It's been quite a while since my last post. (This is mainly a product of school, which is a 70-80 hour-per-week undertaking.) I have, however, managed to complete a number of small projects throughout the past few months, which are listed below.
Super Todo, a minimalistic and barebones todo app using localStorage.
Stor.js, a localStorage helper library.
Tumblr Cleanr, a Chrome extension to remove sponsored material from Tumblr.
Please, use these things and vindicate the (relatively) prodigious amount of time that I put into them.
The motivation for App.net is not pragmatic, practical or utilitarian. App.net, from a consumer standpoint, is worse in almost every quantifiable way: far fewer users and therefore a weakened ecosystem, a worse selection of clients, a grimace-inducing web interface, and an incredibly hefty price tag. From a practical standpoint, App.net is decisively inferior to Twitter. Yet, people have flocked to the service in droves.
From what I've seen, the most often cited reason for joining App.net is that people prefer their philosophy: that the service takes your money instead of taking the advertiser's money, thereby switching the balance of power in favor of the developers and users. Therefore, the service is inherently more trustworthy and a better service. This mentality makes a very clear assumption: that it is better to use a service that doesn't have a constituency other than users than it is to have a better service overall. Here, philosophy trumps concrete value and quality.
This is a rare viewpoint, and, in my opinion, is a luxury. The ability to put ideology ahead of pragmatism is a feat largely accomplished exclusively by people of increased wealth and time. This is because, in an overwhelming number of circumstances, taking the philosophical high-ground involves extra time, money and effort. Most people aren't in a financial position to use a more expensive (and therefore worse) service. Even if someone disagrees with Twitter's mentality, they likely can't or won't shell out for App.net. An independent, hobbyist blogger that distrusts Google yet makes no blog-related income likely can't afford to substitute Google Analytics with Kissmetrics, or have the money and time to purchase a Fever license and deploy and maintain their own instance on their own server to replace Google Reader. Most people simply don't have the lifestyle to spend time and money to appeal to their ideology. For most people, the fast, free option, be it Twitter, Google Analytics, Google reader or a host of other services, is the only viable option.
This is true not just among web services and software, but in the world in general. Take politics. Most libertarians and hardcore conservatives argue that big government is reprehensible for ideological reasons. That freedom and self-reliance are virtuous traits that should be defended. I have neither a desire nor a need to get in to the GOP's platform, but for a lot of conservatives, this is the mentality behind preventing "redistribution of wealth." But, many people simply don't have the means to care about freedom and other conservative ideals. The most liberal demographics are consistently the poorer ones1 , and conservatives make, on average, $18,000 more than their liberal counterparts2 . It's easy to demand "freedom" when you've got money. But, if you're impoverished, or reliant on the government for food, income, education etc., it becomes much harder to argue against social programs. The choice is obvious: would you rather be free or be fed?
This situation is easily translated to this industry as well. Many can't afford, or don't have the time to buy into the idealism that has sparked a diaspora to App.net. App.net may be philosophically superior, but Twitter, being cheaper and a better service, is clearly the more pragmatically practical choice. Having a platform that puts the users first is nice, but having affordable products is a whole lot nicer.
Just some food for thought...
Today, while perusing Twitter, I happened upon this chart. This, besides not actually being indicative of anything (for obvious reasons), frightened me with it's implications. The author attempts to make the argument that not only is copying of Apple products rampant in every industry, ("It’s not just phones. Or tablets. Or TV remotes"), but that this is somehow an abject immorality or is in some way unfair. Naturally, I tend to disagree.
We need to realize that "copying" is not inherently bad. Creating products that are loosely resemblant to Apple's products and incorporate some of the paradigms that Apple products spearheaded is not in and of itself a reprehensible thing, and it certainly isn't something against which people can make tenable arguments. The fact that Apple makes things a certain way does not mean that making things that way is unreasonable or unfair. Just because Apple makes thin computers made of aluminum does not give them a monopoly on thin things or aluminum things. There's no reason that other companies should be compelled to build things that are not thin or not aluminum just because Apple made a thin aluminum thing first.
