Essays on Technology and Culture

It Gets Worse, If You’re a Woman

As women, we’re often told that this Internet harassment is “not real,” that it’s “just the Internet,” that we need to expect it and develop “thicker skin.” Women internalize these ideas, too, or at least accept that we can’t turn back the tides of abuse that we have to deal with…

And yet, as women, we know that, no matter how thick our hides might be, the emotional effects and physical dangers of Internet harassment are all too real.

Samantha Allen – “For Women On the Internet, It Doesn’t Get Better”

There’s no excuse for any of this. It’s the responsibility of every man on the Internet to shut down harassment and abuse. End of story.

Solving the Same Problems

It’s not that email is broken or productivity tools all suck; it’s just that culture changes. People make email clients or to-do list apps in the same way that theater companies perform Shakespeare plays in modern dress. “Email” is our Hamlet. “To-do apps” are our Tempest.

Paul Ford, "Doomed to Repeat It"

An interesting point of view from a programmer on the prevalence of new apps that try to solve the same old problems we thought the last set of apps solved. The problems aren't the same, and neither are the solutions, at least to a programmer. More importantly, and what Paul misses, is that the there is never going to be a one-size fits all solution for how any of us choose to work.

What's problematic about the glut of email apps and to-do lists, is that they have a low barrier to entry (at least, for to-do lists), and to the average end user there's not a lot of difference between Wunderlist and Things, or between Dispatch and Mailbox. It's why I'm glad something like The Sweet Setup exists, to carve through the glut for us. But that glut is so large that it looks like, at least to outsiders, there's nothing groundbreaking happening. That's a dangerous image to have in a crowded market of undifferentiated goods.

Cloudy, Biased Echo Chambers

Marco Arment released his long awaited podcast app, Overcast, today. As soon as the tweet went out that it was live, my Twitter stream became loaded with praise from beta testers, links to reviews, and more than a few jokes about when Marco was going to sell the app. Which lead to an interesting, if convoluted, conversation between Sid O'Neill, and The Typist on the echo chamber of praise and the potential bias inherent in Marco's supporters/beta testers singing the product's praise on their blogs. In terms of bias, the conversation wasn't about Marco per se, but whether one's biases in promoting a friend's work compromises journalistic ethics.

In terms of ethics, it comes down to trust. A number of the people promoting Overcast—John Siracusa, John Gruber, Jim Dalrymple, Federico Viticci, just to name a few—have earned my trust by writing quality, (mostly) unbiased technology journalism and criticism over the years. These are people who know good software, and so does Marco Arment. I've used Instapaper for years, as well as Tumblr. I can't speak for his other famous app, Nursing Clock, as I've had no cause to use it. (You gotta love the icon, though.) Overcast has the pedigree of a developer who knows his stuff, and the support of a group of technologists who have proven they know their stuff too. Yes, much of the positive buzz is coming from people who are friends and collaborators with Marco, but they've proven I can trust their judgment.

In any sort of independent community, having an audience of not only fans who support you, but influential voices who support you is critical to your success. This holds true, even for a “big name” indie creator. If it comes off as a backpat circlejerk to someone outside of that circle of voices, which it can be, understand that it's the nature of the beast. When you're an independent creator, this is life or death. I have friends who are professional working musicians, and I both love their work and will sing its praises to anyone who listens when they deliver something new. I don't do it here, but I might in the future.

The inherent risk, as The Typist notes, is the bias of friendship overriding the quality of the work, and the validity of the endorsement. Again, it's a matter of trust. Both the trust of our audiences in knowing we know of what we speak, and also the trust of the creator in knowing they'll get an unbiased critique. I like to think that my musician friends can trust I will be unbiased when criticizing work, though it's telling that none have offered me a chance to hear any works-in-progress. To use Overcast as an example, many of Marco's beta testers are known for being critical and opinionated on software—John Siracusa enough so that his blog, and former podcast are both called Hypercritical. John Gruber is infamous for being borderline anal-retentive on software design, which shows in his app Vesper. If anyone is going to give Marco an unbiased criticism of his app, it's going to be those two. (Siracusa will be delivering a full critique on the next Accidental Tech Podcast)

