Social Effects — Varun Thota
In our debut episode of Social Effects with Edward Barnieh, the focus begins with Hong Kong based designer and photographer Varun Thota.
Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Special guest Eugene Kan
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Varun Thota
In our debut episode of Social Effects with Edward Barnieh, the focus begins with Hong Kong based designer and photographer Varun Thota.
Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Special guest Eugene Kan
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Varun Thota
Social Effects is a podcast hosted by Edward Barnieh, or as many people know him, EdwardKB. Social Effects dives deep into the world of social media with transparency and in search of what’s lasting in an ever-changing atmosphere.
The effect of social media has had an undeniable impact on our lives, and these conversations allow us to find out more about the background of some of social media’s most prolific creatives, who Edward’s fortunate to call friends, their approach to the craft, and what keeps them up at night.
In our inaugural episode, Edward links with Hong Kong-based designer, Varun Thota. The two, alongside special guest, Eugene Kan of MAEKAN, catch-up over the application of design in Varun’s work, his upbringing in Macau, and the role of self-learning for creatives. You can catch some of Varun’s work on Instagram via the handle @vnthota.
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Eugene Kan: What did you have for breakfast today, Edward?
Edward Barnieh: I had one banana. These days my breakfast consists of one banana and water.
Varun Thota: I had a New York bagel, a New Yorker bagel.
Eugene: How New York was it though?
Varun: Pastrami, tomato, cream cheese.
Edward: It’s just New York, it’s pure New York.
Edward: Hey everyone. We’re back with another podcast and I’m here today with my friend Varun Thota. We have a special guest today, Eugene Kan.
Eugene: Hey what’s up. It’s Eugene from MAEKAN. You’ve heard this voice before.
Edward: It’s good to have you on board. Today we’re going to cover a number of topics but we’re going to start with Varun and I don’t know if you want to say a few words about yourself?
Varun: Sure. Hi, I’m Varun, I am a product designer living in Hong Kong for about 4 years now. I moved here from Macau where I grew up so in total I lived there for about 14 years. But originally I was born in India, I left when I was super young so it was a very long time ago and then lived in the States for about six years in Oregon and now I’m back here.
Eugene: I didn’t know you’re from Macau actually.
Edward: Yeah. I want to hear more about that Macau upbringing. Like maybe how it was different from Hong Kong? Quieter? I’ve been there, like, quite a few times but I’ve never really got a sense of how it would be to be brought up there. What’s the vibe?
Varun: So, growing up in Macau. It is very different from Hong Kong. A couple of weekends ago I felt like I wanted to go back to Macau just to relax. You don’t get that type of space in Hong Kong, you don’t get that feeling of calm. It’s cool.
Eugene: And for those people that are unfamiliar with Macau, maybe you can even break it down into what you think people know Macau as, and what you know Macau as?
Varun: Right, so I moved to Macau in ‘95. So this was before they got it back from the Portuguese, the Portuguese gave it back in ‘99. Back then it was still a gambling kind of city. It was all about the Lisboa, the whole family, and they had a lot tribe wars as well, so I remember things getting blown up on the streets and fires and arson and everything and then they gave it back to China in ‘99 and things kind of settled down and it became a very very rich city. So everybody was able to make money super quick.
So people know Macau now as this gambling mecca, the Vegas of the East. You’ve got casinos on one side and then dispersed within the old parts of the city you have these fancy gaudy looking hotels and casinos within them. I remember Macau being the pedicab type, you know, on the streets of San Malo, you can use one of those pedicabs to go to Macau. I remember there being only one bridge back in the day and just a really slow-paced life.
I went to grade school there and in high school even that kind of changed over time for me because when I went to high school it was on the fourth floor of an apartment building. A couple of years later with all that influx of money, international students coming in, our school got upgraded to an actual building with a playground and everything. It was kind of weird seeing that happen as well, and growing up there then leaving Macau, never knowing what exactly was out there because I’d never traveled before.
I moved straight to the US and then coming back I realized how Macau still has its charm but with the gaming there it feels more seedy. It feels more money-driven. There’s not a lot of stuff for creative people so one of the reasons I left Macau was, in terms of creativity, there wasn’t much to do there and I don’t want to work for a casino. I don’t gamble.
Eugene: It seems like there are opportunities there in terms of the whole gaming industry but it’s like this kind of selling your soul to the devil in a way. You could design for them but what is the end goal? The end goal is to attract people to come and spend money at a casino right. You could also consider it, to play the flip side, it’s entertainment I guess.
Edward: Yeah. Right… To give it that family vibe but it is still essentially gaming.
Varun: It’s still gaming, and there are resorts for families and stuff but at the end of the day it’s all about making money from the casino. Yeah they used to make ten times more than Vegas. It was just a weird way for me to grow up because I was in-between all these different places. You can still go there and find the old parts of Macau but they’ve become big tourist spots.
Eugene: Do you think life is better for someone that lives in Macau now than it was when you grew up there in ‘95 to ‘99?
Varun: In terms of making money. I think the opportunity is there, you have the gaming, you have the casino, so a lot of friends that I have there didn’t really finish high school and went straight into the gaming industry and some of them started their own businesses that cater to the casinos, that cater to building out restaurants. But all within casinos so their main clients are the big casinos. So I think it’s easier for them. The way I compared it was: before the big gaming thing, the cars that you saw on the street were Toyotas and stuff. A couple years later you saw a couple of Beamers, Audis and stuff. Now it’s Ferraris and Lambos, and that’s a regular on the street.
