How A Twitter Scrap, and Covid-19, Reveal a Disruption In Process

Disruption, by Tim Lewis 2009

When is innovation just another stab at the past, and when is it revolutionary? When it becomes a bit of a Twitter storm in a teacup, is possibly when.

Here’s an interesting case study in the offing: You might need to get your head around some unfamiliar terms, like bi-directional linking, breadcrumb navigation and transclusion. Or not.

My thoughts were nudged by a post at Amplenote, an online note-taking and note-sharing app that is worth a look. Like a lot of these players, they’ve been forced into offering features by the new kid on the block, namely Roam Research, which by taking the genre by the scruff of its neck turned itself into something that knowledge workers are getting excited about.

The post was written by Bill Harding, founder of Alloy, the company behind Amplenote. They’re old style, by internet terms and their own words, not relying on VC funding, freemium models etc. You can tell by the product that it’s neat, robust and reliable.

That’s mostly what people interested in this kind of tool are looking for. I’ve been a note taker and outliner since the early days, and I’ve tried pretty much everyone that’s out there. Folks know that I feel that despite some great stuff, computer software has let us down when it comes to making software that understands us, rather than the other way around. (Why Won’t Computers Do What We Want Them To?)

But it’s taken Covid-19 to make me realise this is changing. And apps like Amplenote — or ones more familiar to you, like Evernote, are getting caught up in it. Roam Research has given us a glimpse of what note-taking — the simple act of reading, hearing, thinking or seeing something, and storing that somewhere — is ripe for disruption, and he’s going for it. It’s early days, but lockdown may be the jolt that propels this genre into the mainstream, something no other note-taking app has managed to do. A day ago Conor White-Sullivan posted to Roam’s Reddit group that 10,000 new users signed up to the app over the weekend, causing upheaval for his servers and users and forcing him to suggest to those ‘super-concerned’ use a rival app “for a week or so”.

He must know that suggestion really isn’t an option for most of his disciples. Roam is attracting a lot of interest — and beyond the usual numbers of people who dabble in this kind of thing. Why? Well, I think there are number of reasons:

  • Roam works right out of the box. It’s all online, the (initial) interface is very simple, even prepopulating the page with blank, but dated entries, prompting you to just start writing.
  • It gets as complex as you want it to get. You could just use it as a journal, if you wanted, but that would be a waste. It goes deep, with features being added with little fanfare, including sliders, nodemaps, and stuff I haven’t gotten around to figuring out.
  • But the key to all the excitement, I believe, is a key formula, which I think is the basic currency of software success: you get more out of it than you put in. Put simply, this means, for example, that if you linked one page to another page, that second page would update itself so you can see that link. This is what they mean by bi-directional links, or backlinks. It might seem to be the most trivial and useless piece of data, but if you don’t know what pages are linking to the page you’re looking at, you simply won’t know what information you have that you’ve already decided is linked to this. Your effort in linking to that page is now automatically creating extra value without you having to do the extra work.
Bi-directional linking, in simple terms

If you’ve read this far you’ll probably get it. But if not, let me just go into more detail. Computers, and the software that run them, are useless tools if they don’t allow us to do more with the stuff we tell them than we are capable of. Enter numbers into a spreadsheet because you know the software can do a load of things with that data than you can. Let your Apple Watch collect data about your body because you know it’s going to do more with it that’s useful than you could with a paper and pen. But for the most part knowledge workers have not really had anything similar for textual data. Yes, AI can help to find patterns in large bundles of it, but the same applied to our knowledge — the stuff we decide is worth keeping from our readings, talks, viewing and thinking in a computer — has not been so useful. Mostly, it’s just about being able to retrieve stuff more easily, so we don’t need to remember it, or remember where we put it.

But this is 2020. And we’re still there?

And this is where we come back to Bill Harding. And his screed. His point is a fair one: that all this talk of bidirectional linking is deja vu for many of us, when in the post-dotcom bubble burst of the early 2000s Wikipedia’s surprising success prompting interest in the underlying technology (here’s a piece I wrote in 2004 (sic) for the Journal about the disruption Wikipedia caused).

In his blog post yesterday Bill writes:

To drink in the enthusiasm we’ve witnessed in some corners of Twitter, bidirectional linking will evolve what’s possible…for those who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of learning this enigmatic craft. As fate & capitalism would have it, an elite cadre has popped up to help enthusiasts learn how to benefit from bidirectional linking. By all accounts, those who successfully assimilate the ideas of these programs transform their lives for the better. It seems reasonable, and I believe these gentlemen are doing great work to which they are wholly devoted.

