Hurdles to a New Social Web

My last post was discussing the state of social media (and frankly, the internet), and a possible future. I feel like I can say relatively objectively that things are pretty broken as they currently stand, in an actively┬áharming┬ásociety sort of way. But when you’re entrenched, it can be incredibly difficult to see a way out, even if you know you need to. I wanted to take a minute to talk about some of the hurdles to moving on from this mess. (Fair warning, this is a little long.)

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The New Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the internet will look like in the future. Right now, it’s dominated by social media in one form or another, with large, megacorp silos acting as our primary sources of information and discourse. This is a shift from the “DIY” homegrown state of the early internet — while there were absolutely megacorps that cornered entire niches of the internet (think about the likes of AOL, for instance), it didn’t feel like quite as much of a stranglehold. There was lots of room for growth and plucky startups and homegrown projects. A proliferation of open source projects to run your own websites in all sorts of wacky configurations (lots of weird mishmashes of CMSes, blog software, forums, galleries, with some shaky handcrafted glue between them all). Lots of platforms, lots of different standards and protocols popping up all the time, and nothing really talking to each other all that well. Early attempts at cohesion had mixed success (OAuth, yay! RSS, woo! Trackbacks… um).

Given that sort of morass, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of these homegrown solutions gave way to professionally run central services. Tired of fiddling with your tumble log? Go sign up for Tumblr. Microblogging micromanagement got you down? Check out this Twitter thing. Sick of managing 500 logins to different forums? Roll on over to Reddit. Gallery software galling you? Find your way to Flickr! They handle the backend, you provide the content, and your audience grows as their userbase does! Sounds great, right?

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Notes on Confabulations

I recently picked up a book by John Berger, Confabulations — a collection of short, informal essays (almost vignettes). It’s a quick read, and I enjoyed it — I’ve read Berger before, but nothing more recent than 1980 (About Looking), so it was interesting to see what he’s been thinking about lately. Several of the essays were effectively eulogies for friends, the uniqueness and color of which I appreciated:

What Sven was politically has not yet been named — maybe it will be in the next twenty years, when the world transformations taking place today are better understood. For want of a better term, he was content to be called an anarchist. Had he been labelled a terrorist, he would have shrugged his shoulders.

It wasn’t all eulogies, of course. In a different vein, I also appreciated this imagery:

All the town’s trades are connected with water, and the isolation which this implies perhaps explains the physique of its inhabitants. The women and men of Comacchio are recognizably different from their neighbours. Stocky, broad-shouldered, weather-tanned, big-handed, used to bending down, used to pulling on ropes and bailing out, accustomed to waiting, patient. Instead of calling them down-to-earth, we could invent the term: down-to-water.

I like this image, because it reminds me of people I know, and it fits well.

A recurring theme was the state of the world. A particular disdain for corporatist bullshit, which, again, I appreciate. His essay about Rosa Luxemburg had some great quotes, which I think are worth remembering today, when things are tense and shitty:

‘To be a human being’, you say, ‘is the main thing above all else. And that means to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life in the giant scales of fate if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud.’

That quote is from one of Rosa’s letters from prison — Berger intersperses the essay with quotes from her, while the structure is itself written as a letter to her. I think it’s a good message, and one worth repeating.

Extracting a Nested JSON Value in Python

First, some context: I’ve been working on some Python libraries at work that do things with sets of json data. This is generally pretty easy: Python has a nice library for reading json, so it can be worked on as a native dictionary object in Python. This is great for simple json objects, but there’s some pretty complex json data sources out there, whether it’s being returned as part of an API, or is stored in a file. Sometimes you need to access a specific value from a key buried a dozen layers deep, and maybe some of those layers are actually arrays of nested json objects inside them.

While both arrays and dictionaries are native to Python, so you can do this, it’s kind of a pain. Thankfully, many smart people have already been tackling things like this, which is how there are now handy libraries implementing a (pseudo-standard) approach for getting the value given a specific json path. (There’s even an online evaluator to help you craft a good jsonpath.) The one I’ve been using is called jsonpath-rw. When I looked at the docs for jsonpath-rw, I was a little frustrated, and I wanted to take a minute to write out my eventual understanding, in case there are other folks in a similar boat to me.

Note: I’m not primarily a programmer (currently I’m a Technical Writer, and prior to that I was a QA Engineer — mostly exploratory, not automation), so while my example works, there’s probably more robust and pythonic ways to do the same thing. Continue reading “Extracting a Nested JSON Value in Python”

My Take on the WWDC Keynote: Net Positive

First, if you’ve not watched the WWDC Keynote yet, you can watch it here: WWDC 2016 Keynote (You can also see a write-up over at Wired and a Liveblog of the event at Engadget.) There are a few things that came up that I think are pretty notable.

