A not altogether-cohesive review of July reads and research.
In case you're similarly long overdue for a reminder that beautiful things are still being made on the internet...
After nearly a year of relative sobriety from my old, once-severe addiction to Web Site hunting, it occurred to me just yesterday that some explicit wandering as I once did for days at a time – through the clever, innovative, and uniquely tasteful projects through which an astonishingly-original few give their whole thinking (and often physical) selves in obscurity despite how little financial (and often professional) incentive is maintained by those who unknowingly need it the most – might be the best feasible remedy to my current, most perplexing state of faithlessness and bafflement toward the ambitions of trades and cultures I feel I once so thoroughly understood. A great portion of you are surely undergoing your own manifestations of the same hopelessness – I cannot ever remember a time in my life when global events were so utterly discouraging so relentlessly.
Design and The Open Web
In this present when every element of American reality is so much more incessantly ugly than we could’ve ever imagined, let’s take at least a momentary respite to look at some visually irresistible and/or super sick Sites on the truly-resolute Open Web to assure our existential selves that yes, beauty shall not cease to exist. For better or worse, my #1 goto source to find innovative, delicious web design has always been Typewolf, who announced last fall that he will not be continuing his “Site of the Month” section, though his relentless “Site of the Day” roll will continue, unhindered.
Those of us for whom the Podcast medium became a trusted and relatively regular one in our lives long before anyone figured out how to make a real business out of it – certainly eons preceeding the original startup podcast-only (apparently HBO-like publication – Gimlet Media – to be successfully launched. Now, though, your mom – perhaps even her mom – listens to podcasts, and what was once a The single Missouri alumni at The Verge, Ashley Carmen, explored the proliferation of podcasting and the process by which it became profitable.
Speaking of Gimlet Media: the latest episode of my longtime favorite of their podcasts, Reply All, is a sort of condensed remake of my favorite podcast episode of all time (of any show, not just this one) in which hosts Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogtmaintained an open telephone line for 48 hours and spoke with a whole bunch of people (mostly Americans) about... whatever. The result was beautifully human, if you’ll forgive my use of the cliche. I tend to revisit it when I’m feeling particularly isolated from and/or confused about the general ambitions of the people around me. I’ll be honest: I didn’t pay much attention to my first listen through the new episode, but I can tell you that it is worth your time, at least.
Since you last heard from us, the federated social network Mastodon has scaled tremendously in usership and steadily grown technologically into an incredibly robust and dynamic platform. Perhaps inevitably, Eugen Rochko and his gaggle of open source developers have continued to embarrass the living fuck out of Twitter's team – at least for those who've continued to pay attention (i.e. those of us whose sense of aspiration has yet to perish.)
I planned on getting ahead of an innovative wake in iOS development by watching closely for the first “premium” Mastodon clients to come out, which I suspected (quite correctly) would carry the first substantial risk-taking on the part of plucky social apps to be seen on the goddamned App Store in what felt like eternity. Unfortunately, I've ended up far too deep in screenshots/insights from Toot! and Mast, creating a bit of an overwhelming obstacle in comparing and/or reviewing the two without sinking deep in my regular, pretentious hole. (Though both of them are absolutely gorgeous, fascinating, and impressive projects which you should invest in and follow if you're interested in the future of federated social whatsoever.)
That said... I'd like only to mention and briefly demonstrate the first premium desktop Mastodon client, Mastonaut, which I had the privilege of experiencing momentarily last night.
In the interest of brevity (and because I was unable to continue fucking around for any length of time,) I'll just list some observations:
The entire GUI experience is distinctly uncluttered (or perhaps barren, depending on your subjective desires from this sort of thing,) but duplicates dearest TweetBot's functionality impressively well considering its age as an independently-developed product.
Keyboard shortcuts! Fuck me, God.
I love the live-updated instance directory search (above) as a second landing for first-time users.
Though I did actually have to repeat the first-time login process after freezing and subsequently force-quitting Mastonaut, I think you'll probably place the blame on my own immediate and inpatient window management mania considering how smoothly it all went the second time around.
To be honest, Bear, Spark, and recent other beautiful Mac applications beckon me to buy or hack myself into MacOS again. If I have time in the near future, I'll show you why.
Apple's latest mobile OS update might've seemed mundane, but Siri Shortcuts gives users vastly more power than Apple customers have ever before experienced.
Back in 2016, Pokémon Go, overclocked Apple Watches, pissing wearables, and What You See is What You Get blogging services all claimed unprecedented casualties among consumers according to Futureland's iOS 10 episode, which we did our absolute best to dramatize in order to survive what was expected to be the dullest event on record. We'd only that day been first made aware of Boomerang photos and the mysterious nature of “Live Blogging” as an occupation. AirPods were introduced and subsequently shit on, and the comparatively archaic 3.5mm analog audio jack was confidently parted with, finally. At least I got over “forgetting” about Live Photos because it's rapidly becoming difficult to keep stuff on the phone now. I am coming sincerely close to believing none of this is real, anyway. Today, though, it’s a damned straight ballgame, isn’t it? Months have passed since Apple pushed out its major mobile OS release of the year to more little rectangular computers than any one person could speedcount in a lifetime and YouTube is already recommending me dozens of videos about the next one. At this point, you and I are already aware of the iOS development community, who has already been using Internet Operating System 12 on their personal devices for more than half a year by the time your irises are landing here. Hopefully, all but two or three stranded, dying explorers in the arctic have updated their iPhones and iPads by now, and why wouldn’t they?
Our expectations from this ritual are completely alien compared to those we’d need to anticipate from the event 5 or 6 releases ago, when one’s phone had to be sent away (in a sense) to latch itself tight to the stability of a desktop-class product in order to undergo a lengthy, destined metamorphosis. Sometimes, backups via 30-pin to USB-2.0 cables took hours, after which the custodian may or may not find their companion’s replication had completed successfully. If it had, one had to be sure to close any applications apart from iTunes to provide a working environment of utter silence – restarting after finishing the download was my own preferred method – before entrusting the despicably unreliable software to whittle away in a sometimes frantically rebooting, feverish procedure with near life-threatening stigma: it wasn’t uncommon for an update to inexplicably fail, “bricking” the subject iPhone and requiring that one take two whole steps in the wrong direction and restore it from the entire backup they’d just created (hopefully) in order to… make another, precisely-identical attempt, for lack of variables or alternatives to the process. However, if the user planned sufficiently and made a point to begin the whole charade immediately upon arriving home for the evening, these potential frustrations could be compensated for, and odds would favor counting on their smartphone to emerge safe and sound from the procedure just before bed, when even those holding the second-newest product in the lineage would have just enough screen time to notice that text entry, web page loading, and window management had noticeably slowed before sighing and tossing their device toward the darkness.
These days, one would need to try very hard to be inconvenienced by iOS updates. My iPhone 8 Plus is two or three times more powerful than my laptop at the moment, and my new friends’ WiFi connection is better than what the State government uses internally, back home. I haven’t needed to physically back it up more than once or twice since I bought it — iCloud stores the lot for $4.99 a month anyway. I blinked once watching Riki-Oh with high school friends some time ago and all of the sudden, a 1.6GB download isn’t really a big deal. Siddown and watch your Instagram stories for twenty minutes, and hey! You’re ready to update! Somehow, I have abruptly found myself in a reality in which I am the obvious bottleneck and my 100 words per minute on a smartphone keyboard, even, is no longer fast enough: my fucking phone is now waiting on me when it updates. The keyholder is the whole goddamned holdup.
So, what possible purpose could there be in pounding out this “Review” of a free software update that’s in no way optional (waiting a month is no longer a rational minimization of risk — it’s just dumb,) not any more difficult to attain than the bills currently waiting in your mailbox, nor allowed by the nature of mobile operating systems to compete with any cross-platform alternatives? For myself, it’s proved a gratifying tradition of sorts and a good use of my apparently-abundant time if only for the record's sake (hello, future web archivists, neohuman and otherwise!,) but this release – assuming I haven’t overlooked something – is the most globe-shucking of all because of one single featureset: Siri Shortcuts. However, the v ast majority of the intra-Apple press' coverage of this release has come across nearly as unconcerned with them as I was originally. Take Macworld's iOS 12 Review, for instance: it was the first result in my Google search for “iOS 12 review,” yet Siri Shortcuts are only mentioned in the bottom quarter of its first page. When I recorded the “iOS 12 Review” episode of my “podcast,” I spoke as if I was somehow the only person on the planet who comprehends the profound implications of this software addition – which was, of course, more of an absorbent acquisition – but I have since discovered one gem, at least, which has continued the conversation in a most superb manner. It's a technology podcast called Supercomputer, and it's hosted by Alex Cox and Matthew Cassinelli – the latter of whom developed a significant amount of the iOS app Workflow (and wrote most or all of its documentation, apparently,) which Apple assimilated as Siri Shortcuts. Both are extremely knowledgeable and competent commentators on – as far as I can hear, at least – virtually the entire iOS *lifestyle*. (For those on the outside who've never stepped in: laugh if you must, but yes it is a lifestyle, still, and it's new thought leader isn't exactly coming up short these days.) iOS is technically software, yes, but it leaves an intractable itch for some greater, transcendent term.
In just forty minutes, without any prior knowledge about this feature, I was able to create a Shortcut which sends any given handset's IP address and precise GPS location (among other mundane metrics) in a text message to my phone number. I could share this shortcut among my other submissions to Sharecuts or ShortcutsGallery.com, where any iOS user could download and subsequently send this information back to my phone. (Don't believe me? Have a go at it yourself and I'll send back a screenshot if you'd like.) I accomplished this without any particular skills or education in software development or cybersecurity – without any real malice, even – I was just playing around. As far as my recollection goes, Apple has never included such a powerful, potentially-dangerous piece of software in a standard software update before. It's both absolutely brilliant and sortof a ripoff to be so entrusted for the first time. In many ways – like my Disable Bluetooth & WiFi shortcut – Siri Shortcuts represent an awfully half-assed solution to some of the most basic, longtime incongruencies within iOS. Sure, it's great that I can just make myself a shortcut to completely disable my phone's WiFi and Bluetooth activity with one press or Siri command (combining “type to Siri” with Siri Shortcuts basically enables a form of Command Line functionality in iOS,) but frankly, one should've expected the world's largest company to do it themselves in perhaps the second of third version of this operating system instead of saying okay, here are the tools – you do it! in its twelfth.
I've found it inevitable when speaking on iOS to avoid discussing the other literature available on the subject at any given time. The depth to which technology media has assimilated the habits and mannerisms of a single American company is absolutely mind-boggling, regardless of its history, its market share, or even its recent trillion-dollar valuation. Dozens of media companies – CultofMac, MacRumors, Macworld, 9to5 Mac, AppleInsider, iMore, and... more – exist solely to cover one single independent company: Apple, Incorporated. One wonders how the sum total of the individuals involved with and these organizations compares with the total number of employees working for the company their careers are (for the moment, at least,) entirely centered around. (Further interesting questions: are there any comparable situations anywhere else in Western capitalism, and if not – doesn't this sort of attention constitute some kind of Monopoly, even if it was not necessarily an anti-competitive one?) For “reasonable people,” the image one conjures up of The All-The-Time Apple Beat does not lend to envy, but let's choose to limit ourselves to only the most casual forms of speculation. I do not wish to mock them, for I, too remember the sensation of The Apple Drug from an unfortunate time in my childhood development when I was willing to wear a cheap sweatshirt branded with a stupid Mac vs. Windows Users joke unironically to a real live public Junior High school. There are few more embarrassing admissions, except perhaps admitting that a part of me genuinely yearns to return to this level of enthusiasm, as misplaced and cringey as it was. It's the addiction to the mystic; it's aspirational in its democratization. Billionaires are running the same operating system and much of the same software as I am every day – even the most followed person on any given platform is still accessing it through the same interface I might be. These are incredible truths, but they also reflect a dangerous lack of competition in a product category that has become more essential to day-to-day human life than any other in just three or four blinks of an eye.
Fuck David Blue, though. Who are the real, hard-hitting minds who've kept this industry and this company in check? Well, it's funny you should ask that, because the people's quirky New York Times tech critic of late – the esteemed Farhad Manjoo – has just concluded a five-year-long technology column with some essential (if perhaps a bit unoriginal) advice: “just slow down.” If you're still following along, you shall surely enjoy clicking some of his links, and I would certainly encourage that you do until you're out of free articles, at least. When Manjoo speaks, Apple listens: his January decree for Apple to bend with the industry wind and build “a Less Addictive iPhone” is convincingly prophetic considering Screen Time – probably the most mulled-over iOS 12 addition. As someone who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (however much or little that may mean to you) just one or two years after I began using my/the first iPhone, I've developed a history of what he might call Addiction to iPhones in variable oscillation touching both extremes. I carried my first-generation iPhone for almost 5 years – as you can imagine, it was far from a 100%-functional device toward the end of that bell curve. In contrast, I've also stood in line at dawn for two iPhone launches, jailbroken, listened to podcasts only about apps (far before they were good,) and been compelled to chronicle and reflect upon all of it for as long as I can remember.
There's no denying that the iPhone has had a profound effect on my life mostly thanks to my own choices, which is why it's worth telling the vast majority of you that features like Screen Time will never help you achieve whatever vague conception of reduced usage you may have. If you haven't yet quantified the figures you'll find within it in mental estimates, you aren't really concerned at all and if you have, Screen Time will only confirm them. Using reminder notifications to optimize your appflow makes no attempt at all to actually escape the mentality of the behavior you seek to lessen from yourself. Another app is still another app; a notification reminding you to stop using an app does nothing but add still more stimuli. If you want to stop using the phone so much, *stop* using the fucking phone. If you are truly concerned about how your handset companion has changed your life, turn it off for a week/month/quarter – however long you possibly can. By that, I mean no more or less than what you can manage without getting fired/dumped/expelled/etc. If you have truly reached this point, anything less is probably worth it. There is simply no other way to get a clear picture of how it's changed you.
Google, Facebook, and the rest of the industry are well aware of this, but know they can't actually advocate against the fundamental mechanism that drives their businesses, so they express concern by doing what they know: building more software. Apple is in a slightly different situation: they still need you to buy their phones – and even to look at them – but not past the point of hurting yourself emotionally, mentally, or physically because those injuries tend to hurt one economically. Screen Time's purpose is to keep us thriving and buying, but the only effective solve for this can only be communicated in garbage cinema language: you must find it within yourself. I am actually the worst person from which to model your life, except perhaps for my iPhone use: unless there's little else worthy of my attention, my phone is not out. Even if checking my emails, Mastodon, Twitter, etc are my default tasks, there are infinitely many besides that come first. Every once in a while, it's okay to finish an important message while walking down the street or waiting at a stoplight if things are urgent, but I can guarantee you that my attention is better consolidated on traveling in 95% of cases – moving with purpose and then focusing on my composition after I've arrived is almost always more efficient. I realize that I'm cowboying it here and sound like your Dad, but I'm better with iOS than he is, yet I've never publicly run into anything while looking down at my smartphone in 10 years of hardcore use. Find somebody who's company makes you forget about all of this for hours at a time and treasure them. Also: stop playing games on your phone. What the hell are you doing? Read a blog! Explore the wonders of the open web! Your peers, your battery, and your elderly future self with thank you for it. (One exception is playing word/trivia games with your partner. That's very cute and good for you.)
To get back to specifics, the new Photos application is now basically what it should have been all along, 3D Touch has been virtually eclipsed for those strange bastards among you who never liked it, and the release's most democratically-redeemable feature is optimization, which even on my iPhone 8 Plus was blatantly noticeable and very welcome. However, probably the best insight to come out of my long, rambly End User review was the revelation that basically any other human activity is a better use of time than applauding Apple for learning to hold new features off until they've been thoroughly tested and focusing instead on smoothing existing software. In fact, I'd argue there is absolutely no reason for someone like me to say anything even remotely positive about the world's wealthiest company ever again, though that doesn't apply to The Verge or Chaim Gartenberg, who's review – for the record – was much more useful to 9999 times more people than anything I'll ever write. However, isn't it sortof unreasonable to expect anything but absolute perfection from Apple at this trillion-dollar juncture? A handful of varying interpretations of absolute perfection per product category, even.
With gorgeous, iCloud-enabled premium apps like Bear in the picture, integrating wholly into the Apple environment has maintained its relative rank above the alternatives to its specific minimal-esque utilitarian niceness which appeals so strongly to those people among both consumer and professional buyers. Readers from within this culture recognized a short time ago that iOS is in the process of replacing MacOS as the star component of this environment across the board, though there's at least a moderate journey ahead before it truly reaches this achievement for the median user. For myself, iOS 12 improved the experience of using my 8 Plus and certainly gave me something intriguing to play with in Siri Shortcuts. For the rest of the world's billions of daily iOS users, I say be as insatiable as possible – always expect more.
On Windows XP ballot day, I spent my beatnik-ass time marveling at the (seemingly) abrupt availability of some genuinely innovative social apps on the Apple App Store for the first time since iOS 7(?) Of course, I am aware that reasonable people would regard a “sneak peek,” NDA-violating, perfectly Adobe Premiered app review to be pretty fucking lame, and I won’t dispute any accusations to the tune of “just an insane white guy with a WordPress site,” but I still believe it’s important to talk about software especially because virtually everyone uses it (as opposed to quieting down just when these apps and the people who make them attain the most advantageous possible position to fuck the whole world.)
That said, I’m going to keep this as brief and unrevisionist as I can: Tweetbot’s latest iteration may actually justify the dedicated subreddit I’ve just discovered! (Reddit’s the last place anyone wants to talk about apps, I guess.) I’ve complained at length about Twitter’s increasingly hostile (but justified, sortof ) treatment of its once astonishingly diverse landscape of third-party clients and tools, yet I’d honestly grown significantly in accepting that the dynamic would never again see the power of the world’s most cash-stuffed companies delivered into the sweaty hands of small, kooky one and two-man teams, and it never would’ve occurred to me that Tweetbot was still around — much less getting ready to update its trusty old app with a release that would suddenly make it clearly more stable and better-looking than its last competitor: the Native Fuck, itself, which has also undergone significant cosmetic surgery, recently. Namely, they moved the one fucking button that’s given the app a usability premium over its mobile web-based low-rent clone.
“The compose button has been moved to the bottom right-hand corner and “floats” as users scroll down their timeline. That means the button is always available to quickly send a tweet when the mood strikes.”
Yeah okay, Matt.
We’ve got a shiny, new compose button to unveil on Twitter for iOS! Easier than ever to use, the floating icon is prominently displayed and perfect for one-handed scrolling and Tweet composing. Pro tip: Press and hold the icon to access your drafts, photos, and the GIF gallery.
