The Web We’re Losing

Noted Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, once imprisoned for his “web activities” back in 2008, laments of the Web’s gradual descent towards a centralized flow of information and ideas. In a piece written for The Guardian Derakhshan points the finger squarely at popular social networks –Facebook, Instagram, et al– who he feels are killing the web by reeling us in to their close-walled ecosystems, places where people are increasingly spending more of their time online. Derakhshan writes:

We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication – nodes and networks and links – toward one that is linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.
I miss when people took time to be exposed to opinions other than their own, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters.

Here in Toronto the Star, our largest daily newspaper, recently closed down comments and decided to push conversations among readers to Twitter (this disappointing trend is happening elsewhere too). When did moderating readers’ comments become a liability? Perhaps this is symbolic of the end of the Web as an interactive medium. By all means consume but please resist the urge to participate and share your voice.

Vibrant discussion threads — news.ycombinator.com is a great example — are a telling barometer of strong user engagement, whereas analysis of click-throughs and page views, based on the widespread use of click bots, tell us little about audience participation.

Consider for a moment a future version of the Web resembling Maciej Ceglowski’s computer game analogy:

The Web as Minecraft —an open world with simple pieces that obey simple rules. The graphics are kind of clunky, but that’s not the point, and nobody cares.
In this vision, you are meant to be an active participant, you’re supposed to create stuff, and you’ll have the most fun when you collaborate with others. The rules of the game are simple and don’t constrain you much. People create astonishing stuff in Minecraft.

. . .

It’s somewhat disheartening to think of the modern Web in terms of a series of closed networks or tiered pay-to-play information silos (I’m looking at you Facebook) rather than the vast open hyperlinked network that Tim Berners-Lee had originally set forth.

Update: January 3.2016
It would be hypocritical of me to publish this post with comments disabled, so I’ve turned them back on. Let’s hope the absurd comment spam doesn’t come back.

Slack: Aesthetics Over Utility?

Our office recently started using Slack. It’s the fastest growing workplace software ever and Inc.’s 2015 company of the year, amassing 1.7 million users in just 20 months after its launch, making it one of the fastest-growing startups in the world.

Slack is essentially a chat application with iOS, Android, and browser-based versions available. PC Magazine calls it a great tool for nonessential communication and private backchannel discussion. Nonessential communication?
By the sounds of it small-ish teams may benefit the most from using Slack as a direct messaging app like Skype or MSN Messenger before it, offsetting rampant email use which can hamper productivity. Larger groups and online communities on the other hand may struggle with Slack’s lack of more advanced project management capabilities.

A colleague affectionately touted Slack as an email alternative, calling it an “email killer” bolstering the ongoing argument that email has become a nuisance of modern office life and a crutch for traditional face-to-face interactions with co-workers. Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Email is a creature of convenience we rely on far too much to communicate with one another. Let me repeat that: walking over to a co-worker’s desk to discuss a project is still the best way to get something done. But at the same time, let’s be honest, given the rise of mobile workplaces comprised of teams working remotely who may not always be in the same physical space, tools like Slack (and webmail) become rather useful.

But email can suck the productivity out of the best of us if you find yourself sifting through swaths of CC’d messages, pointless app notifications, and meeting requests with your morning coffee. Curiously though, is it really much different scanning though reams of discussion threads inside a dedicated chat app? Popular email apps like MS Outlook and Gmail already offer conversation mode features, so is it really necessary to run a separate chat app like Slack?

Skepticism aside, I was still interested in trying Slack to see what all the fuss was about given my experience with Basecamp and JIRA for project collaboration.

But as I quickly discovered after just a couple weeks, Slack is full of quirky and often frustrating conventions that, I’m afraid to say, have made me feel slightly more busy, contrary to company’s utopian tagline: “Be less busy”.

Take for instance Slack’s insistence discussion topics, called channel names, contain no special characters (e.g. !@#$%&>.) and be 21 characters or less. If I can’t, for example, type the full name of a project or the client’s URL address (our team work on numerous web sites for various media properties) then I’m stuck with a lot of vaguely titled channels to sort through.
When I asked @SlackHQ why, they said it was for aesthetic reasons, which is odd considering the channels are neatly displayed in a ridiculously narrow column on the left-hand side of the screen while discussion threads extend off indefinitely. As you can see from this screen the desktop UI suffers from a bad case of interface sprawl. To quote Maciej Cegłowski, I’m an adult human being sitting at a large display, with a mouse and keyboard. I deserve better.

Productivity-Thwarting Email Notifications
The way Slack handles notifications is also a bit bewildering, granted I am a new user unfamiliar with the Slack way of doing things.
“Something happened in Slack while you were away…click this link to blah blah blah…” Oh fantastic. How do I turn off these stupid alerts! Isn’t Slack supposed to help me cut-down on the number of emails I get? Perhaps I should have watched the training videos. Who has time to watch software training videos? If I need to watch videos or search through support docs to work the app perhaps the UI needs an audit and some testing with first-time users in mind.

A Head-Scratching Scenario
A colleague of mine posts a direct message to me on Slack, but as luck would have it I am not logged in to the application which means I receive yet another email. (Again, isn’t Slack supposed to help me cut these attention-eroding email notifications down to a minimum?) The email contains a link to the message. After logging back in to Slack I am taken to my colleague’s message, a rather sparse looking screen that doesn’t seem to resemble the normal discussion threads. As I read through my colleague’s message I naturally decide I’d like to respond, but it appears my only options are copy link or add an emoji reaction. Wait a minute. Where is the reply pane? What project [channel] does this message fall under? After a brief moment I realize the email notification I received earlier has linked to a message archive screen rather than the discussion thread itself where my colleague had originally posted the message. What the heck is the purpose of this screen?! Clickbait to get me to stay in the app longer?
Strangely there are no links provided to the corresponding discussion thread —just those ridiculous emoji reactions— so I have to manually track down the correct channel and scroll through a long thread to find the original post where I am able to type a response.

. . .

The more I use Slack the more I wish it was like Basecamp (sorry) —hell, even JIRA, which isn’t saying much —just more flexibility and user-friendliness and without those childish emoji reactions, which are probably better suited to my 9-year old son’s Xbox chat app.

Creativity And Incubation Time

Café Sperl, Vienna - Photo courtesy Kotomi_

Eric Weiner, journalist and author of the book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World”, believes the Viennese pastime of sitting and thinking about nothing, and everything — something he calls “productive idleness” — can help open the door to creativity.

Eric writes:

The Viennese are onto something. Psychology tells us that idleness — a certain kind, anyway — boosts creativity. It happens during the “incubation stage” of the creative process. This is when we stop turning over a problem in our conscious mind and, instead, allow our subconscious to take a whack at it. When the perfect solution to a problem occurs to you in the shower, it’s the result of the incubation stage working away. Many studies have found a link between this sort of seemingly idle behaviour and creative breakthroughs.

Here on North American soil, by contrast, particularly in big urban centers like Toronto and New York City, we elevate to-do lists and multi-tasking to an art form.
It’s quite common — and funny — to see Torontonians briskly walking city streets with a giant Tim Horton’s or Starbucks coffee in one hand and their mobile in the other with an almost frantic sense of urgency.

Photo: Café Sperl, Vienna – Kotomi_