Random Etc. Notes to self. Work, play, and the rest.

Criticism for Twitter Blocks

Twitter Blocks Launched!

We finally kicked Twitter Blocks out of the door yesterday. It's been in development for about a month, mainly by Ryan Alexander and myself (but all Ryan whilst I was working on Oakland Crimespotting, he's a star). It's the first time we've done 3D things using Flash and it's amazing what's being done with Papervision3D at the moment. On the other hand, having 3D shoe-horned into the 2D Flash engine means the learning curve is a lot steeper than the native-3D Processing/OpenGL worlds Ryan and I are used to.

Whenever Stamen launches a new thing, my immediate reaction is a sigh of relief followed by a slightly obsessive-compulsive trawl of what people are saying about it online. (I use a combination of alerts from Technorati, Google Blog Seach and Bloglines to keep track).

The interesting thing about working with companies like Digg and Twitter is that your work inherits all the criticisms and detractors of those sites as well. Digg's users are clamouring for a picture section, so when we launched Digg Arc many of the responses ignored the piece entirely and chastised Digg for paying attention to visualisation and not to the main site. The same argument is already being used against Twitter Blocks, even though the amount of time Twitter's developers put into it was tiny compared to the amount of time they're putting into stability and new features.

Don't get me wrong: some of the early feedback we're getting is very positive, the team at Twitter have been very receptive and we're proud of our work. This much is good. Some of the feedback we're getting points out that the work isn't immediately understandable (I agree, and maybe we could do some more explaining, but I think we're OK for now).

However, there is also a strong and steady flow of negative comments that I've gathered here so I can think about them all in one place.

“Pretty visualization but I doubt its practicality.” PoppuPot

“Twitter Blocks is the kind of thing that demos well at conferences. Not too useful in real life.” Dave Winer

“exploring myneighbourhood : fun 3D view but so what? not sure i will do that everyday.” jean-michel gobet

“Well its interesting that its a new Twitter toy, but I just don't get it. Functional?” programwitch

“Puzzled but Entertained” … “Not really got the slightest idea why this is anything other than an interesting folly.” