2014 heroes and villains of ereading

""“In 2009…the challenge was ‘find me something to read.’ In 2014, the challenge is, ‘there’s so much to read.'” So said Mark Armstrong of Longreads at around the midpoint of the year, and he was right – the explosion of online content makes “so many books, so little time” sound quaint. My e-reading increased dramatically in 2014, not because I read more ebooks, but because it was easier than ever to discover and consume stuff to read online. In a year of so much internet, so little time, here are my heroes and villains.

Heroes

The New Yorker

The New Yorker ate my summer. In July, the magazine temporarily made its entire archive accessible for free, hoping that readers smitten with its lengthy and lovingly-edited articles would pay for subscriptions once the paywall was reinstated. I scoured the top article roundups, set out to read all I could, and ended up immersed in writing about crime, justice, dogs, cats, real estate, language, the nervous systemmental illness, and Lucinda Williams (to name just a few highlights).

So now that the paywall is back up, have I subscribed? Well, no – if only because I still have so many other things to read. But it would be difficult to argue that the source of some of my year’s most memorable reading experiences is not worth paying for.

Readability

“[P]eople are spending a lot of time reading — and reading seriously — on the phone.” – David Remnick, New Yorker editor in chief, Oct. 10, 2014

The Readability app was the enabler of my New Yorker binge and perhaps the most indispensable hero of my year. Every TTC delay, every customer service lineup, every medical waiting room was bearable, thanks to the little repository of escapism on my phone. And the onslaught of new material surging up in my browser felt more manageable each time I clicked the “Read Later” icon to file bits of it away.

The Toast and Clickhole

Cheers to the bringers of buoyant LOLs in the sea of outrage that was the internet in 2014. A 10,000-word New Yorker essay isn’t always the ticket at the end of a long day – sometimes, you want to turn to the latest installment in The Toast’s “Dirtbag” series, or enjoy Clickhole’s knack for being Buzzfeed on acid.

Villains

Retargeting and other advertising ickiness

No, it’s not a euphemism for imminent vomiting: “Ugh, I need to clear my cookies!” means an ad for some product I looked at is now following me around to other websites. What a great retail strategy – the moment I click for more details of an unfolding tragedy is exactly when you should remind me that I spent a chunk of my precious remaining life in this world dithering over which rice cooker to buy.

Retargeting is just one of the many intrusive advertising practices (autoplay video, I’m looking at you too!) that some have argued are partly responsible for the web’s decline. I don’t have any solutions to the problem of how publishers can make money online, but infuriating your readers isn’t likely to be the answer.

Publishers who still can’t format ebooks

It’s almost 2015. This ebook thing seems like it might be more than a fad. No need to hire an expensive change management consultant, publishers – here’s some free strategic advice: you must learn how to format manuscripts for electronic consumption.

Poorly-formatted ebook title page

The cats are winning.

State of the fictional Internet: Bleeding Edge and The Circle

Some critics are irked by Donna Tartt’s inconsistent references to technology in The Goldfinch (she grants her protagonist an iPhone in one chapter, then strains plausibility by cutting off his Internet access for the multi-year span of another plot arc). Awkward? Maybe, although for me at least, the story was rewarding enough to make the effort of suspending disbelief worthwhile. But if you’re looking for a fictional universe where the Internet is a central concern, not just a plot device, here are a couple of recent novels of interest.

Bleeding Edgebleeding-edge-book-cover

Thomas Pynchon was writing about enigmatic distributed communication networks before there was an Internet, so a Pynchon novel that takes on the ‘net is pretty momentous. Bleeding Edge is set in New York just after the nineties dotcom crash, in the months leading up to and following the events of September 11, 2001. (See Michael Chabon’s review for a dissection of the September 11 aspects of the novel.) Through the eyes of fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, Pynchon gives us scenes of dotcom hubris in ruins:

She finds the door wide open and the place empty, another failed dotcom joining the officescape of the time – tarnished metallic surfaces, shaggy gray soundproofing, Steelcase screens and Herman Miller workpods – already beginning to decompose, littered, dust gathering . . . Well, almost empty. From some distant cubicle comes a tinny electronic melody Maxine recognizes as “Korobushka,” the anthem of nineties workplace fecklessness, playing faster and faster and accompanied by screams of anxiety. Ghost vendor indeed. Has she entered some supernatural timewarp where the shades of office layabouts continue to waste uncountable person-hours playing Tetris? Between that and Solitaire for Windows, no wonder the tech sector tanked.

