Sometimes it’s worth reading the comments. For instance, take this comment on the web’s consolidation from Mike Caulfield.
You look in 1993 and see Guido Van Rossum and Berners-Lee arguing that instead of an IMG tag there should be a general “include”, that would allow you to pull together pieces of multiple sites together from multiple MIME types. Twenty years later, there’s still no include.
You see Shirky and Weinberger talking in 2003 about how the web was designed to connect pages, not people, and the groups forming were essentially hacks on top of that. But that power to connect people doesn’t get built into the protocols, or the browser, or HTML. It gets built on servers.
It’s almost like the web’s inability to connect people, places, and things was the ultimate carve-out for corporations. [I]f the connections have to live on a single server (or server cluster) then the company who controls that server wins.
The lack of an <include> tag led to Pinterest. No method to connect people created Facebook. RSS’s confusing interfaces contributed to Twitter’s success. Any guargantuan web company’s core value is a response to limitations of the protocol (connection), markup spec (description), or browsers (interface). Without proper connective tissue, consolidation becomes necessary to address these unmet needs. That, of course, leads to too much power in too few places. The door opens to potential exploitation, invasive surveillance, and a fragility that undermines the entire ethos of the internet.
[Edit: APIs were at first a patchwork to resolve the shortcomings of protocols. They let data flow from place to place, but ultimately APIs are an allowed opening to a private dataset—a privatized protocol. The halcyon days of Web 2.0 were a short lived window of benevolence that eventually closed.]
If a fifth of the planet signs on to Facebook each month, why shouldn’t a neutral version of it’s functionality be built into the protocol, markup spec, and browsers that drive the distributed web? (An argument could be made that Facebook is already trying to do the inverse—turning the internet into Facebook—with its internet.org campaign.) We should view the size and success of these companies as clear calls to recreate their products’ core functionality and weave it into the fabric of the web.
What if tech companies were field research for the protocol? This may be a dream, but it’s our only hope to refragment the web.
To answer your question, I haven’t much felt like it. I’ve been quiet, because there hasn’t been much to say, and I haven’t been looking for things to say. Of course, Twitter is a megaphone, so there is a small temptation to say something into it, even if it is just braying to hear your own voice loud, so…
Whenever I log in to Twitter, I think, “Where did all my friends go?” Now, my feed is mostly the strangers talking. That’s fine: my friends and I find other ways to keep in touch. Although, I do miss having that bizarre, constant contact a feed gives you. Maybe too intense. Maybe unhealthy. Not sure. Having a Twitter account with a decent number of followers is a high-maintainence relationship. I can’t blame my friends for clamming up. I remember last year catching myself: I was composing a tweet in my head while eating breakfast. I felt sick to my stomach and couldn’t finish. Since then, I’ve clammed up, too.
Have you heard of evaporative social cooling? It says the people who provide the most value to a social group or organization eventually burn out and leave, undermining the stability and progress of the group. Most of my internet friends have been on Twitter since 2008, so they probably fall into this group. How much more is there left to say?
We concede that there is some value to Twitter, but the social musing we did early on no longer fits. My feed (full of people I admire) is mostly just a loud, stupid, sad place. Basically: a mirror to the world we made that I don’t want to look into. The common way to refute my complaint is to say that I’m following the wrong people. I think I’m following the right people, I’m just seeing the worst side of them while they’re stuck in an inhospitable environment. It’s exasperating to be stuck in a stream.
Here’s the frustration: if you’ve been on Twitter a while, it’s changed out from under you. Christopher Alexander made a great diagram, a spectrum of privacy: street to sidewalk to porch to living room to bedroom. I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch—our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.
Of course, the things you say on your porch are much different than what you’d say on the street. But if the porch turned into the street without you noticing, there’d be a few painful months before you realized you needed to change how you spoke. I remember the first few times I was talking to friends (forgetting the conversation could be viewed by those who followed both of us), only to have strangers piggy-back on our grousing. It felt like a violation. But that’s on me for participating in a kinda-private, kinda-public conversation.
For the better part of a year, I’ve been trying to make Twitter feel like talking on the porch again, but it just can’t happen. Twitter isn’t talking for anyone with more than 500 followers—it’s publishing or advertising. We’re all on the street, and it’s noisy.
This may be overstating or overthinking the situation. Twitter is just a website. Yet, I can point to many opportunities, jobs, and (most importantly) friendships that sprung from it. Some married friends met on Twitter. It’s tempting to give an importance to the service for those of us who joined early and were able to reap these benefits, but that doesn’t mean Twitter needs to stick around forever. It matters. Or mattered. To me, I’m unsure which just yet.