Edward: Yeah I remember that. So the first time we met was me coming to Macau and you were hosting a photo walk in Macau and it was my first time, I think I’d been in Hong Kong for, like, one month, 2013. And we actually went to a neighborhood that was super fancy and I had no frame of reference for Macau, barely even gambling. I just remember there was a succession of Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris just passing us and I thought it was like a car club but it was just normal life, and that must have happened in your absence while you were away.
Varun: That’s the norm now. There’s so much money there, accessible money through gaming. It’s so different from Hong Kong where people… So I’m not saying people work really hard. I mean it’s equal I think, but you have to work for it in Hong Kong whereas in Macau it just seems like you can go work in a casino and it will just come to you.
Edward: Whether it was Macau or the U.S. or even before that, when did this creative streak come through that made you want to design?
Varun: So I went to Portland State University and I studied business IT. In my last year I joined a startup, it was called Mugasha: music, gathering, sharing and it was about helping DJs put their music online, so this was before the days of iTunes, podcasts and Spotify and those type of things. We used to break down hour, two hour, three hour tracks into individual songs and I would do it by copy pasting the timestamps in notepad and then uploading it for every single DJ and we had like 10 DJs at a time. So it was a three person start up and the person that I joined with, one of my really good friends from college, he was big into design and development—it was like a startup kind of vibe.
And I think that was around when the first iPhone came out, 2009? I bought the first iPhone, or the second actually, and fell in love with design. I realized things are going to change, the iPhone kind of blew my mind. The possibilities were endless for me, that I saw. I wanted to get more into design and more into… At that time, I didn’t know what UX and UI were so it was all about, “Oh this feels amazing, this works really nice.” How does this work? How can I do this? And it just kind of went from there. So I graduated, joined a design firm where I was doing I.T. but also getting into the UX kind of mindset, so I was being asked to beta test their software and I started talking to designers in the design team thing saying, “Why did you ask me that kind of question? What did you learn from that? And how does this help you build this product?”
Edward: If we could just go back a second, because I quite often call you a UI designer when you are a UX designer. If you want to just talk a little about the difference between UI and UX?
Varun: So UI and UX, they actually go together. They have to go together. UX is getting a person from A to B within your product. Basically from step A to step B, how you take them there in the most frictionless, efficient way. So it’s almost like an architect, if there’s a fire there’s a certain type of path that they follow to exit. We’re thinking about the same way, how do I get this person from downloading my app or entering my website to their final step where they want to get a job done? A UI designer will take that and add everything that makes it look a certain type of way, so you’re looking at colors, you’re looking at the way it interacts with the screen, you’re looking at placement, and pixels, and spacing, and grid pattern, and that kind of stuff. So we go hand in hand. So for example in my company I’m a UX designer and there’s a UI team there as well so I work very closely with them to make the interface.
Edward: Right. So although you’re going hand in hand, what you do goes first and then they overlay on top of that?
Varun: Yes. So a UX designer has to think about the user needs, the business needs, and combine them both together to give that optimal flow.
Edward: Moving on from that, you went from that company in Macau, the startup company.
Varun: In the U.S.
Edward: Oh right.
Varun: Joining the design firm. Losing my job there because I was still an international student, moving back to Macau and realizing that I wanted to get into web design full-time. I got into freelance web design, so I did my own freelance, I had a couple of clients, I joined another small design agency, three people in Macau, to get more clients and at that time, things just went south at home so I had to join one of the casinos. So I sold my soul for like a year and a half and it was good because it made me enough money to travel a lot but also that was the first time I was able to build product on a bigger scale. So one of the projects there was building a limo system for the casino but it was an internal system so I had to build it from the ground up. They were doing everything through paper and so I had to talk to users and ask what challenges they had and then the process that I need to make into a digital version—how do I make that happen for them?
Eugene: What value do you think there is knowing that you didn’t have a foundational background towards this and you had to learn everything yourself, versus if you went to school for it? Do you feel you had a fresh take on it that was actually beneficial?
Varun: There are two ways you can look at this. People who go to school and learn this kind of thing have a good background, it’s a really good way to learn of course, but when you apply it to the real world it’s very different. You can apply it, but what I’ve been seeing is that some of the designers that I’ve been interviewing lately are from school but they’re so rigid that they find it really hard to be flexible, they have to follow the framework, they have to follow this type of pattern or flow. Whereas being self-taught and putting everything into a real world and getting the experience, you’re able to be flexible and move with all the different changes or requirements. That was me. I was able to just quickly understand the context, change, and if there was something I didn’t know, Google was my best friend and I just kind of just went from there.
Eugene: Google and YouTube.
Edward: So you said there’s two ways to look at it, so the school way is one way.
Varun: And then the other way is to get the real world experience because sometimes it just doesn’t gel, some of the best designers that I’ve seen in the past few years or read about, they never went to school, it was all self-taught.
Edward: So after the limo, from there you came to Hong Kong?
Varun: Yes, so that money made in the casinos… That helped. So living in Macau, I needed some sort of creative escape and that’s when I read about Tyson on Instagram and decided to join one of the meet ups in Hong Kong.
Edward: Tyson is a guy that worked at CNN at the time that we met him and again, to your point about realizing the possibilities, he was one of the first people that realized the global possibilities of sharing photos of where you’re from, especially with people who have never been to that place. He led photo walks from very early on and shared the photos on Instagram which attracted both Varun and I to do the same thing and go on one of his photo walks, and host your own which is what you did, right?
