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There is something more interesting than being an early adopter: being an early rejector. They are the true pioneers.

 

Companies care a lot about early adopters: they were among the first to have a personal computer, among the first to use Email, among the first to track their sleep, the first users of smartwatches, etc. There are about 2,500,000 results on Google for “early adopters”. There are curves, wikipedia articles, recommendations… .

There is, however, something more interesting than being an early adopter: being an early rejector. They are the true pioneers. Most early adopters will be early followers. But because opting out is mostly a personal decision, this is different with early rejectors. They are leaders that make up their own minds.

They are, those that already abandoned yahoo mail before gmail was open to everyone, those that already started leaving facebook when it was still for college students only, those that already stopped tracking their sleep before jawbone was invented.

Why are early rejectors important? Because they tell you what’s not working with a product or service.

 

Why are early rejectors important? Because they tell you what’s not working with a product or service. Take me and sleep tracking. At first I was enthusiastic about the possibility of discovering correlations between all kinds of events, e.g. drinking alcohol, doing exercise, watching Mad Men and how well I slept. I was absolutely stunned to find out that the frequent disputes with my ex girlfriend correlated positively with a good night of sleep – or rather: a night of good sleep. It made me reflect on the role of sleeping as escape from life.  However, I stopped sleep tracking after a year or so. Why? Because the info about how I “really” had slept influenced how I felt I had slept. I often woke up feeling fine, only to feel like crap once I found out that that night I had been half-awake six times. There was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy there.

The fact that you track how you feel influences how you feel.

 

I think that there is a lot to be learned from a case like this – about tracking sleep, but also, I suspect, about tracking all kinds of other things. There certainly are smart ways to avoid this kind of feedback loop where the fact that you track how you feel influences how you feel. Because the early rejectors may just have understood earlier what doesn’t work with a product or service. They may be precursors of a rejection wave to come. In order to prepare solutions, companies should try to understand them carefully. The kind of  questions Facebook asks when you want to deactivate your account are a start. But they mainly aim at finding the nudge to keep you on the platform.

 

Abu Ghraib

May 15 2008, this was the cover of The Economist. Pictures like this one taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison had been exposed and were taken to show that America used torture. But there was a whole series of pictures. Why did this one make it to the cover of The Economist – and later become an icon of anti-torture-activism?

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Why, for example, didn’t this picture make it? Wouldn’t it have been better? After all it wasn’t pixelated…

I think that there are several reasons for this.

First, the first picture is isolated, it is more iconic than a picture with more contextual information (a soldier looking at his photos). Second, the pose, with the arms held higher, is more Christianic, and thus stronger. But I believe the major reason is just the presence of pixels. It makes the picture look more authentic. The better the picture quality, the less the chances that a picture is non-professional, and the higher the risk of manipulation. If there are pixels, at least in 2008, then there is a chance that the picture is authentic. The picture had quite a career, both in politics and in arts. And below you see a collection of works related to this.

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But apart from the success in itself, I’m interested in what happened with the picture. It became more and more simple – and thus, I believe, more general and symbolic. Whereas the photograph with the soldier still connotes one specific moment and prisoner, the abstract picture can evoke every prisoner being tortured. Richard Serra’s drawing (the last on the bottom right above and in the center right in the right image below and the second in the center on the left), is particular insofar as he brings back expressivity to the stripped down symbolic image. In order to account for the differences between these pictures, we can, I believe, distinguish different degrees of specificity, following a chain developed by Scott McCloud in “Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art”. McCloud draws different pictures, in order to show how pictures differ in their degree of generality. His system  (see the three last pictures below) perfectly matches the Abu Ghraib imagery.

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Posted: July 9, 2011 in Theorizing, Uncategorized

