Oh, hi. It’s been a while. It should come as no surprise when I say that part of the reason I didn’t really blog while at Twitter was because I got used to making my technical commentary via Tweets. (I’m @neongolden ’round those parts, if you were wondering.)

But now that I’m no longer at Twitter, I find myself once again exploring the brave new world of Silicon Valley, and, well… I have to admit, I’m kind  of disappointed. Let me explain: Silicon Valley is in a boom right now. There are so many jobs! Everyone’s hiring! Everyone’s getting funded! Great ideas are being validated with lots of money and young talent is being put to work! Everyone feels good!  Right?  …Right? Not quite. Here are the patterns I’m seeing, with a dash of friendly (hopefully helpful) critique:

There are tons of jobs… for engineers. When you work for a big tech shop, people like to say that you can go anywhere and do anything afterward. While I think we should all feel that sense of empowerment, regardless of where we’re coming from, I feel it’s my duty to present to the reader the sobering reality: if you want to be something other than an engineer, designer, or product manager, openings are still scant and jobs are hard-won. Get ready to get competitive, especially if you’ve got a kickass resume and know you’re awesome.

Imitation: the sincerest form of flattery. Analytics for Pinterest! Car/ride-sharing! SaaS! Big Data! Crowdsourcing! Crowdfunding! For every great idea I see in a startup, there are ten others just copying existing ideas or trying to solve a problem that is wholly irrelevant to the general population. Don’t get me wrong, all of the above-listed genres can be made useful to large numbers of people, but my point is that there are more immediately relevant problems to be solved that people aren’t using tech to tackle – where is tech in green energy or green business? Where is it in healthcare? Its presence is not renowned in these arenas because everyone went to work at that new ride-sharing startup. Now is a time where seemingly any idea can get funded, yet people still seem too afraid to solve big, world-changing problems. There aren’t enough startups that are even trying to actively make our world a better place. I echo Kara Swisher’s sentiment that too many big minds are chasing small ideas. (Apparently she’s big on health care reform, too.)

Ads: the only way we know how to make money (besides crowdfunding). Of all the innovations in tech, it’s pretty shocking that the revenue model has hardly evolved at all. Say what you will about behavioral targeting and the social graph, the dominant model is still “we have a great product/service that people like. How will it make money? Let’s make it an ad platform!”

But, really? That’s the best we can do? I’ve got to be completely honest here. If a product is awesome, I’ll pay to use an ad-free version. I really relish the services I use that are still ad-free. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to pay attention to one thing at a time: it’s disruptive when an ad interrupts my experience online. (Typically this happens when I’m reading an article or watching media.)  But, ranting aside, making users pay for an ad-free service is about as innovative as monetizing your service by making it into an ad platform.  Sure, there’s always hope for an acquisition, but at that point, your product or service just usually becomes a part of a company that makes its money via an ad platform. Sigh.

Shoutouts to startups that have given me hope in my search:

Rally (the best social fundraising I’ve seen for nonprofits/causes)

Angelist/Jobscore/Jobvite (at least looking for a job is easier than it used to be…) – I’d love to see more services like these geared to people who want to work in other industries. Angel List’s model could work quite well for, say, non-profits.)

Scribd/Storify/Flipboard/Medium (social reading/publishing) – Like I said in an earlier post, the Internet won’t kill literature. It will help it evolve!

…stay tuned! If nothing else, I’ll post more inspirational statrups as I continue my search!

Two years.

January 10, 2012

So. It’s been a while.  My last post here was in January 2010. I had been hired at Twitter a few weeks before that, and I still work at Twitter today.  A lot has happened in that time – suffice it to say that I’ve been learning a ton in both my professional and personal life. As I do so, the itch to blog came back, so here I am, ready and willing to share some of my favorite new technologies with you.

I’ve got a long laundry list to go through, and in the meantime, if you have any questions on Twitter that you’d like me to tackle, ask away!