But how different are today’s opportunities than what came before? To technologists of a certain age, the groundswell for a better connected network of ideas hearkens back to the halcyon days of 2005, when wikis were The Next Big Thing. Back then, companies like Wetpaint raised $40m to help organize the world’s knowledge. “A lot of venture money is flowing into wiki products” said Techcrunch in 2006. Having ubiquitous, bidirectional linking with surrounding context info was creating transformative opportunities in companies where people knew how to build them.

But with a couple major exceptions, wikis fizzled out, never catching on for personal use. Having set up my share of wikis during the early 2000s, I can attest that it was “worse than WordPress”-level bad for Twiki and Mediawiki. Developers might struggle through it to better capture their personal ideas, but the benefits of bidirectional linking were largely relegated to business knowledge software.

These new startups reviving and refreshing the ideas from the wiki craze is a great outcome for productivity enthusiasts. Especially with the expert guidance of smart people like Tiago and Nat, there’s never been a better time to help the humble wiki live up to its nearly-forgotten first round of hype.

If you sniff a little snarkiness in the tone ‘elite cadre’, you might be right. After trying to lure Roam users away with an import tool and a pricing comparison, Amplenote’s twitter account said less than an hour before I wrote this, that it had been blocked by Roam’s:


It’s not really a battle of equals: Amplenote has 24 followers, Roam 16,000. And this is the thing. What we’re really seeing, I believe, is a new player come in and bring the necessary tweaks and rethink to an existing technology — in this case, personal databases — by taking the best bits from each, adding a few new ones, and stealing the show to create a following and a buzz. This is not to say Roam isn’t impressive: it is, and I have not found any other app to match it.

And that’s why Amplenote and others, Bear, TiddlyWiki, WorkFlowy, TheBrain, Dynalist etc, are all struggling to add similar features, thinking about adding them, or defending why they don’t have them. This is good, and classic Christensen disruption. It might not be Roam that ends up winning this, but they’ve shaken up the market.

But what market? Is there really one for this kind of thing? Back in the early 2000s I would have said yes, because the kinds of people interested in this kind of thing were the same kind of people who bothered to read a tech column in The Wall Street Journal. The internet was a means of connectivity, and its potential was seen in those terms — could I store my stuff in more than one place, was the common question. So it wasn’t surprising that, as Bill recounts, everyone thought that wikis (the ‘readwrite web’) were the way to go. But others saw it differently, and all the smart money ended up going to using the internet to create more passive experiences — user generated, yes, but simpler, shorter, and where possible multimedia. It was all about eyeballs, and so content as knowledge slipped into the background as Twitter (status), Facebook (sharing stuff) and Google (search) came to the fore.

I’m not saying that’s necessarily changed. But Covid-19 has helped crystallise something that was already happening, namely that smart people are exploring how to leverage their knowledge and knowledge of software to solve the unsolved problems of the past, or to reconsider tools that had been largely forgotten. Knowledge work was once an obscure term that is now on its way to describing pretty much all of us who are sat at a computer, and it’s this realisation that has made people like Conor, I imagine, realise there’s a market for tools that really address the problem of deriving more value from the cost of user input.

Bill’s error is a generational one: what was once ‘business knowledge’ is now something else entirely. Watch this video of Andy Matuschak, a software engineer who works at the Khan Academy, to see what this looks like (he’s using Bear, by the way, not Roam). It’s strangely captivating viewing, ASMR for the Knowledge Generation:

Andy Matuschak at work

The other mistake is to think of this as ‘productivity’. This is not about that. This is not just a better task manager. I believe we’ve moved on from that — or at least recognised its limits. Now the thinking is, as Tiago Forte, one of Bill’s ‘elite cadre’, has mentioned, about acquiring and processing knowledge in a way that our brain retains it. You can almost hear Andy’s brain whirring as he processes what he’s reading before he expresses it.

So where will all this go? I’m not sure. Roam is talking about charging $15 a month, which is why people like Bill still think they have a chance to grab some of this market. To me it’s a rising tide and I’m pleased to see there are boats paying attention. After 20 years of focus on either ‘Getting Things Done’ or on the cuteness/elegance of interface, we’re entering a much larger ocean, which has the potential to bring these cutters, sloops and yawls into the slipstream of the incumbent tankers. Whether they go under or catch the current is anyone’s guess. Evernote has, largely, failed to find a larger audience (for lots of reasons) but the timing might now be right, especially as knowledge workers find themselves with plenty of time, isolation, an internet connection, and an urge to learn.