Twitter Support is no @Cher, yeah, but it seems strange that less than a thousand of Twitter’s more than 300 million monthly users would bother to engage with the announcement of a significant fundamental change to its infrastructure. Imagine if the federal government announced via White House press conference that every stoplight in the United States was going to have its yellow light removed to “streamline workflow” without any further explanation, yet only 1000 total Americans even bothered to tune in to the television coverage across all the news networks. It’d be strange, yeah? Well, y’all are using Twitter more than you’re driving, I’ll bet. Next time, get out andvote on my Twitter poll, you fascist!
In my Twitter glory days — that is, when I used to spend the entirety of every one of my community college classes Tweeting from my phone — there was a healthy offering of third-party clients on both mobile and desktop that filled the english of the era’s software media with an absolutely barbaric brand-beaten pile of linguistic Twittrash. After Twinkle — one of the earliest and ugliest ways to use Twitter ever — you’d have to choose between Twitpic, Tweetdeck, Twittercounter, Twitterfeed, Twhirl, Twitturly, Twtpoll, Retweetist, Tweepler, Hellotxt, Twitdom, Tweetscan, Tweetburner, Tweetvisor, Twittervision, Twibs, Twistori, and Twitbin. These are just a few I picked up from a 10-year-oldTechCrunchreport listing the top 21 Twitter applications by traffic.
Now, I have to stop myself from digging too deep here and attempting something absurd like The History of Twitter Clients, but the fucking material is there! I could spend an entire afternoon going through YouTube searches and gadget blogs because it brings me back to that time when I lived every day assuming these things were going to continue to astonish for my entire adulthood. So many incredible ideas! However, I’m going to save them for later and focus on the cream of the crop, so to speak: Twitterific and Tweetbot, which has been a longtime favorite of mine. As I said, it was in community college that I first ponied up money for Tweetbot 3 on my iPhone 4S simply because the hype over it among app and gadget nerds was so bonkers that it managed to spill over into my life, despite the fact that iOS7 and I were having serious issues in our marriage.
If you trust Mark Watson with your life as I do, you’d better believe that Tweetbot has been “ a screamer ” since its very beginning, when it pioneered the Premium Poweruser segment, for which a demographic apparently still exists. It was fast, yet always noticeably smoother than the native app, just as the newest release is today. I must point out, though, that the bloggers and YouTubers who’ve insisted that Tweetbot or Twitterrific or any other premium app could replace the native Twitter app entirely on iPhone even before they were stripped of a most live/push functionality (which I’ll come back around to in just a moment,) are undoubtedly lying to themselves — as good as they got, they never overtook Twitter’s own app in immediacy terms, which is almost inevitably going to present fundamental deterrence on the part of the active Twitter user who intends to rid themselves of the default pedestrian avenue of administration. Tweetbot solved a lot of things, it really is daft when it comes to notifications. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they came a few hundred seconds late — it’s that they’re never predictably or consistently so, which severs entirely the human perception of engaged plugged-in-ness, if you will. It’s the same phenomena Chuck Klosterman explores best in the context of DVRing live sports to watch later.
It’s difficult to project fictional scenarios that are more oblique and unexpected than the craziest moments from reality. We all understand this. And that understanding is at the core of the human attraction to liveness. We don’t crave live sporting events because we need immediacy; we crave them because they represent those (increasingly rare) circumstances in which the entire spectrum of possibility is in play.
-“Space, Time, and DVR Mechanics” by Chuck Klosterman`
Tweetbot is unquestionably a more thorough environment in which to explore Twitter than any other third party client, but it can’t do the live thing. Please do complain to Twitter, Inc. about the API situation if you’re so inclined, but the situation we’re going to find ourselves in
All I’m trying to say is, there is no fucking reason you’d delete the Twitter app — hide it away in a folder and never ever open it again if it disgusts you so, but leave its notifications settings on so that it can keep itself busy in there. Now that is a smart workflow! In fact, it was mine! And it did work for such a long time that you’d probably forget about the arrangement in no time were there not the occasional obvious discrepancies between Tweetbot’s Mention’s tab and the native app’s instant notifications. There has never been — nor will there be, I think — a client for Twitter that can replace some use of its own properties.
I think Tweetbot 3 made me into my own ridiculous equivalent of a “Poweruser.” Things are a little hazy now, but I know that I departed my main Twitter account just before the app’s release, and I didn’t come back until 2015. I was going to school in the same old mall building that housed the tool store in which I was also working in full-time, which is surely the only explanation for the shamelessness I demonstrated in bringing a wireless Apple Bluetooth keyboard to my classes and placing it behind the phone on whatever surface was in front of me so that I could lean forward and type into iOS with my nose damned near touching the screen. Strangely, I was not able to verify when Bluetooth keyboard support was added to iOS, but we’re going to conclude for the sake of convenience that it was first included in the immediate predecessor to the iPhone 4S I was using then.
The cognoscenti have been on Twitter for years now. Stephen Fry, the web service’s patron saint — in Britain at least, joined in 2008. However, it wasn’t until early 2009, xsomewhere around the time that Fry tweeted while stuck in a lift, that the service went truly mainstream. Mentions of Twitter, usually involving celebrities, could be found in newspapers and on breakfast television.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve already seen the demos and skimmed reviews at least. You should know by now whether or not Tweetbot 5 is worth it to you in purely functional terms, but I think we should all acknowledge that this release of Tweetbot is likely the last competitive third-party Twitter app for iOS. The mess that is Twitter, Inc. has made clear this year that it intends to prioritize its own clients over maintaining the APIs necessary for others to receive push notifications. And when I say “its own,” I’m also referring to our dearest TweetDeck, which they in fact absorbed. From a business perspective, it makes sense: only “six million App Store and Google Play users installed the top five third-party Twitter clients between January 2014 and July 2018,” according to TechCrunch. I never expected to see Tweetbot on the App Store charts again, nor would I have considered that Echophon, TweetCaster or Twitterrific would have been left available. They’re on the App Store, at least, and I can confirm that they all technically still work, but it’s safe to say they’re showing their fucking age. Tweetbot and Twitterrific, though, are not just satellite products of the platform — they literally built it. These two are the poles that have spent Twitter’s lifetime thus far demonstrating for the company and its userbase their own respective interpretations of a mobile social application. Today, they are united — along with Talon and Tweetings — in a plea for continued access to the platform they helped establish on behalf of Twitter users and developers around the world.
Both Tweetbot and Twitterrific are in their 5th versions, and neither has actually changed much since iOS 7. (Twitterrific appears to still be in the same version number.) Facing the growing walls around the service, one struggles to imagine them surviving more than one or two iOS releases, but I’ve been wrong before. (In fact, I discovered yesterday that Lookbook is still around somehow.) By the time iOS 7 came around, the new native Twitter app still looked fucking terrible. When Tapbots released Tweetbot 3, everything about its visual experience was beyond anything we’d seen on the iPhone before and its effectiveness as a Twitter tool was immediately recognizable in contrast with even Jack’s brand-new app and mobile web experience. The animations were tasteful and smooth and the “pro user” label on Tapbot’s demographic allowed them to fully explore the functionality of iPhone’s gestures separate any bond with the hypothetically least-capable user.
This is a dynamic which I am apparently unable to avoid across just about all of my subjects — including digital media — so you may take it as generally unreasonable or extreme, but I’m nearly as tired of being treated as an idiot user as I am an idiot reader. Readability is to Usability, etc. It’s especially aggravating when I could do so much more if developers would just assume I’m capable of any knowledge acquisition or intellectual growth whatsoever. Except for a few leftover keyboard shortcuts, the native Twitter app’s only function are the most obvious to engage with, as per the highest possible standards of use, which would make perfect sense if it was paired with competent investments in Accessibility, but Twitter always appears to detest the subject, even while quietly putting in some of the work. Thanks to Mastodon’s explicit and visible acknowledgement of accessibility by way of just one young German man and a volunteer team, we certainly know it’s not because it’s an expensive one at all. (The “if Mastodon can do it than Twitter can definitely fucking do it” argument can be expanded almost without limit.)
Somewhere out there is a social media manager using a screen reader whose professionalism has been undermined by the belief that the update is available to everyone. We deserve equal access to the tools our peers take for granted, and the security to know that we will be able to do our jobs tomorrow regardless of updates.
-Kit Englard for The Outline
I would like to commend myself now for making it this far without mentioning Lists — a subject which I’ve already Tweeted and written about extensively — but this time, I have the wondrous blessing of two premiere mobile software companies who recognized the potential power in list functionality to dispel or avoid most of the inherent risks assigned to the usage of a social network like Twitter and bet heavily on it. Neither can be utilized to the fullest without lists and wouldn’t it be such a shame to not get your money’s worth? Tapbots expanded their curative ability tremendously by adding customizable filters to any timeline in Tweetbot, allowing the user to infinitely manipulate incoming posts with any combination of every variable supported by the core Twitter code itself. Within a matter of seconds, you could create a filter that will exclude all Tweets except for those from unverified accounts that mention “blimps” and include a media attachment and apply this filter to any of the app’s timeline views — including Home, Mentions, Profile (your own Tweets,) your Favorites, and your Searches — everything but your Direct Messages can be sorted this way.
“Tweetbot for iOS Tips,” Tapbots
TweetBot and I accomplished a lot of sorting together, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me had it not crept to #1 Paid Social App again a few weeks ago that perhaps my bias towards Twitter lists could be entirely attributed to my early use of TweetBot and Twitterrific, which allowed me to amass a Following count of over 5000 without physically perishing or mentally disintegrating to the point of undeniable insanity. However, by the time TweetBot 4 was released in 2015, it had long since swapped places with the native app within my iPhone’s homescreens and was only used when I felt particularly like Tweetstorming from a stationary situation. From my wireless Apple Keyboard, this meant Cmd (⌘)-N to compose a Tweet and ⌘-Enter to send it.
Today — in Tweetbot 5 — this continues to be a tried-and-true method of Tweeting Tweets on Twitter, smoothly and efficiently, as always. Returning to Ye Olde Alternative in 2018 yields both familiar and newly-implemented goods: animation and audio notifications are carried over and/or updated as needed to maintain a fluid and fresh experience. The ability to switch between its intelligently-chosen color themes with a two-fingered vertical swipe, alone will be justification enough for many users like myself to hand over another $4.99 to the Tapbots developers who’ve managed against all odds to one-up Twitter’s own mobile app development one last time. Over any other alternative app, Tweetbot 5 retains the robust qualities necessary to achieve #1 Paid Social App status on the App Store despite its new API shackles.
Opera's no-connection mascot is the cutest branding on any current web browser. Fight me.
Yesterday, I finished moving out of the situation I’d been living in for ~6 weeks in the basement of a southeast Portland home near the western base of Mt. Tabor. You'd see it just across from the flat Washington Mall-ish grass rectangle that provides daring suburban explorers their most worthwhile reward for reaching the top. It resembles one of many local residential templates which I was completely unequipped to understand when I arrived in the area last year. You'll never observe any of its inhabitants outside doing any of the things people do when they are unaware of – or unconcerned with being observed. Walking by an afternoon front yard “family gathering” (young white parents and their one or two children) is a prospect of haste. Introducing new movement to the vicinity after the sun has gone down stirs a disruption from deep within its energy. Everyone in this town is afraid. I say it’s an unnatural way to live, but I’m just a fucking bumpkin.
As you may or may not have observed, the vast majority of my working being lives on the World Wide Web, which requires, fundamentally…. An internet connection. In most any other present-day first world circumstance, these are infinitely available, but I discovered – after the moving process was entirely completed, of course – that my tenants did not actually have an in-house connection of their own. They explained to me that their neighbor – an “IT professional” for IBM – had offered to let them use his WiFi network, and they’d found the arrangement sufficient. However, because IBM is The archaic marque of digital fascism (disclosure: they are also my sworn blood enemy,) it wasn’t altogether a surprise when they told me that his offer did not extend to “guests.”
I considered that a defined period of WiFi fasting at home could make for an interesting experiment – perhaps even a needed mental reset – and I couldn't reasonably afford to acquire my own dedicated 4G hotspot, anyway. The reality became a relentless paranoid battle for any trickle of access – sometimes for a dozen bytes per second; for just the most basic digital communications like SMS and email – which led to more superstitious hypotheses about precarious antenna orientation, progress bar hallucinations, out-of-control frustration, and hopeless fixation with refresh commands than I remember from 2nd generation cell networks in the Midwest, 10 years ago, or even domestic dial-up, and truly revealed the extent to which I'd taken connectivity for granted.
My observations of my own behavior throughout this drought are worth more than their mild amusement: even this petty disparity (I was never more than two or three yards from nearly-whole signal at the top of the outside stairs) re-sensitized my perspective to the abstract concept of network unreliability which I'd been entirely spared since prepubescence. Though 4 billion human beings now regularly interact with the World Wide Web, their connections span a mathematically gargantuan spectrum of speed and reliability. In urbanizing myself as an adult, I have unconsciously latched on to the entitled ideal that internet access is a public service and accepted dramatically-increasing dependence on services that engorge greater and greater volumes of bandwidth without any explanation but their lack of incentives for efficiency. I reflect on my relationship with technology every day, yet I still became an oblivious data glutton in mind-bogglingly little time.
The current state of connectivity in the United States, alone is quite alarming under 5-year-absent examination. Mobile carriers are still merging and the compartmentalization of all ISP customers between prioritization tiers continues to be tested, less encumbered by regulatory safeguards than ever. I don't know my politics on this issue, nor do I have any specific solutions, but I'd point to the work of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and express only that I hope the pace of the technology's progress is greater than the growth of its merchants' imaginations and the scope of their greed so that the sheer volume of plenty overcomes even the shortest-sighted, and humanity as a whole continues toward a more just distribution of connectivity. What I am in a position to share are the revelations about our current infrastructure, software services, and hardware devices I could only have discovered from such an experience.
I remember standing on top of a John Deere combine's 15ft-high roof in order to successfully make a telephone call 10 years ago – one of thousands of behaviors which were more abruptly and universally required for a few years and subsequently more abruptly forgotten than any other such united tick in American history. This blip of shared technological adversity also led to an unfathomably vast collective mythology surrounding incredibly tedious manipulation of our archaic handsets in varying degrees of desperation for just one bar.
My Sprint plan includes unlimited 4G LTE data for my iPhone 8 Plus with a 10GB tethering limit – which performed so admirably in the lonely role of my thin tether to the rest of the world that I am obligated to actually use the phrase *like a champ*. but the quality of its connection is dramatically impacted by the studio apartment's depth. From the space's geometric center at stomach-level, the handset indicates “1x,” meaning CDMA 1x, which is technically a data connection, but certainly not in any usable sense for the network applications of 2018. The native Twitter app, Apple Mail, Snapchat, Instagram & Facebook, Safari, Opera Mini, Firefox, Chrome, and all others I tested in this condition would simply timeout – giving up after a minute or two of repeated attempts before declining to continue, each in their own minor variations. An interesting anecdote: in a pertinent reflection our human ballooning expectations for connectivity at all times, the language of our creations across both iOS and desktop applications has recently become noticeably less accountable and more accusatory. Instead of saying “____ can’t connect to the internet,” many of the browsers will declare an absolute: three is no internet connection, or just straight up blame the user: “you are not connected to the internet.” (Emphasis mine.) No apologies... No regrets.
Dude, no wifi? Where the fuck are U?
Directly above my head’s place on the bed, the phone could be propped on the sill of the East-facing window on a clear-skied day, enabling it to scrounge up and loosely establish enough contact to receive calls and text messages, claiming 1-4 3G “bars,” and a single in 4G at night, though one overcast Northwestern week basically did it in completely. If we were actually doing something to noticeably increase our old Nokia boxes’ bandwidth bids on those early networks by turning them every which way to find “better reception,” it’s completely futile on current devices. (I’m fairly sure I remember a network professional explaining this to me when LTE was first gaining traction.) It was immediately apparent that orientation had no effect, but the handset’s bearing certainly did… Most sensitively so. I realized quite early on that I should endeavor not to spend too much time standing in different positions throughout the space attempting to will on a browser loader bar above a story I’ve probably read already. Intstead, I committed to the very first position that indicated any correlation whatsoever with a better connection: atop the biscuit tin on the metal rack nearest the outside door.
It’s been three months, but I’m still using my tired old Hewlett-Packard 6930p backup machine, so I was very skeptical about the odds we’d be successfully reliably pairing its ancient network adapter – now worth just $9.99 – with that of A Cellular Phone 10 years its junior without struggling significantly with range or reliability, especially considering that it cannot run a single one of its vast library of proprietary drivers on Linux. You’d at least assume they’d need to be practically touching each other to maintain a smooth marriage, yet the only compromise I had to make on the local end was to bring them near to each other as they paired. Afterwards, I could return the phone to its tin and work on the laptop from the kitchen table, 12-15 feet away. (Curiously enough, the 6930p itself shipped with hotspot capability by way of the SIM card slot behind the unit’s main battery.)
Quantifying the speed of a mobile data connection as you would a dedicated WiFi network is incongruent because the former trades in a much less consistent packet stream. That’s the extent of my knowledge, but it’s easy to visualize: a signal that can travel a mile or two in big globules bound to be intercepted in splashes upon the device’s little antennae, versus your home network’s local, evenly distributed sauna of irradiated mist. It’s much less definite, to say the least, and I can’t actually comprehend the sort of voodoo that’s required in order to expand and maintain the networks as they are, nor would I ever wish to burden myself with such knowledge.
As the industry endeavors once again to reconcile the cultural and financial incentives of streaming digital music, one independent platform has wavered little from its 10-year-long mission to bring the business to the unsigned artist with elegance and integrity.
If you’ve ever thought to yourself wow, Bandcamp has looked basically the same forever, you were entirely correct – now for a tenth of the century, at least – and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another Silicon Valley technology company toting a venture-funded origin story with such casual, yet robust long-standing user relationships underneath an unwavering, bullshit-free commitment to their product. Even under the most ludicrous scrutiny, the company’s rudder is flawless and its course true. What at first glance you’d swear to be an unsolicited conclusion to an obscure examination could very reasonably be described as cheesy, stubborn, dweebish, pious, or just generally boring, indeed, yet the respective accuracy of each of these adjectives are no more than the byproducts of the very same operational ethics which we’ve suggested, requested, demanded, and begged the rest of the world’s computing capitol to re-adopt, enforce, or at least ponder for a beat. The volume of the masses’ exponentially-increasing attendance of late is only overcome by its hysterical shouting match, so let us pipe down for a while, now so that we may be precise as we dig deeper into the methodology which has finally led to a profitable, drama-free outlying technology organization without the need for a single drop of analogous sweat over its brand upkeep. By arranging the company in its infancy to so precisely and elementally align with the needs of its customers, the original troupe of Bandcamp Bums ensured profound and lasting simplicity in the single overarching priority for those in every single role behind the quiet perpetuation of Bandcamp dot com: selling goodmusic.