Recently, I’ve been re-reading a collection of essays by one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Franzen.  One thing that stood out to me about How to Be Alone is its strong anti-technological bias.  The reticence of most self-proclaimed writers to embrace a new way of reading and writing is staggering to me.  I live by the argument that the texts we are seeing created online are just as valid as those anywhere else – and that those that live on will do so because of their relevancy not only to the present moment, but to the canonical works and established theoretical concepts that they are referencing.

I don’t know if Franzen’s changed his mind since he published How To Be Alone in 2002, but I certainly hope that anyone considering the validity of his arguments will pause and consider my rebuttals to Franzen’s arguments. Let’s start by addressing Franzen’s fear that the Internet is turning us into consumers of media rather than active readers:

the life I understand by way of books feels increasingly lonely. It has little to do with the mediascape that constitutes so many other people’s present. For every reader who dies today, a viewer is born.

Certain writers seem to think that it’s acceptable to categorically argue against all digital media, as though every hypertext were created equally.  This is as ludicrous as saying that the trade paperback I pick up in an airport is the same as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time because, after all, they are both printed texts.  No matter what the medium, there will always be media that is created solely to be consumed, and there will also be texts that are created to engage a reader, to encourage thought and discourse.  Such texts DO exist in digital format – if you have never had the pleasure of reading one, I encourage you to examine rhizome.org, The Electronic Literature Organization, or UBUWeb.  (If you would like a recommendation of exemplary texts to start with, I would recommend The Dreamlife of Letters by Brian Kim Stefans, Talking Cure by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, or the Derridean masterpiece that is L0tus Bl0ss0m by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.)

Digital media can be just as relevant to the canon as print media.  Nor is all activity that takes place in front of a screen passive.  The argument that digital media estranges us from being literate in language – spoken and written – is completely, utterly, false.  Digital media consumed for pure entertainment value isn’t going to be educational, but it seems like Franzen just dipped his toe into the Internet and drew conclusions before encountering the digital texts that create the same readerly experience as books. (And again: there are plenty of books out there that are just as mind-numbing as a gossip blog or prime-time TV show.)  As thousands of newspapers and magazines find their physical copies too bloated  to turn a profit when published, we find them reincarnating themselves online.  How, exactly, are these less relevant, less educational,  less informative than their printed counterparts?

From this, Franzen uses theory by Sven Birkerts to fire a more pointed shot: Books teach us how to be alone  and clicking through a hypertext or watching a film is a less meditative experience, which he quantifies only by saying that  “‘domination by the author’ has been the point of reading and writing thus far.”  Franzen resolutely echoes Birkets’ argument that “the reader goes to the work to be subjected to the creative will of another” and that the future is bleak, where “efficient and prosperous information managers [are] living in the shadows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference.”

To this I say: Franzen, Birkets, you are both full of shit.  Have you so little faith in humanity that you think that it is going to self-select a future without literature, without art, without meaningful experiences that take place outside of a screen?  Do you really think that self-proclaimed geeks such as myself have not considered your interests as well?  Do you really think we’ve just conspired to call books obsolete and hand everyone a Kindle while we torch the libraries?  Come on.

But no, he doesn’t stop there.  The tirade continues:

‘the more complex and sophisticated our systems of lateral access, the more we sacrifice in the way of depth.'[…] Instead of Manassas battlefield, a historical theme park. Instead of organizing narratives, a map of the world as complex as the world itself. Instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data.

To be fair, Wikipedia was new when Franzen wrote this essay, but he either hadn’t used it yet or discounted the role it would play in the shape of the collective consciousness of the Internet.  Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect a well-respected writer who is generally judged to be well-informed to take stock of things like the open-source movement when making arguments as hyperbolic as the one above, but I live in a world where increased access to not only read but edit or create information has radically shaped the way we view history, and attendantly, the future.  The digital divide is declining, information access is becoming less and less a privilege and more and more the basic human right that it should be, and as it does, I see a world where people have equal opportunity to create texts – maybe not the ones Franzen is used to, but he has no excuse to discount an entire medium because of his personal discomfort with where this shift leaves him as reader or author.

