waffle

Waffle is a weblog.
The author of Waffle, some guy in Sweden, also occasionally writes stmts.net.

Lately on Waffle

Making Waves

The excellent Brent Simmons linked to the first part of what seems to have become a series here, saying:

My blog’s older than Twitter and Facebook, and it will outlive them. It has seen Flickr explode and then fade. It’s seen Google Wave and Google Reader come and go, and it’ll still be here as Google Plus fades. When Medium and Tumblr are gone, my blog will be here.

The things that will last on the internet are not owned.

Two of those items are worth noticing: Google Wave and Google Reader.

Google Reader was a centralized RSS reader. It did build on the open standards I so like. Yet it failed. But it didn’t fail by the virtue of dwindling user count. If it was a question of economy, I’m willing to bet Google would have made ads work or even be able to extract what now passes for a princely sum (two bucks or so monthly). The evidence available to me suggests that after Larry Page had taken the advice from Steve Jobs that Google needed to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up, he had started the company on the path to throwing all but a few good things overboard and transforming most of the rest into excuses for Google+ interaction, in what future historians will be naming a great example of metaphorical self-immolation. This upsets me a bit, but point being, it didn’t fail because it was RSS. And because it was RSS, every website so integrated still had a perfectly serviceable feed to make available to any and all clients (including NetNewsWire, the non-Google Reader-client I was using before, during and after Google Reader’s reign, and which coincidentally was written by Brent Simmons).

Google Wave, on the other hand, was a rare taken shot at something truly new. It was meant to support a new mode of communication and take advantage of technology, and it both built on existing standards and made its new standard open. Google Wave still exists, as Apache Wave. Technology-wise, it’s a success story. User-wise, it seems that no one was able to figure it out, and/or that no one would even give it a chance since it was so different from what was already out there. For Google Wave to have worked, it needed external, normal people to immediately click with the mode of interaction it presented, and to perchance want to talk with other such people using this sort of tool.

Additionally, Google Wave was felled by two related and often overlapping attitudes from the technical community: inertia and originality without an alibi. Inertia is “I looked at one part of what it did, and I already have something like this, so I’m just going to keep using this”. Originality without an alibi is “they invented something new and I highly disapprove of this practice – I don’t see what it’s a solution to, so I will avoid it”.

Common to both of those rejections are that people were expected to swallow everything that was new about Google Wave whole, and as fait accompli. If some people outside of the Wave team had seen the steady iteration of its form of expression or communication, it might have been easier to connect with it piece by piece. Had Google Wave been three times as capable, it would have been more than three times more difficult getting it to gain traction. This has to do with the sunk cost fallacy and human psychology — I can’t have been doing so many things wrong for so long, so I will preserver. It has to do with trouble grasping what’s being solved and how the alternative is better. Certainly, it has to do with new terms and new metaphors. Google Wave didn’t exactly fall over itself to be approachable.

When I’m calling for open standards as I am, it’s easy to say “but if you focus on those things, you’ll only appeal to graybeards or Diaspora fans” and scoff derisively. And sure enough, that has tended to happen. The problem is that open standards have only worked when they have been created to solve something obvious, or in along the way to solve something non-obvious in a very convincing way. I wasn’t around in the 1970’s, but I’m pretty sure the basics of the actual usage of the first Internet email standards would be understandable to the non-technical supporting staff at any of the companies that formulated them. Maybe the exact format and details of bang-addresses would be confusing, but sending a message from someone to other people was a concept everyone who’d received a PM, or why not a piece of postal mail, understood perfectly well.

But if that’s the case, if Diaspora was meant to work exactly as Facebook and App.net exactly as Twitter, why didn’t they work? Because most people actually were using Facebook and Twitter. Even if they were twice as well implemented, communication is about being able to talk to people. If they aren’t there, it’s not gonna work.

I obviously don’t know everything about this, but I think I’ve seen a few patterns in what tends to work:

  • Something simple and approachable.
  • Something that solves what you think of as a problem in a way that you can easily grasp.
  • A solution that isn’t just a disconnected twine ball of theory; something you can actually bring into your life today.
  • Something that’s not a clone or close to a clone of something else you could already be doing.

