July 2011

Icon Mimicry: The Visual Language of the Internet

Everything is starting to look the same




Everyone fancies himself a designer lately. Take one photoshop class in middle school and suddenly you feel yourself qualified to offer your services to that other ubiquitous class of self-starter: the internet entrepreneur. You find a guy who can program a site for his brilliant new digital product but has no eye for interface aesthetic. You mock up a few clean lines and safe colors, ship him an icon and a few homepage accoutrements, and call it a job. Congratulations: you've now joined the ranks of the designers of the most successful sites out there.

See, it's not hard to draw up a brand that attracts users. The internet provides a space for almost infinite diversity in design, and yet all of us end up liking pretty much the same thing. Ever since Facebook premiered with its collegiate blue-on-white, social media has been a few shades of friendly blue. That's just how it works now. Look at its fellow social sites. The airier Twitter has got a nice sky blue going on, and even Google Plus, with its multicolor branding, predominantly takes on a similar shade. As for logos, there's only one rule: take the first letter of your company's name and display it in white against a background of your primary brand color. That's it. That's all you need to do.

Take, for example, Facebook and Tumblr. They have nearly identical icons. When I've got both open in a browser it takes me a second to figure out which tab to click. This might seem strange--why would designers echo each other so closely? Isn't the point of internet branding to construct a visually and functionally unique experience for visitors? 

The Tragedy-Staking Game

Picking favorites in news stories doesn't make you deep


If you've been on Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, or Facebook the past few days, you've probably seen the same heavy-handed moralizing I have. It's all over the place. Some people die, and suddenly people are very proud to have opinions. 

I'm talking about the one-two punch of the Norway bombing and Amy Winehouse checking out for good. Like any violent death, both are tragedies in their own right. (Self-inflicted violence is still violence. Winehouse's was a violent death, however prolonged the violence.) And yet, perhaps predictably, I've seen all sorts of high horses trotting around the web. Comments about how no one should mourn the newest addition to the forever 27 club because Norwegian children also died recently and they take precedence in our pop culture attention span. 

Netflix Users: Calm Down Already

It's actually going to be okay


It would seem we're feeling a little entitled this week, aren't we? 

Like the countless rage-blasters across the internet, I too received the dreaded email from Netflix. That combo streaming and disc rental package I'd been paying for since July? It was about to split into two separate movie-watching services. In order to further my habits of simultaneously streaming movies and forgetting to return DVDs, I'd have to pay an extra six bucks a month. 

Upon reading the email, I was a little miffed, I'll admit. There was no real explanation, no excuse for this 60% price hike. It felt a little like a scolding, a fine for some error we'd committed but weren't told about. We've been good customers, right? We haven't abused our cinephile privileges. Why, then, should we be forking over more dollars for the same services as before? 

Then I realized maybe I wasn't the best of customers. Or rather, I never appreciated what I had when I had it. Since signing up for Netflix, which ensnared me with its free monthlong trial and never let me look back, I've taken out exactly one disc from their library. One movie. Waking Life, to be exact. I ordered it a few weeks ago and it's still sitting, unwatched in its red envelope, in my TV stand. Will I end up viewing it before either my fees go up or I cancel my disc privileges? Probably. I'll do my darndest. But I am notoriously bad at committing to watching DVDs when I have them. 

Spotify Arrives in U.S. to Shake Up Music Streaming

Napster, Rhapsody, Pandora, now....Spotify!


Spotify has garnered a lot of buzz across the Atlantic, having a huge user-base in Europe. As of this week Spotify launches in the U.S. to a lot of domestic support. Spotify is a free music streaming service with ad-based revenues. However, where it differs from services like Pandora, Rhapsody, and Last.fm is that it is on a track-by-track basis. In other words, instead of having to subscribe to a channel that plays the genre, style, or bands that you want to hear, you can pick and choose individual songs. The service makes money through ad revenue from 15 second songs played every few tracks, as well as banner ads on the free desktop software.

     There are tiered service plans with Spotify as well. $5 a month get you the Premium status, which allows you to listen to as many tracks ad free, as you like. $10 a month and you are Unlimited, which adds offline storage of tracks in playlists as well as a mobile client that allows you to use Spotify from a smartphone. Either tier will also get you immediate access to Spotify. Otherwise you'll need to go here to request an invite, a selection managed by online influence tracker Klout.


Efficiency or Laziness, Which One Fuels Technological Innovation?

In the age of leap-frogging technology are we motivated by "working smarter" or a life of leisure?