Varun: Yeah. So that was after I met him on one of the first photo walks I went on with him. We started drinking beer and he was like: “Hey, you’re from Macau, why don’t you host the next one?” And then we just kind of became friends from there and that’s when I met Ed and everyone else in the Instagram community. That got me to Hong Kong, so I kept taking trips here and I met a lot of people here. I met my girlfriend here and that got me here almost every other weekend for about a year. I realized I wanted to get more into design, do it more full-time. There’s a local UX conference that happens once a year, UXHK, that I read about and decided OK, well that’s three or four thousand dollars. This is going to be a good investment for me long term, I’m just going to do it. There was a three day conference and I came over for one long weekend and just decided to go to it, met my ex-boss. He was there promoting JobsDB which is the company that I work for and I went for the interview after I met him and just kind of went from there.
Being self-taught and putting everything into a real world and getting that experience, you’re able to be flexible and move with all the different changes or requirements. That was me.
Edward: What is your current role at JobsDB?
Varun: I’m a product designer, so UX designer and product designer are almost the same thing. I lead the design for the mobile apps across the organization.
Eugene: And JobsDB for those unfamiliar, it’s kind of like a job listings site.
Varun: It’s a job marketplace and we recently merged with another company in KL so we actually build products that are for all of Southeast Asia. We just released an app in Hong Kong that I’ve been working on for a very very long time. So I basically build apps for the company.
Edward: One of the things that we’ve talked about a lot is quite a recent phenomenon but the world’s talking about it, it’s how much time we spend on our smartphones. So in essence the app you just built and, previously, you’ve been trying to get people to stay in the app right, a lot of it is stickiness and things like that. On a macro scale, what are your general feelings about people’s current usage of smartphones?
Varun: Addiction is a good word. I’ve noticed that too, when I’m walking on the streets I’m always on my phone which is kind of weird because even now when I sit in front of a TV, we used to just watch TV and now it’s all about being on the phone and watching TV. But in terms of keeping people on the app, it’s a weird time, I would say, because of what Facebook has been doing which is because of what Google has been doing.
So the way we measure engagement on the app is there are a couple of different metrics, one of the metrics is daily active users, so those who come to your app on a daily basis. The other one is monthly active users, those who actually come back month over month and those are the ones that measure the success of an application as well. The way bigger companies do it, and this is before Facebook kind of went on this dark path, we actually call this dark UX, so they’d have certain types of interactions inside an app that force you to go through that flow even though you don’t want to, or they nudge you multiple times a day just so you can get back into the app right.
One company that does it in a really bad way is LinkedIn. So an example of that is, I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but they have this notification pattern which is a red dot with a number. That is to inform the user that you have something waiting for you inside the app. They want to get more people to see that who may not have a phone. So they’ve added that notification to their email logo as well. So now when you get an email, you see their regular icon and then you see a red dot and you tap that and takes you back into the system.
Eugene: Do you think there’s a difference in terms of how you approach it versus other types of platforms and services because in reality I’m thinking to myself, if I go to jobsDB I probably have a very specific goal, whereas if I’m on Facebook or Instagram there’s no finite point because I’m just there to consume content versus looking for a job and/or looking for someone to fill the job.
Varun: Yeah, Facebook and Instagram, LinkedIn are all about social content, getting access to a lot of content. JobsDB is more than a job board now. We’re actually trying to help people get really relevant content to help them make a better decision when looking for a job or the next step. And the difference is… I kept reading a lot about this: how do product managers and designers or product people measure their apps? If you want people to subscribe to your e-mail, you can push something in their face and they have to subscribe to it or you can do it in a way where it’s more in context, you might not get that many people signed up but those who actually opt in for this really want it. Then you have additional sub-metrics that say: what is the traffic that you get from this opt-in and how often do people opt out? So there are multiple things that you can look at to say that this is the value of this feature and I’m providing value because of how my customer uses it. So again it goes back to how the company wants to think about it.
Edward: Right. So that was going to be my next point. Do you find that you have a battle? Do people want to do it the other way, they want to get the most users?
Varun: Yes. We used to think that way, we used to think how do we get the most people here? How do we get the most eyeballs? This is when the designer in me kind of stepped in and said: OK let’s do this. But what is the value we want to give to a customer? How do you measure that? How do you become more user-centric? A lot of companies go user-centric but halfway through the business direction and try to make as much money.It’s a fine balance, you can never always be user-centric and you can never always be business-centric, you have to be somewhere in-between.
Eugene: There’s an overlap right?
Varun: Yeah there’s a bit of an overlap. You have to make tradeoffs. That’s why people get really mad when Facebook hasn’t implemented something because there are additional things happening in the background that we don’t know about which is stopping them from doing that. Maybe a year later you suddenly see it. So that’s kind of the war that we face every day.
Edward: Which companies or which services do you think are doing it right and which ones have got more of that dark UX? So which ones are doing it right?
Varun: Slack’s really good at not annoying you with notifications but really nudging you to, say, for example, there are 100 channels you subscribe to, every month they tell you that you’ve been subscribed to these four or five channels but you’ve not interacted with the channel for about two weeks. Do you still want to subscribe to this? So they kind of nudge you that way. Another one is AirBNB, they’re our go-to design guides for everything. we just always look at the work that they do, the theory behind what they do and try to emulate their thinking in our apps as well. Yeah I mean the list is really small. Instagram is all about making money.