People in this industry exhibit what can only be described as an absurd innovation myopia. For whatever reason, in the hardware and software realm, "copying" is unreasonable and reprehensible. But let's extend this viewpoints to other things. The Chinese invented paper money. Should every other nation throughout history be barred from using paper currency just because China used it first? Should we all be relegated to using bulky coins simply because it's necessary to be different from China? Most people wouldn't agree. Paper money has obvious benefits and, due to it's widespread use, the whole world is most likely better off. What if the first person to ever write a book asserted a claim to a square object with words on it? Is it reasonable that all of our books then be round, and that lines of text are written in concentric circles? This is no different from people asserting that Apple ought to have a monopoly on a thin, aluminum computer, or a rectangular device, or rounded corners, or a grid. Like with paper money, there is a distinct benefit to making a thin, aluminum computer. Making a device that is rectangular with a large screen and a black bezel is intuitive. What do theses opponents companies of "copying" Apple want? For every phone to be triangular? For every laptop to be bulky and made from shitty materials? Without "copying," products would be worse for everyone. The best ideas would never become widespread. Apple would monopolized black rectangles. China would monopolize paper money. Our books would be circular. Good ideas are meant to be spread. We as consumers benefit when devices become better. The entire American system of intelectual property is predicated on the idea that great inventions, ideas and features shouldn't be locked up forever. If we held the rest of the world to the same stringent standards that some people hold Samsung and other companies to, there would be no inovation at all.
And yet, most people don't care that we "copied" the concept of paper money from China. Copying is ubiquitous, and no one seems to mind. My mugs from Ikea bear a striking resemblance to my mugs from Crate & Barrel, yet, somehow, I manage not to become outraged. The Toyota Yaris looks suspiciously similar to the Honda Fit, yet I've never read an indignant blog post about how Toyota has shamelessly "copied" Honda. There's a ludicrous dichotomy between how people feel about "copying" in the real world and how people feel about copying in regards to Apple.
Honestly, the collective hate against Apple competitors is getting tiring. People will opine about how it's not a matter of bias, but rather a matter of fairness and morality in general. (Obviously, the issues or morality are far more complex than they are willing admit, and a very strong argument can be made that copying is far more morally permissible than allowing monopolies. I digress.) There may be a moral case against copying, but I truly doubt that these people actually care for that reason. If they did truly care about spreading fairness and ethics throughout the world, they would turn their attention to the plethora of tragedies, atrocities and other horrific issues that are plaguing the human race, and not writing an indignant blog post about round corners our compiling a bunch of images of aluminum laptops. Ultimately, I think that the morality argument is just another excuse to lambast Apple's competitors.
Even if these accusers did care first and formost about the ethics of the issue, their level of anger and the sheer amount of outrage towards these would be "copiers" is disproportionate to the severity of the "copying." Samsung and others aren't committing some sort of horrific action against Apple. Apple isn't being bullied by these companies. Compared to some of the real moral atrocities that are being committed in the world today, this "copying" is trivial. Moreover, these are huge, inhuman corporations. You needn't come to their rescue by perpetuating the concept that someone committed some egregious moral violation by making a thin, aluminum computer. In fact, I doubt that Apple itself cares about the issue beyond the extent to which they can use it as leverage against competition and increase their market hegemony. Call me crazy, but I don't think that Apple sued Samsung because of morality. It's blatantly obvious that it was about money.
Note: "copy" is in quotes because the way in which most people use the term in relation to Apple is false. None of these companies have produced an exact physical reproduction of an Apple product. That would be an example of the actual dictionary definition of copying. Rather, the "copying" that most people describe is incorporating certain aspects, features or paradigms set by an Apple product.
I have some severe problems with Branch. It's demonstrative of a scary trend in the industry being heralded by the likes of Branch and Svblte: the "elitification" and segmentation of the web. Startups like these seek to put celebrities on pedestals and glorify their opinions, yet ignore or out-right vilify the wealth of discussion that can come from an open web. They allow a few people to be heard, but don't encourage anyone to talk.