First, Continuity continues to be a big push: Apple wants as seamless an ecosystem as possible across all devices and platforms in their stable of products. We started seeing some elements of this in Yosemite and El Capitan, and it looks like they’re doubling down on it in Sierra. I have some reservations about this — mainly, lock-in and whether or not it will play well with third parties. The concept itself, though, makes a ton of sense. I’m curious to see what sort of response we’ll see from Microsoft and Google in this space (MS is starting to point this direction with their push towards a single core across platforms, but at the same time we’re seeing a de-emphasis of Windows Phone, so curious how this will play out).

Second, Machine Learning. All the big players are getting into it (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant), and Apple has clearly invested heavily in this area, with tight integration of Siri into iOS and macOS. One thing I think is notable about Apple’s choices with this, though, is keeping the AI on-device, rather than web-driven. I’m very curious to see how this evolves in future releases.

Third, Security, Privacy, and Encryption. Several times in the keynote, they made a point of calling out that they’re NOT building profiles of user, and are keeping PII on your device, not on their servers. This emphasis on privacy (and security) pervades a number of the choices they’re making, which I applaud them for committing to. While I disagree with some of their product decisions (single-port computers, charging ports on the bottom of the new magic mouse, etc), I genuinely appreciate that they’re sticking to their guns in the face of pressure from the government.

Fourth, Opening up new APIs. A big concern I’ve had in recent releases from Apple is continued lockdown of services, where it felt like if you weren’t Apple, you couldn’t play on the playground. This release sees several integrated services get opened up to third parties (Messages, Maps, Siri being the big three to me), which gives me some hope that Apple isn’t entirely forgetting what made OS X so great.

Fifth, Swift Playground. It’s worth noting that this closed out the keynote, and for good reason. Apple is committing to bringing programming into education in a big way, by making what appears to be a robust learning app that targets youth where they are (mobile devices like iPads), teaching them a language they can directly use for real, complex applications. This is a big win for both Apple and STEM: For Apple, it gets a new generation of developers started using their tools, environment, and language, which you can bet will make an impact on what they choose to use in the future. For STEM, they’re providing free tools, free resources (entire books, including guides on how to teach it and incorporate into your curriculum), already targeted to youth. That’s awesome. You can read more about the whole initiative at their Everyone Can Code page.

It wasn’t covered in the keynote, but has been brought up elsewhere: they’re also releasing a new Apple File System, replacing the old and creaky HFS+. This is significant: Apple’s been using HFS (and then an expanded HFS+) for basically the entire time Mac OS has existed. From reports, it sounds like a robust, next-generation file system that brings some brilliant and essential features. While we likely won’t see the OS truly make the most of these new features until the version after Sierra, this is still quite interesting, and I’m excited to see what gets done with it.

Overall, it felt like a productive developer-centric keynote. It leaves me feeling cautiously hopeful about the future of the ecosystem, and that they’re placing their bets in the right places.

Loving Language

I was talking with a friend the other day about what I call “intellectual fappery.” This is in reference to the sort of academic papers (in particular in art criticism or art theory) that are so wrapped up with jargon and linguistic flourishes that it’s unreadable to a lot of people. It never made much sense to me that they’d do this (why make it harder to win people over to your point of view), and I sort of presumed that it was some sort of smug self-aggrandizement, speaking opaquely to keep out the riff-raff. (Another alternative is that they’re simply too inept at communicating their ideas, and so hide it behind linguistic flourishes.)

I had a minor epiphany, though: while some may be putting on airs, a lot may simply be in love with language. Not in terms of communication, but as expression. Flowery turns of phrase, using ornate, overly complex language not because they want to obscure their message, but simply because they think ornate, overly complex language is pretty. In short, an entire body of writing (looking at you, art theory and art critics) that prioritized form over function.

This doesn’t really make it any more fun to read (especially since you’re usually subjected to it as part of studies, rather than reading it by choice), but it does at least seem like a kinder way to look at things.

Wading into the Brambles

I’ve been debating doing NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve participated on and off for years, though I’ve never finished. At this point, it’s been a long time since I’ve written fiction (or told any sort of story, fictional or not), and I miss it. It’s a little weird to say that, since a) there’s technically nothing stopping me from doing it now, and b) I was never all that amazing at it. (I’m trying really hard not to just completely bag on my writing ability, since people seemed to generally respond favorably to what they read, and bear in mind Ira Glass’s quote on creative work, but it’s hard. Even with the stories I was moderately pleased with, there was SO MUCH room for improvement.)

