People, Technology, People

2015


While working as a product manager at Facebook, my coworkers and I made decisions that subtly changed the way a billion people interacted with others every day. Each little nudge we put into the software was a thousand "hellos" that otherwise would have gone unsaid; small variances in usability could make the difference between people completing a business deal and failing to do so. Yet, entire oceans exist between the techies in their Frank Gehry pavilions and the billions of people outside of the US whose social lives are woven into this platform.

I took these portraits in Nairobi, Berlin, and Facebook headquarters at Menlo Park. The subjects are either product managers at Facebook, who decide what the company builds for its users, or research participants from various walks of life who use Facebook products in their personal lives and their businesses.

I sat down with each research participant to understand their lived experiences and how internet-connected technology played a part. Some people expressed immense gratitude and optimism. A Nairobi safari consultant and her two year old daughter talked every day while the mother was at work because the child knew how to answer calls on a Blackberry phone. A elderly used car salesman found WhatsApp essential for closing car sales and keeping in touch with his adult children who worked in Dubai. He noted that even though everybody knows that terrible things happen on Facebook (an embarrassing photo is shared with an auntie; a young girl is stalked by a strange man), it is not the highway's fault that there are bad drivers.

But there's also fear and doubt. Germany's trauma from the surveillance state they endured during the cold war colors their distrustful approach toward personal data usage by internet companies. When the wall fell, 2.75 million Germans chose to read their own surveillance files — and were shocked by how closely they had been watched, and how their closest friends and family members had betrayed them.

The change that technology makes in people's lives can be incremental or revolutionary. A Berlin convenience store owner noted that while mobile payments might bring a bit more business, having to pay any kind of fee per transaction would be a non-starter for his business. Meanwhile in Nairobi, several businesswomen expressed relief that the prevalence of mobile payments in Kenya meant that they never had to carry too much cash on themselves and could walk home late from work feeling safe.

At my standing desk in Menlo Park, in front of my macbook screen, it was important for me to remember that we were just people making things for other people.

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