Why I stopped writing by hand

Posted: April 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

I used to carry a notebook with me when I was at high-school. It used to be important what it looked like. It used to be from Clairefontaine, a traditional French brand. About 5 years ago, I stopped, only occasionally going back to it. Having moved to France, there was no more point in buying Clairefontaine any more. I now bought Muji, because Muji is like no brand. Why do I feel the urge to tell you what brands my notebooks where and are? Because there is some nostalgia involved. And some vanity. And some Superstition. I used to be proud and happy to use a Clairefontaine notebook while I was living in Germany. There was only one shop in my town that sold them.
France had been the country where I had discovered art. Using Clairefontaine, my own writing was affiliated with France and its culture. The famous books by Moleskine are riding on the nostalgia/superstition/affiliation wave very explicitly (I have a hunch there might always be a bit of superstition in nostalgia). And the reason why I never got one – apart from the exaggerated price – is because I want my writing to be mine, personal, actual. It is bad taste to make some things explicit. Informing potential customers that Hemingway used your notebooks is bad taste. Either the books have intrinsic value, or they don’t. Telling me that Hemingway used them is trying to artificially bestow a spirit on them. It’s, basically, for people that don’t have any imagination.
As for me, I eventually stopped writing by hand altogether because I had notebooks. Notebooks full of notes that I never used, never even looked at again. Notes that were virtually there, but practically lost. I have so many ideas, that I couldn’t see myself taking time to copy notes from my notebooks to rework them, make sense of them, develop the thoughts I planted in them.
When I found out that there was a folda

ble real-size keyboard and a Word to Go application, I started using a Palm Handheld, the cheapest Palm on the market at the time, a Palm Zire 21. I still believe that Palm missed a tremendous marketing opportunity with students. A Palm could have been what the Asus EEE PC became, the first netbook on the m

arket. They could have marketed their product to students all over the world, who wanted to have their classnotes in digital form, but found their notebooks to heavy to carry. But crowdsourcing, intelligent or other, and corporate co-creation portals didn’t exist yet – at least Palm didn’t have one – and so I couldn’t tell Palm about my idea.

In any case, the Palm would synchronize with my computer and I wouldn’t loose any of my notes any more. Did I look at the notes I had made on  the go more frequently? No. But I felt that I could. I felt that they weren’t lost in some book. I felt that with a few clicks, what I had written could circulate, be shared with anyone anywhere in the world and be published. Writing something searchable and transmittable made it worth the while to write at all. Any thought written on my Palm could enter circulation by a simple click. My feeling has hardly changed since then. I feel that to simply exist now, writing has to exist in digital form.
The only thing I use paper notebooks for is to make lists, to jot down one sentence ideas – and even these I prefer to mail to myself with my smartphone whenever possible. But reordering your thoughts by reordering the concepts you work with like what you see on the photo I took when writing an article about documents, still isn’t very easy digitally, even with mindmapping applications. But that’s just a practical frontier.

A few days ago, I talked to a friend who told me last year she had had a handwritten correspondence with a man she was in love with and who had a girlfriend. They had written pages and pages, some of her letters were 15 pages long. I was very impressed by this story. I felt like my friend had just revealed me that she was of a different species, I understood that she inhabited a different world than me. Even as gestures, penpals don’t exist in my world any more. My sole use of letters has become administrative. If I’m in love with a girl and she’s not in my town I try to catch up with her on skype – or wait for her to connect to facebook. Does this seem prosaic? It probably is. But I would find sending letters too nostalgic, and, therefore, somehow ridiculous.
I understood that for my friend and her man, it had been a way to show to each other that they inhabited the same world, a different world, beyond the world they shared with their official boy-friend/girl-friend and with most other people, people like me.
The fact that they wrote to each other, and the fact the letters were lost forever when his girlfriend eventually discovered and burned them all, ads to the appeal of their correspondence. Imagine they had written emails to each other. Do you really think the girl would have gotten any satisfaction out of the operation: “search XYZ/select all/delete”? I don’t think so. She probably wouldn’t even have done it.
Literature, Nelson Goodman says, is allographic art, it can be reproduced, it’s not about unicity or about the touch of the brush. Painting is autographic. And so is epistolary writing. There’s a deep valley separating handwritten and computer-written text. But more than the fact that the paper on which a letter is written has actually been touched by the person who wrote it, it’s the fact that a letter is unique, that it can’t be shared easily, which makes it special – and annoys me.

This is somewhat connected to my earlier post about naming and linking. But I want to make a different point about the use of ordinary expressions on the web. Contextuality (the situation in which an expression is being used and who uses it) is an important issue in language in and outside the web. As it has sometimes been noticed, the sense of words on the web is different from their ordinary sense. Their scope, the domain of objects they refer to, is usually more narrow than in ordinary life. In the course of browsing the internet we get used to such reductions: browsing refers not to lazily shopping, but to a certain web-based activity.  Whenever we read “twitter” on the internet, we think of the website rather than this.

