The commons we've enclosed

on · · 6 comments · 350 words · read ~307 times.

I, unironically, love Reddit. But it's just USENET with a better UI, and a few moderation improvements.

Most days I use DropBox. But it's just FTP, but a bit easier to use and automate.

I waste a lot of time on Slack. When I explain it to old-school nerds, I say it's IRC - but developed by someone who gives a damn about user experience.

Most people in the world don't have access to WWW. Instead, they use Facebook which gives them a much simpler way to post photos and share their thoughts. It doesn't ask them to hand-edit an .htaccess file.

I don't know anyone who uses Listserve. It turns out that Telegram is faster, more convenient, and doesn't require esoteric commands.

Indeed, why bother with Email? You don't need to learn how to configure SMTP when you have WhatsApp.

What other, classic, decentralised Internet tools have been turned from open protocols to closed and proprietary services?

A large part of this is our fault. And, by us, I mean gatekeeping nerds. We developed tools which were unforgiving. We had no interest in the "soft" skills of empathy. We were too socially-awkward to speak to real users. We were insular and we liked it! Worse than that - we revelled in it.

Unix is user-friendly — it's just choosy about who its friends are.


And then Apple eats everyone's lunch by relentlessly focussing on being user friendly. Good for them. But it means handing over control to a single organisation.

I don't claim to be any good at user experience - far from it. But I despair at some of the redecentralised efforts I see springing up. They are technically brilliant, and follow the open-source philosophy of scratching one's own itch. And they all - without fail - are terrible to use.

Redecentralisation won't happen because of us nerds. It must happen despite us. Despite our ingenuity and despite our self-infatuation. It must be inclusive, and put user-needs at its very heart.

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6 thoughts on “The commons we've enclosed”

  1. laz long says:

    as we get older our tolerance for continuous ‘futzing’ decreases. When the fruit company does all the ‘futzing’ it is so easy

  2. Marcus Downing says:

    The problem is, making a decent user interface is hard. It takes a lot of work by teams of real people. It isn't just a failing of the individual programmers behind the ancient tools, because expecting one person to have all the different skills is unfair. The private companies were able to take over all these areas because they invested the effort and money into making a tool that was easy to use. And in most cases, I can't say I blame them.

    Before friendly tools like Dropbox came long, people didn't just share files with FTP; they just didn't do it at all. Most people didn't use IRC before Slack. These companies didn't just steal customers from the free alternative, they brought new customers in who would never have been in the market. The improved user interfaces made it possible for lots of people to do things they couldn't before. And that's a good thing.

    I do understand the worry at letting private companies lock us into proprietary walled gardens - especially Facebook, which seems determined to take over the world. I do wish these markets could be opened up. But you can't blame the companies for making something better and succeeding.

    There are examples of companies adding a better user interface to old tools. Google Mail, for example, was revolutionary when it was new. A smooth, easy-to-use web email system with more capacity than you could ever need! And email is still going strong, despite all the alternatives that have popped up, and remains interoperable between all the different providers. It is possible to work with open standards rather than against them.


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