Repersonalizing Digital Communications: Against Standardizing and Interfering Mediations

Back in 2013 I wrote a blog post reacting to Cristina Vanko’s project to handwrite her text messages for one week. At the time, I focused on how Cristina introduced slowness into a digital communication that often operates as a conversation due to the immediacy and frequency of responses. Since 2013, texting has grown more popular and instant messaging has woven its way into our work environments as well. Reinvoking that slowness stays relevant, but careful notification settings can help recapture it as well. 

What I want to focus on is the way that her project repersonalizes the digital medium of communication, adding her handwriting and therefore more of her personality into the messages that she sends. I thought of this project again while watching a talk from Jonathan Zong for the Before and Beyond Typography Online Conference. In his talk, he points out that “writing is a form of identity representation”, with handwriting being “highly individualized and expressive”, while “in contrast, digital writing makes everyone’s writing look the same. People’s communications are filtered through the standardized letterforms of a font.” 

His project that he discusses in part of that talk, Biometric Sans, “elongates letterforms in response to the typing speed of the individual”, thus providing another way to reembody personality into digitally-mediated communications. He describes the font as “a gesture toward the reembodiment of typography, the reintroduction of the hand in digital writing.” It’s an explicit repersonalization of a digitally-mediated communication, in much the same way Cristina Vanko chose to handwrite her text messages to do the same. Both projects seek to repersonalize, and thereby rehumanize, the somewhat coldly standardized digital communication formats that we rely on. 

Without resorting to larger projects, we find other ways to repersonalize our digital communications: sharing stickers (I’m rather fond of Rejoinders), crafting new expressions (lol) and words, and even sending voice responses (at times accidentally) in text messages. In this way we can poke at the boundaries of the digital communication methods sanitized by standardized fonts for all users.

While Jonathan stayed rather focused on the typography mediation of digital communication due to the topic of the conference, I want to expand this notion of repersonalizing the digital communication methods. Fonts are not the only mechanism by which digital communications can be mediated and standardized—the tools that we use to create the text displayed by the fonts do just as much (if not more). 

The tools that mediate and standardize our text in other ways are, of course, automatic correction, predictive text, and the software keyboards themselves.

Apple is frustratingly subtle about automatic correction (autocorrect), oftentimes changing a perfectly legitimate word that you’ve typed into a word with a completely different meaning. It’s likely that autocorrect is attempting to “accelerate” your communications by guessing what you’re trying to type. This guess, mediating your input to alter the output, often interferes with your desired meaning. When this interfering mediation fails (which is often), you’re instead slowed down, forced to identify that your intended input has been unintentionally transformed, fix it, perhaps fix it again, and only then send your message.

Google, meanwhile, more often preemptively mediates your text. Predictive text in Google Mail “helps” you by suggesting commonly-typed words or responses.

Screenshot of Google Mail draft, with the text Here are some suggestions about what I might be typing next.  Do you want to go to the store? Maybe to the movies? What about to the mall?  What do you listen to? Sofi Tukker? What other DJs do you have? Where "have?" is a predictive suggestion and not actually typed.

This is another form of interference (in my mind), distracting you from what you’re actually trying to communicate and instead inserting you into a conflict with the software, fighting a standardized communication suggestion while you seek to express your point (and your personality) with a clear communication. Often, it can be distractingly bland or comical.

Screenshot of google mail smart responses, showing one that says "Thank you, I will do that." another that says "thank you!" and a third that says "Will do, thank you!" In Google Mail, this focus on standardized predictive responses also further perpetuates the notion of email as a “task to be completed” rather than an opportunity to interact, communicate, or share something of yourself with someone else. 

