It's Probably Nothing

Written by Nick Jones

Mastodon: old internet vibes

Something I’ve been interested in for a few years is pinpointing exactly where the internet crossed the line from progressive techno-utopia to massive libertarian shopping mall. The answer is probably not “when Twitter launched”, but understanding one helps explain the other.

I signed up for Twitter in the early days, and at first it was fun and interesting. Management and priorities shifted quickly, and the platform slowly changed into a showcase for influencers, celebrities, or the main character of the day. Something novel had become just another form of mass media, easily gamed and controlled by the same corporate interests as always.

But Twitter could never translate ubiquity into profit. Its moderation problems also went unaddressed, basically forever. That lack of moderation also lead to an infiltration by the far-right. In short, last week’s exodus from Twitter to Mastodon may have been the largest, but it was not the first. Many users wanted the core of Twitter, without the nazis and misogyny.

If you’re reading this, you likely already know what Mastodon is. (You may have even come from there. Hi.) But for the uninitiated, Mastodon is an open source Twitter-like platform. Part of the problem with moderating a platform like Twitter is its size; Mastodon’s response to this problem is to allow users to set up and operate their own individual instance that can talk to all the others, but which might theoretically have a more manageable number of users. It’s a classic open source solution to a problem: dismantle and route around it.

As such Mastodon still feels like the old, curmudgeonly, aggressively open source internet of yore. Users are helpful but also concerned with making sure the influx of users from the “birdsite” don’t bring all their bad habits with them. It’s a lot like compiling Linux from source, with help from Usenet, in 1998. And it feels great.

People on Mastodon are a little older, less concerned with amassing millions of followers and having one way conversations. Mastodon users index heavily on genuine human interaction, with an active disdain for the “dunking” and quips that dominate so much of Twitter. Time spent there feels very similar to Metafilter, another outpost of pre-social media internet vibes.

Where all this ends up is anyone’s guess. Mastodon has added thousands of new users in just a matter of days. That’s meant performance problems on several of the more popular instances. But as those issues are resolved, people seem happy to stay. Social media is just a reality now. Given that’s the case, finding a platform that is not about dark patterns, about gamifying our worst human traits, is like a glass of ice water in hell.

It's ok to not be an engineer

A lot of the derision I see being directed at Elon Musk has to do with the fact that he isn’t an engineer, but rather a person with a checkbook and a carnival barker’s instinct for self promotion.

While those things are all true I feel the need to point out that it’s alright to not be an engineer within the context of owning or operating even a software company. Steve Jobs did it, and the internet still takes pleasure in reminding us that he wasn’t an engineer, either.

Sometimes, the application of good taste is enough. Careful curation of experiences—weighting towards the good—along with a modicum of care and decency towards the people who use your products can be enough.

Elon Musk’s crime is not that he isn’t an engineer; it’s that he’s a philistine conman using the world’s current fascination with fascism as a way to build himself a fiefdom.

It’s lonely inside my beautifully constructed productivity system

Once a year, I decide my life is a shambles. It’s in a shambles in just such a way that only one thing can fix it: data entry. And to that end I renew my evergreen quest for the best way to organize my life. All my todos, appointments, stray thoughts, all the minutiæ that make up a modern existence—they all have to go somewhere.

A decade or more ago, I read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. It took lots of pages to explain a very simple concept, that keeping the things you have to do in your head is why they never get done. (And also probably why you have anxiety.) You need to disgorge your brain of all the stuff it identifies for you to do, and put it into some kind of system. You also need to break down the things you want to accomplish into smaller pieces. And finally, you need to develop a habit of looking back over all of the stuff and actually doing some of it. Seemed like the perfect prescription for a young designer with terrible time management skills.