Characters voice critiques of the excesses of turn-of-the-millennium web design:

“Oh, tell me, tag soup, right, lame-ass banners all over the place random as the stall walls in a high-school toilet? All jammed together? finding anything, after a while it hurts your eyes? Pop-ups! Don’t get me started, ‘window.open,’ most pernicious piece of Javascript ever written, pop-ups are the li’l goombas of Web design, need to be stomped back down to where they came from, boring duty but somebody’s got to.”

And then there’s DeepArcher, an immersive virtual world that sounds like Second Life art-directed by David Lynch:

When the program is loaded, there is no main page, no music score, only a sound ambience, growing slowly louder, that Maxine recognizes from a thousand train and bus stations and airports, and the smoothly cross-dawning image of an interior whose detail, for a moment breathtakingly, is far in advance of anything she’s seen on the gaming platforms Ziggy and his friends tend to use, flaring beyond the basic videogame brown of the time into the full color spectrum of very early morning, polygons finely smoothed to all but continuous curves, the rendering, modeling, and shadows, blending and blur, handled elegantly, even with…could you call it genius? Making Final Fantasy X, anyway, look like an Etch A Sketch. A framed lucid dream, it approaches, and wraps Maxine, and strangely without panic she submits.

Pynchon waxes ironic about the decline of reading (Maxine to her son, on the subject of a thumb drive loaded with documents: “And now your friends have seen it before I have.” “They … uh, they don’t read that much, Mom. Nothing personal. A generational thing.”) and the Internet’s failure to live up to its promise (“Look at it, every day more lusers than users, keyboards and screens turning into nothin but portals to Web sites for what the Management wants everybody addicted to, shopping, gaming, jerking off, streaming endless garbage–“), but the novel’s conclusion seems to imply at least a precarious hope for the future of art, technology, and humans in general. DeepArcher eludes the clutches of sinister commercial/government interests by going open source and evolves into a kind of digital afterlife, where both the novel’s murdered characters and pre-9/11 New York City live on. One character speculates: “Could be there’s enough good hackers around interested in fighting back. Outlaws who’ll work for free, show no mercy for anybody who tries to use the Net for evil purposes.” We can only hope.

The Circle

the-circle-book-coverMore bluntly pessimistic is Dave Eggers’  The Circle, an Orwellian satire about the end of personal privacy in the age of social networks, location-aware devices, ubiquitous cameras, and uninterrupted connectivity. The Circle tells the story of Mae, a naïve new recruit at an all-powerful tech monopoly (think Google merged with Facebook and Apple) who rises rapidly from true believer in the corporate culture of mandatory “sharing” to 24/7 exposure as a reality-TV-style online celebrity.

Eggers might have benefited from some of Orwell’s conciseness – where Animal Farm eviscerates Soviet Marxism in a hundred and fifty pages, The Circle takes nearly five hundred to dole out its verdict on Facebook et al. Maybe the warning has come too late for me and I’ve already weakened my attention span with too much screen time, but even before the novel’s halfway point, I was all, like, yeah, we’re happily signing over our freedom to a corporate-run surveillance state. Yadda, yadda, yadda. tl;dr.

The best part of The Circle is how precisely it evokes the chirpy coerciveness of Silicon-Valley-speak. Here’s Mae getting oriented to her multi-screen workspace and mandatory social network participation:

“Now it’s on to the really fun stuff. Screen three. This is where your main social and Zing feeds appear. I heard you weren’t a Zing user?”

