unredeemable "bad person", we often give their harmful actions a free pass. It's important that they are able to address those actions, but the "good person" framework does not give them that space to do so. We need a framework that encourages owning up to their mistakes as a way to do good, especially when they try to repair the harm they caused and also do better in future related situations. Also, when we aren't able to give constructive criticism because it is automatically considered an attack on someone's character, society doesn't have the room to address harmful incidents to improve.

Additionally, deeming someone a "bad person" partially relieves them of responsibility for their actions because their "bad" nature means the only thing they can do is harm. When evaluating someone who repeatedly does harm within a framework centered on actions, we have the space to talk with that person about their harmful actions and how they can repair their negative effects. A framework centered on actions also more readily allows good actions to influence how we view them - if we see someone make changes to do good, we know we can expect them to do good and improve, instead of writing them off as a bad person.

We need a different way to frame people. Enter the "doing good" framework.

The "doing good" framework involves praising people for their actions instead of for their supposed nature as a "good person".

The "doing good" framework holds people accountable for their actions; "good intentions" don't count in this system. Having good intentions doesn't absolve someone of the harm they've done, but people who truly have good intentions are the people who admit they did harm and work to repair the harmful results of their actions. They also learn from their mistakes to align future actions with their good intentions.

The "doing good" framework allows for reform. Someone doing good who mistakenly does harm will not automatically be deemed terrible forever, and someone doing harm has the ability to start doing good and to be recognized for those good actions.

The "doing good" framework can account for circumstance because it doesn't operate in absolutes. If someone cannot do good in a particular situation, there are no actions, good or harmful, that contribute to that person’s status under the "doing good" framework. While it is very important to evaluate if acting threatens your safety, people are usually able to do good in more places than they think they can, and inaction can be harmful.

The "doing good" framework allows for society to more carefully reflect on which behaviors it should and should not tolerate. Looking at someone's actions instead of focusing on some concept of character allows us to closely examine how harmful actions negatively affect us. We can then improve by mitigating those effects and working to prevent that harm in the future.

The "doing good" framework does not erase an individual's complicity in systemic problems like racism and sexism. Recognizing an individual's contribution to fighting racism, sexism, etc. encourages others to help eliminate those injustices, and calling out someone's behavior that perpetuates inequality encourages us to take helpful actions instead of harmful ones. However, everyone lives within our racist system, our sexist system, our classist system, etc. and the "doing good" framework still allows us to talk about how some of us benefit from that system and how we can do our part to stop perpetuating them without having to label anyone who benefits as a "bad person".

The benefits of the "doing good" framework have a lot of potential to improve our discourse and our society, and I'm excited to live in a world where those improvements will help us not just "do well" at being good people and instead "do good".

Thanks to Dan Kaminsky for the discussion that inspired this post and to Geoffrey Thomas and Jacky Chang for reading my drafts.


Leave icebreakers to strangers, or how to spin friends and introduce people

My favorite way to meet new people is through my existing set of friends. There are many benefits, the obvious one being that my friends tend to have great taste in people.

But I'm also at least a little bit awkward. Despite consciously thinking about asking thoughtful versions of default questions when I don't have a good starting point, I still get nervous when I don't know if what I'm saying will interest the person I'm meeting. While I don't think that friendship is transitive, starting off on topics that don't interest both parties can cause people to miss out on what could otherwise become a good conversation or even a lasting connection.

If you're introducing your friends to each other, try to suggest something they'd all enjoy discussing.

Sometimes, there's something specific and convenient to talk about:

  • "Liz studies voice; she loves singing opera and operettas. You mentioned you saw Falstaff a few weeks ago?"
  • "Both of you enjoy cooking. Liz, I know you spend most of your time in the kitchen with a Dutch oven, but have you tried pressure cooking yet? Karen made amazing pressure cooker oxtail last week."
  • "You and Geoffrey are both passionate about open-source software. Geoffrey worked on providing software for MIT's computing systems via Debian packages and repos; I think you've submitted patches to some of the packages he's worked with."

Other times, there might not be something precise, but you can still find common ground:

  • "I think you've both mentioned liking classical music."
  • "You and Karen both studied computer science in college."
  • "Geoffrey's been working out of coffee shops lately. I know you have a favorite coffee shop, but forget what it is."¹

If you can't think of something they have in common on the spot, mention something you find interesting about each of them.

