in the eye of the storm

Content warning: workplace abuse, being an under/overvalued employee, extreme silence/giving space, holy schmoly just talk to each other people!, meeting people where they are at, radical consent, meeting people where they are at, mis-identification of naturally born aliens

6. No forgetting what we do here. We make project management, team communication, and email software. We are not a social impact company... We're in the business of making software, and a few tangential things that touch that edge. We're responsible for ourselves. That's more than enough for us.

In making this statement, Jason Fried attempted to draw a line between companies and society. Which, in my experience, is not possible because every company that exists in our society necessarily has an impact on that society. What I’ve often noticed executive leaders forget is that it is the product design process and ultimate decisions any company makes that shapes that impact.

For example, Basecamp-the-company creates two flagship products: its eponymous project management and team communication software Basecamp, the current version of which launched in 2015 and was last actively developed in early 2019; and an email service HEY, launched June 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and civil rights uprising.

I have and currently still use both products, though I’m not sure for how long that will last to be honest. I think they both have incredible features such as the ability to contain context within to-dos and change tool names within different spaces to set both context and tone in Basecamp. I’m also a big fan of the Feed reader in HEY and I’ve come to value the Screener despite initial skepticism. As someone who fell into the role of co-managing privacy and trust & safety at Basecamp, I also believe that both products are less useful, less private, and less trustworthy than they could be because in the product design process, it seemed to me that Jason and David de-prioritize inclusivity when it comes to privacy, safety, and trust.

Here are two examples, one for each app:

With HEY, you currently cannot change your email handle in a self-serve fashion. The email handle is also referred to as a username, and is the part before the @domain.extension. It is my understanding that currently the way to change your HEY username is to make a “concierge” email request to customer support. This approach forces you to give up your privacy because you must share your personally identifiable information with multiple employees at Basecamp: at least one customer support representative who would receive the request and mayhaps one programmer who would implement the change, depending on the ask. This process is understandable, unfortunate, and especially important given name changes occur often: in case of marriage, gender affirmations, divorce, or any number of other reasons that are that are quite common amongst people who are not cis men.

There is another option for changing your HEY username if you are on a custom domain, which encompasses corporate email accounts: you / your employer could pay an extra $12/month for a new email address and then you can set up forwarding and reply-as SMTP configuration. This approach is effectively a name-change tax.

With Basecamp, one of the core assumptions made about the product is that it is used mostly by small businesses. However, we know from public testimonies and the very fact that the company offers discounts for non-profits, teachers, and students that Basecamp is used for a variety of purposes. These purposes sometimes means strangers, not just colleagues, are in a Basecamp account together. And as anyone who has participated in an online forum before knows, whether closed or open, whenever there is a multi-experience group of people coming together, unfortunately the norms of today’s society means abuse can and will happen. As of the time I am writing this essay, the only way to escape abusive behavior by account members in Basecamp is to remove yourself from an entire project, team, HQ, or account in Basecamp. There is no way to mute private pings or block individuals and now the one form of deterrance available — the Use Restrictions Policy — is outdated because trust & safety cases will no longer be discussed with a working group with diverse experiences to draw from while evaluating how to handle the case. Instead, reported violations related to harassment and hate speech will be bilaterally decided by Jason and David:

*3. No more committees.* For nearly all of our 21 year existence, we were proudly committee-free. No big working groups making big decisions, or putting forward formalized, groupthink recommendations. No bureaucracy. ... We're turning things back over to the person (or people) who were distinctly hired to make those decisions... The responsibility for negotiating use restrictions and moral quandaries returns to me and David... Back to basics, back to individual responsibility, back to work.

I believe that if the product design process at Basecamp were more inclusive, the products Basecamp and HEY would in turn also be more attractive and safer products for a broader set of customers to use, which in turn would further result in the business becoming more profitable. But currently as described publicly in Shape Up, all of the product decisions are ultimately made by Jason and David — and especially Jason. Over my two years at Basecamp, I found that employees are rarely invited to share their perspective and I observed that product designers essentially acted as silent executors of edicts brought down from on high.

There’s an argument to be made that it’s not possible to design for everyone so each company needs to draw their own lines in the sand. Our features don’t work for you? That’s fine: try something else; we aren’t a monopoly. However, I would argue that given Basecamp is more than comfortably profitable, it has a moral imperative to focus on designing for the marginalized on issues of privacy, safety, and trust because it has accrued the privilege to do so. Instead, I witnessed the development of HEY become a product seemingly crafted for Jason and David’s bubble of what appeared to be increasingly wealthy followers who have religiously listened to them for decades.