Mae admitted she hadn’t been, but wanted to be.

“Great,” Gina said. “So now you have a Zing account. I made up a name for you: MaeDay. Like the war holiday. Isn’t that cool?”

Mae wasn’t so sure about the name, and couldn’t remember a holiday by that name.

“And I connected your Zing account with the total Circle community, so you just got 10,041 new followers! Pretty cool…

“Now, next to the Zing feed, you’ll see the window for your primary social feed. You’ll also see that we split it into two parts, the InnerCircle social feed, and your external social, that’s your OuterCircle. Isn’t that cute? You can merge them, but we find it helpful to see the two distinct feeds. But of course the OuterCircle is still in the Circle, right? Everything is. Make sense so far?”

Mae said it did.

The dialogue captures the creeping incrementalism of our abdication – one more box checked, one more unread TOC agreed to, one more account granted access. And embarrassingly, the siren song leading us astray isn’t even the oratory of a totalitarian cult leader – more like a high-school clique’s queen bee promising us fun, status, and belonging. “Cool, right?” As a character in Bleeding Edge remarks, in the civil war over online freedom, “the slaves don’t even know that’s what they are.”

It’s enough to make you hope the future turns out to be a bit more anarchic, mysterious, fragmented, Pynchonian.

Lazy web: my 2013 year in tech

I thought it might be interesting to document how I’m currently using technology in my personal life. I’m not sure I’m representative of any larger trends, but one theme that emerges as I reflect on my year is probably true for many people: there is an overwhelming volume of content and number of devices competing for my attention, and I am ruthlessly ignoring anything that requires too much effort on my part. Lazy web, c’est moi.

One of many lazy moments

One of many lazy moments

Devices

Both at home and at work, I move seamlessly between Mac and PC. The distinctions between the two seem less and less important – after all, so much of what I do is now browser-based.

I upgraded from an iPhone 3GS to an iPhone 5 this year, and I must say, I love the phone, despite a few annoyances with iOS7. As with my desktop/laptop use, the browser is central: most apps still seem to be more trouble than they’re worth; I could count the number of apps I actually use on the fingers of one hand.

Social networks

I continue to find Facebook boring and unrewarding, but (like many people, I suspect) I find myself locked into it as a way of communicating with a subset of people in my life. In 2013, I went down to weekly FB logins and shared less than I had in previous years.

My love affair with Twitter continues: it is personalized, relevant, convenient – my sun, my moon, my stars, etc. etc. I access it throughout the day every day for both leisure and professional purposes. I use its direct messaging to communicate. It’s the third thing I look at every morning (after email and the weather forecast) and the last thing I check before bed every night.

I use Goodreads regularly, but more as a way to keep track of my personal reading than as a social or discovery platform.

Books

I read more ebooks in 2013, but print is still a big part of my life. The Retina display on my new phone has made ereading more enjoyable, and usability improvements to the library’s ebook service, as well as a wider range of available titles, have led me to borrow ebooks more frequently. My main concern with ereading continues to be quality-control issues with the content: poor layout, garbled special characters, occasional duplication or omission of chunks of text. Until these quality issues are worked out, ebooks won’t be my first choice for the reading I really care about.

the-goldfinchI was reminded of one of the small pleasures of print books while reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. As I carried my hardcover library copy everywhere with me in December, racing to finish reading all 771 pages by the due date, I found myself connecting with other public transit passengers who were reading or planning to read the book. Smiles and nods and brief conversations — “How are you finding it?”; “I’m hoping to read it over the holidays”; “I loved The Secret History“; and so on — this is an experience you just can’t have with ebooks.

