Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
MG Siegler in Going Against The Grain:
We’re seeing over and over again now that the behemoths can’t simply add a startup’s funtionality into their own app as a feature and kill said startup. But it’s equally important to note that if you are able to establish your startup, especially those in apps form, it may be hard to get your users to do anything other than what they originally came to do. Especially if the new funtionality is against the grain in any way.
This comes back to understanding what job users hire your product to do for them, and realizing that it’s very difficult to convince them to use the product for a different job.
In The Dawn of the Age of Artificial Intelligence Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee talk about some of the good things that are coming out of the Artificial Intelligence community:
A user of the OrCam system, which was introduced in 2013, clips onto her glasses a combination of a tiny digital camera and speaker that works by conducting sound waves through the bones of the head. If she points her finger at a source of text such as a billboard, package of food, or newspaper article, the computer immediately analyzes the images the camera sends to it, then reads the text to her via the speaker.
There are a few more interesting, feel-good examples in the article.
Jeremy Keith writes about the challenges of turning large, established desktop-centric sites into responsive sites in Climbing Mount Responsive. This method remains my favorite:
Rebuild the mobile site, using it as a seed from which to grow a new responsive site. On the face of it, having a separate mobile subdomain might seem like a millstone around your neck if your trying to push for a responsive design. In practice though, it can be enormously useful. Mostly it’s a political issue: whereas ripping out the desktop site and starting from scratch is a huge task that would require everyone’s buy-in, nobody gives a shit about the mobile subdomain. Both the BBC news team and The Guardian are having great success with this approach, building mobile-first responsive sites bit-by-bit on the m. subdomain, with the plan to one day flip the switch and make the subdomain the main site.
I also really like Brad Frost’s illustrations of this approach in Planting the Seed for a Responsive Future.
Designing emails that look beautiful, render perfectly and drive strong response is increasingly difficult. That’s why Campaign Monitor compiled the top 100 emails of 2013 into a free eBook, alongside tips on design and content. The Top 100 Email Marketing Campaigns eBook features brands like Fitbit, SmugMug, Panic and includes:
- High performing newsletters with open rates of more than 50%.
- Examples of great layouts & responsive designs.
- Emails that go against best practices and still drive top results.
- Campaigns that saw open rates improve by 20% after A/B testing, and more.
Check out the free eBook at campaignmonitor.com/top100.
Campaign Monitor makes software that lets you create and send beautiful emails. Today more than 800,000 designers, agencies, and amazing companies across the globe rely on Campaign Monitor to manage their email marketing.
John Foreman digs into Disney’s MagicBands in his article You don’t want your privacy — Disney and the meat space data race:
Disney World is like a petri dish for advanced analytic techniques because the hotels and parks are all tied together in one large, heavily controlled environment. If you ever wanted to star in The Truman Show, a trip to Disney is the next best thing — it feels like a centrally planned North Korea only with more fun, less torture and the same amount of artifice.
From the mundane to the magical, the fact is there’s probably an engineer behind the scenes at Disney who has thought through it. Disney has industrial engineers that work on everything from optimal food-and-beverage pricing and laundry facility optimization, to attraction performance and wait-time minimization (the vaunted FASTPASS system).
The article is largely a negative look at (legitimate) privacy issues with programs like these, but in Disney’s case, I just think it sounds awesome.
Great article by Zach Holman on startup growth, hiring, and culture:
I think a number of startups end up reaching some type of blindness as they grow and reach success. They are the same companies whose founders are college dropouts, but now that they’re a hundred employees they decide to follow Google’s model and recruit exclusively from top five-ranked schools. They are the same companies that hire a monoculture, not realizing that their success stemmed in part from the oddball founding crew that came together in the initial years. They are the same companies that miss out on the clever-but-unknown hacker because they’ve been in the spotlight themselves for so long.
Flappy Bird — that insufferable iOS game — has been in the news quite a bit recently. One of the more incensed “reviews” comes from Paul Tassi’s Winged Fury:
Flappy Bird is not a game. It’s an addictive collection of pixels you don’t win, you simply play until you’re frustrated enough to delete it. And yet, it’s tapped into some primal sense of accomplishment for this, the attention-deficit world we live in. Have nothing to do for more than a few moments? Whip out your phone and flap your way through some pipes. You’ll be dead in seconds with each attempt, and therefore the game can kill any span of time from half a minute to hours. [...]
The time spent there is lost forever. The skill required to achieve high scores is wasted potential with no benefit whatsoever to the player. To brag about a score here is to boast to a friend how many times you managed to punch a brick wall before stopping.
Ian Bogost’s The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird starts like this:
Games are grotesque.
And it he only gets angrier from there:
Flappy Bird is a perversely, oppressively difficult game. [...] Flappy Bird is not difficult to challenge you, nor even to teach the institution of videogames a thing or two. Rather, Flappy Bird is difficult because that’s how it is. It is a game that is indifferent, like an iron gate rusted shut, like the ice that shuts down a city. It’s not hard for the sake of your experience; it’s just hard because that’s the way it is. Where masocore games want nothing more than to please their players with pain and humiliation (thus their appropriation of the term “masochism”), Flappy Bird just exists. It wants nothing and expects even less.
Look, way too much time has been wasted discussing how much time people are wasting on Flappy Bird. Still, it’s just so exactly like the internet to latch onto a phenomenon like this and then blow it completely out of proportion — and in the case of Forbes and The Atlantic, turn it into some highbrow existential reflection. It’s why I hate the internet, and it’s why I love the internet, all wrapped up into one silly little game.
But perhaps the last word should go to Bogost:
For no matter how stupid it is to be a game, it is no less stupid to be a man who plays one.
