Lament for a Pre-Dudgeon Twitter

The enemy of Twitter? It’s us.

Well, not me. But possibly you.

Here’s Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer with a eulogy for Twitter:

Twitter used to be a sort of surrogate newsroom/barroom where you could organize around ideas with people whose opinions you wanted to assess. Maybe you wouldn’t agree with everybody, but that was part of the fun. But at some point Twitter narratives started to look the same. The crowd became predictable, and not in a good way. Too much of Twitter was cruel and petty and fake. Everything we know from experience about social publishing platforms—about any publishing platforms—is that they change. And it can be hard to track the interplay between design changes and behavioral ones. In other words, did Twitter change Twitter, or did we?

Twitter changed, for sure, but that’s not the real problem. It was totally us that spoiled it. And, again, not me. But maybe you, and a lot of other people who came on board to (unwittingly I presume) find things that emotionally fire something up in them, and allow them to feel morally superior, either by dint of being offended or as part of an upright citizens’ mob against someone who said The Wrong Thing.

More LaFrance and Meyer:

…When it was good—when it is good—Twitter created an environment characterized by respect and jokes so funny you wanted to show the person sitting next to you in real life. Not agreeing could be productive, and could happen without devolving into histrionics. The positive feedback loop of faves and interactions didn’t hurt, either.

It can still be this way from time to time. The authors say that nobody “hangs out there” anymore, but I still do. It’s like a neighborhood you grew up in, and love and know intimately, but then the place starts getting developed and folks who don’t appreciate the place’s quirks move in and try and sanitize it.

So there’s Google+. I’m there a lot more lately, but as others have noted, this has a lot to do with the fact that so few people are there. That it hasn’t taken off with the general public is a feature, not a bug. The folks that are there, well, they’re not unlike those who were on Twitter in Olden Times. Early adopters, a little more technologically sophisticated, and eager to experiment with a new publishing platform. But of course, now Google+’s future is in doubt.

But in the abstract I prefer Twitter, because of its parameters, its limitations. The modern Web is too full of bells and whistles, of full-bleed images and dynamic content, of Choruses and Snowfalls. Twitter is (was) 140 characters of text, and we embraced the quirks and kludges that needed to be adopted within those parameters to make a little more sense of it all. It was simple, it was busy, it was a percolator of thoughts, both profound and profoundly silly.

Now, it’s people finger-wagging and high-horsing. Now, it’s people trivializing the grave and ascribing gravity to the trivial. Now, it’s high dudgeon as parlor game. Now, it’s a lot of sadness.

For me, I mean. Maybe not you.

I hold out hope that there will be a boiling point, where the finger-waggers become so chronically incensed that they’ll move on, and a little of what Twitter was might come back. I’ll wait it out a while longer.

Hey, there’s always App.net.

Sigh.

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Do You Swipe Your Thumb at Me, Sir? (The Big iPhone vs. Android Problem)

I miss my iPhone, but there’s a few small things and one big thing keeping me from going back. 

To recap, I had traded in my iPhone to T-Mobile to get out of my AT&T contract and lower my monthly payments substantially, and switched to a cheaper, unsubsidized Android device, which is now a Moto X. (I’m actually back on AT&T now because they offered far better coverage, an even lower rate thanks to a new discount, and I’m still not on contract.)

The Moto X is a great phone. It’s as thoughtfully designed as an iPhone, free of the crapware that plagues the Android universe, and full of genuinely useful, subtle features. 

But I really miss having an iPhone, and I’m considering seeking out a cheap, used one I can just drop into my existing plan (meaning no new contract). There are two big reasons:  one being ergonomic (even being a smaller phone for an Android, the Moto X is still not quite small enough for my wee paws), and the other being access to my music library. No matter what I try to do, I can’t get my music listening experience on Android to come anywhere close to the way it was on iOS. And that wasn’t even all that great, but it was a dream compared to the hacky kludge-fest I’ve been living through with Android. No, I won’t subscribe to Spotify. 

But! On my Moto, I have an app that disables the PIN code lock screen when I’m on preapproved WiFi networks. I can activate its voice commands without ever touching the phone (“Okay, Google Now…”). I can share data from any app to any app. Those are quite nice, and would be sorely missed if I were back in iPhoneland. 

The big thing, though, is the keyboard. Here’s an explanation from Andy Ihnatko from when he made the iPhone-to-Android switch:

[T]he real Win of an Android keyboard is its enhancements to the classic “tap and type” mechanism.