Software keyboards themselves also serve to mediate and effectively standardize digital communications. For me personally, I dislike software keyboards because I’m unable to touchtype on them (Frustrated, I tweeted about this in January). Lacking any hardware feedback or orientation, I frequently have to stare at the keyboard while I’m typing. I’m less able to focus on what I’m trying to say because I’m busy focusing on how to literally type it. This forced slowness, introducing a max speed at which you can communicate your thoughts, effectively forces you to rely on software-enabled shortcuts such as autocorrect, predictive text, or actual programmed shortcuts (such as replacing “omw” with “On my way!”), rather than being able to write or type at the speed of your thoughts (or close to it). Because of this limitation, I often choose to write out more abstract considerations or ideas longhand, or reluctantly open my computer, so that I have the privilege of a direct input-to-output translation without any or extensive software mediation. 

In a talk last June at the SF Public Library, Tom Mullaney discussed the mediation of software keyboards in depth, pointing out that software keyboards (or IMEs as he referred to them) do not serve as mechanical interpreters of what we type, but rather use input methods to transcribe text, and that those input methods can adapt to be more efficient. He used the term “hypography” to talk about the practice of writing when your input does not directly match the output. For example, when you use a programmed shortcut like omw, but also when you seek to type a character that isn’t represented on a key, such as ö, or if you’re typing in a language that uses a non-latin alphabet, a specific sequence of keystrokes to represent a fully-formed character in written text. Your input maps to an output, rather than the output matching the input. 

These inputs are often standardized, allowing you to learn the shortcuts over time and serving the purpose of accelerating your communications, but in the case of autocorrect or predictive text, they’re frequently suffering from new iterations—new words or phrases that interferingly mediate and change a slip up into a skip up, encourage you to respond to an email with a bland “Great, thanks!” or attempt to anticipate the entire rest of your sentence after you’ve only written a few words. Because I also have a German keyboard configured, my predictive text will occasionally “correct” an English typo into a German word, or overcapitalize generic English nouns by mistakenly applying German language rules. 

All of these interfering and distracting mediations that accelerate and decelerate our digital communications, alongside our ongoing efforts to repersonalize those communications, has me wondering: What do we lose when our digital communications are accelerated by expectations of instantaneous responses? What do we lose when they’re decelerated by interfering mediations of autocorrect? What do we lose when our communications are standardized by fonts, predictive text, and suggested responses?

Kill Legacy Apple Software

Benedict Evans pointed out in a recent newsletter, “there’s a story to be written about Apple feeling its way from a piecemeal legacy technology stack for services, evolved bit by bit from the old iPod music store of a decade ago, to an actual new unified platform, something that it is apparently building.”

I’d argue for a focused set of decoupled applications, rather than a new unified platform. iTunes has bloated beyond practicality. The App store doesn’t work well for users or developers. Here’s where I think the future of these applications lies.

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Quantified Health and Software Apps

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant last night, about how MyFitnessPal doesn’t give me much helpful data:

While it’s called MyFitnessPal, it doesn’t feel much like a pal, and feels more like a diet app than a fitness app:

It’s like a friend congratulating you for eating a lot of whole wheat, but making a face because the egg you ate has a lot of cholesterol in it, even if it’s the only egg you’ve eaten that week.

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Reading, Drones, and Georgie Washington

Americans are still reading books, Internet and all! Younger Americans are actually reading more than older generations, which could be partially due to the fact that with the rise of texting and social media, so much of our communication is text-based, so everyone is doing a lot more reading (and writing) in order to communicate with their friends. The original study is linked in that article and in this graph:

What are some other ways to get people to read books?

Well it helps a lot if your college library not only tells you the call numbers of the book, but it gives you precise directions to the location of the book, which is pretty awesome. Much more useful when navigating a giant library, like I have access to at the university I work at, as opposed to the smaller library at the university I actually attended.

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Three Types of Health

Public health in the U.S. tends to focus on chronic diseases (like cancer or diabetes), but in other parts of the world, much of the focus is on drugs that either no longer afflict the U.S., or aren’t cost-effective to treat.