Time is already a tough customer, but it is torturous when you start measuring yourself to others by it. Henry David Thoreau was my age, thirty, when he sat down to write Walden. What does that mean for me? Not much, I suppose, since my copy sits unread and unloved. Worse yet: feared. I am scared it will reinforce my hunch—yes, modern life is too much, and each day is getting much more much-er. The only sane option is to opt out of the game and become a recluse, because you can not lose if you do not play. This is, at least, what the fabricated Walden in my mind says. “Go—flee. It is the only way. Your life, your mistakes, and this world are baggage. Find a virgin plot, build a foundation, and start fresh.”
Then again, I doubt the Thoreau in my mind and the one on the page, because the things I’m being told to run from are all that I have. A man only writes about his self-inflicted extraction to an ersatz wilderness because he wants to consider his problems under the auspice of the world’s. Who’d trust the opinion of such a weary, indignant, callow, and conflicted young man? I say this describing myself, too.
Thirty is a tender age. A man is old enough to have a past he regrets, young enough to feel he has a stake in the game for righting the course, and self-obsessed enough to have a hyper-vigilant sense of justice. I feel it. It is genetic, or specific to whatever human archetype Thoreau and I share. I try to beat it down. Thoreau ran away and wrote a book. Last year, when I swallowed my pride, contained my fear, and started to read Walden, I only made it 15 pages before throwing it across the room. I identified too much, and saw myself reflected, 150 years in the past, still just as foolish and making the same mistakes I make today.
Some questions I’d like to ask the ghost of Mr. Thoreau, in the purpose of extreme self-interest: Did escaping modern life leave you feeling curiously trapped? Were you running away or running towards? And, most importantly, were you ever able to reconcile the tension between enjoying the world and trying to set it straight? I want to ask because Thoreau ostracized himself, and seclusion, for some, can be just as addicting as any drug. It’s a defacto solution that feeds the problem which requires itself as a solution.
Life is a set of nested envelopes—the seed of you is held in the mind, which is in your body, which is encased in your family, your relations, workplace, city, nation, society, and so on. Thoreau eliminated all the layers and kept only the ones he couldn’t escape: nature and his mind. But I wonder if this was a mistake. What if those fussy middle parts between the mind and nature weren’t a crutch, but the third leg of a stool? Perhaps the real reason Walden scares me is the same reason it has offended so many others: that third leg Thoreau disparaged is where I put most of my weight.
I don’t need to read Walden, it’s already written in my mind by the Thoreau within, cooing the things the weak part of me wants to hear, like the ghost of previous mistakes echoing across the centuries. I’ll take a lesson from Thoreau’s trip to the woods and speak from the side of me that knows better: people don’t have to leave what they know to start fixing what’s wrong. They can start where they are. A man can do it right here, Henry.
The first time I met Chloe, she arrived at a party wearing a very opinionated, seering yellow raincoat. I had not seen that specific hue of yellow since my freshman year in college. Funny how a color can send you back so far.
It is seven years before the raincoat.
I am enrolled in a music appreciation class. One day, we are discussing songs in terms of colors. This is particularly interesting to another student, Anna, who just happens to be blind. Anna, being courageous, raises her hand and asks us to try to explain the specific yellow we were discussing, the yellow I’d see years later in Chloe’s raincoat. Another student raises his hand to attempt an answer. He stands up, walks over to Anna, and holds her hand.
“Can I do something now?” he says. Anna nods. “This is yellow.” And he slaps the back of Anna’s hand.
Chloe liked that story. I suppose it’s the closest I’ll ever get to understanding how she experienced the world.
Imagine your experiences come through a small aperture. Everything you hear, taste, read, touch, and—more than anything—feel, passes through that tiny hole to form your experience of this waking world. Now, take that pinhole and open it just a bit wider. A little wider still. And then, if you can, imagine what that does to your life. Everything you feel becomes sensational—highs are higher, lows are lower, the light—instead of just lighting—can now also burn. The incoming streams flood in and start to cross. There are now connections where otherwise there would be none. Songs point to seasons. Words taste like food.
That was Chloe. She was exceptional. I hate that “was” is not “is.”
It is now one year after the raincoat.
