BOOK REVIEW: The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr

Book Review - The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

The Main Idea:

There are two opposing schools of thought: “Net enthusiasts” believe we are in a new golden age of information access and user participation. “Net skeptics” feel we have entered a world of mediocrity and narcissism.

“Deep reading” and “losing oneself” in a book requires the ability to concentrate over long periods of time. The internet challenges this type of reading. i.e. We multi-task, are bombarded with streams of endless information, and it is easier than ever to find more information about topics we are interested in. Personalized magazines (i.e. Pulse, Zite, Flipboard), RSS feeds, hyper-linked articles – every page is packed with links directing our attention away to an entirely different location.

“As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.”


“. . . we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.”

– Nicholas Carr

In order to avoid becoming “pancake people”, there needs to be both: “time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden”. The distinguishing characteristics of a well-formed mind include both the ability to “find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection.” (Carr 168)

Interesting Tidbits:

  • Clocks were invented originally by Christian monks for precise timing of daily prayers
  • There were no punctuation marks or spaces in original written language (scriptura continua)
  • Reading is pleasurable because of the series of “intellectual vibrations” it sets off within your own mind.
  • Enlightenment used to be achieved through introspection, according to American Transcendentalists and English Romantics.
  • Now, more access to information means more knowledge and more power – a mode of thought that’s been in place since at least the Industrial Revolution.
  • “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” – Seneca

Brighter Software Means Dimmer Users

As “users” of web technologies, we expect programs and software to be endlessly user-friendly. Apple has revolutionized user-friendly product design, and Google tries to interpret our needs in order to provide the best possible search results. We are so spoiled by these industry leaders, we feel as though all technology should look and feel the same. Programs that  require the least bit of thought or patience are considered executed with “poor UX”.

We simply don’t want to play around or figure anything out by trial-and-error anymore. We lose patience, and feel entitled to something better, more intuitive, something that understands what we want to do and makes this possible with minimal resistance. The result is users who fail to grasp underlying concepts, or themes that exist within these technologies that we can take with us and apply to future interactions.

This interpretation completely challenges what I’ve observed on the web as a cult-like following for UX in both web and product design. Carr put it well: “The brighter the software, the dimmer the user.”

Nature Restores Our Humanity

 Carr does offer us a way out of the “electronic forest” – by referencing both scientific studies and personal accounts of nature as a remedy for this information overload. After spending time in natural settings, away from cities, people are shown to exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and are more calm.

In sum, this book was extremely enlightening – both from an informative perspective, as well as a contemplative one. 🙂 Highly recommended.


Facebook After Weddings Feels Like Rocket Science

Facebook Wedding Photos

Facebook can prolong post-wedding bliss . . . or instill anxiety in hung-over guests.

I went to a picture-perfect wedding this weekend, and posted a ton of iPhone pics on Facebook. Everyone complains while it’s happening but then harasses me to post them as soon as I can.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

My passion for taking iPhone pictures at events like this lately has led to some heated privacy discussions, untagging requests and questions about how to remove comments. One of my friends went so far as to explain to me that she’s worked so far to get to where she is, and can’t afford to have it all taken away with some drunken pictures of her posted on Facebook. (You’d think the person who said this was a kindergarten teacher, but it wasn’t.) After a post-bachelorette party posting session, I received frantic phone calls from friends who didn’t understand that I set the albums to private, and that no one but us could see them.

I try and be as respectful as possible, and honor all the “take down/untag” requests I can – but I can’t help but notice how increasingly difficult or annoying the process has gotten; ironically as Facebook claims it’s goal is  “improve” the user experience, it feels more complicated than ever.

More Users, More Responsibility, More Confusion

There’s a huge catch-22 going on with Facebook’s growing popularity and photo-sharing that’s resulting in UX improvements that are actually making everything more complicated than before. It’s the easiest way to share pictures with friends, but this means it’s also the easiest way to inadvertently share pictures with friends’ bosses. Technophile parents are popping up all over the network, and with them comes irresponsible content sharing. Facebook is aware of this, and has made several privacy improvements over the past couple of years.

