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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Taylor Swift and Being Between Stars

Taylor Swift has been blowing up the music industry lately, first by surprising everyone with the beauty of her latest album. SNL dubbed it a result of Swiftamine, and I can certainly say I’m under the spell.

Then, pre-release, she removed her entire discography from Spotify. The Atlantic reflects on this decision by pointing out, “Owning music outright, instead of renting it through a streaming service, would be better for listeners and artists in the long run. Indeed, it would be better for just about everyone except Spotify.”

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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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Software, Sharing, and Music

Here’s what was important this week…

Software is everywhere lately. My boyfriend asked me what I thought the next big website would be (after the success of Google, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and I realized it’s just as likely (if not more likely) to be a software application rather than a website. Paul Ford took some time to enshrine some works of software in a “software canon” — Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Pacman, the Unix operating system, and eMacs (which I’d never heard of until this essay came out).

Software has had a noticeable effect on our day to day lives (especially those with smartphones), but it’s also had a huge impact on music and the way it’s created, recorded, and produced. Fact Magazine went through 14 works of software that shaped modern music (electronic music started way earlier than I thought). One of those software applications is Auto-Tune, and the Sounding Out! blog happened to post about the history of Auto-Tune.

 

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Women, the Web, and the App Takeover

Here’s what was important this week…

Today is Pi day. Here is more than you probably ever wanted to know about pi day.

Last Saturday, March 8 was International Women’s Day. Started as a revolutionary holiday to honor the achievements of women, International Women’s Day is recognized in many countries. However, in Nepal it is recognized by women only, rather than as a day where men pay tribute to the women. Nepal also has another holiday that only women observe:

“In early September in Nepal, Hindus – who make up 81 per cent of the country’s 30.5 million people – celebrate Rishi Panchami, a festival that commemorates a woman who was reborn as a prostitute because she didn’t follow menstrual restrictions. It is a women’s holiday, and so Nepal’s government gives all women a day off work. This is not to recognise the work done by women, but to give them the time to perform rituals that will atone for any sins they may have committed while menstruating in the previous year. (Girls who have not begun menstruating and women who have ceased to menstruate are exempt.)”

However, the interesting thing about a cultural distaste and monthly banishment that occurs surrounding menstruation, is that “they talk openly – more openly perhaps than the average teenage girl in the UK might – about what they use for sanitary protection. Some use sanitary pads, some are happy with cloths, although they dry them by hiding them under other clothes on washing lines.”

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