Week 9.21

Hi again, we’re almost 9 weeks into the year which feels about right in terms of how long we’ve been at it, but not really when you consider net output. I’m still in a mental state of January. Unintentionally, this issue seems to have formed itself around the themes of nostalgia and work.

• For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been unable to get Debbie Gibson’s We Could Be Together (1989) out of my head. It can surface in the morning as I’m brushing my teeth or at any other time, like during a Zoom call. I said on Twitter that it might be down to how the song brings me back to a simpler time. It’s an escape hatch from the onslaught of today’s complexity and drudgery, straight into a corner of childhood memory where the days were long but full of possibility.

That brought me back to my old Tolerable 80s mix on Apple Music, which I’ll now try to update a little bit. Forgive the fact that some liberties are being taken: there’s at least one song from the late 70s and another from the early 90s.

While doing this, I discovered I’ve never heard Cyndi Lauper’s first album from 1984, She’s So Unusual in its entirety, just the hits like Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Time After Time, and All Through The Night. It’s a pop debut with astounding, timeless songwriting. Her cover of Prince’s When You Were Mine, one of my all-time favorites, is crystal meth icing.

• I was absentmindedly reading the Substack newsletter bookbear express, by a random person named Ava that I follow on Twitter, when the album’s first track came on. In a neat coincidence, Cyndi sang “money, money changes everything” over her essay on work done out of love and how to square it with making a living. Around the same time, this article from Ness Labs about the fallacy of “work-life balance” arrived in my inbox. It argues that the definition of work can’t be limited to your day job, because things that take up time and energy, like caring for a loved one, can feel like work as much as life. If the lines are going to blur, then instead of chasing balance one should embrace that fate will deliver a rollercoaster of work and life extremes over time.

I don’t think it’s complicated. When someone says they want more work-life balance, it usually means their non-negotiable employment has crossed some boundary too many times, leading to a state of joylessness (Life-lessness). This isn’t a case where love is in the picture; people would bend and square the boundaries themselves if it was. Nor is it likely about being so in love with your work that finding time for life becomes a struggle. This is about people being squeezed. Being able to sustainably protect your boundaries is a privilege that comes from power. Seeking work-life balance means seeking leverage against external systems. At the end of the path is either profound love or liberating apathy.

“I want more life, fucker”

• I can’t remember when or how I started following Ava, but at some point I found a cluster of young tech people in California. When articles started coming out about a COVID exodus from San Francisco, I was already seeing it play out on my Twitter feed.

Finding and interacting with random people on the internet continues to be one the greatest perks of being alive at this point in history. A conversation yesterday (okay, more like one-sided lecture) with some kids born in the 1990s led to the discovery that they didn’t know what Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were. Feeling very old, I told them about growing up with computers that weren’t even networked. And when they finally were, how we would use modems sitting atop our PCs to phone other people’s PCs, and browse text-based UIs they’d set up for trading files and leaving messages for other guests. Because most BBS operations only had one phone number, a Friday night could be spent mostly trying all the ones you knew about until you found a line that wasn’t engaged.

They were proto-websites, built for one intimate visit at a time, and I have fond memories of the basic BBS I set up for friends to visit. Fast forward a couple of years, and I’d abandoned the local BBS scene for the absolute expanse of the internet, where you could chat with people in real time, anywhere in the world. I think it’s always good to reflect and take in the staggering perspective of what our simple brains have had to adapt to in one lifetime.

Maybe I should make a social networking site or app that replicates the BBS experience. Only 10 people allowed in at once? One person per city?

• The elder millennial story hour actually began when I realized that Jed McCaleb, creator of Ripple (XRP) and Stellar (XLM), also made eDonkey and Overnet, P2P file sharing networks that I used the hell out of in the early 2000s. “What’s eDonkey?”, John asked to my absolute shock. He was probably six years old while we were ripping, mixing, and burning. On hindsight, it makes total sense McCaleb moved in that direction. I think my exposure to Overnet’s decentralized network technology back then made it easier for me to grasp blockchain concepts years later.

• More Dispo photos were taken this week, practically on the daily. I have a short wishlist for feature improvements: 1) EXIF info embedded in each exported photo, 2) a 3:2 aspect ratio option to match actual 35mm disposable film photos because 16:9 is super weird, and 3) a fixed focus option that overrides autofocus and just locks to 3 meters or something, so it’s instant when you hit the shutter and some shots will be beautifully out-of-focus every now and then.

• On Wednesday, I left the house and met with some colleagues past and present that I hadn’t seen in awhile. We went to Vatos, a Korean-Mexican place that does margaritas with makgeolli, which are exactly as sweet as they sound. It was great to see them again, which got me thinking about the central role social tools like Telegram have in helping to maintain these connections. Can you believe that we’d once have to make voice calls to each of these people to organize a quick dinner hangout?

