Today I went to MSNBC to tape an appearance on Maria Teresa Kumar's new "Changing America", part of the Shift lineup of shows that the network is trying out. It was pretty fun, and I think I came off okay, talking about how tech helps people organize:

But let me talk about something else. In that appearance, unusual for the times I've been on TV (or in a TV studio, as the Shift shows are primarily designed to be streamed online), I usually get some makeup applied before I go on air. Today, I did not. Makeup's not a big deal for me; I used to wear it anyway in my teens and twenties, and it's pretty much necessary if you want to look halfway human under the weird conditions of television lighting.

Each time I've been in a studio situation, though, the one thing makeup artists tend to do is to use concealer or whatever they have at hand to try to lighten the dark circles under my eyes. Now, the circles have been there my entire adult life, but as any parent can tell you, they get more pronounced once you have kids.

Being close to the end of the year, I have been reflecting on what I learned in 2014. To my surprise, the few moments when I thought I'd be putting on some makeup for today's taping brought me vividly back to one of the most subtle but profound realizations I had this year. It was while reading, of all things, a Buzzfeed roundtable discussion of Mindy Kaling's "Mindy Project". This brief back-and-forth between Durga Chew-Bose and Heben Nigatu:

DCB: Another one: dark rings under my eyes. The amount of people that ask me if I’m tired all the time. I’ve never once covered the dark rings under my eyes, and worse is when white girls are like, “No that’s in”
HN: (You can’t hear me right now but I keep just saying “Mmmm” to myself and feeling all emotional.) OMG the deep-set eyes thing!
DCB: I never get my makeup done. I also barely wear any makeup, but when someone else does it, the first thing they do is put some white stuff under my eyes and smudge.

For years I'd had people work to lighten the circles under my eyes, and never once reflected on the fact that this is the way I naturally look. Nobody said the circles under my eyes looked "soulful" or "wise" or essentially anything other than "the way you look naturally isn't the way people of other ethnicities look, so it's wrong". And for all my ostensible efforts to be culturally literate and self-aware, I'd never caught it.

This was particularly resonant to me because I can look back to before I was even an adult and see its antecedents. This crowd-pleaser of a photo was my senior picture in high school, taken when I was 16.

Yes that purple jacket is awesome

I can still vaguely remember the circumstances; I had an awful bout of the flu, despite it being summer time, and a really bad fever, well over 100 degrees, and I had to be dragged in to the photo session. But I endured it, took the photos and didn't think about them again until they were printed up.

The photographer at the studio had lightened my skin a bit, using whatever pre-Photoshop, pre-digital methods were common at the time. Honestly, that wasn't too much of a surprise — given where I grew up, it's entirely possible I was the only non-white student whose senior photo they took, and they simply may not have known what to do with other skin tones.

But more surprising was that the dark circles that I knew I had under my eyes while fighting off a brutal flu were completely erased. It's hard to tell because this scan isn't that high-resolution, but that correction was even done at the expense of leaving my face in the photo looking a bit plastic and fake. It was essentially decided that it was better I look unrealistic than that I show the appearance that is inevitably, and honestly, my own.

So what?

Obviously, this is hardly some stunning revelation of how a magazine cover model got photoshopped. Rather, it's my own reflection on the fact that I never realized I had completely internalized a way of hating or even wanting to remove or undo something intrinsic to myself. I learned it so young that I had never understood to question it. And I'd certainly never considered that it might be okay, or acceptable, or maybe even attractive.

In truth, it doesn't matter much. My self-image about my appearance these days is grounded in the idea that it's politically radical and meaningful to assert that Indian men are attractive and sexy and appealing, and so that's my official position on the matter. (It helps that we have statistical evidence in the booming population of South Asia that hundreds of millions of people agree.) So having an epiphany about some aspect of my appearance doesn't actually change anything.

Instead, this was a great chance to realize how much I don't know about myself, and my own cultural context. If I were my younger, more fragile self, this might have been an upsetting or hurtful realization. But instead, it was just a bit of an a-ha moment, a realization of how much I still have to learn. Or, put better, how much I have to unlearn.

And the best response I can think of to this realization is to actually share what I've learned and unlearned. Unsurprisingly, Durga covered that, too:

[T]he very desire to write it all down, to trust that my experience and what I might share of it has merit, is a certainty that is a foreign prerogative. Often, I’ll be thinking aloud with friends or deliberating on ideas that have been simmering or on luckier occasions, ideas that have been connecting, and a friend will excitedly chime in, “You should write about that.” But the impulse to write it all down is at most secondary or tertiary, and generally, not even on my radar.

Maybe this year is more about what I unlearned and what I remembered than about what I learned.


