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Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


Posting UIs on the Indie Web

This is what I wrote, what I delivered was a bit more off-the-cuff.

I’m going to talk to you today about writing and the nature of our writing tools.

I have to preface this by saying that I’m a nerd rather than a user experience designer. I use Android and spend half my life in either a command line or in Vim. MacVim, admittedly, but it’s still Vim. So, I’m here to listen and learn as much as talk. I’ll try and speed through what I’ve got to say so you can tell me your ideas.

This is the posting interface for Blogger. Or was the posting interface for Blogger, I believe they’ve changed it. It’s still pretty complicated.

You’ll note the presence of a a WYSIWYG editor with a toolbar, and some fun things like a “Post Options” link which expands the form to give you even more options.

This is the Wordpress interface. It’s a bit nicer: the colour scheme is rather more muted. No vibrant orange or Windows 95-style icons, just lots of grey. And a big box. And a word count. There’s lots of other clutter further down the page, and you can customise the interface.

This is the Moveable Type interface. Loads of options.

This is a weird one. This is the interface Dave Winer from scripting.com uses. Each line is a separate blog post (yes, back in the early days of blogging, what we’d now call a “tweet” was… a blog post). It’s a custom-built Windows application, it’s been ported to the Mac. I’ve used it in the past. It’s strange but delightful.

This is the interface I have for blogging. It sits at the top of my blog, if I’m logged in. After I’ve published something, I can change settings in a more complex editing interface, but I like having a simple interface… and one that’s on the page. This is something we’ve seen elsewhere.

This is how Twitter used to look back in 2007, before Justin Bieber invaded. You’ll note that right at the top of the page is the posting interface.

Twitter would have never worked back in the old days if you’d have been whisked off to a “new post” page, where you’d have to choose fifty different options.

How we write is affected by the tools we use. I hope you don’t mind if I read you this brief passage by the writer Nicholas Carr. He’s describing the effect of getting a typewriter for the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

Give a German philosopher a typewriter and you’ll turn him into a Twitterer.

Why am I showing you these posting UIs? Simple. I’m involved with a group of developers and designers who loosely come together under the label “indie web”. A few months ago we had a little BarCamp-style event in Brighton called Indie Web Camp. The idea is that we try and build our own sites on our own domains, to “own our data” rather than naïvely trusting it to Twitter or Google or Facebook or Yahoo, or, indeed, Flickr or MySpace or LiveJournal or SixDegrees or MP3.com or Pownce or Vox.com or Apple iWeb or whatever was as solid and unshakeable and not likely to die at all as Twitter and Facebook now seem to us to be. 

We’re trying to solve technical challenges: a lot of “distributed social networking” technology has been built around nebulous use cases and the needs of big companies. Building our own means we have actual practical use cases and the solutions we come up with are based on our own needs rather than what Google or Facebook want. But the technical challenges are easy compared to the design challenges.

I’m going to talk about one of these. The ‘Twitter is the new Sellotape’ problem, I call it. A few weeks ago, I was waiting for some code I was running to finish executing. I was importing a big file into a database. I was bored, so I wrote a silly post for my site…

Dear “API providers”. I basically joked about how I don’t like the current trend in web APIs towards having to have a relationship with a company, and drew an analogy with sex. “Let’s cut the bullshit and just fuck. We’re not boyfriends, but we can be fuckbuddies.”

All good fun. But the reaction was ridiculous. It got voted up as the number one story on Hacker News and lots of very angry people were complaining about it. And my reaction was…

U MAD

If I had tweeted the same sentiment, it wouldn’t be on Hacker News.

I wouldn’t have upvoted it on Hacker News. It’s a joke, not news.

One of the problems we have with this Indie Web thing is a problem of genre. Blogging has become a Serious Thing for Serious People to do. The trivial stuff, the silly stuff and so on has been delegated to social networks like Twitter. The type of writing we do is influenced by the tools we have, and by the experience of the services we use. People don’t just take photos, they take Instagram photos (square, stupid hipster filter) or they take Facebook photos or Flickr photos or whatever.

Just as Nietzsche’s typewriter changed his writing, commercial sites have changed and made proprietary certain ways of communicating. This scares me.

Silly short throwaway jokes and snarking have been ‘owned’ by Twitter as a genre. And we need to find ways to design our way out of this problem without being derivative. Only, the people who are doing this indieweb stuff mostly aren’t designers. How do we build the sort of tools for ourselves that allow us as individuals to express the full range of human emotion and ideas? How do we fight back against the “blog” genre and create independent spaces for that kind of expression?