Though you don't have to say something about everyone in the same breath - you want to leave spaces for the conversation to expand. If it looks like people are clicking, you might even get away with only introducing one person!

  • "Liz and I traveled to Sweden earlier this year, and we stayed in a treehouse."
  • "Karen started powerlifting a couple years ago."
  • "Geoffrey and I are members of a church choir and sing a lot of Bach."

If you are meeting someone without the person who brought you, ask "How do you know people here?"

I love this question because I don't have to think too hard about what I'm going to say; I already know how I met my friends. Questions with obvious answers relieve some of the pressure around introducing yourself.

¹Pun wasn't intended about coffee shops and common ground, but then I decided I liked it. Sorry not sorry.


Revised icebreakers for nicer New Yorkers

You go to a friend's party, attend a work event, or just find yourself out and about. You meet someone new, and you're inevitably asking and being asked three questions:

  • Where do you work?
  • Where do you live?
  • How much is your rent?

Okay, you don't always encounter that last one, especially outside of NYC, but there's a sinking spidey-sense when it's about to pop because you've run out of places to go with the other two.

Let's ditch that template for these improved icebreakers.

What have you been up to?

Work is a weird topic because not everyone loves their job at any given moment or generally feels like it's their main identity. If it is, they still can discuss it in response, but this question invites a much wider range of topics than asking about work directly. If they have something more relevant to talk about at the time, or just something they think will be more interesting to you, they can talk about that instead.

What's something you love about your neighborhood?

This opens the conversation up to so many more possibilities than "Where do you live?" and even covers that information along the way anyway! If there's not a natural lead towards this question, you can talk about how cool it is that there are so many different neighborhoods where you live and so much to explore.

If you find yourself in their neighborhood later, you can check it out! Maybe, if the conversation goes well and you want to get to know them better, you can suggest what they mentioned as a thing for you to do together.

I deliberately worded this as "What's something you love about your neighborhood?" instead of "What is your favorite thing about your neighborhood?" because trying to pick out your favorite can be overwhelming on the spot and the easiest beloved thing to talk about might not be that anyway.

Don't talk about rent.

Just don't. It's awkward, but more importantly, it's rude.

Talk about all the nifty things you just learned about them instead.


Uber’s robocall blitz to NYC landlines

Uber was robocalling me about Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to place a cap on the number of vehicles they could operate in New York City. Uber has robocalled my home phone number - not the mobile number they have on file for me - four times to ask me to lobby on their behalf. This number has never been tied to my Uber account, so I asked them about the calls on Twitter.

(At the time, I had forgotten that I took an Uber last November with friends while traveling in San Francisco.)

I followed up with Uber over email a few minutes later at 10:08 am on Wednesday, July 22 to ask where they got my number:

Date: Wed, 22 Jul 2015 14:08:55 +0000
Subject: Stop calling my number
From: "Liz A. Denys"

Hi Uber -

You have been robocalling my *non-published* phone number*, [number elided], to talk about De Blasio's changes to NYC livery rules. I do not wish to be contacted by you by phone, especially at a number that is not even tied to my Uber account. Further, I have not used your service under any definition of recently (Nov 2013 was the last time), so you should be respecting my number's entry in the do not call list.

If you'd like to give me information about how you obtained this number and why it was included in your business calls, I'd like to know.

*I verified this last night with my provider.

-Elizabeth Denys

Uber responded three days later:

Date: Sat, 25 Jul 2015 18:16:35 +0000
From: "Josh from Uber (Uber Support)"
Reply-To: Uber Support
To: "Liz A. Denys"
Subject: [Uber] Re: Stop calling my number

Hi Elizabeth,

Josh here, Uber Support. Thanks for reaching out.

Sorry to hear about these unrequested phone calls. It looks like there is another Uber account (not in your name) that has registered this phone number. In order for me to remove this phone number from the account that's using it, I will have to verify that this number is in your possession. This can be most efficiently done by sending in a screenshot that shows your full phone number (most often found in the settings section of your phone). After that, you should no longer receive this type of communication from us.

