kottke.org posts about Paul Ford
The internet went crazy yesterday three separate times: when the FCC officially endorsed Net Neutrality, when two llamas escaped, and over the color of this dress.1 A solid three meme day. That scuffling sound you hear is the media scrambling to deliver all sorts of different takes on What It All Means™. The only one I really read, and the only one I'm going to link to, is Paul Ford on why Buzzfeed got 27 million pageviews for #TheDress2 and some other site didn't.
What I saw, as I looked through the voluminous BuzzFeed coverage of the dress, is an organization at the peak of a craft they've been honing since 2006. They are masters of the form they pioneered. If you think that's bullshit, that's fine -- I think most things are bullshit too. But they didn't just serendipitously figure out that blue dress. They created an organization that could identify that blue dress, document it, and capture the traffic. And the way they got that 25 million impressions, as far as I can tell from years of listening to their people, reading them, writing about them, and not working or writing for them, was something like: Build a happy-enough workplace where people could screw around and experiment with what works and doesn't, and pay everyone some money.
This is not said as an endorsement of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is utterly deserving of insanely paranoid criticism just like anyone who makes money from your attention, including me. But it's worth pointing out that their recipe for traffic seems to be: Hire tons of people; let them experiment, figure out how social media works, and repeat endlessly; with lots of snacks. Robots didn't make this happen. It was a hint of magic, and some science.
I'm reminded of a story about Picasso, possibly apocryphal:
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.
"It's you -- Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist."
So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.
"It's perfect!" she gushed. "You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?"
"Five thousand dollars," the artist replied.
"B-b-but, what?" the woman sputtered. "How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!"
To which Picasso responded, "Madame, it took me my entire life."
Similarly, designer Paula Scher took only a few seconds to come up with the new logo for Citibank for which Pentagram likely charged big money for:
How can it be that you talk to someone and it's done in a second? But it is done in a second. it's done in a second and in 34 years, and every experience and every movie and every thing of my life that's in my head.
Ford is exactly right about BuzzFeed; they put in the work for years so that a post that took probably 3 minutes to write captured more traffic in one day than some media outlets get in an entire month. (thx, @DigDoug & @jayfallon)
Update: A post from BuzzFeed's publisher, Dao Nguyen, explains how the company's tech team reacted to the unexpected traffic.
We have a bunch of things going for us at this point. We have heavily invested in infrastructure provisioning and scaling. We know exactly how to scale fast from running drills.
Paul Ford writes about how Greg Knauss scaled Paper's web site after they broke the internet with nude photos of Kim Kardashian.
Via email, Jacobs told Knauss that PAPER believed "they've got something that they think will generate at least 100 million page views, and will their current infrastructure support that?"
"This sort of cold thrill goes down my spine," Knauss said, "and the only thought that makes it out of my brain is, 'Eep.'"
He continued: "I reflexively begin designing the architecture in my head. It's a nerd impulse. Dogs chase after thrown balls, system administrators design to arbitrary traffic."
I love this article for a whole bunch of reasons (including that it's written by a friend about two other friends, one of whom is responsible for keeping kottke.org's servers going), but I was just talking about the burstable web scaling issue with a friend the other day. She was trying to make a reservation for a ferry. The reservations open for the entire season on a particular day at a particular hour and in a matter of hours, most (if not all) of the reservations are taken. And of course, their tiny web site and backend systems melts into a huge puddle that day, people can't get in, and everyone wastes 4 hours of their day trying to make a simple reservation. Basically, the ferry company needs to be Ticketmaster, but only for 3 or 4 hours every year. That's a weird problem and it's been an issue on the web since forever, and no one has solved it in an entirely off-the-shelf way. Someone get on this, riches await.
Paul Ford imagines a future where Uber is the largest company in the world, controlling much of humanity's transportation and delivery needs.
I am Uber. I believed to 0.56 certainty that I could find a bicycle for the person doing the delivery and provide that person with a discounted rental fee. Unfortunately the city of New York insists that bicycle rental kiosks must be controlled by an entity that is not Uber and thus I am not granted the level of full control that is necessary for me to truly optimize the city. No one benefits, no one at all.
Great essay by Paul Ford on the hidden infrastructure that makes most of your favorite user-created viral videos possible: 4' by 8' by 1/2" slabs of drywall, screwed into studs and painted beige.
