Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Who has time for that?

Andy Budd’s most recent contribution to The Pastry Box Project got quite a bit of traction yesterday. This part, in particular, seems to have struck a chord in our corner of the Internet:

Good design takes time—more time than most of us are allowed. […] Sadly we see too many potentially amazing designers stuck by the glass ceiling of time. So they settle on the first solution that looks viable and are never allowed to sweat the details. They are forced to rely on 1% of inspiration without the benefit of perspiration.

So this is the dirty little secret in our industry. The best designers and developers rarely have more talent. They simply have more time.

This rings true, but I’d like to expand on that and say that it’s not just a problem in our industry. Things have become very, very fast all around us, and our impatience has reached remarkable levels. We pirate movies because we can’t wait 1 minute for the anti-piracy warnings on DVDs to play through (oh, the irony). We microwave pop tarts for 3 seconds because we can’t wait for them to finish toasting. Brian Regan has a pretty funny standup bit about this (the microwave thing starts at 2:35):

Frank Partnoy sums up the consequences of our addiction to speed very well in Wait: The Art and Science of Delay:

The essence of my case is this: given the fast pace of modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly. We don’t, or can’t, take enough time to think about the increasingly complex timing challenges we face. Technology surrounds us, speeding us up. We feel its crush every day, both at work and at home.

Yet the best time managers are comfortable pausing for as long as necessary before they act, even in the face of the most pressing decisions. Some seem to slow down time. For good decision-makers, time is more flexible than a metronome or atomic clock. As we will see over and over, in most situations we should take more time than we do.

We should take more time than we do, yes. But we don’t. Because business doesn’t work that way. Technology doesn’t work that way. And, most of all, release schedules don’t work that way.

We all know the saying Fast, good, and cheap — pick two. We live in an environment where everything has to be “fast”, so we’re inevitably left with choosing between “good” or “cheap”. And guess which one we end up having to choose most of the time…

Worthy aspirations for content makers

There are two articles I read in 2012 that will hopefully shape my writing here in the coming year. The first, and possibly the only post any aspiring writer needs to read before getting started, is The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned:

Nobody wants to read your shit.

When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.

This ties in very well with Paul Ford’s plea in one of my favorite essays of 2012, 10 Timeframes:

If we are going to ask people, in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?

So when we tweet, write, post, or whatever we call it when we create content, the first question we should ask ourselves is: “Is this thing I’m sharing worthy of attention?” If it’s a Foursquare checkin or a vaguebook update, it’s probably best left unsaid.

The second article that I hope will shape my writing more is this Steinbeck quote:

It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know. It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would milleniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth, and a few remnants of fossilized jaw bones, a few teeth in strata of limestone would be the only mark our species would have left on the earth.

That is certainly an almost impossible standard to live up to. Consistently writing “wisdom to pick up stumbling folly” is something only the most talented writers can do — and even then there are stumbles along the way. Similarly, the Internet makes the thought of staying away from a “negative or despairing approach” sound ludicrous. What will be left of the Internet if we take away angry rants and YouTube comments?

And yet, as unreachable as they appear to be, I think these are good aspirations for anyone who publishes content on the Internet today:

  • Only share that which is worthy of your audience’s attention.
  • Strive to uplift and encourage, not to break down and destroy.

With that in mind, I’ll probably move away from straight-up link-blogging a little bit this year, and rather focus more on trying to connect dots where I think seemingly unrelated things on the web can come together to tell a good story. That’s what excites me, so it’s probably what Obsession Times Voice means for me1.

This isn’t a year-in-review post, but I’d still like to thank you for reading, for tweeting me your feedback, for emailing me. For correcting my spelling errors, for telling me when I’m full of crap, and for encouraging me when I feel like this is too much work for too little return.

I’d like to say a special thanks to those who subscribe to the site via RSS. When I subscribe to a feed, it feels like I’m inviting someone in from the porch to come have a seat inside and have a cup of coffee together. I know RSS space is limited, and that it’s a pretty big commitment to subscribe to someone’s feed. So please know that I take that seriously, and that you are a big part of the reason I aspire to become better at this.


