jimray

Like it says on the tin.

“Now manifested in GIFs, Vines, Supercuts, music samples, instant replays, and endless other formats, The Loop has become the preeminent narrative device of our time …. Movies have a beginning, a middle, and an end, whereas The Loop is all-at-once.”

Matt Buchanan wrote a short piece last week trying to place the role of the animated GIF as a news device, a premise as silly as it is, well, weirdly necessary.

Buchanan hits a low point, though, with the above quote pulled from a quasi-thinkish post1 by Rex Sorgatz. Sorgatz seems to be trying to fit a half-clever conclusion to a hypothesis he didn’t bother formulating, ending up being flat-out wrong.

These loops aren’t narrative devices2. At their rare, absolute best, they are six-word stories, though usually they are mere embellishments to an actual narrative. At their all-too-often worst, they provide the illusion of information, compacting the real narrative into the smallest possible space, devoid of context and therefore meaning. The best Vines are thus far just stop motion tricks, the memeiest animated GIFs mesmerizing jokes. Ultimately, these are gimmicks and parlor tricks, momentarily delightful maybe, but not enlightening. They are the 3D extruded pie charts in the bottom corner of USA Today.

As for the of our time nonsense — a distinction I can scarcely imagine we need in our hyper-unmediated media landscape — it would be hard to argue against the primacy of streams3, followed closely by lists. Streams have, for better or worse, conquered how we absorb, if not necessarily understand, the world. Ticker tapes and news crawls have evolved into reverse chron lists of posts, photos, and updates, and are now so ubiquitous we don’t notice they’ve taken over, even as we lazily thumb at our screens.

Streams, vying for every spare moment of our attention, are now, of course, quite literally endless. That endlessness, and the weight they impose on our cognitive load balancers, is an apt metaphor for our inability to keep up. They’re tyrannical monsters of data that we often have to sift through and piece together ourselves to divine meaning.

Unlike loops, though, unending streams remind us there’s always more to the story. Cognitively, streams have almost the exact opposite effect of loops, forcing us back for more, instead of fooling us into thinking we’ve absorbed it all (of course, Buzzfeed has glibly combined the two into a perfect cognitive neutron bomb). If there’s a loop to pay attention to, it’s a meta one, the dopamine loop that keeps pulling us to refresh.

Endlessly repeated six-second animations might fool our lizard brains into thinking we’ve grokked its point before moving on to the next one. If the loop is a signifier of anything, though, it’s a small victory of shallowness and an illusion of actual understanding.


  1. I found Whitney Erin Boesel’s look at documenting tragedy through the truncated lens of social media a much more engaging read. 

  2. I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s maxim about semi-colons. All animated GIFs do is show you’ve googled “how to make animated gif”. 

  3. Or, as Sorgatz might put it in his sophomoric style, The Stream. 

“Mourning has become an all too isolated experience—but Facebook and Twitter have become a place (strange as it may seem) where the bereaved can find community, a minyan of strangers to share their prayers. Yes, it might seem strange to stumble upon announcements of death or the intimate details of dying amidst updates about summer trips to Costa Rica, Anthony Weiner’s escapades, and the arrival of a new puppy. But this strangeness is the strangeness of the real.”

– From tweeting death by Meghan O’Rourke

That one new feature you added? That sparkly, Techcrunchable, awesome feature? What did it cost your user? If the result of your work consumes someone’s cognitive resources, they can’t use those resources for other things that truly, deeply matter. This is NOT about consuming their time and attention while they’re using your app. This is about draining their ability for logical thinking, problem-solving, and willpower after the clicking/swiping/gesturing is done.

Of course it’s not implicitly bad if our work burns a user’s cog resources.Your app might be the one place your user wants to spend those resources. But knowing that interacting with our product comes at a precious cost, maybe we’ll make different choices.

– Kathy Sierra is writing again at Serious Pony, which is just wonderful. This post on the designer’s responsibility helping our users manage their cognitive load is absolutely required reading.

I gave a short-ish talk at San Francisco Creative Mornings about food, which I was equally excited and terrified to do. It actually turned out mostly ok! If you put this in a tab in the background, you don’t have to watch me reading off my screen too much or worry about my pocket square desperately trying to escape.

The problems with using Twitter as a model for the general population are simple. You don’t have to be a pollster to understand that searching for tweets that match some keywords hardly constitutes proper probabilistic sampling. We might display a map that shows colors mentioned by Americans on Twitter, but nobody would say this is an accurate map of favorite colors for each region of the USA. Naturally, most graphics play it safe and say overtly that they are only representions of Twitter and are not meant to provide deeper insight beyond that into the general population.

However, the distinction is lost on a lot of readers. I think many of us find these graphics so appealing because we see ourselves reflected in our data streams.

– Jake Harris, one of the smartest news nerds in the biz, on the perils of polling Twitter.

“That is jaw-dropping. It is an assertion of judicial supremacy over the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive. It envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and everywhere ‘primary’ in its role.”

If you had “a condemnation of the Supreme Court overturning a key provision of the voting rights act” as a guess to the origin of this quote, you’d be close, but, sadly, wrong.

It’s actually Antonin Scalia, apoplectic that five of his fellow justices found the abhorrent Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

The highlights of Scalia’s DOMA dissent are schadenfreudetastic.

There is a tendency among those who grew up under the rule of law to treat it like the Rock of Ages, an immovable substrate in which all the institutions of the state are forever anchored. And so even ordinarily skeptical people tend to assume that the government obeys its own laws when no one is looking. To an astonishing extent, and to the great credit of American civic life, this is actually true.

But I think a better metaphor for the rule of law is that it is the soil in which democratic institutions take root. Like the soil, it can be depleted. And once depleted, it is not easily replenished. Secrecy erodes the rule of law because it makes democratic accountability impossible. Secrets can’t be held too broadly, so secrecy concentrates responsibility and asks too much of human nature. That is why every intelligence agency, unless given rigorous outside oversight, commits terrible excesses.

– Maciej Ceglowki’s response to David Simon’s shrug about the NSA’s domestic spying system is vitally important.