The platform indiscriminately provides both individual artists and labels with a clean, cozy, charming, smartly-designed and technically competent storefront with a wide-open storage allocation, optimal search engine optimization and a widely-trusted point of sale experience in exchange for 15% of any sales that should come in – significantly less than other channels; half what Apple Music will take. In examining Bandcamp’s history, its impact on independent music, and its viability as an alternative streaming service, we shall excavate the truth behind the derisive cynicism directed its way by the titans of the tech and music press. Over the course of this super link-laden journey, we’d consider the alarmingly hypocritical possibility that it’s been overlooked by mainstream conversations only because it has so long operated in the precise manner we claim is so hopelessly absent from its neighbors in its deliberate, principled, and innovative journey towards a transparent, progressive vision.
To catch our starting gun, we must first travel to Face The Music 2016 in Melbourne – as far as one can possibly get from The Valley – alongside Bandcamp’s super-worldly Chief Curator, Andrew Jervis to observe his interview for a live audience.
Bandcamp has always grown extremely organically. There’s never actually been any advertising that we’ve done; there’s never any advertising on the site, and there never will be. We haven’t really tooted our horn very hard.
In fact, just about everything from the shrewd idealism of those who beget its conception to the on-the-nose care in their person-to-person customer service is so adamantly inverse of the tech industry archetype which the global End User community at large are presently discovering at twice the speed of sound there should at least be some conspiratorializing going around. Where I come from, launching a desolate business to little mainstream success with persistence and dignified determination is (or should be) regarded as a telltale sign that one is running a front (according to the television, anyway,) but exploration of this plausibility yielded nothing in Bandcamp’s case, even after I took the risk of incrimination and begged a certain Boston-based future funk producer to accept my ginormous bribe and include any sort of pharmacological substance with his summer beat tape. He wouldn’t even send antihistamines.
As uncomfortably as it lands on the soul, no moniker describes Bandcamp more comprehensively than “an online record store.” As far as Ethans go, Bandcamp’s CEO and founders’ public attaché Ethan Diamond is as good as they come: it’s quite telling that he is the only Silicon Valley CEO who’s remained intellectually grounded enough with the rest of us in order to retain any skills in nuanced forms of verbal communication like… humor. The closest the company has ever come to promotion? His awkward, sub-20-minute presentation at the XOXO Festival 2014 offered an impressively succinct introduction to their greater mission considering the unmistakable agony in his body language.
“We worked out of the public library for the first four years of the company's existence,” he admits. Impressively, Bandcamp was operated entirely as a “virtual company” until 2015.
Either Bandcamp just happens to be the single Silicon Valley company where the executives are unanimously so fucking fulfilled by their work without exception that they aren’t compelled to leave it long enough to stumble upon the inevitable coastal colleague with a connection to something like The Internet History Podcast, or technology journalism has definitively lost all reverence for actual innovation in favor of the emotionally-charged Innovation Myth, now relinquished almost entirely to the narrative control of its own protagonists. Perhaps it was inevitable that Elon Musk, Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos would become immortalized as “those who make things happen,” but our ability to quantify value as consumers tends to scurry rapidly away behind our backs when they’re turned by the constant distraction of these mostly inert figureheads. As their personalities have stolen the story, the people in industry with their hands on real product have all but completely disappeared from the frame, and all of the work remaining at the End User’s eye level was abandoned by aspiration long ago and replaced with the unfulfilling mechanism of A Quick Buck. Though now we are proceeding into a similar frame – only because our subject cares more about their mission than claiming recognition for it and might just be the first such company run by a cast who become sincerely defensive at the suggestion of a cash-out.
“Bandcamp’s philosophy has always been very different [from] a lot of the companies we’re surrounded by,” reflects Jervis. “We are not a ‘let’s-raise-money-and-burn-through-it’ type of company.”
I know that your mind has been trained by years of engagement with the digital media of a rapidly-globalizing, venture capital-obsessed society to block the passage of this sort of language across your conscious threshold at risk of life-threatening overexposure to the Medium Dialect and its churnalising neoliberal cyberchode scholars of the Personal Brand; I know you’ve read the exact same quote from how many entrepreneurs in how many worthless, masturbatory business magazine profiles, but I swear on my one-of-a-kind Estonian Hilary Duff pullout that Jervis speaks without irony or deception. how many fucking churnicles have abandoned you, but this time, it’s actually sincere.
On The Web
Though Bandcamp was technically the first comprehensive library-modeled music streaming service in existence, the topical conversations between both technology and music journalists and industry executives flooding both podcast and news feeds at the moment orbiting the “Cord-Cutting” phenomena as it’s washed over television, cinema, and music are rooted in the same building blocks as the core technology behind the delivery of all of these conversations as well as their subjects, funny enough. As long as my subgeneration has known it, The Web has been a source of sound in some manifestation, but the example with the most perplexing history was also the first. Today, one of five tabs in the main menu of my iPhone’s native music app contains the text “Radio” beneath an “antenna with waves” graphic which opens a service once called iTunes Radio that was absorbed into – and restricted to subscribers of – Apple Music as of 2016, confusingly. However, both “iTunes Radio” and “Apple Music Radio(?)” – along with any and all audio streaming services (mentioned and not) – are fundamentally nothing more than different UX design interpretations of the “simple” practice of streaming an audio file, which made its debut at the turn of the century in the form of “Internet Radio.” Astonishingly, the protocol – still referred to by at least one person on Earth as “Webcasting,” no doubt – has survived nearly 20 years, and even the youngest of us have likely encountered it in unusual situations.
Ironically, the majority of Internet Radio broadcasts remaining on the air are nothing more than live duplicates of the traditional radio wave-bound products from the physical stations your car’s head unit receives. Even the current desktop version of iTunes maintains support for streaming “audio files over the internet,” though a glance at Apple’s dated support page for the process suggests it hasn’t crossed anybody’s mind for at least half of that history. In 1994, the publicly-funded radio network Voice of America became the “First [radio] on the Internet” when it began – after an introduction by Al Gore, no less – “offering digitized audio versions of selected newscasts and other program segments in 15 languages on its public internet server on Monday, Aug. 15,” according to former engineer Chris Kern. However – since we’re already this deep into internet history – a distinction must be established between streaming static files and streaming live audio. The first relies on pre-recorded audio files uploaded to a publicly-accessible server – in Kern’s original case, “via anonymous FTP and the Internet Gopher protocol,” which continues to be the elemental process behind every audio file streamed across the Web (including those on Bandcamp, Apple Music, Spotify, etc.) more or less because it ain’t broke.
Semantically, “live” digital audio streaming in its aforementioned “purest” form is more or less exclusive to Internet Radio. Obscured aside from the traditional station simulcast, Web-only Internet Radio stations have their own of “the Internet’s quiet success stories,” filled with quaint experiences and an endless cycle of death proclamations which continue to be disproven, anywise.
On June 27th, 1999, The Seattle Times ran an especially worthwhile introduction to the concept that likely represents the only major newspaper’s mention of SHOUTcast (the first and likely last name in DIY Web DJing) in the history of the printed word within a work of truly phenomenal tech reporting on Mark Mataassa’s part. From the past, one will find his chillingly spot-on foresight and well-considered observations are bestrewed with mind-boggling hilarity when they look.
Dialing in to the Net through a 56 kilobit-per-second modem, as I am, this seems like a ridiculous waste – or at least misallocation – of resources.
I'm using a $3,000 machine, tying up a phone line and seriously compromising my computing power for an experience that in sound quality, simplicity and dependability can't compare, truthfully, with the $9 Emerson clock radio an arm's length away.
And yet Web radio is one of the hottest ideas going in the ever-hot world of Internet startups and acquisitions: In the past few months, America Online and Yahoo! each have purchased fast-growing Web music sites, rock-music trendsetters like Rolling Stone and MTV have gotten into the business, and technological improvements – from Microsoft's newest browser and Real Networks' newest player to the latest MP3 enhancements – are closing the quality and accessibility gaps.
The combination of developments is not only changing how computers (and radios) are used, but offering a glimpse of a future when audience demographics are sliced ultra-thin – to the person – and everybody has the potential to be a radio broadcaster as well as listener.
I only have a few experiences with Internet Radio of my own, but they’re all rampantly more memorable than one would expect. The now in-stasis NWIRE project was by the most relevantly intriguing and savvily-curated home for a diverse host of electronic musicians I’ve ever come across – it was my second default browser tab for most of 2017, when I’d even listen to the odd-hour broadcasts overseen by just the automated library-perusing bot for hours. On episode 16 of Drycast, I recounted the absurd tale of my surprise morning encounter with a Norwegian station’s live broadcast from some European breakcore club, which was likely responsible for the most fun I’ve ever had working in retail.
Extratone’s former Tech Editor is partial to a station called Radio Swiss Jazz, which appears to be thriving in comparison with most visible broadcasters, and unapologetically emits a bizarre amalgamation of tunes both chart-topping and Seriously Obscure across every conceivable genre (including Marching Music,) and continent of origin. Between every few charts, the brief commentary and station identification has provided our own private mystery: Was that one pre-recorded? This guy was on yesterday, but has since shed his accent? However, these tiny temporary mysteries are Internet Radio’s only remaining value for us, and I suspect the same is true for all but the most laggard laggards. For as long as I’ve been coherent enough to disseminate between much of anything, very few of its visible offerings have offered anything groundbreaking or fresh, perhaps out of negligence (one can very easily arrange leave a machine running SHOUTcast to shuffle through a given library of music and/or podcasts indefinitely,) frustration, or economic necessity.
Crucially, the truly most critical consequences and contributions provided by the pioneers of Internet Radio to our current digital streaming experience were centered within intellectual property legislation and advertising-supported business. Unfortunately, this juncture marks our complete departure from my wheelhouse, but thankfully, a few sacred accounts of one of technology’s foremost confusing clashes with the ill-equipped, technoilliterate monoliths of the American justice system do indeed remain. As early as 2002, the ineffable Doc Searls reported on a document authored by the Library of Congress’ Copyright Royalty Board called “Determination of Royalty Rates and Terms for Ephemeral Recording and Webcasting Digital Performance of Sound Recordings” for Linux Journal in an encyclopedic breakdown of its implications ironically entitled “Why Are So Many Internet Radio Stations Still on the Air?” I would hope my comprehension is sufficient to declare that this was no Cambridge Analytica: only a few years subsequent the technology’s inception, operators within the Internet Radio business faced serious and immediate fines for their pre-enforcement distribution of copyrighted material stretching four years back – the severity of which the Doc suggested would “surely bankrupt many of the individual broadcasters that have been pioneering this marketplace for the longest time.”
Unlike the commercial radio stations we hear on the old-fashioned airwaves, Internet radio stations' primary market relationship isn't with advertisers; it's with listeners. In many cases, the listeners are the primary source of revenue. This business model is similar to that of noncommercial (public) radio, only the market relationship is much more direct and efficient. Internet radio stations don't need to stop programming to hold marathon whine-fests begging listeners to call phone volunteers and pledge money to qualify for a mug or a t-shirt. Listeners simply click on a PayPal or an Amazon link, and after a few more clicks they've made a payment.
By March, 2010, just 374 stations were aggregated in Google’s Internet Radio Directory, and my own quick sample from its list unfortunately indicated that most are now silent, but SHOUTcast has yet to be abandoned after all this time and we can safely suppose the core architecture of the internet will remain recognizable enough to support it until after we’re all dead, rendering the necessary tools indefinitely ready and accessible should new projects in NWIRE’s vein come along (I know of no better fate I could wish upon the protocol.) From Internet Radio’s pioneer days, we must skip over a whole era to close in on Bandcamp’s origin in the very brightest peak of Web 2.0.
Again, we find ourselves in 2008 and nobody knows what an iPhone is, but the same classic rock-worshiping, upper-middle class, white collar Early Majority who first loved Internet Radio are now rapidly and delightedly distributing links to something called “Pandora dot com” between AOL and Hotmail inboxes. True luxury music reproduction comes in the form of Beats headphones motivated by a 320GB iPod Classic. Budding audiophiles and backpacker dweebs illegally torrent lossless .FLACs to play over their Christmas-gifted studio monitors with WinAmp, which they’ve set up to impeccably “scrobble” their history with every played track to their Last.fm profiles. Everybody else is still buying music from iTunes. (Those who cannot afford to buy the music they intend to add to their libraries transition to the music nerd classification as soon as they’ve sought out a way to obtain it free.) “Streaming” comes from subscription services like Rhapsody (now Napster,) which are too buried in Digital Rights Management controversy to feel sustainable. MySpace Music has just begun to fade away – next year, in “the Twitter era,” SoundCloud will definitively replace it as the go-to creator network – and Pandora’s immediate future is bright – they’ll make a big move on brand-new mobile streaming experience when they launch their iPhone OS app in July, but the limited performance of the handset’s EDGE network will render it a poor alternative to onsite .mp3s for years to come.
In January, to minimal acclaim, Oddpost’s Ethan Diamond launched Bandcamp, the startup with programmer friends Joe Holt, Shawn Grunberger, and Neal Tucker to be “a sortof WordPress for musicians” – an easily-created, well-designed landing page to showcase one’s digital music files. As Holt laments in an interview with The HTML Times, creating an online presence for your music had long been “a pain in the ass.”
“You need to find a place to host it, you’ve gotta get the metadata right, it’s just hard. So we just decided we would do that hard part for musicians so that they didn’t have to be so nerdy.”
As an address to all of their shared complaints about the experience of online music distribution up to that point, early Bandcamp was an astounding piece of engineering. The quaint, unsurprisingly crate-digger-looking Ethan Diamond – who’s more or less remained the singular public face of the company since the very beginning – began a brand tradition of transparently music-nerdy correspondence with his first post on the Bandcamp blog, explaining the solutions the team had come up with in greater detail.
We keep your music streaming and downloading quickly and reliably, whether it’s 3am on a Sunday, or the hour your new record drops and Pitchfork gives it a scathingly positive review. We make your tracks available in every format under the sun, so the audiophilic nerderati can have their FLAC and eat mp3 v2. We adorn your songs with all the right metadata, so they sail into iTunes with artwork, album, band and track names intact. We mutter the various incantations necessary to keep your site top-ranked in Google, so when your fans search for your hits, they find your music long before they find bonkersforlyrics.com or iMyFace. We give your fans easy ways to share your music with their friends, and we give you gorgeous tools that reveal exactly how your music is spreading, so you can fan the fire.
The launch garnered very little attention from tech or music publications of the time, but Andy Baio’s interview with Diamond provides a substantial, technically in-depth picture of just how revolutionary and necessary it was. Most of what has continued to make Bandcamp such an essential tool was present at the very beginning: server-side stats and metadata (a unique architectural undertaking, no doubt,) track and album-oriented pagination, and a robust, easily-embedded Flash player.
Study Diamond’s first “screencast” alongside a video tour of SoundCloud from the period and you’ll notice just how much more functional, future-proofed and dignified Bandcamp appeared in comparison. As apprehensive as I am to be caught arguing for minimalism over good design, it’s made perfect sense in the use case of this one platform, which knew exactly what it was from birth, along with what it would always be, apparently, which is such a bizarre reversal of the archetypes and the relentless common narrative we know from The Valley’s legends. Ethan first shows the consumer’s experience – none of which has changed after a whole decade aside from quality-specific track purchases – before delving into the artist-side UI, beginning with the statistics tool, which included playback and search insights to a depth that was (and still is) unheard of from a free service. Then, he demonstrates the publishing process from upload to playback: adding album art, setting a release date, and pricing its purchase. Aside from their removal of the old waveform visualizer (I couldn’t find any record of an announcement of this decision, official or otherwise,) Bandcamp has changed absolutely nothing of what’s shown in Diamond’s tutorial. In the next few months, they would add custom page design, email address capture, and support for custom domains. By October 2008, they’d made enough waves to be picked up by CNET, for whatever that was worth. Apparently, Facebook Music was a legitimate property as well, but I do not remember anything about it at all—pondering an alternate reality in which The Social Network became the dominant online music streaming platform leads to a bizarre comparison of Neil Diamond and Mark Zuckerberg which I can’t imagine being altogether productive. Suffice it to say, the two founders’ visions differ greatly.
Contextually, it’s also important that we dwell for a moment on the legal and financial hullabaloo surrounding music sales during Bandcamp’s first formative years, and the federal government’s losing battle to interpret, enforce, or replace intellectual property law for the information age. As the Web had grown exponentially more capable and accessible as a means of audio file distribution, it had become absolutely saturated with blatantly DRM-circumventing .mp3s and .wavs. For years, the quickest way to follow up on a check it out sort of music recommendation was simply to search Google for its track name followed by “.mp3.” If the first go didn’t yield success, even the most rudimentary application of cryptography – like substituting some variation of “nsilmtic.rar” to find a download for Nas’ Illmatic, for instance – was a sure bet for one’s second try, which would often return several copies just laying around Google-indexed WordPress media libraries, though results hosted on Mediafire were a preferable alternative. This was the establishment into which my first adolescent digital music discoveries were borned, and I’m still convinced that 99% of us participants were completely without malice. I’d argue heartily that music’s brief escape from the tireless grip of the record industry as its only medium stumbled into digital form would be clearly shown to have a net gain for the whole of American recording artists if you could measure and plot it, including the past, present, and future use of peer-to-peer sharing.
2010 would prove to be The Year of Reckoning for the fraction of DRM-violating traffic on the visible Web, at least. Though it’d be virtually impossible to quantify, is it only reasonable to assume that many siteowners made some real money from the ad impressions that directly resulted from their unauthorized hosting and Mediafire-embedding, but let’s consider how minuscule even the most outrageously liberal overestimate would be, side-by-side with the billions in additional revenue YouTube has raked in from the same music since assuming their place as the de facto platform for quickly summoning just about any work of audio that’s ever taken digital form. It was in February of that year that Blogger (another Google property) deleted six music blogs from its platform in response to complaints about allegedly DMCA-violating .mp3s. The Registryinsisted the collective finger be pointed at the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, itself.
“It would seem the music bloggers aren't versed in the ways of DMCA claims and counterclaims. But you can't blame Google for that,” they concluded, after one of the blog’s founders expressed some of the most personally-dramatic words mine empathy has yet faced as quoted in The Guardian.
“It's just sad because we were documenting young people's music from all around the globe. For a lot of people, it was music they wouldn't have been able to discover elsewhere.”
In hindsight, “blame” is an even more useless avenue of one’s attention than usual, especially when one party (Google) was 100% exempt from any consequences all along. The alarming takeaway is not the DMCA’s deftness, but that Google had the freedom to wait for a parallel business incentive before deciding the law applied to them.