Android offers Swype-style typing as a built-in option. By sliding my finger from key to key instead of lifting and tapping, I’m sending more information about my intentions to the OS. It makes this mechanism faster and more accurate than tap-tap-tap. Swipe-style typing also makes the phone easier to manage one-handed. I can search for a name in my contacts without even slowing down my walking.

And if you don’t like any of the keyboards that ship with Android, you can install one of your own. My add-on keyboard of choice is SwiftKey. It’s doubleplus-brilliant and costs just four damn dollars. …

I find that typing on an Android device is faster and much less annoying than typing on my iPhone. It’s not even close.

This example also points out some of the philosophical differences that often allow Android to create a better experience for the user. Why is the iOS keyboard so stripped-down? Why can’t the user customize the experience? Because Apple’s gun-shy about adding features at the cost of simplicity and clarity. They’re not wrong; it’s a perfectly valid philosophy, and usually an effective one.

But sometimes, an Apple product’s feature lands at the wrong side of the line that divides “simple” from “stripped down.” The iPhone keyboard is stripped-down.

This is huge, and it’s by far the biggest thing keeping me from running back to Apple. The difference between tap-typing and swipe-typing on a phone is night and day. Swipe-typing is much faster, much more accurate, and even a little fun. It’s perplexing to me that the folks who work at Apple don’t want this functionality for themselves. This is not some geeks-only niche add-on, it’s a fundamentally superior way of inputting text on a smartphone. And guess what one does a whole hell of a lot on a smartphone.

The wisest thing for me to do is wait, see what Apple comes up with for iOS 8, or hope some developer at least makes a quality standalone word-processing iPhone app that uses swipe-typing. I don’t expect it, though. It’s not like this is a new idea. Apple’s had plenty of time to add this feature, and if they haven’t yet, there’s no reason to suspect they will. 

I still think the overall experience of using an iPhone is a superior one to Android, with less friction, more general enjoyablilty, and with a nicer class of apps. But goddamn that “tap-tap-FUCK-taptaptap” keyboard. Goddamn it. 

 

Your $2000 iPhone

An interesting infographic (source) on the full cost of iPhone ownership — and really, it applies to all modern mid- to high-end phones, not just iPhones. I can’t vouch for all the numbers, but this is good to have in the back of your mind when thinking about phone purchases. 

The first mistake people make is believing that the subsidized cost of the hardware (usually $200) is the real cost of the device, when it’s far wiser to remember that this small device you’re haphazardly tossing around and shoving in your jeans pocket is actually a super-advanced computer that costs roughly $650 or $700. 

But if you consider all that goes into owning one to make it usable, namely the cellular data and accessories, you really are in the $1500-$2000 range. That’s more than almost anyone other than professionals pays for a brand new, top-of-the-line PC!

Which may be fitting when you think about it, since these phones really are our PCs these days. (As opposed to tablets, which we all thought would be our PCs, and probably aren’t going to be, but that’s another conversation.) And in many ways they do more for us — more of what we actually want to be doing — than our desktops and laptops ever could. 

The Web of Finger-Wags and How-Dare-Yous

Far too much of my experience of the Web is now dominated by folks pointing out with snideness or outrage just how horrible some person or persons are, in a kind of Niagara Falls of finger-wags and how-dare-yous. There is no room for human error, no space for discussion, no benefit of doubt. Sometimes these people are right about someone else’s awfulness, sometimes they’re not, but that’s not the point.

It used to be (uh-oh, already sounding like an old man) that platforms like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter were places I could find a wide variety of content, political and non-political, with ideas from every discipline and field of interest (plus cat memes and ruminations on what one was eating, as it ever shall be). But I happen to be in an indeological, political career, and I have friends and connections who are ideological and political, and it only follows that as more and more join these platforms, more and more of the content I see will lean in ideological directions. Which is fine on its own.

But somewhere we passed some kind of tipping point. Where once expressions of outrage and loathing for an opposing ideological side were just one aspect among many on these platforms, now they are, in my experience, overrunning them.

And it’s hurting me, I can feel it physiologically. You know, I pick up my iPad at the end of the day so I can decompress from a day already fraught with political and ideological battles (not to mention battles with my children to get them to eat their dinner or not physically harm me). But I can’t do that now, at least not the way I have things set up. Blogs I used to frequent are battlegrounds. Twitter is a machine gun of vitriol. Even browsing Facebook, which is supposed to be innocuous, is like walking through an infinitely-long hallway filled with angry propaganda posters. Rather than decompress, I compress further. And it’s painful. It hurts. 