Addendum: Conor points out in a tweeted response to this piece that he has “been working on this problem for the better part of a decade. Strong(ly) agree the changes in landscape are great for us, but we wandered the desert for years before this.”

Covid 2: The Best/Worst of Times

This is part two of a series on the lessons we should, and shouldn’t be drawing from the Coronavirus Pandemic. Part One is here.

Woman Wearing Mask on Train
Remembering the Cluetrain/Anna Shvets, Moscow

A crisis defines us. Perhaps more precisely, a crisis highlights what we have lost, and what defines us is how quickly we can regain it (or not).

First there’s the humanity. One of the redeeming features about Hong Kong’s dense life — and a restorer of faith in human nature — was that once you got into the hills and trails passing strangers would greet each other as if they were on a jaunt in Kew Gardens. It’s a strange world now, when we venture out alone and nervously pass another lone pedestrian at a safe distance, and bark when they get too close. And you know we are in the territory beyond compassion when a family loses one of its kind to the coronavirus, and yet doesn’t want to say that is the reason for fear of stigma. Society, even at its smallest component unit, can break down quickly if social norms don’t catch up with the crisis in its midst. Now that family (friends of a friend) can’t properly mourn, or warn others in the tightly packed neighbourhood where they live of a lethal infection, and those around can’t find a way to offer support because they can’t speak the killer’s name out loud. Empathy withers, rumours prosper and dog ignores dog.

But there are other trends afoot. When there are practical things to do, air rushes in to fill the gaps. Our obsession with just-in-time supply chains has exposed its achilles heel — a lack of the things we need the most. But others have stepped up. A group calling itself OSCMS-Mods (Open Source Covid-19 Medical Supplies) has emerged on Facebook “to evaluate, design, validate, and source the fabrication of open source emergency medical supplies around the world.” It has quickly proved its mettle: a document listing needs ranges from hand sanitizer to laryngoscopes, complete with glossary and warnings about safety and liability.

The Facebook group is dynamic. At the time of writing it has nearly 48,000 members. In the past hour or so I’ve seen posts by an electrical engineering instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison mulling whether to assign as a final project to his students an infrared thermometer. Others chip in, saying they’re working on something similar, offering advice (“don’t forget to program in an emissivity factor”) or help (“I’m pretty fast with 3D modeling and a 3D printer. If you guys need some help with the casing, hit me up!”). In another post a resident of Vancouver Island reports, after driving 500 km, that there is no hand sanitiser or isopropyl on the island. Some offer alternatives (not all them wise) but someone in Hong Kong offers a simpler solution: shipping some of the excess from Hong Kong, where emergency orders arrived too late and the price has fallen below its suppliers’ cost. Medical workers from Southampton, New York, post a photo of themselves in full gear to ask for help alleviate a shortage of surgical caps and masks. The jury is still out on this one, but there are some good suggestions, and hopefully the gap is plugged.

Such adhoc approaches are reassuring. For one thing, people want to help, and the platforms are there to make that a reality — Facebook, with its groups, and a growing mastery of the technology: 3D printing, materials, Arduinos and Raspberry Pis. Of course, these initiatives are only going to be meaningful if they are consistent, and find a way of ensuring that requests for help are not just met by comments and virtue-signalling responses, but concrete action. Time will tell. Technology can often be a hammer looking for a nail.

I think another side to this that may outlast these emergency responses is that the technology will find a way through to real usage, rather than a pure business model. In other words, that tools emerge not because people want to make money, but because they can be useful, and there’s nothing like a jolt to the system for us to realise we need different, or better tools and to define those needs better. A piece in TechCrunch relates how Jahanzeb Sherwani, who developed a popular screensharing app called ScreenHero which he sold to Slack, pushed out a follow-up app called Screen ahead of time — and made it free — to help teams stuck at home share their screens. Given how quickly we’ve grown sick of the ‘heads in a box’ conferencing view (where everyone to me looks like they’re baffled seniors, looking around for their false teeth) this tool works well by going the other way, realising that we’re online to work on something, not look up each other’s noses.

