Category Archives: digital matters

The Nominal Network: When Things Go Asocial

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Location-based social networks like Connect and Highlight alert you to people who happen to be near your current location. By “people,” we essentially mean friends or those with similar interests (friends of friends). For a fee, SocialRadar even allows you to hook in LinkedIn contacts for quick access to someone’s  professional details (or – eek! their connections!) on the go.

And then there’s Cloak, the polar opposite – a reverse model because you’d actually prefer to avoid bumping into said people on the street. It works the same way as the others, but Cloak has a very different user interface to differentiate its purpose – dark and mysterious, with a setting that makes the phone vibrate anytime someone is within a distance of your choosing.

Cloak is social rehab – for those who want to avoid an ex, a client, a mutual social malcontent. Connections remain where we can browse them, at a safe distance and at our convenience in the two dimensional space of digital terroir.

In a similar vein, Breather advertises “Peace and quiet, on demand.” It’s essentially a room-rental service where users can find and rent rooms by the hour – ideally to take a nap, meet with clients, work, or to meditate.

Are we around each other so much that we’re actually fighting for the opportunity to be left alone?

Historically, digital tools were developed for connecting us to one another in order to share and spread information. With the overwhelming amount of ways to do that, it’s only natural that we start craving some distance, allowing ourselves to disconnect for actual Headspace (ironically there’s an app for that, too).

Come to think of it, we’re awfully hard on ourselves and these tools are strong evidence of that. I’d like to see an app that encourages me to be lazy on the weekends. Or better yet, the reverse of a to-do list – a blank screen allowing me to willing enter what I  did that day without the hassle of a pseudo digital nanny.

Today, I:

Ate a salad for lunch. Did 30 minutes of cardio. Thought happy thoughts. Didn’t run into anyone too horrible. And, actually remembered – without any alerts – to pick up rice milk on the way home!

 Yay for me!  Little Things!

At the end of the day perhaps I’m not going to avoid anybody or anything, except maybe trust the real world a little more, take a deep breath, and avoid anything beeping or blinking coming from my phone.

Secrets And Whispers: The Social Limits Of An Anonymous Internet

Secret - Speak Freely

“If you could kill someone once a year and get away with it, would you?”

This was an anonymous message posted to the app Secret and according to its algorithm, was written by someone I know.

Users were outraged and dismayed at the words, quickly posting comments like  “get help” and “what’s wrong with you?!”

I was somewhat reassured by the decibel level, readjusting my social antennae slightly towards some semblance of moral compass. The reactions served as a reminder that oftentimes in social media, communities tend to police themselves.

It got me thinking. Was the writer serious – or was he or she merely taking advantage of the medium to be controversial?

Will we ever really know what kind of friends we have? And what does that say about us? (Am I that messed up too?!)

Secret and Whisper are mobile apps that allow users to anonymously post thoughts generally 1-sentence in length. The unmoderated submissions  range from from fluffy to business-ish  (e.g. Silicon Valley rants and rumours) to the profound. The delight lies in where these topics intersect –  a technological venn diagram distributing random missives to the masses.

Twenty years ago at the dawn of the popular internet, anonymity was de rigeur. Digital omnivores created arbitrary handles and sent requests for information only when we could confirm, to the best of our naive ability, that the information sent was heavily encrypted on the receiving side.

With each considering keystroke of our credit card we added a fake layer of security, a counteragent framed of deliberation and trust.

Tap, tap. Tap, tap. I. Am. Trusting. This.

In chatrooms and private messages we reduced our identity to the most basic credentials.

30/f. New York City.

We placed a premium on self-disclosure.

In recent years, these allowances turned a significant corner. Not only did we become eager to share our personal information but we did so in a way to showcase our best possible self. This showmanship comes at a price –  there’s no ability to retreat from the real world through anonymous browsing or mutual confession.

Disappearing messages are also of trend.  In this model, content disappears after a preselected duration of seconds. Most evidenced is the wild success of SnapChat, who turned down a $3B (yes, billion) offer from Facebook, deciding instead to retain ownership and go forth on their own.

The messaging service was rendered primarily for serving the needs of a typical lowest common denominator, in this case sexting. While the postings aren’t anonymous, their temporal nature provides a semblance of safety since in theory, the content will no longer exist thirty seconds from now.

Online privacy has always been a hotbed issue, and anonymity with some added ephemerality appear to be good partners  for communicating in today’s closely monitored world.

Perhaps these expedients serve instead as counteragents;  a fallback solution until we discover the real technological lifecycle here.Even if messages allegedly  “disappear” or post without provenance, there’s a precedent-setting case waiting to happen if these postings can in fact be tracked. If a threatening message is shared, will the government intervene? Should they?

Given the level of trust in digital security today, it would be little surprise if these messages were not traceable.

After all, when the message is sent, after the tiny bit of information is posted to a server somewhere, ownership is transferred from the creator to the owner along with social currency of unfair supposition. Context is lost and the message becomes subject to whomever has the largest fists and holds its grip the tightest.

Ultimately, who holds the strings?

Let’s again go back twenty years. Let’s say I took a photo (let’s say, just for fun with one of those sassy disposable cameras). I had it developed at the local drugstore and kept  the album at home. Would the government have the right to search my house?  Would they have the right to search the records from the drugstore without probable cause? And who defines probable cause, if, like my friend who posted on Secret, we’re clearly all a bit nuts?

