@ocugwu takes the road less queried.
As a person who spends an inordinate amount of my time on the Internet, I'm always trying to convince myself that there's some hidden benefit or bonus to my incessant browsing. Maybe my constant switching between blind items on Gawker, New York Times Magazine cover stories and videos of Shit Left-handed Gynecologists Say will make me more confident and interesting at parties. Or perhaps the unblinking hours I regularly devote to Facebook really do contribute to meaningful offline relationships.
Most of the time there doesn't turn out to be much truth to any of this, at least not enough to justify my addictive behavior, and yet I can't shake the feeling that the path to enlightenment (or personal fulfillment, or euphoria) is always just a click away. That's why, last week, I was happy to stumble upon "Fish: A Tap Essay" by Robin Sloan.
The premise of "Fish" is simple: The Internet is a place with boundless, world-altering riches, but we suck at holding onto and absorbing the things that matter most. If a book or an album touches us, we treasure it for years— but even the most amazing things we read or watch online are often thrown out and forgotten within hours.
If Sloan had just posted his thoughts to his blog or in some other publication, they would have been interesting enough. But instead he did what any savvy individual looking to make a splash in our current media landscape would do— he made an app. His "tap essay," a term Sloan coined for his creation, now available for free in the App Store, is like a mix between a kinetic typography video, a PowerPoint presentation and a choose-your-own-adventure book. It's fun and compulsively readable and, best of all, you feel good when you reach the end.
Almost immediately after its release last week, "Fish" went viral and cracked the Top 10 on Apple's Top Free Books chart. "Just below the Walking Dead book," Sloan notes, with a laugh. "I was pretty happy with that."
For this column, I caught up with the "Fish" creator— a novelist and former Twitter employee— about the promise and pitfalls of new media and what the Internet can learn from books.
Complex: One of the things that I like most about Fish is the overall sense of earnestness that carries through it. If feels like something that was made out of love by someone who is genuinely curious and wanted to start a conversation.
Robin Sloan: Yeah. You know, some people have asked me why I made it a free app and if that was always the plan or not, and I always knew that I wanted it to be free for two reasons: 1. It was sort of an experimental thing, and I think when you’re making something new like this, a lot of times you just want to put it out there and make it as easy as possible for people to get it. And 2. I just really believed in the message. The value for me is really seeing people get the message and kind of nod, you know? A lot of the tweets and stuff I’ve been getting have been like “Yeah! I’ve really been feeling this way, too!” and that’s always cool to hear. For a project like this, that’s the payoff, that sense of shared recognition.
How long had the ideas in Fish been sitting with you?
You know, I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff for a long time. I come from the world of the web, I feel like a native of the browser and of blogs and stuff like that. I’ve blogged for a really long time, I worked at Twitter in San Francisco on media for two years—so that’s very much my world. But I’ve also always been somebody that’s very interested in books, frankly. The durability of books and the fact that people kind of push back away from the Internet and they spend time with books. So that tension has been kind of brewing in my head for a long time. I see the virtue of both worlds and I think both are great, so I’m always kind of trying to solve that equation, or balance that equation, to find ways to bring the good things from one world into the other.
“Fish” came across my own various news feeds multiple times just a day after it was released, despite the fact that I had no prior familiarity with your work. What was your reaction when you saw how quickly it took off?
I’ve gotta say, I was just happy to see that people recognized the feeling, that sense of recognition. When people were tweeting out a line from “Fish” I really got the sense that they weren’t just quoting a line from what they were reading, but that that they were almost kind of saying it themselves or repeating it for themselves with that same kind of earnestness you mentioned. And I didn’t know that that was going to be the case. I didn’t know if I was gonna put this out there and people were gonna say “Ehhhhh, I kind of like all my tabs.” Or “I kind of like all my ‘likes.’” So just to see people nodding and saying “I’ve kind of had this feeling and you gave it a name” or “I didn’t quite know what I was feeling and you put a point on it” has been awesome. It’s always awesome to know that you’re not alone, or that the feelings you’re having in our crazy media world are shared.
Of all the apps in the app store, you wouldn’t necessarily think a downloadable essay would jump out at people.