Image result for zoom multiple members
Zoom

This reminds me much more of the 2000-2005 era, when collaboration and thoughtfulness tended to be the norms, a post-boom pause which led to the development (or propagation) of the tools that became Web 2.0, and which in turn provided the (largely unacknowledged) foundations of the social media era. I’m thinking RSS, XML, podcasts, wikis, tagging, web-based apps, microformats, the Cluetrain Manifesto, simple beautiful interfaces. If you think we could have got to Twitter, Facebook etc without the work of largely unrewarded pioneers of that age, you’re mistaken. But it was born out of a particular era, a transition from the web’s beginnings to the mobile, silo-ed era we know today. It was a vastly underestimated period, where an explosion of ideas and connectedness led to an explosion of tools to make the most of that. Nearly all those tools were open source, nearly all became bedrock of these later, frankly more selfish, times. But the spirit, it seems, lives on, and I am hoping that what I’m seeing in initiatives like OSCMS and Sherwani’s generosity is something akin to that: a realisation that technology is the handservant, not of viral growth and big payoffs, but of building connections between us – in times of calamity (personal or global) and beyond, by providing tools for free because they might be useful and might lead to something great.

I don’t think for a moment that these initiatives will of themselves be enough; it’s clear that nearly every public medical facility and service was woefully underfunded and hence underprepared. No battery of 3D printers is going to be able to fill that void. But hopefully the level of interest and involvement — call it civic, call it individualist — in trying to address that gap contributes to a broader discussion about what is our baseline for supplying, funding, equipping and populating such services in the future. And just as Wikipedia arose, not out of commissioning existing experts to write up entries (an effort that failed abysmally) but out of just letting anyone — no need to flash credentials — to contribute and allow the water level to rise by itself, so may we find that out of this Quarantined Era emerges a new sense of how individuals might contribute, and what mechanisms and tools need to be developed or honed to make that happen.

2017 Predictions

This piece was written for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily.

This year is going to be an interesting one, but in technology it’s going to be particularly so. Social media is going to see some reverses, as users start to wake up to the compromises they make in sharing information with companies, governments and the world. But the real progress is going to be making our machines understand us better, in ways that we want.

Artificial intelligence: you’re no doubt rolling your eyes at the phrase, given how many times this technology has been promised as being around the next corner. I’m with you. But I think the focus has been on the wrong place: voice. Apple’s Siri has not been a huge success — except for my daughter, who loves talking to an adult she can be rude to — and Amazon’s Alexa, though impressive, is going to confine itself to those places where we feel comfortable talking to machines: the home.

That makes it inherently limited. Ours is actually a largely text-based world — we still use email, we prefer to text, or Whatsapp our friends, and this is where AI is going to be most useful. I already use an AI assistant called Evie to schedule my appointments; she parses emails I send her and, with a little human help, sets up meetings and calls on my behalf. I save an hour or so a week.

Expect to see more of this: using natural language – the way we usually write — to interact with devices, not via special apps but via whatever channels we already use. It’s our devices — fridges, computers, databases — that have to learn our language and preferred medium, not the other way around. AI will be a success if it can master this, and this year will be key.

Indeed, the same principle will be applied elsewhere: removing the machine-like elements of our interactions. AI will help us talk to machines better, but machines will also help immerse us in experiences. Pokemon Go, the mobile app that led many people astray catching and battling weird critters, was a hit because it took a decade-old technology, augmented reality, and bolted it onto something that people actually found useful. Well, not useful, exactly, but compelling.

Augmented reality took technology into the real world, and gave it an enticing layer. The next step — using technology to shrink the distance between people and the real world. Optimists are calling it teleportation — moving you to places you wouldn’t normally go, or can’t go. That could be a 360 degree video from a live event, or drones filming from way above you, or even experiencing something akin to physical touch with someone whose far away from you. A Singapore startup offers a remote kissing machine, which it of course has called the Kissenger.

Industry is getting excited about this because it sees the possibility of creating a digital twin of a real world device — a turbine say — and then manage and experiment on that digital version of the real thing. A Malaysian company does something similar with corpses — scanning the deceased so that post-mortems can be conducted digitally. The original body is left untouched — which may please relatives, but also means the number of post-mortems can be limitless, and performed by someone on the other side of the world.

All of this technology is available now, but it still takes some vision and money to bring it to market. But what people want is clear enough: technology should bring people closer to each other and their machines, but stay out of the way as much as possible. We may not successfully wean ourselves off our mobile screens any time soon, but we could at least make what we see, hear, and do on those screens as useful, exciting and human as possible.