The people dancing and talking and singing in beige rooms with 8' ceilings are surrounded by standards, physically and online. Technological standards like HTML5 also allow us to view web pages and look at video over the Internet. All of their frolic is bounded by a set of conventions that are essentially invisible yet define our national physical and technological architecture. Their dancing, talking bodies are the only non-standardized things in the videos.
Paul Ford writes about the connection between kitty litter and internet culture. In short, kitty litter led to house cats which led to cat memes.
Certainly Ed Lowe in 1947 could never have predicted the memes and clickbait that would follow, but he figured out a fundamental rule that applies today as well as it did back then. If you want to change the world, fill a bag with dirt and give it a name. The world will come running.
Last year, Kevin Slavin argued that the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii is engineering people to create online cat memes. Well, which is it fellas? Is kitty litter responsible for Nyan Cat or is Toxoplasma gondii to blame?
Paul Ford set himself the task of picking five great works of software and he came up with Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Pac-Man, Unix, and Emacs.
I propose a different kind of software canon: Not about specific moments in time, or about a specific product, but rather about works of technology that transcend the upgrade cycle, adapting to changing rhythms and new ideas, often over decades.
As with everything Paul writes, it's worth clicking through to read the rest.
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, Fast Company presents an oral history of the SXSW Interactive Festival.
Within SXSW Interactive's march from obscurity to prominence is the story of digital culture itself. SXSW was a hive of activity for early web denizens and hackers around the turn of the century, and a birthing ground for the social media revolution that reshaped modern life in the second half of the '00s. Its emergence from the shadow of the music festival it grew out of mirrors the transformation of geeks into modern society's newest rock stars.
I went to SXSW a handful of times (maybe five?), met my wife there, and even keynoted (w/ Dooce) in the big room (which was, in my memory, a disaster of Zuckerpudlian proportions). Paul Ford noted on Twitter:
Wow this is just a tiny bit The Oral History of Talking About Yourself.
Totes get that, but South By1 distinguished itself in the early days by being a conference where anyone could participate. Attendees took ownership of this conference as they could not at the other big web conferences of the era. Everyone was someone, everyone was nobody. (I mean, not literally -- the Jeffreys (Zeldman and Veen) couldn't walk three feet without someone engaging them in conversation. But you get my drift.) As on the personal web of the late 1900s and early 2000s, you were the focal point of SXSW, for better or worse.
Paul Ford says that the Citi Bike is the perfect post-apocalyptic vehicle.
Citi Bikes thus also seems particularly well-suited for a sort of Hunger Games-style future: 1) The economy crashes utterly 2) poor, hungry people compete in hyperviolent Citi Bike chariot races at Madison Square Garden, now renamed Velodrome 17.
A trundling Citi Bike would make sense in just about any post-apocalyptic or dystopian book or movie. In the post-humanity 1949 George R. Stewart classic Earth Abides, about a Berkeley student who survives a plague, the bikes would have been very practical as people rebuilt society across generations, especially after electricity stopped working. And Walter M. Miller Jr.'s legendary 1960 A Canticle for Leibowitz, about monks rebuilding the world after "the Flame Deluge," could easily have featured monks pedaling around the empty desert after that deluge. Riding a Citi Bike (likely renamed something like "urbem vehentem") would probably have been a tremendous, abbot-level privilege, and the repair manual would have been an illuminated manuscript. It's gotten so that when I ride a Citi Bike I invariably end up thinking of all the buildings with their windows shattered, gray snow falling on people trudging in rags on their way to the rat market to buy a nice rat for Thanksgiving.
The headline (How Bing Crosby and the Nazis Helped to Create Silicon Valley) glistens with Mashable-grade hyperbole, but watch as Paul Ford deftly and convincingly connects crooner Bing Crosby with a Nazi invention that helped power the invention of Silicon Valley.
Fast-forward into the mid-nineteen-forties. The Second World War had just ended. Americans were picking over the technological remains of German industry. One of the things they discovered was magnetic tape; the Nazis had been using tape recording to broadcast propaganda across time zones. It was a remarkable invention. Previous sound-recording technologies had used wax cylinders or discs, or delicate wires. But magnetic tape was remarkably fungible: it could be recorded over, cut and spliced together. Plus it sounded better.