Frankly, we should all have realized long ago just how fucking futile it is to attempt to control any file traffic. Every desktop-class browser ships with the capability to capture any streamable media on the Web with a handful of keystrokes – it’d take a maximum of 20 minutes to bestow upon even the most casual user the knowledge they’d need to keep every single track, YouTube video, and Twitch stream they’d ever watch, 100% legally without a single third-party service/extension interaction, but the crucial question remains to what end, exactly? It’s easy, but it’s not exactly a fun way to spend an afternoon. The only two rationales that’d justify capturing streamed Web files at scale are 1) the totally bonkers inclination that any given property/ies is likely to disappear from the entire World Wide Web, ever or 2) the increasingly rarefying expectation of prolonged time away from internet access.
As Bandcamp has stood so obdurately still, the mainstream music streaming sphere has expanded titanically around it as if enveloping the Indie platform in a surrealist timelapse within the eye of a ruinous tech industry cyclone, which would explosively expand the market into a ghoulish, filthy monstrosity beyond anything we’d recognize from the rule of the WinAmp Hipster, long ago. Today, the coolest and most rabid daily music listeners I know all have Spotify memberships, joining 70 million others globally as of January. For most, it’s how they prefer to swaddle their lives in a constant soundtrack – at work, in the car, at school, then at home on the television. For many, it’s how they “explore” new music outside of peer and social recommendations... or, that’s how the narrative was supposed to go, anyway. Those folks I know who actually create music, however, are rarely seen using Spotify—even after they’ve endured untold horrors in order to publish their own music there—because the real story of its track record as a place to “Discover” new artists, genres, or sounds is completely abysmal. When 2017’s streaming data began coming in this past January, a popular feature by Galaxie 500’s Damon Krukowski was run by the definitively terminal music magazine of broad notoriety—Pitchfork—entitled “How to Be a Responsible Music Fan in the Age of Streaming,” which he began by citing some very alarming statistics.
“More than 99 percent of audio streaming is of the top 10 percent most-streamed tracks [on Spotify.] Which means less than 1 percent of streams account for all other music.”
Why? A brazen disregard for necessary meta information, for one.
“Look now at how badly their applications already serve entire genres of less popular music. Spotify lists recordings by song title, album title, or featured artist name. But that information is so limited it leaves out even the other performers on a recording, a crucial aspect to classical and jazz.”
Alarming for those of us who intend to create or consume any music separate the Top 40, anyway, which one should feel justified expecting from most people, most of the time. Last month, The Carters released an album on which even Beyoncé identified the problematic service by name. “Patiently waiting for my demise ‘cause my success can’t be quantified,” she rapped, “if I gave two fucks about streaming numbers woulda put Lemonade up on Spotify.” The unfortunate issue with this single denouncement of the industry’s current direction is that its source is adamantly guaranteed a place for her work within Spotify’s top 10 percent for the rest of her career’s lifetime (and probably far beyond.)
[I could now take the time to complain that she’s also entirely abandoned the city she owes for her career’s creation in its darkest hour, but let’s just plan on coming back to the subject at a later date, when we’ll be sure to touch on how terribly Drake also treats Houston (and women.)]
Unsurprisingly, the apathy is far from mutual. From the Swedish company’s perspective, the digits themselves should’ve been dearly and universally beloved from the beginning, and their exponentially ballooning hubris became so inflated by 2014 that they launched a WordPress blog dedicated entirely to promoting and discussing their data called Spotify Insights, proclaiming themselves—naturally—to be “the world’s favorite streaming service,” championing the growing diversity in their demographics. Though Beyoncé is mentioned only twice upon a search of its archive as it stands today, it’s with fanfare: “10 Female Artists Women Listen To The Most on Spotify” declared her the third most popular female artist among women, globally, and “Single Ladies” the number one female-streamed track in the world (assuming I’m interpreting its language correctly.)
We’ve established that Spotify has comfortably planted itself at the polar opposite end of the business spectrum from Bandcamp, yet for the sake of an oblivious adjudicating layman’s understanding, you’d have your work cut out for you explaining the difference between them: both are online marketplaces with gigantic libraries of digital music which a listener can browse, download locally, or stream from using Web browser or the mobile applications offered by each, respectively—and they can do from just about anywhere, for as much or as little as they wish. And—as the music industry and its satellites shall always remain for the rest of humanity’s reign—both are overwhelmingly associated with young people. There, the crucial divide should probably ring a bell—it’s been a constant between cultural generations for as long as culture, itself has existed.
There are those among us who’s adolescent adoration of music is still completely valid as a very powerful component of hormonal development, yet doomed to quickly sizzle into casual listening or worse by the time our post-secondary Senior year rolls around. And then, there are those on whom the curiosity clings devotedly on: the cool high school punk band-forming types our culture loves to romanticize, who’ll inevitably end up bald and bespeckled with a pre-dawn community radio block. These Musicians, Crate-Diggers, and capital-A Audiophiles have historically overlapped in synonymous functions across a love triangle of dweebish intolerability, though it’s become especially easy as of late to forget that DIY recording is by no means a recent development—its financial and technical barrier-to-entry has simply plummeted thanks to the developmental progression of Digital Audio Workstations and a growing industry of consumer-oriented audio equipment. For succinct insight into this dynamic, let’s refer to the pre-dialogue context in Chuck Klosterman’s GQ interview with “the second- or the third-best rock guitarist of all time”—Zinc Blimp legend Jumbo Page.
The only thing Page really wants to talk about [is] the sound of the music, and how that sound was achieved. He can talk about microphone placement for a very, very long time. Are you interested in having a detailed conversation about how the glue used with magnetic audiotape was altered in the late 1970s, subsequently leading to the disintegration of countless master tapes? If so, locate Jimmy Page. If a different musician obsessed over technological details with this level of exacting specificity, he would likely be classified as a “nerd,” as that has become a strange kind of compliment in the Internet age. People actually want to be seen as nerds. But that designation does not apply here. Jimmy Page does not seem remotely nerdy.
Bandcamp’s core architecture was handbuilt from the beginning to handle the “hard part” for creators “so that they didn’t have to be so nerdy,” which it, alone pioneered on the Web, becoming the best metadata management utility for all time, but also committing to a traditional interpretation of music mediums that can feel old fashioned in 2018. Despite having been around for a directly comparable length of time, SoundCloud has maintained its relevance among friends in my network as the more socially-focused platform for keeping up with work from their peers thanks in large part to its exclusive, timestamp-oriented comment function, which allows for ultra-specific shortform feedback between fellow creators and fans. This is how the company has chosen to grow its community, which has lent especially to its strength in the most “nerdy” independent scenes: hip-hop and electronic music. The experience is busy by design and the divide between listener and creator is next to non-existent—by now, the difference is universally irrelevant. External sharing has also become a major strength since the inception of SoundCloud’s Web audio player, which was unlike any other embeddable we’d ever seen at the time. Over the years, it’s become the most universally-supported means of embedding a track or playlist elsewhere, though the space has quite recently began blooming with a few much slimmer Open Web offshoots like Vocaroo, Clyp, and Instaudio.
While I can casually throw these names around for you in the same sized font, the gulfs between the properties they denote are completely inexpressible in words. Because Spotify went public in Q1 of this year, they released their first earnings report in April: 170 million active monthly users, $1.33 billion in total quarterly revenue, and $5.7-$6.2 billion in expected total revenue for 2018. I’ll spare you the entire Forbes piece it would require to comprehensively demonstrate just how cavernous of a disparity canyon the industry represents. Early projects like Pandora were docile, ad-free, and sincerely curious about the curatorial potential of music streaming services – *let’s use this cool new tech to play music for anybody with a Web browser if only because it’ll be a blast* – yet in that sense, they’ve all failed entirely. All except Bandcamp, anyway.
“We started as a service to help artists sell their music and merchandise directly to their fans, but then as the site grew—it’s now at about 12 million tracks and 1.5 million albums [as of 2014]—we evolved into also being a destination for music Discovery,” he explains, partially anticipating the foot-to-the-floor transition to streaming which has indeed shook the industry the hell up over the years since. The company's solution is minimal, elemental, yet uniquely alternative as only theirs could be: an idealized digital interpretation of a music collection, which had actually launched a year before XOXO as part of “Bandcamp for Fans.” That release notably introduced the ability to “follow” both artist and fan accounts, the now-iconic “supported-by” section on release pages showing customers’ avatars and optional comments, and public wishlists. “I think it’s great to use a streaming service for music Discovery—they can be really really good for that,” Diamond concedes, before reiterating one of the several variations of Bandcamp’s founding premise that composes his core argument: “if you actually care about music, and you care about the people who make it, and you want them to keep making it, the best way to do that is to buy directly from them, or to use services that allow you to directly support them.”
Instead of the “firehose”-like experience of a contemporary activity feed, “you’ve got a collection of albums and tracks that people were passionate enough to spend money on.” For my personal use, Ethan lit up a long-dormant incandescent bulb in my skull. My use of Bandcamp had long been to purchase and download music files, only—never to stream it—and there’s been good reason for this. While Bandcamp has formally supported playback on iPhone and iPad in-browser since July 2010, actually using it for any substantial amount of playback has always been a souring endeavor. Considering that it’s persisted to this day, we must concede that it is part of an intentional design rather than just an irritating flaw: multitasking between apps or even browser tabs will prevent continuous playback of an album, as will locking the device. In order to move from track to track fluidly, one must keep the page with the in-use Bandcamp player front and center. For three years, this was the only way to stream Bandcamp on mobile, but such capability was far from reliably expected by even the earliest adopters, then—3G data networks were worse than you remember, anyway—and then in 2013, the Bandcamp app was launched on iOS and Android, providing a sufficient fix in my book at the time. (I’d rather any externally-embedded players I may engage with in an album review or artist profile be limited to a single track, anyway.) However, the app itself remained quite mediocre for years, which was a tangible disappointment given how revolutionary their desktop experience had been when the company launched,but not necessarily a substantial deterrent to the sort of user they were attracting.
I made a point to spend a lot of time engaging with Bandcamp’s service as much as possible – naturally, this included a trip back through my neglected, digitally dusty Collection, which proved a way more emotionally provocative experience than I anticipated. Ethan’s simple truth didn’t really sink in until I realized that this list is made up exclusively of my real favorites, and there’s not a single track that is not inextricably and intoxicatingly tied to a specific era(s) of my life (yes, even that one Blank Banshee album... I was 18, okay?) It’s absurdly powerful—not something I could engage with for any extended time without becoming saturated with nostalgic gut stuff. (Listen for my upcoming special celebratory episode of Extratone Radio to hear the best music I’ve found through Bandcamp.) It hadn’t occurred to me that I would retain ownership and streaming rights to all music I’ve purchased—including for a $0.00 sum, as I did for at least half of the works you see—even after an artist chose to delete or hide it on their own page. (Though they are not retained in my public collection, of course.)
The Discovery Debacle
Pursuing an objective definition of “music Discovery” might appear foolish – an individual’s music taste is perhaps the most broadly angst-steeped realms of overwhelming subjectivity in modern American culture, after all – but its the pungent poignancy of our fundamental human relationship with sound, itself which makes the history of Discovery’s digitization so important (and fascinating.) If I were to ask you what you believe should be the single most important function that must be reliably performed by any “music Discovery” device – whether it be an application, Web service, magazine or even a crate-digging habit – the single factor which would render whole vague concept inert, irrelevant, and/or completely destroyed, how would you answer? How would you interpret the question?
It’s important we do well to take a considerable moment to cultivate a special wariness of the eggshells beneath our feet in this arena. Debatably at least a minim more than one’s taste in film, Americans from Generation X on forward until the end of time (I suspect) will hold “their” music as perhaps the most integral support upon which their identities are built throughout every stage of their lives. The intense sensation of ownership that propels this phenomenon within our culture leaves an especially sensitive passage ahead of us.
As a wide-eyed teenager and infantile audio producer, I explored the idea of anti-music in my own entirely Bandcamp-supported project while I searched – aided tremendously by my expert best friend – for the edgiest, least sensical sounds and scenes on which to publicly attach on my identity in an opposing of “Discovery’s” extremes with fandom: an obsessive, entirely-detached last-ditch skirmish between the cultural reality and my delusional pubescent need to be unique. This process appears to be a universal requisite in modern youth in one form or another, but it’s important now that I emphasize this confession: I was an especially ostentatious little backpacker fuck, but I’ve continued to find my shame well worth achieving a specific balance for music’s purpose in my life, and I’d anecdotally endorse its potential to relieve cognitive dissonance at great scale. There’s only so much fun to be had blasting breakcore cassettes at deafening, distorted volumes solely to bewilder rural overnight convenience store clerks on their smoke breaks in the wee hours or the bruteforce seizure of the speakers’ Bluetooth connection at a frat party just to play harsh noise or anime-sampling Hardstyle while demonically shrieking – eyes rolled back – and lighting various parts of oneself ablaze before one realizes that 1) it’s they who end up looking like the idiots for aggressively breaching a group’s fun with inappropriate tunes (yes, no matter how interesting, rare, or underrated they may be, Chadley;) 2) by ferally manifesting, you’ve deligitimized yourself, which 3) can seriously damage any future attempts to accomplish the fundamental drive to share the gospel of music’s variety out of your own rubish frustration with the differences between you.
The real, sweetest truth is that 100% of all music has value potential because of the medium’s broad influence on the human psyche. Pop music is amazing right now; the signature trap sound we devalued with Datpiff jokes made us all look like fools when it unconsciously transcended our “irony” and burrowed its own huge partition in our sincere hearts. After my pitiful attempt to reject and distance myself from my own rural roots by scoffing at country music for years, I’ve made a beautiful peace with the childhood memories and the historic excellence of Shania Twain and The Dixie Chicks in their mastery of both wholesome joy and crippling nostalgia (I’ve even cried to Taylor Swift.) Yes, it’s been entirely reasonable all along to enjoy the straightforwardly slothen pleasure in belching “Sweet Home Alabama” pounding cheap pissbeer on a foul pontoon boat on the Lake of the Ozarks, leaving my penultimate irony to confess that I’ve only found true and serene identity through music after learning how to stop insisting so violently upon the worldly, one-of-a-kind superiority of my “taste.”
That said, it’s still bewildering how content we are to abruptly abandon the substance music had to our teenage selves out of misconstrued justifications for our classic fainéance – actively choosing to subject our public ambiance to thousands of replays of “the best” records in favor of dipping even the most cowardly toe into unfamiliar waters, even when the opportunity cost is inherently halved – only to then have the audacity to evangelize our dilapidated conceptions of “good music” to our children as we demonize the music of their generation, depriving them of a very essential rite of their cognitive development. I can think of little more reductive, repugnant, reckless, or racist crusades as a model figure than indoctrinating your child with an inherent distaste for their own culture, and nothing more deeply alarming to hear from the mouth of someone born in the 21st century than shit like “Queen was better than any rapper will ever be,” or “real musicianship will die forever with Eric Clapton.” It’s unfair and unnatural: imagine if your high school classmates had consistently turned up their scrunched nose at the living whole of rock & roll, declaring Scott Joplin to be the last musician they could stand.
Consider if the industry-wide customer experience standard for the musical ambiance in 1970s American eating and drinking establishments was entirely comprised of works by John Phillip Souza, and the most prevalent cultural revolution manifested itself something like the following: In countless popular films set in the time (and the stories told today by your parents of their youths that informs them,) a group of popular high school boys – generally three longtime childhood friends and a single addition from the previous summer with an Army Dad and a moderate bad boy aura that’s made him one of the school’s notoriously attractive students and the somewhat-abusive leader in the pack. After spending some time trying to convince the other three (the crucial moment for his case being the bad kid’s rare moment of sincerity trope) of its guaranteed social, sexual and financial ROI, they seal their agreement to start a band with a four-way saliva slap. Imagine if in the progression of this exhausted old tale, it remained entirely classic (and boring) when it faded to a “THREE MONTHS LATER...” ceiling shot of the four the in full, gleaming, performance-spec get-up of the presidential marching band in their garage, and it was revealed that they’d they practiced “The Star Spangled Banner” every night just to make the girls swoon in the film’s resolution with an encore of “America the Beautiful” at an unsanctioned (and very patriotic!) house party.
Suffice it to say that it’s absolutely fucking bonkers how often I encounter “Sweet Home Alabama” (and other tunes I’ve already heard hundreds of times throughout the first third of my existence, conservatively) dripping down from the overhead speakers in all manner of big retail stores, where it’s inappropriate and unwelcome. Even from the generous assumption that every single one of them is an objective masterwork of composition, the amount of affection the American music listening audience has for the same 500 singles is on par with our rampant gun violence in terms of our unanimous tolerance for ridiculously illogical habits. I’ve been sitting in a cute, moderately trendy coffee shop on the corner of the major avenue of access to my cute, moderately trendy Portland neighborhood for an hour now, and I’ve recognized every single one of the tracks played just a bit too loudly on the stereo. I’ve been sick of them all since Middle School. That one Bow Bow Chicka Chicka thing… How very charming.
“The 70s, the 80s… the one-hit wonder channel!”
Contrary to the popular hipster narrative we’ve just defeated, it’s not the popularity of the lineup that makes these experiences so distasteful, but their regularity. It doesn’t take a doctor of psychology to observe that tireless exposure to any given work of art inevitably erodes its value, yet we continue to expend resources saturating most mundane spaces in our society with an unyielding regurgitation of the same brackish pop culture symbols as if we’re trying to either induce a canonical vomit, intentionally obliterate the Yelp! reviews for a distant future museum’s “North America Enters the 21st Century” exhibit, or both. After failing my best attempts to elaborate with historical analogy citing a past event, I’m afraid we must pivot to a science fiction-esque nanonarrative containing obnoxiously speculative hypotheticals, instead.
Imagine: It’s 2036 – four years after we found out we are not alone in the universe when a significantly more advanced civilization makes formal first contact with humanity by sending a party of diplomats, anthropologists, and explorers (who were actually getting ready to go in 2016 before getting word of the Trump presidency and deciding we weren’t quite ready just yet) who land their space egg right in front of the United Nations’ New York City headquarters and expressing something to the tune of hey so um… we noticed you guys moved in and we just wanted to stop by and say hi, entirely altering humanity’s self-perception and future trajectory (see: works by Gene Roddenberry) yadda yadda. The visitors expressed a wish to begin a cultural exchange project with us, and it’s just now coming to fruition… I have only moments ago made history in the eyes of the entire world when I walked through the front door of a Target store in suburban New Jersey leading a hovering hyper-intelligent silicon-based sphere of agender mist (roughly comparative to a basketball in size,) who’s already both impressing and shaming me tremendously as we move by the in-store Starbucks. From above us, Semisonic’s “Closing Time” is belched upon my life’s proudest moment and my guest requests we pause to discuss it, to my profound horror.