Newspapers and magazines

2013 was the year all the major Toronto newspapers went behind paywalls. I figured I would just get into the habit of clearing my cookies and continue reading them as usual, but instead, my behaviour changed in a way I wasn’t expecting: I now find myself hesitating to click links on the news sites’ homepages – I’m taking a second to think about whether or not I really want to read a particular article, and most of the time, I decide I can’t be bothered even though I know perfectly well how to get around the paywall if I need to. I’m reading significantly less content from the major newspapers than I did a year ago. I feel badly about this (I had promised myself that if I was clearing a particular site’s cookies too often, I would consider a subscription), but it seems I’ll avail myself of any excuse to winnow down the queue of things to be read.

So how am I consuming news? Twitter has become my go-to source for breaking news. I get my in-depth journalism from The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Wired, Slate, and dozens of other sources (thank you, @longform!) and use Readability (one exception to my rule about the general uselessness of apps) to save articles to my phone.

I gave digital replica magazines a whirl this year when the library introduced the Zinio magazine service, but they failed to set my world on fire. Flipping through glossy photo spreads is OK, but the reading experience just isn’t that great. Apparently I’m not alone in this conclusion.

Music and TV

In music, this was the year of Songza for me. The curated playlists are amazing: the perfect way for the lazy/time-strapped listener to discover new music.

TV’s share of my leisure time continued its long decline. I discovered the handy workaround of VPNs that let you access geo-restricted content, but it still feels like too much work to get the shows I want when I want them. I watched the latest (disappointing) season of Mad Men, kept up with the entertaining silliness of Downton Abbey, and enjoyed the bizarre and memorable Top of the Lake – but that’s about it.

The Great UX Debate continues (in my head): post-Interaction 13 thoughts

great-ux-debate-interaction-13-conferenceMy mind is still buzzing from four days at IxDA’s Interaction 13 conference, a big gathering of design and user experience professionals that happened to be in Toronto this year. The Great UX Debate took place on Thursday morning, and here I am on Sunday, still debating in my head. I think the debate is sticking with me because the panelists didn’t quite manage to articulate some of my concerns with the issues under discussion. Here’s what’s lingering in my mind for each of the three debate topics.

As designers, are we responsible for the effects we have on people’s behaviors from the things we create?

The examples cited in response to this question struck me as way too grandiose. Were the inventors of the car responsible for urban sprawl? Is the availability of text messaging on phones responsible for the decline of direct personal interaction? Someone even mentioned Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb. Come on, guys – those technological changes were not the work of designers, unless you’re stretching the category of “designer” to include engineers, inventors, scientists, industry, government, society as a whole. Panelist Teresa Brazen injected some much-needed humility by pointing out (in reference to the Arab Spring), “Twitter didn’t cause a revolution. People did.”

I would have loved to hear a discussion of this question at a much more micro (and practical) level. How should designers respond when asked to use their skills for EVIL – i.e. to drive behaviour that may benefit the business but is not in the best interest of the users? The example I had in mind was this: you’re the interaction designer for a web platform that wants its users to stay logged in, so your boss tells you to make it harder to find the Sign Out link. What’s your responsibility (to your employer, to your users), and how should you handle the situation? To me, this would have been a much more interesting and relevant topic for debate, and would also have reflected a humbler and more realistic view of the role of designers in the world.

Can we really create “connected experiences” across so many devices & networks, or is it just a fool’s errand?

This didn’t ignite much debate among the panelists. Everyone’s response was: we can do it, we must do it, and if you don’t do it, panelist Angel Anderson is “going to eat your lunch.” The most interesting comment came from an audience member who tried to explain why some in the audience had raised their hands to vote for the “fool’s errand” side. (I didn’t catch her name, and I had some initial trouble hearing her, so I’m not sure where she works. (Was it government? Anyone know?) She was speaking on behalf of those of us who work inside large organizations, where user experience is not central to the culture, the pace of change is slow, legacy systems add complexity, and our work brings us up against wicked problems. While I appreciated the ambition and confidence of the panelists, I was glad to hear a reality check from someone who, like me, has basic unsolved problems that put “the connected experience” out of reach for now.

Which do you believe most? 1. Stakeholders need to slow down. 2. UXers needs to speed up.