Sickle cell anemia can be treated when it’s identified early. But that doesn’t happen much in the developing world, it is still a serious issue. So a diagnostic test that is simple, fast, and cheap is ideal, and currently in development.

Malaria isn’t a disease most Americans think of unless they’re going somewhere in Africa for a trip. A new diagnostic test (developed with technology that is also used in missile detectors) can diagnose malaria in four minutes in patients that don’t even show symptoms yet, and doesn’t even need a specialist to interpret the results.

Ebola is yet another disease that is more of an edge case–devastating, but rare, especially in the United States. For pharmaceutical companies, this means that it isn’t fiscally worth it to produce a treatment for ebola:

“When pharmaceutical companies are deciding where to direct their R. & D. money, they naturally assess the potential market for a drug candidate. That means that they have an incentive to target diseases that affect wealthier people (above all, people in the developed world), who can afford to pay a lot. They have an incentive to make drugs that many people will take. And they have an incentive to make drugs that people will take regularly for a long time—drugs like statins.”

Cancer is widespread across the globe, and has been around for millennia. For some kinds of cancer, however, genetic treatment is experimentally promising. Rather than attempting to destroy the cancerous cells, targeted treatments have been shown to cause cancerous cells to mature into non-cancerous cells.

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Identity, amplification, and ownership on the Internet

Here’s what was important this week…

Facebook now allows you to choose a “custom” gender option and fill in your own gender on your profile–to a point. Rather than being a free-text field, Facebook instead offers options which autocomplete. Slate went through the effort of tabulating all 58 of them. Facebook is likely avoiding a free-text field because it wants to avoid trolling, but more likely they want to maintain the purity of their data about users.

One issue with Facebook (and in my opinion, this could be extended to many other social networks) is that it requires code switching. Code switching, typically associated with race and ethnicity, is even featured in an NPR blog devoted to the topic, which is introduced with this article. As the first essay mentioned, “Facebook’s design—really, the design of public and semi-private virtual interaction spaces on the web—is starting to feel like it’s reached its past-due date.” While I think there is a future for social media, the act and necessity of code switching is a tiring one.

As more media show up, we’re finding different ways to interact on each one and access different groups through our social media channels–ideally, we’d only need to code switch if we app switched. Personally, I’ve found my Facebook interactions have transformed since I started using the service–I primarily interact with a few specific friends on their walls/timelines, engage more broadly with a few Facebook groups, and the content that I share most broadly (primarily links) still excludes some friends.

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A Beginning

My boss was discussing the differences of Microsoft, Google, and Apple today when it comes to utility for business. While Microsoft tends to be somewhat derided for people from my generation (the sometime-scorned Millenials) for their bulky software packages and security-hole-ridden Internet Explorer browser, they are an industry standard. Why? They make static products that don’t change much. Not very innovative, but exactly what a business needs. Businesses create business processes that hinge on these very programs and the staticness of those programs, and their worlds are thrown out of whack when they change drastically.

My workplace is in the process of transitioning to Google Mail, and with that has come a lot of negative feedback from users. Google and Apple share a common characteristic–making changes that benefit them that they paternalistically decide will benefit their users. However, when their users attempt to build processes based on, for example, the structure of the compose window and the available fields when composing a message, and Google changes all of that because they wanted to, our users are thrown off kilter. Apple is a business standard, and falling out of favor with some, for design-intensive professions like photography and graphic design. They’re falling out of favor with some for their emphasis on innovation–removing previously standard computing elements like optical drives in favor of slimmer design. Some changes they’ve made reduce the company’s ability to be a trustworthy ally to design professionals.

Google currently offers no active support for users, providing a feedback form and support pages and forums for users, but no contact information beyond that. They also consistently maintain the paternalistic innovation-for-the-user design motivation–at times disregarding the business needs of their users in Google Apps for Business and Google Apps for Education. It will be interesting to see if Google continues to innovate as it does currently, or if an emphasis on the business needs of larger consumers will inspire it to make changes.