Thomas Carlin McNamara, born Saturday morning, December 15th. Everyone doing very well. More later.
Thomas Carlin McNamara, born Saturday morning, December 15th. Everyone doing very well. More later.
About three and a half years ago I wrote a post entitled Feed Splicing, Shell Scripts, and the Internet, giving voice to my enthusiasm for the ease with which I could combine the two shiny new toys I had just started playing with: del.icio.us and FeedBurner. In that post I noted that:
By taking advantage of the basic interconnectedness of the Web, using that interconnectedness to make it easy to combine information that already exists somewhere, things like the FeedBurner/del.icio.us combination get past the idea that everyone must be able to easily create HTML documents in order to “contribute” to the Web.
In the years since I wrote that, del.icio.us and Backpack have happily replaced my homegrown shell script approach to saving links and notes in an easily accessible way, and a whole new world of tools that take advantage of “stuff that already exists somewhere” has appeared…let’s talk Twitter, Tumblr, and some miscellaneous related items.
Chapter One: Twitter
I created a Twitter account around the time of the SXSW explosion, but hadn’t used it at all until a couple of weeks ago. I saw its appeal in a setting like SXSW (“hey, look, X is in the presentation next door—maybe we can meet up later”), but wasn’t particularly interested in broadcasting the minutiae of my day to day life.
Then a colleague convinced me to give Twitter a fair trial, in part by acknowledging that he had a hard time figuring out what to twitter (tweet?) himself. So I’ve been giving it a shot, and come to a strange realization: I like it.
You see, about ten years ago I had a writing regimen: among other things, I had to document one moment per day. It didn’t have to be anything significant, but at some point during the day I had to pull out the notebook and record something. The side effect of this was that I found myself going through the day in a more observant and thoughtful manner. I was looking and listening a lot more, thinking more about what was happening around me.
And now Twitter has started to do the same thing for me. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve already done my share of it’s raining, and my butt itches tweets, but to put it in Holmesian terms I’m observing more, rather than just seeing. I even like the 140 character constraint: it’s very much of the moment to say it, but paring a thought or observation down to 140 characters is a great exercise in creativity.
Twitter has passed my first test for social software: it’s now useful enough to me as an individual that I want to keep using it. I may not be using Twitter the way one is “supposed to,” and I have a hard time seeing what value I’m adding to the collective with my tweets, but I’m going to stay with it.
Chapter Two: Tumblr
What is Tumblr, you ask? Well, when you come right down to it nobody’s entirely sure. Fred Wilson posted some thoughts on the question (with visual aids!) a week or so ago, but wisely chose to say more on what it’s like than what it is. Fred and Bijan Sabet tend to describe it with some combination of the terms “social,” “blogging,” “lightweight,” and “look, just try it, okay?”
What is Tumblr to me, you ask? Well, I don’t know either, but I’m intrigued. [And you can find anagrams of “lightweight social blogging” here, if you’re interested. My favorite is “a belching gigolo’s light twig.”] Anyway, the social/reblogging aspect hasn’t particularly grabbed me thus far, so I feel like I’m missing the point on that front, but the “lightweight” has me excited.
In the most general terms, one could describe the content creation end of Tumblr as a strongly-typed blogging tool: a Tumblr post is one of seven things: photo, link, quote, chat, audio, video, or text. What immediately intrigued me about this is that it’s implicitly telling users that they don’t have to do the whole blog thing:
The Internet is littered with long defunct, three-post blogs in large part because “blogging” is generally viewed as “writing,” and therefore every blog must apparently carry the burden of high school English classes: What’s my thesis? Have I developed my arguments? Spelling counts! Jeez, haven’t I written 500 words yet? Tumblr tries to eliminate some of that friction by scaling down the ambitions of blogging; if you just want to post a picture, post a damn picture and don’t worry about whether it constitutes a “blog post.”
But Tumblr’s structure adds something else, as well. You see, Tumblr accepts RSS feeds as input. My Twitter account already generates a feed of my little text musings. My del.icio.us account already generates a feed of links I’m interested in. My Flickr account already generates a feed of my pictures. My blog already generates a feed of my longer-form writing (but more on that another time).
