Writing well is difficult. Sometimes, the writer is granted brilliance that feels scarcely controllable, but these instances seems rare. Even being in one such moment provides that distinctive feeling – like standing on top of the Duomo or producing creative work with ease – capable of being be evaluated in real time and appreciated for its rarity: “I might never have it so good/easy again.” So how can writing be made easier? Simple: write everything like it’s an Internet comment.
The writer vs the vacuum cleaner
Much writing is a slog, a series of slight maneuvers that cancel each other out until finally a coherent thread emerges. It took me 5 minutes just to write the paragraph above. Writing is not unique in this respect. Even glorified professions such as programming are full of drudgery.
What consistently gums up the writing works? It’s as if there’s a vacuum cleaner sucking up thoughts from the brain. The task ahead demands lots of ideas and eloquent turns of phrase, but the reserves quickly run out, and then there’s nothing.
Staring down at blank space is like the times when, on the verge of sleep, there’s that startlingly realistic falling sensation, that causes real fear despite harboring no threat of actual mental or physical damage. That’s writer’s block: Real fear, fake consequences. The feeling of an empty idea cupboard is irrational, given that it’s impossible not to think.
Vague feelings of brilliance vs concrete sensations of inadequacy
While most writing isn’t pleasurable to produce, it usually reads better than it felt to write. The fear of inadequacy is often just a deep-seated anxiety of what to write to right next, rather than despair about the project at large.
Overwhelming, tangible brilliance can make the writer inhabit the moment and relish how power is building and obstacles are receding, yet the grind of the writing process gives her a frame-by-frame feeling of pain. Each word is scrutinized. This sort of perspective is what makes writing both pleasurable and painful: The writer may sometimes vaguely sense overall quality, but she must also regularly dwell on specific defects.
The latter tendency is what makes in-the-moment elation – the happiness at being able to step back and appreciate beauty as it is formed – difficult in all but exceptional cases. Certainly, it is painful, but it is almost necessary to chipping away at word choice, syntax, and argument until something is unlocked. This quibbling is the fallback mechanism when sweeping brilliance isn’t available; it’s the writer’s workhorse.
Internet comments vs everything else
If there’s one type of writing that feels tangibly easier than all others, it’s the Internet comment. It has a low bar to entry: Good grammar and reasoning skills aren’t required, there’s little curation, and the writer herself does not even need an environment, other than the Web browser or app in question.
Bad comments are easy to the point of near-unthinking, but even apparently good ones can be produced in a flash. The show-off Internet comment – a missive that can include copious amounts of evidence, conspiracy theories, personal anecdotes – is a staple of Reddit et al, and their volume speaks to a writing form that not only exhibits effort (if not always quality), but also scales tremendously.
This combination is unique. There is plenty of substandard prose and poetry on the Web, but it lacks the airs of greatness put on by Internet comments. A comment can be:
- Easy to write (thus reinforcing subtle norms around the great artist who effortlessly churns out masterpieces
- Superficially convincing (even if the reasoning is poor, the author may overwhelm with length, cherry-picked numbers, flowery language, or a combination thereof)
- Instantly applauded (forget a publishing deal; upvotes and likes can confer immediate gravitas to the text)
Thinking about these perks, why doesn’t the Internet comment become a literary form? Its real advantage, staked in the three foundations enumerated above, is its built-in audience – by far the most irritating obstacle for any writer in any context. There’s major schlep blindness in not trying to turn such a facile mode of writing into something with aesthetic and philosophical value.
It’s easy to write an epic Internet comment (whether a tweetstorm or rambling Facebook status update) because there’s no intimidating void to fill, no vast spaces to traverse without knowing what tone, language, or evidence to use. Even a bad comment will get attention because the audience is there to seize upon it; a good comment will be acclaimed or, in an even better indication of its impact, viciously attacked by insecure dissenters.
A while back, I wrote, on the occasion of Google requiring a Google+ account for YouTube comments:
“Every commenter is an expert, or at the very least a potential conversation hijacker whose hastily gathered yet half coherent sentiments can trigger thousand-word outbursts from her faceless peers.”