Of course, the bigger the name, independent or not, the more people will be chiming in with their own criticism. I worry more about bias coming from this larger group, to be honest. Most are just people who want their own voices to be heard in the din of technology blogging. Some are people with a vendetta and want it to be known to the world. It's, again, the nature of the ever-changing beast of online publishing. The latest episode of Back to Work covers that in detail, with great personal stories. Talking up a hot topic is a proven way to get hits, and if their Google Juice is strong enough, a well written review of Overcast might get them noticed. It's the potential starting point for discovering a new, trusted voice to add value to the conversation—but for most of us, it's just another annoying retweet to scroll past.

For people like Sid, who grow tired of the din of echo chamber, there are only two ways out. One is exerting more control over what you see by judicious muting, unfollowing, or just stepping away. If the stream of Overcast tweets grew too much, I could easy have told Tweetbot to silence any mention of it for the next 24 hours. The second is to pay it no mind, and write the Internet you want to read. Which is why I'm writing up this metacommentary on the whole conversation around the Overcast conversation. There's a lot of important issues to discuss around technology journalism, independent creation, and what we choose—or don't choose—to see in our streams.

And we might not have had the conversation at all without some big name indie developer putting out yet another podcast app. Funny how the Internet works.

A Few More Thoughts On Self-Tracking

Since writing my previous post on self-tracking, I’ve thought more about the data we collect on ourselves and why. A brief chat with The Typist on Twitter centered around the pleasure of data:

The recent launch of April Zero, a gorgeous public display of personal tracking data caught our eyes, as well. I can’t speak for Nicholas Felton, aka Feltron, but I suspect that half of his self-tracking is to provide data for him to experiment with data visualization and design as it is collecting the details of his life. Data can be gorgeous, and our lives are a gold mine of potentially interesting data to collect and visualize. Anyone who self-tracks as a hobby I can’t fault.

Some part of me approached life-logging and self-tracking from a hobbyist perspective, but I wasn’t getting any of the pleasures that come from a hobby out of it. If I flipped thought my Moves data, it was often the same basic route five days a week. Weekends had variation, but not a whole lot. I’m a creature of routine. I stop at the same set of lunch spots on Seventh Avenue, hit the gym three times a week, go to a writing group on the West Side, and occasionally go to a concert. My location data is the opposite of beautiful. It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.

If I’m not getting anything out of self-tracking that’s worth the set up time, battery draining, and mindfulness of checking up on my data, is it worth it? Of course not. Each of these services I drop is one less piece of mental clutter, more space on my hard drive, and—yes—less data I’m giving up for free to some venture-backed startup company that’s just going to get eaten by Facebook or Google in a year or two. Which is why I stick with tracking stuff that focuses on actionable data. If I know I’m spending two hours a week on Facebook, or Tweetbot is my most used iPhone app, that’s actionable data.

Yet, the Quantified Self and Life-Logging movements are fascinating. There’s something incredible about the amount of accurate sensors we can cram into our devices—we’re almost to a Star Trek Tricorder in our phone. The biggest reason why I haven’t replaced my lost Fitbit is that I’m curious what Apple is going to in the fitness tracker space once iOS 8 comes out. We’re in early days and still learning what we should track, when, and why. Those answers aren’t going to be the same for all of us.

Spying On Myself

Moves. RescueTime. Fitbit. MyFitnessPal. RunKeeper. Sleep Cycle. Swarm. Reporter. Lift. Mint. I do a lot of self tracking. I know where I’ve gone, how I got there, how much I spent on stuff while I was there, and what music I was listening to at the time. I know, down to the minute, how much time I spend on Facebook while using my laptop. Several times a day, my phone buzzes to ask me what I’m doing, where I am, and what app I used last. There’s data tracking how many steps I’ve taken for the last six months, and data on my sleep for almost that same amount of time. Every time I arrive at my office, and every time I leave it gets logged to a spreadsheet in Google Docs. There is precious little I do not know about my habits, online and offline.