If secure, tools like Snapchat and Secret enable us to exercise our first amendment rights. We can speak, question, and share freely without running the risk of being held to either substance or context. This goes back to the beginning of the popular internet when it was less about oversharing and more about simply…connecting.

However, this right should be exercised with caution. If  you don’t have anything nice to say…it probably shouldn’t be posted at all.

App Review: Beats Music

Beats Music

Beats Music focuses squarely on playlists, employing a sharp user interface and restricted color scheme that allows a vast amount of content to shine through.

Both brand and interface rely heavily on iOS7 aesthetic  – flat design, subtle navigation cues and circular icon sets, disregarding the skeuomorphic approach we’ve come to know and understand through erstwhile brushed chrome and faux veneers à la Apple’s Newsstand.

Both the web and mobile experiences are vibrant, mostly due to the sheer amount of content the product has to offer. A grid-based layout contains large type in very small amounts, making it easy to scroll through an abundance of featured or suggested content. And there’s lots.

There are suggested playlists based around genre and/or decade (“Indie Music from 1993”.) There are novelty playlists based around band or topic (“Songs about Sex by Pulp”, “Cool Jazz for Studying”.) There are so-called rarities added in for good measure (“Radiohead B-sides”.)  And then, there are tappable full-length albums interspersed throughout.

Impressively, the app’s feature set doesn’t rely on an activity feed or filter set. There’s so much curated content custom-tailored to the user’s preferences that the social aspect, or even a searchable one, is rendered moot.

Curiously, the commodification of actual full-length records is almost cleverly masked within the music sequencing landscape. Songs are presented within a diversified yet continuous audio experience ripe with discovery and reconnoitre.

That’s not to say that the idea of an album is lost altogether. Browsing Beats Music is not unlike exploring a record store, vibrant and full of data points. There are sections organized by genre, varying formats with subsequent cover sizes (vinyl, CD, cassette, box), staff picks to read, end caps for checking out new releases, and featured albums.

If browsing playlists isn’t your thing, you can cut to the chase by filling out a mad-libs type sentence that generates a playlist based on how you feel at that particular moment.

In the same spirit, the last screen delivers playlists exactly two taps away from getting what you want, without even being sure what it is you want in the first place. The user can choose from a list of activities – “sleep,” “wake up,” “ work out,”  “study” – with a second tap that takes you to a list of playlists for selecting the mood that suits you best.

Content wise, the playlists themselves are good. They contain predictable picks and fun surprises, throwbacks and other well curated material, encouraging the user to trust the DJ and literally forgive any passable songs along the way. These are playlists for people who know what they want…but not really.

Unlike Spotify, Rdio, and its competitors, Beats Music does away with recommending albums or providing “charts” upon launch of the application. As well, it performs well without everyone in your circle shouting at you with their suggestions or listening history from the sidelines.

The major differences in Beats compared to a Spotify or Rdio is plentiful. First, Beats is less of a straight-up jukebox. A user can create playlists but they’re hidden in the background. The emphasis lies less in crafting playlists and more on hearing what you’re in the mood to listen to – without having to do any of the work involved.

The player itself is also subtle, sitting on the bottom of the screen. There is no big play button or call to action.  It’s 2013 and apps have been around for 7 years now – we know what to do.

As your average skeptic in both the music and technology mindset, I do have a few concerns.

The first is that the library itself doesn’t dig deep enough. The inclusion of new bands may be due partly to pending licensing deals, if any, that are too fresh to go through the programming process.

What about exclusives, covers, remixes, and other goodies typically buried somewhere in a dark corner of the internet?

Conversely, it is a safe presumption to make that Beats will eventually feature advance record releases – historically, a natural way for driving users to online streaming music service providers.

Lastly, how often will content be refreshed? Will I need to scrap my preferences and start over to get more?

Only time will tell as this sharp, resonant product continues to evolve.

100 Urban Trends

Screen shot 2013-05-28 at 11.57.27 AM

We recently launched 100 Urban Trends, an interactive glossary concepted and written by the curatorial team at the BMW Guggenheim Lab. It was featured in Participatory City: 100 Urban Trends, an interactive exhibit that ran at the Guggenheim Museum from October 11, 2013–January 5, 2014.

100 Trends showcases the most talked-about urban trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s three global stops to date. The interactive feature was designed by Collective Assembly in conjunction with graphic designers Sulki & Min with technical assistance from Bruce Knack.

My role was to help translate the printed version into a compelling online experience through managing all aspects of digital production.

See it in action here: 100urbantrends.com

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Weekend Reads: Bits and Bytes

dude with banjo (soho, nyc)

dude with banjo (soho, nyc)

Disruptions: Digital Era Redefining Etiquette
Think of how long it takes to access your voice mail and listen to one of those long-winded messages. In text messages, you don’t have to declare who you are, or even say hello.

Living With Less. A Lot Less.
The many things I consumed ended up consuming me.

The Surreal Side of Endless Information
Will Google and Amazon turn us into anxious information machines?

The Perils of Perfection
The dominant ideology of Silicon Valley today is: what could be disrupted should be disrupted — even death.

Same As It Ever Was: Hipsters Move to the Suburbs, Fancy Themselves Pioneers