My language was over the top, but I still feel the same about the comment’s power as a low-hanging enabler of expertise and catalyst for raw word production. It’s all about the audience and the ability to show off, knowing everyone is already watching.
I don’t use Google Now anymore. It occasionally chirps up in my notification tray with a depressing White Sox score, but I barely use the swipe-up gesture to access its cards. The last time I did, it didn’t even give me transit info for the closest bus stop and still showed sports some old Blackhawks playoff scores that I hadn’t manually swiped away (1. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup over a week ago, and here’s a video from the parade; 2. That clear-out gesture is surprisingly hard to make). I initially loved the idea of a comprehensive think-ahead assistant that could pool together transit schedules, sports scores, and Gmail notices into one interface. It has seemingly improved since last year, now that it can show predicative news or music suggestions. But the price is that one has to go on using Google for everything – Google Search to scour the Web, Google Play Music to play both your own collection and stream other content, GMail to handle all email. And it’s becoming an increasingly unbearable price.
Apple blogger Marco Arment, with whom I don’t always agree (he’s dismissive of Android), had a great post up about how Google, along with peers Facebook and Twitter, were essentially killing the standards-based Web that had given life to them in the first place. Twitter doesn’t play nice with 3rd-party debs. Facebook has always been a walled garden. And Google, once a leader in standards compliance, nows wants everything behind the G+ wall: chat clients, video calling, photo backup, etc. I agree with Arment that Twitter in particular may have the theoretical high ground, since Twitter developers aren’t entitled to unfettered access to others’ proprietary services. But it, like Facebook and especially like Google, want to ultimately control what you see, i.e., ads and promotions.
Losing the standards-based Web would be tragic, but maybe not for the reasons that some cite. It would be painful to go on losing services like Google Reader or Falcon Pro (whose demise I recently chronicled), sure. Yet the real pain will come from large swathes of Web being the exclusive provinces of certain corporations who, for reasons either furtive or coercive, decide to give info to the American NSA. You’re social walled garden is also conveniently a surveillance state – it has natural tracking mechanisms and clear owners (by contrast, no one “owns” RSS or email) who can be talked into compliance. And of course, the rhetoric from both the array of walled gardens and from the NSA itself is all about making your worry less. Using Google Play Music apparently makes streaming music simpler (I never had a problem with Spotify, though), while the NSA’s collection of email is for the (truly outlandish) purpose of making you worry less about terrorism, something that kills fewer persons per year than bathtub falls do.
Google Now is really a microcosm for the time of cordoned-off surveillance made possible by the perfect convergence of the Web giants’ collective renewed focus on proprietary services and America’s obsession with surveilling (and being surveilled! many people of course have no issue with exposing all their info, they will even volunteer it, and because of them there’s a whole cottage industry of bullshit related to “no one cares about/should care about privacy, derp” out there). Are these suggested “research more” topics really going to enlighten me, or are they just going to take me to some SEO pile? Well, I don’t have to worry about that question anymore, at least practically (I’ll go on pondering it as philosophical issue), since I just use DuckDuckGo.
DuckDuckGo is a search engine and news service that has become an unlikely hero in the recent NSA revelations. It doesn’t track users and provides results that, at least in my heavy daily usage, seem to be as good as Google’s, if not better since fewer persons are out there trying to game them. It reminds me of using Firefox for the first time back in the dark days of WinXP/IE: a startling relief, a glass of ice water in hell. When you download the Android app, there’s no sign-in, no “we just need your email, pretty plz,” no “connect with Facebook/G+,” no “add all your friends and family as ___”. It just goes directly into a news feed with a search bar at the top. In one fell swoop, both Google Search and Google Now are strangely unessential on my Google-designed phone.