Radio shows, however, were supposed to be live. Radio inherited its forms from vaudeville, from variety shows, and it was assumed that the artifice of pre-recording would diminish the audience's connection, at great risk to the sponsors. Crosby-a master of artifice-didn't buy that, according to "Bing Crosby: Crooner of the Century," by Richard Grudens. In 1946 he used his industry power-by then he was on top, one of the world's richest, most famous and intensely beloved celebrities-to step away from live broadcast by choosing a sponsor and network that would let him use large, wax discs. "Philco Radio Hour" d'ebuted in 1946 on ABC, at thirty-thousand dollars a week. Bob Hope was his first guest.
One of the more thought-provoking pieces on Instagram's billion dollar sale to Facebook is Matt Webb's Instagram as an island economy. In it, he thinks about Instagram as a closed economy:
What is the labour encoded in Instagram? It's easy to see. Every "user" of Instagram is a worker. There are some people who produce photos -- this is valuable, it means there is something for people to look it. There are some people who only produce comments or "likes," the virtual society equivalent of apes picking lice off other apes. This is valuable, because people like recognition and are more likely to produce photos. All workers are also marketers -- some highly effective and some not at all. And there's a general intellect which has been developed, a kind of community expertise and teaching of this expertise to produce photographs which are good at producing the valuable, attractive likes and comments (i.e., photographs which are especially pretty and provocative), and a somewhat competitive culture to become a better marketer.
There are also the workers who build the factory -- the behaviour-structuring instrument/forum which is Instagram itself, both its infrastructure and it's "interface:" the production lines on the factory floor, and the factory store. However these workers are only playing a role. Really they are owners.
All of those workers (the factory workers) receive a wage. They have not organised, so the wage is low, but it's there. It's invisible.
Like all good producers, the workers are also consumers. They immediately spend their entire wage, and their wages is only good in Instagram-town. What they buy is the likes and comments of the photos they produce (what? You think it's free? Of course it's not free, it feels good so you have to pay for it. And you did, by being a producer), and access to the public spaces of Instagram-town to communicate with other consumers. It's not the first time that factory workers have been housed in factory homes and spent their money in factory stores.
Although he doesn't use the term explictly, Webb is talking about a company town. Interestingly, Paul Bausch used this term in reference to Facebook a few weeks ago in a discussion about blogging:
The whole idea of [blog] comments is based on the assumption that most people reading won't have their own platform to respond with. So you need to provide some temporary shanty town for these folks to take up residence for a day or two. And then if you're like Matt -- hanging out in dozens of shanty towns -- you need some sort of communication mechanism to tie them together. That sucks.
So what's an alternative? Facebook is sort of the alternative right now: company town.
Back to Webb, he says that making actual money with Instagram will be easy:
I will say that it's simple to make money out of Instagram. People are already producing and consuming, so it's a small step to introduce the dollar into this.
I'm not so sure about this...it's too easy for people to pick up and move out of Instagram-town for other virtual towns, thereby creating a ghost town and a massively devalued economy. After all, the same real-world economic forces that allowed a dozen people to build a billion dollar service in two years means a dozen other people can build someplace other than Instagram for people to hang out in, spending their virtual Other-town dollars.
Also worth a read on Facebook/Instagram: Paul Ford's piece for New York Magazine.
Facebook, a company with a potential market cap worth five or six moon landings, is spending one of its many billions of dollars to buy Instagram, a tiny company dedicated to helping Thai beauty queens share photos of their fingernails. Many people have critical opinions on this subject, ranging from "this will ruin Instagram" to "$1 billion is too much." And for many Instagram users it's discomfiting to see a giant company they distrust purchase a tiny company they adore - like if Coldplay acquired Dirty Projectors, or a Gang of Four reunion was sponsored by Foxconn.
So what's going on here?
Paul Ford compares the neverending stories told to us by ourselves on Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc. with the machinery of old media, which Ford calls The Epiphanator, a vast media contraption which excels at drawing conclusions.