Peak Dad Twitter

Hot on the heels of Vanity Fair referencing my dad-ness on Twitter comes this Daily Dot piece examining Dad Twitter. I loved this part:

If that sounds too cheesy, it’s on purpose. Displaying sincerity can feel like a radical act. To say you unabashedly like something, whether it’s Top Gear or Katy Perry, meticulously organizing the fridge or watching NOVA, takes strange courage, especially when you’re young and the pangs of being a social outcast don’t feel far behind. After all of the attempts to be interesting and cool, that permission to be yourself and unashamed of it is what we’re all chasing.

And then! This dad thing goes on even further, with the New York Times reflecting on What It Means to Be a ‘Dad’.

I am not quite sure how I came to be an example of a certain kind of nerd dad, but it's the best thing in my life, so I'm quite happy that others have found it amusing or meaningful.


It’s hard to build a good web

Every single day we’re hearing about the failings of big tech companies and what they’re doing to the web. The ethical failings, the transgressions against privacy, the rampant and shameless exclusion of most people from the opportunities that tech creates. Honestly, it is fucking exhausting to think about sometimes, and I get why so many well-intentioned people just give up.

And then those of us who are watching, we have our ideals of how the web should work. We want these ideologically pure sites that are inclusive and make money by passing the hat, but not too much money, and not the wrong kind of money, and also we don’t really want to pay for it. I mean, we want to pay for it, but if there’s a way we could also not pay for it, that’d be great.

So for those of us who are still idealistic about tech, there’s only one thing we can do. We can try to make the web we want to see. For lack of a better term, it’s a “good” web. Not the best! Maybe there are better things. And not the only web! Because even if they’re kind of terrible sometimes, Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Pinterest and Tumblr and all the rest are also kinda great a lot of the time.

We try. And what it looks like is a small core of people who are ridiculously, absurdly, passionately supportive. Maybe enough to squeak by, maybe not. And then things get tough. You’re MetaFilter, and Google Ads don’t perform like they used to, and you have to let go some of the best people who’ve ever moderated a community. You’re MLKSHK and you have a huge spike in traffic without a huge spike in paid users, and you have to consider shutting down until there’s a last-minute reprieve.

Or you’re ThinkUp, and you’re trying to get this weird little app that you really, truly believe in out into the world. But it’s taking longer than the venture capital model of tech can wait, and you decide to make the hard choices it takes to do right by a community and forgo doing a regular round of funding.

Let me tell you something: This stuff can be fucking awful. Even with all the effort and support and sheer love that we get by making things for the web that we think will make the web better, it can be grueling and there’s a reason most websites are the equivalent of fast food instead of home-cooked meals.

I don’t know anyone who runs an independent web app or web site that hasn’t had to look a friend in the eyes and tell that friend they can’t afford to pay them anymore. Not one.

So now what?

But I see some glimmers of hope a lot, too. MetaFilter and MLKSHK got back up on their feet, and then some. I see the scrappy team at The Toast make a site that brings joy, on their own terms, in a way that I had always hoped was possible. I see NewsBlur do a great job making an app in a category that the conventional tech industry said was old fashioned or dead, and build a thriving and vibrant community on top of it. I see a bunch of sites where instead of women getting harassed, women are founders. I see a web where people are having fun with each other, while they're goofing off during their lunch hour. I see the web we'll curl up with when we're stuck at our parents' house at Thanksgiving and can't stand listening to the TV blasting anymore.

I see an industry that changes just enough to treat a mom-and-pop indie app as being just as important as anything that gets VC funding.

That’s what we tried to start working on today. It’s imperfect, and probably still a little confusing (I am struggling to explain all these concepts a bit more briefly than I did here!) but it makes me hopeful that we can do something new. Well, a little bit old-fashioned, but new.

Good Web Bundle sites

Let's Try This

A few weeks ago the folks who run a couple of the best small apps and sites on the web got together and tried to figure out a way to make it easier for those who believe in what we’re doing to support us. It’s not cheap. It’s not a thing you can tap on in the App Store and download with a click. But it is something I believe in, and that I’m incredibly proud to have made with Matt, and Amber and Andre, and Sam, and Nicole and Mallory and Nick, and Gina. And we had the help of a whole community of folks behind us.

Here’s what we made: the Good Web Bundle. I hope you’ll give it a look, and tell a few friends about it, and maybe buy one for yourself and gift the codes to a loved one for the holidays. But even if all it does it gets you to think about the web as a place that has lots of big box stores and not nearly enough Main Street shops, that’d be wonderful.


(Twitter) Famous!

What a delight to be interviewed by Bijan Stephens for Vanity Fair, especially as so much of the focus was on me as a dad and a person, rather than just the usual tech stuff.

In person, he projects an air of warm authority—more benevolent history teacher than shark-like C.E.O. This doesn’t stray far from his Twitter persona, which, even when he’s not tweeting explicitly about dad stuff, has the genial air of a one-time nerd aging into fatherhood and navigating the new, geek-friendly establishment.


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