Eugene: Yeah but, generally, when you see new design implementations, can you break that down methodically into why they’ve done it?
Varun: It’s hard. You’re not seeing a lot of the metrics in the background. I think we were talking about this the other day, Ed. Why does my notification screen on Instagram show me more suggested followers than people actually interacting with my feed? Whereas I think yours was people who liked your feed. Why are they pushing suggested follows to me so hard?
Edward: From what I’ve heard on that, it’s that one of their knowns is that the more people you follow the more you will use the app. So one of the most important things is to get you to follow more people and if you’ll notice over five or six years, they have moved the suggestions or your contacts to various places because it’s a constant back and forth to work out where is the best place to make you follow more people. That’s it. That’s essentially it. So that’s why you saw that, basically we were talking about a notification page on Instagram. Varun had some sort of beta appear, where instead of seeing his likes, they were scrunched up into one notification and underneath it had ‘Follow all these people’ who seemed quite random, right?
Varun: It’s gone back now.
Eugene: I think now design is generally a lot more accessible, we see it everywhere, whether it’s these digital native brands that are always design first: your Warby Parkers, your Away suitcase etc. Do you think that there’s going to be a new normal where we’re going to push against how these services are offering us design because we know better? So an example is like new IGTV, I don’t know if you guys see it but I get that multicolored bar at the top, I have no interest and it bothers me because I can’t exit. I’ll see if I have it right now so I can show you guys.
Edward: Yeah, I know the bar.
Eugene: It’s deliberately there to grab my attention. I know why they want me to go there, but I almost want to think I’m smarter than them. So it’s stuff like that. I’m curious because we’re still going through the motions of being one of… Arguably everyone here at this table is part of a more mature and experienced digital generation. Maybe that 17 year old that has grown up digitally doesn’t necessarily think about things that we do. But we’ve seen this whole path right. So I think about it now and I’m wondering, at some point in time the tricks will work for someone that’s inexperienced, but I wonder if this is going to, at some point in time, no longer be relevant or applicable.
Edward: One of the things that will change a lot is the new tools coming in iOS and Android. You know about these tools right, Eugene? That are going to show you how much you’ve used each app, this kind of thing. I think that will be a real turning point, where you are shown quite clearly how much time you’re spending on your phone and in which individual app.
Actually another key thing is how many times those apps notify you a day. Which at this moment I mean you kind of have a rough idea in your head but I think once it’s laid out there you’re going to really decide: A. Whether you want as many notifications, and B. What you’re doing with your life basically. You’re going to reach a stage where you’re like, “Wow I’ve been awake for twelve hours and it looks like I’ve been on this app for four of those twelve hours.”
So I think that could change things, I’m hoping that there’s some kind of pushback. As it currently stands, I am blown away by how over a ten year spell we have integrated our lives into the smartphone world. It hasn’t changed—we’ve changed, we’ve adapted to it. And there’s this article I read in The Guardian which everyone should check out called ‘Technology is driving us to distraction.’ Where towards the end of the article the writer says: “Just imagine that in 2008 we had to go and someone gave us a rectangle and said ‘Here is your rectangle. You will you have to give about six hours attention to the rectangle everyday, but all your friends and family are going to be doing the same thing so don’t worry about it. But you are going to give your attention to the rectangle and you’ll get incrementally rewarded for it. You just have to make sure you look at that last thing at night. And the first thing in the morning’.”
And if you put that as a pitch to someone in 2008, it could only be a Philip K. Dick book about a dystopian horrific future but we all took it in instantly and I talked about this at work a couple of weeks ago, other than these tools coming in the operating systems, I see no signs of slowdown. I see a lot of new dark UX ways of reaching out to people and people are—for want of a better word—falling for it. And so it will be tough, people are assimilating to this notification life. Sorry, just to finish but you can be in conversation with someone, just take a meeting three or four years ago. Even when we had smartphones three or four years ago, a meeting involved everyone looking at each other, someone talking and everyone else listening. A 2018 business meeting involves ninety percent of people looking at their phones at the same time. Maybe there’s something more important happening on the rectangle and you’ve got fifty percent attention to the person speaking. We’ve all allowed it. I haven’t seen anyone called on that behavior. So I think we are pushing and I don’t see any slowdown in how much attention we give to the smartphone.
Eugene: When I start looking at it more and more now and a lot of the time I feel is spent primarily communicating and messaging whereas I spent less and less time on actual provision of content. I’d be curious, how long have you been on Instagram?
Edward: Five years.
Eugene: Five years. Let’s say in general that’s the baseline. I’m curious what your time spent on Instagram looks like over the course of those five years and if it’s changed, at the very beginning maybe you’re just kind of getting used to it, then you reach peak addiction, and then soon you back off it. Not to say you spend less time on your phone. But I’m curious as we get older if we actually remove ourselves from social media more.
Edward: I think so. And I think it’s a good point about the messaging because I find that group messaging especially dominates what I do with my phone. Whether it’s organizing things or sharing jokes and I feel like it’s a reflection of life in that we were presented with an opportunity to share with everyone you ever met and when that was the only option I feel like we were okay to do it, and then the next step was Facebook and the other platforms saying, “Hey look we’ve customized it so you can share with a group of people.” But for most people that was too hard. Ultimately what you want to do is share with your friends and then you’re more likely to share more honestly and openly and your sense of humor with your friends so what we’ve reached is now a stage where you’re in a group of group messages and you would share things that eight or nine years ago you would have shared on Facebook and I feel people are way more comfortable now in these group messages, just to share one football thing with their friends who talk about football and this new movie’s coming out with another group of friends. I think that’s a reflection of life.