What’s sad is I believe the approach of proactively designing for the edges would have both enabled innovation and leadership in product design — two things that Jason and David both want! But as far as I observed during my over two years at the company, it seems to me that Jason and David currently design and run their business with the scarcity mindset of determining how much abuse and exclusion they are willing to tolerate. “We can’t do it all” they would say and so it felt like they “scope hammered” out all of us who didn’t live in their world… at that moment, anyways.

While some may say, “hey remember: Basecamp is not a social impact company”, I reply that these company and product design processes and decisions aren’t a matter of being a “social impact company”. They’re about being an empathetic, profitable software company with a thoughtful, inclusive product design process. This is especially important for a business like Basecamp because its bread-and-butter applications are designed to be work applications, wherein employees are required by their employers to use a particular software. If Basecamp centered those employees and the breadth of their experiences and needs, the product could become distinctly opinionated about centering inclusivity.

Which, by the way, is not a universally good thing to strive for. In my opinion, it should not be possible for any individual company to gain market competitiveness on the distinction of building a baseline safe and inclusive product. Safety, privacy, and attention to inclusivity should be table-stakes for stuff on the Internet. That currently it is possible to differentiate on these three environmental factors is in my opinion another symptom of our sick software industry because it highlights how most software products don’t distinguish themselves on issues of inclusivity, particularly in anti-abuse features. This is what I mean when I say marginalization is a structural issue. Because so few companies focus on prioritizing design for the marginalized, individual companies can profit from making easy gestures like stating intentions, while in practice de-prioritizing the harder design and technical challenges of actually getting it done.

One of the most disappointing findings I’ve drawn from my time at Basecamp (January 2019 – April 2021) is that the company’s product decisions — decisions made exclusively by Jason and David — center their own comfort and profit margin above all else. For all their principled stances on anti-trust (which I generally agree with) and data privacy (which I often, but didn’t always, agreed with), they rarely demonstrated care to the point of actually building inclusive features like signatures on emails… until they were called out on Twitter. One example of this is with their initial strong stance on no “name tags” for HEY, which was delicately and firmly called out by Jurmarcus, a Black male engineer. Which, by the way, was not the first time employees recalled someone being called out for making fun of a name. The first time it was a lady…. we don’t remember their name though.

When called out publicly, I’ve found that at times, Jason and David would respond with humility. But when employees would attempt to call in Jason and David within company discussions, I never once witnessed Jason delegate any decision-making authority on product design. David ceded that side of the shop to him, largely acting as a bystander in my observation. To work under this combination of management, in my experience, was to submit to a slow-onslaught abusive relationship. Like climate change, it was hard for many to recognize, until all of a sudden there were big and little fires everywhere.

A path for healing Basecamp

Ask humbly for help from those with relevant expertise. The following is a non-exhaustive list of organizations and companies working to cure the software industry. These are the ones I am currently aware of. There are also academic programs, though I am not familiar with them.

If you know of another organization you think should be on the list, please feel free to let me know by filling out this form. It’s anonymous and built by a wonderful company who know what they are doing..

Design Justice Network: an international community of people and organizations who are committed to rethinking design processes so that they center people who are too often marginalized by design. We work according to a set of principles that were generated and collaboratively edited by our network.

Trust & Safety Professional Association (TSPA): The Trust & Safety Professional Association (TSPA) is a 501(c)(6) organization supporting the global community of professionals who develop and enforce principles and policies that define acceptable behavior and content online. TSPA is a forum for professionals to connect with a network of peers, find resources for career development, and exchange best practices for navigating challenges unique to the profession.

All Tech is Human: All Tech Is Human is building the Responsible Tech pipeline. Founded in 2018, we have intentionally brought together a diverse range of individuals and organizations across civil society, government, and industry. We believe that we can build a better tech future by changing the people involved in it. We need to have a talent pipeline that is more diverse, multidisciplinary, and aligned with the public interst.

PlatformAbuse.org: PlatformAbuse.org is a knowledge source of technological harms and mitigations to guide safer product development.

Beta Works: In 2016, we launched Betaworks Camp, a thematic residency and investment program for early-stage companies. Camp allows us to immerse ourselves in emerging tech categories and work closely with the startups in each cohort. Our current theme is “Fix The Internet”, and encompasses privacy technology, developing a healthier media ecosystem, and consumer products whose business model isn’t predicated on harvesting our data or our attention.

Antidote to Tech: We are human producers of technology and are committed to thriving natural environments and genuine human connection, built on kindness toward ourselves and others.