Through the mid-aughts GTD (as we were already too busy to say its full name) became one of the internet’s favorite topics. It launched careers and blogs, and likely did some real good along the way. It also dovetailed nicely into a lot of the other organizational concepts du jour, like kanban and/or agile. A few apps originally intended as simple to do lists were remade with a focus on GTD. I’ll note with some irony that David Allen was famously a bit cagey about people using computers with his system. I made a “hipster PDA”, just a collection of index cards held together with a binder clip and popularized by Merlin Mann. The idea was to unload your brain of all that stuff and put it into those cards. Then you’d either do the things, or save them for another day. The hipster PDA gave way to Wunderlist, and Things, and then Todoist.

These kinds of systems hold sway over us because they make logical sense when you read about them on a page. A system that allows you to dump your life in todo form into its loving arms, for someone wracked with anxiety, sounds wonderful. You think you can stick with it, and sometimes you can; other times what really happens is you begin worrying about the system you’ve built more than the things you’re putting into it. You’re unable to just write “buy milk” into your System because it needs a tag. Should that tag be “groceries”? “House”? Normal indecision. But it compounds over time. And what about the bigger things? Don’t I need some place to put notes, too? But they’re outside of The System. How will I associate them with all of my todo items? And this is just my personal life. What about the avalanche of work goals and tasks?

• • •

I was still a full time consultant when Notion somehow danced across my line of sight. I was attracted first by its 1980s Apple aesthetic. (I am an easy mark in that way.) It offered a way to organize all the stuff in your head and in your life under one roof; an external brain, each neuron cross-referenced to every other. Immediately it struck me as the lovechild of Hypercard, Apple’s loved but defunct way of building multimedia slideshows, and OpenDoc, another dead Apple technology that allowed users to assemble documents out of pieces from different programs. We take it for granted now, but the concept of putting a few rows from a spreadsheet next to an image and an embedded video all in the same document was wild in 1996. Notion did that, and so much more. I jumped into it feet first. Here was the unified field theory of my lack of productivity. Getting my shit together was only a few relational databases away. I even persuaded my wife to join me in Notion and we dropped all of our life’s ephemera there, from grocery lists to house renovation plans.

I told myself I would do the bare minimum to set up my productivity system in Notion, but that was a lie. It was only days before I was looking for better ways to do everything; a more clever system for organizing tags, cleaner implementations for my master databases. As I had done a million times before I had made the System the important thing. Years of writing code that would be scrutinized by other (better) programmers made me self conscious and over-critical. I would create and delete databases dozens of times. My System was just one blog post or YouTube video from perfection.

For someone like me the lure is in the process. I like the drive better than the day at the beach, the prep more than the meal. Road signs along the way, carrots cut into neat brunoise. The going is far better than the staying.

If I make myself sit and empty my brain out into the computer, or even a piece of paper, there’s always that moment when I can sense the road looping back onto itself. Before long I’ll need to do all of these things. What then? And what about all the things I’ve captured that I can’t do, but want to? Hike the Sierras. I’m on the other side of the country. Why am I putting this in a todo list? This critical part of my routine can turn inward quickly. I obsess over all the things that I want or need to do, but that I might not have enough context to do.

A concept in GTD that I always loved was the idea of “anytime” tasks. These are things that might take five or ten minutes to complete. You could collect whole gobs of those—sweep the floor, clean the dog bowl—and never run out. Then in idle moments I could always shuffle the deck around and find something to do. But in Notion I started to capture all these items into projects, where their larger context would loom over me. There’s a difference between ‘sweep the floor’ and its larger more ominous parent, 'House'.

There are obvious problems here. Maybe the most glaring is that no one needs to be productive all the time. Looking at it objectively, the idea of applying a Six Sigma style business process to your mundane home life—or even your work life—is, in the parlance of our time, toxic. For me it conjures images of our parents, Dayrunners clutched under their arms, jogging haggard through the gate at the soccer game, mouthing ‘sorry’ as you pack up after the game they missed. It’s one thing to want to be on top of your life; it’s something far more sinister to attempt to cram it all into a meat grinder that generates agendas.