The point of the Quantified Self movement is that once you have a bunch of data on yourself, you can identify patterns—and then things to change to improve yourself. Then, you check your new data, and if the change is working, keep at it. It’s about self-awareness, and then self-improvement. That’s the spirit, at least, with which I embarked on the step-tracking, location-logging, iPhone-buzzing, self-reporting endeavor. And, yes, it’s been useful in some ways. Knowing how many steps I take during a day has inspired me to move more. Logging my calories makes me want to seek out healthier lunch options, and helps me shed pounds. Since I’ve taken up Couch to 5K, RunKeeper’s been a useful way to track my workouts, too. Sleep Cycle doesn’t help me get out of bed, which is a problem, but I think it’s me, more than the app. These stay.

It’s the other data that I’m wondering if I need. Moves, for example, lets me know all the places I go during the day. I can see my travels on a map, day in and day out. And there’s not a whole lot of variation. I go to work, I go to lunch, I go home. That’s because I’m a 9-to–5ing Corporate Stooge. Before going with Fitbit, Moves did serve as a great pedometer, but now that feature is quadruply redundant between the Fitbit app, MyFitnessPal, DayOne for iPhone, and Reporter app tracking my steps. (Plus, there’s the whole Facebook thing.) As it stands, Moves is just one more thing sucking up battery. Deleted.

Swarm is another location-tracking app without the automation of Moves. Before it was spun out into its own app, Foursquare was worthwhile as a way to inspire me to find interesting spots and collect badges. As a stand-alone app, it’s lost its interest. With so few friends using Foursquare/Swarm, I don’t even get the social benefit of knowing where my friends are so I can hang out with them. I’ll know if I’ve been somewhere interesting, or important. Logging it publicly serves no useful purpose. I can always just write it down if I need to remember a great place. Gone.

RescueTime and Reporter are apps I’m using to keep track of how I spend my time on my devices. I’ve been using RescueTime on my Mac for a while, and my weekly emails are sobering. (I spent how many hours on Facebook? Even one is too many!) However, it doesn’t track what I do at work—there’s a Windows version, but I don’t think IT would like it if I installed it—so RescueTime is only useful for figuring out how much time I spend on personal projects. I’m still working on ways to ensure I do that. Reporter is a new piece of software that buzzes me to log a few pieces of data: “Am I working?”, “What am I doing?”, and “What iPhone app did I use last?” (For my own curiosity. The big winner is Tweetbot, so far.) There are more pointed questions I could use it to ping me about, but I’m still working out whether this is even going to be something useful. Not Sure Yet.

As for the rest? Lift is a habit tracking app that works best when I actually think to open it. I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with the app, and I’m in the middle of giving it another chance. The social features are good for positive reinforcement, but I’m still unsure about it. Mint is actually very helpful, especially since I’ll be renting an apartment again and need to keep a closer eye on my finances. I’m of two minds on it… it’s a great way to discover new music, but I rarely think to check there when I’m looking for something new. I think it’ll have to go, despite years of use. I’m just not getting anything out of it, and don’t want to bother. Baleeted.

Before I dive into another service that automatically tracks some aspect of my life, I need to ask myself more questions about why I’m bothering. What do I want to know about myself? What am I trying to change? What happens if I’m successful, and what happens if I’m not? To just dive in and expect that some sort of pattern or sense will emerge from all the data I’m collecting about myself. That’s magical thinking. The same magical thinking that goes into big data, that enough data can overcome our own ignorance and biases.

Part of the problem is the “set it and forget it” nature of many of these services. Unobtrusiveness is important when you’re spying on yourself, but you still need to see what you’re collecting and decide if it’s of any use. I’m not trying to be Nicholas Felton, I just want to have a better sense of how I’m spending my time, money, and energy. I want to use this information to help me focus on the things that make me happy, and not to do more work, but do better work. It feels odd to just drop the bomb and wipe out years of data on where I’ve been and what music I’ve heard. Yet, I know the important things. My memories aren’t tied up in services, they’re in my head. For some things in life, that’s the only place they need to be.