Again, the panelists were unanimous: of course UXers need to speed up, because the pace of change isn’t slowing down. In this case, I think the question didn’t quite succeed in framing the real problem. In my experience, design and development teams struggle with stakeholders who fail to think strategically – who either hop from trend to trend (“We need podcasts.” “Forget podcasts, we need to be on Pinterest.”) or who choose to ignore a major shift until the organization finds itself in crisis and has to scramble to catch up.

Again, the most insightful comment came from an audience member, who pointed out that what often makes the UX process slow is the need for research – and the reason we have to do so much research is that we haven’t managed to sell ourselves as professionals who can make recommendations based on our experience. We could work more quickly if we could convince stakeholders to trust our judgement and (in some cases) to let us lead.

Overall, the debate crystallized a feeling I had throughout the conference about the gap between the designers who work for cutting-edge companies or elite agencies and the rest of us. The William Gibson quote about the future being unevenly distributed came up in several conference presentations, and I think it applies to the design field as well as to the broader world. Part of the value of attending a conference like Interaction 13 is the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the near future. Now I just have to figure out how to get there.

MESHin’ in the recession: highlights from the 2012 MESH Conference in Toronto

The 2012 edition of MESH, Toronto’s highest-flying Internet conference, looked like it had had its wings clipped. Attendance appeared to be down significantly from last year, and the conference model seemed to have been adjusted to accommodate lower-than-expected turnout. Breakout sessions were offered in just two time slots on the afternoon of the second day; for the majority of the conference, all the attendees (seated, inexplicably, at round tables) watched presentations and “conversations” delivered from a spotlit stage at the front of a cavernous, dark auditorium. Without the usual breaks and movement between sessions, the conference lost some of its energy, which is a shame, because this year’s MESH included some excellent speakers on important topics. For me, there were three big themes that stood out.

Big Data

MESH12 offered a couple of sessions on “big data,” the hot topic du jour in the business press. Former LinkedIn data honcho DJ Patil kicked off the conference with a presentation describing how new ways of harnessing data have the potential to transform business, health care, and individual productivity and well-being. In all of his examples, Patil emphasized that no matter how impressive your data set, the real value comes from knowing what to do with it. LinkedIn’s “people you may know” spotlight is powered by good data and smart algorithms, but it wouldn’t exist if one of their developers hadn’t found a way to use it to drive clickthroughs and deeper user engagement with the site. The killer skill set: combining proficiency in data analysis with deep insights into user behaviour and a strategic outlook.

Content Marketing

Last fall’s MESH Marketing conference was all abuzz about content marketing thanks to a galvanizing presentation from Marcus Sheridan, and MESH 2012 kept the topic front-and-centre. Even the “big data” talks gave a nod to content marketing, citing cases where companies have been able to use intriguing or titillating insights gleaned from their data as the basis of successful blog posts or media releases. (Max Shron of OK Cupid talked about the publicity and traffic the site generated with a post about how your choice of smartphone correlates to the number of sexual partners you’re likely to have.) HubSpot’s Brian Halligan gave a cogent overview of the state-of-the-art in content marketing (create “remarkable” content; keep producing, don’t just dabble; focus on “relevance and authenticity”) – mostly truisms, but well-phrased and worth repeating.

Authority & Truth in the Internet Age

Maybe it’s the dark economic times, maybe it was the perpetual darkness of the auditorium, but the dominant theme that emerged at this year’s MESH was epistemologically heavy: how do we adapt to the Internet’s disruption of our models of knowledge, truth, and authority? Traditional media are struggling to find a revenue model in a world of instantaneous, barrier-free publication and distribution. If everyone is a reporter/publisher, and if our traditional gatekeepers and curators disappear, who do we listen to, and what do we believe? David Weinberger’s conversation with Matthew Ingram tackled this topic directly, and several other compelling presentations touched on it in one way or another:

  • Clay Johnson made an analogy between the obesity epidemic and levels of “junk” media consumption, arguing that we need to put ourselves on an “information diet” to ensure we’re taking in balanced reporting about important issues.
  • Rebecca MacKinnon outlined the ways repressive regimes around the world control their populations’ access to the Internet, while Michael Geist gave an update on the state of Internet freedom in Canada.
  • Matthew Ingram engaged a delightfully contrarian David Winer in a wide-ranging conversation about (among other things) whether Twitter should buy the New York Times and the pernicious trend of website personalization, which prevents us from knowing what we don’t know.
  • The conference wrapped up with Andy Carvin‘s stories about using information gathered on social media sites to report on the Arab Spring movement. Verifying crowd-sourced information and engaging in “real-time network analysis” to identify sources and their credibility: a new form of journalism – and techniques that maybe everyone needs to learn.

In the Plex: a Closer Look at Google

After finishing Douglas Edwards’s I’m Feeling Lucky, I continued my reading about Google with Steven Levy’s In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. In the Plex is longer and more in-depth than I’m Feeling Lucky, and the tone is more critical. Where Edwards focused on the early years, culminating in Google’s triumphant initial public offering in 2004, Levy’s book takes Google up to the present day, describing conflicts with privacy advocates, anti-trust investigations, the moral grey area of Google’s operations in China, and the challenges of sustaining a culture of innovation in a large corporation.

Levy benefited from an unusual degree of access, including interviews with hundreds of Google employees and opportunities to attend internal meetings over a two-year period. The best parts of the book reveal exactly what the subtitle promises: how Google thinks and works.

Google’s look and feel

I was intrigued by an anecdote about Google’s longtime UI designer Marissa Mayer critiquing a product redesign. Trying to explain why she didn’t like the design, she summed up the essence of Google’s style: “It looks like a human was involved in choosing what went where… It looks too editorialized. Google products are machine-driven. They’re created by machines. And that is what makes us powerful. That’s what makes our products great.” Google’s look and feel are intended to convey the neutral efficiency of the products; its design is shaped by data and testing, not by any individual’s aesthetic or agenda.

(I can’t help wondering, though, if the latest redesign still reflects Mayer’s philosophy. It includes some elements where style seems to have trumped functionality – such as the elegant but somewhat confusing Gmail toolbar icons.)

Monoculture

Having some experience in an organization with a homogeneous workforce, I was interested to learn that while Google’s famously stringent hiring process has filled the company with brilliant, talented people, it has also contributed to the formation of a corporate monoculture that’s sometimes out-of-step with society at large:

“From the beginning, Google profiled people by which college they had attended. As [Larry] Page said, ‘We hired people like us’ – brainy strivers from privileged backgrounds who aced the SAT, brought home good grades and wrote the essays that got them into the best schools… There were exceptions but not enough to stop some Googlers from worrying that the workforce would take on an inbred aspect. ‘You’re going to get groupthink,’ warned Doug Edwards, an early marketing hire. ‘Everybody’s going to have the same background, the same opinions. You need to mix it up.'”

A lack of diverse viewpoints within the company may help explain Google’s missteps in social networking. Google is known for its commitment to “dogfooding” new products. (From the expression “eat your own dogfood,” the practice dictates that software developers use the products they are building.) But when Google Buzz was released in 2010, it quickly became apparent that internal testing had failed to identify a major problem – that users would feel their privacy had been violated when Buzz automatically created a network based on their email contacts. Levy writes:

“Google had made a critical error. Its employees differed from the general population… Nicole Wong, the lawyer in charge of Google’s policy operations, later admitted the mistake. ‘The on-boarding [dogfood] process is not like doing it in the wild, and the social network of 20,000 Googlers is not like being on the Internet. That process failed us.'”