Chloe, like me, is from New York and left the east coast to live in Portland. I had just moved back east after a two year stint in Oregon, and I was having trouble adapting to the particular hardships of big city living that New York City so easily offers up in droves. She was in sympatico with me: happy with Portland and aware of its Neverlandish advantages, yet high-strung like a true east coaster, and thus slightly bored with the pace of the west coast. There was a longing for home and to be surrounded by those as quintessentially neurotic as you, yet also a fear of adjusting and suffering through all the bowls of shit New York serves up each day. It was a hot topic between us—it’d come up each time we saw one another.
I tend to ruminate on my troubles, and eventually, I can figure out how to frame my feelings to have them make sense. But this anxiety, this fear, was a sensation I couldn’t imagine how to describe. Then, finally, Chloe gave it to me, clear as day:
Portland is the island on Lost. You get there, magical things happen, and you are in disbelief. You make a go of living there. Things go exceedingly well for a while, but eventually you realize time is wonky, and you must escape. You work diligently to reconnect with the rest of the world. Eventually you leave the island and get back to where you were. Then, the everydayness of your own life sinks in, and you say to yourself, “We need to go back to the island!”
I needed Chloe to figure that out for me. I couldn’t do it, because my aperture wasn’t open enough. This wasn’t just a take on two cities—it was coming to grips with how to make yourself a home and how to be a person who lives there. It was wrestling with how to feel comfortable in your own skin.
It is three years after the raincoat.
I am with Chloe and Andy, her boyfriend and my friend friend. We are sitting in the lobby of The Merchant Hotel, ensconsed in an over-stuffed, Victorian sofa. The hotel is showy: high, vaulted ceilings, rococo-framed everything, oil-painted portraiture of the bourgeoisie you’d presume lived in the place, if you didn’t already know it used to be a bank. And there we were, cracking wise in the corner about crass subjects that shall not be mentioned here for the sake of preserving a bit of honor to this recollection. Chloe, for the first time all week, had a lightness about her. Her laugh is running up the wall, and bouncing off the ceiling. We are delighted. We are drunk in more ways than one.
A lot of Chloe’s rememberances have mentioned her smile. It’s true, it was a real stunner—wide and mischevious. She was so quick to offer it up. But I’m a man of rarer game—her laugh was always what I wanted, and it was just as special. She had a 100 watt smile and a 100 decibel laugh. That laugh is what I’ll miss the most.
My friend Chloe Weil died earlier this week. I won’t make a fuss in public. She wouldn’t have wanted that. Instead, I’ll sit and try to feel as much as I can—to open myself a little wider, let a little more light in, and have the current go a bit stronger. But, I must be careful. When the current is strong, a boat can go lost.
So long, Chloe. You will be so deeply, deeply missed.
I can pinpoint the moment where my grudge against Massimo Vignelli began. About halfway through Gary Hustwit’s documentary Helvetica, Vignelli is filmed isolated against a gray background, and after some playful grousing, he says, “The life of a designer is a life of fight: fight against the ugliness.” I found this simultaneously offensive and confusing, because of a conflict of my own. I wanted the design profession to be more important than aesthetics, but not so full of itself to believe it could change the world. Of course, this is a ridiculous and self-defeating set of demands: you must fly while wearing handcuffs. Good luck, kid.
Youth brings stubbornness, and insolence is a pair of earmuffs. While coddling my immature grudge, I missed the rest of Vignelli’s statement: “The life of a designer is a life of fight: fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against disease. For us, the visual disease is what we have around, and what we try to do is to cure it somehow, with design.”
One of my perpetual mistakes is believing that insight must be dramatic. Not so. In fact, the most mundane and obvious advice is perhaps worth the most consideration. There are reasons things won’t go away. Massimo was giving that kind of advice, and my stubborn ears were missing it. Of course life devolves into confusing ugliness unless you fight against it with clear beauty. Of course it does.
My grudge left when I inverted Vignelli’s words. When you fight against something, you are also fighting for its opposite. Design isn’t just battling ugliness. It’s also an unending fight for beauty, balance, consistency, and parity, because the world devolves into an ugly, imbalanced, inconsistent, and unequal place unless we are vigilant. Beauty has a role in the good life, so designers like Massimo chip away at their corner: visuals. I’m in that corner, too, with my tiny rock hammer. We all have our place in this effort, not just designers.
A few weeks ago while Massimo’s health was waning, the Vignelli family invited the public to send him personal notes. Massimo famously worked for years using only five typefaces, and I thought it suitable to use five words in my note. I bought a stamp and said what I had been meaning to say for the longest time.
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