Life Blogging

Danny O’Brien’s Life Hacks talk at ETCon 2004 turned me on to two important things:

ETCON is about tech that geeks are using now that will cross the divide into mainstream soon.

All geeks have a todo.txt file. They use texteditors (Word, BBEd,Emacs, Notepad) not Outlook or whathaveyou…What we keep in our todo is the stuff we want to forget…It’s the 10-second rule: if you can’t file something in 10 seconds, you won’t do it. Todo.txt involves cut-and-paste, the simplest interface we can imagine.

Ok, so if 1) Geeks lead the mainstream, and 2) Geeks use todo.txt for some reason (more evidence of my geekiness: I have one on each computer and one online), then the question is why they use todo.txt. Danny argues that “it’s the interface, stupid“–text files are the simplest to update.

Agreed. But I would add that blogging too has been adopted by geeks at a terrific rate that has something to do with its easy interface, but that’s not all. I believe that there is something incredibly attractive about a medium that organizes information by chronological date. It has an advantage over categorized systems, which I have previously ranted against, in that it organizes in an inherently non-editorial nature.

But there are plenty of other ways to organize information without categorizing. Why has time come to play such an important role?

My contention is that it is because blogging is so far the only widespread computing tool that acknowledges its user is a human being in the real world. Despite the best efforts of our fast-forward culture, we can still be in only one place and do only one thing at a given time. We move through the world one step at a time, constantly changing and building on what has come before.

Yet our computing tools still present our information to us all at once. Every web page is available at all times, our applications wait ready to be used all at once. When we create for the web or using a computer, we produce something that intends to become permanent. Users get angry when content changes on the web, and organizations struggle to preserve digital content. For fun, watch Tufte, Neilsen, and Berners-Lee fight the impossible tide.

It’s the fundamental problem with Friendster/Orkut/YASNSs: they insist on providing computer functionality (optimization, networking, etc) to humans, while refusing to let human nature determine the way it is experienced–temporally, emotionally, subjectively).

That’s not the battle I intend to fight. Let the Internet Archive and Google worry about that. I am more concerned with how new content is created, and for that the interface is key.

The interface for blogging is by default one that mirrors the user’s life. Phil talks about his blog synchronizing with him, and I’ve named mine “my backup brain”. People blog about their cats, their love lives, their jobs, and while many are the subject of ridicule, they all represent a more human side of computing than has ever been enabled before. It acknowledges the dynamic nature of the author, excuses contradictions, and generally leaves computing functions to the computer and human functions to the human.

A possible interface for this type of interaction is something I call “the intelligent line”. Essentially this is a text-based interface where you enter thoughts one at a time, and then choose where to send it. The thought is automatically archived, sans labels and categorization, and timestamped to order it in the flow of thought. With a bit of setup, it could be configured to replace email, blogging, and chats. Here’s a very preliminary mockup (select it to enlarge):

thumbnail of a posting and browsing combination interface

Such an interface makes no value judgement about the content being created, but rather displays information in the order it comes in and out–much like we do in the real world, where you must concentrate on one speaker at a time in a conversation. It’s a powerful chat interface, essentially, with the chat participants ranging from friends to programs to your computer and websites. Simplicity defined, with the computer making the difficult decisions about routing, archiving, and categorization.

Any future successful technological advances will have in common their respect of the human lifestyle and mirror a human’s unique and limited I/O with their interface. Your move, Deep Blue.