Elitism in Geek Culture

Earlier today I saw this video, made by a company whose web application I deeply love.

The company is NewRelic, and the tools they make are wonderful in helping me to make my web applications better in many ways. I was bothered by the video, and I said so on Twitter.

Later, the man who made the video contacted me and invited me to email him my thoughts on why the video bothered me so much. This is what I sent to him. In the hope that it might be helpful to others, or least enlightening as to my motivations, I’ll post it here too.

Patrick,

We spoke on Twitter earlier today. The meat of this message might not be fully “baked” and ready for deep analysis, but I think if I try to consider it more deeply and make a better argument, I’ll never actually send this email, so please forgive the holes and incompleteness of some of these ideas in the interest of having a conversation.

First off, I want to say that NewRelic is seriously my favorite web app from a professional perspective, and has brought me so much peace of mind and so much help that it is mind-blowing. So, well done. I recommend it to every serious web app developer without reservation as often as I can.

Your “Developers” video bugged me for a few hard-to-explain reasons. I’ll give it my best shot.

I’m one of those developers who has an immense respect for Steve Jobs and Apple. I moved across the country to work for the Mac OS X team in 2002 and worked there for about six years before moving back to the midwest. I never would have gotten into technology without Steve Jobs or the things he helped to make. I’m completely certain of that. So when someone appears to be teasing something that I know meant so much to him, and so much to me, and they’re doing it only a couple of months after his untimely death, I bristle more than a little.

But more important than my personal emotional ties, I often feel like developers and geeks (among whose number I proudly count myself!) don’t really understand how important visionaries like Steve Jobs are. Technology isn’t just about computer scientists solving geeky problems in clever ways. In fact, I would say it’s largely not about that at all. To be clear, I agree that we absolutely need geeks to solve geeky problems. That’s a crucial ingredient to what we’re trying to do. We don’t get anywhere without that.

We also don’t get anywhere without guys like Steve solving less-geeky problems. Steve doggedly pursued simplicity, down to the very core of his products, and protected the interests of common users who didn’t want to become geeks. He let them get away with not needing to learn much about technology in order to wield its power. In a sense, he delivered great power to the otherwise powerless, and demonstrated that innovation isn’t just the first time something is done, but also the first moment it becomes truly easy to do it.

I remember the first time it became easy to see how my app was performing on my live server. It was with your product.

Sometimes my own people, my geeks, act like lowered barriers to entry are a downside. We’re a pretty elitist, snobby bunch sometimes. I think we tend to forget who we’re making all this stuff for, and we make it obtuse and difficult almost as a point of pride, as though only the “worthy” can use our creations. The attitude is that if you can’t learn our horrible jargon and our convoluted, geeky way of thinking, you don’t deserve to have the power that comes with it. I think that’s a disgusting way to see technology.

So, having said all that, when you turn Steve’s concept into a new video which ends with the line “Because the ones who can create magic with code are the ones who will one day rule the world”, it doesn’t feel genuine to me because it conflicts with and thumbs its nose at the original message so strongly. It’s difficult to believe that it “meant zero disrespect” to the original concepts it is mimicking. “Rule the world” is a very exclusive goal. It shouldn’t be ours. The original line from the poem you’re mimicking says “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” That’s what we’re about. Changing the world. Not ruling it.

I hope that we as developers can pull together, amidst our developer pride and geek pride, and not widen the trenches between ourselves and the users. I hope we can help each other to fight pride and arrogance instead of making it culturally acceptable to build it up. The only way we can ever do that is by pulling the focus off ourselves and putting it onto the problems we’re working to solve together.

Josh

Love Your Creation

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m passionate about creating things that are beautiful and useful. Things people love. In my time creating, one of the catalysts of creativity that I’ve seen over and over is the act of enjoying someone else’s creations. Artists look at lots of art. Musicians listen to a lot of music. Writers read a lot.