Of the three Web titans Arment mentions, Google by far has the most to lose in the potential anti-NSA/anti-tracking world that DuckDuckGo represents. No tracking and fewer ad impressions mean that Google’s business model – which most people don’t understand – just doesn’t work. And unlike Facebook or Twitter, Google has no unique service, with the possible exception of its sophisticated Maps: most of its services are fast-follow efforts or copies, with Google Drive (which combines MS Office with Dropbox) being the best example. You can take your email, your search queries, or your files and notes elsewhere; but you can’t necessarily take your Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Their walled gardens are simply better than G+. This is why Google needs to create Arment’s described “lockdown” effect via G+ in order to compete with Twitter et al, and it has to do this in spite of Apple’s efforts to clear Google off the iPhone (how long til we see Bing as the default search engine on the iPhone?). Good luck.
I agree with Arment’s conclusion, expressed as a retort to the proprietary lockdown efforts from leading Web companies: “[F]uck them, and fuck that.” It’ll take huge steps to stem the tide of them and of the surveillance (both by them and by government) that they enable, however. The recent Google reversal on retiring CalDAV in favor of the Google Calendar API represents one such small victory, and I hope that there are more. And switching to DuckDuckGo is one good, painless way to get back on the path to a saner, more private existence.
Now that Falcon Pro is in a tailspin induced by the perfect storm of Twitter’s harsh API policy and the app’s own shady token “resets,” there’s room at the top for high-end Twitter clients on Android. And of course, there’s the official Twitter app, which is serviceable if unremarkable.
Carbon is free, ad-free, and beautiful. True to its name (“carbon” is derived from “carbo,” the Latin word for coal), it has a pitch-colored interface that scrolls as fluidly as any Android app outside of the Robin client for App.net (ADN). The timeline can be tilted to refresh it. Settings and menus (lists, trends, etc.) are nested at the right. Your Twitter profile can be edited at the left.
- beautiful design
- great responsiveness
- ability to edit Twitter profile
- widget, in-app browser
- No DashClock support
- Google Play reports that it has been downloaded 100k-500k times, meaning that it could hit the Twitter API ceiling soon.
Talk about a true-blue Holo app: Robird looks a lot like the Nexus Android dialer, with three black-and-blue columns. Robird utilizes a minimalist aesthetic that focuses just on your timeline, interactions, and DMs. Its scrolling is nothing to write home about, but it has useful tap-and-hold gestures that will be familiar to any Falcon Pro pro.
- Simple, unobtrusive, and intuitive design
- DashClock support
- Configurable refresh interval (15-45 minutes)
- Useful gestures
- Not that popular, meaning it still has a long life ahead of it.
- $1.99 price (this isn’t a con to me, but it will be to many)
- No widget
- Not much support for lists or trends
Plume is an old-school Twitter client from the same developers behind Beautiful Widgets. It is available in both free and paid versions. The latter is pricey at $5, but the app has some perks in the form of an internal browser and a lockscreen widget.
- free (if you can put up with the ads)
- immune to token limit since it’s an older app
- lockscreen widget
- scrollable widget
- familiar slide-out UI on the left
- Facebook integration
- paid version is relatively expensive
- no DashClock support except via 3rd-party extension
- older-looking design/aesthetic
It’s the official Twitter app: what’s there to say? You’ll never have to worry about it running out of tokens. It has exclusive features like photo filters which aren’t much to right home about; iOS 7 and Android Jellybean and later both ahve native photo filters, to say nothing of Instagram.
- not subject to restrictions placed on clients
- photo filters
- casual, familiar feel that will appeal to some
- unimaginative design
- promoted Tweets in your stream
- battery drainer
- mostly for casual users, meaning it won’t work as well for heavier users
My in-depth review here.
Vine has been available for Android for a couple of weeks, and my verdict is that it just does not provide a good experience at this time. Sadly, Vine’s shortcomings are not only indicative of the age-old, ongoing quality gap between apps with versions on both iOS and Android, but it explains them, too. Its simultaneous failures of design and massive popularity are a good microcosm for Android itself and its characteristics. To wit, Vine for Android:
- has no limit on caching and as such can occupy 100s of MB of on-device storage
- doesn’t have a push notification system: it notifies you via rich Jelly Bean notification that your video is being uploaded (good), but is mum if someone likes or comments on your post (bad).
- is full of spam and fakes (I guess this is to be expected; even Instagram is overrun by follower-mills and spammers now)
- doesn’t yet support front-facing camera or tags.