I’ve been thinking about this whole “being online” thing quite a bit over the past week or so, so James Shelley’s The Overinflated Currency of Personal Brands struck quite a chord:
What happens when the fame contagion infects an entire society? [American historian Daniel Boorstin] speculated that “The quest for celebrity, the pressure for well-knownness, everywhere makes the worker overshadow the work.” Increasingly we will go about our lives and work not actually concerned with the living and working itself, but with being known for our lives and work. Our lives and work become nothing but source material for the promotion of our personalities. Ultimately, achievement and accomplishment come to mean nothing, if they are not mechanisms for propagating our individual cult stories.
I see this more and more online, and it’s a worrisome trend — this tendency to measure the value of our work by the number of people who see it and comment on it. Our search for meaningful work should always outweigh our search for recognition. This idea of individual stories and meaning remind me of Donald Miller’s words in one of my favorite books, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years:
If [it’s true about] a good story being a condensed version of life — that is, if story is just life without the meaningless scenes — I wondered if life could be lived more like a good story in the first place. I wondered if a person could plan a story for his life and live it intentionally.
Planning a good story for our lives has nothing to do with “well-knownness” and everything to do with the amount of meaning we pack into each day. I know I’m being a bit sentimental today, but it’s because our family is on the verge of a very big change, and much of it is driven by a renewed appreciation for living life with greater intention. Over the past few years I’ve seen my decisions increasingly being influenced by a desire for my daughters to one day say to their friends, “My Dad wasn’t afraid to take risks.” So that’s what we’re doing…
Anthony Colangelo explains how he uses a technique called Switch Programming to help solve coding problems:
We gave each other 30 seconds to explain our intended results, and nothing else. Then, we traded computers and got to work.
I was working on a fairly new project with a codebase that Mark really hadn’t been in, and Mark was working on an old project that I hadn’t touched for over a year and a half (long story). Point is, neither of us were intimately familiar with the project we were debugging. It didn’t matter—we knew what had to happen, and we dug in.
Within five minutes, our issues were solved. We explained to each other what we did to fix the problems, we learned a little something, and we got back to work.
This sounds like a great approach to solve design challenges as well. If you’re not sure how to get past a particular design problem, explain the intended result to someone, and give them 5 minutes to try to sketch a few solutions. It will probably not be perfect, but it’s a great way to get some fresh thinking to bump you back on track.
I rarely find myself in a position where I want to “engage” with the company who makes my toothpaste, so I generally don’t follow brands on Twitter (or any non-individual accounts, for that matter). But I recently indulged in a couple of guilty pleasure accounts. Faces in Things posts pictures of (wait for it) things that look like faces, and Behind the Scenes posts (wait for it) behind-the-scenes pictures from iconic movies.
I found the accounts interesting and funny for a while, but then I started noticing a few things that made me uncomfortable. Two things started bugging me:
- Photos are never attributed to their original sources, and
- These accounts (and several similar ones, most notably History In Pictures) seem to be run by the same people who just end up retweeting their own stuff to create some kind of snowball effect
I started suspecting that these accounts were created to amass hundreds of thousands of followers, only to then be sold to the highest bidder who wants to pimp their products to an unsuspecting audience. It’s a common practice on Facebook (I’ve written about that in The dirty world of Facebook EdgeRank Optimization), but I haven’t seen it on Twitter before.
Anyway, I unfollowed the accounts and didn’t think much more of it.
And then I read Wynken de Worde’s It’s history, not a viral feed1, in which he tears these Twitter accounts apart. He focuses quite a bit on the attribution issue, confirms that most of the accounts exist only for the bait-and-switch sale2, and then concludes:
Feeds like @HistoryinPics make it impossible for anyone interested in a picture to find out more about it, to better understand what it is showing, and to assess its accuracy. As a teacher and as someone who works in a cultural heritage institution, I am deeply invested in the value of studying the past and of recognizing that the past is never neutral or transparent. We see the past through our own perspective and often put it to use for our own purposes. We don’t always need to trace history’s contours in order to enjoy a letter or a photograph, but they are there to be traced. These accounts capitalize on a notion that history is nothing more than superficial glimpses of some vaguely defined time before ours, one that exists for us to look at and exclaim over and move on from without worrying about what it means and whether it happened. [...]
And so @HistoryInPics makes me angry not for what it fails to do, but that it gets so many people to participate in it, including people who care about the same issues that I do. Attribution, citation, and accuracy are the basis of understanding history. @HistoryInPics might not care about those things, but I would like to think that you do. The next time you come across one of these pictures, ask yourself what it shows and what it doesn’t, and what message you’re conveying by spreading it.
The inaccuracy of these accounts (see, for example, 12 More Viral Photos That Are Totally Fake) is a huge deal, of course. But for some reason it’s still the lack of attribution that grates me the most. Back in 2009 I adopted Chris Messina’s use of slashtags on Twitter to attribute sources using the syntax “/via @name”. I’ve been using it ever since, and I saw many people who did the same. But it’s a practice that has slowly diminished over the past few years3.
Why is it a big deal to tell people where we found something? Isn’t the web free and open and we’re all one and blah blah blah? Sure, but the web is also fundamentally about hyperlinks. The ability to follow links back to their original sources — with plenty of pleasant detours along the way — is the core of what makes the internet such a wonderful place. Do you ever get happily lost on Wikipedia? Exactly. So if we stop caring about attribution, we rob others of the ability to find more people and topics that they might be interested in. I’ll say it again: It’s not about making the source feel important. It’s about helping others follow the breadcrumbs to places of interest.
So I guess the point of this post is to join in Wynken’s plea that we look at these new crop of Twitter accounts more critically, and call them what they are: get rich quick schemes. And to ask that we remember to take attribution seriously. It’s the right thing to do.