(And as for the battles in my professional life, yes they are part of “work,” but it’s still personal to me. I care about the surrounding issues, I care about the people involved. The stress this brings makes the ability to remove myself from it even more important.)

I may need to make a big change. It may mean that I remove people who I really like and respect from my social feeds, because despite my otherwise warm and fuzzy feelings toward them, they’re part of the torrent. At work, it can be a different story, because there I have no choice but to be aware of and conversant in current controversies and arguments. But on my own time, I think a digital shakeup may be in order. One in which I ruthlessly curate who I follow and allow to appear in my various feeds, and even make a point to silence certain topics and “upvote” others. In my reading, I can favor richer, more contemplative writing over blog wars and news bites.

So this is not a post about how I need to unplug or leave the Internet or some such silliness. But I do want to make my experience of the Internet far better than it has been of late.

You might be one of those people I like and respect who nonetheless contributes to my stress. In the case of a shakeup, I’m sorry if you’re among those who get shaken-out in the process. You probably won’t even notice. Which is good!

And if there’s something you really need me to see, I’m not hard to find.

Guiltless Gadgeteering

Let me begin by acknowledging that I have something of a problem when it comes to electronic devices. Well, that’s just it, though – “problem” is too pejorative. More to the point, is that I feel a greater-than-normal enthusiasm for gadgets (meaning of course smartphones, tablets, PCs and the like), and have made something of a hobby out of playing with, thinking about, reading about, writing about, evaluating, and acquiring them. The problem, really, is that we’re talking about relatively expensive items, and so the hands-on part of this enthusiasm/hobby is something of a challenge (thus making the act of browsing through a Best Buy a kind of luxury for me), the frustration of which my enthusiasm only exacerbates.

One result of this is that I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy mulling and chewing over not only imminent purchases when they are possible, but also potential purchases I might have made, sensing greener grass over every fence – but I do find it fun and interesting as well. The worst part about that, though, is that this mulling and any attempts to sate my curiosity then induce guilt.

But why should it? If we assume that my deliberations and frequent device-swapping aren’t costing my family money (which we can assume because I don’t make any moves unless they’re more or less “revenue neutral”), what’s the problem? The only real cost is trouble, the efforts to consider, decide, procure and divest. But I take them on solely, so I’m the only one dealing with it. So really, if I’m swapping devices at a higher rate than most normals, so what? Everyone’s gotta have a hobby. Stamp collectors and people into Beanie Babies (is that still a thing?) don’t feel guilt. I assume.

I’m thinking about this lately because of a recent internal debate about iPad Air vs. Retina mini (a debate now ended in favor of the Air, so no swaps needed), which of course recalls previous years’ switcheroos, plus my recent carrier-motivated move from iPhone to Android. And now that I’m in Android, without much experience with the platform, I’m forming better ideas about the kind of device I really want (as opposed to a best guess from what was available), and thus, another swap might be on the horizon. And I don’t want to have to feel guilty or decadent or frivolous about it. I just want to do it, and have some fun with it. I can do that, right?

The preceding four paragraphs are really my way of saying, I’m going to check out the Moto X for a couple of weeks pretty soon, and see if I want to swap my Nexus 5 for it.

And I’m not gonna feel the least bit bad about it. That’s the goal, anyway.

Besides, my wife said it was okay.

What I Learned While Browsing Best Buy Without My Damn Kids

There is no way to browse in a retail store for personal enjoyment with a small child in one’s orbit. Double that, with one toddler and one self-mobile baby, and it becomes not only impossible, but it approaches a war crime committed against oneself. Today, thanks to the mercy of my wife, I got to wander thoughtfully around a Best Buy, with no children, and familiarize myself with some of the current generation of gadgets, which I usually only read about.