International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP): The International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) is a resource for professionals who want to develop and advance their careers by helping their organizations successfully manage these risks and protect their data. In fact, we’re the world’s largest and most comprehensive global information privacy community. The IAPP is the only place that brings together the people, tools and global information management practices you need to thrive in today’s rapidly evolving information economy.

Omidyar Network’s Responsible Tech practice / The Tech We Want: We believe digital technology can and should have a positive impact on society. This belief comes from our Silicon Valley DNA. We aspire to build a global technological ecosystem that reaches and works for everyone: One that balances innovation with responsibility, regardless of whether technology is deployed by individuals, companies, or governments.

Data & Society: We produce original research on topics including AI and automation, the impact of technology on labor and health, and online disinformation.

Data for Black Lives: Data as protest. Data as accountability. Data as collective action.

#causeascene: The Strategic Disruption of the Status Quo in Technical Organizations, Communities, and Events

People of Color In Tech: telling the stories and thoughts of people of color in tech.

Zebras Unite: A founder-led, cooperatively owned movement creating the culture, capital & community for the next economy

Thorn/Safer: We build technology to defend children from sexual abuse.

Tall Poppy: We aim to make industrial-strength online protection accessible to everyone. The Tall Poppy app helps your employees take control of their personal digital safety.

Block Party: When harms are wrought at world-wide scale by digital technology, fixing the same harms at scale will also require technology, and our mission with Block Party is to build the tools that empower people to take back control of their online experience.

Unfck the Internet/Mozilla: We love it, we need it, and we can all feel the ways it’s fcked. Together we can unfck it.

The Markup: Big Tech Is Watching You. We’re Watching Big Tech.

The Platformer: Platformer is an independent publication devoted to exploring the intersection of technology platforms and society.

Thank you to the many people who helped me shape and revise this essay. You know who you are.

P.S. To Jason and David, in case this analysis from my perspective makes its way to you. Please know that what I wrote in my open letter on April 27, 2021 still applies: I believe that your recent company policy changes are both terrible and redeemable. And I understand that each of you are on your own journey, at your own pace. (context: Jason and David have both previously written on relevant topics from a personal standpoint. David has done so multiple times (1, 2, 3, 4) from what I’ve read, and the receipts I’ve linked to are not exhaustive in David’s case.) Like Kris, I can no longer directly interact with either of you two for now. This essay is the last one I will write naming you and Basecamp… unless you decide to do something else in the future that demands a response from those who refuse to be bystanders and it makes sense to me to add my voice into the mix. If at some point down the road you realize that your frame of thinking has shifted and you’ve internalized some more critical race theory, know that the door with me is ever-so-slightly cracked open. I’ve left many resources on navigating conflict in the full-company Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion project and there are more choose-your-own-adventure bite-sized techniques on inclusivity drafted in the closed DEI Council: Full Working Group space; I’d written them with the intention of sharing with the full company after getting some feedback from other council members. I also gave David opt-in access to some of my thinking in the company account on what I believe could be some of Basecamp-the-product’s most exciting community-oriented features. I hope you’ll consider it, just as I hope you won’t trash all of the hard, thoughtful work that went into the BC4 ideation and shaping. I’m actually counting on that, waiting ever-so-(im)patiently for those features to come to fruition. If and whenever y’all are ready to consider my ideas, I’m sure you’ll figure out how to find them. Wishing you a path that isn’t just about surviving, but actually thriving — Jane.

P.P.S. David, I think you have a great sense of when someone needs to rise to the occasion. You’re not always aware of whether it should be you. Consider this some gentle redirecting feedback. Focus on the how and the pulse of those around you who care for you. Not everyone works in six week cycles. Anyone who menstruates could tell you that.

P.P.P.S. Jason, thank you for the flowers and delicious food. And for offering to buy me a third monitor for the Chicago office when I already had two at home for my data nerding out. In your heart of hearts, you know your team. Though we only 1:1ed twice in my memory in two years, I’ve got my field notes from working with you. I have to admit the ming aralias are not doing very well right now but I think they’ll make it.

P.P.P.P.S. If you’re still reading this, wow! This was a long one! Thank you! If you’re still curious, maybe this and this will help you understand. And if you feel inclined to share a few meaningful dollars with them, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Yup, I’m still here. Thanks everyone. You know who you are.

Published May 24, 2021. In my time stewarding work for Jason and David, I’ve learned that they are absolutely willing to push the boundaries of their hearts and minds; they just needed someone who knew how to ask.

Edited May 28 to tweak some formatting mistakes. Trimmed June 8 to remove some more personal story clues because I anticipated a wider audience reading the post.