1. Thursday Night at Berkman

    brian on 2005.07.15
    at 01:09 am

    What follows is a first draft of my impressions of going to the Berkman Center Thursday night for their Weblog meetup. This post is subject to change as I am still trying to get my head around some things I want to say… but as someone once said… artists ship…

    One question a few of us had… where is the unrestricted WiFi? I wish I could have read along with the IRC. You needed a Harvard ID to log on. Could they not provide a temporary access point, or a temp ID for their guests? I was new the format, so there could be a painfully obvious answer to this I just haven’t been able to find.

    I went to my first Berkman Meeting tonight. The one I’ve been saying I’d be going to for ages now. I decided with the return of Dave Winer, tonight would be the ideal night to try it out. I skipped out on the dinner portion of the program, so this write-up may be incomplete. That could be a great source of information.

    Dave was demoing the OPML outliner. I can’t say I was impressed. Now I’m stepping out on quite as limb here. There were a lot of über smart people in that room who hang on every word Dave says. I realize that the software is very powerful. It’s just not dawning on me why or how or to whom.

    I know why it’s not dawning on me, though. It’s the interface. Dave’s reply to that would be the same as his replies to every question posed to him this evening: “It’s GPLyou can do that.” Which, with the tone in his voice means “well, that’s not really important to me, but it’s open-source, so instead of whining, why don’t you make that feature?”

    This is a problem. Dave wants users and developers to party but when a user asks for something, they don’t magically turn into a developer. Dave repeatedly strong armed question-askers who wanted to get their heads around what he was showing them, he’d either interrupt and tell them to hold their question, tell them what they were asking wasn’t pertinent or tell them to fix it themselves.

    There was nearly no interface… in my opinion, the app is only steps above the command line in usability. Most things he did so far as interacting with the data was from right-click contextual menus. That to me is a sure sign your application is near unusable to your (to liberally borrow a passage from a fellow audience member) average “65 year old techno-phobe social worker.”

    Dave means well. He wants you to be able to do great stuff, and he’d love to build you the tools. But his manner is what gets him in trouble. This is why so much drama follows him around. I’m not trying to pass judgments, simply observing. When someone asked if his app could intersect with CSS so it could have some visual appeal… Dave almost indignantly stated that that person was welcomed to build something to do that, but “good luck.” CSS is the adjectives in the lingua franca of the internet, I think it was a pertinent question. It’s almost like he couldn’t understand why something should be inherently beautiful. He stated that OPML raw text was beautiful to him. I agree from an XML technical standpoint. But that doesn’t matter almost at all. Beautiful code is an inside joke… that only computers and programers see. And computers do not get the joke. Beautiful code is a tree in the forrest… most people are just happy with having the forrest, and could care less about any noises from falling trees, seen or unseen.

    Back to the interface problem: I’m from the school (the 37signals/Jason Fried school) that the interface elegance should come first. When it does people can pick up why something is great (e.g. any 37s product here) almost instantly.

    Dave goes backwards… he’s so abstract, he’s got solutions to problems that people right now don’t know they have. If he started with a killer interface, the problem and the solution would come together right in front of the user. “I didn’t know I had that problem until you showed me this… and now I don’t see how I can go back!”

    This is what happened with blogging and with RSS, and its off shoot of podcasting. He pretty much developed all of those, but both just sat nearly unused until about 2 years ago. Now they’re both huge. It’s still happening with OPML. There’s no killer OPML app like RSS has feedreaders, and blogging has about 10 (any major blog tool here, I’d say the momentum came from MT and Blogger). Dave made neither of these, but they borrowed greatly from his ideas that he had years before. As a side note, many of the modern blogging tools can produce strikingly beautiful sites. Everything that came from UserLand (Manilla, Radio, etc) are ugly. All those llittle icons and such… there’s just no sense of style. “Bryan Bell’s site“ is the exception that proves the rule. I don’t think its a coincidence that beautiful implementations of Dave’s work coincides with its mass acceptance.

    Of the above, only podcasting caught on relatively fast. Why? I’d say Adam Curry trying to transform it. Turn it into something usable. iTunes made it more beautiful. All still have tons of work to do with it. It’s still so young.

    So Dave, if you want people to catch on to your beautiful OPML, you need to ensure that OPML makes its outside beauty self apparent to the average folk. A joke is only funny if its understood. A technology is only beloved if its is functionally and usably beautiful.

    Or else, this too will sit on a shelf.

    And to close, I did meet a nice guy named “Rob,” got to sit in an Aeron chair (or a clone, but either way, comfortable) behind Aaron Swartz (who in my opinion, deserves to be introduced, he’s pretty impressive. And for his age, as well.) and it was funny to see Dave Wienberger blush when Dave Winer repeatedly invoked “Small Pieces Loosely Joined.” I think that brought a smile to everyone’s face. Weinberger’s blog also serves as a reminder that no matter how good the software, good design does not come easily. It is easily the ugliest site I read regularly (thank god for RSS, er thank Dave Winer, I suppose… oh the irony!). But when you regularly write jewels like DWb, you can get away with it, I suppose.

    Posted in: Web


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