Here are some of the things I learned while browsing around Best Buy without my kids:

  • Retina iPad minis are not way better than iPad Airs. Yeah they’re adorable and light, but side by side it was clear I’d made the right call: iPad mini was still just too cramped and squat, and the iPad Air far more immersive. And screen typing was a nightmare on the Mini, whereas I’m typing this right now on my Air’s screen without trouble.
  • In relation to the above, I need to stop listening to tech pundits and allowing their opinions to color my own considerable gadget lust. I can trust my own avaricious instincts.
  • As for tablet size and weight, I found the LG G Pad 8.3 quite compelling. The screen (at 8.3 inches, of course) is only a fraction of an inch bigger than the iPad mini’s, but it felt much bigger, and I could see it being a very good compromise between the Mini and a full-size iPad or other tablet. Something like that might be where I go for my text tablet, whenever that happens, in upcoming millennia.
  • In the context of 7.9, 8.3, and 9.7-inch screen sizes, the Nexus 7 seemed a little ridiculous, like an oversize phone. While I once really liked this line of devices, now it just seems redundant.
  • Speaking of big phones, I had gotten curious about “phablets” lately, and now my curiosity has ended. In comparison to my existing 5-inch Nexus 5, phablets’ displays aren’t so much bigger that they make a meaningful difference, particularly with the trade-off of pocketability. I believe I will pass.
  • On the opposite end, I’m coming to realize what many have already, that the Moto X might just be the best Android device. As Joanna Stern was just saying on The Talk Show, the Moto X may actually be the perfect smartphone size: a medium-sized 4.7-inch display, but with a sufficiently reduced bezel so that it fits the hand as nicely as an iPhone. That, or an iteration of it, is likely my next phone.
  • I’ve been bullish on Chromebooks, and I continue to be optimistic about what they may become in the increasingly-commoditized PC market, but holy crap, the displays on the current crop look like absolute garbage (the Pixel obviously excepted, and not for sale in Best Buy). I felt like I was looking at the screen through a haze of crud.
  • On the flip side were Lenovo’s laptops. I haven’t even looked at a PC laptop other than by accident in a very long time, and I had no idea how good Lenovo’s looked, easily rivaling Apple’s hardware aesthetically. It’s just that they were all running Windows 8, and damn what a shame that is.
  • Checking out the 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display side by side was informative, if for no other reason than to see how much they overlap — to the point where it almost seems silly to buy the Air when the Pro is at such a similar price point, weighs not much more (and the 13-inch Air is not so weightless as to make it a deal-maker), and has a far superior display. I’ve always presumed a 13-inch Air would be my next laptop (again, in ages to come), but now that seems like a dumb move.

All in all, I came away from my first chance to browse electronics without my kids screaming at me with a renewed sense of being “all set,” that the things I have now, old and new, high-end and low-end, are really just fine, and that I’m not missing out on any crazy-great experiences. There are certainly many things to be wished for, without a doubt, but surprisingly to me, there is little to gnash one’s teeth in lust and envy over. Some, but not that much. And that’s good!

 

When is it One Gadget Too Many?

Note: This originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

How many tech gadgets do you own? Chances are, you have a PC, Mac or Windows, desktop or laptop and a smartphone. Maybe you both kinds of PCs, a desktop workstation and a portable laptop. Maybe you have a tablet — large or small? You might also have a Kindle e-reader. And what about that phone, is it friendly to one-handed use, or is it so big that you need two hands to do anything with it? And is that a GPS in your car? And an iPod in your pocket?

Maybe you even have all or most of the above. But even if you only have a reasonablecombination of these devices, ask yourself, are there any that get neglected? Is there at least one that, despite how cool it might be, simply becomes, well, redundant?

If you have a desktop computer and a laptop and an iPad and a smartphone, do you really need the desktop as well as the laptop? Can’t the iPad handle your on-the-go computing needs? Or maybe the iPad is redundant to the laptop and the smartphone. You don’t need the iPad in this case, because all of its functionality can be covered by the laptop and the phone. If the phone’s display is 5“ or bigger (like a “phablet”), the distinction between it and the iPad blurs even further. If that iPad is an iPad mini, further still.

Or perhaps it’s the laptop that’s the tablet’s real rival. I’m writing this on my iPad, because it’s the device I tend to have with me when I’m thinking creatively. But it’s unquestionable that it would be easier to write this on my old MacBook Air. If it wasn’t upstairs and attached to a hundred cords, maybe I would be. Zal Bilimoria recently got a lot of attention for a piece he wrote at Re/code about what he sees as the end of the very-brief tablet era, and while I think a some of it is a little overblown, he makes this good point:

It comes down to size. The vast majority of the hundreds of millions of people who use tech every day are just fine with having two primary computing devices: One for your pocket and one for your desk. Tablets are trying (and failing) to be portable enough to go everywhere, yet large enough to be multipurpose. Despite all the keyboard origami and elaborate ways to make your tablet into a laptop, it isn’t one.