But why? It’s not just that everything is a remix (although that’s true). It’s that when a creator catches a glimpse of beauty, despair, passion, joy, it makes the labor of their next creation a little easier for them. We learn how to create by taking in the creations of others. We learn how to shape an experience for someone else by having experiences of our own. So, you want to know how to make someone weep for joy? Have someone make you weep for joy. Even if you can’t quite grasp the whole picture having wept for joy just once, you’re a little closer to understanding how it might work than you were before it became a personal experience.

To that end, I take in a lot of created things, and it’s my goal to try to be an appreciator. And not just an appreciator of created things, but also of the people who created them. When I think about my heroes, they’re all people who create things. Jim Henson, Steve Jobs, Jason Fried. These guys are some of my heroes. And they all know how to deeply study and appreciate the things they see. Things regular people routinely look past.

Take Jim, for instance. He once wrote this:

“I find that it’s very important for me to stop every now and then and get recharged and reinspired. The beauty of nature has been one of the great inspirations in my life. Growing up as an artist, I’ve always been in awe of the incredible beauty of every last bit of design in nature. The wonderful color schemes of nature, which always work harmoniously, are particularly dazzling to me… Working as I do with the movement of puppet creatures, I’m always struck by the feebleness of our efforts to achieve naturalistic movement. Just looking at the incredible movement of a lizard or bird, or even the smallest insect, can be a very humbling experience.”

There are several categories of things that often inspire me, and several companies that regularly create things I deeply appreciate. I’m lucky enough to have worked for Apple on the Mac OS X team for about six years, and Apple is easily at the top of my list. But in addition to Apple, I’m constantly inspired by the guys at Penny Arcade, by Valve Software, by Nintendo, and as cliché as it sounds, by Pixar.

This weekend, I was really struck by the ending of Portal 2 (a game made by the aforementioned Valve Software). It’s an amazing game, but something surprised me about the end because it contained an echo of all the other companies in my list. It was a hint, if you will, about one of the ingredients in a masterful creation.

In a nutshell, it’s this: love your creation.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but the ending of Portal 2 brings shocking clarity to Valve’s passion for the universe and characters they’ve created. Put another way, if the folks at Valve weren’t deeply in love with (dare we say obsessed with?) these characters, the bittersweet elements of the ending they created would never have occurred to them. Because something lesser would’ve been acceptable. Still, through the final sequences in the game, I could see the expression on their faces as they looked into mine: “We are so proud of this. We hope you love this deeply, because we love it so, so much that we can hardly bear to say goodbye to it.”

It was like watching a father walk his daughter down the aisle.

To say it was emotionally resonant would be an understatement. And that’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Portal 2 was a fantastic puzzle game, sure, but it was more than that. The thing you remember when you walk away is how it felt to be in that universe, to meet those characters and interact with them, and get to know them and love them within their reality. And that’s the thing that will make you come back next time, not the enticement of more surfaces onto which you can place portals. (Though that’s certainly attractive.)

Then I thought of Pixar. Toy Story 3. Could it have been any clearer how much Pixar loves Woody and Buzz than what we saw at the end of Toy Story 3? It’s not possible to take your characters any more seriously than that. To respect them any more deeply. They went out with unprecedented sweetness, and it was sad and perfectly beautiful.

Apple? Wow. They’re obsessed in a way the rest of their industry can barely tolerate, let alone understand. Exhibit A, the phrase “There’s not a straight piece of glass on this building.” They take what they do seriously and they love it deeply, down to a level of detail others can’t even fathom. In some ways, it almost works against them. People think of buying an Apple device like it’s tantamount to joining a cult. Why? Because the use of something Apple has made contains the emotion of those who made it, and you feel that when you use it. That is, unless you realize you’d prefer to resist it.

But back to creation.

Something interesting happens when you really love the thing you’re creating. When you love it deeply enough, it teaches you how to improve it and make it better. More useful, more beautiful, more resonant. And when you learn those lessons and apply them, you love the creation even more, which then leads you to even more lessons. It’s a spiral that continues upward, and I have no idea where it stops.

So let’s find out. Love your creation.

The Value of Silence

What I’m going to say in this entry is very challenging for me to verbalize. Stick with me, here.