Hashtag: a worthy choice for word of the year 2012

In its 23rd annual Words of the Year vote, the American Dialect Society voted “hashtag” as the word of the year for 2012. So in honour of our newly crowned word of the year, let’s take a quick look at some recent commentary on the use of hashtags.

In his post On “Hashtag” and Remembering the Internet is Awkward, Drew Breunig comments as follows on the word of the year vote:

Computers don’t understand us. They’re getting better, but this last mile is turning out to be a doozy. Siri garbles every third word and struggles with accents, Google trips on words, and Facebook and iPhoto facial recognition systems see faces where there aren’t any. People are messy and the real world isn’t clean. It’s hard for computers to understand us.

The hashtag is us giving them a hand, providing a clue to our intentions they can easily parse. Hashtags are us talking loud and slow in a foreign land. They’re awkward, which is precisely why they’re important to note.

This is true, but it’s only half the story. The hashtag has become so much more than a way to organise information — it can be a device for humour, activism, spam, and everything in between. The New York Times explains it well in an article full of great examples, called In Praise of the Hashtag:

But the hashtag, for the dexterous user, is a versatile tool — one that can be deployed in a host of linguistically complex ways. In addition to serving as metadata (#whatthetweetisabout), the hashtag gives the writer the opportunity to comment on his own emotional state, to sarcastically undercut his own tweet, to construct an extra layer of irony, to offer a flash of evocative imagery or to deliver metaphors with striking economy. It’s a device that allows the best writers to operate in multiple registers at once, in a compressed space. It’s the Tuvan throat singing of the Internet.

Not all hashtag usage is good, though. Apart from the fact that most hashtag jokes aren’t very funny — it takes some real talent to use it well — it can also be harmful in several ways. For example, in Fear the hashtags of rage, Watts Martin critiques the use of hashtags as activism, saying it has become a way to feel like we’re doing something positive to support a cause — and effectively to absolve ourselves from doing any real work to affect the change we seek:

There’s also an ugly [side to the hashtag of rage]: “it’s somebody else’s responsibility to take the hits for what we want.” We want to write our protest signs and have somebody else march with them. By God, our service providers should stand up for what we believe in, secure in the knowledge that if they lose business, get shut down or even face jail time, we’ll write the angriest blog posts ever about that. Maybe not under our real name, you understand. Can’t be too careful.

And then there’s also the absurd side of things. Luckily I haven’t experienced this myself, but in Twitterish John McWhorter tells us that the hashtag is even becoming a thing in the spoken word:

The new thing, however, is using the word “hashtag” in conversation. Especially if you are under a certain age, you may be catching people saying things like, “I ran into that guy I met—hashtag happy!” or, in response to someone complaining, “My flashlight app isn’t working,” perhaps you have heard the retort, “Hashtag First World problems!” A college student not long ago reported a favourite witticism to be appending observations with: “Hashtag did that just happen?”

Hashtag yikes1.

It’s interesting to see something that was created for taxonomy purposes transformed into such a ubiquitous and diverse linguistic tool. For that reason, I think “hashtag” is a worthy choice for word of the year.

  1. Sorry. It’s a terrible joke. I don’t know why I didn’t delete it the second I wrote it. 

Growing up on the social web

Hunter Walk wrote a great article about Facebook Connect and how difficult it is to own the social web, called Trying to be the one true social graph is like trying to hold water in your fist. One of the fascinating parts is his observation about how the next generation is using technology:

Each new group of kids come of age wanting a space they can discover together and call their own. This is DNA, not computer science. It’s not about tech changing (oh, this is Facebook if it was build only for tablets) – it’s about getting to a dry piece of land when you’re 13 years old and being able to plant your own flag. I don’t see how you get beyond the anthropology of this.

