Étude #1

An attempt at an étude—short but dense writing—as introduced by Venkatesh Rao on ribbonfarm. It didn’t start off as one; it was supposed to be a short Facebook post, but after some typing, grew into this. (It ended up being posted on Facebook anyway.)


(305 words)

The “digital native” is a fallacy.

There are people who are curious about product features, people who are creative in the way they use digital tools, people who are clear about what they want and need a tool designed exactly for that, people who are insanely flexible in their workflows, people who are insanely rigid in their workflows, …

But there are no digital natives. No one speaks binary as a mother tongue. No one was born in the digital ether. No one is wired for the digital ether.

Our experience of digital information is mediated by architects, programmers, and designers, of information systems and interfaces. Even text-based command interfaces are a challenge in design: lexical and grammatical.

Our social interactions are also mediated by ritual interfaces. The greeting. The introduction. The handshake. The smalltalk dance. The shared-with-public announcement. The friends-only personal celebration. Calling a friend’s name to ping their information stream. Social networks are not a digital thing, but we now have digital interfaces for them.

There are complex interfaces, and there are simple interfaces. There are fixed interfaces, and there are contextual interfaces. There are strict interfaces, and forgiving interfaces. Each unfamiliar interface has to be learnt anew, lest we commit ritual faux pas and are reprimanded to our inter-faces. The socially able are proficient at reading social interfaces. The digitally able are proficient at reading digital interfaces. There is nothing “native” about it; our grammatical skills are native, but the way we apply them to various interfaces are not.

So give the non-native a break. No one is supposed to be native at these things. It’s why we have “etiquette” courses. “Computer” courses are the same thing in different guise.

Be a gracious interface. Learn to make gracious interfaces, learn to teach gracious interfacing. Because none of us are natives at this.

Civilising Social Media

Despite being startup-less, I attended a session on Social Media for Startups on a whim,1 and walked away with a very tangible gut feeling that some real civilising is underfoot in social media and advertising.

The civilising process is one that spans almost ten millennia, and one of its hallmarks is the rise of a civil society. This is an ever-ongoing process, which may seem initially strange—after ten thousand years, shouldn’t we be exceedingly polite members of society already? Kevin Simler over at Melting Asphalt writes in UX and the Civilizing Process,

To scandalize a member of the educated West, open any book on European table manners from the middle of the second millennium:

“Some people gnaw a bone and then put it back in the dish. This is a serious offense.” — Tannhäuser, 13th century.
“Don’t blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat.” — S’ensuivent les contenances de la table, 15th century.
“If you can’t swallow a piece of food, turn around discreetly and throw it somewhere.” — Erasmus of Rotterdam, De civilitate morum puerilium, 1530.

We are perhaps more likely to empathise with some etiquette advice from the 19th century (and turn up noses or scratch heads at other advice on the same page—”Don’t speak of this or that kind of food being healthy or unhealthy; say always wholesome or unwholesome.” I want to know that backstory.)

We are entering, and have been entering, a period of refinement (qua process). Pursuing grace, and avoiding embarrassment, are rooting themselves in acts that go beyond hygiene maintenance, elevating themselves to social artisanship. “A focus on appearance is just one of the ways UX is like etiquette. Both are the study and practice of optimal interactions.” (UX and the Civilising Process)

This seems to be more and more commonplace in the subtler art of social media marketing, as exemplified by practices suggested by Siim Säinas, speaking from four years at STATSIT. Among the suggestions are doing proper market research to target audience segments effectively (i.e. not asking random strangers to like your Facebook Page for discounts/freebies), contributing to great content (giving appreciation and feedback on content you like), and building personal relationships (going beyond typical work relationship norms, sending homemade stuff).

The high art of social media marketing is entering/has entered a period of refinement.

If not everyone is achieving this, at least there seem to be efforts that close in on this end goal. Or perhaps the tools that marketing folks use are the ones that are increasingly refined—email feedback, commenting tools, customised communication. Our methods and tools are gradually entering the 20th-century phase in social-media-space.