I think in this case Twitter was really crucial. I think if something called “Fish: A Tap Essay” was just on its own in the app store and you know, you had people clicking around looking for games or something familiar, I actually don’t think people would necessarily give it a try. That’s not necessarily something people go looking for. But the fact that people saw their friends recommending it and talking about it and tweeting from the app on Twitter, I think that was the hook that the app really needed. Then they’d say “Oh, well it’s this person that I really like and I respect doing it, maybe I ought to try it out, too.”
So was that the idea then behind incorporating “tweetable lines” in the essay?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, part of this whole project was that I really just wanted to learn how to make an app that I could publish, and iOS 5 has a cool tweet feature built-in. I used to work at Twitter and I have a lot of affection for Twitter, so I thought “Oh, dude, that’d be cool! Tweetable lines! No one’s ever done that before!” So, I won’t pretend it was any deeper than that [laughs]. I just thought it’d be cool so I figured out how to do it.
I wanna talk about the content of Fish in a moment, but the form itself seems to have been just as integral to its success. Where did the idea of a “tap essay” come from in the first place?
Well, one of the nice things about the iPhone is that we’ve all had them long enough, or not all of us, but many of us have had them long enough now that certain things have started to feel natural. When technologies are new they’re all weird and it’s easy to do things that are sort of gimmicky or kind of draw too much attention to the way you’re interacting with it. But the iPhone has kind of taken on this role in a lot of people’s lives—it’s kind of intimate because it’s always with you and you’re holding it so close and giving it all of this attention. So I just knew that I wanted to choose some gesture that’s just really natural to the iPhone. I think there’s a few that you could go with. There’s a lot of swiping and scrolling that goes on, for instance, but there’s also a lot of tapping. With tapping you get the sense that you’re almost drawing something out with the touch of your finger. It’s different than clicking something on your laptop or your desktop computer. So I just had the sense that tapping was really natural for the iPhone, like turning the page of a book or flipping through a magazine.
You also have an interesting way of sort of dividing up the text—some times words might appear on the screen one at a time, or there are a couple of instances when there aren’t even any words at all. How did that come to you?
Well, first of all, I’m just a big believer in text as a technology. I think a lot of people, when they think about e-books or interactive books they think “We need to put in video!” or “Crazy interactive physics!” or “It has to be like a game!” And those things are fine, but I actually think just text on its own can be incredibly powerful and that there’s a lot of power left in it. I also think there are interesting things when you look at the way text has been used on other screens. I love movie titles, for instance. I love the kind of animated typography you see in music videos sometimes and on YouTube. So I was definitely taking cues from that stuff. For me it was a matter of thinking about the way text has been used over so many decades.
You also excluded the use of a back button, which is weirdly effective at pulling the reader in and making them focus. It also adds to a compulsion to keep moving and get to the end. Was that purposeful or some kind of technical limitation?
That was on purpose. It was one of the things, and there were many, that I was nervous about. I thought maybe people would just think that was annoying or get angry at me and quit the app. But I tested it with a small group of testers and first-readers and people actually responded really positively. They said it forced them to pay attention and, you know, that it almost felt a little risky. Like “Shit, I better read this because I might not get any chance to come back to it.” And nothing on the Internet is like that. You can always scroll back, you can always hit the back button, you can undo everything, you can always go back. So I think just the fact that this is different is kind of cool. The fact that it’s not the way we’re used to interacting with text. And people did say it made them slow down and pay more attention, and you know, as a writer, that’s awesome. It’s amazing to know that people are having that feeling about something you wrote.
Did you have any software development experience before this?
You make an interesting point in the essay about how clicking the “like” button tends to be about leaving breadcrumbs for your followers. Things that go viral, in particular, often get passed around like a hot potato.
Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly it.
Do you get the feeling that share culture is sort of preventing us, in a way, from engaging with content on a more selfish level?
I don’t know that it’s preventing it, but I don’t think it’s helping. In a way it’s natural because it serves the interests of people running websites, whether they’re social networks or ad-supported content sites. They’re interested in having people click more stuff and having more people click more stuff, so the incentives line up. They want you to just keep reading more stuff and then sharing it. But I think our incentives as readers and viewers should be a little bit different. And I don’t think there are really good tools right now for holding on to stuff and returning to stuff. You’re starting to see a few things emerge; for instance, I’ve been interested in tools and apps that let you timeshift your content on Twitter. They might let you see what you were tweeting a year ago, or something, and that can be interesting because it reminds you of what you were doing and what you were reading and actually does help you return to things. I think if we had more tools like that we’d be in better shape.