In light of that, Josh Miller’s Tenth Grade Tech Trends and Justin Hoenke’s follow-up Tenth Grade Tech Trends (Take Two) are important data points to know about. These are very anecdotal, sure, but Josh and Justin’s takeaways are definitely worth debating. Here, for example, is Josh’s insight based on his 15-year old sister’s comment that Tumblr is just for middle schoolers:

I can’t get over the “middle schoolers use it” comment, especially since they use Tumblr as an identity tool. That’s exactly how my friends and I used Myspace in middle school, and we too abandoned it (for Facebook) once we reached high school. So in middle school you care a lot about your personal presentation (themes and cultural images on your Myspace or Tumblr page), but once you reach high school you care more about the people you present yourself with (photos on Facebook and Instagram)?

If you’re interested in how teens use social media, it’s worth following danah boyd’s blog. She is a researcher on media and youth culture, and her insights are always interesting. Here’s a particularly relevant excerpt from her post Risk Reduction Strategies on Facebook:

Shamika deletes every wall message, status update, and Like shortly after it’s posted. She’ll post a status update and leave it there until she’s ready to post the next one or until she’s done with it. Then she’ll delete it from her profile. When she’s done reading a friend’s comment on her page, she’ll delete it. She’ll leave a Like up for a few days for her friends to see and then delete it. When I asked her why she was deleting this content, she looked at me incredulously and told me “too much drama.” Pushing further, she talked about how people were nosy and it was too easy to get into trouble for the things you wrote a while back that you couldn’t even remember posting let alone remember what it was all about. It was better to keep everything clean and in the moment. If it’s relevant now, it belongs on Facebook, but the old stuff is no longer relevant so it doesn’t belong on Facebook.

With behaviour like that, it’s no surprise that ephemeral apps like Snapchat and Poke are so successful.

Snapchat, Poke, and the backlash of the real

Jenna Wortham makes an interesting observation about apps like Snapchat and Poke in Facebook Poke and the Tedium of Success Theater. She starts off by talking about something I’ve written about quite a bit as well — that who we pretend to be online is not even close to who we really are:

We’ve become better at choreographing ourselves and showing our best sides to the screen, capturing the most flattering angle of our faces, our homes, our evenings out, our loved ones and our trips.

It’s success theater, and we’ve mastered it. We’ve gotten better at it because it matters more. You never know who is looking or how it might affect your relationships and career down the road, and as a result, we have become more cautious about the version of ourselves that we present to each other and the world.

The example most people immediately jump to when talking about this is Instagram filters — something I’ve written about before as well. It’s fascinating to think about apps like Snapchat and Poke as deliberate backlash against fake online versions of ourselves. By encouraging ephemeral, intimate, #nofilter snapshots, these apps give a more accurate reflection of “the real you”. In Wortham’s words:

These applications are the opposite of groomed; they practically require imperfection, a sloppiness and a grittiness that conveys a sense of realness, something I’ve been craving in my communication. They transform the screen of your phone into a window into the life of your friend, wherever they are at that exact moment. […]

It is an acknowledgement that the version of ourselves we share through other social media is not the truest one, and has not been for a long time.

The unnecessary fear of digital perfection

I’ve recently noticed a recurring theme in many articles that cover technology’s impact on our lives. It’s the idea that the move to digital technologies has taken away an essential part of being human: the accidental discovery of new things by getting lost. The fear is that what we might call “digital perfection” is removing the natural wayfinding mistakes that are essential for serendipitous discovery — like getting lost in a new city and then finding that perfect coffee shop. I’ll share a few examples first, and then comment on why I think this fear is unnecessary.

The example that’s cited most often is how Google search is enveloping each of us in the Internet’s “filter bubble” where we only find what we’re looking for, and nothing more. Here’s Maria Popova in Are We Becoming Cyborgs?:

The Web by and large is really well designed to help people find more of what they already know they’re looking for, and really poorly designed to help us discover that which we don’t yet know will interest us and hopefully even change the way we understand the world.