That’s what we would have done without the smartphone, we would have shared those things with those sets of friends and I think that Facebook was very smart to spot that and purchase WhatsApp and build up Messenger a long time ago because we kind of went through a slight withdrawal just in small groups of friends and I’m okay with that. I know it’s a very big addiction as well just having the messaging on the phone and just messaging all the time. I don’t know how you guys feel, I’m a lot more okay with using my phone to message, I feel like consuming social media is more of a time suck.
Eugene: And more detrimental to your psychological well-being. I don’t really come away looking at social media feeling as though I’ve gotten a lot of value. Maybe it manifests itself in face-to-face interaction because you immediately have an anchor. “Oh I saw you were in so-and-so” and that sort of starts a conversation rather than resetting it.
Varun: I mean going back to messaging, when was the last time you got on a call with someone and had a really good call?
Edward: No, I was speaking to someone about this the other day. Somebody who wasn’t at their desk and their phone was just ringing constantly and me and another person were just laughing because we were like, why would you try so persistently to talk to another human being? Just message them. The phone rang like three times for long periods, I don’t know what would make me call someone three times without sending them a message.
Varun: When I get a call, because we have offices around Asia, I would get a call from a colleague in KL and be getting messages through slack, and I looked at it and I was thinking, well you could have just Slacked me, I can see you’re online, why are you not just Slacking me. This is kind of weird because I’m going to do work and talk to you at the same time.
Edward: Yeah. I’m totally okay with it with a messaging level in a group, Slack, Whatsapp, any various way. I think it speaks to me as a person as the level of social that I’m at is that I can message anytime but speaking, I’m going to need to be in a certain place, I don’t know if that’s weird but that’s just how I feel.
Eugene: The one thing that I would like to see going forward is—I’ve made this comment before—I don’t think there’s a replacement for speaking face-to-face beyond text. But I also feel that the kind of the UX, UI of that could change. The iPhone has it with visual voicemail, how do you integrate that into Whatsapp and whatnot? I sometimes prefer to communicate through voice because I feel like I can articulate a lot quicker and the nuance is sort of removed from it. I use Telegram a lot and they have a new feature where you can actually replay voice messages at 2x speed. I thought that was actually pretty intelligent. So the evolution I think is can you use AI and just transcribe it on the fly?
Varun: Yeah I think we were talking about this, it goes back to the difference between the way the UX and UI work in Asia versus the West, so East and West. On WeChat, you guys chat, you have those recordings that you send to your friends. A lot of my friends in Macau do, they don’t send text messages, they send voice recordings but I don’t see anyone in the West do that.
Eugene: What language are they speaking?
Eugene: Yeah I think it’s the complexity of writing in Chinese.
Edward: I never thought about that. That’s a real good reason to do it.
Eugene: When I’m on the MTR, in the subway watching people do that, I just think that this looks super tedious. To do fifty strokes to send off one message.
Edward: I don’t know if this is UI or UX, there’s one interesting thing about the voice messaging on WeChat, it’s that you can’t stop it and rewind it. You can on WhatsApp, you get on Telegram. Obviously there’s is a new feature on telegram that sounds even better but actually on WeChat, which is the platform I predominately see voice messaging used on, is that you need to press play and then let it run the whole thing. Once you let it run it will start again. That speaks to–I don’t know if we’re going to get into specifics on apps–but I feel like competition drives a lot of UI and UX, and when you don’t have any competition like Tencent currently don’t, we talked about this as well, the app, although it has some of the latest features, the implementation of them is quite stale. Whether that’s the actual design of the app or the way that, as I just said, the voice messaging, which is a primary part of the app, is implemented, I just find that very interesting. I don’t know what your thoughts on that are? Like you just said earlier, AirBNB is a real driver for you.
Varun: So partly competition, partly because of user needs in China. I was reading about it again the other day, the keyboard for Chinese-based apps, the send button is at the bottom whereas Western apps it’s at the top bar because when you type in English you have to hit space for every word. In Chinese there is no space so it’s easy just to hit send and send it. So there are a couple of nuances there for the Asian market and the Western market. I think that’s maybe why the sending of the voice memo is different, and the way they use it. I would assume they would back this up because their design team is crazy. More than 100 designers. I mean you can see why, their app is huge, it’s a huge app. There are so many things going on in there. It is a bit of competition from other Chinese apps but it is just how the landscape of Chinese apps look, where they want access to everything. They want people to stay on the app as much as possible which is why they have a big menu full of icons, they call it discovery basically, so you can tap on that and kind of go to different areas. So it’s more of the landscape of the Asian market, the Chinese market.
Eugene: I’ve always been curious because I use WeChat. I want to do a line break but I can’t. It always just goes to send.
Varun: It goes straight to send, exactly.
Edward: I also want to be able to do something that’s really just come into Line actually, which is just to hold and reply to messages like you can in WhatsApp, just reply to a specific message in a group chat? WeChat doesn’t have that. It’s interesting because they seem like very basic things to us but you’re right, the use of language is so different that it could be something that’s never crossed their mind for their primary market.
