On Reading

In his renowned essay “How to Write with Style” Kurt Vonnegut stated:

Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

Perhaps that is the problem, after leaving education most stop studying. They are satisfied with simply identifying those marks on the paper and divining a modicum of sense from them.

Reading, truly reading, is like listening: it is hard. It is complex and multi-faceted; it has layers and depths and how deeply we choose to go determines the value we get from it.

We can simply recognise the marks on the paper, happy that we do so, or we can absorb their meaning and relationship to those around them.

We can be indifferent or fastidious, choosing just an appreciation for what we have read or strive for a deeper understanding.

We can gloss over words we do not know, accepting an approximation of meaning based on the context of their surroundings or we can research them, absorb their meanings, read and re-read them, say them out loud until we are familiar with their taste and feel in the mouth. We can compare their true meaning to our initial approximation, comparing not only how successful we were at interpreting them but also how successful the author was in contextualising them – or whether they have taken liberties with that meaning.

Language is not fixed – it morphs and twists and grows. And we grow with it if we allow ourselves.

Whose meaning?

Vonnegut also says:

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Not all texts are created equal and not all offer such layers for us to peel away. Some pieces are written just to convey facts, no interpretation required. Others, designed to carry you through to their conclusion at breakneck speed leaving no time for reflection.

Choosing the right style for the piece at hand is an element of the writer’s art.

Part of the joy of reading is in the discovery, in finding the hidden meanings; in feeling as though you are part of a select group that gets the private joke, and that – in this particular instance – you are as clever as the author.

This joy should not be denied to the reader.

And it is the reader’s prerogative to go further, to derive their own meaning from what they read.

Nietzsche once wrote:

It is very good manners and very clever to leave it to one’s reader alone to pronounce the ultimate quintessence of our wisdom.

It may have been incredibly pretentious but I once told my English teacher that I would fail my English Literature exam as I didn’t “need a qualification to tell me how to appreciate a good book.” (An actual quote from my 15 year old self.)

Perhaps I was too young to appreciate the writer’s craft, too naive to grasp the nuances of emotion, too headstrong to conform to the so-called expert’s interpretations and the established consensus.

Instead I took what I wanted from the texts, drew my own conclusions and enjoyed them in my own way.

Sure enough I failed.

I have no doubt that were I to read the same texts now I would have a different appreciation for them. I am older, allegedly wiser, and with greater experience and understanding behind me.

Forcing a meaning upon someone who is not ready to receive it is pointless, even destructive.

Meanings aren’t fixed. We take what we need and move on, but what we need alters, shifts with age, experience and circumstance.

It frustrates me when people refuse to re-read a book solely because they know how it ends. It may be a cliché that the journey is just as valuable as the destination but, whilst you may not take a different route, you can gain a new appreciation for the sights and surroundings as you go.

Repeat journeys provide new rewards.

Reading is as hard or simple as we make or want it and can indeed be an art requiring motivation and self discipline.

But we should not avoid being challenged.

On Reading

Owning your words

A discussion earlier got me thinking about Twitter now allowing people to request verification of their accounts.

I wasn’t going to submit an application as there are more well known Colin Walkers out there – from footballer and manager to cellist – but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained and I am verifying that I am me!

Why verify?

Verification was originally intended to stop confusion and to stop people passing themselves off as others. It is a defence mechanism designed to ensure you are talking to or about the right person.

But it has another side to it in that it ensures the person talking is who they say they are.

Twitter’s verification guidelines advise that:

If the account belongs to a person, the name reflects the real or stage name of the person.

It is not a real names policy per se but does act as an approximation of identity.

Verify to protect

Jason Calacanis posted a mock message on behalf of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO in which he sets a scene where verification is open to all – effectively as an identity mechanism – and those not verified would have their tweets blurred out by default, only visible if we chose to view them.

The intention is for everyone to be accountable for what they post and, by virtue of verification, identifiable. If a troll starts posting abuse so what? You can’t see it anyway.

Does this go too far? Would it ever really sit well with Twitter’s users? How many would quit the service over having their identity held to ransom in this way, being forced to verify their account or have their tweets obscured?

