Touching and the Story of 10 Lolcats

It’s sort of a nonsecret that I’m not really a fan of the iPad. I have tried, and every so often I continue to try, to fall in love with the device. And I never really am able to. I really just find that all I really want is a keyboard. And anything beyond taping at a button or a few basic gestures (swipe, pinch, and that opposite-of-pinch gesture) feels awkward. As I use the awkward device, I can’t help but think back to an interview with Doug Engelbart (the inventor of the mouse) in Bill Moggridge’s first book, Designing Interactions. You can download a copy of the first chapter here (but really, you should read and love the whole book, it’s fantastic). Here’s what Doug says in his interview about designing the mouse:

We listened to everybody who had strong ideas, and it seem to us worth just testing everything that was available. The light pen had been used by radar operators for years and years, and that seemed to most people would be the most natural way to do it. I couldn’t see that, but why argue with them; why not just test and measure? The time it takes to grope for it and lift it up to the screen seemed excessively large, so it didn’t do well in the tests.

For the test we had naive users coming in, and we explained everything that would happen so that they weren’t surprised. We asked them to put their hands on the keyboard, and all of sudden an array of three-by-three objects would appear at an arbitrary place on the screen, sometimes small objects and sometimes large, and they had to hit a space bar, access the pointing device and go click on it. The computer measured time, overshoot, and any other characteristics we thought were valuable. The assessment just showed the mouse coming out ahead. It was many years later that I heard from Stuart Card, a friend at Xerox PARC, what the human factors explanation was.

And then, there is the story of the creation of the iPad as described by Steve Jobs (quoted from Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in the New Yorker):

This guy badgered me about how Microsoft was going to completely change the world with this tablet PC software and eliminate all notebook computers, and Apple ought to license his Microsoft software. But he was doing the device all wrong. It had a stylus. As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead. This dinner was like the tenth time he talked to me about it, and I was so sick of it that I came home and said, “Fuck this, let’s show him what a tablet can really be.”

And some more from Steve Jobs:

I think it’s about handwriting input versus a keyboard. And, handwriting recognition has been tried over and over again and even when you get it really good, it turns out Apple, believe it or not, after all that pain they went through with Newton, has the best handwriting technology in the world now. It’s way better than anything else.

You know the problem? It doesn’t matter. It’s really slow to write stuff. You know, you could never keep up with your email if you had to write it all out.

And so, it turns out people want keyboards. I mean, when I started in this business one of the biggest challenges was that people couldn’t type. And one day we realized that death would eventually take care of this. And so, people know how to type now. And if you do email of any volume, you gotta have a keyboard.

So we look at the tablet and we think it’s gonna fail.

Which brings me to two other articles being tossed around this week (again, I will pull some quotes, but I highly recommend you go read these articles) - one by Bret Victor in which he lays out one of the problems with the iPad:

I call this technology Pictures Under Glass. Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade.

The next time you make a sandwich, pay attention to your hands. Seriously! Notice the myriad little tricks your fingers have for manipulating the ingredients and the utensils and all the other objects involved in this enterprise. Then compare your experience to sliding around Pictures Under Glass.

Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?

I can’t really comment on what the hell Steve Jobs was thinking as he built the iPad, but my best guess is that he was designing it as a beautiful media consumption device. This was not intended to be a device for creation (the lack of a proper file system is only one hint here). This is a device without a very expressive interface, that wasn’t meant for expressing oneself.

Like many tech products these days, it seems like the iPad was built on a simple premise: It doesn’t really matter that it’s a shit thing for creators, because most users aren’t creators.

Here’s the thing that really depresses me about this: to me, the internet has been built on a culture of creation. Whether it was early hackers who manipulated early hardware in garages, or Mark Zuckerberg building Facebook from his dorm, this is the ethos of the internet.

It’s not always as serious as that, either. The second piece, posted to the pinboard.in blog ends with this wonderful quote that Andy Weissman pointed out to me via IM:

Right now the social networking sites occupy a similar position to CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL in the mid 90's. At that time each company was trying to figure out how to become a mass-market gateway to the Internet. Looking back now, their early attempts look ridiculous and doomed to failure, for we have seen the Web, and we have tasted of the blogroll and the lolcat and found that they were good.

And all of this has come from the creator-ethos of the internet and the types of products we have designed for it and allowed to be designed for it:

Games like Eve Online or WoW have developed entire economies on top of what's basically a message board. MetaFilter, Reddit, LiveJournal and SA all started with a couple of buttons and a textfield and have produced some fascinating subcultures. And maybe the purest (!) example is 4chan, a Lord of the Flies community that invents all the stuff you end up sharing elsewhere: image macros, copypasta, rage comics, the lolrus. The data model for 4chan is three fields long - image, timestamp, text.

The thing is, creating a lolcat is still creating. Even creating something as “stupid” as a lolcat has all the amazing emotions that follow creation. Here’s something I wrote a while ago on how Farmville actually inspires a similar feeling among some of its users:

If you've ever made anything, you know how addictive the experience can be. The experience of looking at something and being able to say, "I made that." It's undeniably self-affirming, it makes one feel competent and proud. And you can imagine how, for those who have never had a sense of it, it might be completely exhilarating. Many of these people have probably never felt that they were smart enough to create anything on the computer, but they have very slowly and carefully duped into creating these magnificently expressive spaces.

And that’s the point. You may get a little bit of a jolt from that first lolcat, or that first set of crops you plant in Farmville, and that might mean very little on its own, but how many people only create one lolcat? How many people stop at one set of crops on Farmville? What happens when you create 10 lolcats, and suddenly all those emotions have built on each other?

For a while, we were going down the route of making it easier and easier to create with technology, easier and easier to share on the web. But it seems like lately we’ve turned a bit of a corner - Facebook and Google%2B as social networks take away that creative space, the iPad makes it difficult to be expressive, services like Tumblr (see) and Pinterest present curation as a legitimate alternative, and more and more, we are consumers, consumers, consumers.

But we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are actually users.

I posed two questions for thought to some friends today, and it’s an interesting thought experiment. I won’t attempt to answer them, and they’re really more of rhetorical questions anyways, but nevertheless:

  1. Recall the care that was given to the input device that was the mouse to make it as effective as possible for the manipulation of GUIs and contrast that with the touch interface. How would the internet look different, culturally, if it were originally built on an iPad or similar device?

  2. If we posit that these online internet communities are all about creation, how does that change the attitudes and lives of participants? How does Facebook change attitudes and lives?

Afterword

I am fully obsessed, as many of you know, with making meaning in web products. I outline these questions in my first post on the subject:

  • What web product last made you cry as you used it?

  • What web product makes you laugh on a regular basis?

  • What web product brings you new friends? What web product makes your other friends closer? What web product turns acquaintances into friends you go to during times of trouble?

  • What web product creates new interests for you? Hobbies? Passion? Purpose?

  • What web product allows you to actualize on your passions, to do more with your hobbies, or act on and participate in your interests?

Many of these emotions, these markers for meaning are present when we think about those emotions that follow creation.

Made by Hand / No 2 The Knife Maker from Made by Hand on Vimeo.

(presented without comment)

I will resist the urge to finish this post by posting my favorite lolcats and rage comics.

OK, OK, just one (it’s totes relevant, too):

And, y’know, my fav gif ever:

And my face right now:

OK, OK, done.