If there is any point of contention to this, it would be that shocking sensation of privacy being peeled away when that outreach campaign seems perfectly tailored to my needs(!). It might be more familiar as you’re-the-product memes.

I personally have not had the experience of “being a product”, and sometimes that makes me insanely jealous. I leave plenty of data in the form of search terms and usage data, yet nothing perfectly tailored to my desires has yet appeared. People pay good money for a concierge service to know their usage habits intimately, yet dislike it when marketing outreach sometimes achieves the same thing.

Or perhaps I have. I ran into Andy Wilkinson, Twingl CEO, who is out to pull the world’s knowledge into a huge interconnected mega-brain. We met in a book, and much feedback and many emails later, Twingl is finally shaping up to be something I can recommend to less techie bibliophiles and polymaths.

Sometimes the best marketing feels like serendipity. Could an increasingly civilised social media make it happen more often?


  1. and sometimes just to see the look on people’s faces when they spot a high school physics teacher in places they shouldn’t be spotted at.
    Continue reading Civilising Social Media

The Teacher’s Schedule

The Maker-vs-Manager-Schedule is one of those paradigms, incubated in Silicon Valley, which broke its way out to nest in certain less structured corporate environments. It explains where “all that free time” went, and it explains why your boss always seems to have time that you don’t. And it also explains why sometimes more work gets done away from the office.

Teachers are makers too, you know. Continue reading The Teacher’s Schedule

Butcher’s Crossing

“It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of its self, swinging grotesque, mocking, before him. It was not itself; or it was not that self that he had imagined it to be. That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it. So he had turned away.”

— John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing

Back to writing

I’ve moved Writoscope to shared hosting, because managing a VPS was starting to eat into my time. And I realise that I’ve put off a lot of writing because I felt I really didn’t have much to say about the topic. But a highlight on Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson’s new book, has got me thinking.

Having your own Web site is powerful, but comparatively few people are willing to do the work. They face the blank-page problem. What should I say? Who cares what I say?
A lot of my mental writing block has to do with fear of being judged, not with fear of having nothing (useful) to say. So I’m going to try to push through that block, and start writing anyway. As usual, your feedback and comments are most welcome.

Good service

When it comes to good service, I see many companies/outlets focus on the outward politeness aspect, sometimes to the exclusion of all others. While the service attitude is important, I beg to differ from this perspective, with an anecdote.

My iPad screen cracked—a result of the iPad’s bedside proximity, a half-awake kureshii, and uncoordination of the half woken state. (Mini-rant on the fragility of modern devices in a near-future post.)

A quick google later, I had the contact numbers of six repair shops; I had not bothered with purchasing a fruity protection plan that costs almost 20% of what I paid for the device sans accessories. Right away I sent out identical SMSes reporting my problem and requesting a quote, in the usual Singaporean terse-verse: “Hi, how much for iPad4 cracked screen repair?” (Economy trumps correctness in terse-verse.)

Within an hour, I had five replies, all by SMS. The first one replied in seven minutes, and gave me the answer to my question: “Hi it’ll cost ____.” Speedy service; great. The second one gave me a price, and and estimated time of repair (1 hour! Wow). Nice.

The third one gave me the shortest reply of all, just a number. Perhaps rude to some, but as a geek myself this is the kind of answer I don’t mind at all—had they not followed it up with spam: “iRepair MORE THAN 10K FACEBOOK LIKES [etc]”. Guess which repair place is on my blacklist now.

The fourth one asked me to go down to their service centre for them to take a look before they could give me a quotation. Duly ignored.

The fifth one gave me a quote, informed me of the three-month warranty on the replacement part, gave me the addresses and contact numbers of their two outlets, with instructions on how to walk there from the nearest train station, then ended by informing me of their operating hours.

One might consider me a satisficer from this anecdote, and I won’t deny that. My semester starts in two days and I use my iPad almost exclusively in place of printed notes. Luckily for me, the service turned out to be great (and cheap). Kudos to The Repair Hospital, for competent and speedy service, and for knowing how to give customers what they want: timely and pertinent information.