At the same time, I fully acknowledge that so much of the problem is me. I never learned to manage my time, and spent most of my life with anxiety that was undiagnosed but certainly felt. Even now as a medicated and ostensibly well-adjusted adult, I can be sucked into the fetishization of productivity. And inside the bubble of the perfect productivity system is a very lonely place. Putting all the things you want to do in one place—things that you have the best of intentions for, and strive so hard to complete but—and watching them sit and gather dust is sad.

A tale of UX circa 2022

This is a rerun from Medium earlier this year.

I’ve recently started working in the basement of our little 1960’s ranch house in the suburbs of Rhode Island. Disappearing underground for hours at a time and working for a company outside of the timezone I live in have both done a real number on my sleep. I needed lots of non-blue light to put me at ease, help me remember it wasn’t nighttime—and generally keep me from going nuts.

I spent an evening looking at lamps to go beside my desk. Finally I found something I liked in the app of a big online retailer. The confluence of Apple Pay being built in to my phone, and an existing login with this retailer, made the purchase fly by. In no time I had an email thanking me for my purchase. I pasted the tracking number into Deliveries, noticed it was one of those shipments that you can only track online, and went about my day.

• • •

But then the lamp got lost, or redirected, or otherwise delayed. I finally caved and logged directly into FedEx to see what the issue was. It was there that I discovered that super-fast checkout flow left out one critical detail: it never allowed me to review my address. My lamp was now en route to an address I hadn’t lived at for almost 6 years.

And worst of all I learned that I had somehow chosen this flow, that there was a better and more conventional one hiding in there somewhere. Again and again I was told by customer support that I was “not the first”, and that I should “be careful” when making purchases through their store.

• • •

When I tell people that I’m a product designer for a living, I can tell they have a lot of different thoughts in rapid succession; if they’re of a certain age, they ask if they might have ever bought anything I designed. Oh, not that kind of product I tell them.

Lately I explain simply that I design things like apps and websites, and that my job is making it easy to do the right thing.

For any kind of designer, this is a primary goal—stated or unstated. As an artist, I might want to communicate meaning or feelings to people. A poster designer wants basically the same thing. As a designer of experiences, we tie lots of small interactions into one harmonic whole that we hope will guide users down the “happy path” to…something. For all the designers there is an empirical “correct” response we’d like from our audience.

Sometimes, the response they’re looking for is that users trip and fall into a hole. You click a headline because it’s salacious. You rush through the checkout because there’s a timer, and when it elapses you lose your “15% off” coupon. So-called “dark patterns” push users to do things that aren’t in their best interests.

And sometimes, patterns are just shitty.

• • •

Wanting to make something like a checkout process feel faster is something we’re called to do a lot. Like the middle-manager instructed to find a few million extra dollars somewhere in his budget, we can only eliminate so much free coffee and copier paper before we realize it isn’t working and we have to start firing people.

You start tearing entire screens out of your app. You abbreviate and truncate, and put things in modals and under out of the way buttons. You build a cul de sac with a submit button at the end. It works for a while. Until the chargebacks start, or until packages—big ones like couches, 70 inch TVs—start winding up on entirely different seaboards from their purchasers because the screen you chopped out was the confirm this is where you currently live screen.

• • •

More than acumen, or technical know-how, or raw design talent, you will need empathy. This is the entire purpose of user personas. They help you target your designs, sure, but they also give a face and a name to the person you want to help to accidentally do the right thing. And it’s empathy and human compassion that help to ensure that “right thing” is really a right thing.

• • •

I never got my lamp. It’s sitting in the lobby of the condo I lived in 6 years ago, the best lesson I ever got in empathetic design made manifest.

Welcome to "It's Probably Nothing"

Home many times have I tried to have a blog? Countless times. Does it ever stick? Sometimes, yes.

Other times life gets in the way or I get bored.

But, I think now is a good time to get back to this. Let’s see if it takes this time.

Dispatches about product design, work, and life. Compiled semi-regularly in Providence.

Copyright © 2022 Nick Jones. All rights reserved, all wrongs reversed.