There are several industry-specific examples, like the lament that we don’t browse record stores just for the fun of it any more. From Spotify and the Problem of Endless Musical Choice:

We seem to have created an environment in which wonderful music, newly discovered, is difficult to treasure. For treasures, as the fugitive salesman in the flea market was implying, are hard to come by—you have to work to find them. And the function of fugitive salesmen is to slow the endless deluge, drawing our attention to one album at a time, creating demand not for what we need to survive but for what we yearn for. Because how else can you form a relationship with a record when you’re cursed with the knowledge that, just an easy click away, there might be something better, something crucial and cataclysmic? The tyranny of selection is the opposite of freedom. And the more you click, the more you enhance the disposability of your endeavor.

And then there is The End of the Map, a fascinating article about the history of cartographic errors, which includes this statement:

The uncertainty that was once an unavoidable part or our relationship with maps has been replaced by a false sense of Wi-Fi-enabled omnipotence. Digital maps are the enemies of wonder. They suppress our urge to experiment and (usually) steer us from error—but what could be more irrepressibly human than those very things?

This idea is echoed in No one likes a city that’s too smart:

A great deal of research during the last decade, in cities as different as Mumbai and Chicago, suggests that once basic services are in place people don’t value efficiency above all; they want quality of life. A hand-held GPS device won’t, for instance, provide a sense of community. More, the prospect of an orderly city has not been a lure for voluntary migration, neither to European cities in the past nor today to the sprawling cities of South America and Asia. If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way; this is how they can come to take ownership over their lives.

Now, I’ll admit that I largely agree with the consequences that are pointed out in these articles. I’ll even admit to feeling the same sense of loss that these authors do. But I don’t agree that accidental discovery is a thing of the past. I believe that digital perfection opens up amazing possibilities, and combined with the fact that humans will always be explorers and flâneur no matter what technology we use, we’re starting to see some great products to help us replace what we’ve lost in the analog world.

Here are some examples of the types of discovery products and services we now have access to.

  • collects tweets, articles, photos, and videos that the people you follow have favorited, and presents that in an aggregated stream. I always find something interesting and surprising in my Stellar feed, because it’s based not on explicit recommendations from the people I follow (i.e., what they think their followers might like), but on the things they really like themselves, without the social media personal brand/engagement filter.
  • This is my Jam has become my favorite way to discover new music. You choose one song that you really like, and this song becomes your “jam”. It then shows up in your followers’ streams. By only allowing users to choose one favorite song at a time the service doesn’t become overwhelming. I suspect we’re going to see many new social networks like this — sites that are focused on a specific vertical, that build on the trust we place in people we know in real life, and that are designed for quality of content, not quantity.
  • While the big guys are fighting over photo filters and who shouldn’t show up in whose stream, Foursquare is adding some amazing features with every release. We really shouldn’t underestimate this company’s potential. Foursquare has become an incredibly good way to discover not just new cities, but one’s own city as well. As users continue to add tips, lists, ratings, and photos of their favorite (and not so favorite) places, Foursquare will slowly resurface some of the “getting lost” moments that have been buried by digitally perfect maps.

My point is simply this. Sure, there are things we used to do in an analog era that we don’t do any more. We don’t get lost in encyclopedias, record stores, and cities any more. And that has some negative consequences. But we shouldn’t grieve about it too much.

Our insatiable spirit to discover new things haven’t gone away just because we’ve moved to a digital world. We just need to meet those needs in different ways — ways that better utilize the benefits of digital media. In fact, it’s not that we won’t get lost any more. It’s just that we need to invent ways to get lost differently.