I have a deep desire to be a person who makes real things that are useful and delightful. I’ve been working really hard at The Table Project for many months, and I’ve been learning a lot about hard work and how to sustain it. I’ve also learned that the work affects me just as I affect the work. I’ve changed because of my work.

One of the main things that has changed within me is the heightened value I place on silence. Silence of many kinds.

When I’m making something, I’m deeply motivated by the anticipation of discovery on the part of the person that will receive my creation. Will it help them? Will it make them smile? Have I thought through all the ways they’ll use it and considered everything from their perspective? I can’t see their reaction if I don’t finish what I’m making. They won’t benefit unless I do a great job. I create with those thoughts in my mind. But it’s not as simple as that. You may not agree with what I’m about to say, but stick with me.

I’m learning about the demotivational power of talking.

There is a vast, gaping difference between talking about doing a thing and really doing it. I have been the crowned and reigning king of “talking about doing a thing” in the past, and this blog stands as a testament to that.

On the simplest level, talking is demotivational because great creation comes from a quiet, solitary place, not from meetings and committees. On a deeper level, talking about what you’re doing and giving people a preview of the future is demotivational because you may be receiving praise which you haven’t yet earned. That’s extremely dangerous. When you go back to your quiet, solitary place to finish that cool thing you just told your friend about, their praise is still ringing in your ears, reducing the reward that is still beyond your reach, and slowing you down. You can’t afford that tradeoff. It would’ve been better to not tell them what you had done until it was ready. And at that point, there’s less need to tell, because you can show.

This newfound belief affects me in a few ways. You’ll notice, for instance, that this is only the 6th blog entry I’ve posted this year, and the year is half over. Last year, I had written 15 entries in the same amount of time.

And it’s not due to Twitter. This graph of my tweets per month, particularly since last July, will tell you a strange little story as well.

My Tweet Stats

I’m not doing this on purpose. It’s a habit that has naturally evolved. I’m no longer the guy who tweets 500+ times each month because I now realize I don’t have 500+ worthwhile things to say to that audience each month. It’s not censorship, it’s editorial and it’s filtering. It’s respect for the listener, I hope.

Speaking of listeners, they’re also at risk in this problem. I’m growing tired of bloggers and content producers of all kinds that don’t know when to shut up and reflect. My apologies if that seems rude, but if you’re publishing to meet a weekly quota, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t game the crowd; make something of quality. If you have a lot to say, that’s fine (look at the length of this entry), but please don’t assume you can take our attention 9 times a week because your analytics tell you that’s your ideal posting frequency to generate higher traffic and ad revenue.

But if you happen to make 9 quality things that week, by all means, share them all. Show me what you’ve done. My favorite blog, Daring Fireball, is quite noisy, and I’ve never regretted reading it. The content is good. It earns its place.

This all relates to the reason that I rarely if ever go to the Social Media Breakfasts anymore (although I really like many of the people), but I participated in the Overnight Website Challenge this year and found it very rewarding. I hope to do it again.

Less talk, more rock. Fewer conferences and meetings, more product and creativity.

There are downsides for me and others in this change, too. In the midst of focusing constantly on creating The Table, it’s become harder for me to carry on conversations in general, and it’s nearly impossible now for me to be in the moment completely. My mind has become so focused that I’ve caught myself thinking things like, “How can this conversation/situation benefit The Table?” even while spending time with family and friends. It’s pretty weird, and it’s something I’m trying to address. Focus shouldn’t have to lead to workaholism or personal narrowness.

Because of all these thoughts and some conversations I’ve seen on the web lately, I’ve decided it would make sense to disable comments on this blog for the foreseeable future. I want it to be really clear that I still deeply treasure all your past comments, and I haven’t removed the ones that have been made. They are a part of a permanent record and a precious heirloom to me. Many of you have corrected me and changed my mind on various topics, or made me laugh, or warmed my heart, and the evidence is right there in the thread.

I still want to hear from you in almost any way you’d like to have a conversation with me. If you want to contact me, you can do so in any number of ways, including directly from this blog. If you want to just say you liked what I wrote, there’s a little Facebook “Like” button at the bottom of each post, even in the RSS feed. I’d love a click. If you want to respond publicly to what I’ve said, making your own blog entry and linking back to this one would be the best way to do that for many reasons. Creating a blog has become so wonderfully, deliciously simple that there’s no reason anymore not to have one if you want one. Go for it! I might even write a public response if you’re making good stuff.