Through this design that’s been exposed to everyone, people’s first experiences of design are now looking at a smartphone screen. Would you say that this has affected photography as we know it? Are we seeing a certain type of photography that fits well with a smartphone screen, that fits well with an aesthetic that is very smartphone-centric? The question I’m asking is not so much about today but maybe two or three years ago when the people that we saw as big photographers on social media, a lot of them were designers and so there was a very symmetrical, clean aesthetic and that kind of brought a lot of those type of people into the photography field.
I think what I’m asking is: they left their mark basically. I’m not even asking, I’m just saying, don’t you think? These designers left their mark on the current form of photography as we know it and that is kind of the clean, black and white, very minimal color, looks to design, and even the very idea that every single edit has to look the same, in a certain aesthetic. Do you think a lot of that came from the design that you saw in apps and people’s exposure to those kind of things?
Varun: This aesthetic definitely from exposure to apps like Instagram, so you can see how people have gone from a minimal design to symmetry which I still stick to, to crush blocks, and then to really contrasting colours, that maybe through an exposure to Instagram, because Flickr has been around for such a long time, but we never saw that happen there.
Edward: I would say the thing is with Flickr, I haven’t got the exact numbers, but I would say Flickr at its sale to Yahoo had 25 million users. We’re now at a billion. We’re like, a fifth of the planet is out there taking photos and looking at them every day. I think the influence that the app can have now is far greater. And again just to make that point, Flickr was desktop. You could step away from a computer and not see a photo. Now, not just Instagram, I still need to labor the point that we are at a time where we look at hundreds, thousands more photos than we did five or six years ago. So the influence of everything you’re seeing on your screen, in the app and outside the app, probably influenced photography.
Varun: So it’s the accessibility. It’s how easy it is for people to take photos, apply filters and upload it. And even now with Lightroom on mobile, Lightroom on desktop was still very complicated at one time, only professionals use it and now you see Lightroom being used by a lot of people, not just pros, people are just hosting guides and tutorials about using Lightroom Mobile or just Lightroom in general. It’s easier to understand so that’s where UX and UI have helped, it’s super accessible, anyone can use it.
That may have lead to exposure to these really well designed apps, more people using it and a certain type of content we’re seeing on Instagram or Facebook. Then the other side of that is Instagram going vertical with the video because of the exposure to mobile. In Indonesia–this is from the research articles I used to read—their version of internet is a smartphone and Facebook. So it wasn’t a browser or a laptop. Their access to the internet was through their phone and most likely Facebook. So Instagram going to a vertical video which is weird, but soon that’s going to be the norm.
Eugene: Up until this point you’ve discussed a lot about how data validates and/or influences design decisions. On the topic of photography, if Instagram never had that sort of metric-driven sort of attitude of, “If you like this photo, double tap it” we would never know which photos were actually popular. Do you think that photography as we know it would be a lot more varied and diverse versus now people can easily define a style based on noticing that taking a photo that’s centered of a person in a canoe in a lake is going to be a guaranteed success or at least put me in that bucket.
Varun: Yeah that’s an interesting one to look at it that way. For me I think it goes back to how accessible to this information it is on Instagram. You can follow these certain types of photographer that only shoot a certain way and see how much engagement they get and then do the same thing and then blow up an Instagram. One thing I’ve seen also, just from all the young up and coming photographers is that they’re leaving their full-time jobs to do this full-time because they see this now. They can see that they can make money, become famous or travel the world or make money from brands by shooting a certain style and putting it online, which to me is kind of scary because, I don’t know who said it but they said, “KOL has gone mainstream…”.
Eugene: And for people unfamiliar with KOL, it’s key opinion leader. It’s more an Asian term for an influencer.
Varun: Yeah exactly. So it’s a scary trend I think and being able to see this type of feedback from people, when you like something, getting a thousand likes and then blowing up. I think one of the questions that people ask is how do you get ten thousand followers? How do you do that?
Edward: I have a devil’s advocate thing for you on this. To your specific example about a person in a canoe with a hat on with BAMF in the background. Let’s just say as an aside, somewhere I’ve never been but I feel like I know it because of Instagram where I’ve seen it a million times, but would you say that pre social-media, you may have only seen that photo on the cover of Condé Nast Traveler? Where would you have seen that photo before 2010?
Eugene: Yeah probably in a place where someone had gone to those lengths to shoot it and done it in a way just because this is their job and their role versus right now when a lot Instagram users are seeking out these experiences.
Edward: So I know there is a breaking point for it but one person did it, let’s say twenty or thirty people copy it. That is more a sense of the low barriers to entry to recreate that. Is that a massive problem for us? Can you just turn your head? Will free market economics decide when we’ve seen enough of that? So is that still okay?
Eugene: Yeah I really don’t get too upset about things I see on Instagram. I was just curious to see if it was pushing things a certain way because of outward validation.
It’s a fine balance, you can never always be user-centric and you can never always be business-centric, you have to be somewhere in-between.
Edward: I’ve got another theory about outward validation. But just the final thing on that, the only thing I see becoming a problem is when somebody who probably had a really creative, smart point of view chooses not to go in that direction and instead goes to take the canoe photo because he knows it gets likes. So you might lose someone’s creativity as a result of that. But I will say that there are tons of people out there—I feel like I’ve been thinking this for a while now and this is the first time I’m going to verbalize it—there are a lot of people that are only holding a camera because they saw someone else do things. Not everyone is at peak creativity. You will always have a ton of copycats and copycats is a harsh word because it always has a negative connotation but generally you’re seeing things that for the most part I don’t think you would see those people do at all. They wouldn’t be doing this. There will always be people hopefully that are creatively driving things in a positive direction, in a new direction. And the only difference is that now you will have tens, hundreds of thousands of people follow those creative directions and it will look like everyone’s doing the same thing but essentially one person led them that way, hopefully.
