To like or to dislike, that is the question

From The Irish Times, September 19th, 2015

Since its introduction in 2009, Facebook’s “like” button has become a ubiquitous unit of online expression. However, its limitations were always obvious: it’s far too reductive even as a swift mode of interaction.

One example I can recall occurred earlier this year when a good friend wrote a deeply affecting Facebook post about his devastation at the sudden death of a colleague.

He expressly asked people not to like it, but inevitably, the post received about a dozen likes, thoughtless little actions that presumably meant well but which in some small way exacerbated my friend’s grief. These feelings were too real, the emotions too raw, for a reaction as trite as a like.

Those limitations were acknowledged this week when founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company was experimenting with a “Dislike” button and other variations.

“I think people have asked about the dislike button for many years,” Zuckerberg said at a meeting with staff. “What they really want is the ability to express empathy. Not every moment is a good moment . . . your friends want to be able to express that they understand and relate to you, so I do think it’s important to give people more options than just like as a quick way to emote.”

The announcement generated a fair degree of alarm: Facebook has a rather inglorious habit of infuriating users with its tinkering.

One concern was whether the move will add to the online world’s already deep well of negativity; many fear that a dislike button would be a baton in the hand of the bullies, a tool of snide derision rather than an expression of empathy.

A larger concern, however, is how the like button and its imminent variations can actually limit our interactions; in a technical sense, our ability to communicate is limited only by our vocabulary, but when we transpose language, with its rich variety, for a series of buttons crudely approximating feelings, we constrain that communication in very real ways.

Obviously, the like button is not a replacement for language, but the rise of that blue “thumbs up” logo demonstrated a widespread desire to abbreviate our communications in the digital domain, “a quick way to emote”, as Zuckerberg put it. As such, there’s an undeniable vapidity to the like button, in that it encapsulates a shallowness to our online relationships that is potentially quite corrosive.

Particularly for the millennial generation of 20-somethings that has grown up interacting with their peers on Facebook, the like button might ultimately be seen less as a signature mode of interaction and more as a signifier of superficiality.

A chat with David Carr

20150213David Carr

So saddened to hear about the sudden death of David Carr. I was fortunate enough to interview him at the Web Summit in 2013, and he was terrific company, and just as hilariously irascible as you would imagine. His legacy, not just as a media critic but as a chronicler of our times, will be immense.


The past few months has been a febrile time in the US media world, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post for $250 million and Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar vowing to put the same amount of money into a new digital-only media venture.

Such a level of activity has meant the inimitable David Carr, media correspondent of The New York Times, has had an exceptionally busy time reporting on, and making sense of, all these developments.

“The in-migration of half a billion in capital is huge,” he says. “When you cover media, it seems like for so long we’ve been the girl at the party that nobody wants to dance with. Capital has been fleeing us over and over again. And to see not just money, but smart money going to what appears to be quality content is super exciting and definitely not something I would have predicted.”

How the Washington Post changes under its new steward is an interesting question that everyone in the media business is asking. The fact that two distinctly different news projects funded by internet billionaires will be developing in parallel presents media watchers with a perfect experiment in determining how the media business is being changed.

“Bezos has a willingness and energy to re-ask fundamental questions and perhaps answer them in a new way,” says Carr. “It’s nice to see them side by side – it begs the question are the things a legacy brand brings in terms of reputation, a great talent pool, an embedded audience, worth everything else that legacy brings to the table, which is legacy costs, habits of doing things that are probably not the best. In a sense, you’ve got one laid down next to the other, and it will be great to watch them develop.

Carr was in Dublin to attend the Web Summit, where he interviewed Shane Smith, the founder of Vice, the alternative magazine that has grown into a billion-dollar media behemoth. Carr and Smith famously clashed before, as caught in a scene in the film Page One, a documentary about The New York Times. Anyone hoping for a fiery rematch, however, was disappointed – “I’ve known Shane a long time and I’m very fond of him,” says Carr. The strong relationship between the two figures, both iconoclasts despite their different media backgrounds, was in ample evidence.

The rise of media empires such as Vice, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, however, hints at the changing nature of media consumption patterns, and how the internet is affecting audience appetites. How can the established media brands thrive in this environment?

“We’re in this long dark tunnel, a pretty uncomfortable place, but I think people are holding hands more. We’re all in the same business – we’re all in the news business. We all have a shared future.”

That said, despite the dramatically changing landscape, those established media brands are still held in high regard, says Carr – they are still the prestige names in the industry.

“What I worry about is the disappearance of the village common where we all meet and discuss things. I think if you read the Washington Post or New York Times or Wall Street Journal, I think we’re all dealing with basically the same facts. I don’t want to get to a situation where we lost that.”