By the end of the essay, the urge to ask Franzen “what are you really afraid of?!” was overwhelming. (Notable concluding sentences include “I rue the onset of an age so anxious that the pleasure of a text becomes difficult to sustain,” and “the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.”)

I don’t believe for a second that a decline in literacy, in engaging with texts in that special-meditiative-way that Franzen seems to think only books can provide, is imminent with the increasing popularity of digital communications.  But, if that is Franzen’s concern (or yours, dear reader), I encourage you to read the works of educational technologists concerning the matter. – Fear 2.0 is a great place to start.  Fear 2.0 will also help address some concerns over technology’s effects on literacy, which seem to be a concern of Franzen’s.  To which, I’d like to offer the succinct rebuttal: It’s the educational system, stupid.  And in lieu of a massive overhaul of American schools that a majority of taxpayers will never approve, we need to make as much information and educational means as available as possible.  Not everyone has the luxury of learning through books and professors – but that doesn’t make them less capable of learning and enjoying their textual experience.  Franzen seems to have forgotten that not everyone has a choice in how they engage with a text, and notably absent is his concern for how printed media killed the tradition of oral storytelling (because it didn’t). Similarly, printed texts will live on in an age of textual experiences that are increasingly digital.  Literacy isn’t dying – the ways we experience and author texts are simply changing.  They have before, they will again, and the ways we learn need to change, too – they can begin with an open mind and a willingness to seek out good texts (in all available formats) and promote them in order to enrich the community.

Grooveshark

November 16, 2009

I’ve been using and watching Grooveshark evolve for almost a year.  Its development is similar to another web-based music player, the slightly older and ever-evolving Muxtape (which I blogged about here,) in that it’s a flash-based web app that’s extremely robust and easy to use – one which allows users to listen to music on-demand and create playlists from any songs they have placed in their queue.  Unlike the version of Muxtape it bears the most similarities to, its primary function is not as a peer-to-peer (P2P) based music-sharing service.  Another marked difference is that the look and feel of Grooveshark is extremely similar to iTunes, which makes it easy to adopt and very intuitive to use, even on first glance.

One of my favorite things about Grooveshark is that it allows me to listen to practically any tune I can name, no matter the level of obscurity.  It’s great for those of us who like to listen to an album before we purchase it on iTunes.  And if that obscure track isn’t out there, I can upload it to the database, so we can all enjoy it.

A few of my Grooveshark playlists have recently gone from 20-something songs down to just one – ostensibly because artists who feel this kind of dissemination of their work is tantamount to copyright infringement may ask Grooveshark to remove the songs I had populated into their database (via my playlist).  This is in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  I’m still happy to have a service that allows me to listen to entire albums of the latest and greatest, on demand, so I want to make it clear that those bands and Grooveshark have my continued support.

I’ve included a screenshot of my Grooveshark window, complete with a playlist all queued up and ready to go, below:

hipstergeek's grooveshark screen

My Grooveshark screen, showing the queued playlist "M. Ward." Yes, Grooveshark has ads, unless you pay to upgrade to an ad-free Grooveshark. I am neither Christian nor single.

If you’re familiar with iTunes, using Grooveshark should be a breeze.  Simply register a username and password, search the database for the songs you’d like to hear, add them to your queue, save the queue as a playlist, and listen happily ever after!

An Introduction

April 2, 2008

I am a writer, a geek, and a musician.  This blog exists to help merge these identities, primarily the writer and the geek–though there are some extremely cool web-based music technologies out there, and you can expect posts on them in the future.  My obsession with music (as both a performer and listener) has rendered me a veritable encyclopedia of indie music, hence the self-proclaimed hipster title.  Discovering a new technology with relevant and interesting features is every bit as exciting as finding that undiscovered band whose unique sound is sure to make them the next great thing.  For this reason, the title of “geek” is also an appropriate label for me.

The purpose of this blog is to share with readers the technologies that have significantly impacted my life, as well as new technologies with the potential to change my readers’ lives.   I hope my discoveries and nerdy musings are informative to you, and welcome insightful criticism and/or suggestions for new posts.