“The sound from the reproduction devices embedded above us...” the android translator trails off for a moment. “It is the same noise that was distantly reproduced 51 hours ago in ‘Miami’ as I conversed with Ambassador Phillip Defranco about ‘the setting sun’ on the ‘beach,’ coming from a small open air structure which he defined as ‘a surf shop,’ which was occupied by a young male who appeared to be moderately agitated, moving about in jagged strides as he wildly smacked the foundational surface with ‘a broom.’ The Ambassador explained the youth was likely nearing the end of his allotted period of daily occupational labor.”
Blood is flooding my cheeks as I listen with a building dread to the robot’s interpretation, awash with all manner of embarrassment for my species.
“Is the purpose of this noise reproduction of a logistical nature, or is it perhaps a common ritual within business and/or working class culture?”
Now, it’s your turn to be the human representative in this pico science fiction: you’re now obligated to confirm the alien anthropologist’s hypothesis and explain that “Closing Time” is but one piece of recorded music among billions of diverse expressive works across millennia. You must reverently describe how the “universal language” of math within melodious composition has long been a hefty buzzword in the pop culture conversations about interstellar communication and our longtime search for extraterrestrial intelligence from the future-thrilled 90s—S.E.T.I.’s glory days – when we felt pretty damned good about space. The historic launch of the United Nations’ “greetings on behalf of the people of our planet” etched into The Golden Record aboard Voyager I and Jodie Foster’s novel portrayal of a S.E.T.I. scientist in the iconic Carl Sagan-sourced 1997 science fiction drama Contact are among the globally-celebrated Best Hits of humanism (not to mention the organization listed on your paystubs,) and they weigh a billion tons on you, now—in the most significant moment of your entire life, bar none – as you explain on behalf of your species to real extraterrestrial intelligence the reality of how negligent it is actually is of the culture the Record claimed to treasure. The worst part, though? The entire experience is accompanied by a nasal-as-hell Semisonic soundtrack.
Aren’t you frustrated? You should be, but it’s not over yet: inevitably, your round fictional companion of note is going to follow up their query with some seriously burning meat.
“Just a half-generation ago, your utopian dream of a globally-connected world – in which everyone would be empowered to saturate and culture themselves with new ideas and forms of expression – was the defining aspiration of your society, and yet you’ve definitively achieved Total Connectivity, now, and caused the overwhelmingly opposite result: you’re all intolerable shitheads who every passing solar orbit become less and less capable of anything but regurgitation of the same foul bullshit. Y’all fucking wack. I’m out. ”
And there, that filthy little ball would have us all. Friends, colleagues, human siblings of mine, it’s long-past time we expect better from ourselves as music citizens of the world. Even the longest living of us are endowed with very little opportunity to absorb anything more than an infinitesimal fraction of all there is to experience, and we’ve all been carelessly and embarrassingly chucking it to the weeds. If it this all seems excessive, there’s no need to feel attacked, but for Pete’s sake… please stop claiming you “like music” because it’s misleadingly inaccurate and I’ll promise never to use the phrase “music citizens of the world” again, in exchange.
Distribution & Curation
You, your friends, and I are missing out on way too much cool shit and we’re going to continue addressing possible causes and solutions to this ongoing catastrophe without asking for a single moved finger on your part because we are fucking saints. Let’s come back to ground and consider a casual real-world use case for a streaming service which I’ve observed.
It’s just after 1PM on an especially beautiful Summer day in 2018, and you’ve decided with your two best friends that an impromptu hot dog barbecue in your little apartment’s parking lot would be a great way to spend the afternoon. You get on Facebook Messenger – no time to bother with the formality of creating an event – and begin to bother your group of art school friends. In a few hours, you’ve set up chairs in a circle around the borrowed fire pit, gathered meat tubes, marshmallows, and beer, and your guests have begun to arrive. The next step: retrieve your cordless Bluetooth speaker from inside to place it atop a log nearest the scene, re-pair it with your smartphone, and ___?
Let’s acknowledge that music has incredibly diverse purposes of value in human life—of course I realize this—and ultimately, nobody can dictate those fulfilled for another individual by any given track, album, artist, or genre across time and setting. Even splittercore-obsessed serial killers and body modding cybergrind disciples are doomed: inevitably, they will one day let their guard down and find themselves singing along with “Goodbye Earl” on the radio way off key, smiling like a doofus. Even if one hates humanity, they will eventually be forced to acknowledge that The Dixie Chicks came very close to its penultimate manifestation.
I understand that it’s not always time for something new for everyone, but you’re missing out on music’s most worthwhile function by far if you never seek anything fresh, and—if you still find yourself unwilling to bother, even—carrying around even the slightest bit of anecdotal knowledge about what’s going on in music with you can be invaluably culturing to your image when socializing with youths and alien intelligences, alike. There is a spectrum of enthusiasm (or pretentiousness, depending on one’s own subjectives) for music that is far more culturally consequential than the practice of partaking and/or patroning any other artform. Settle comfortably on any point – extreme or not – and you’re at serious risk of being uncool. Nobody wants Anthony Fantano showing up to their party, but if you live too long confusing the Beach Boys with the Beatles – as I have – folks start to behave as if there’s something wrong with you. If it helps, let’s suppose this to be the real reason behind my need to discuss Bandcamp – perhaps its relative lack of aged or worshiped-at-scale work justifies it all.
By this nature, its effort is designed to bracket the enthusiast as wholly as possible, but the value most in need of its experience has become its comparatively extravagant hospitality for the dabbler. The “Discoverinator” (I would’ve voted for calling it “Genre-Fucker”) is simply the most ingenious tool available anywhere to filter music by genre, subgenre, location, and medium. Or at least... It’s too gorgeous not to be. Thanks to its recent visual redesign, I don’t even care if it’s useful—it’s just a beautiful thing to play with on both the Web and the iOS app (though I’d bet they were each crafted separately.)
Front and center on the homepage is the Bandcamp Daily – a showcase of features, lists, albums of the day, and artist interviews from various staff and guest contributors which I’d most certainly judge befit of a standalone publication – and the Bandcamp Weekly – an extraordinarily-produced podcast like no other with special mixes, guest appearances, and commentary which the company’s Chief Curator Andrew Jervis has been honing since 2013 over 289 episodes as of this morning. Its player functions both in-browser and on the iOS app unlike any I’ve ever seen, with a list of embedded tracks that pop out when they’re actually spinning on the show so that you can engage further with them, if you wish. It’s difficult to describe, but it feels visually like you’re listening to a playlist in Bandcamp’s normal player, except tracks are intermixed and faded between one another beneath the host’s commentary, so the audio itself must be pre-rendered. Regardless, it’s nearly as extraordinary an achievement in Web design as the program itself is in curatorial music broadcasting. I’m no addict to the genre, but I have yet to Discover another similar product which I can binge episode after episode for hours without becoming bored or irritated as I can the Bandcamp Weekly’s.
To fill in the parking lot party blank with a single streaming solution for the sake of our young, art school-attending, likely more musically-literate than average summer barbecue guests—how viable is Bandcamp? Truthfully, it’s only slightly more suited now than it was in its earliest infancy for obediently filling a space with ambiance. We could ponder whether or not its design discourages absentminded playback only consequently, or perhaps condescendingly from the high, white tower of hipster elitism on which you’ll occasionally hear it accused of perching, but UX design is the most ridiculous sphere within which to intenspeculate in lieu of verification (gazing at you with the timeless grace of a thousand moons, Medium,) so lets hold off to seek out an interview with a Bandcamp representative.
SoundCloud would be a bit closer to the mark—it can be configured to simply keep going after you’ve finished a track, regardless of where you may be within the interface (excluding the embedded player, of course)—but it’d be much safer to spend the smidgen of extra time required to find a manmade playlist. Letting it loose will quickly land you on some seriously dubious (and probably embarrassing) nerd shit. As I understand it, YouTube has long been the go-to houseparty music player because of its universality, Chromecast support, and (obviously) visual component for accompanying music videos, so its new, ad-free YouTube Music service has a lot of potential, in theory, but we’re outside in this scenario and our smartphone is our only playback device.
Startlingly, the Web’s given best answer to this situation is still Spotify in all of its culture-diluting gluttony. Internet radio? Yikes. You can still find a gem of a stream every once in a while, but they’re usually unreliable and probably abandoned, so the catalog won’t last you more than a few hours before you’ll start to hear repeats. You could search out the internet stream of your favorite radio station—a student radio station, even—but those offering the most entertaining programming are unlikely to have a suitable playlist on a summer afternoon. So—forgetting its overwhelming financial funneling toward its top 10% and everything else for a moment—why not just give up the pretense and use Spotify? Again, for most of my friends, it works just fine to play Cat Stevens, Run DMC, Gorillaz or The Rolling Stones, but I have yet to figure out a combination of keywords to keep it on target within even the most rudimentary parameters. Such ill-restraint becomes especially dire—necessary, really—when I queue up “Cannibal Ox Radio” for the office and R Kelly ends up playing, 20 minutes in. Using personally-targeted artist bans is probably too subjective to ask of such a service in the spotlight, but how about an option to filter out white rappers? (I hope you didn’t blink because that’s by far my best contribution in tech writing yet.)
The truth is, I’d probably end up calling upon Apple Music as I’ve been an on-and-off subscriber since its release, but have yet to meet a single fellow user. The girth of its catalog is reportedly still nearly 25% larger, its UI is significantly more cohesively integrated with iOS (which hasn’t always been a given from Apple with its music software, mind you,) yet it costs me precisely the same $9.99 a month as Spotify Premium would. If I did know somebody else who used it, they’d be able to see my public profile including my playlists and activity, just as my followers on Spotify can, and I can create “Stations” for artists that function similarly to Spotify’s endless adaptive playlists, but—crucially, for myself—after the app’s redesign for iOS 10, the integration of Apple Music music with my own iTunes library is completely seamless. With unlimited data, I’ve selected the option to refrain from storing music locally, which further diminishes the distinction between “my” music and the music I’ve paid for the rights to stream. Fundamentally, the end result is that I pay ten bucks a month for “ownership” of all the music on iTunes proper.
While I might personally play Bandcamp Weekly episodes in such a context and gladly accept whatever results I’d get, I’d only do so acknowledging the subsequently increased risk of some vest-wearing fuck I’ve never met springing out of the bushes to accost me about Weird Allan. However, I am neither cool nor musically literate, which makes me particularly vulnerable to misusing algorithmic Discovery—the practice in which artificial intelligence has become most widely-deployed which continues to prove itself to better deserve the term “automated wallowing,” or “robotized ear rot.”
Ironically, Damon Krukowski’s aforementioned “responsibility” essay on Pitchfork openly cites Liz Pelly’s burning-hot and 100% essential analysis of algorithmically-generated playlists for The Baffler notes the publication’s own substantial relationship with Spotify, including a Webby Award-winning advertorial series called Inside Discovery, which the two collaborate to produce that’s “meant to boost awareness of the ‘Discover Weekly’ feature.”
The series shows Pitchfork editors (and favored musicians) gushing about their love of streaming—the immediacy! The deep back catalogs! One editor says it helps him keep track of his listening habits, while another rejoices at not having to dig through crates at record shops anymore. Yet another likens Spotify to walking around a music festival, discovering something new at every turn. What does it mean for “the most trusted voice in music” to celebrate an algorithm as preferable to its own crate digging? What does it mean when the tastemaking humans endorse data-driven machines? What does it mean when the algorithms become cool? Virtually every music publication now relies on Spotify media players to embed songs within online articles, and Websites like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone regularly celebrate their playlists with listicles: “Ten Albums To Stream Now.” “The Five Playlists You Need to Hear This Summer.”
We love bespoke Open Web projects, so exploring Inside Discovery’s (surely bespoke) experience induced the same pathetic sort of I wish business just incentived building nice things disappointment which has become my default, bitchy mood, and blaming as a further let down to immediately land on Mitski’s playlist, to whom I’d just been reintroduced (by Pitchfork, admittedly) after happening upon her performance at Pitchfork 2017 (which is organized, admittedly, by Pitchfork.)
Upon a brief review of these once-petty desires and the new, apocalyptic solutions which we are burning barns full of cash to develop, it would appear that the overwhelmingly defining feature of those which are at all viable remains to be the interference of a human being, and why wouldn’t it be, still, when manual music aggregation remains so desperately cheap? I’d wager heavily that there’s at least a single editor within Apple Music who’s spent serious time embedded in the Berlin techno scene considering how regularly the prime “Techno” playlist is updated with new work of a moderately-industrial bias.
“The downside to automated music Discovery is that we’re encouraged to develop a taste profile and stick to it,” opines somebody on Pigeons & Planes, complimenting Pelly in their profile of former BBC Radio 1 host, Zane Lowe, and his new job curating an Apple Music playlist?
The truth is, the stories that come to us that smell the strongest of philanthropy on the surface are often actually about some dusty, Y2K-lookin’-ass nerd with powerfully tedious grievances and too much time on their hands. The whole world knows the details by now of how Mark Zuckerberg’s horny social ineptitude led to Facebook’s conception, but we must both keep in check the bad habit we share – the whole present-day reading world and I, that is – of dwelling entirely too much on the most “negative,” soul-agitating tales in what we perceive to be the pursuit of necessary ingredients for concocting a better solution. Bandcamp’s story is predominantly comprised of smart decisions, sincere transparency, and savvy ideas which are best examined in contrast, I’m afraid, with all that’s being done wrong everywhere else.
Are my favorite punk bands now Bandcamp bands? Are they suddenly wanting to conform to a kind of Bandcamp aesthetic? I don’t think so. Not yet. But if that does happen, something might be lost — a sense of these bands defining themselves as they want to, which is sort of the Bandcamp promise in the first place. People can use help navigating the riches of Bandcamp. But its estimable editorial project opens an interesting question: When does help turn into tastemaking?
You missed it, didn’t you—the ten-year anniversary of Bandcamp’s launch? Ashamed, I realized last month that I did, too. Ashamed, because I owe a lot to to the platform’s unwavering commitment to the distribution and curation of work made by just about all of my favorite artists—within and outside of my social network. Throughout 2015, I hosted a number of conversations with exceptional, future-looking creators on Drycast which I am especially proud of. On one early episode with an exceptional total of seven music makers, I observed in a beat that “all of us have Bandcamp accounts,” before the week’s guest, Samantha Carter, suggested that she’d found her page especially financially rewarding, and originated the concept of the “Bandcamp Sugar Daddy” (which I personally ship 100%.)
“It's something I take for granted,” said my friend yzome – a truly one-of-a-kind electronic producer who’s far-traveling composition is probably the closest Digital Audio Workstation equivalent of Extreme Use Testing—when automotive manufacturers effectively torture new prototypes with the most inhospitable conditions on Earth until they break. However, it’s not a PR stunt in yzome’s case—he’s just very good at doing what he does after doing it for nearly 10 years—and his end product requires a hell of a lot more than any one genre would ever presume, but it more than delivers back on the investment with significant interest.
When he appeared on Drycast in January 2015, we failed to achieve any descriptors more sophisticated than “alien sounds,” but perhaps that’s all they need: the inner worlds into which yzome invites us are of manic, unpredictable arrhythmia which poses an unapologetic, yet magically lighthearted challenge to any cohesive theory. It’s very rare that his proudly-ungenreable exploration of the fringes does not demand the listener’s full attention, yet it always manages to be inoffensively aggressive like nothing else, which suggesting promise for the possible upheaval of a long-upheld natural law among electronic dance music: yzome doesn’t need to be a shithead to challenge the listener intellectually.
Play YVETTE for any boomer you know with that classically impenetrable disgust for all electronic music, and you’ll witness firsthand how special yzome’s particular innovation truly is. No, they’re not going to be sexually liberated, or anything—it’s still going to be alarming—but you’ll notice that the swift and overwhelming fury which sample and break-heavy dance music has always awoken within them has been miraculously circumvented. Instead of immediately storming off, they’ll be paralyzed in an existential fugue state from which they may never quite fully emerge. I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s witchcraft.
There is no other across the (especially-wide) electronic spectrum who can so loudly go so far, so fast without any insincerity, whatsoever. His arrangement seems mischievous and all over the place, but really listen and you’ll hear rips of recognizable patterns playing peekaboo in willy-nilly bursts that reveal his dynamic mastery of the dance music space through Breakcore, Juke, Footwork, and Techno sampling. All of this is to say, really, that yzome’s music represents a level of boundary-pushing which only a niche audience tends to truly appreciate, yet is undoubtedly worthy of an elegantly-presented host like Bandcamp.
“Like thank god I don't have to look for a label to release this. It's seen as a legitimate platform (by people who might actually care about what I’m doing, at least,) which I think is less offputting than uploading things to Mediafire or whatever else. It’s populist and boutique at the same time.”
Populist, yet boutique. Can we really be expected to exceed this summation? Well, nobody’s said much at all in the mainstream press, but what has been said is 1) unusually misplaced in the spaces of those least likely to find it relevant and 2) way more insightful than you’d expect.
“Bandcamp has an independent-artist identity because of practicalities: Independent artists from Web-centered subcultures need it most,” observed an especially savvy online aside from by Ben Ratliff—jazz and pop critic for The New York Times—asking “Is Bandcamp the Holy Grail of Online Record Stores?” So why aren’t we talking about it? The other important takeaway: founder Ethan Diamond told Ratliff that “the company has never spent money on promotion.” This is largely why I’ve invested so much time and affection into this piece—gratitude is not often sellable incentive for mainstream coverage.
The truth is, the continued obscurity of Bandcamp’s story despite all it’s done comes down not to any malpractice by the company (in fact, it would likely be more visible had it fucked up more,) or even to its prevalence in the careers of big industry names (whom I will address in detail shortly,) but because it simply operates too magnanimously for its customers to be taken seriously as a newsworthy business, which is problematic and personally infuriating. In November, 2015, Bandcamp made mention in The New Yorker via the openly diminutive context of Car Seat Headrest’sorigin story, describing it as “a charming alternative,” and “a casual, low-risk approach.” Granted, it’s worth noting that the platform did not address its lack of “editorial guidance” until a year later, with the launch of the excellent Bandcamp Daily blog, but I think you’ll agree it’s in poor taste to argue against the legitimacy of a music distribution platform because it’s too democratic. Perhaps it’s still just beyond reasonable expectations to get a top-of-the-foodchain music writer’s head wrapped around the idea that such products on The Internet can easily—even optimally—service both hobbyists and professionals.