The biggest problem is that Branch is inherently a closed medium. The fact that it's necessary to get approval to comment by the creator of the Branch means that conversation is going to be categorically more restricted and therefore less in-depth and worse overall. Thus far, the most interesting branches that have gotten the most discussion have been the celebrity ones. The ones with people like Michael Arrington, MG Siegler, and Om Malik. The problem with making these people the ones who decide who gets to engage in the discussion is that no one other than other tech celebrities will ever get in. Most celebrities don't give a shit about and won't talk to laymen, much less allow them into a conversation with 5 of their friends who also happen to be industry big shots. It doesn't matter how insightful your ideas are. If you're not internet-famous, you won't get in. What this results in is the dialog being had by a very small number of very influential people, and no one else. By doing this, Branch is totally removing the possibility of mass-discussion. With things like comments, Twitter and the "blogging network," at least everyone gets a say. Obviously, the majority of responses to the things people write are shit, hence the wide-spread removal of comments from blogs. Hell, my own blog doesn't have comments implemented. Still, I make it obvious that people can contact me in multiple ways on the blog, and invite then to email or tweet me. I may not have comments enabled, but I'm not certainly not suppressing discussion. Branch is. The fact remains that many comments and responses are still of a very high quality and contribute to the conversation. I'd rather deal with a slew of mediocre responses in order to read and engage with the really good ones than have no comments at all. From a practical level, Branch is going to prevent an immeasurable amount of good, insightful discussion. From a philosophical standpoint, Branch is shunning the very thing that makes the web great: anyone with a valid idea and in internet connection can engage in discussion. To me, it feels wrong to bar discussion entirely. I know that my moral intuition doesn't count for much, but I think that it demonstrates that Branch is taking a mindset that is antithetical to both openness and the concepts that have made discussion on the web great, and that's not what a discussion platform should do.
Of course, not everyone on Branch is a celebrity. Normal people will still be able to engage in discussion. But the large, controversial and generally "big" posts that would normally have rocketed front page of HN, circulated thoroughly through Twitter, and sparked a day's worth of trading blog posts and comments can't exist on Branch. The big, wide-spread discussion in this industry can't be had if only a few celebrities are allowed to chime in.
Now, by putting all the power over the discussion in the hands of one person or very few people, the dialog that was once a meritocracy is now a dictatorship. In a normal discussion, anyone can comment, tweet or blog in response to someone and participate in discussion. The best tweets will be retweeted, the best blog posts will be up-voted on HN, and the best comments will be liked and replied to. The internet decides who's ideas and criticisms are the best, and those ideas and criticisms get circulated, read, and replied to in turn. The web engages in a self-perpetuating discussion by propagating the best responses, engaging with them and sharing them. Everyone is free to comment, and the best people get filtered to the top. Again, Branch is going to destroy this phenomenon. One person who decides who's ideas are worth sharing, and, because most of these high-profile discussions are only had by the elite, even those with good ideas likely won't get in. The limitless potential for discussion on the open web is reduced to a few people presenting their ideas in a closed forum. The best content doesn't rise to the top, replies by a select few people do. The democratic nature of the web that made the discussion so interesting is reduced to nothing on Branch.
Ultimately, I see very little value in Branch as a product. The only remotely valuable functionality it offers is a centralized place to pool opinions, making it easier to go back and forth. But, people already do this. People blog their take on the issues. People reply to each other on Twitter. And they do it in a way that's open. How is replying to someone on Branch any better that replying to someone on Twitter or in the comments section of their blog? Functionally, Branch doesn't offer a whole lot of new functionality. Conceptually, it goes back on the open and democratic ideals that are attributable to the diverse discussion that happens on the web. I suppose it has value as a way for people who want to speak but not to listen or engage to peddle their ideas. But as both a writer and a reader, that's not the kind of medium I want to share my ideas on, nor the kind I want to hear other people's ideas on.
I recognize that their's value in private conversation. Not every conversation should be public. Sometimes, it's better to have a small, intimate discussion. But, if the discussion is being had in public view by public figures, why is it private? If people wanted to have a discussion free from the rest of the web, they can use things like email or DMs. Branch isn't meant to be free from the rest of the web. Conversations there are totally visible to everyone. Branch is public, but the conversations are private. On Branch, everyone on the web can listen, but no one can speak.
Preface: This is not representative of all comments on HN. This particularly applies to comments that are written in response to controversial articles that serve to argue some point. This does not apply to comments on the "Hey, this new service / thing is cool" type of post. Those almost categorically fit into two types: "this is cool" or "this sucks," said with varying word choice and degrees of verboseness. I find these useless as well, and more or less never look at them anyway. It is the debate-heavy links to blog posts that exemplify most of the problems stated below, and that I am henceforth going to avoid.
I'm giving up on Hacker News comments. Why, you might ask? Truthfully, this was not an epiphanic revelation, but rather, a long, ubiquitous annoyance with the way the internet chooses to engage in discourse, compounded by a total lack of interest or value from these discussions. Let me explain.