Part of the joy of Twitter is its openness and freedom, the ability to see tweets from complete strangers and to become involved in the conversations of others.

Jason also writes:

“We are going to still allow anonymity on Twitter, because we all know that some voices need to be heard without revealing their identity. From political dissidents to parody accounts, anonymity has a place on the service”

Forgive me if I’ve missed something, but if unverified accounts were blurred out by default then that “place” becomes a ghetto for second-class Twitter citizens whose voices are actually silenced until we deign to hear them.

Hardly a welcoming act for those users who are potentially the most vulnerable.

Tweet quality

Twitter has launched new ways to control your experience including a quality filter to remove “lower-quality content, like duplicate Tweets or content that appears to be automated” from the feed.

An interesting proposition.

Twitter advises that it uses a number of quality signals such as account origin and behavior. It would be good to know exactly what this involves.

Are individual accounts graded and would this be included in account origin? Would known troll accounts have their visibility downgraded based on their behaviour?

Could the number of blocks or reported tweets a user receives be an account quality signal with those repeatedly penalised being hidden?

It is arguably a better system than a blanket hiding of all tweets by unverified users.

Update

It occurred to me that as an algorithm is in place to automatically decide what tweets should be hidden, could this same algorithm not be used as the basis for further action?

By establishing patterns and consistent behaviour could it not be used to identify potential problem accounts?

Twitter finally has a live tool at its disposal but needs to demonstrate it is fully committed to solving its abuse problem.

Owning your words

Stranger in the same land

Any gamer who has created and played the same character for any length of time will tell of the attachment they have for it, they can’t help but get invested emotionally.

Be it Dungeons and Dragons or its more modern online equivalents, the ability to take control of, and ostensibly become, another “person” and escape to another world – albeit temporarily – is an attractive proposition.

Normally you will only ever see things from one side: it’s you versus the world and everything it can throw at you but World of Warcraft broke with this convention allowing you to play from either side. Alliance or Horde.

The difference is that each side are “heroes” fighting for the survival of their people and just happen to be at war with the other guys. It’s a classic example of the “red v blue” gaming paradigm: each with their own perspective and convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

This was obviously something Duncan Jones was keen to reflect and portray in the Warcraft movie: the characters were just trying to live their lives whatever side they were on; Alliance or Horde.

He deliberately didn’t want the Orcs seen as the bad guys.

The switch

This attachment creates an allegiance to your chosen faction and switching from the Alliance to the Horde was something I swore I’d never do.

Until I did!

I didn’t just start a new character but transferred the one I had been playing, developing, and become invested in for so long.

For years.

It may sound crazy, and you may be thinking “it’s only a game” but the shift is like moving to a different city, changing jobs and losing contact with everyone you know all at the same time.

The disorientation is more than tangible.

The landscape is familiar but the view is from a completely different perspective. The landmarks are there but your old haunts are forbidden just as other areas, long out of bounds, suddenly open up.

It is like waking up in a parallel world – the same yet not the same.

There is a cognitive dissonance at play where the identity you have built for so long, its loyalties and allegiances, are instantly diametrically opposed to the person you have become.

Now that you have awoken it is almost as though you are fighting through the fog of amnesia, trying to remember who you are; trying to rebuild your sense of identity: fragments appear and pieces of the jigsaw gradually fit together as you explore.

You meet characters that act as though they have known you since the beginning, but you have no clue who they are or where you met. You feel the constant urge to apologise, to say that you just don’t remember but have to accept as fact that this is your life now and, for all intents and purposes, always has been.

That old you no longer exists, never did.

Stranger in the same land

Twitter’s big moment

The news that Twitter will open up its Moments feature to all is a real “at last” moment (pardon the pun) for the service.

Until now most users have had to rely on third party offerings like Storify to string a number of tweets together for wider consumption. Twitter, and probably most users, would much rather this behaviour and traffic remain in-house.

The feature is, in my opinion, the best thing that has happened to the network in recent times but I still believe the company can go much further with them.

