November 2010

Our first Open Data Competition is now, well, open! The goal of the competition is to produce the coolest and most informative visualization* using two new Test Pilot datasets that we’ve just published: the results of the Week in the Life study v2, and the Firefox 4 Beta Interface study v2. The deadline for submissions is December 17. Find out more about the datasets and how to enter on the contest website.

* – Not limited to “visualization”, actually; we’ve already had one person ask us about turning the data into sound, which we think is totally cool. Not sure there’s a word in English that captures “visualization” as well as analysis based on other senses.


Today I’m giving a talk about Test Pilot at User Research Friday, up at the office of Bolt | Peters User Experience in San Francisco.

It’s now been several months since I started using Twitter. I decided to try it because I wanted to give it a fair chance; maybe I would find out why so many people are so excited about it.

I haven’t. Twitter hasn’t really added anything to my life. I haven’t been able to answer the question “What is Twitter good for?”. I think I’m about done with it now.

Possible answers to “What is Twitter good for?”:

Reading: I can’t think of one thing I learned from reading Twitter that made me any smarter, happier, or improved my relationship with another person. (Who knows, maybe I’m reading the wrong people.) Reading Twitter has given me a few good laughs per day, but mostly it’s just lowered my productivity, made me feel more distracted, and increased the number of Firefox tabs I have open at a time.

Writing: Tweeting feels like shouting into a windstorm. It doesn’t start a conversation. Everyone’s talking at once, and nobody’s listening. Everything I’ve said as a tweet would have been better as a short blog post; at least it would have a chance of starting a conversation and getting some feedback.

Self-promotion: I know there are a few people who have read my blog posts because I tweeted the links who wouldn’t have read otherwise. It’s kind of like publishing an RSS feed; or rather, a paralell redundant system to RSS feeds. I’m vaguely considering keeping my Twitter account for the sole purpose of pushing links to blog posts.

Asking Questions: If you have a question and you’re not sure who the best person to ask is, you can publicly ask it on Twitter and hope someone answers. Once or twice I have gotten a quick response this way. It’s not very reliable, though.

Re-Tweeting: I don’t retweet links; I always ask myself, what would I be contributing to the Internet by doing so? And the answer is “nothing”. Most of the links that come up on Twitter are so-called “viral” links. It’s not a compliment to compare something to a virus. A viral link is one that has no value other than encouraging people to pass it on. It is not information you can act on; it does not educate or shape decisions. You read it, say “Huh; that’s interesting” and then there’s nothing to do with it except… show it to other people. I don’t want to be part of that game. Being a signal-repeater is a job for internet routing hardware, not humans.

Poetry: My favorite Twitter users are the ones who use the 140-character limit as a restriction to breed creativity, like a haiku or a koan. Like Shitmydadsays, Fireland, and feministhulk. These writers have turned Twitter into an artistic medium, and I respect that.

Last night, after reading Clay Shirky’s latest article about why paywalls don’t work, my wife asked me a deceptively tricky question: Would I pay money for news?

I mumbled and bumbled about it for a while and then said that, while I hope somebody pays for news so that society can continue to have the services of full-time journalists digging up stories, I personally would probably not pay for news.

I’m not proud of saying that. I think I probably should read news, in order to be an informed citizen and all that, just like I should eat less bacon and more cauliflower, but an honest evaluation of my laziness and bad habits tells me that if I had to pay to read news, I would just ignore news and read more junk-food content instead. (Besides, news is depressing! Who wants to pay to be depressed?)

So then she asked me, what sort of internet content would I pay for, in an alternate universe where web content cost money?

I’ve been thinking about that question all day. It would be a very different universe. I would probably pay for programming language documentation and API documentation, if I had to, because I need it to do my job. I might pay for Wikipedia, since I find it both useful and entertaining. There’s a few webcomics I’d be willing to pay for (maybe more for the sake of supporting artists I like). In fact, if I paid for Gunnerkrigg Court or Erfworld, I’d probably read them more regularly than I do, to feel like I was getting my money’s worth.

But a lot of the sites that I currently visit on a daily basis are just ways to kill time, or get a brief chuckle, or see what people are arguing about today. If they went behind paywalls, I’d stop visiting and I’d forget all about them within a month. I’d probably read a lot more books, so I might even be mentally better off.

But that’s all assuming that a pay-for-content Web would have basically the same content as the real Web does. That probably wouldn’t be true. Would Wikipedia have ever gotten started on a pay-for-content Web? Would single-creator, no-advertising-budget webcomics or blogs ever be able to find an audience at all if they weren’t giving their content away for free? What would entice potential readers to look behind the paywall in the first place?

Conversely, there may be forms of content we don’t see on the real Web that we’d see if paying for content was the accepted norm. Maybe it would be standard practice for bands to sell their music as downloads, making a living without ever signing to a label or burning a CD. In real life, this happens rarely enough that Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” was a newsworthy event. Maybe web-based “TV” series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and The Guild would be exemplars of a flourishing genre instead of weird one-off orphans.

Anyway, history has happened in such a way that the Web we have is one where content is free, and I see no signs of that changing in a serious way any time soon. Nevertheless, I think it’s an interesting thought experiment. It’s worth thinking about what websites you’d be willing to pay for, even if only to help clarify your own relationship to the words you stuff into your eyeballs.

So here’s my questions for you:

  1. Are there any websites you read that you’d be willing to pay one dollar (or 100 yen, or 7 RMB, or whatever the equivalent in your local currency) to keep reading?
  2. Would it change your answer if it was a one-time fee vs. a recurring subscription fee?
  3. Do you think that website would exist at all in a universe where paying for content was the norm?
  4. If that website has a Donate button, or it sells T-shirts, or in some other way accepting voluntary payment, have you ever given them money? Why or why not?
  5. Is there anything not on the web, that you might pay for if it was? In a paywall world, do you think somebody might be putting that content on the web?