October 09, 2014

Episode One Hundred and Seventy Five: Housekeeping; Private In Public; It's The Basics

0.0 Sitrep


8:20pm in a coffee house next to a Chevron in Oregon City having dropped off my father-in-law to a square dancing night to which I now know far more than I ever really wanted to know about the lives of seniors and retirees. This is the bit where if I'm narrating the TV show of my life I say something like "And here's how I knew I was growing up: driving my father-in-law to a dance, and chaperoning him, telling him no, I wasn't going to let him get a ride back home that night and that I was going to wait up for him instead, that there were things I wanted to do and instead we both knew that I wanted to keep an eye on him. So here I was, nursing a coffee at 8:22pm in the evening, wondering who he was dancing with, who he was meeting, and what he was doing out late at night."
 

1.0 Housekeeping


A short one, this, but a change in policy: I now presume that all replies to this newsletter are private correspondence. I'll ask you before I quote anything you say when you email me a note. 

Part of the reason for this is a private exchange I've had with one of my readers that exposed a bunch of stuff that I've done that I don't feel very comfortable with and doesn't reflect the kind of person that I want to be. Another part is Justin Hall's talk at this year's XOXO - that isn't online yet, but I'll link to it when it is. The main thing being an issue of consent and (mis)representing other people. Hall saw this in his early years because he presumed that because he lived his life online that meant he had blanket consent from the people in his life that *just by knowing him* they would be OK with the intersection of their life and his being online too. And we know now, after having both grown up on the internet and growing up in general, that things are a lot more complicated than that. That the act of publishing on the internet, that free speech on the internet necessarily conflicts with others' autonomy. 

There's a decision that I have to make about *how* I write this in the easy way (unedited, stream of consciousness) and the good and bad things about that method. I've said before that one of my concerns is what that stream of consciousness shows me about the delta between how I act and how I say I act, or how I act and how I *want* to act. So, first step: all correspondence is private, and I will ask for explicit consent before I talk about you, or something you've sent me. 
 

2.0 Private In Public


I've been thinking quite a bit about tilde.club[1], Paul Ford's performance reminiscing of what it was like to have a shell account in the early years of the 'net. If you were a student in the 90s, you probably got a Unix shell account and had a public website address at http://some.college.edu/~username/ or if you had a Demon or Pipex dial-up SLIP/PPP account in the UK you probably had something like http://your.isp.here.net/~songtwo/. At University, my first account was at http://www-stu.cai.cam.ac.uk/~dyh21/ and there are friends I have now whose usernames still carry over from the ones against those shell accounts.

There's something about tilde.club, though that has been preying on my mind. There's the exhortation that it isn't a social network, but I think that's only true in the sense that it's not a 2014-era social network. It's not something where you Follow people or Like things: Ford's right in that it's just a common-garden Unix box running as a micro ec2 instance, that just comes with the regular collaboration software that's been accreting as part of a standard Unix distro (talk, wall, public web directories and now an IRC server). The thing that tilde.club is *really*, and the thing that I see that people like Ford think is beautiful about it is that it's a community space. And that's what the earliest social networks were designed to be, until they became the perverted commercial spaces that are now a part of existing on the internet. 

In that sense, what tilde.club feels like, for those into their net.lore is the founding of communities like The Well, or the original dial-up ISPs that were run by what we'd now call neckbeards but actually were just run by People Who Wanted To Talk To Other People And Use This New Thing Called The Internet. Part of the thing is that the claim that "anyone can start up another tilde.club" is part true and part false: part of what's valuable about tilde.club is the people, not the infrastructure. Yes, the optimism is fantastic but the optimism in the early tilde.club users is more about people who get where Ford is coming from and where he wants to go with it - it came with the people, not the fact that this is a tiny little Unix instance running in an abstracted Cloud using the same tools and interfaces through which a bunch of now-successful people cut their teeth on in the 90s. 

This has always happened though: it's part of what the internet does in terms of making things that are usually private public, or at least more visible. It is harder, now that we have the internet, to have a closed, private group of friends and not expose that grouping to the public. It's the kind of thing that happens when people hear about O'Reilly's FOO Camp and it sounds like a sinister cabal when in reality, it's a bunch of like-minded people getting together in private, but in public. 

Perhaps what contributes to the slight feeling of unease is this techno-utopian fallacy that because Information Wants To Be Free (because how else would that infinitely long Turing tape work, right?) everything should be public and why would people want to have closed groups anyway? Everyone should be friends with everyone, and keeping secrets means bad things are happening. This means people can't talk behind closed doors anymore, this means that the egalitarian anyone-can-join-in nature of the what the internet sometimes feels like (and the way in which the open-source movement is predicated upon anyone being able to contribute) conflicts with what humans *actually* turn out to be in practice, which is a bunch of cliques and groups through no real desire to want to do Bad Things. 

Of course, if I did want to do bad things (and I'm well aware of the rhetorical device I'm using here), I would say something like: well, what's the gender balance of tilde.club accounts like? Is it implicitly just supporting existing power structures? And is there anything wrong with a bunch of like-minded people getting together? Does Ford, for example, have some sort of higher duty to be inclusive?

Another way of looking at this is simply that the internet lets more of us have private in-jokes in public. That there are references that some people will get and others won't get and now we have to think even more than ever before as to whether that's OK. 

If you take a look at the people who're in tilde.club, they read like a kind of who's who of early web culture. There are people there who have done wonderful, amazing things for the web and the internet and bringing people together, so there's a part of me that absolutely doesn't want to sound like I'm shitting on them from a great height. There's also, if I'm being perfectly honest, part of me that's looking at the club - because it's got the word club in it! - and feeling excluded and not part of the in crowd, which probably says as much about me and my sense of self-esteem as it does anything else, because by all accounts if I'd actually bothered to apply for an account when I first saw Ford tweet about it, I'd probably be excitedly telling you about my new ~dyh21/ account right now. 