As I have written before, enabling replies to existing Moments could be a useful way to boost engagement. This would feel more like leaving a comment on a blog post or news item, and these tweets could then be incorporated to provide ongoing, real time reaction.

Twitter is live!

This “read and respond” behaviour should also make Moments a priority for new users to see when they join.

Discovery

In a piece over at Recode Kurt Wagner argues that extending the feature in this way “doesn’t help with Twitter’s discovery problem” of “finding and surfacing the good Moments” but I can’t help feel he’s missing the point.

The Moments tab nicely breaks things down into categories like Today, News and Sport but, yes, users actually have to visit the tab. Some do, many don’t.

So why is discovery not a problem?

I have long advocated that important/breaking Moments should be included in the feed and this may happen if Twitter’s testing is anything to go by. Irrespective of this, anyone can share a tweet to the feed and I feel this is more where Twitter are heading.

Opening the creation of Moments to all is not about everyone finding all Moments right across the network. What it does enable is for a far broader range of topics to be covered. The team at Twitter currently do a brilliant job but, by necessity, can be limited to the big news stories, popular culture and memes.

We generally follow people because we have shared interests. Moments created by users on specific or niche topics will increase usage because they are relevant. This may attract new users or at least convince some others to stay.

After all, Twitter’s user problem is not just in attracting new people.

Moments creators will probably be sharing them to the feed (you want people to see your work) meaning they are instantly discoverable to all followers – no visit to the Moments tab required. They will no doubt also be hashtagged providing easy discoverability as long as Twitter includes them in searches; it would be a badly missed opportunity it they didn’t.

Following on from this, Moments created should also be added to user profiles alongside pictures and Vines.

Signal v noise

Kurt is right that volume alone won’t help discoverability; flooding everyone with irrelevant Moments will merely cheapen the feature. Targeting our interests for greater relevance and providing increased visibility, however, will.

Twitter’s big moment

Trials, Testing and Premium Apps

One major failing of the AppStore is the lack of a proper mechanism to trial software.

Yes, you can purchase an app and, if you don’t like it, try to claim a refund under whatever pretext the system will allow, but this is no substitute for a genuine try before you buy option.

(Please, don’t mention free, ad supported versions as an option. These are just an abomination!)

For many apps it’s not that much of an issue – we are willing to risk 99p or maybe £1.99 in the hope of getting something half decent. When it comes to premium apps, however, it’s entirely a different story.

Most people balk at the notion of spending more than just a couple of pounds on a mobile app unless they are absolutely confident it fills a specific need; even then justifying £5, £10 or more will often be a struggle.

In a mobile world filled with myriad throwaway apps premium offerings stand out as anomalies, no matter how good they might actually be.

It was in this context that I found myself intrigued by Ulysses, the premium writing app for Mac and iPad that recently also found itself on the iPhone.

As I wrote previously, when writing in Markdown, one text app is largely the same as the next so there needs to be a real differentiation or benefit to the workflow to warrant switching – let alone stumping up a price such as £18.99 (yes, that’s how much Ulysses costs in the U.K.)

I may have said that “I need very little” but, being realistic, a little only goes so far. I may have managed with what I already had but to foster a truly streamlined, seamless workflow you need that little bit extra.

Testing

It may well have been cheeky to use the recent Ulysses beta as a way to trial the app rather than diving straight in and committing to a purchase. Indeed, the team at The Soulmen could have easily rejected my application and chosen to stick only with those who had already bought the app.

But they didn’t, and by not doing so have gained themselves a new paying customer.

I would urge more developers, especially those of premium applications, to open up their beta tests in this way.

I signed up because I was looking for something, well two things:
– specific functionality
– an exceptional user experience

I knew the app was getting the first from the beta announcement and I certainly hoped I would be receiving the second – spoiler, it didn’t disappoint.

Because of this I came to the product with a vested interest, I wanted to love it and this made me a better tester, more likely to submit bugs (even silly little things that some might overlook) and provide meaningful feedback.

Now I have put my money where my mouth is and can’t imagine my phone without Ulysses installed.

But none of this would have been possible without being able to give the app a thorough workout prior to purchase, even if by non-standard means.

Trials, Testing and Premium Apps