Giving your voice a chance to be heard

Craig Mod just published the first issue of his Roden Explorers Mailing List, and it’s great. He talks a bit about disconnecting from the Internet — a topic that, let’s be honest, we’re all thinking about at this time of year:

It’s REALLY fascinating to watch the language and texture of the world around you change when you disconnect. It’s also a bit sad, I guess, or hilarious, I suppose, to fetishize disconnection. But that’s the world we live in these days.

He proceeds to discuss author Susan Sontag’s book Under the Sign of Saturn, and one of the rules she made for her apartment in the 1970s:

“[It is] in this tiny room where books are forbidden, where I try better to hear my own voice and discover what I really think and really feel.”

Books! The enemy! Excise them to go: Offline!

This is such a great description of why one needs an internet diet every now and then: to better hear your own voice and discover what you really think and really feel.

We grab frantically at social network signals, news, podcasts — whatever — during all moments of downtime. Nevermind the last time we heard our voice, when’s the last time we gave our voice a chance to be heard?

The whole letter is great, so I definitely recommend subscribing to Roden Explorers.

Distinguishing between impactful and immersive design

Jon Tan’s Science! rounds off another great season on the always interesting 24 Ways. Jon discusses some of the science behind good design, starting from this premise:

I tend to distinguish between these two broad objectives as designing for impact on the one hand, and designing for immersion on the other. What defines them is interruption. Impact needs an attention-grabbing interruption. Immersion requires us to remove interruption from the interface. Careful design deliberately interrupts but doesn’t accidentally disrupt. If that seems to make sense to you, then you’ll find the following snippets of science as useful as I did.

I look forward to next year’s 24 articles already.

The perfect espresso

I loved Marco Tabini’s essay in The Magazine about his experiences growing up in his Mother’s coffee shop in Italy. From Majestic Espresso:

A professional espresso machine — in my mind, always the Machine — is intimidating in function and involved to use. I used to liken the Machine to the star beast of a mythical circus of the kind you would find in the pages of a fantasy book by Hickman and Weis. Manhandled, it would defend itself by spewing dangerously hot liquid, billowing clouds of steam rising from it like smoke from the mouth of a fire-breathing dragon; but it could also be capable of extreme gentleness, pushing out a shot of espresso one drop at a time while growling quietly in the background.

This bit about Starbucks made me laugh out loud:

A good espresso blend has been processed to a medium roast; the beans should have the color of bittersweet chocolate, with a slight sheen of essential oils on their surface. Dark-roasted beans produce a bitter taste because of the excessive caramelization of the sugars in them; contrary to popular opinion, a dark coffee doesn’t produce a “stronger” espresso, but only one that tastes like burnt earth. As my mom once exclaimed after trying Starbucks for the first time, you might as well grab a handful of dirt from your garden, drop it in a cup of hot water, and save some money.

The Magazine just gets better and better with every issue. And since you’re probably looking for some quality holiday reading this week, now is a great time to subscribe.

The cure for technology overload

Dave Pell is writing on Tweetage Wasteland again, and that’s a wonderful thing. Earlier this week he called for a better media in Get Off My Stoop, and today he’s back with a very good essay on technology overload. From The Answer Is Just A Click Away:

Technology used to be a way to solve life’s little problems. Now, technology is used to solve the little problems caused by technology. On some level, we know that doesn’t make sense, but we don’t have an app to convince us. Where’s the computer algorithm to prove that the quiet walk without the phone calls is the balance?

It’s worth reading his conclusion — and subscribing to his site if you don’t already do so.

Mankind’s almost infinite appetite for distractions

I recently started reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (thanks to J.D. Bentley for the recommendation). It’s great so far, and I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say once I’ve made my way through it.

Postman juxtaposes George Orwell’s “Big Brother” prophecy from Nineteen Eighty-Four with Aldous Huxley’s very different view of the future as set out in his 1931 book Brave New World. With that as backdrop, it’s amazing to think that this section from Amusing Ourselves to Death was written in 1985:

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Sounds like it was written yesterday, doesn’t it…

Designers should be in a constant state of observation

I really enjoyed Sarah Doody’s article in UX Magazine called The Flâneur Approach to User Experience Design. Flâneur is a French word that means “to stroll.” Sarah explains:

The flâneur’s mind is always in a state of observation. He or she connects the dots through each experience and encounter that comes his or her way. The flâneur is in constant awe of his surroundings. In the article “In Search Of Serendipity” for The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine, Ian Leslie writes that a flâneur is someone who “wanders the streets with purpose, but without a map.”

In the world of product design and start ups, there’s growing pressure to focus prematurely on the solution, to connect the dots backward instead of forward, to design the system before you’ve addressed the story. But, as user experience designers, we know that our greatest purpose is to develop the most intimate understanding of the people we design for and the problems they’re facing. To do this, we must be flâneurs.