A thing that I wanted to do was to go and register a domain and start another tilde.club instance: because Ford's point is true: this is a good thing, and fostering this kind of community *is* a good thing. He's written about it, for crying out loud, quite eloquently[2] and I'd like to see more of these things. 

I suppose one thing is this: people having fun on the internet is indistinguishable from seriousness. It's hard enough to infer internal motive and we're terrible at working out peoples' motivations for things and are always comparing our insides to their outsides. Having fun in public is the kind of thing that, by necessity and due to its nature will attract attention. I don't quite know where that goes. 

Another thing is that it feels like there's a bunch of nostalgia for a smaller, simpler web - and that in a way this is literal nostalgia for the types of accounts that people had when you did Monty Python miner skits about how you hand-rolled HTML in a text editor on a server and you had to FTP stuff uphill both ways and most stuff was done in Perl and yadda yadda yadda. That deal with tilde.club is *optimism* and a green-fieldness, that maybe by pretending everything and everyone is on a tiny Unix instance we can roll back to the 90s and not have this corporate dominated net and some of the free-for-all that some people - but certainly not the millions who've come onto the internet since then, have appreciated. This was a net without DMCA takedowns, without automated copyright infringement bots, without terms of service violations, without dubious claims as to copyright over user-submitted content. A net where you could do things and you didn't have to be worried about *everyone* seeing it, where you could carve out a little space all over again and explore who you were. Does that still exist for other people? Is that why Tumblr's a big deal? I quipped that there was something that *felt* wonderfully indie about tilde.club, without actually being Capital I Indie Web Indie. 

Too long, didn't read: just read Danny O'Brien's piece from 2003[3], which let me emphasise is OVER TEN YEARS OLD and realise that nothing is new and that we just keep doing the same things, over and over again and also that Danny is one of the smartest people I know and I miss NTK[4] so much.

[1] tilde.club
[2] tilde.club/~ford/
[3] The Register - Danny O'Brien / Oblomovka
[4] Need to Know

 

3.0 It's The Basics


Whirlpool emailed me today - a sentence that requires explaining in the first place ("What do you mean a company emailed you?") to tell me that as a "as a loyal member of the Whirlpool brand family, we want to share a first look at our new campaign, launching to the public on National TV the week of October 6. Be the first to watch our new video below."

In my new guise as Content Director, I feel like I get to have more of an opinion about this stuff than before, when I was "just" a Creative Director in advertising. For starters: what makes me a loyal member of the Whirlpool brand family? Who even talks like that, other than out-of-touch brand managers? For all this talk of tone of voice and brand voice, what makes a regular person, a *user*, a point-at-this-person-in-the-street a *loyal* member? 

Do I go to Whirlpool user groups? Do I sit around and flick through albums of my favourite Whirlpool appliances through the ages? I mean, I have no doubt that there *are* people who are doing that, who have encyclopaedic knowledge of Whirlpool and its lore. But I think what *probably* happened is that I signed up my gmail address at some point sometime - presumably when Whirlpool announced that they were integrating with Nest[1] and finding out more about that sounded interesting - but that doesn't make me *loyal*. That makes me *vaguely interested* to receive information that I can throw in the trash with a simple gesture. 

There is no, as I pointed out on Twitter, shrine-to-Whirlpool in my basement that I've been accreting over the last ten years. I am not one of Whirlpool's Thousand True Fans. 

And really, a Whirlpool Brand Family? *Really*?

But then, let's take a look at their new brand campaign, Everday, Care[2]. Now, you should take this with the grain of salt that goes along with someone who's been in brand advertising for the last few years and is on the one hand acutely aware of how well it can work, but also is acutely aware of *what it doesn't do*.

The brand campaign looks like it's designed to forge an emotional connection with, I don't know, the person or people who are going to buy new Whirlpool appliances. It's not a play for technical specifications or purchasing-by-feature-list, instead it's a play straight for the irrational part of the brain that will have you think: Whirlpool *gets* me and wants good things for my family. It is a play for the bottom-third of Maslow's pyramid: Whirlpool wants the best for your family, wants you to feel safe, wants you to understand that *they* understand that the chores that you're doing every day aren't just chores, they're *important*, damnit.

Look, here's the brand ad[3] script I've just transcribed:
Every day:
we cook,
we clean,
we wash.
But these simple acts are more than chores.
While seemingly insignificant or annoying,
these daily tasks are actually something far greater.
Each act of care
each gesture of kindness,
reprograms our brains.
Forming bonds of attachment and love,
weaving the very fabric of our society more tightly,
making our world smarter,
    SUPER: Conversation at dinner can impact a child's vocabulary more than reading to them
stronger,
    SUPER: Not having clean clothes to wear is a leading contributor to truancy rates
and a better place to live.
    SUPER: Household chores help kids become self-sufficient adults.
That's why whirlpool is introducing the every day, care project.
To show the power of these simple acts.
To help families and communities thrive.
To prove the value of care in ways that are bigger than us all.
Because when we all care,
every day,
we can change the world.

Super: The Every day, care project
Card: Whirlpool / Designed to Simplify
This is where we're at right now in terms of western society: a multi-million dollar brand campaign around household appliances and how they will change the world and fix a broken society. And not, you know, about appliances that *actually work* when you need them to work, or are more reliable, or save you time. 

[1] Whirlpool: Works With Nest
[2] Whirlpool: Every day, care
[3] Whirlpool: Every day, care Brand Spot / :93 cut

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Annoyed at advertising. Send me notes.

Dan