“Connection” in ordinary life is a much larger expression than on social networks like hypios, Xing or LinkedIn. In ordinary talk there is “a connection between New York and Paris”, “a connection between the expressions ‘art’ and ‘artificial’ etc.”. On hypios there are only “Connections between Solvers”. The scope of the expression “connection” on hypios is more narrow than in ordinary talk.

But sometimes it’s the opposite: on facebook, “friend” has a larger scope than in ordinary life. Most of my facebook-friends are not what I would call “friends” when speaking to a real-world connection. Many of my friends now use expressions like “one of my facebook friends”. But they might end up getting tired of that. If facebook is as successful as they want it to be, language will evolve. In a few years, the web-sense of “friend” might be the prime one – at least among younger people.

It will have been a long way from Aristotle’s idea that “friends have to live under the same roof” to the hundreds of new friends we connect to every year.

(N.B. An earlier version of this post was published on – the now defunct? – Bigstartups.com)

Everyone who designs websites or theorizes the internet should think about linking at some point. My main subject here is transparency of links.

The phenomenon of expressions with different senses pointing to one reference has never been so important and omnipresent as on the internet today.Each webpage with its unique url can be called a reference. But there are millions of ways in which this reference can be given, and url shorteners like tinyurl.com or bit.ly are tools to generate infinitely many new links, different ways of giving the same reference.

(One can also name a link whatever one wants as in a blog post, when you hover over a link. It can be described any number of ways as when instead of showing a url when you hover the description can say, “link to hypios blog”).

So, while links seem simple enough because we are used to them, linking actually involves us in a complex phenomenon.

The basic issue: How transparent are links?

The basic issue about links is transparency. Links may be more or less transparent. People may try to induce you into thinking that a link points towards the website of, say, your bank and then direct (or redirect) you to a quite different page. Links may try to attract you to a page that you presumably don’t want to go to, like a harmless music video by Rick Astley. And then there’s of course the harmful ones, directing you to pages that damage your computer, or attempt to retrieve confidential information (aka: pishing). Most non-transparent links simply want to get you to buy something or attract your attention. Many of the comments on blogs come with this kind of links (we filter the most obvious ones). It is because transparency is a security issue that bit.ly and wordpress now include previews of the page a link directs you to. But I’m not going further in the security issue here. What I’m interested in is the connection of transparency and user friendliness.

How transparent should links be?

The fact that a link isn’t clear is not always a sign of bad intentions. It may sometimes be hard to find the most transparent name for a link. On hypios, we used to have a Marketplace tab, which has become the Problems tab: we realized that on a site for problem-solving the former tab (and a tab is a form of link) was much less transparent than the latter.

In fact, initially it was Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think that got me thinking about link-clarity. And I immediately realized that Marketplace wasn’t clear for anyone who had never used hypios before, while Problems would be. Marketplace forces users to think what it could mean while Problems doesn’t.

Where you link from is as important as where you link to

Krug thinks that a link should always have the same name as the page it directs you to.

This is a principle which we don’t always apply in our webdesign, simply because there is more to a link than the page it leads you to: there is also the page where it gets you from.


On twitter, hypios tends to use a twitter specific, usually more catchy, description of our blogposts rather than simply using the post’s name.

When you complete a text with links (as I do it here) and don’t want to interrupt the flow of your writing, you sometimes prefer to link non-transparently, as above when I linked Rick Astley to the wikipedia article concerning the phenomenon of Rickrolling rather than to Astley’s biography. Why? His biography is not interesting for this article, while the phenomenon of Rickrolling is. What this example also shows is that transparency comes in degrees. Linking Rick Astley to the Rickrolling article wasn’t as murky as linking ambiguous link to the music video.

Why the url is not transparent

There are different ways of classifying ambiguities: the most basic way, but surely not the best, is according to the hierarchy website – webpage. If the sense of a link is very ambiguous, it doesn’t transparently sort out which website you’re on your way to, if it is mildly ambiguous, it does not transparently link to the particular page. But I would welcome other classification suggestions.

It might seem like giving the url is the most transparent way of linking. But this is only true in principle (it’s true for computers not for human-users). In many cases, the url is determined at the backend according to a system which has more to do with the site administration than with its usability. This is most prominently the case on youtube. Or did you know what “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NlkL1PrsLo” was before clicking (go ahead, we promise you won’t get rick roll’d)? Telling you that it is a documentary about how the first problems were solved on hypios would have been more transparent, right?

