18 May 2012

Come and get it

Back in the heady days of the first dot com boom, when I had my first grownup design job making state-of-the-art websites using HTML 2.0 and horrible table layouts, there was a lot of chatter about whether people "got" the Web or not. Project managers with copies of the Industry Standard tucked under their tribally-tattooed arms would wax poetic on how important it was to "get" the Web, by which they meant how important it was for clients to trustingly write checks to companies that hadn't existed the previous month and who still hadn't quite finalized their business model. The party line was that the Web would make all previous modes of communication and commerce obsolete in ways you couldn't imagine. What ways, you ask? Sounds like someone doesn't "get" the Web.

I was a cynic then, and I became more of a cynic after I eventually got laid off after the bubble burst in 2002, but even buzzwords can be true sometimes. By the mid 2000's I had left dot coms for dot edus and was working at my present job at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College. One initiative I introduced was to produce our own audio tours and distribute them on click wheel iPods, which were at the time cutting edge. The tours worked well with two issues: first, some visitors didn't have the tightest grasp on those slick little bricks and the hard drives inside were not so resistant to four-foot drops; and second, many of our elder visitors didn't "get" the iPod. They would ask for instructions and I would explain how to use the wheel to select a piece of audio and then to play it and then how to adjust the volume and then—

"Wait, didn't you say the wheel was for selecting a recording?"


"Now you say it's for making it louder."

"Yes, but—"

"Well, which is it, young man? It can't be both."

I must have explained those iPods hundreds of times over the years we used them (we're switching to mobile HTML5 apps as soon as I can figure those out) and over time I realized that the underlying issue older visitors had with the devices was the contextual nature of the controls. For those of us who had come of age using general purpose devices, the idea of one button, one feature would be absurd. But for these visitors, an audio tour meant punching a number into a phone-shaped player. One number, one recording, the way God intended. 

I was thinking of those frustrated visitors recently when it dawned on me exactly why I hate texting. Yes, I have become an old man myself and yes, I've discovered the first bit of new technology that I don't "get." What's puzzled me is why I've had such a negative response to texting, given my history: I was in the first generation to have home computers back when they called them home computers. I IRC'ed and Usenetted in the days before the Web and taught myself to code HTML by hand. Okay, so I started blogging ten years after blogs were a thing, but I've never been one to not at least give tech a chance. And texting? That's just sending words over a phone, why the hate?

The answer came to me when I was responding to a text from my daughter. We were at PAX East together and had split up so she could attend a session while I took my son to the expo floor. She sent me a text asking for navigational help and I started to respond when she sent me another text complaining about the quality of the map she was using. I was still responding to the first text when she texted again with another question and asked me to hurry up and why was I such a loser. Then I realized: I was trying to text asynchronously as though I were having an email conversation and she was using text as a form of synchronous chat. I was irritated because I wanted it to be one or the other but it's both, and that's why this generation of users likes it so much; you can initiate a conversation as either real-time or taking turns and then switch it up as you like.

But an old grump like me wants either-or. I like the epistolary nature of email and I like the ephemeral nature of chat and I like the idea of different ways to communicate. So now that I know what the issue is, I'm left with the question. Do I "get" texting and just not like it? Or if I really "got" it, wouldn't I embrace it? 

1 comment:

  1. I think the problem is not with you, but with your daughter. She's using texting when a phone call would be better (back-and-forth conversation). Texting should be for quick hits, yes-or-no, when you don't want to get into a big thing. Complex negotiation doesn't work over texts, but the younger generation is too enamored with it to select it only when it's the most effective communication. It should be one item on the buffet, not the only way to talk.