Then consider that with Disqus and IntenseDebate in play I’ve got feeds of many of the comments I make out there on the Web. With last.fm added to the mix I’ve got feeds covering the music I’ve been listening to, sliced and diced in a variety of ways. With a little bit of Applescript, the Tumblr API, and a cronjob on top of last.fm, I can automatically give Tumblr one of the songs I was listening to yesterday as an “audio” post.
Tumblr is becoming fascinating to me as a way to capture all of the stuff that I’m scattering around the Web (and my own computers, for that matter) in a structured way. With only a relatively small amount of setup work, I can assemble my own little lifestream and just watch how it evolves.
There are already tools out there to generate “lifestream” blogs (check out Kieran Delaney’s slick Simplelife plugin for WordPress, for example), but “creating another blog” doesn’t appeal to me, somehow…and this, I’d guess, is where the social aspect will come in to play. Whether it’s true or not, aggregating this stuff within Tumblr’s framework feels different from, and more interesting than, creating yet another blog.
As with Twitter, I have a hard time seeing what I’m adding to the Tumblr community, but I’ll give it some time. Perhaps after a while “reblogging” something won’t feel quite so much like a transparent plea for the poster to validate my presence on Tumblr by following me. I’ll figure out (how||whether) to incorporate my Tumblr dashboard into an already big pile of input. I’ll work out answers to all of the little questions that come up when playing with a new tool.
But however it works out, three and a half years from now there will be another set of shiny new toys to play with. Be sure to come back then and read the next post in this series.
Since every even vaguely tech-oriented blog on the face of the earth has already pointed to Mark Zuckerberg’s blog post on Beacon, I won’t bother to suggest that you go read it, but take a look at what Lauren Weinstein has to say on Google, Facebook, users, and corporate ethics.
As I was reading the items above, I was reminded of a conversation that I had a couple of months ago: a friend was making the case that Google’s unofficial motto of “don’t be evil” was a surprisingly effective tool for keeping the company on course. The thinking went something like this:
Looking at evolutionary biology you have your “phyletic gradualism” people and your “punctuated equilibrium” people; phyletic gradualism proposes that evolutionary changes take place steadily and gradually, where punctuated equilibrium instead proposes that such changes take place mostly in quick bursts, with long, relatively static periods in between. Basically, most evolutionary biologists are either “creeps” or “jerks” on this issue.
One can look at corporations in a similar way. Relatively few companies set out to be evil; while there are certainly examples of “fuck all of you, we’re looking out for number one and everybody else can go screw” organizations out there, in the overwhelming majority of cases companies—like the people who make them up—basically want to do good. So how do we end up with so many companies doing so many ethically questionable things? That’s where the creeping and jerking comes in…and it’s the creeping that we need to pay the most attention to.
There isn’t much you can do about the jerks. When the minutes from a board meeting read “John Doe presented to the Board a plan to secretly dump toxic waste in playgrounds around the city, for approval, whereupon motion duly made, seconded and unanimously adopted, the plan was approved as presented in Exhibit A,” you’ve got a clear jerk into evil territory, and the people involved are well aware of what they’re doing.
The creeping, however, is more insidious. Little decisions are made every day, and—precisely because they’re little decisions—it’s easy to cut a little slack when making them:
“I’m not sure this is a great idea, but it’s just a small change.”
“We’ll just see how it works…we can always change back.”
“It’s not really that different from what we do now.”
These little decisions pile up over time. A company can (metaphorically speaking) wake up one morning and find that it’s doing evil, without ever having made a single really evil decision. And the really big gotcha in the creeping evil scenario is that while it’s hard to stop doing evil in any situation (hence the existence of organized religion), it’s even harder to stop when you don’t know how you started doing evil in the first place.
What’s powerful about Google’s “don’t be evil” motto, in contrast to many statements of corporate principle, is that it’s simple (though not easy). While the debate over what is and isn’t evil with respect to Google’s actions will continue both inside the company and outside, the motto provides a touchstone that is easy to grasp. In the context of corporate ethics, “is it evil to do X?” while very subjective, is a much more productive initial question for an employee to be considering than “can anybody remember whether our corporate principles said anything about doing X?”
Zuckerberg’s Beacon post suggests that Facebook experienced the creeping evil: none of the component decisions or elements are evil in and of themselves, but the little bits of slack added up. And when the blowup happened, Facebook lost time in responding because they were trying to figure out where the evil creeped in, so that they could do something about it.