Apple Watch, Snapchat, and Other Harbingers of the End of Written Culture

A couple days ago, my wife sent me a text, which I answered from my watch by selecting one of a few standard replies. (I think I went with “Ok.”) This is pretty convenient, so I’ll be pretty disappointed if it’s a harbinger of the end of written language.

If it is, it’s not the only one. As the Internet is subsuming offline interaction, it’s becoming less of a written medium and more of an oral medium expressed through text. Optimistically, this is because people have some baseline desire to spend a certain amount of their time reading and writing, and a larger amount of time chatting, and the reading-and-writing time went online first.

But behavior doesn’t necessarily stay constant in response to new technology, and some sites provide an unprecedented environment for the evolution of written-but-not-literate memes. This is probably not something worth preventing, but it’s something worth avoiding. Read the rest of this entry »


Why Are Middlebrow Dismissals So Tempting?

A “Middlebrow dismissal” is a Hacker News-ism that refers to a response to an idea that’s both a) popular, and b) uninformative. You’d think these would be rare, but they are incredibly common. Below, a couple objections you can write down for use the next time someone tells you about something new and cool:

  • This is a feature, not a product.
  • Google/Facebook/Amazon could easily do this.
  • It’s not scalable. It won’t catch on. (These go on the same line because anything that is scalable and hasn’t caught on yet might be something that will never catch on, and anything that is catching on is not scalable in its current form.)
  • They’ll never justify that valuation. Their business model must be terrible if that’s all they’re worth. (Another good matched set.)
  • That’s not secure.

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Discussing Politics is a Vice—I’m Trying to Quit

I have decided to take a hiatus from arguing about news and politics on the Internet. My plan is to take six months off, then reassess. I’m mostly doing this so I have more time for work. But also because arguing about the news and politics is a colossal waste of time. It’s fun, of course, and probably a better intellectual exercise than watching TV or something, but it’s a time sink and not a great way to make progress.

Political questions get resolved by technology more often than they get resolved by debates (and anything that seems to be eternally worth debating is probably impossible to figure out). So, I consider debating politics, and holding political views, a vice worth avoiding.

I’m not abandoning you, though! Below, a quick summary of the couple mental models that carry 90%+ of my politically argumentative mental freight. Read the rest of this entry »


The High-Information Jerk

It prevails upon you to forswear censoring others but not yourself. One test of tolerance is provocation. When you sit down to dinner with your disagreeable relations, or comrades who bask in their rectitude and compassion, you have a civic duty to annoy them.”

– Wendy Kaminer, A Civic Duty to Annoy

“Trolling is a art.”


People argue to learn, and people argue to win. You can’t separate the two: when you win, you learn that your views were persuasive. When you lose, you either learn that you’re wrong or learn what counterarguments to address. And either way, arguing combines a personal good (the feeling of being right) with a public good (other people are less wrong, or at least less willing to spread their incorrect views). Read the rest of this entry »


You Say “Viral Content” Like It’s a Good Thing

Here’s a fun new game to play with the news: log on to Facebook. Find a story somebody has posted with an absolutely shocking headline. Next, try to guess what important fact the writer omitted to turn the story from something boring into a newsworthy event.

Try it!

  • BREAKING: Politician says incredibly upsetting thing [as a self-deprecating joke].
  • Student expelled for incredibly petty reason [after lots of other disciplinary infractions culminating in one that was, technically, grounds for expulsion].
  • Pope says anything. [Catholic doctrine is well to the left of the average Catholic on pretty much all economic issues, and well to the left of its public perception on social issues].
  • Lawmaker Claims… [When I read “Lawmaker,” I read it as “This headline writer would have said ‘Congressman’ if that were true, but it isn’t.”]
  • Look at this gross thing some Internet nerd said [in an obviously self-deprecating way].

But it gets worse. The big growth area in online media isn’t incremental reporting. It’s incremental repackaging. Three TV channels plus a local paper can pitch the same story to four segments. Buzzfeed alone manufactures new segments constantly. And of course the point of writing something Only People Who Dislike Children Will Understand is that one person who dislikes kids will share it with their kid-disliking friends. The share doesn’t mean “this is interesting.” The share means “you are one of us.” And if that’s the case, what does disagreeing mean?

It’s a weird self-created Cordyceps: we all express group affinity by saying things that make our ingroup dumber. Nobody needs to be particularly cynical; we all just need to be in a hurry. You’re going to share something if it strikes an emotional chord. And you can watch the evolution in nearly real-time by reading about a story in fairly sober publications, and then on click machines like Business Insider. (An excellent example of how the most emotionally impactful word moved from “not” in a study to “maybe” in an early headline to “Study Says” on the blogs.)

I have three cures, two of which are expensive and one of which you can’t affect, but which is the best option because it’s inevitable.