Unfortunately, these “improvements” are tucked inside Settings windows and easy-to-miss rollover icons, that most users just don’t notice.

So when I get a text message from the bride the day after her wedding asking me how to tag people on her iPhone, I don’t even know where to begin. Facebook has changed it’s user interface so many times – most recently a couple of weeks ago to improve the app’s speed – that it’s pretty impossible to visualize yet alone describe the user-flow of an action as simple as tagging. I had to tell the bride to be patient, and that I’d tag them myself once I got to a computer. The iPhone app was simply too complicated.

Facebook Wedding Photos 1

The tag icon reveals previously-added tags

Facebook Wedding Photo 2

No tags were previously added on desktop, and there’s no way to add them on mobile.

View the full *public album on Facebook: Jennie & Tommy

IRONY: My Mom Clips Articles on Social Media

Digital Anthropology

My mom still clips articles and leaves them for me on my desk. It’s nice sometimes, especially if it’s a longer op-ed piece or something from the Sunday Times magazine, as I do enjoy longreads more in print than on screens. Otherwise, when she tells me she’ll save something interesting in today’s paper that she wants me to read, I tell her to not bother – I’ll find it online.

She took the time to grab a pair of scissors, and physically cut out an article to share with me – on social media.

But this week, she cut out and clipped the ultimate irony: an article about social media and the ways in which companies are using it to leverage their market research. It was already funny that she was still doing this for articles in general: obituaries of interesting writers or anthropologists, travel pieces on places I’ve visited or are planning to, etc. But this one took the proverbial cake. She took the time to grab a pair of scissors, and physically cut out an article to share with me – on social media.

I read it, and learned nothing new. It was written for people who do not use social media, but instead clip articles about it. My mother enjoyed it, and I think it helped her understand a little more about the field in which I work and am interested.

I just got a kick out of the message/medium combo.

3 Bones to Pick, 3 Social Networks

3 social media bones to pick

There are a few complaints I just have been dying to put out there on the interweb recently. I decided to stop putting it off and air my grievances in the hopes that someone finds them, who will either (a) fix what’s wrong with the user experiences of these social networks, or (b) realize I’m the missing piece of their UX or social media team and hire me on the spot. Or, more likely, (c) I’ll get a huge weight off my shoulders by “blogging it out”.

Picasa (or Google Photos, or Google+)

I was one of the first people to join Google+, before it was open to the public. Remember they wanted it to be all “exclusive” and you needed an invite? I actually signed up for a mailing list, to be notified when Google+ was in beta testing. I tried it out, I created some circles, I posted things for about a week before I realized not that many people were using the damn thing. A few weeks later, everyone else did join – and then the cycle repeated itself. Fine, I’m over it.

Until . . . I wanted to view a friend’s photo album recently, and it was literally as convenient as taking the LSAT. The friend is actually a 70-year old author for whom I’m building a web presence. He tried sharing with me a photo album with Picasa. When I clicked on the link in his email, it told me the link did not exist. I had him set up a Google+ account, but still I was unable to view the album. The two of us went back and forth for about a week, until somehow he was able to share the damn album with me. It was shocking how complicated the process was, considering Google+ is supposedly all about sharing and engaging with one’s social circles. It was a mind-bogglingly difficult experience to view this guy’s one simple album.

Facebook’s iPhone App

Facebook Mobile TimelineWe all know that it’s slow. Fine. But I only found out yesterday that you can’t even access Timeline from it. Does this make any sense? You cannot convert the user experience on one platform (desktop) and not the other. I was tagged in a friend’s picture, and went to approve the tag but was told the app could not access Timeline. I will, however, give Facebook credit for recently adding the ability to unfriend someone, on mobile. I unfriend people every so often when I’m feeling sassy, and not being able to do this on the go was really inconvenient. I can’t predict when some random person I met on a teen tour 10 years ago is suddenly uploading pictures of their wedding – and I want to be able to unfriend this person immediately. Even if I’m on the bus. Thankfully, this is now relatively simple to do on the mobile app. But the Timeline thing – come on.