Management

You wouldn’t think Google would have much in common with Bell Canada, so I was surprised to learn that in 2008 Larry Page recruited Bell’s Patrick Pichette as Google’s new CFO.  What could Pichette, who had been forcing through some tough cost-cutting in labour negotiations with Bell’s unionized workers, have to offer Google, a company famous for granting its employees lavish perks like free food and massages? It turns out that several years of rapid growth and aggressive hiring had left Google ill-equipped to effectively manage its workforce:

“Oddly, whereas Google had built its data infrastructure to reroute around failure, it had no human infrastructure to deal with failed projects. ‘We didn’t know which ones they were, because we never paused to ask ourselves that question,’ says Pichette.

The array of different Google products in beta at any given time – some of them overlapping or competing with each other – seems to bear out this observation.

Google and government

The last chapter of “In the Plex” describes Google’s relations with the U.S. government, and includes a section about several Google employees who were inspired by Barack Obama’s election to leave Google to work in Washington, D.C. with the starry-eyed goal of using technology and Google-esque efficiency and innovation to improve government. As someone who works in government, I found much to identify with:

“[W]hen the outsiders…hit the nation’s capital, they went straight into a buzz saw of illogic, bad intentions, mistrust, and, worst of all, obsolete gadgets. Not only were they chained to outdated Windows computers, but they were denied the Internet tools they had come to rely on as much as breathing. Rules dictated that there could be no Facebook, no Google Talk, no Gmail, no Twitter, no Skype.”

Katie Stanton, one of the former Googlers, lamented: “Working in government is like running a marathon. Blindfolded. Wearing sandbags.” The truth of that statement sums up why I remain so fascinated with Google: despite its problems, Google still seems to represent a better way of working and a model for those of us who would like to leave our blindfolds and sandbags behind.

Facebook is boring

I found myself thinking about Facebook – a $100-billion IPO does draw attention – and my thought was, “Meh.” Is it just me? Of course, I have a Facebook account, and I sign in several times a week, but my engagement with the site is not what it once was.

Looking at the contents of my Facebook newsfeed, I had a revelation: Facebook is the new email. Back in the late 1990s, everyone started using email for leisure as well as work, and inboxes overflowed with forwarded jokes, heartwarming stories, petitions, health advice, brainteasers, scams, warnings about scams, and cute pictures. You could easily spot this type of message thanks to the string of “forwards” in the subject line:

“Fw: Fw: Fw: Fw: The difference between cat people and dog people (funny!)”

“Fw: Fw: Fw: Fw: Important! Share with the women in your life!”

This genre of email wasn’t spam; they were forwarded by someone you knew – someone who (all too often) was reflexively forwarding to their entire address book. You would end up getting the same email from multiple sources, and they would come in cycles. (“Oh, the warning about the Nigerian banking scam is making the rounds again”; “Tis the season for the ASCII art picture of Santa’s head…”)

And now this kind of activity has migrated onto Facebook. A few people are sharing real details about their own lives through personal status updates and photos. But a lot of us are doing the equivalent of email forwarding: we re-post photos, videos, links, and messages we’ve seen in other people’s newsfeeds. Cute animal! Hilarious celebrity blooper! Outrageous political incident! Cause that needs your support! And of course, as a corollary to the email scam alerts, warnings about the medium itself.

Don’t get me wrong – some of this stuff is pure gold: entertaining, bizarre, LOL-worthy, occasionally even important. But for that kind of online distraction and edification, I can go to Reddit, BuzzFeed, major media sites, or that other social network. And I won’t have to wade through posts from Farmville, a reminder that Friend X is playing Slotomania!, and the other schlock that makes Facebook occasionally cringe-worthy.

Facebook used to be more fun. In the early days, there were more personal status updates, and I felt like I was staying in touch with friends and family members I didn’t see or talk to every day. But composing a personal post involves more effort (and more risk, if you’re worried about privacy) than posting a link or – even easier – re-posting the link your friend has already shared. Frictionless sharing, where an app automatically lets you know that I’m reading “Top 10 Celebrity Photoshop Transformations,” only increases the volume of this type of passive, impersonal content.

So if Facebook is boring and Google+ is creepy, where on the social web do I hang out? If it isn’t already obvious, I heart Twitter. I’ll write about why in an upcoming post.