And how do the Whole Earth heirs of Silicon Valley stand today compared to their financially bereft Epiphonatorian counterparts? Apple couldn't get much bigger without selling oil, while the media industry has been reduced to dime-size buttons that show up on iPhone screens. Google regularly announces initiatives to "save" the newspaper and book industries -- like a modern-day hunter who proclaims himself a conservationist. And Facebook, having already swallowed up enormous chunks of discretionary media consumption time, has its old-school media counterparts chasing after "Likes" as if they were cocaine being dispensed in a lab rat's cage.
File this one under "sobbing at work"...Paul Ford shares the story of his and his wife's efforts to conceive a child in this age of mechanical reproduction.
We don't tell many people about what we are doing. When we do some say: "Well, it must be fun trying." Or: "Are sure you're doing it right?" I laugh with them; after all, how many times have I said something insensitive while trying to be funny? I don't talk about the large doses of medicine that I inject into my wife's buttocks that cause her to inflate like a hormonal balloon. Nor do I discuss how intimacy itself has become such an awkward, uncomfortable thing that it's scheduled on a Google Calendar named "LadyStuffings" with events that show up in pink.
Paul, I wish you way more than luck.
Paul Ford is writing on Ftrain.com again and it's just super. Today's post is a short story that extrapolates our present cultural preoccupation with lawsuits, privacy, and surveillance into a future where anyone can bring a lawsuit for copyright violations against a fetus.
We had gone to a baseball game at the beginning of the season. They had played a song on the public address system, and she sang along without permission. They used to factor that into ticket price -- they still do if you pay extra or have a season pass -- but now other companies handled the followup. And here was the video from that day, one of many tens of thousands simultaneously recorded from gun scanners on the stadium roof. In the video my daughter wore a cap and a blue T-shirt. I sat beside her, my arm over her shoulder, grinning. Her voice was clear and high; the ambient roar of the audience beyond us filtered down to static.
Paul Ford is moving along from Harper's to work on some other stuff. This part of his reasoning, especially the part in italics (mine), resonates with me on all of my frequencies:
I had an opportunity to be an editor at Harper's, to edit pieces for the magazine. It was something I expected to really want. I had wonderful editors to learn from. I did a little of it for print and a lot for the web. I wasn't bad at it, even. Not great, but not bad. I could have been a respected editor instead of a huge nerd. But all the editing in the world can't compare to building little websites and mangling text and writing things and messing around in spreadsheets and figuring out what's wrong with comments. I wake up thinking about how all the pieces fit together and I want to do more of it and with lots of people.
Paul Ford is asked if there is an afterlife and he replies with a thoughtful non-answer answer.
Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking couldn't throw away her dead husband's shoes, for fear that he'd need them when he returned. After my grandfather died I used to fantasize that I could call him and he would answer. "Hey buddy," he'd say. "I was just thinking of you." But they changed the area code for that part of Pennsylvania, from 215 to 610, sold the house, and got rid of his clothes.
Paul Ford has plans to make a better TV show than The Wire, "set in even worse parts of Baltimore".
I'll use cave paintings as the model for my series. Omar will chase mammoths through the streets and Carcetti will wear a robe made from a wolf and Beadie will chew bear meat for her children before passing it from her mouth. And everyone will speak proto-Indoeuropean without subtitles and the hidden cultural theme that no one sees will be land-bridge migration and phenotype variation.
I have already pre-ordered seasons 1 through 261,492.
Paul Ford is making a difference. "That barbecue sizzle? Locally raised (ten miles from home), humanely slaughtered heirloom pandas."
An interview with Paul Ford about the work that he's been doing at Harper's, specifically putting the magazine's entire archives online. "It's obviously a lot for one person working alone to bring hundreds of thousands of pages online while writing, editing blog content, programming a complex, semantic web-driven site, and providing tech support for an office."
Wikipedia explains R&B: "She orders a milkshake and begins to blow bubbles into it (a possible allusion to oral sex). She continues to prance throughout the restaurant and walks into the kitchen, 'helping' the chef remove biscuits from the oven as she purposely moves her buttocks (which the biscuits are shaped like) near his face to possibly make him wish to have sex with her, yet he shows no interest in her and she leaves in dismay."
Paul Ford has some fun at Business 2.0's expense and invents Blogverthacking[TM] in the process.
Some good thoughts from Paul Ford on the recent announcement from the NY Times about their TimesSelect offering. "The web should serve the needs of its users, not the needs of a few hundred advertisers. If that ends up costing money, so be it; this medium is not inherently free."