There are also two corollaries:

  • If it’s something revolutionary, you can’t expect everyone to get it at once, and you’re probably still better off revealing it piece by piece and letting people’s reactions play out since it gives you more chances to tune your solution to how people actually use, react to or feel about it.
  • Gall’s law: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”

This doesn’t tell anyone how to replace Facebook or Twitter with durable alternatives. I’m sorry if you thought I knew how to – if I did, I might have tried it myself. But I hope it gives those who’ll try a few indications about what their odds are to gain traction.

The New Old World

The other reason I don’t like social media is that it makes me feel old and left behind.

I kid, mostly. But starting a few years back, weblogs are now cooling from the hype they’ve been in almost since their establishment. I could choose to be on Twitter or Facebook in a second’s notice, if that was what was important, but I don’t. Let me be clear: not being there is also not what’s important. I’m indifferent to the major supposed utility and a range of emotions from put off through disgusted with every additional detail.

Last time, I ended it by essentially saying that I host my own website. I certainly don’t mean to make this a humble brag about my own digital handiness. I hate that not everyone can host their own website without wading through the swamps of crooks and insufficiency. But the point is that some people still can, and while that needs to get easier, more than anything Twitter and Facebook needs to get some competition from something that’s as approachable as Twitter and Facebook and has a clear road ahead to being an open standard.

There are many people clamoring for open standards. I don’t want them because I love open standards, I want them because they are brilliant means to an end.

Long before software, someone came up with the pen. Then the printing press. Then recording and playback machine for audio and video. Maybe it’s not obvious, but mediums are mechanisms. It’s not the graphite or ink in the pen that’s noteworthy. It’s the list of theses nailed to the church door or newspaper article that describes crimes against humanity that we remember and that have effect. The writing implement is interesting insofar that they are requirements for any of that to happen.

With the software, we also have to build the paper and the intent itself. We can make text editors and we can make chat clients and we can make economy programs, but we can’t make something that’s all those things, at least not efficiently. Yes, in a manner of speaking, you could solve almost anything by editing and constantly transporting a text file. I assure you that this is the most ridiculous of solutions, proposed and beloved only by the most ridiculous of people.

What this boils down to is that the makers of notebooks didn’t and still don’t have to change their products to facilitate what they will be used for. Softwarewise, we’re not so lucky. This is why we need open standards. To decide that it’s pretty useful to send something like a piece of postal mail from one person to another and how that should be solved. That it’s rather a boon to a project like the Large Hadron Collider if there were a web of interlinked documents. And why not that being able to talk to people in real time across a network of servers is a neat idea.

I’m not going to go as far as to say that the startup culture that fosters a little too much of the software being written today is outright poison. Tragical in parts, shortsighted and focused on coffer-lining, sure. But some of them do succeed, and startup or not, failure is a part of business. Not every venture is a slam dunk and you don’t know until you’ve tried (although for many of them, you could just ask ten reasonable people and know to pick a different idea instead).

What is true is that it’s poison for developing open standards. Look at the development of almost every popular protocol in use today, and know that almost none of them were developed so that someone could get a Porsche, or so that someone’s options would vest. If email was designed so that “monetization” was a design point, maybe we wouldn’t get much spam, but no one would use it, either.

I’ve been thinking about long-term, crassly commercial solutions that are still with us and that have mostly not fucked around with its users, and I do see some of the instant messaging networks: both AIM and ICQ are still around and ICQ is coming up on its 18th birthday (I registered my account over dial-up, as what would now be called a “tween”, and I still remember my digits). That sort of longevity takes work, but look at the number of competitors who have fallen by the roadside and know that continued success or even relevance is not a foregone conclusion.

On the other hand, RSS has been around for almost as long and been singled out as dead for years now. (It’s how I get most of my news every day, so I think those rumors are greatly exaggerated.) Maybe unbeknownst to these people, it has also been a foundational technology for distribution of information in many forms, and for podcasts, which these people would in the same breath name as a vibrant media landscape. Reporting on waning innovation in the RSS space is like expecting the postman to do backflips for you. His job is making sure you get your messages, not making them more interesting; “paper still white, boring” is an odd headline.

This is not an ode to the standards and protocols of the world. It’s a wish that we didn’t stop doing them the way we should for progress to be made tomorrow, too.

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