Eugene: It’s interesting because I’m now going back on what I just said and the whole notion of copycats is interesting because when we go to school and we learn, we’re basically copying anyways. This is how you solve this equation. So in reality I think that even if copying somebody is your first touchpoint into photography, it’s too early to say whether or not once you’ve established a foundation towards how to use a camera etcetera, that you don’t actually push off into your own direction.
So it’s no different, you need to know the foundation of it and if someone is theoretically doing well then you can be your learning foundation. So I guess, does it make copying okay? I guess maybe now it’s even contextual. If I’ve only picked up a camera in the last six months, everyone likes to judge what happens at any given moment in time rather than zooming out and seeing what happened between month zero, month three, six, nine and twelve, and I think that’s a much more interesting and fascinating thing to look at. It’s just very challenging to look at because you need to zoom out and you zoom back in.
Edward: Totally, and the amount that we’re consuming every day, zooming out becomes harder and harder. It’s incredible how you can just look back at something you did a year ago and realize you haven’t looked at that thing. Only then do you realize there has been progress. To your point about outward validation, I was going to say that this is—you can chime in on this on whether it’s UX-based—but one of the biggest things of the last seven or eight years is the validation that Facebook has provided, as a result it has changed every other social media platform to go down the same route and provide validation for their users.
I would say Twitter. I’m going to come to VSCO and how things are different because I was going to say Twitter changed their favorite, was it starring tweets just to remember them? Turned that into a heart. Obviously Instagram came along, Apple are guilty as well now because you see on iMessage you can add a certain amount of emojis to someone’s joke or whatever, you can add a heart or a thumbs up. Pretty much we are in the ‘like’ economy or the ‘like’ era. I’ve explained this to people before, I can totally see an average piece of content elevated by the number of likes it gets so people see it and think it’s spectacular. And something really creatively driven, an original idea not do so well and therefore in a lot of people’s minds it’s not as good. We’re just in the era where we’re judging things by the amount of engagement that thing has, without zooming out and looking at the reach or anything like that. Other than VSCO and do you look at VSCO often?
Eugene: Not that often.
Edward: When I do look at it, if I take the time to look at it, it is incredibly different and you can really see people not driven by validation. I would love to know and I think I’ve asked Joel Flory this at the time, I would love some sort of metrics to know how much time people spend looking at VSCO with no validation of how their work’s going, that would solve so much for me because right now I think so much is only happening because of the validation. That’s my theory. With Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, if the validation part just disappeared, I feel like one, everyone would be a lot calmer, but two, maybe people wouldn’t use this stuff so much.
Varun: It’s interesting, you guys are looking at it from a from a user point of view: instant validation in social media and content. If I put on my product hat I’m looking at it from the angle that this is the only way for a company or a designer to get intent from the user. So I can push you more relevant content or more recommended stuff and that’s where things like likes and bookmarking come into play because that’s my product thinking coming in and saying I need to get some sort of intent from you—what do you like? What do you not like? How much time you spent on something? So I can push even more stuff. Whereas from a user angle it’s validating something, I can share it with other people and see that I have two thousand likes.
Edward: You’ve told me that before and I’ve spoken to Eugene about this before, it makes me sometimes nervous about liking or sharing a certain thing knowing that there’s a physical databank somewhere holding on to that piece of information and deciding you like that. I don’t think it affects everyone but I definitely have a feeling where I just think I can like this without actually making any sort of interaction on this piece of content and that purely comes from me not wanting company X to know everything about me. How do you feel about that?
Eugene: It’s partially based on the fact that I don’t want to give them information to build an identity or a profile of me. But then also in some ways it is weird because we—by virtue of liking something—what is the actual value we get for ourselves? I think that you get to a point where whether I look at it and I like it and I don’t like it. It makes absolutely no difference, I don’t necessarily ascribe any value to it. So it’s a point now where I look at something and I might look at it and scroll back up and think it’s interesting but never like it. So what does that mean? Or maybe that inherently is still building a profile for me because I spent a little bit longer than usual?
Edward: From my understanding, even the time you spent looking at it counts. Now it’s the point where even double tapping is unnecessary, it’s an action that I don’t get any value from so I don’t even do it as much anymore.
Varun: The other side of that is—and we talk about this at work all the time as well—if you want to make products feel more personal, we need some sort of feedback from you. But if a user doesn’t want to give you the feedback and then we just send them content that is not really relevant, then they complain about that. So what is that trade off? How do you make that trade off?And hosting the data, where we keep it and how we use it is also another story that is very important these days to talk about. How we use it especially, which I think every company has their own way of dealing with and move forward on that.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint—saying I’m from Macau but I’m actually from the U.S. and I’m actually Indian. I can’t sum it up because I’m just influenced by so many different things that I pick the best out of each one and just go with that.
