We're Boring, They're Sexting

Several weeks ago, Josh Miller wrote a fascinating article about digital trends as seen through the eyes of his fifteen-year-old sister. Offering insight into the behavioral traits of a generation born into a digitally-interconnected world, Miller's findings unsurprisingly prompted a vast amount of commentary and discussion.

Funnily enough, the response was almost unilaterally dismissive. Although people certainly recognized the viability of Miller's testimony, there was a distinct undertone of incredulity and doubt. Miller and his peers framed the findings as though various properties like Instagram and Tumblr were being misused by young people — that these platforms were built for altogether different purposes and young people simply haven't yet grasped these fundamental truths.

The reason for this response is that technologists are largely unsociable and tend to fear change. We're an early-adopting, forward-thinking, and politically-versatile group, but when someone interferes with our data and our products and our use-cases, we grow disproportionately angry. We don't use Instagram to take photos of friends, nor do we use Snapchat to fill our spare time. We hate Twitter for pandering to a newer, larger audience of people and we find Facebook beguiling for its increasingly intrusive behavior.

Sitting on the front porch of our quaint weblogs and latte-art-filled Instagram accounts, we're collectively yelling at the kids playing in the street using these platforms in newerhappier, and increasingly care-free ways. These kids have been born into a world of social networking and privacy concerns are literally the last things on their minds. They're just looking for the next best way to chat, flirt, and sext their way into each other's bedrooms, whilst we continue to perpetuate unwritten societal rules of etiquette for Twitter and Facebook.

As we saw with the sudden rise of Snapchat, apps can exist and be popularized without the widespread attention of the tech community. We were abruptly hit with a wave of coverage of the sext-enabling app and each of us stood dumbstruck that such a colosal app could've slipped past us.

If I were a betting man, I'd wager heavily that this trend will only grow in strength. For as long as we hold onto our shredded tatters of privacy and dominance, we'll blind ourselves to the possibilities inherent within the digital infrastructure we've all helped create.

In a month or two, when Twitter truly begins to shutter its API support for apps like Tweetbot, the technology community irrationally believes that it'll bring about the death of the service. That is most certainly not what is going to happen.

Twitter is deprecating its support for an insignificant power user segment that has been impotently threatening to leave en masse for over a year. And it's doing so because there's an enormous population of people using Twitter for altogether different purposes than we care to consider or grace with our arrogant presence. It's looking to make money from a demographic of sociable, connected, and care-free users that are using Twitter for the sake of its features, not the way its app ecosystem works.

The ramifications for third party developers and power users are tragic, but Twitter is in the business of moving with the trends of the Internet-using public. And those trends are markedly different than those of the power user segment.

As a further wager — and this is a big one — the next big app in the social space will be Tinder.

It's a well-designed app built with the goal of enabling you to meet with people you're attracted to. You open the app, login with your Facebook account, set your sexual preference and distance parameters, and then you literally deem a seemingly endless river of people to be attractive or not. If you deem someone as being attractive and they do the same with you, then Tinder opens an instant message between you both.

The reason I wager Tinder will reach critical popularity is because of simple observation. Last Friday, I was out and about in Uptown, Dallas, Texas. Out of happenstance, it was the collegiate community's rush week at the local universities (including my alma mater), so the bars were packed with a mixture of returning fraternity and sorority students and recent graduates. As we all congregated on the patio, I watched as people looked to Tinder as a way to meet up with people who might be out and about in the immediate vicinity of the bars.

In other words, it was a cleaner, more spartan medium for drunkenly seeking potential sexual partners — the interactions shrouded with a comforting blanket of digital distance.

Quickly tapping through photographs of young men and women, everyone appeared hopelessly addicted to the service. And that includes people in well-established relationships.

When they weren't deep into a Tinder-tapping frenzy, people were taking photos of friends in VSCO Camera and then posting to Instagram. Others were Snapchatting friends at other bars with quick videos of how busy their respective locations were — intelligently gauging whether or not they should resign their hard-fought seat for a better bar up the road.

In other words, contrary to our boring scientific assessments of these services, there's clearly a vibrant community of people using them in innovative and fun new ways. Unlike what I can only presume is a curmudgeonly response brewing toward this assessment, I find these trends and shifts in the digital space to be endlessly exciting.

When Tinder inevitably reaches the mainstream consciousness in the coming weeks and months, the tech community will lambast the fledgling service as creepy, intrusive, and shallow. When Snapchat continues to gain users and Instagram becomes steadily overtaken with social scenes and #tbt hashtags, the technologist community will laugh condescendingly at the young, non-technical people.