And it’s true, as capable as an iPad is, it’s still not a laptop. I have argued, and continue to believe, that it’s not the point of a tablet to replace a laptop, but to be a kind of device-of-choice, the computing gadget you use when you don’t have to work on your PC or fiddle with your phone, for when you have things you want to do, as opposed to the things you have to do.

But a sleek, light, eternally-batteried MacBook Air can make that a tougher sell. So, too, a large-displayed phone can feel just as “liesurely” as a tablet. Assuming we don’t want to burn money on every type of gadget possible, where does a tablet fit?

Another example: I own a Kindle Paperwhite, and it’s great. It’s light, the battery is fantastic, and the magically illuminated screen is gentle and easy to read on. I haven’t used it in ages, though. Because I also have a 5“ phone (a Nexus 5) and a full-size tablet (iPad Air). During my liesure time, I usually have that iPad in my hands, so that’s what I’m going to read off of. And for when I’m in bed, the 5” screen of the Nexus 5 is nearly the same size as the Kindle, plus it’s lighter, and the resolution is so crisp as to make text look even better than it does on a dedicated reading device.

I have a pang of principle that tells me that an e-ink reader is the superior device for reading, and this was certainly true when Kindles first came about, pre-Retina/1080p displays. But now that the pixels-per-inch on LCD displays have gone through the roof on almost all mobile devices, the Kindle’s superior battery and non-backlit display cease to be trump cards. Tablets and phones have caught up enough. And so my Kindle sits forlornly (I imagine) on my nightstand as I cradle my Nexus 5, needing only one hand, as I read a Neal Stephenson novel.

Or, to go back to the tablet as the prime liesure device. If that Kindle Paperwhite were even slightly more functional, if it could handle email, light web browsing, and maybe Twitter and Instapeper clients, then the iPad could (once again) be rendered redundant. The e-ink Kindle would be the chilling-out device, and the computing and apps would be left to the phone and the PC, the two devices you “have” to use.

We as consumers are being pushed a lot of expensive electronics that are marketed as wholly necessary for their specific niche. The phone you need for your mobile computing and communication, the PC you need for your serious work and storage, the Kindle you need for long-form reading, the tablet you need for creativity and liesure (or, as the recent iPad commercial would have it, to contribute your “verse”).

I’m a huge tech enthusiast, so I indulge in all these categories, given the chance and the funds (which is how I eliminate one big redundancy — I can’t afford a desktop PC, so the center of my computing life is a 2.5-year-old 11“ MacBook Air, not exactly a workhorse machine). But even a fanboy like me has to take a step back and take stock of what objects I truly need in my life, and which ones I can do without, and that goes for all ”stuff,” be it electronic or no. I can certainly make use of all of them, even if some, like the Kindle, get mostly ignored. I’ll almost certainly use it from time to time.

Importantly, we all have our own requirements for our devices. If I edited video for work or as a hobby, my MacBook Air wouldn’t cut it. But if I then got myself a desktop machine, I would have trouble justifying holding on to the laptop, since I have other objects that pick up most of its slack.

Many of these devices are relatively new. iPads have been around for only four years, Kindles and smartphones (the ones that aren’t awful), only seven. But in that short time, they’ve matured quite a bit, and now the contours of what they’re all actually foris just beginning to become clear. What I’m trying to figure out, as a gadget-obsessed tech enthusiast with very limited funds, is which of these things I genuinely need, which ones are just nice to have if I can square it, and which ones should find themselves in an eBay listing. As fun as all of them are, simply possessing an array of tech toys can be a source of stress – deciding which to use, and feeling guilt for having spent money on things that aren’t getting used.

It may be that merely by divesting oneself of one or some of the electronic devices (or any objects, really) whose purpose is already filled by other devices, perhaps one can achieve a level of simplicity that Jony Ive would appreciate — even if one of those divestments is of an object of his own design.

That’s What Civilization Is

Kevin Kelly:

Most of the problems in the future are going to be created by technologies we’re creating today. Technology is a means of producing new problems. It’s a means of producing new solutions, but the fact that we have a choice between those two is what tips the balance very, very slightly in the favor of the good for the long term. Over civilization scale, we have this net tiny incremental accumulation of these choices over time, and that tiny accumulation is what we call progress. If you have one percent compounded annually, that can be very, very powerful. It doesn’t seem like very much. What’s one percent? But when you compound this accumulation of choices and options over time, that’s what civilization is. It’s the slow accumulation of a very tiny increase in new choices over time.

We. Are. The one-per-cent.