Last year, Bandcamp was responsible for $270 million in payments to artists like Jlin,the genius commonly associated with Footwork (certainly Chicago’s most underreported and popularly underrepresented movement,) for pushing its expressive boundaries both in theory and geography further than any other, and who’s so far produced two of the most “aggressively beautiful” records you’ll find anywhere in the process.[i] Type her name into any search engine and her Bandcamp page is always the first result, yet Cntrl-Fing for “Bandcamp” will yield 0 results from her interviews with The Fader, FACT Magazine, Pitchfork, The Seventh Hex, Passion of the Weiss, PopMatters, Crack Magazine, DUMMY, The Guardian, The Quietus, BOMB Magazine, Ableton Blog, The Creative Independent, Rolling Stone, SPIN, No Fear of Pop, self-titled magazine, Circulation Magazine, The New Yorker, Cyclic Defrost, Mixmag, or melting bot, and only one in Interview Magazine. To be clear: I am not arguing that Jlin—a black female music artist—should be profusely thanking Bandcamp—a service founded largely by white male programmers—for hosting her most visible page but rather that the more independent of these publications, especially, should mention its role in her story or—at the very least—be hyperlinking to her Bandcamp page first, for both her’s and their readers’ sake—Bandcamp’s cut of album purchases is half of iTunes. From the user experience perspective, it’s absurd that those of these pages including embedded music players chose to use SoundCloud’s—which is more resource heavy (yet of noticeably lesser streaming playback quality) and visually disruptive—instead of Bandcamp’s.
Free Bandcamp Account
Uploads: quantity unlimited, size of each file limited to 291mb.
Distribution: unlimited streaming, up to 200 free downloads per month.
Free SoundCloud Account
Uploads: total of 3 hours uploaded at any given time.
Distribution: unlimited streaming, unlimited downloads.
Both offer access “basic” statistics for their tracks at this tier which most of the creators I know consider more than enough—the usefulness of any playback/download stats is negligible when you’re publishing within tight niches—and each has had about 5 years to fine-tune their free offerings so that they feel as complete as possible. If you’re planning on publishing a podcast on SoundCloud, you’re obviously going to have to upgrade your upload limit even beyond Pro ($8/month, 6-hour upload limit) to Pro Unlimited ($16/month, unlimited uploads,) though I would suggest a plethora of alternative methods before you got that far. Unfortunately, they would not include a free Bandcamp account. While there arepodcasts on Bandcamp, they’re completely separate the platform’s aspirations and without support for the basic requirements of podcast distribution (namely, RSS feeds.)
Bandcamp’s Pro option is $10 a month and includes a custom domain, batch file uploading, private streaming (for press and/or fans) plus the ability to disable free streaming (requiring listeners to actually buy the music to enable any playback,) ad-free video hosting (which nobody uses, to my knowledge,) extended fan interaction tools, and a broader statistics suite that includes Google Analytics support. SoundCloud’s Pro and Pro Unlimited options are complimentary, but a full-time independent artist could justify maintaining Pro accounts on both services or neither—one does not necessarily replace the other, but the contrast in their chosen presentations has led to a divide in the cultures of the two communities so stark it could be a punchline and/or simplified to say that SoundCloud is for rap and Bandcamp is not.
It’s not entirely shocking, then, that SoundCloud’s story has been more present in the greater conversation than Bandcamp’s. Frankly, its largest issues are directly related: compared to SoundCloud, Bandcamp’s community is White As Fuck (a claim I can only make on behalf of my own observations and those which a select few creators have seen fit to express to me over the years, considering that the company has yet to release any demographic information about its creators) which is a glaringly fundamental obstruction to the project’s broader mission to help music culture “thrive.”
From a future historian’s perspective, the battle for the definitive name in independent digital music distribution has already won, largely thanks to its relationship with Chance The Rapper, who’s quickly become a “cultural influencer, thought leader, global star,” and one of my generation’s upmost celebrity champions. Obviously, there is little sense trying to determine whether SoundCloud earned his partnership or landed their popular association with his name as long as the artist maintains it publicly, while continuing to give new meaning to the phrase “serially likable.” Thus far, his mythical power to exude purity has felt virtually 100% airtight Last year, his second album Coloring Book made history when it won the first streaming-only Grammy for Best Album. In my personal favorite moment in recent popular culture memory, the fashionable-as-hell young man accepted the accolade by looking the whole industry establishment in the face and proclaiming “this is for every indie artist—everybody who’s been doin’ this mixtape shhhh...tuff for a long ass time... shouts out to every independent artist out there; shouts out to SoundCloud for holding me down.” Obviously, such significant, sentimental, and sincere sentiments are never expressed about tech companies by beloved darlings of the art world like Chance—especially not for Earth-encompassing awards show audiences.
After last year’s massive layoff, it was Chance’s assurances that “SoundCloud is here to stay” which the public took to heart. Even if the company is destined to fail within the next year (it appears to be as yet missing much of a verdict,) and it’s all still destined to fold at any moment, at least it’ll have the distinct pride of doing so having maintained his publicly-expressed respect and confidence, which is a damned fine legacy in my book. Meanwhile, Bandcamp has only made a few small tweaks to its basic infrastructure, and added new features very deliberately, which haven’t resulted in a single memorable controversy. Aside from Amanda Palmer, perhaps, there has never been a single band or artist who’ve been known as “from Bandcamp,” leaving our only pitch to be something like Independent Online Music Platform on Track to Complete 10th Year Serving Small-Time Artists, Continues to Look Pretty Good.
Considering the significance of these contributions, it’s of a special wonder that they were made not by a non-profit organization, academic movement, or government endowment, but by a for-profit, California-based tech company that’s continued to thrive and innovate great content, entirely apart from mainstream coverage.
It might seem a bit much on the surface, but in many ways, Bandcamp has spent the past 10 years showing us what a for-profit, Web-based, culturally-edging independent platform Can be, even in the Valley.
Though Bandcamp has embarked upon unusually sparse explanation of its editorial directive in the Daily blog and Weekly podcast, but regularly consume either for any length of time, and you’ll notice a particular savvy for Discovering technically-progressive Afrocentric projects: “Black Experimental Music.”
On last week’s episode of the excellent New York Times podcast Still Processing, co-host Jena Wortham “I’m thinking a lot about ways in which new culture, new cultural products, new cultural creators come to light in ways that sidestep these traditional means and don’t have to go through the traditionally very white, very male, very cis, very hetero hoops to prove worthiness.”
So, our greatest hope for the decentralization of the music industry in the 1990s ended up transforming before us to become the most effectively divisive Discovery barrier ever known to man because of its psychological influence sub-threshold at unprecedented scale over time, in parallel with so many other like horrific monstrosities we’ve discovered in anguish to be mutants of those final salvations from our atrocious history which we’d been so relieved to believe in. Surely, the turn of the millennia was destined to be our final turning point – the moment we’d finally use our new technology to discover a truth (or maybe just a really good clue,) that’d immediately unite our species in a deafening, worldwide aha moment when it would reveal a general abstract of whatever the fuck our deal was that was preventing our silent, dutiful, and 100% harmonious collective effort toward a utopia like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s, in which anyone is absolutely free of obligation or desperation from birth to pursue… whatever with their time.
I’ve never understood why I never see anyone making use of the vast catalogue of nearly 140,000 standard Unicode symbols available in their social media posts, metadata, or word art. Like replacing standard bullets in our weekly newsletter with ◎ (U+25CE,) — probably my all-time favorite, or using strings of four characters for intro, ad, and station identification spots on Extratone Radio. (☉☉☉☉, for instance.) I’d like to think these uses make their experiences feel just a bit more unique to users — if only unconsciously — but I’d long wondered if I was in fact the last Unicode enthusiast alive.
The development of Jordan Hipwell’s UniChar for iOS would suggest otherwise. Its app store page describes it as “a powerful yet beautiful Unicode symbol selection app and keyboard,” and its generic webpage appears to have testimonials including a real post on the Web Site lifehacker.
UniChar is a third-party iOS keyboard that unlocks the wide wide world of weird Unicode characters. Service marks, copyright logos, mathematical symbols, technical signs like Apple’s “splat” icon or radioactivity indicators, and more are available in the standalone app as well as the keyboard add-on you can use wherever you need to type something.
Wow! I can’t believe I’d pull-quote lifehacker anywhere, but here is an iOS app that actually addresses a regular issue of my own in a beautiful and intuitive way. I actually cannot remember the last time this happened — you’d have to give me a list and a comprehensive refresher of all the ways I’ve used my iPhones in the past ten years.
Contrary to what may seem obvious, UniChar’s character selector is by far the more intuitive and efficient of these two separate ways to use it. Even in the free experience, there are simply too manycharacters in the catalog to reasonably browse in iOS’ old extended keyboard. (For the record, I’d like to note that UniChar is technically a “Reference Application,” but I understand if you can’t bring yourself to use the term.) Across both the seamlessly-interchangeable gallery and list views, the user can very quickly copy a character to the clipboard with 3D Touch, which works so well it’s as if it were meant only for this use from its beginning.
In the off chance you’re a longtime lover and devout user of the grander Unicode collection and an iOS user, I hope you’re now experiencing the same sort of petty enthusiasm I felt myself when I discovered it. If not, I hope you’ll take away a desire to explore it. I mean… aren’t these smileys way better than any emoji? ☺☺☺☺
Despite a handful of reports of crashing issues in App Store reviews, Unichar has continued to perform admirably for me. I ended up spending $2.99 to unlock the full Unicharacter keyboard as the tremendous value of that number for the time and effort it would save myself would be more than worth it. (Actually, it’s thanks to Redbubble for sending me the first truly usable Inter net Money I’ve had to actually spend on any apps and/or services in fucking forever, but you know.) After all this time, I’m still giddy that someone else on Earth values these hieroglyphs as much as I do, and that they knew enough to manifest the perfect software to preserve them.
The recent history of the software and services we use to retain text, and how their development affects our behavior on the page.
I have only once in my many using years been gripped by the fear of the Lord because of a software-related event. I was cruising my pitifully ugly Google News feed on an October afternoon in 2015 looking for the last little bit of material for the evening’s episode of Drycast, when I happened to spy the words “Evernote is in Serious Trouble.” I doubt I screamed or anything, but I definitely remember experiencing a very real, full-body shot of adrenaline because my entire creative life was contained at the time within the nearly 40,000 notes I’d amassed on my Evernote account since the service’s open beta in 2008. In fact, I was in that very moment using it for the live show notes and so began to wonder how I could possibly continue if Evernote were to be suddenly killed dead. For better or worse, though, the “unicorn” would indeed survive to see its tenth birthday this year, though it’s arguably been eclipsed by the notetaking, journaling, and word processing services its features predated and for which it was the most significant forerunner not so long ago.
I’d been using the cloud-synced notetaking service for all of my composition and research gathering since Junior High, when I thought myself extremely clever with my cloud-syncing, iPhone-native notetaking app when I’d watch other students struggling to find a flash drive or log in to their email on school library computers. Since it worked with any browser and my password was memorable (before the brute force apocalypse and the need for password managers,) I could access my documents, mp3s, and images from anywhere, which was actually a pretty big deal — especially as more research and notetaking was required in high school.
Yes, 10 years later, we are swamped with infinite duplicates of documents from our personal clouds, which are now inescapable and plenty — they follow us around from our pockets, purses, and backpacks and rain notifications down upon us for single punctuation mark peer edits, unnoticeable modification conflicts, or sometimes just for the hell of it. There are now what seems like infinitely many available ways to enter, edit, and publish text from wherever you happen to be, and most of them are free, but very few are actually pleasantly executed tools — all of which can all be said of most types of software now. Since tech publications (and even tech bloggers now,) aren’t doing software reviews anymore because you won’t click on them, the task of comparing between the lot so that you might be spared having to mess around with all of them to find out for yourself — the function of consumer journalism — has fallen to myself, alone because the Fear of The Unclicked is not known to me.
To assist me in bearing this terrible burden, you can allocate 1–3 minutes to take the survey I created about the text-entry tools you use to determine which tools people use at different points in their writing process and across several uses. It would be very much appreciated.
Reading this via printed PDF, your hypothetical 100% offline grandmother — the successful children’s book author who needs word processing but doesn’t require connectivity because she doesn’t do research or correspond with anyone — might ask well whatever was the matter with Microsoft Word? Surely I don’t need more than that! Technically, she’d be correct in a major sense: Word has been able to sync via Microsoft OneDrive between PC or Mac with iOS or Android for a while now, but I wouldn’t vouch for the latter for any use other than reading or very lightly editing a document because the relationship between the mobile apps and their desktop counterparts is inevitably strained. Because Microsoft Word is such old software, it’s filled with some obscure functionalities I’m sure even its creators have forgotten. Over years and years of development, these tools have been stacked on top of one another so that actually mastering the labyrinth could be a college major in and of itself.
Basically, you can tell your grandmother that Microsoft Word is a huge old bitch, but it’s still the industry standard for formatting and publishing works at the end of the line. As you can see from our survey results, 58.1% of you use “legacy” word processing software to finish up your first drafts (as of May 30th,) which makes you more modern than even a slightly-older population, I’d wager.
While we’re on the subject of the old hag, it’s worth pointing out how ridiculously behind the times its open source “alternatives” are. OpenOffice’s last major update was the release of version 4.0 in July of 2013, and it’s not correctly scaled for the small, high-DPI displays sold at just about every price level, nowadays. It was okay when I couldn’t afford to pay for a license in high school (and saw no reason to,) but it now looks sort of awful, especially considering that the version of Office (and therefore Word) to which I’m comparing its screenshots is actually also from 2013.
The other, “fresher” open source option of the moment is called LibreOffice Writer, and its suite has been attracting a fair amount of praise — I think “every bit as good [as Word]” is taking things a bit far, but its sixth version looks significantly better than OpenOffice on my machine, at least, and generally operates more smoothly as well. That age-old banner of Open Source won’t matter for much longer, though, if all kinds of software continue to be abandoned and substituted with Progressive Web Apps for no damned reason. Considering how much time some of us have already spent in front of Word, it’s no wonder we’re spoiled: even my 5-year-old edition of Microsoft Office syncs with the app on my iPhone (with some pleading,) and looks extremely crisp. As far as paid featured desktop-class alternatives, there’s just one more: WordPerfect, which I have never used or heard anyone else mention.
When it was conceived, Evernote pioneered the recipe that now serves as the foundation of the feature development in today’s notetaking and journaling applications, as evidenced by CEO Phil Libin’s unapologetic use of the term “life-logging” in 2009, which sounds bizarre in retrospect because we’re now well-accustomed to easily “snapping geotagged photos” (smartphones had always included location data in their photo files’ meta, but Evernote was the first app to give a user access to the data on their device,) “making voice notes,” or and organizing text notes via advanced categorization and metadata-enabled searchability. These features are essentials in the apps you could accurately describe as “life-loggers” available for download now. Snapchat’s “Memories” especially come to mind, and I’ve long argued that we should blame (or praise) Evernote for beginning the era of eternal memory.
In contrast with Evernote’s relatively busy design, DayOne has been the best-looking app of any kind on iOS for years. It shipped with the same sort of extensive categorization, but it’s only ever been available on iOS, Android, and OSX — probably because Windows simply doesn’t look good enough. Should you wish, it will add detailed metadata from the moment you begin each journal entry including precise-ish GPS coordinates, an overview of your location’s weather at the time, whether or not you were moving, what song you were listening to, and your step count for the day (now from the Health app.) You have the option of viewing your journal chronologically, by location on a map, or in a social-esque activity feed, and yes — its search function can be filtered by any of these datapoints.
In 2015, Bloom added iCloud syncing and multiple journals, further closing the functionality gap between the two apps on paper, yet plenty of users continue to tether between the two using IFTTT (including myself for all my Twitter favorites, just to compare.) Within the somewhat forgotten niche of the “life-logging” utility, DayOne is superior and serves well the self-obsessed user who find the little details of their life to be extremely interesting. Last Spring, they introduced the option to purchase a stylized physical book of a user’s journal from within the app. As it is currently priced, the 2,674-page book I previewed today containing every single Tweet I’ve favorited in the past 5 years displayed in a delicately-formatted layout would set me back over $365, and would have to be split into 5 separate books (as per the maximum of 400 pages each.) Since I find my life very interesting, I’ve made a note to myself to proceed if/when I ever have that sort of money to throw around.
For the 67.7% of you who use digital notetaking or word processing software when you “want to remember something,” DayOne is the best option available because of its search function and satisfaction-of-use. Though Evernote was once the only app that could “handle everything everything in your head,” it’s a different experience entirely — tailored for work applications, if anything, since DayOne’s growth spurt. The company, itself hasn’t exactly been managed cleanly, either with layouts in 2015 and a privacy scandal in 2016, but then again, what billion-dollar company doesn’t have its controversies?
Despite having imported my huge catalog of Evernote entries into DayOne, the former often gets stuck, and it’s retained the most irritating habit of all the software mentioned in this column. Because synced entries in Evernote are not live-updated like those in Google Docs or Dropbox Paper, it’s possible to modify or add to a note on one device while it’s open (and static) on another, which is addressed by either duplicating the most recent entry and filing it in the default “Conflicting Changes” folder, or pasting the duplicate of the entire contents above the “old” content in the note, separated by a horizontal line. I’ve yet to figure out the behavior that triggers which fix, but I don’t particularly care — I’ve decided to restrict my Evernote use to my desktop, absolutely. If I haven’t articulated it well enough for you to form a visual, just trust me: it’s very, very annoying, and it should’ve been addressed years ago.
It was my stepfather who told me about Evernote and signed me up for that beta. Both of us were then the sort of people who experienced extreme satisfaction in archiving and categorizing stuff (which is probably the most straightforward way to define nerd,) but he was especially and absolutely enthralled with its Web Clipper function, which allowed the user to save webpages with “context” — both the metadata (source URL, date) and contents in “the text, images, and links” via their Firefox extension, which was revolutionary from our perspective, and certainly beat the hell out of stuffed, ugly bookmark folders or printed-to-pdfs. However, Web 2.0 was a younger, then and significantly more lithe — the average web page is now 10 times larger (disclosure: “average web page” is a somewhat misleading term, though I think we can probably agree that it’s too fucking big, regardless,) and it’s long past time for us to accept that this technology is no longer a reasonable solution to saved images.
Though development on the Web Clipper appears to have continued — it’s now on Version 7.something — the vast majority of the pages you’d want to save on the web (except for Linkedin, apparently,) show Evernote’s age as it attempts to clip them — often taking several minutes to yield the product, which is always broken as hell. Don’t take my word for it, though: another one of Evernote’s less-discussed features technically makes it a publishing platform because I can share a note from my account with you, the world, via this public link. It’s a clip I took a year ago of Wired’s profile of Jad Abumrad, and you’ll notice that it isn’t completely unreadable, but it is ugly and broken. Even after last year’s update, it’s still clumsy, slow, and virtually unusable without a stellar data connection.