When the same tab should lead to different pages (users have a history)

Another of Krug’s rules for webdesign is consistency: a link with the same sense (Frege) on your website should always lead to the same page. This implies, for example, that “Connections”, wherever it appears on hypios, should always lead to your list of connections. Well, as it now stands, it doesn’t.

Here’s what happens with all but the Problems tab: they lead to a description of each feature for the people who have not signed up yet while those who have become Solvers can access the function that the tab refers to. In this case, hypios uses a very basic contextual piece of information about a user to determine where the tabs will lead him to. Most of the people who aren’t logged in on hypios are still discovering the website and need to get more information on what hypios will offer them once they decide to sign-up. We believe that rather than confusing our users, this increases hypios’ usabilty.

Further, having the tabs on the site even before you sign up gives you a feel for the environment you will enter once you do join the Solver community.

…as exemplified by chess and other mental and bodily movements

This piece is about precision in actions. For the purpose of this little post, I define an action as a bodily movement with a precise purpose other than signifying (if the purpose of a bodily movement is to signify, it’s a gesture). The example I choose is “to make a move in chess”. This is a tricky example because chess is not a game of skills (like soccer) but a game of strategy. To put it boldly: a man doesn’t need to have arms to be a good chessplayer, he needs legs to be a good player in traditional soccer. Machines have already got as good at playing chess as humans,

but albeit a well-cut video makes it look decent, they are very far from being as good as humans at playing soccer:

As opposed to soccer, chess has nothing to do with actions in my limited sense and by consequence the faces of the opponents (and the moves as abstracted on computer-screens) command more attention than their hands:

However, and this is interesting, when humans play chess, there are bodily actions involved. They are not a necessary part of playing chess, but they are a part of it in what used to be its most common practice before the computer-age.

And in this practice, chessplayers develop precision in their actions, their bodily movements more precisely execute their purpose than those of an amateur chess player or someone who only pretends to play chess (as people do in movies). Therefore professional chessplayers often laugh about actors pretending to play chess.

Look at this demonstration and compare it with the one in the initial scene from The Wire:

It’s quite obvious that the teacher in this lesson knows his moves not only in the intellectual sense, but also in the bodily sense. Maybe you could even say that his body knows the moves, because elegance of moving your hand in chess is not part of what you want to do. So it can be supposed that the elegance (elegance is a lot about precision & economy of means) has been acquired by the player’s body in many years of practice.

This is even more obvious if you look at activities that imply skills. When I did things like building a fence with my grandpa, it was obvious that he had many (more than 60 years) of practice, while I  only performed this kind of work occasionally. And I was sometimes amazed at the precision of his actions.

The paradox is that precision exists in domains where there is no codified behaviour. In Ballet, for example, it is defined what it means to correctly perform a pirouette and experts are trusted judges of correction, whereas it is not defined what it means to correctly move a pawn from d5 to c6 to capture another pawn or how to correctly move your arm to drive a nail into a fence. If there is a standard of correction as in Ballet, the movement that is closer to the standard can be called more precise

In chess there is no such standard, however I hold, that it makes sense of talking about precise actions: we can see that the experienced players are more precise in their movements.

Now there is an interesting intermediary case, which I would like to evoke without discussing it: martial arts.

In a Kata, people execute movements, judged according to a standard of correction, which can also be executed as actions, for a purpose, mainly attacking someone or defending yourself, or just breaking a brick without hurting the bystanders.

Traditionally, people think that executing a kata according to the norms will also make you a better fighter, but this view has been challenged in Free Fight Competitions and Mixed Martial Arts, where it is often those who don’t have any classical education in martial arts and wildly mix techniques who win.

Precision in movements has always fascinated me and many if not all professional dancers acquire a precision in their ordinary actions and bodily movements that distinguises them from other people. How can you explain that?

I believe the most likely explanation is that there is something as an implicit standard of precision in executing ordinary actions and that many of us are sensitive to this standard.

Open Challenges: take them up (and let me know)!

Examples of contemporary art (performances) or dance where the subject is ordinary gestures or actions (and their precision)

Experiences of precision in ordinary life or art

Video-footage of precision of dancers or workers in performing ordinary tasks

Conceive and execute a performance that consists in precisely performing ordinary tasks

A study of standards of precision in executing everyday actions (what does it mean to walk precisely, to precisely cut bread…)

Under what circumstances is precision transversal (e.g. Do those who dance precisely usually walk precisely?)

Making a video of actions precisely performed in different domains

Other suggestions and examples are welcome