Again - I apologize for any inconvenience. I am happy to help if you have any other questions.

All the best,
Josh from Uber

I had been curious to hear how Uber had found a number that shouldn't have been available, but apparently, Uber believes that someone else signed up with my number! This is interesting, because Uber uses your mobile number and you have to confirm your mobile number over SMS. Last I checked, my landline couldn't do that.

Wondering how to get my landline out of their system, I replied:

Date: Sat, 25 Jul 2015 23:24:42 +0000
Subject: Re: [Uber] Re: Stop calling my number
From: "Liz A. Denys"
To: Uber Support

Hi Josh and Uber Support,

This number is not a cell phone, but a landline; there is nowhere to take a screen shot. How should I proceed?


Uber was nonplussed that I have a landline¹:

Date: Sat, 25 Jul 2015 23:40:57 +0000
From: "Josh from Uber (Uber Support)"
Reply-To: Uber Support
To: "Liz A. Denys"
Subject: [Uber] Re: Stop calling my number

Hey Liz,

What an odd situation! I have removed this number from the account in question, regardless, so you should no longer be receiving those phone calls. Please reach out if you experience any further issues.

All the best,
Josh from Uber

I was happy that Uber probably wouldn't call my number again, but that still doesn't explain something else about their calls - that they knew I lived in Stephen Levin's district. (He sponsored the bill against Uber.) I reached out again:

Date: Sun, 26 Jul 2015 01:47:09 +0000
Subject: Re: [Uber] Re: Stop calling my number
From: "Liz A. Denys"
To: Uber Support

Hi Josh and Uber Support -

It does seem a little odd to me that someone was using my number for Uber since Uber needs a mobile phone number, not a landline, right?

I'm also curious how your voice messages knew that I lived in Brooklyn, if it wasn't tied to my account. I was even more confused that Uber's voice messages mentioned that I specifically live a district with a council member sponsoring the bill in NYC Uber was concerned about. (I assume you are referring to my council member Stephen Levin?)

Do you have any more information on this matter?


Uber has yet to get back to me.

I personally know other New Yorkers who have received calls from Uber at their landlines about the bill - including some who have never even created an Uber account or stepped into an Uber vehicle.

These are the voice messages Uber left me. I've added the dates and phone numbers from caller ID into the transcript for reference.

You have 4 old messages.

Thursday 3:32 pm [July 16, 2015 from 347 695 8537]

You spend your whole life unable to get a cab home, just because you don’t live in Manhattan. Now, de Blasio wants to make it harder for Uber and other apps to help you get home - just to take care of his buddies with taxi medallions that give him lots of campaign cash. But your council member should stand up for you. Call your council member and tell them to protect you, not the taxicabs who snub their noses at you every day. You deserve better. Paid for by Uber.

Saturday 2:07 pm [July 18, 2015 from 607 385 2105]

Hi, it’s Molly with Uber, and we need your help. Uber ended the days when you couldn’t get a ride home because cabs didn't want to leave Manhattan. Now, Mayor de Blasio is trying to bring the bad old days back because his millionaire taxi donors are telling him to. But why on Earth would your council member ever consider voting for something like this? He should stand up for you!

Monday 2:55 pm [July 20, 2015 from 718 690 9407]

Uber ended the days when you couldn't get a ride home because cabs didn't want to leave Manhattan. Now, Mayor de Blasio is trying to bring the bad old days back because his millionaire taxi donors are telling him to. But why on earth would your council member ever consider voting for something like this? He should stand up for you, not take orders from the mayor. Your council member is sponsoring this bill, and we need your voice.

Tuesday 11:44 am [July 21, 2015 from 914 775 7597]

Hi it's Derek with Uber, and we need your help. Uber ended the days when New Yorkers had to worry about being able to find a reliable ride home. But now, Mayor de Blasio wants to cap the number of drivers that can partner with us, ending Uber as you know it just because his millionaire taxi donors are telling him to. The Daily News has called de Blasio’s cap on Uber, quote, disingenuous and a bad deal for New Yorkers. Please call your council member and tell them to oppose the anti-Uber bill, because --

End of messages.

¹To be fair to Uber, my friends are also nonplussed when I mention my landline.