Archive obsessives, I know that Evernote could have become part of your system and over time, you may have built a gargantuan library within it — the perfection of your tagging system’s efficiency and your categorical format’s consistency making it such a treasure that you might think of it in times of duress to calm yourself. I’ve allowed myself to continue using it exclusively for notes in my novel project, so I do understand that it may represent tens of thousands of hours of your time and that losing it would cause you tremendous grief, but… it’s time to let go and better your life by exploring the selection of alternatives and their superior capabilities.
I could cite plenty of pseudoidealistic reasons to never use Google Chrome, Google Docs, Google Keep, or any other Google product, really, mostly because they all look like shit, their browser is swallowing the internet, (along with their “accelerated mobile pages” project,) and just about everything the company was built on — along with what they plan for the future — is completely (and sometimes even explicitly) opposed to The Open Web, good design, and humanity as a whole. However, I fully realize that idealism doesn’t mean shit when you’re just trying to get the job done, so let’s talk about Keep and Docs.
Google Keep is part notetaking service and part streamlined, modernized, hassle-free execution of Evernote’s Web Clipper. If you’re already using Chrome or you’re desperate enough for the ability to clip web pages without switching windows for whatever reason that you’d change your browsing habits entirely, you can add its extension to the top task bar — right next to Evernote’s — and use it any time you feel that old archivist itch. The extension will very quickly and smoothly clip the title and URL, along with whatever of your own text/tags you feel like using, but it will not attempt to capture any of the web page’s content (Google already has it somewhere, anyway.)
Like all of its kin, Google Keep is particularly savvy with integration: you can immediately send your clip to a Google Doc, set a reminder, add a collaborator and even draw on any entry. Its party piece in this Tactile Era of touch-enabled laptops and keyboard-equipped tablets is its ability to digitize handwriting or “grab image text,” a novelty technology called Optical Character Recognition, which has been tickling our most stale fantasies for centuries, now. Though I’m sure it’s genuinely appreciated in a handful of especially quaint use cases, somewhere in the world, there’s never going to be an at-scale application for this sort of thing. I know my handwriting is bad, but if Keep can’t “grab” it reliably, there’s not much sense in using it at all for me, though Google’s Academy for Young Algorithms will certainly make sure to save every one of my motions to capitalize on my time (or yours.)
Microsoft OneNote is as clunky, busy, and buggy as Google Keep is quick and uninspiring, but that’s probably because it’s much much older than I remember. To demonstrate its web clipping function, I clipped the OneNote portion of PCMagazine’s Microsoft Office 2003 review and exported it into a PDF, which isn’t a straightforward process, but is it useful? No. Because it’s a PDF, it’s almost unreadably low-resolution, yet manages to weigh 1.2 MB. My (cropped) Vivaldi capture of the same page is 988 kB and nearly impossible to tell apart from the live experience, so why are we bothering with OneNote at all? Well, according to Preston Gralla for ComputerWorld (the last tech site still publishing worthwhile software reviews):
It bristles with note-creation tools for drawing, recording audio and video, scanning images, embedding spreadsheets and reviewing the edits of others (although the abilities of those tools differ somewhat depending on the platform). In fact, its note-creation tools are more comprehensive than Evernote’s.
And we begin to see OneNote’s place as the feature-heavyweight of synced notetaking applications.
The organization-minded will appreciate OneNote’s basic structure. You create individual notebooks; within each notebook, you can create section groups that contain multiple sections. Each section has individual pages, with each page a separate note. It’s ideal for organizing content with a logical structure.
Then again, dearest Preston goes on to express his adoration for Evernote Web Clipping shortly afterwards and he did so just last year, so I won’t really claim to know what’s going on with him (he’s a legacy tech journo.) In my experience with twenty-somethings and younger, the more committed an artist or writer is to their craft, the less interested they are in its tools, but it’s the young ones who need great tools the most before they’re able to settle on and pin down their process. There was only a single writer (3.2%) surveyed who answered “when I want to DIGITALLY record something to remember, I use…” with “the ‘compose’ function (to publish immediately and/or save for later as a draft) of a web-based text sharing service (Twitter, Tumblr, Medium, WordPress, Facebook, etc.),” and one other answered “another text-entry field on my device where it will be saved for later,” which four users (13.3%) said they use to “Brainstorm” digitally.
By Question Set 3, the two alternative answers were dropped and for “Outlining” digitally, 45.2% of surveyees use legacy word processors, 35.5% use cloud-based notetaking apps, and 19.4% use the default notetaking program installed on their device. In omitting alternative options earlier and including web-native CMS editors later, I inevitably shepherded answers within a moderately-wide berth of where my own assumptions would lead their process. It’s interesting that for the last prompt, “to make the last modifications to my final draft, I…” a whole 35.5% reported they would still be using a cloud-based service instead of a legacy word processor (58.1%) or CMS editor (6.5%), which would suggest that the functionality of these new e-enabled methods of composition has become truly important, indeed.
Though it’s not necessarily unreasonable, it astounds me to consider how many Online users actually compose original drafts of huge works exclusively within publishing and blogging services like Medium, Tumblr, or Reddit, even. We currently cohabitate a literary sphere with impossibly massive works of fanfiction that far surpass anything God or The Classics established in the past, and it’s a wonder how many sour habits have crept into the writing world as a result. For the sake of the experiment (and my own education,) I posted some of my recent work on Medium and found its composition UI much improved from what I remember and comparable in many ways to those of more recent dedicated document editing/notetaking services, but there’s still whole set of abstract, less-than-technical reasons not to publish on Medium, much less compose there.
As for Tumblr and Reddit, I’m afraid I’ve never been capable of truly understanding either, but I did blog extensively about cars for the first time 5–6 years ago on the former when it was one of significantly fewer fee-free options for digital publishing, and even then the experience was already casting doubt on the true necessity and existence of blogging platforms like WordPress — especially for web development-abhorring peons like I was at the time. Now, its iOS app is gorgeous, and its editor has ended up rock-solid and surprisingly versatile, yet the state of its community, also, leaves one with little reason to publish aside from a sortof isolationist desire to contribute to the community itself, for Tumblr’s sake.
This is where WordPress should outshine everything else as a pure, open-source Content Management System for any and every use by any and every folk with server space, so I thought I’d try out my own fresh, ultra-connected install to see how its experience has changed. In word processing terms, its iOS and Windows clients are lightyears ahead of where they were a few years ago, but to take full advantage of them, one must allow WordPress’ own software access that’s not Open Web at all. For light, minimalist personal blogs, a WordPress site offers much more control over one’s intellectual property than Medium or Tumblr, but it’s also significantly less independent than it once was. A quick inspection of my little experiment reveals that 5 out of its 6 content sources are from Google or WordPress properties, leaving only one for my actual server. This means I can accomplish a lot using just their apps, and my work will be distributed among “billions of posts” across WordPress dot com (to be found by absolutely nobody, I suspect,) but the post editor within the CMS itself has never functioned quite so versatility as it does right now. And yet, neither WordPress nor any of the software I’ve covered thus far achieve much progress toward an ideal, comprehensive word processing solution.
That’s why I’d like to talk about Dropbox Paper, which has been my own browser’s homepage and primary text editor since its public beta went live in August of 2016, and it’s very hard not to dote on considering that it is definitively the single most useful software addition in my whole computing life. It’s a live-updating exclusively web-based (for now) service with an emphasis on collaboration, just like the industry-standard monstrosity that is Google Docs, but it’s been designed from the ground-up to perform best the operations you need most from a word processor in 2018, which doesn’t include advanced layouts, fine-adjustable paragraph and/or letter spacing, Excel integration, or voice dictation, but simply… typing and re-reading and editing. You’d be surprised what a handy productivity catalyst can become of a simple white, live-updating space without distraction available no matter where you are or what device you’re in reach of.
Virtually all of my “process” is now conducted within Paper, and I’ve never before experienced such an unconscious assimilation of use. I write about software because I’ve used a lot of it and I’ve been able to count on my ability to find fundamental mistakes/designed ignorance in most everything. Dropbox Paper, however, is so keenly perfect for my own needs that I slipped unconsciously into total, daily dependence upon it without noticing the transition at all, which has never, ever happened before. Notes can begin from blank Text/Title fields to Brainstorming, Meeting Notes, and Project Overview templates. In April, the team introduced the ability to “templatize” any document, which I’ve yet to explore but will no doubt make full use of for show notes when Futureland is revived. There are also Evernote templates, yes, but you cannot create your own, and downloading them is an unnecessary pain in the ass.
Landing on the root, you’ll see Folders, Starred Folders, Starred Entries, and Shared Documents all displayed chronologically by modification date. Instead of tags, categories, or “notebooks,” Dropbox Paper’s folders are its singular method of categorization, and they are astoundingly sufficient, even when editing multiple documents simultaneously or digging through professional and personal entries within a single account — all thanks to its search function, which is super-swift and superior to any other service because of its profound simplicity. It’s one of many experiences which laughably shame past efforts in the design of these tools: without any customizable search filters or metadata and by sifting only through title, content, and author, any note in Paper can be found instantly no matter how dated or obscure. I doubt I’ve yet to top 1000 entries quite yet (there’s no easy way to count, and why should there be, really,) but on several occasions I’ve found years-untouched, untitled documents within seconds — a process which has never been brisk or convenient in Evernote.
Though Dropbox Paper wasn’t necessarily designed for composing 5000+-word longform, it’s by far the best tool for the vast majority of the pre-publishing process (to a reasonable extent, of course — I wouldn’t use it for a screenplay or novel manuscript.) It’s rare for me to utilize its mastery of collaboration, these days, but there’s frankly little reason to go anywhere else — including Google Docs — considering that Paper documents can be bound by the same viewing and editing permissions: by individual entry or folder, marking live modifications with clean, color-coded initials in the sidebar, by email or rogue URL for editing, commenting, and/or reading. (The comments interface is the best I’ve ever seen by a wide margin.) Users can be assigned and “pinged” for tasks using “@,” and it’s reasonable to assume that permissions won’t ever present an issue for my own use considering they haven’t already. To a limited extent, notes can be easily “published” via shared links yet remain editable in realtime, making Paper perfect for obscure-but-public reference documents like our style guide and redirects catalog.
From the onset of use, you’ll marvel at how fucking fast and smooth the in-browser experience is regardless of your device’s age or dimensions. Surprise surprise — the iOS app works just as smoothly and is laid out vaguely like a Twitter client. “Browse” — the chronological timeline of documents — occupies the leftmost bottom button as “Home” — the main timeline — does in Twitter’s app, and “Notifications” is likewise the same icon (practically) in the same position in both, and the items themselves are even grouped with rich card-looking content previews. Perhaps these nods to my Twitter muscle memory have contributed to my own unusual bias, but I suspect it shares components with a particular demographic of professional writers. As I understand the day-to-day activities of a feet-on-the-pavement reporter, Dropbox Paper is a necessity in a ridiculously all-encompassing sense. With its Slack integration, super high-usability design, collaborative modularity, ultra copy-and-paste-friendly text, smooth hyperlink behavior, light weight, and ultimate compatibility, it should be evangelized as a no-brainer option in journalism. Fuck a Bic & steno.
Web Clipping may be completely alien to its vocabulary, but you can drag and drop documents in just about any format for a beautifully-embedded preview. Conveniently, they won’t even count against your Dropbox upload quota: “Dropbox Paper doesn’t place a limit on the number of docs you can create, and includes unlimited version history regardless of the Dropbox plan you are on.” Naturally, this is subject to change in the future, but I’m 95% positive that Paper has yet to refuse any of my uploads because of their size or format, and many of mine are extraordinarily huge.
There is a perfect power to Paper which I can only beg its stewards to leave unmolested for as long as possible. If I was a billionaire, I’d immediately purchase it from Dropbox and leave everything to the company — revenue, janitorial development, user data, etc. — except the right to make any significant feature or functionality additions to the user experience, as I have never before felt this way about a single service or program… ever. I’m not sure if I should keep quiet or incessantly kiss ass, but my interest undoubtedly lies in preserving Paper as it is. If you’re left doubting my own testimonial, there are a billion throwaway “Ditch Google Docs for Dropbox Paper” posts across the B and C-list technosphere. Gizmodo’s, for instance, notes Paper’s superior formatting freedom, intelligent footprint, incredible embed flexibility, and… independence from the terrible Google God.
Right now, one’s choices in notetaking apps for iOS are almost too varied. There’s Zoho Notebook, which claims itself to be “An App Store 2016 Best App of the Year” (falsely, it would appear.) I recall installing it on my 6S Plus, then, after spying some screenshots of its multicolored notes, but I failed to find room for its use. When the (completely useless) Files app was added with iOS 11, I played around with it for a bit and somehow ended up setting Zoho as the default application to open PDFs which inadvertently launched my 8 Plus into an infinite loop of “Open __ in __?” prompts that eventually required deletion of Notebook in order to view them at all. I tend to especially adore these programs in their early, innocent versions when they smell most of innovation before their creators are inevitably brought back to our filthy reality when their VCs start expecting money. Zoho Notebook should have bewitched my affections, but my short trial was clunky and disastrous and those beautifully-colored layouts weren’t quite worth the trouble, so they were missed — to no consequence at all.
Bear lets you tag notes by adding a hashtag to a word anywhere in your document; you can add as many as you like, and then browse them later from the left rail. You can export your notes as PDFs, rich text files, HTML documents, or even JPEGs. And it supports ultra-nerd automation, so if you use an iOS app like Workflow [now Shortcuts] you can create shortcuts to your notes.
DayOne’s own markdown support and exporting capabilities surely make it Bear’s predecessor. JPEG exports are a nice touch and they reflect awareness of what power notetakers like Newton actually do with their software. If I had not already chosen to depart OSX, long ago, I would seriously consider downloading the app on both platforms and paying its monthly $15 membership fee to try out syncing, but I suspect Google’s moderate but noticeable influence on their design would quickly prove to be a turn-off, personally. I had a go at Bear’s free iOS experience and saw little functional difference from DayOne — if anything, text didn’t look quite as sharp — but its reported integration with Siri Shortcuts is intriguing. (Apple acquired Workflow last year, absorbing it into its upcoming iOS 12 release as Shortcuts.) I’d suggest you give it a try — especially if your desktop-class machine is a Mac — and for your sake, I would hope they choose to utilize the power of the modern browser with a web interface in the future. “As a writer, I work in text, and text ought to be simple,” Newton opined, likely with more brevity than I’m capable of in this discussion.
Much of anything has yet to be written about these offerings in 2018, but I must insist both regular and intermittent writers alike give Dropbox Paper a try. I suspect you’ve less “privacy” to “lose” than you would in Google Docs, and its sublime function as a writing tool extends from workplace collaboration to shared grocery lists with your SO and long, image and hyperlink-saturated works like this one. It’s very difficult to break — even by pasting fragmenting code or Zalgo text; it’s never out of date, and always a short, teeny pageload away even across the worst of connections. As someone with an unhealthy obsession with his written work, I can tell you that its UI is by far the most anxiety-relieving I’ve ever used. As an alternative to Google Docs, I would point out that 1) Docs supersedes Paper in sum features significantly less than you’d think and 2) for the one or two weird formatting challenges it fails to complete, neither Microsoft Word — the old bitch — nor Docs are going anywhere, and Paper exports to both of them directly.
Curiously enough, I was required to use every single method of text retention of which I am capable in the course of writing this piece, as I tripped over my laptop’s charging cable — a physical connection, yes (and with substantial leverage) because Apple won’t allow other computer manufacturers to make use of “their” ingenious magnetic charging solution which they’ve included as “MagSafe” on MacBooks since 2008 — perhaps inevitably ruining the port and leaving me with only my iPhone and pens. I filled a few folded sheets of paper with my LAMY Safari (which is good, but overrated,) and felt quite ridiculous in the process. Thanks to my fiancé’s generosity, I type this bit now on her Panasonic R440 Electric Typewriter, which must still be considered a legitimate means of writing text in 2018 if only because of Instagram poetry. According to its rather dubious listing on Amazon, this model dates to September 4th, 1973, which is remarkable considering its spellcheck and auto-margin functions (neither of which I could actually figure out how to use.) If there is anywhere to be caught clacking away on a typewriter out of preference (I’d hesitate to call even my own situation one of necessity,) in 2018, it would undoubtedly be Portland, yet I am still extremely embarrassed to be the source of all this racket and would immediately perish if any of my neighbors bothered to track it down.
Even this very sophisticated example of the typewriting species is limited by one’s supply of both ink and erasing ribbon, though either can still be found for sale, remarkably. I am even less able to easily correct mistakes than those I wrote by hand because I feel a significant pang of pain via my mechanical empathy every time I use (or accidentally misuse) the function which whites out text with a sickening clunk. There’s something about this process which makes it feel more taxing, costly, and timeconsuming than any other, but perhaps with time and extended use, my embarrassment, empathy, and hesitance would fade and I’d become a cruel, loaded God of shitty prose, but I have no intention of finding out. I’ll willingly concede that restored or refurbished typewriters can be absolutely gorgeous, and there’s probably some validity in the “distraction-free writing environment,” but I’d suggest that anyone who’s pounded out any significant chunk of copy knows that one must find a groove of absolute focus within a word processor in order to complete work with any efficiency or cohesion, anyway. I’m as connected as any of you, yet these days, I always end up hyperfocused on Word, Dropbox Paper, and/or research in my browser to the exclusion of anything else on the machine, whether or not I intend to do so. I’m no authority, but I can’t see a functional place for a typewriter in 2018.
Portlanders, surely, are vain enough to avoid leaving such disastrous drafts laying about, though now’s a good time to note that one can now scan their typewritten document into a word processor using native software on their smartphone, nowadays, if they’re so unreasonably inclined. Using iOS default Notes app, I could scan this physical draft into Portable Document Format with just a few steps, but doing so would contribute to the ridiculous perception that Adobe’s ancient, clunky standard is the ultimate end of the line for any and all digital publishing. Yes, it’s ridiculous to consider “25 years” of development led to PDF 2.0’s release just last year, to nobody’s glee outside The Fucking Adobe Blog (which I do believe is running on Medium, hilariously.) Yet throughout my existence, it’s been the go-to half-step between text’s digital and physical forms. The liason, if you will.
Perhaps one could argue that this role in our collective academic Western word processing lives is profound (though no mentally functional human being wants to meet them,) which would inevitably lead them to criticize Adobe’s longtime occupation of it, but to examine the next significant step in the development of word processing is (this moment, at least) extremely hellish and alarming. This “Virtual Reality prototype,” for instance, surpasses even The Soul Ledger as the most distressing online video of all time.