Edward: Changing topic slightly, I just want to talk more about your upbringing and how you see yourself. I’m going to chime in with Eugene as well about that. So you were born in India and then moved to Macau. Your parents are Indian. You spent your childhood in Macau then the U.S. and then back to Macau. How would you classify yourself? I was just going to say for anyone listening, there’s a reason I’ve asked this question and where I’m getting to is based on the World Cup win for France. A lot of commentators, comedians, saying that Africa won the World Cup even though only one of the French players was born outside of France. They’re all born in France, many of them to immigrant parents from African countries. This has blown up to a thing, people saying that first generation French people, some of them may not want to celebrate their heritage, some of them do want to celebrate their heritage, again coming from the U.K. I have a different point of view again and I just want to ask Varun how he stands on this.
Varun: I get confused sometimes where I’m from. I used to introduce myself as a Chindian. So I was born in India, I have an Indian passport and my parents are Indian but I left when I was 7 and I grew up in Macau and I associate myself with Macau more. So when I think about some of my favorite musicians or artists, apart from the Western artists, I’m thinking Jay Chou. So how many Indians are going to say Jay Chou versus Ravi Shankar or even the latest Indian artists which I have no idea about. Not because I’m not interested but when you’re out of that zone, you’re out of the context, you’re out of the country and you’re not in the same area where you’re always being influenced by Indian music or movies or just content. I can’t relate to it anymore.
So I tell people I was born in India but I’m actually from Macau. I grew up there and the way I think about family and culture and stuff is a mixture of Chinese and Indian. There’s a lot of similarities there for sure but it’s a mixture of both. Now living in the U.S., and I have this special connection to the U.S. as well because I spent six years there, and that’s when you go through these phases of becoming an adult and I learnt a lot from there so I learnt a lot from my western friends, American friends and the American influence, the American culture, things like Thanksgiving, turkey in November with the family. So that is still part of who I am as well. Especially now with my nieces being American and my brother who’s lived there for a long time—so it’s hard for me to pinpoint, saying I’m from Macau but I’m actually from the U.S. and I’m actually Indian. I can’t sum it up because I’m just influenced by so many different things that I pick the best out of each one and just go with that.
Eugene: I feel like the whole notion of defining yourself by where you’re from is growing increasingly antiquated. It just feels as though it’s no longer as relevant as it once was because people move around so much. But for better or worse, our definition of culture and identity is so fluid. If you ever were to move back to London you’d probably bring with you some traits that you picked up while you were in Hong Kong.
Edward: Absolutely. I would hope so.
Eugene: I’ve been having this conversation as of late and I think that the future of how we interact, who we decide to hang out with is actually less defined by socio-economic background and more so by cultural overlap that is in many ways established through traveling. For me, I think there’s a strong level of identification with people that have traveled a bit and have enjoyed traveling and I’m always curious, if you look at Brexit and just nationalism in general, how much of nationalism is tied to lack of a passport? Lack of travel and what would it look like if you were to kind of break it down, statistically what would that look like?
Edward: Absolutely. I think one of the key things that kept coming up after Brexit was people saying that the people that fear Europeans, everybody should mandatorily have to visit Europe for a certain period, almost like we used to have national service until the 1960s I think in the U.K. And then you get a lot of people saying the country went downhill when national service stopped. If it was reinstated I would love it to be that everybody has to go to a different country to do their national service. Obviously this would never happen. But there has to be something that shows everybody the benefits of mixed cultures, of mixing with another culture. If you come away from it and decide you don’t like it, fair enough but at least you did it. I know it sounds super hippy but I just can’t see any negatives to mixing cultures in that way. Even though you just said it’s becoming antiquated, I would say that it’s still to this day one of the second or third questions that you’re asked in a conversation.
Eugene: It’s an easy way to derive identity.
Edward: For me personally, I would say it’s changed over time as London has become more diverse. I feel like when I was in school we joked about this, “Where are you from?” You say London or U.K. and someone says, “Well you know, really, where are you really from?” I feel like as an adult that “Where are you really from?” kind of went away in London. The funny thing is that I found moving to the other side of the world is that everybody, ninety nine percent of cases, will just take London as your first answer. It’s almost just a talking point. I don’t find anyone exploring back further. So I feel like it could be changing and then maybe another twenty years down the line It’s not even a question. They just look at your face and be like whatever, let’s just talk about places we’ve been.
Eugene: Things are growing increasingly borderless as well, or that’s the goal anyway.
Varun: My girlfriend’s Chinese British, born and raised in the U.K. but her family’s from Hong Kong. So if we were to get married and have kids, those kids are going to get confused. More confused to think am I Chinese or am I Indian or am I—depending on where we have the kid—from that country? I always think back to the Russell Peters joke that everyone’s going to be beige at some point and it’s not going to matter. “Where are you from?” “I’m from this country because I’ve lived here for these many years and this is who I am now.”
Edward: It was really good to hear your point about the culture that you took on board from Macau because I feel like you’re from the place that you identify with the most and some people put a strict timeframe on it. You could technically say you were from the U.S., like you took in Thanksgiving, you love Portland, you could say you’re from Portland. It’s nobody else’s to question but yours, it’s where you feel like you’re from. People want to strictly define it, hopefully as you said, it’s going away.
Eugene: I think there’s going to be a lot of things that we continue to seek in terms of identity but I just think that where we’re from it’s probably going to be pushed to the wayside a little bit.
Edward: I hope so. I hope so. I think on that note, we can call that an interview. Thanks for coming in Varun. Thanks for my special guest, Eugene Kan. Stay tuned for the next one. Peace.
Subscribe to the podcast Social Effects, listen to episode two of Social Effects hosted by Edward Barnieh with Holly-Marie Cato or episode three with Tyson Wheatley, and follow Varun Thota on Instagram.