That’s actually one of the things I like about Facebook’s Timelines. Part of it seems to be saying “Hey, this stuff is for keeps.”
You know, that’s true. I tend to use Twitter a lot more than Facebook, but I do think some of those design decisions they’ve made are doing a pretty good job of that. They even do things like resurfacing old content, “A year ago today…” and that kind of thing. I agree, I think that’s a promising direction.
You take care to point out that you do believe there is, in fact, a great deal of content online that’s worth returning to, and I think a lot of people would instinctively agree with that. But at the same time, there is this prevailing attitude that things that exist on the web are inherently ephemeral. How do you think that happened?
That’s a good question, and I don’t know that I have a super smart answer to that. We’re at a weird place now where I think people who make great stuff—great writers, great filmmakers, great artists, digital artists, are all putting their stuff online. And that wasn’t the case even five years ago. I think then people were sort of holding back, waiting to see what this thing would turn into. But today they’re all online and they’re all sharing their stuff. But there aren’t really great tools to give that stuff the attention it deserves. There are some things that help, like ReadItLater and Instapaper and Readability—all these things that help you say “You know what, I wanna read this later when I sit down on the couch.” That’s a step in the right direction. But it’s still building up a queue. It’s still saying, “I’m gonna read this, and then I’m reading it, and then it’s gone.” Things don’t stick around. And maybe that’s the real answer to your question. There’s not a great way to save things on the Internet. There’s no bookshelf on the Internet. So just by definition, you read something or watch something and then it disappears.
Some people—heavy Twitter users like yourself, even—might not have a problem with the constant flow of things online. Why do you think it bothered you when you realized that you didn’t have the same relationship with the Web that you do with books and movies?
I think if you look at books as a technology, which is what they are, then you see that they’re a really successful technology. Books do have, and have had, a lot of things going for them. And one of those things is durability. They don’t disappear. So I think if you’re a book lover and you spend a lot of time with books, the contrast between that and the Internet starts to jump out at you.
And you think the Internet would be a better place if it were more like books?
I do. Because, again, I think we’re in this place right now where there’s so much awesome stuff out there. I can barely overstate it. The amount of great art blasting through the Web everyday is humbling. So I think if we were better at preserving some of that, then we would be better off. Because it’s spending time with things and digging deep that is ultimately nourishing. That’s the way you get smarter and learn things about the world and about yourself, not by just liking and faving stuff all day.
Even older forms of disposable media seem to stick with people more than Web content does currently. I have stacks of magazines in my apartment, and part of that is because I work in magazines, but part of it is because I really do have a hard time letting them go. Do you think that things online will go that way, eventually? That it’s just a matter of time before content on the web takes on the same amount of cache that printed media has now? Or is it doomed to just keep accumulating like sawdust on a woodshop floor?
Well there are conflicting incentives there. Because those people who run websites and web systems want to keep the flood coming, at least right now. More content means more clicks and more ad impressions and more money. So that’s that set of incentives. I think if we as readers and viewers and consumers, on the other hand, can kind of figure out ways to get things out of that flood—which may be via a change of habits, or by using open source tools, or some design or format that we haven’t imagined yet—then that will make a difference. But I think it has to come from our side. If the readers and viewers don’t take a step back and try to figure out a new approach, then I don’t think things will change.
What are your immediate plans for “Fish?” Will there be updates?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve just been delighted by the warm reception that it’s gotten, and I think people will continue to tweet from the app and tweet to me and share it with other people and that’s awesome. I would, however, like to figure out a way to get it onto Android and maybe even make an open Web version. Because the one fly in the ointment right now, and it’s a big fly, is that it’s only available on the iPhone, and obviously I would like more people to be able to read it. I did it on iOS because that’s what I use and it happens to be the biggest platform available, but I do think there are plenty of people out there who might like to read “Fish” but don’t own products made by Apple. But that’s really it for now. More than anything else I want to keep working on stuff like this where the form and the content kind of fit together.
Any more tap essays in the pipeline?
We’ll see. You know, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work or not and I’m happy to see that it did. I’m thinking about it.
Robin Sloan's first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore is due in 2012 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.