I’d like to add Dispo to that list of tools, because shooting a shared photo album is a new interaction that might help to keep people in touch although they’re apart. I’ve started a private roll with that group to experiment, but the uptake may be a little slow.

• I got just a disappointing 15 minutes of videogame time in this week. Looking at the Switch’s upcoming release calendar, I hope to have more free time in the middle of the year for Japanese mystery visual novels and the remastered Skyward Sword, a game I never allowed myself to get on the Wii on account of not having completed Twilight Princess.

• Disney+ launched and we signed up to have a look. The catalog is a little better than I expected because the local incarnation includes content from a company called Stars that I’ve always been vaguely aware of from their movie channels on the cable TV in hospitals. Stars brings the kind of older Hollywood films that Amazon Prime Video in the US seems to be good for, but that we don’t have here.

I woke up this morning and suddenly remembered the 1994 Alec Baldwin “superhero” film, The Shadow, based on a radio series from around the WWII era. I had to see it. It wasn’t on any service except the iTunes Store: $5 to rent and $15 to own. This kind of nonsense is why streaming services still can’t offer an experience as good as eDonkey once did.

The Trouble with Instagram Stories

I enjoyed reading this TechCrunch interview with Kevin Systrom where he openly gave credit to Snapchat for their ‘Stories’ feature, and talked about how copying it for Instagram inevitably created something different.

What I’ve observed matches much of what’s been said: it gives most people a much larger starting audience compared to what a new Snapchat user has, which increases the likelihood of success; it’s really well implemented (I especially like that switching from one user’s Story to the next has a different transition animation than skipping a scene, making it much clearer that you’re on another person now); and it makes Instagram a more complete place to look into the two sides of a person’s life: the imperfect moment and the photograph worth sharing.

BUT one early side effect has also materialized, and it’s already changing the way I use Instagram. In short: I don’t want to see many of these Stories! I follow a variety of different accounts, from brands, obvious social media influencers/shills, dogs, cats, interesting strangers, and friends. It’s Day 2 since the launch, and many of them have flooded my feed with too much uninteresting stuff. For many of these accounts, I want their photographs worth sharing, but not their imperfect moments. And there doesn’t seem to be a way to only follow one type of content on a per user basis.

So I’ve started to unfollow people. Which I’m sure Instagram doesn’t want.

In fact, the last major feature they added (an algorithmically sorted timeline) was probably aimed at getting people to follow more accounts. It let me add people without cluttering up my feed to the point where I’d miss posts from those I really really liked. For example, I could follow Canon cameras’ account for their occasional spectacular photos, but still see more personally interesting updates from my friends first. No problem. This morning, I unfollowed Canon because their chatty video Stories were getting in the way of my seeing life updates from friends.

There isn’t this problem right now on Snapchat, which makes me think it might eventually win out if people want to keep these separate. I’m not sure how Instagram might resolve this, but there’s definitely a difference here. Namely, not all social content is created equal.


The one other reason why I’ll continue to use Snapchat is their new Memories feature. Instagram Stories doesn’t let me do the same things.

A UX design walkthrough of Feedly’s new Explore experience

Eduardo Santos: Introducing feedly’s New Explore Experience

I’m a pretty light user of Feedly these days, perhaps because RSS is just a chronologically ordered dump of too much information and I’ve grown to prefer a little machine intervention, but this detailed breakdown of a feature redesign is quite the pleasure to read.

Feedly probably does have a bigger role to play in aiding content discovery (no one can get enough of it), but what’s interesting is that an RSS reader approaches it in a different way from others like Flipboard. It’s less about piecemeal articles, topics, or user-curated magazines. It’s sites! Boosting little known sites and blogs exhibiting consistent quality serves a much more important cause: feeding the cycle of good content creation and letting authors grow their follower base, not enjoying random hits of virality at the whim of algorithms and chance.

Because we love Twitter

Randi Harper: Putting out the Twitter trashfire

8. Fix Tweetdeck. Fix Twitter for Android. Fix Twitter for OSX. Twitter for OSX still has a hard limit on how many blocks it can apply because they didn’t bother updating the API call when they switched to paged requests. It also crashes a lot if you’re receiving a lot of notifications. Tweetdeck doesn’t use server side mutes. The ability to mute users originated from Tweetdeck prior to Twitter buying it. They then added this functionality to Twitter itself, but never updated the client to store these mutes server side.

What a fantastic to-do list for the people at Twitter. Reading this, what strikes me most is that the product really is a shitheap on fire sailing down a river with passengers onboard. It’s got so much legacy crap; so much inscrutable complexity built up from rounds of careless iteration and business priorities, that it’s really hard for a team still working under said priorities to fix it all within further digging the UX a grave. Same goes for iTunes, really, but so much harder for a real-time social service that people are posting to thousands of times a second.

The good news is that the most toxic parts of Twitter, the abuse and management of noise, are probably the most within reach for a quick fix without anyone having to relearn anything.