- feels gummy and unresponsive when navigating to some users’ profiles, to the extent that it won’t even show their posts sometimes.
Many of these issues, like front-facing camera support, are likely to be addressed in updates. However, the overall sloppiness of the design makes Vine’s arrival on Android a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Yes, we got a hot app, but its developers treat us as if we don’t respect quality or good design. They treat Android users this way because for now a unified, huge, design-conscious Android audience sadly doesn’t really exist.
The best Android apps, other than the ones Google makes, are often either exclusive to the platform, like Falcon Pro, Eye in Sky, or Friday, or they exploit something unique about Android, like UCCW, Dashclock, or other widgets, or they capitalize upon some odd platform disparity between iOS and Android, like Pocket Casts, which takes advantage of less competition on Android and lack of a Google-made podcasting client. Whether they achieved success via exclusivity, astute platform exploitation, luck, or all of the above, Android’s best apps (a category that includes all of the apps listed above, sans Vine) are often targeted at such a niche audience that they aren’t so much “Android apps” as “Nexus/power-user apps.” They often require at least ICS or even Jelly Bean to even run, but more importantly, they require a user who cares about Android and who didn’t just pick up her/his device because AT&T said so or because it was so cheap.
Accordingly, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about “Android” as a monolithic platform. Many Android users are on an older OS version or don’t even know that they’re running Android: their phone is just a phone that can do email and Facebook and maybe a few other things. Android’s fragmentation certainly exists, but it’s fragmentation of intent more so that fragmentation of OS version, the latter of which I think is just a product of the former, since not enough users care enough (or need) to seek the latest version of Android. Android isn’t “good” yet (if by “good” we mean “characterized by predominantly active, non-incidental, Android-first users) because of this disparity.
A year and a half ago, someone told me that Android was “the new Mac,” that is, that it was a trendy alternative to iOS, which had become so widespread that it could be regarded as the OS for normals. This struck me as an odd statement at the time: how could Android, with its huge user numbers, possibly be compared to the Mac back when it struggled to keep up with the PC? Isn’t Android the PC equivalent in the smartphone wars, the equivalent of a commoditized beige box? Well, no, depending on what specific “Android” demographic you’re talking about, and she did seem to be talking about the niche Nexus user demographic.
First of all, the best Android hardware and the latest Android software both have an elegance and sophistication – likely driven by Google’s own design chops – that Windows has never had. But more to the point: the number of users who actually know that they are “Android users” and not “Droid users” (i.e., users who only have a superficial connection to the brand via Verizon’s massively successful 2009 campaign) or “Samsung users” or “phone-that-emails-and-Facebooks users,” is almost certainly small. There have been roughly 3 million Nexus 4s sold all-time, next to nothing compared to even the Galaxy S4’s haul for May alone: and that’s considered a blockbuster by “stock Android” standards!
Nexus users like me comprise a hugely active and outspoken (especially on Google+) part of what the world sees as the “Android community.” We are just the tip of the iceberg, and interpreting their power-user, anti-Apple, customization-crazy intents as the modus operandi for the hundreds of millions of incidental and accidental Android users is misguided. Like the unseen part of an iceberg, those users elevate the power-users to greater visibility, since the media cares about Android seemingly because: 1) it’s not iOS; 2) it’s popular. Those users are perhaps like 1990s PC users, but the ones on the tip, the Nexus types, are perhaps more like Mac users: outnumbered (by their very different “Android” brethren and, if one grants this differentiation of populations within “Android,” then by iOS users, too) and outspoken.
So the Nexus users will complain about Vine’s shortcomings, while everyone else on Android – the incidental customers or users on older versions – won’t care and will download and use it anyway. The latter group is the reason why Vine for Android even exists (you don’t see Vine for Windows Phone, do you?) but also the reason why its design isn’t on par with the iOS design. “Android” doesn’t have just one addressable demographic, since its different user groups may as well be using (and being conscious of) different platforms altogether, and because of this, we get the only-on-Android odd scenario of a massively popular app that, given the chance to do so much, does only the bare minimum and gets away with it, despite protests from the minority.