In a recent study quoted by TIME Magazine, 1 in 3 people in the U.S., U.K., China and Australia feel "overwhelmed" by new social media and technology. Truly it's not hard to imagine people simply pulling the plug, marching into the woods, subsisting from roots and berries and making their clothes out of lamb's wool. Technology literally leapfrogs every year, and often the newest devices are made obsolete significantly faster than one has the disposable income to purchase the next generation. The average micro-processor is obsolete within less than a year. Software is often updated annually and operating systems every two years. New means of sharing information, pictures, data, video, and our "cyber-selves" are literally choking up broadband and compiling into app stores ad nauseam. It's not surprising that people feel overwhelmed.

     However, is all of this "innovation" (I add quotes because 90% of the stuff is regurgitated from somewhere else...kind of like blogging) a product of the perpetual quest to create efficiencies and negate busywork, or is it a greater calling for the laziest instincts in us all? Frankly, the question itself is slightly unfair because much of our innovation is repackaging to "reup" profits. However, the basic component of it holds truth: why do we go to all this effort to make life easier (even though it can feel harder)? Are we striving for greater independence and efficiency or are we striving for less work and more leisure?

Google Plus: The Next in Social?


They say the third time's the charm, but usually web projects don't take quite so many tries. Maybe the old adage will hold true for Google, who's just entered the beta stages of their roughly third attempt at going social. Google Plus is now open as an invite-only social network that seeks to combine elements from the variety of ways we use the web.

At first glance, Plus isn't terribly distinct from Facebook. The layout feels awfully familiar, what with a "share" field up top and a thumbnail of your profile picture in the top left. The main page allows you to read a stream of content shared by your "friends". Functionally, however, Plus differentiates itself significantly from Facebook. Like Twitter and Tumblr, user connections are asymmetrical. That is to say, it models itself after the "follow" function rather than the "friend" function. You can add people to your circles and they don't have to add you back. And anyone can add you, much like anyone (read: random local businesses) can follow you on Twitter until you block them. 

I like almost everything listed on Stuff White People Like

And so do you, White Person.


The blog Stuff White People Like makes me hate what I like.  I like Asian fusion food and Arrested Development. I need coffee and plenty of people in lots of non-white places (China? India?) drink more tea than I do.  It’s annoying and far too common to classify a bunch of things that a group of people like because they’re white or gay or left-handed or still sleep with a stuffed animal named Ronald.  Sometimes you like camping (#128 on the White People list) because you like pinecones (Stuff People Who Like Pinecones Like?) or sea salt (#119) because it really does make your fries taste better.  


And then there’s some stuff that really, really deserves to land on a list of Stuff White People Like because it’s stupid.  No offense to Ernest Hemingway or {insert canon writer} who needed a moleskin notebook (#122) to keep the booze and sea water off of his writing, said notebook isn’t going to make you, said White Person, into Ernest Hemingway.  


I am more passionate on this topic than I thought! But that just must be my White Person-ness. Regardless, some of the items on the Stuff White People Like are really very nice things and I will tell you why. I will also deliver an urgent plea for White People to stop liking some of the things that caused Christian Lander to write Stuff White People Like in the first place. 

OnLive Founder Claims to Have Surpassed Laws of Physics for Ultrafast Wireless

Steve Perlman, founder of OnLive, unveils his new DIDO wireless system and maybe a dissociative disorder.


The annual NExTWORK conference, held in June, is an interdisciplinary meeting of the minds; business leaders, technology innovators, and other leaders in the data-sharing business. Among them was Steve Perlman, the founder of OnLive, a cloud-based on-demand gaming service that many have lauded as a "game-changer" in the world of online gaming. However, it wasn't so much Perlman's gaming network that grabbed attention, but his claims that he is developing a revolutionary new radio broadcast system. He calls the system DIDO, and promises it will revolutionize wireless networking as we know it.

Turntable.fm Brings the Human Back to Music

New site might actually get social tunes right


No one's quite gotten social right with regards to music software yet. Zune failed, Ping is still awkward, and no one ever liked the Facebook music add-ons. Last.fm is the closest anyone's gotten to doing social music, and even it acts more as an encyclopedia of tunage than a tool with which to connect. But a new widget is out in the tubes, and it's actually pretty fun for its lack of pretension.

Turntable.fm doesn't seek to be "the next thing" in social media. It's not going to connect you to all your friends or revolutionize the way you think about music. It's just the equivalent of an online DJ club. You sign in with Facebook, then enter a chat room and listen to other people spin tracks. Participate and you might get chosen to DJ in a given room as well. You can also start up your own music room with your buddies if they happen to be online at the same time as you--say, if you're hosting a real world party and you want to create a collaborative online playlist so people aren't squabbling over which Lady Gaga video to play next.