Episode One Hundred and Sixty One: Ecks Oh, Ecks Oh; Just In Time

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

The first day of XOXO – the Social part. 8:06pm, at home, not being DJ’d to by Anil Dash. My turn – by choice – with our son tonight. A quite night. Tomorrow will be brain exploding.

1.0 Ecks Oh, Ecks Oh

There’s a certain kind of person who gets to see their friends at conferences, despite living in the same town, city or country as them. This would normally happen with something like a conference (uh, “festival”) like South by Southwest, where a horde of Brits would descend upon Austin for Interactive and actually get to spend time with one another, rather than having to schedule meetings or traipse north or south of the river for the bi-annual brunch.

Three years in, XOXO is a bit like that. I’m lucky to have gotten in – each attendee is vetted by the Andys McMillan and Baio, a sort of Metafilter-esque human-powered conference Eye of Sauron to whom if you’re on the wrong side of the fence it looks like an in-club or a clique, and if you’re on the other side, you look at everyone else and feel like you have imposter syndrome. The truth isn’t so much somewhere in between, but that the Andys are trying to curate (such a word) a different kind of festival/conference experience, one that’s, shall we say, less Brand Heavy.

So XOXO is that time of the year in early September when friends come to Portland, when our house becomes a halfway house for those whose souls are stuck in some kind of Gibsonian-jetlag, strung out across the Atlantic, or, increasingly, just popped up from San Francisco for the weekend. And finally, a new kind of feeling: there was a dance I used to do when meeting people whom I’d only “met” online, but a different kind of meeting: the kind where you knew quite a lot about that person, and they knew quite a lot about you and you had to pretend that you didn’t know each other, the first time you met in person. Or you had to pretend that you didn’t know the thing that you obviously did know, because it had been shared in whatever social space.

Less of that now: less of that “if you didn’t explicitly tell me, I don’t know” and a more comfortable feeling of: well, you talk about this thing on the internet, and we both know that, so let’s just assume we know. A more pleasant let’s start this as if we’re on a rolling start, not on a tricky hill start, and just lapse into conversation. Less of the pretense, more of the getting on with it. More of the acknowleding that this is a little of what friendship is nowadays. That you can know things about people – and they can be comfortable with that – without having been explicitly told.

That clash of friends: that “so, how are you?” when we all know that we’ve been reading each others statuses. That “what are you doing now?” and the really, really hard work of being sociable and, with a certain group of friends, knowing that you can just sit in a room or a corner and just be quiet together.

2.0 Just In Time

The right thing, at the wrong time, by the people who spotted the right thing and just got too excited about it, too early. We were talking about Slack today, and the Butterfield/Henderson ability to make something whimsical and accidentally find something valuable and interesting out of it. Two for two now, more or less, so one more success and before you know it you’re going to have articles exhorting the combination of stupendously talented developer who’s also got a penchant for shorts and Lego, and whimsical Canadian product manager and designer. But I want to go back to the thing about Slack and IRC – that Slack was essentially the best bits about IRC and then all the techiness, all the stuff around netsplits, all the stuff around double-clicking or right-clicking on a username and seeing what server they’re logged in on and whoising them – all of that stuff, and just getting rid of the cruft and focusing on the value of what IRC delivered to users. Rolling it out group by group and doing it in that Enterprise-y way? Pretty interesting too, if only because there’s one other social network that did such a roll out, organisation by organisation, and they turned out to end up with over a billion users.

There was a post going around a while back – the idea that all the tiny Unix utilities were being unbundled and made consumer-friendly, turned into apps or whatever. You know, you had new web versions of grep or cvs or talk or ircd or elm. It was a bit simplistic for my taste: it wasn’t an analogy that worked, more of a “hey, isn’t this interesting, things that do things continue to be useful in new ways”.

But it takes a special kind of person – or a way of looking at things – to see something like IRC and go: hey, I bet more people would use that if it were crafted a different way. Made a different way. Lots of Slack is, more or less, and naively, a solved problem. The attention to detail is in the execution. The idea – group chat for a whole bunch of people with automation hooks – isn’t a new one. The way it’s been built, and the way people take to it, that’s a big game changer.

The problem is when you can see these things and you get excited and you try to build them and all that you’ve done wrong, the only reason why you didn’t succeed is because you were just too early. We fetishize the new in the land of technology, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a new enabling technology, and a new thing that’s just new. For a while, it looked like the jury was out on WebGL. It may well still be. But the first thing that people would do would be clones of Elite, or whatever. David Braben’s finally bringing pretty much the original vision of Elite back to life with Elite: Dangerous, and it looks fucking awesome. Same idea. Later execution. Different effects. Networks, graphics – all so much better, and now the execution can be different and can be better in a way that seems an order of magnitude better.

Consider Yahoo’s early work on Fire Eagle, a location broker that would enable trusted access to location that solved a problem that would be needed to solved now, a good six years after it was launched in 2008. Kind-of done at the OS level now, in a way that couldn’t really be anticipated back in 2008, but a bold attempt nonetheless, and probably something that could be done even more properly now.

We like building the new thing on the new framework using the new way. When a lot of the time, it turns out that the need was pretty original. I think what’s obscured a lot of the time is that what was successful in the early days of the internet – like chat – are things that are always successful. They can just reach even more people now. And – he says, banging his drum – understand your audience and your users. Empathise with them.

I’ll be at XOXO all day tomorrow. Impromptu newsletter meetup at 12pm. Send me notes, give me hugs, all that sort of stuff.

Dan