The iWatch Cometh…



The most highly anticipated Apple launch event since the arrival of the iPad in 2010 is rumoured to see the long-awaited unveiling of the iWatch – Apple’s bid to truly launch the era of wearable computing. I’m fortunate enough to be attending the event and will post thoughts on what is unveiled, but in the meantime, here is a column I wrote on smartwatches early last year. It will be interesting to see how prescient, or otherwise, I was.

iWatch this space: will Apple reinvent the timepiece?

From The Irish Times, March 25th, 2013

Last week I was travelling in a different time zone, so to keep my bearings I tried to reset the time on my prized but cheap Casio watch – this should not prove an onerous task, I thought. Wrong. I was quickly plunged into an excruciating rigmarole of continuous button pressing and mode changing and inadvertent mistake-making. This should be a lot easier, I thought to myself as I wasted yet more time in search of the right time. And judging from recent rumblings in the technology world, I’m not the only person thinking that.

If the rumour mill is to be believed, the humble wristwatch is next in line for some Apple-flavoured disruption. Recent stories in the mainstream US press, presumed to be strategic leaks out of Cupertino, suggest that Apple has a team of 100 engineers working on the inevitably nicknamed iWatch. The gadget sites are in overdrive, already predicting ways in which Apple can bring that trademark design flair to our lower arms. Analysts are all over the business networks, spouting extraordinary numbers suggesting that Apple could add another $6 billion business to their iPhone, iPad and Mac lines with the introduction of an iWatch. Not to be outdone, Samsung has already announced it has its own smartwatch in the works.

You don’t even need to mention Google Glass to realise the era of wearable computing is imminent, and the wrist is going to be prime real estate. Or rather, wearable computing is imminent once again, because experiments in feature-addled watches have been going on for longer than Dick Tracey has been busting criminals with the aid of a wrist-borne radio.

The efforts to add computing utility to our wristwatches is a more recent trend, but the results have tended to be inglorious failures – think of those ickle Casio calculators, or the ones with in-built IR remote controls.

Indeed, Samsung has long been one of the pioneers of the smartwatch space – they were the first company to ship a watchphone back in 1999, the SPH-WP10, a rather ill-conceived and bulky piece of kit that unsurprisingly failed to become a fashion statement or replace the Nokia handsets everyone was using back then.

More recently, in 2009, Samsung announced the considerably better-looking S9110, a touchscreen watchphone that was hobbled by mediocre specs and poor software. Around the same time, LG announced the GD910 watchphone, which went on sale in the summer of 2009 for an eye-watering sticker price of about €1,000, while Hyundai also introduced a watch phone that year. None took off, unsurprisingly.

And while we’re recalling dimly remembered wrist gadgets, it’s worth pointing out that Bill Gates unveiled a networked Microsoft smartwatch in 2002 – the Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) watch was a sales disaster that almost immediately went into the ledger as one of those foolish Redmond endeavours alongside their early tablets and Windows Vista.

More recent efforts, such as the crowdfunded Pebble watch or the Nike Fuelband, have scaled back their ambitions to act primarily as intelligent accessories for our smartphones, offering notifications of incoming messages or monitoring our exercise levels.

Given this long history of products in the smartwatch space, it’s worth asking why everybody is waiting for Apple to effectively “invent” the smartwatch all over again? Is it yet more evidence that the technology industry is overly dependent on Apple to define and crystallise the design of gadgets, and our relationship with them? And above all, can any such device prove to be as revolutionary as the iPhone and iPad?

I suspect not – I’m of the school that thinks any iWatch will not be much more than a new, diminutive iPod model with a range of sensors, Bluetooth 4.0 to communicate with your iPhone and the possibility for third-party developers to create apps to take advantage of the form factor. That could be cool, certainly, but not groundbreaking.

The hype, I reckon, is fuelled by the excitement surrounding wearable computing and, to a lesser degree, the quantified self, our lives recorded and measured by an array of devices. Google Glass is the pre-eminent example, though I suspect also the most overblown.

But it seems obvious to me that we are already in that era, for all intents and purposes – in a practical sense, those smartphones in our pockets are being “worn” just as much as bracelets or badges or necklaces or glasses are worn. The coming array of smartwatches might add marginal convenience for users, but it will be a while before they can completely usurp the smartphone for a whole host of reasons.

Imagining how things might unfold, I’d wager that wearable computing will take the form of a constellation of devices, from sensor-filled watches to camera-equipped badges to, possibly, networked spectacles, that will all interoperate, communicating with one another over Bluetooth, sending data to the cloud, inspiring a host of innovative apps we can barely begin to imagine.

It will be cool, ultimately it will probably be revolutionary, but let’s not ignore the obvious perils of such complexity – there’s no reason to think these devices will eradicate the frustrations I experienced trying to change the time on my Casio.

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