Instagram’s Social Options

instagram Social OptionsThis is really also a Facebook complaint. Ever since they bought Instagram, you can no longer search for someone on Instagram by their Instagram username. You have to be Facebook friends before you can be connected on Instagram. Which I get – it’s in Facebook’s interest I guess to get even more users. But part of what I love about Instagram is how not intimate it is; it’s supposed to be all about the pictures, not the people behind them. I actually met a girl at a bar who I clicked with, and we tried becoming Instagram friends then and there – only to discover that since we’re not Facebook friends, we can’t. And it feels a lot stranger to quickly “friend” someone you meet when you’re out, as opposed to just following them on something like Instagram or even Twitter. I left the bar that night without having a new Instagram follower/followee, because I didn’t feel comfortable asking this girl to be Facebook friends right away.

Adding someone on Instagram should be much more casual; I see you taking a photo of something interesting, I want to follow you. Not get updates on your sister’s wedding photos or a link to the article you read in the Washington Post this morning.

Phew. I said my peace. Now hopefully some good will come of it, and these weird little kinks will either be worked out or I’ll realize that I’m the dumb one all along. The sad thing is I don’t feel like either of these outcomes is likely.

QUESTION: What is Your “Brand”?

Brand Personality

The dog park is such a great place to meet interesting characters. Today I met a digital marketing guru (no joke, I checked). We watched my minpin try to maul her 12 year-old standard poodle, and got to talking shop. She advised me to think of my personal online presence as my “brand”.

Advice I’ve encountered before, but today it sunk in a little deeper. It got me wondering: exactly what is my brand? What do I want it to be?

The Human Element of Brands

Marketing-speak puts so much emphasis on voice and tone, personality and style as brand attributes. Companies devote considerable time and money on making themselves “sound” a certain way. Web start-ups tend to act act friendly, quirky and “innovative”.

A perfect example is the new TV ad for Google+. It’s a multi-media love letter composed by a forlorn guy to his long-lost love, as a grand gesture to win her back. It adds a humble and very relatable human element to the social network, showing slices of a life we can all picture ourselves in.

Here’s what I envision as my own personal “brand” qualities:

  • Sharp.  I notice things. Connections between things. I love finding commonality in hard-to-reach places.
  • Witty.  In 6th grade two boys made fun of me for “laughing too much”. They both have boring jobs now.
  • Compassionate. Understanding the point of view of others is a great skill to have, both as a human and a writer.
  • Professional. I love shopping at Staples.

From this I hatched an idea for what to name my business if and when I start a business: “The Content Chameleon”. I’m the chameleon, and I create content for any niche/purpose. Executing powerful messages by tapping into those 4 traits.

And it all started at the dog park. Where dreams are made and digital marketing strategies are hatched.

IDEA: “No News Today”

Instead of filling up news broadcasts, magazines and blogs with meaningless, repetative, irrelevant “news” items that really aren’t “news” – I think it would be nice if said publications and platforms instead announced: “No News Today! Everything’s pretty much the same…concern yourself with something else!”

People would have less time to spend worried about events that a) don’t affect them, and b) aren’t being accurately reported in the first place.

There wouldn’t be this constant need to “consume” news. Either there is news, or there isn’t. I don’t consider anything related to celebrities news. That’s entertainment. I also don’t know if the Style Section is really “news”. Political scandals should have their own platform dedicated to that form of entertainment, with just a reference in main broadcasts. Deaths of celebrities? It’s not news once its been reported! I don’t need to hear about memorials for someone unless its the current President or Vice President! Otherwise – mention it once, and move on!