Optimizing a UI for the number of clicks is not a good strategy

Even though it’s used quite extensively, I’ve never liked “the fewer clicks, the better” as a metric for good usability. Chasing that metric can easily result in an interface where every feature is within a click or two’s reach, but the thing is so crowded that users have trouble figuring out where to go. In Satisficing Lukas Mathis draws from psychology to explain why this metric doesn’t make much sense:

A great user interface is not one where each goal can be reached with the smallest number of clicks possible, or where the user has to pick from only a small number of choices at each step, but one where each individual click is as obvious as possible. If your users have a clear goal in mind, each level of the hierarchy should have one option that clearly satisfies their goal—or at least gets them closer to that goal. As long as users feel that they are getting closer to their goal with each step, they don’t mind drilling down into a deep hierarchy.

It’s also worth skimming the Wikipedia article on Satisficing for some further background on the theory.

When flat design goes too far

Sacha Greif talks about the dangers of the new flat design aesthetic in The Flat Sink:

Just like the flat sink, this new flat aesthetic looks great and feels refreshing after the unnecessary flourishes of recent years. But it can also be taken too far.

Remove all affordances, and you make it harder for the user to know where to click.

Put everything on the same plane, and you make it harder to focus on a specific section of the page.

It’s a good reminder that a particular aesthetic should always be used because it fits the purpose of the site/application, not because it’s the latest cool thing to do. Besides — even skeuomorphism is ok when it’s used in good taste1.

  1. I wanted to link to Ben Bleikamp’s original post, but it seems to have disappeared from the Internet, so my pull quote will have to do. 

How steampunk culture offers clues to building a better future

Being More Human is a fascinating article written by Brian David Johnson, Intel’s resident futurist. He explains how steampunk culture offers clues to building a better future:

Steampunk has emotion and passion; it has an opinion and a point of view. It is sassy and thoughtful and optimistic about what could be built. It is convinced we can build a better future by envisioning a different past. Steampunk shows us that people want the devices and the technology in their lives to have a sense of humor, history, and humanity. This desire has radical implications for the type of future we could build.

He then discusses how steampunk reveals three relationships that people want with their technology, and concludes as follows:

When I tell people I’m a futurist and an optimist, they seem surprised and amused. People expect all futurists to be pessimistic prophets of doom. I’m not like that. The future is going to be awesome because we are going to build it. The future is not some fixed point on the horizon that we are all helplessly hurtling toward. Quite the opposite: the future is made every day by people’s actions. We all, on some level, create the future. From the family we raise, to the community we live in, to the business we do, we build the future. We all need to be active participants in imagining the future: the one we want and the one we want to avoid. Then we need to do something about it.

I try hard to stay away from the word “must-read” in these posts, but I’m going to relax my guard on this one, being holiday and all. So, really — read it!

The Internet and narrow horizons

Ian Leslie’s In search of serendipity is a very interesting article on how the Internet is narrowing our horizons by only giving us what we’re looking for, and nothing more:

Today’s world wide web has developed to organise, and make sense of, the exponential increase in information made available to everyone by the digital revolution, and it is amazingly good at doing so. If you are searching for something, you can find it online, and quickly. But a side-effect of this awesome efficiency may be a shrinking, rather than an expansion, of our horizons, because we are less likely to come across things we are not in quest of.

I especially like this metaphor for the Internet as modern city:

In 1952 a French sociologist called Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe asked a student to keep a journal of her daily movements. When he mapped her paths onto a map of Paris he saw the emergence of a triangle, with vertices at her apartment, her university and the home of her piano teacher. Her movements, he said, illustrated “the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives”.

To some degree, the hopes of the internet’s pioneers have been fulfilled. You type “squid” into a search engine, you land on the Wikipedia page about squid, and in no time you are reading about Jules Verne and Pliny. But most of us use the web in the manner of that Parisian student. We have our paths, our bookmarks and our feeds, and we stick closely to them. We no longer “surf” the information superhighway, as it has become too vast to cruise without a map. And as it has evolved, it has become better and better at ensuring we need never stray from our virtual triangles.

As much as everyone seems to hate the word “curation”, it seems obvious to me that it’s important for all of us to seek out people who can lead us to things we didn’t know we’re interested in. As Callum J Hacket advises, make it a habit to follow reliable people rather than rigid topics.