money, technology

Whither Flickr?

Several months ago:

A friend then remarked that Flickr’s URLs were annoying (yes), and I added:

Well, Mat Honan at Gizmodo has made me feel a bit better about myself. Turns out, it’s probably not my fault. But I also now feel quite bad for Flickr and all of us who’ve been using it for so many years. As Mat portrays it, the post-acquisition Flickr history is a sad story of personality conflicts and crushing bureaucracy, one that turned a place on the internet that I loved going to into a ghost town—or a Potemkin village in which the activity of your Flickr friends, if they are active at all, are auto-postings done via Instagram or IFTTT. Who’s fault? It’s Yahoo! what done it.

Or not done it, as the story emphasizes—when opportunities to turn Flickr into something better, maybe bigger, came up, Yahoo just kind of stepped on the thing, placed its brand, it’s identity, it’s heavy bureaucratic Yahoo stamp on it.

Indeed, it was the first social network that I really engaged in. Yes, I did sign up for Friendster and added like eight pictures, and I might have a MySpace page that I never did anything with, so I’m actually not sure if I do have one. But Flickr was the one I invested in—and still invest in, paying for the Pro account so as not to lose the accumulated uploads and the comments and favorites and stats that have stuck to them like so many barnacles. Fortunately, there is the tiniest glimmer of hope at the end of the story that maybe Flickr will still be…something. I hope so, anyway.

Is the Flickr case a cautionary tale about what could happen to your startup when somebody bigger swallows it up, which seems to be the preferred exit for many tech entrepreneurs these days? Or just a cautionary tale about how screwed up things at Yahoo can be, even outside the boardroom? (The answers are “yes”, and “sure, why not,” respectively.) Either way, Mat’s story is worth a look:
How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet


Whatever Happened to the Paperless Office?

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer wrote about reading the news online versus on paper. After publicly swearing off of the NYT’s print edition, Shafer admitted that he’s back on print, and loving it (or, at least, accepting it). It’s a nicely considered piece, as he talks about how print offers certain advantages, such as how it’s easier to remember what he’d read about, and easier to avoid distractions and make it to the end.

In one respect, what he’s describing are affordances, inherent traits of an object that enable you to do something. The concept of affordance comes up a lot in research on how we choose what we use, such as reading print or reading online. Paper has certain affordances (permanence, easier to control, you can scrawl in the margins, etc), while digital has its own (Shafer points out that you can search easily and read news from far away). It gets really interesting when one technology starts to borrow affordances from another, such as the Kindle’s enabling readers to make notes or highlight text.

Anyway, Jack’s piece is worth a read. And it reminded me of a short piece that Wired commissioned me to write for the Future That Never Happened package last year (but which, sadly, was bumped for space). Lucky for you, I’ve dredged it up.

Whatever Happened to the Paperless Office?

As businesses started adopting word-processing systems in the late ‘70s, everything about the office was predicted to change. Within just a couple of decades, the modern office would be a paperless one. Or, as futurist Alvin Toffler put it after composing some of his 1980 book The Third Wave on a new computer: “…making paper copies of anything is a primitive use of such machines and violates their very spirit.”

Of course, Toffler copped to printing out his drafts. And we’d all go on to violate the spirits of our desktop helpers on a daily basis as paper consumption rose year after year. (Probably didn’t help that as we bought all those computers, we were also picking up printers.)

The real problem with the paperless office was that the notion was flawed to begin with. Paper can be inefficient at times, but there are reasons we keep coming back.

As the researchers Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper describe it in their 2002 study The Myth of the Paperless Office, paper has some special “affordances.” That is, it isn’t just a container for text, but can be touched, marked, repurposed, displayed, skimmed, and can cling urgently in the form of little yellow sticky notes on the edges of your monitor. While digital has key strengths like storage and distribution, paper has proven useful in other contexts, like collaborating with co-workers.

True, our consumption of uncoated free sheet—what we feed our printers—has started to decrease in recent years, suggesting more of our paper work really is becoming bits in the cloud. But we still bought almost 10 million tons of the hard stuff last year. It’s going to take a long time to shake the habit.

anticipation, irony, journalism, San Francisco

Chronicle of a Death Foretold?

This little news piece from 1981 is making the rounds. As the reporter notes, “this is only the first step in newspapers by computer”:

So many things to love here:

  • the “estimated two to three thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area”
  • the newspaper guy saying “and we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we’re not going to make much either.”
  • that the newspaper vendor is safe in his job, “for the moment”
  • that the reporter could be seen as believing it’s just the vendor who has to be worried
  • or maybe just that these two minutes of reportage, seen from a contemporary perspective, are shot through with a dreadful kind of irony.

Welcome to the future.