Living in Israel changed the way I view the news. For one thing, I didn’t watch it on TV. I relied on Facebook to let me know what was buzzing, from statements made by government officials to rockets firing into Israel’s borders. If I wanted more information on a particular story, I could expand the link or look into it further on other sites. But it wouldn’t be jammed into my face 24 hours straight, making all else seem insignificant.

The question I get asked most when telling people I lived in Israel was “Is it dangerous?” I always tried to answer as truthfully as I could, based on what I know to be true.

I’d explain how Tel Aviv is a sort of bubble. How we know what’s going on but don’t let it color our daily lives and interactions. That no one would get anything done if all they did was sit home all day watching commentary or live footage of the latest border attack or anti-Israel rhetoric spewing from extremists (or the opposite, coming from settlement disputes.)

I think we’d all be a lot happier, if more naive, with a more stringent definition of “news”.

BOOK REVIEW: Googled by Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta’s book “Googled” is about the birth and development of the company through 2010, when the book was published. It discusses how founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with the idea of indexing the web. How Google expanded into such diverse industries as technology, advertising (AdWords and AdSense), media (YouTube), publishing (Google Books), news (Google News), and others.

My job as an SEO content writer is to cater to the whims of Google – making it so my client’s websites perform as well as possible in Google Search. As a Search Engine Marketer at a web start-up, “Googled” is a useful read.

If the internet makes information available, Google seeks to make information accessible. Connecting people to the information they need is Google’s goal. They accomplish this by gathering data about consumers as they search online. The process is refined constantly – an estimated 400 tweaks are made to Google’s algorithm each year. The intentions seem good, and the company is associated with concepts like efficiency, productivity, clarity, usability and simplicity.

Google was a pioneer practitioner of the freemium business model (offering a basic product for free and building a user base before monetizing). Google’s goal is actually to send users away from its site, and toward the information they seek.

Questions raised:

  • Is Google’s corporate culture so prosperous because the stock value is so high? Or the other way around?
  • Where is the boundary between usability and invasion of privacy?
  • Has Eric Shmidt really never taken advantage of the free massages at Googleplex?
  • “Will Google become ‘a source of content, a platform, a destination that seeks to keep people in a walled Google garden?'”

Best Snippets & Quotes:

“I’m a well-trained introvert…Being with people drains me of energy” – Marc Andreessen, Co-Author of Mosaic & Co-Founder of Netscape

“Content is how the consumer chooses to spend time.” – Herbert Allen III

“YouTube succeeded in democratizing information.” – Auletta

“Is Google’s customer the advertiser or the user?” – Auletta

“People with the right information make better decisions for themselves. People presented with the right commercial opportunities will buy things suited for them.” – Sergey Brin

  • Emotional equity = trust by consumers that companies care not only about profits but also about them – Jim Stengel

“Why would you go to work at a place where your contribution is not seen as central to the success of the organization?” – Peter Thiel, CEO of PayPal

  • The emotional power of a commercial is weakened by the informational power of the Web. – Auletta

“Instead of a company asking what’s going to change over the next 5-10 years – you should ask what isn’t going to change?” – Jeff Bezos

“If you don’t listen to your customers, someone else will” – Sam Walton

“You know you’ve won when the government stops you.” – Ted Turner

“Insecurity tends to breed fear, and at worst, paranoid. Neither emotion produces clarity.” – Auletta

New things/people/concepts to explore:

  • Irwin Gotlieb
  • “Faustian”
  • the semantic web
  • Talgam (conductor)
  • Google employees are given the opportunity to spend 20% of their time at work on “passion projects”. Marissa Meyer claims over half of Google’s products are results of the 20% time.

Further reading:

  • The Cathedral and the Bazaar” – Eric Steven Raymond, 1997, Linux developer
  • Bill Gates’ “creative capitalism” speech – 2007, Harvard graduation ; 2008 – World Economic Forum, Davos
  • The Big Switch, Nicholas Carr
  • The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
  • DLD – Digital, Life, Design Conference in Munich

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