I hope that the lack of comments here allows you to focus a little more on your own work, say what you wanted to say a little more quickly (perhaps with a single button click) and even consider whether certain things need to be said at all.

Now, go to your quiet, solitary place and make something.

The Secret to Sustained Creativity and Improvement

I’m reading The Splendid Magic of Penny Arcade: The 11 1/2 Anniversary Edition right now, and found this gem from genius artist Mike Krahulik, a.k.a. “Gabe.” In this section of the book, he’s discussing the evolution of his art style over the 11 ½ years he’s been drawing Penny Arcade:

It’s really a never-ending journey. I imagine I could do another one of these retrospectives in 2019, and track another ten years of progression. The secret is to hate yourself and the work you produce. If everything you make is trash, then you’ll continually push yourself to produce something that won’t fill you with shame. If you’re lucky, after a lifetime of self-doubt, maybe you’ll produce something you can be proud of before you fall over dead.

It may be hilarious, but it’s not a joke. That right there is pure gold creative wisdom. And a little close-to-home for me, personally.

Thank you, Gabe.

What Makes a Quality Playlist?

Earlier this evening I made a “Genius playlist” on my iPhone from White Town’s song “Your Woman” and it turned out surprisingly well, considering all the music was automatically selected by a computer algorithm in a matter of 1 or 2 seconds. Steph commented on how much she was enjoying it, and Caleb danced the whole time. I was impressed.

I suppose methods used to measure the quality of a playlist are a much-debated thing. We could get into deep aesthetic discussions about how one song can lead into the next and bring the listener through “arcs”, and there’s nothing wrong with seeing playlists that way. But to me, there’s a simple beauty in playing the hits, straight up, without any pretentiousness to it. We got pretty close to that here. I really love about 20 of these 25 songs, even if most of them hail from deep throwback territory.

  • White Town – “Your Woman”
  • Cake – “Never There”
  • The Cardigans – “Lovefool”
  • EMF – “Unbelievable”
  • Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet (Radio Edit)”
  • Beck – “Where It’s At”
  • U2 – “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”
  • Thomas Dolby – “She Blinded Me With Science”
  • Cut Copy – “Lights & Music”
  • Cake – “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”
  • They Might Be Giants – “Birdhouse in Your Soul”
  • Simple Minds – “Don’t You Forget About Me”
  • Cold War Kids – “Hang Me Up to Dry”
  • Phoenix – “Everything Is Everything”
  • Shannon – “Let the Music Play (David Delano, Dirty Lou & Swedish Egil Remix)”
  • Hot Chip – “Over and Over”
  • Yello – “Oh Yeah”
  • Beck – “Devils Haircut”
  • Scissor Sisters – “Take Your Mama”
  • Madonna – “Beautiful Stranger (William Orbit Radio Edit Version)”
  • Radiohead – “Karma Police”
  • Gorillaz – “19-2000”
  • Cut Copy – “Hearts On Fire”
  • The White Stripes – “My Doorbell”
  • The B-52’s – “Rock Lobster”

Perhaps the perfect playlist would use the Genius feature as a starting point, and then take manual tweaking and editing to bring it to perfection.

The Genius of Pogo – New Creations from Old Creations

I recently stumbled upon an amazing new artist called Pogo, and I want to share a couple samples of his work with you. His mood and insight take my breath away.

Pogo makes music by reusing pre-existing material. He samples and loops and clips and layers. Sometimes he adds his own drums or an original bass line, but in general, what you’re hearing in his music is a collection of sounds from other music. Occasionally he’ll even find music in something that was never intended to be melodic. He takes it a step further, though, by taking each song’s collection of samples from another single work. For instance, one song’s clips might be taken from one particular movie.

Without further ado. I present to you his take on Alice in Wonderland, and Mary Poppins. Take a deep breath, sit back, tune in, and discover beauty you never knew was there.