First, I think it's necessary to explain why almost all arguments end up going to hell: people lack objectivity when arguing. This is for two reasons. First, most people trust too much in themselves. People often evaluate things with their intuition, and allow personal experience to shape their worldview. Even when confronted with a logical refutation of their opinions, they still choose to trust in their own intuition. A perfect example of this is people who have seen "the light at the end of the tunnel" when in cardiac arrest, and assert that it in some way proves the existence of heaven, or people who continue to play the lotto despite absurd odds because they are feeling "lucky." Even when given a scientific basis for their experience, or being shown that the value of a lottery ticket is in almost every situation negative, people still choose to trust in their intuition and experiences, and fall victim to cognitive bias. The same is true of factual knowledge. People who have previous knowledge of something are far less likely to accept the truthfulness of an opposing point. For instance, even after being given comprehensive evidence that the world is round time and time again for hundreds of years, people ignored the concept of a round Earth. People trust heavily in their own knowledge, and/or the knowledge that they have been told repeatedly throughout their lives, but tend to inherently disbelieve new and contradictory information. Evidently, people value their own knowledge, experiences, and intuition over facts.
Second, people are intensely, viscerally defensive of their position. People, when confronted with an opinion that dissents from their own, take offense. In my experience, this offense happens because people end up interpreting any critique of their position whatsoever as an insult to them and their intelligence. Moreover, most people hate being wrong, and will do most anything to avoid it. This results in vitriolic arguments where people no longer care about the facts. Their only goal becomes to win. This results in the use of a host of logical fallacies, and often devolves to an exchange of ad hominem attacks. (See this chart.) Ultimately, the argument diverges from it's initial point, and little if anything of substantive value is said. People begin to exhibit the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. They end up arguing not to find the truth, but to beat their opponent, no matter the means or their pertinence to the argument.
The level of discussion on Hacker News is by no means as abjectly bad as above. Generally, things are more civil. But, HN still gets subjected to the same phenomena that most websites allowing comments are subjected to. People still give incomplete arguments and logical fallacies. People make overly-borad generalizations of questionable validity about things. People refute those generalizations anecdotally with edge-case examples that don't disprove anything. People distort facts and figures to support their arguments. People make overly-generalized appeals to morality that have no logical basis. People make passive-agressive digs at each other. People just start screaming at each other. The state of comments on HN may not be as destitute as other places on the web, but it's by no means sterling, and, for the most part, still filled with shit.
But the real problem is that most people people on Hacker News are simply pretentious. Many commenters are fairly intelligent, and have at the very least enough knowledge to offer a valid comment, but they're not well-informed enough to be considered an expert. Moreover, they still often make totally invalid and fallacious arguments and argue with a tone of agressions, but do so in a manner that gives an air of pedagogy or elitism. This is the by far the worst aspect of Hacker News. Many people are fairly smart (or at the very least smart enough to use Wikipedia effectively) and capable of making interesting comments and contributing to an actual discussion, but have far too much faith in their own intelligence (or ability to use Wikipedia), and ultimately come off as incredibly pretentious. The only thing that is more egregious than someone who is trying to combat your opinion with needless vitriol and using a flat-out logically untenable argument is one who is doing so while being a elitist dick.
I simply don't have the time or patience to content with a community like this. Insightful, correct, polite and pertinent comments are incredibly uncommon, and are overwhelmingly outweighed by fallacious, arrogant or agressive comments. The result is that, at least for me, effectively no value can be gained through the reading of these discussions. At the very least, blogs and other outlets for writing seek a little more objectivity and are more civilized than open forums like Hacker News, and by that token are more enjoyable and less frustrating to read. There are simply much better places on the web to find opinions than HN, and I don't see a point in subjecting myself to the overwhelming level of crap there. On HN, the commonality of bullshit arguments, the pretentious attitudes that most people take, and the fact that it, like all forums of mass-discussion on the internet, are subject to the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory are enough to make anyone regretful of visiting a link's comments.
Of course, everyone is subject to the problems present on Hacker News, myself included. Obviously, no one's perfect. I, the bloggers I read, the people I follow on Twitter, and a lot of people I've argued have made egregious logical fallacies. We've all engaged in cognitive bias. We've all been pretentious dicks when arguing. That's not the problem. There's nothing wrong with being wrong. The problem is that Hacker News is wrong way too often.