I do miss it, though. It’s weird — I’ve felt blocked to the point of frustration for years now, and unable to bring myself to get past it, even though I know the answer is simply to keep it up until I get through the brambles. I’ve been thinking about it a lot for a while now — the dearth of creative outlets and making in my life, and it really struck home a little while ago. I was having a conversation with someone who is a maker and doer (and just generally awesome person), and we were talking about hanging out sometime, and they said they looked forward to hearing/seeing what I make. I was instantly filled with embarrassment, because I felt like I had nothing to offer to that conversation. I love creative people — it’s what I’m attracted to, both in friends and otherwise — and when given this opportunity to make a more solid connection with someone I already liked and wanted to get to know better, I felt like I had nothing to contribute.

Note, it wasn’t anxiety, it was embarrassment. I was embarrassed — I felt like I was a poser who’d been called out on their facade. I realize that isn’t really fair to myself or entirely accurate — there’s room for people who celebrate art and creativity, who are supportive and the first to cheer others on, and that doesn’t somehow make them a sham. But feelings aren’t rational, and it doesn’t feel like enough to validate the role creativity has on my personal identity.

So, it’s time to wade into the brambles again. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember what telling a story feels like on my tongue, the heft and shape of a narrative in my fingers. It’s time to correct that. I’m debating doing NaNoWriMo this year, and it almost doesn’t matter if I finish, as long as I actually begin.

User Experience(d)

Last week, I was at a family reunion filled with fabulous, intelligent, talented people whom I’m glad to call family. One thing I noticed: as people pulled out laptops and iPads and smartphones, or discussed some of the current technological hurdles they’re facing in their day to day lives, there was still a lot of frustration and implied distrust of the hardware or software being used. It really hammered home to me that there’s still a long distance left between usable and intuitive. They were adding complexity and hurdles that didn’t need to be there, because they were used to a previous mental model that was more complex.

I work with software and computers every day, and have for years. Even a lot of my hobbies end up taking place on computers. It’s easy to take for granted the human-computer interactions I do on a daily basis, because I do them regularly, and generally even if it’s a new piece of software or hardware, it still behaves similarly enough to other software that I can get the hang of it pretty quickly. The thing is, even with the pervasiveness of technology these days, I am an anomaly, not the norm. Many people — highly skilled, capable people — simply don’t have that background and context for understanding, nor the time or interest to gain it. As far as I see it, this is a lot of what user experience design is all about: finding that line between simplicity and complexity, where people have enough detail to understand what is happening (at least a high level), but is still simple enough that they don’t have to invest cognitive energy to grasp how to use it.

Aiming for clarity is hard on its own, but what I was noticing is that it faces an additional hurdle: overcoming the complexities or mental models of previous designs. It seemed like a big problem in particular for older generations was that they’d fallen out of sync with what experiences were designed to be now, and were burdened with the expectation of complexity or failure from experiences in the past. It’s easy to say “oh, well they just need to retrain themselves,” but that implies they have the cognitive energy, time, and interest to do so.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep working on improving the user experience, but it is something to bear in mind when developing software or hardware. I have a few ideas on how to accommodate this, some of which may be more palatable than others:

  • Evolving UX: Going with more iterative, minor changes rather than a large shift. This already happens some (depending on the software), and sometimes it’s unavoidable that multiple changes will need to go in at once.
  • Documentation: Creating effective documentation can be invaluable for keeping older users up to speed on what’s happening. Three things I’d want to make sure to consider: keeping docs up to date to the current version of the software; keeping legacy docs for older versions; mapping the old user experience to the new user experience in change logs and within the docs themselves.
  • Usability Studies of Existing Users: Doing usability research has definitely become more prevalent, which is a good thing, but I feel like tends to focus on how to attract new users, and doesn’t really give a lot of attention to existing users (I suspect at least partially under the presumption that once a user is committed to your product, they are less likely to take the additional effort to switch). It would be really interesting to make sure to include existing long-time users when doing usability studies. If considering retention of existing users isn’t on your radar, maybe you should reconsider.

Obviously, it’s impossible to please all of the people, and maybe more of this is already in progress than I’m aware of, but it does feel like we’ve got a distance left to go on learning to effectively clear out the cobwebs of past experiences.

Hypersigils, Identity, and the Internet

Back in 2010, I ended up having a really rewarding Twitter conversation with some very smart people, talking about hypersigils and how they apply to the internet. I’ve been thinking more about the topic lately, and wanted to expand on what was said before.

Let’s start with the term hypersigil. The term was coined by Grant Morrison, but the concept has been around for a lot longer than that. The term has a certain magickal [sic] connotation because of its origins, and I know that some folks get squicked out about that. If it makes you feel any better, just think of it as a psychological focus used to affect personal change, in the form of creating a narrative. If that’s still not enough, come up with a better term that does an even better job of wrapping a complex concept into a compact term, that does an even better job of packing loads of exformation into one word, and then popularize that instead. I’d love to hear it.
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