It’s really worth reading the whole article to see more of Sarah’s conclusions and advice.

Paying for the product doesn’t guarantee anything

Derek Powazek pulls apart the saying “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” in his post I’m Not The Product, But I Play One On The Internet. His conclusion:

We can and should support the companies we love with our money. Companies can and should have balanced streams of income so that they’re not solely dependent on just one. We all should consider the business models of the companies we trust with our data.

But we should not assume that, just because we pay a company they’ll treat us better, or that if we’re not paying that the company is allowed to treat us like shit. Reality is just more complicated than that. What matters is how companies demonstrate their respect for their customers. We should hold their feet to the fire when they demonstrate a lack of respect.

This is, of course, in response to the Instagram TOS debacle, which resulted in an update from Instagram to clarify their terms in a post with the “please stop shouting at us!” title Thank you, and we’re listening. But as Faruk Ateş points out in What Instagram did wrong:

Bad language is merely a symptom of the bigger mistake they made. Their failure lies in not acknowledging—or understanding—the change in expectations that took place amongst their users when they sold themselves to Facebook for a billion dollars. […]

Once you sell to a frequently-criticized juggernaut like Facebook, users’ expectations change from supportive to skeptic, and, especially because of Facebook’s long history of privacy-related mishaps, you may very well lose all benefit of the doubt amongst some of your users.

Oh, how many PR disasters could be avoided if companies would learn to respect their users, and be more in touch with their needs and goals…

The (non)value of a Twitter follow

Amber Naslund’s How Twitter Works Today… And How I’m Using It Now got me all riled up about something I didn’t even realise bothered me as much as it does. This is the part that really got to me:

Let me explain this very clearly: a Twitter follow is not a validation of your worth as a human, nor is it a stamp of approval from someone online that you’re awesome or not. If you even slightly see it that way, you might need to reset some priorities.

Twitter is simply a tool, a mechanism. Everyone uses it differently, and heavy users like me need to rejig the system once in a while so it continues to work and stay manageable. In short, the system of follows and lists and DM access and what is useful to me to pay attention to is not about you. In this case, it’s about me and what makes Twitter valuable for me personally.

You get to say the same thing about your experience, and you get to shape it according to your own needs. Hell, unfollow me and put me on a list (or don’t) if you want. Your Twitter is yours to shape, and you don’t owe me anything either. I’d wager that a good portion of the people I’m most interested in at a professional level don’t follow me back. And who cares?

I’ll be honest — the decision to follow someone on Twitter makes me really nervous. It feels like a huge commitment. Because if I realise a few days down the line that I’m not as interested in someone’s stream as I thought I would be, I find it very difficult to unfollow them — people take this stuff very personally. So when I find someone I might want to follow, I usually put them on a list first for a few weeks, and if I find myself clicking on a few of the links they tweet, I’ll go ahead and follow.

But it’s not a foolproof system, and every time I realise I actually don’t want to see this person’s tweets in my main timeline I feel trapped. I know I shouldn’t feel bad about unfollowing, but I do. The point Amber makes is so true, and bears repeating: “a Twitter follow is not a validation of your worth as a human, nor is it a stamp of approval from someone online that you’re awesome or not.”

The fact is that I use Twitter as a business tool, not so much as a way to communicate with friends. That means that I have very strict criteria for the kind of stuff I want to see in my timeline. I don’t want to see Foursquare checkins, I don’t want to see constant updates about a topic not related to my work, and I don’t want to see only tweets about a person’s product/app. And I’m sorry if that seems selfish, but to paraphrase what Amber says in her post: I get to choose what makes Twitter valuable for me, just like you get to do the same with your stream.

I like Chris Bowler’s distinction between the two main ways to use Twitter in his post The Purpose Varies:

One fact that I do my best to keep in mind is this: there are two very different ways to use Twitter. Option A is as a social tool to interact and joke around with others, to connect. Option B is to use it as a source of sharing information, usually in the form of links to content or pithy blurbs of opinion.

Some people like the service for one, but not the other. Some people manage to strike a lovely, harmonious balance between the two. The catch is that — in my opinion — we mostly want to follow folks who use the service in the same way we do.

I’m an Option B guy myself. I still love having conversations with people who use it more in the Option A way, but I’m not going to follow them. And one more time, with feeling, “a Twitter follow is not a validation of your worth as a human, nor is it a stamp of approval from someone online that you’re awesome or not.”

So let’s agree that we’re allowed to be selfish about how we use Twitter. I’ve learned from experience that I go insane with information overload if I follow more than 200 people, so I’m not going to break through that barrier. And you get to make your own rules, and follow and unfollow whoever you want. That is still, after all these years, the simple beauty of Twitter’s follower model.

So hey, let’s be selfish, and find the measure of our self-worth somewhere else.


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