And, in doing so, it'll show it's age.

It'll become clear that, although many of us in this community are the architects of the Internet as we know it today, we fundamentally do not understand what we've created. We've grown apart from this thriving entity, our value systems rooted in an age unfettered by digital interactions.

So, we'll continue to post thousands upon thousands of words about privacy and the deplorability of Facebook, whilst a younger generation, well-engrained into the fabric of an interconnected world, will continue to embrace brand new experiences befitting of the modern age in which we live.

Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, and apps like Tinder will glare at us through heavily-filtered photography and youthful messages, and we'll continue to yell about the deprecation of APIs and the simplification of OS X.

It's almost a shame, really. As an early-adopting herd of unbelievably intelligent people, we stifle our experiences out of a perceived ruleset of the digital world. Out of these societal norms we've created which are, in fact, utterly out of step with the society for which these tools and platforms are actually built.

From our ivory tower, we'll dismiss change, whilst, from beneath, a new generation will use these apps and services as they were meant to be used: to enhance their tangible lives. They'll find new ways to interact with people and to bring people closer together.

Although that's manifested itself as the so-called sexting craze we're all so familiar with, I suspect that's just one of the earliest and most raw stages we'll see. I cannot help but think we're on the cusp of an altogether different way in which people can interact, do business, meet people, and so on. In urban centers, smartphone saturation is unparalleled and human nature remains constant. There's bound to be a convergence between the two, and any attitude to the contrary is utterly steeped in antiquated philosophy.

At the moment, we in the technology community exist as a boring minority. We write about technologies and trends, but we stand in a sterilized environment at a complete disconnect from the reality of the changing world.

But this need not be the case.

We hold the tools to shape the digital world. Today, that means we hold the tools to shape the tangible world as well. We need not be sidelined into a boring segment of curmudgeonly onlookers — we have the capability to remain at the forefront of an exciting shift.

All we need to do is cast away these misperceived rules we've built for ourselves and feel free to just have a little fun with all that we've helped create.

So, don't be boring. Your users, readers, and peers most certainly aren't.

"Computers = Trucks"

John Lilly:

I picked up a phrase some time ago that I think applies: “The next big thing is always beneath contempt.” Implication being that it is, of course, until it isn’t. Until it’s too big to ignore. This has happened over and over again in our society. In the middle ages, people assumed that no serious discussion could happen in anything but Latin — the so-called “vulgar” languages had no merit. And writers assumed that nothing interesting or lasting would come from this new medium of television. And, I think, people assume right now that nothing important will be created from a 10” touch screen without a keyboard (let alone a tiny 3.5” screen).

But I think that we already know that that’s a mistaken view of history, and of the future. That humans always find a way to create, and to make. Phones and tablets are right in the midst of becoming devices of incredible creation, and they’re going to let us create things on the go, in real time, that we never imagined.

One of the most baffling aspects of human nature is the tendency to question the perpetual tide of innovative change.

Basing perspectives within some sort of conservative and fearful construct, individuals frequently and fearfully disregard impending change. Rather than dialectically seeking to improve experiences, people all-too-frequently align themselves with the familiar, and actively look to prevent losing this environment.

In a technological sense, with each major operating system version, hardware iteration, and software update, the Internet is veritably flooded with people quickly scrambling to duplicate outdated functionality, to rollback to their prior environment, or expressing vehement outrage over the compulsory UI changes instituted by their favorite web application.

Without due cause, people are all-too-keen to shortsightedly judge the significance of the ebb and flow of innovation. Sadly, without taking part in this constructive conversation, true improvement cannot be attained. Excluding oneself from the changing environment is ultimately akin to abstaining from voting, or from contributing your voice in an important discussion.

Innovation and change occur irrespective of pre-existing circumstance and context. Judging a device, service, or piece of technology based solely upon such pre-existing circumstances renders opinions and attitudes utterly out-of-step with the remainder of the world.

Whilst Mr. Lilly’s argument is aimed at the misguided notion that touch-centric mobile computing is inherently subordinate to traditional desktops with hardware keyboards, his perspective holds true for virtually any aspect of the changing world, and I sincerely applaud him for writing about it in such a fashion.

Fearing Change

Image via Flickr User busy.pochi

The Internet is, perhaps, the most progressive medium for self-expression, political discussion, commerce, and intellectual discourse that we have. And yet, despite this, there is a deep-seated and pervasive sense of conservative (sans political connotations) fear apparent in technology writing today. A fear born out of the misguided vision that the Internet - and all of the statutes and trends therein - would do well to remain developmentally stagnant for the benefit of the majority.