Just 32.3% of survey respondents claim they print “at least one draft and use a pen or pencil to make notes/mark corrections by hand,” not including the additional 6.5% who “print at least one draft but make all corrections digitally,” leaving 61.3% who presumably do not physically print at all throughout their writing process. Our survey is broad, rudimentary, and not entirely scientific, yes, but I would bet these numbers would contrast significantly with those from respondents exclusively in academia. For myself and my colleagues, there remains “something” that can only be attained by physically manifesting written work, perhaps in requirement of tangible manipulation in order to thoroughly comprehend large bodies of information. As I’ve passed 100,000 words within the rough draft of my novel project, no amount of skimming on any sized screen has enabled me to catch the typos and inconsistencies which become immediately obvious as soon as I have the most current printed manuscript in my hands. I doubt even total immersion into one’s work via some VR-capable word processor would do much to assuage this discrepancy — or much at all, for that matter, aside from casting writers into their own special hell. Surely, only the most self-loathing of them would voluntarily choose to be so dunked. (Read: drowned.)
The social network’s incongruities better its experience, if you know how.
On a recent Tuesday, I opened a just-begun livestream on Facebook from NASA’s official page with a panel of experts discussing Europa’s plumes (or something like that) and ended up sticking around for most of its hour-long duration because of the ridiculous realtime comments from some of its ~4000 viewers. While some participants were genuinely interested in the opportunity to engage the host’s authority with relevant and invested questions (which were intermittently fielded,) the vocal majority were aggressive, ignorant, and provocative shouts. From my observation, the most noticeably manic and persistent of these came from user Shane Langman. “Nasa can telephone the moon in 1969 but can't get a phone signal in death Valley in 2018,” he noted 16 minutes in. “We cant leave the earth or we'd have left it by now.” And there was Bobby Smith, who felt compelled to express his authority on NASA’s inauthenticity: “[I’ve] been researching since 2012 no real pics of anything all cgi.”
Assuming the additional all-caps, sans-avatar ranting I remember reading live was deleted after the fact by the culprits and/or the page’s administrator, it’s worth noting that the remaining archive is full of sincerely positive feedback: “It would be awesome to discover life in europe!!” Indeed.
After a few minutes of gawking at the mess, I noticed that the broadcast was being simultaneously streamed on Periscope (or is it Twitter Video? or Twitter Live?) so I opened both feeds side-by-side to compare their audience’s behavior. The Periscope’s viewers averaged about 1000 strong, and their comments were noticeably more orderly and decipherable. There was still trolling and self-promotion, but it wasn’t allowed to disrupt the rest of the committed discourse, perhaps because of each post’s character limit or rationed screen time. Looking between them, the contrast in the user culture and the function of the two services during the same, simultaneous stream was at discouraging odds with their respective popularity.
Neither are really very good ways to watch live video – Periscope, notably, was never designed for professional studio broadcasts – but the relentless malicious nonsense from the Facebook viewers pushed all attempts at real engagement away so quickly that I could see no point in making them at all. To be blunt: every conceivable corner of Facebook is an unusable cesspool (even in the shadow of NASA earnestness,) and its worth considering that something about the design of Twitter properties generally discourages such overwhelmingly stupid noise. That’s not to say that harassment, hate speech, misogyny, and radical racism have not been religiously neglected or mishandled as has been well-reported throughout the network’s history – perhaps even more than any other – but I (a cis white man, mind you,) have seen much more of these on Facebook in the wild than I have on Twitter during my longtime use of the two, despite spending exponentially more attention on the latter.
In my sparse Facebook browsing, I have witnessed childhood friends, professional acquaintances, and family members both distant and immediate publicly shame, harass, belittle, and spitefully argue with each other for the sake of absolutely zero meaningful resolution, conclusion, or intellectual progression. In my decade of daily Twitter use, I have seen tens of pedophiles and rapists publicly outed, suicides averted, government censorship circumvented, stories broken, artists made, and marginalized voices outspoken. I have also Tweeted things in the past (mostly variations of “I want to die”) that would now get my account temporarily suspended, as per the company’s latest attempts to minimize its platform’s toxicity – an encouraging suggestion that Twitter is finally catching up and learning to avoid its cultural blunders, which have been the single greatest exception to its most valuable core identity: its mistakes.
Two weeks ago, Twitter proudly released the first redesign of its native Windows 10 app since its debut in 2015 – leading a new generation of upcoming “lightweight” Progressive Web Apps and – true to form – immediately reclaimed the title of clumsiest, least-useful Twitter client available. PWAs represent the industry’s readiest effort to “bridge the gap between web and mobile apps,” for which expanded compatibility must surely be the best case to make. According to Google – supreme enemy of the open web and all tasteful design – PWAs are offline-first, instant-loading, and immersive – none of which are reasonable priorities in building a Twitter client for Windows, an operating system running primarily on very powerful hardware. This sort of idiocy can be reasonably expected of Twitter, but bewilderingly, the Great Minds of tech journalism seem to be unanimously pleased by this decision, which invites one to suspect that they’ve all switched secretly to the exclusive, illustrious HP Elite X3 – the only smartphone on sale running Windows 10, because Twitter’s execution of these misaligned goals is mindbogglingly foul to look at and unnecessarily frustrating to use. After doing my best to put up with it for a few days, I found myself unable to conceieve of a single advantage this new application has over literally any alternative.
3 out of the 5 bulleted “highly-requested features” listed in their announcement are just… catching the app up with the web client as it’s been for years: the 280-character limit, Explore tab, and Bookmarks. “Adding” these web-established operations to an even-more-web-based application surely didn’t present much of a workload, but perhaps removing functionality justified the investment. The F and T keys no longer operate as shortcuts for liking and retweeting, which is such a misguided oversight that I can’t help but wonder if this app was actually intended to be utilized by anyone at all (besides HP Elite users.)
Am I missing something? Can you hear me? Are there any flesh-and-blood Twitters users left?
Then again, the ungainliness of Twitter’s new offspring could be attributed to the perpetual tragedy of its mother’s peril. The company’s luck has been on the down-and-out for eons in tech time: from its most recent plain text password blunder, to its constant inability to handle abuse, its endlessly tumultuous management turnovers, and its growing disinterest and disfavor among the public and potential investors alike – our cultural relationship with Twitter and its identity as a social network remains dramatically tense well past its tenth year, which is good news for its continued survival. One could certainly argue that the Tump presidency alone spared Twitter from a painful decline into irrelevance (or at least postponed it,) but I think we should acknowledge by now that turmoil is an integral component of the brand as an outlier in the connected community palette.
For myself as a long-dependent occupant, its inconsistencies and contradictions are endearing and necessary – a competent, profitable, and sensical Twitter may as well be Facebook. If you’ve been Tweeting as long as I have, you’ll likely remember that the company’s own offerings had occupied the bottom-most position in the hierarchy of preferable available clients throughout time and across all manner of operating systems until it finally nailed its Android and iOS software and usurped longtime third-party staples like TweetBot and Twitterific just a few years ago. Gadget blogging and What’s in my Dock? videos may very well be long-dead relics of a different era in tech media, but it’s disheartening to find through research that the steadily-declining quality of our user experience has been allowed to continue without much protest. Justifiably or not, Twitter has persisted in adding stuff nobody likes as they’ve gradually neutered all the great third-party development.
TweetDeck for Windows was perhaps the most powerful mainstream enduser social application that will ever exist. Before Twitter absorbed the tool in 2011, its diverse account integration allowed a user to send a single post across Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Google+, and multiple Twitter accounts simultaneously, and they could configure the client to do so with just the Enter key! In retrospect, it was naive to assume that such potent spam capabilities would continue to be entrusted to the general population without challenge, but the modularity and customizability of TweetDeck prime as a standalone application made it useful as hell and quite the power trip. Now, it exists only as a tamed, up-to-brand-guidelines web application, yet remains the definitive way to use Twitter on a PC if one desires an ad-free, single-window experience if only because of its congruence with another, even more forgotten feature of the service: lists.
This is how I’ve seen desktop Twitter since I lasted looked at my timeline in 2010. Since then, I’ve followed about 5000 more accounts, so I’d imagine it’s a damned mess. I have a private list of my friends, which I try to read in its entirety, and a list of nearly 500 journalists, publications, and musicians whom I’ve found particularly fresh and original. Thanks to these, Tweets are presented in order, uninterrupted by ads. (They function the same on iOS.) The network’s linear chronology is an absolute use condition for me, so I’m thankful I completely missed the beginning of their progression toward algorithmic relevance thanks to my lists, and as I’ve since happened upon distress from mutuals and non-mutuals over missed or stale Tweets, I have taken the time to relay my gospel: lists are linear. And since promoted and sponsored Tweets began overwhelming and perturbing timelines, I’ve seen the displeasure and repeated: lists are linear and ad-free!
I realize how irritating it is when one plays the why doesn’t anyone listen to me?! card, so I’ve created a Twitter Moment to document the confusing silence I’ve gotten in response to these suggestions (though I couldn’t find any cases from the past, so I may be misremembering the extent of my charity,) and pledging to refrain from revisiting this pet advice of mine when writing about Twitter or other social networks in the future.
A largely-biographical overview of my personal history with technology and its contributions to my current perspective.
Incalculable odds were against my arrival in this world happening in early 1994, positioning my life within a timeline that would allow me to bridge my two species’ most significant millenniums in the first grade as a student in the first class at Fairview Elementary school to receive curriculum-mandated exposure to brand-new Windows 98 PCs in its brand-new, fluorescent-lit computer lab in the center core of its 50-year-old rectangular brick structure. The lab also meant that ours was the first Fairview class to have the available relief of air conditioning during the school day. It’s unlikely that I would be home sick and watching the last television ever allowed in my mother’s living room as the second plane hit.
My peers and I would form a picogeneration without a name (perhaps we should be called the 9/11ers) — 91s and 92s wouldn’t have regular access to public school machines until they’d eclipsed the true prime of their development, and were just that much further along, mentally, to being able to comprehend the huge and terrifying concepts of 1) New York and 2) burning alive — while 98s like my niece were spared any such comprehension of death at all, yet now have to face the existentially future-sundering, darkly-mirrored reality of the Trump Presidency during the most critically uncertain period in the last stage of their brain’s transition to adulthood.
If there is truth in the cross-cultural supposition that souls have some sort of choice, pre-conception, over when they’re born, my own must have either cleaned out the house, or lost horrible, though I suspect I’ll never be able to confidently wager either way. This question of how lucky or unlucky am I to be alive right now is one which I find most fascinating — not just within myself, but within others my age. I declare us a generation largely because of my experiences on the assumption that my mid-Missouri upbringing represents the ultimate average in the American experiences of the time as the area has been a reliable sample of the clearest average of the country’s cultural, political, and economic life. Technically, it was quite unlikely that I arrive here as a new human being instead of China or India, and what if that, too was my choice?
Though less so, it was still against chance that I would be born to parents who would divorce very quickly after my birth, before my mind was able to form any tangible long-term memories, sparing me whatever pain could’ve resulted from their greater togetherness later nullified in front of me. I could’ve chosen them as well for the variety of experiences their situation would allow me as I grew up between my father’s 800-acre farm and my mother’s suburban house in Columbia, the college town an hour’s drive south. I write about my experiences now — so young — because I’ve likely already born witness to more extraordinary changes in human development than your parents, their parents, and their parents’ parents combined. At 24, my life has already spanned by far the most profound and expedited informational renaissance in human history — greater progress was made between the day I first rode a bicycle and the one on which I took my driver’s test than in thousands of years before it.
My father’s experiences between 1950 and 1974 — from his birth until the age I am now — would indeed include watching a man set foot on a spatial body other than Earth for the first time, but would be mostly defined by work on the family’s soybean, corn, and wheat farms in central Illinois, driving carbureted tractors pulling cultivating equipment of the same basic design and function as had been pulled by horses, mules, and oxen for hundreds of years, and other implements — like the mechanical multi-row planter — that were new technology at the beginning of the century. For neighbors, he would walk behind the path of a square hay baler next to a moving flatbed trailer upon which he would throw the 70–100 lb. rectangles of dead compacted grass by their twine through thick cowhide gloves. All of this I would get to experience in the next century on his farm, using the exact same equipment.
At home, he would watch NBC, ABC, and CBS on a CRT television, as I would for several years until wireless television was legally transitioned to digital statewide in the summer of 2009. As an adolescent, he would form a business with friends cleaning out old abandoned barns in exchange for the rights of ownership to anything they found inside, which led to his discovery of a hay-preserved 1929 Buick Sedan containing hand-written records of its every service. This car would change hands into his Uncle’s care as he went off to school in Champaign, married and farmed in Georgia, and eventually settled on the flat clay soil of the farm where I grew up right on the border between Audrain and Monroe counties, Missouri. I was about 10 when we drove back to the family hub with a trailer in tow to collect the car from my Great Uncle, to my manic excitement.
Up until my mid-teens, my life was defined by my extreme reverence for historic cars, airplanes, tractors, and watercraft, and the time I spent operating, maintaining, restoring, or simply studying the assortment of these which I was allowed — often because of extraordinary circumstances — would build the part of my psychology which seeks to experience different cultures, ideas, and eras through the medium of engineering and design and relies on these to understand them. Like my father in his youth, I would learn to clean water out of a carburetor after the Oliver had sat without running for two long, and I would pee in a chamber pot in order to avoid waking up my Grandfather by walking down the attic stairs and turning the lights on. I would learn how to shoot and drive before 10-years-old, and I would have the freedom to do both as I pleased on the miles of gravel roads that ran around home.
Though my stepfather bought me a PC of my own just as my first grade computer class was ending, I could not conceive of a reason to take up the dial-up line and block his incoming calls or faxes, so my use of the machine was limited to sparse writing and aggravating attempts to run Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 at approximately one frame per second on a 300MHz single-core Pentium II CPU. Though I was extremely fortunate compared to most middle-class kids my age at the time to have my own computer in my room, my relationship with it was not an emotional or particularly involved one. I would leave it powered down for weeks at a time until my last two grades at Fairview, when homework assignments began to require it.
Perhaps the greatest gap between my mostly-suburbanite classmates and I was an exposure to Japanese entertainment and video games. I was once disallowed from a lunch table because I’d never heard of Pokémon or Luigi, but I did have a Sony Playstation at home on which I occasionally loaded A Bug’s Life to wander around its first level. In self-imposed isolation from children my age, I wouldn’t develop any need to be socially competitive with video games as many of my peers would to carry with them into adulthood. I thought my interests in mechanical engineering to be above all of them, so I spent my time alone with heavy picturebooks on 20th century cars, tractors, and airplanes.
On the farm, my consistently agriculturally-proactive father was one of the first to have satellite internet for farm futures and weather reports on a pre-GUI machine which I don’t remember. As I was becoming computer literate in school, he would become extremely frustrated with the Windows XP-running machine he’d bought from a one-man, one-room computer shop in Centralia, and I would often solve some problem with bloatware or the goddamned printer. He would also subscribe to and install a first-generation DirectTV receiver, which had the first on-screen program guide I’d ever seen. In the evenings, I would watch hours of Modern Marvels on The History Channel, which presented the history, abstract functional theory, and implementation of a particular technology, both past and future. This one program — which has aired nearly 700 episodes since 1995 — is probably responsible for the majority of my at least rudimentary general knowledge in a variety of historic and “future” technological schools, and my curiosity about culture’s relationship with innovation.
Though my father’s interests differed significantly from mine — he thought more about growing and raising than of the tools one used to do it — he would indulge my many questions about how engines, hydraulics, and electrical systems worked and my curiosity by exposing me to the hidden communities of the most elderly, most obscure historic machinery enthusiasts like those of the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mount Pleasant, Iowa — the Concours d’Elegance for antique tractor and reciprocating engine collectors. It was a similar event closer to home where I first operated a steam tractor — great, field-going locomotive-like vehicles that supplanted a need for horsepower in the late-1800s up until the Great Depression which chug, whistle, and puff along just like rail locomotives with a big iron steering wheel. As I recall, I was also given the opportunity to drive an unrestored Model T truck around the grounds that day — the knowledge from which I gained I cannot imagine being of much use ever again.
I was proud to the point of arrogance of my technical knowledge and experience in all the different things I had driven and operated, which my schoolmates were in no position to understand. I was elitist and anti-social about this as late as 9th grade, when I had just moved in to stay with my mother, who bought me a first generation iPhone which I proudly wore in a leather belt holster to Junior High. It would represent a shift in my fascination from very old technology toward the present and future.
I started talking online with a friend I’d first met years before at Fairview who spent most of his time fiddling with his first-generation MacBook Pro and first exposed me to gadget bloggers on YouTube like Mark Watson and Jon Rettinger (both of whom are still full-time tech personalities.) My mom bought me a 13-inch aluminum-bodied MacBook (which would be sold as MacBook Pro after a single year,) and my lifestyle radically shifted inside my room, my computer, and my Xbox 360. My friend and I would both obsess together over software, design, and gadgets and experiment with our own tech YouTube channels until high school, where I would be adopted by a new friend group who would finally socialize me.
Recently, I have written about the contrasts and discrepancies of consumer technology development as its progress has disconnected from the upward linear trajectory in use, quality, and genuine innovation for the enduser in a departure which has been especially visible from my perspective as an academically-untrained, but intensely demanding user in the past five years. When hardware was still the industry focus before ~2012, there was a tremendous amount of optimism among journalists and enthusiasts because each successive generation of devices had added more tangible capabilities. Publications like Gizmodo and Engadget made a fortune publishing reviews and comparison tests of hardware offerings across every segment of tech, and the discourse they generated had a noticeable influence on design. I remember this time well because it was happening throughout my last few years before adulthood when I had plenty of spare time, energy, and curiosity to keep up.
The story of consumer technology since Steve Jobs’ death has become increasingly more about the companies who design and sell hardware and software than about how and why their consumers actually use them, and the result has been a series of new types of products that have little defensible place in a linear timeline of innovation, especially where productivity is involved. Augmented and Virtual Reality are quite explicitly an escapist industry which has yet to fill any significant need which was before unfilled. The same could be argued about voice assistants and smartwatches — neither of which remove obstacles in most users’ day-to-day lives but instead contribute to the array of tasks and devices which already seek their attention.
Of course, there are defensibly sound business incentives behind the industry’s new, fragmented direction, but I would also argue that there are those, too, for genuinely revisiting both what we should be doing and what we should be seeking to learn to do with technology. In a more abstract sense, I have written about whether or not we should want to be living in this particular now, and how the way we feel about the future should inform what we do in the present.
I cannot help but observe human progress from a perspective of powerlessness, acute alienation, and amused awe which has already lent to a significant quantity of occasionally original thoughts as I watch having experienced an odd diversity of American life and culture. I’ve published them to entertain and to demonstrate a few methods of reflection on what it is you really want from the times you are living.