  1. Buy a Bloomberg. Bloomberg, the product, not just something produced by Bloomberg, the company (if it’s not a terminal, it’s an ad for the terminal). How do you know the Bloomberg Terminal and Bloomberg TV are in the opposite business? A Bloomberg TV story goes something like this “A stock market stalwart’s latest announcement shocks investors–more after the break.” The Bloomberg headline is more like “IBM misses revenue estimates by 4%, rescinds 2015 guidance; stock drops 7%.” That’s pretty much word-for-word the best way to inform someone of what happened.
  2. Subscribe to The Economist or something: The Economist has a feedback loop, just like any viral content producer. Their feedback loop takes a little bit longer, because it goes like this: They write something; a large number of smart and important people read it to know what all the smart and important people think; and then they all act as if it’s true. This keeps The Economist mild, but also makes them a good leading indicator that’s not too tied to the outrage cycle.
  3. Wait for Facebook, Twitter, etc. to crack down further. A virus needs a host. It’s hard to strictly draw a line between the host as your attention, or the host as the share of your attention that Facebook controls. But either way, Facebook has an incentive to construct a memetic immune system for you, so you don’t spend all of your time repeating things your friends say. Not that they’re public-spirited—it’s just easier to sell big brand advertisements against bland but fun content, rather than engaging and enraging stuff.

The first option is a big monetary investment. The second is a big time investment. But the third is inevitable. Facebook already explicitly demoted clickbait headlines earlier this year. But they’re not done with Upworthy yet. And Upworthy is definitely a threat to Facebook’s iron grip on the average Internet user’s idle attention. Their business model is, basically, “Notice how everyone under 30 constantly mocks people for sending sappy email forwards? Clearly sappy stories are a universal human need. Let’s trick cool kids into like them.” And it worked! Until the host’s immune system kicked in.

It’s natural to slip into biological metaphors: the term “viral” is apt because it’s a small and self-copying chunk of information. But it’s also apt because a virus can only thrive given raw material from a host, and the host has a strong incentive to stop it. If the best metaphor for a business model is something that kills people, maybe that’s not the model to bet your business on.


Demand Media’s IPO: Everything You Need to Know

Demand Media is the biggest pure-play SEO company in existence. And SEO is one of the fastest-growing marketing channels. So if you want to know what the marketing industry as a whole will look like, the best way to do it would be to take a look at Demand Media’s financial data. That information was available to investors and executives at the firm, but not to everyone else—until now.

Read the rest of this entry »


A Better “Reply All”

Companies only grow when they can contain complexity, and email is the fastest way to produce uncontained complexity. This is because email is built around sending messages from one person to another, or from one group to another; anything in between is an ugly hack.

There’s a good reason most people choose to “Reply All”: all of the recipients of an email have to assume that, until they hear something about it, whatever the email says must be done still must be done. If you’ve ever replied directly to the sender of an email that was sent to ten people, you’ve gotten one of two responses: either ten minutes later you’re “Reply All”‘d on another email that makes yours redundant. At one minute per email times ten recipients, it’s easy to see how a simple task can take an hour or more total—and that’s ignoring the cost of disruptions.

I have a simple solution: “Reply All” should not allow you to compose an email reply; it should send a default answer like “It’s being taken care of.” To recipients who need to know more, you can elaborate; to everyone else, well, it’s being taken care of.

(In the meantime, you can start replying-all with that line. Hopefully it will catch on.)

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Facebook is Profitable. Again.

Facebook just announced that they are, more or less, profitable. Money coming in exceeds money going out. This is not the first time: in a 2005 interview, Mark Zuckerberg discusses how the company made a profit before they decided to focus on growth.

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Steganographic Typo-Based URL Shorteners: Add a Link With Zero New Characters

Watch out, j.mp! Back off, tinyarro.ws. You can shorten a URL down to zero characters by steganographically embedding it into the text. Think of it this way: how many potential typos could be autocorrected for a given sentence? You’ve got the off-by-one errors, like “typ[“, the random capitalization errors (“tYpo”), transpositions (“tyop”), and full-word off-by-ones (“yu[p”). The word “typo” alone has:

  • 24 off-by-one-character potential typos.
  • 9 random capitalization errors (discard all-caps and capitalize first letters).
  • 3 transpositions.
  • 6 full-word off-by-one errors.

This gives you 42 unique ways to misspell typo, and in all cases it’s fairly easy to determine that the original word was “typo.”

What I’d like to propose is a service that uses typos to encode URLs. You visit a site, input your tweet and URL, and get, as an output, a tweet with a strategically insert typo (or typos). Someone who sees this tweet can input the text into the site, and get the URL that’s mapped to that particular set of typos.

Imagine! Instead of reading something lame and garbled like:

@ev this is a neat microblogging service: http://bit.ly/xE2sK

You could say something clean and space-saving, like:

@ev yjod iS a neta micRolbohhing sevriCe:

Don’t think of it as transmitting 140 characters at a time—think of it as transmitting 1140 bits—meaning there are far, far more potential unique tweets than there are atoms in the universe.

(Note: I have no interest in implementing a steganographic URL shortener, but it might be an interesting exercise. It’s probably possible to have an effectively infinite number of embedable URLs without making things unreadable. Maybe adding some backend analytics could tell you which typos result in a click-through and which don’t. If anyone does anything like this, please let me know.)


After Anonymity

Most online annoyances are anonymous. Email spammers, twitter spammers, trolls, splogs, script kiddies, scammers—they’re all anonymous. And most good writers (of text and of software) operate under their own names, if only so they can easily get paid. But anonymous and psuedonymous people are being squeezed out of the online ecosystem. Is that going to change the world? Read the rest of this entry »