Just as the Internet lacks a sole governing body, it should not be bound and dictated by the fears of the few. The true brilliance of the Internet and its associative technology is the fact that there are no limits to its potential. Mistakes happen, perceptions of privacy shift, and the world changes - such is life. Latching onto a misguided vision of self-entitlement and self-righteous ethical superiority acts as a profoundly ignorant agent for the stifling and smothering of the Internet and its potential.

Be it the MPAA, the RIAA, or even a lowly blogger, there is a growing collection of people opposed to even the most harmless form of change and innovation, and it is becoming increasingly frustrating to observe.

Change is often difficult to comprehend and, indeed, for many, the world of technology we find ourselves in can be a frightening place when perceived in a certain light. Privacy invasions, dastardly developer plots, and companies monetizing you (you!), the user, for their own gain are perceived as prominent and wholly personal threats. For all the good a company or product does, there is now always someone detracting from it or taking personal issue with it. 

Many seem keen to forget that the technology we contend with in the consumer sphere is, and always has been, built with the goal of improving the human condition. You might take issue with the manner in which Google monetizes its many services but, when taken at face value, it's difficult to be excessively cruel. Google Reader and Documents, for instance, are tools designed to facilitate increased interaction, awareness and productivity. Google Search, although now tainted by a failing social network, redefined the way in which we look at the Internet. And yet, despite the company's services to our perception of the Internet, so many are quick to point the "evil" finger.

Whether you like it or not, technology and the Internet are both becoming fundamentally social and personal entities. Just as the computer graduated into the personal computer, the Internet is moving from a series of static pages and information outlets into an intricately interconnected web of people. The services that are powering such movement, therefore, unsurprisingly rely upon the people therein. Perhaps Google can see what you've searched for by default, Facebook can see your clicks, and Amazon can cater its product presentation to your needs, but is that really such a dangerous thing? Even if Google were to lapse into evil, what could such a corporation possibly do to hurt virtually all people that use the Internet in a truly actionable way? It's not like Eric Schmidt - the interesting fellow he is - will one day turn up in Mountain View, decide he wants my personal credit card details, pop into one of the server farms, and then run off to Amazon to buy some new films.

Google asked for a non-compulsory credit card when signing up for Gmail? Big deal. Google is expanding into payments and is providing a great deal of fantastic services for the end-user. Your personal information is a part of the machine that drives that service, but is that really such a profound evil? I doubt my mother sits awake at night worrying that some lifeless server has scraped a few keywords from her emails to deliver her an advertisement she will undoubtedly ignore. Neither should the intelligent Internet user.

The Internet - just like the world it has come to mirror - will change. The companies, products and services that comprise its backbone and dictate its usage paradigms will also change. Calling foul on each attempt to make a viable business, to improve services, or to further the Internet experiment appears unquestionably foolish. Furthermore, as an interconnected web of people, mistakes will be made. Some companies will exceed their bounds. Some initiatives will fail. But that is not to say that a mistake or one flawed idea should come to define a product or movement.

Google's Search Plus Your World initiative, for instance, is an example of a woefully flawed business plan. Not because of its reliance on my personal information, but because of its muddying of Google's otherwise fantastically accurate results. It is not a matter of privacy or intrusiveness, it is simply a misguided business decision on Google's part. One that - as Google+ inevitably falls in on itself like a poorly baked cake - will become null and void in due course. I've openly derided this business decision in the past and have suggested DuckDuckGo as an alternative. While I stand by this, I do not stand by the transition to DuckDuckGo as a means to escape privacy intrusions. Realistically speaking, how long is it before DuckDuckGo monetizes itself? How long is the privacy of your inconsequential searches sound and stable there? Leaving Google Search for an alternative will inevitably result in having to move to a further alternative and then another. 

My point is that there is a significant difference between dispassionately and critically examining a problem and fearfully hiding from a perceived change.

The ultimate key to the equation is that embracing change allows for a dialectic discussion between innovation and the status quo. Without this conversation, things cannot and simply will not improve for anyone. In that light, wedging one's head into the sand and swearing off anything different is absolutely pointless.

The world is a much better place once you snap out of an apprehensive and confused state - once you open the curtains and view the world for what it really is. Hiding under the covers and refusing to acknowledge anything beyond your desired state of affairs is cowardly, not constructive, and contributes absolutely nothing to the betterment of the situation.

Change isn't necessarily a bad thing, but fear of it certainly is.

(Image via Flickr)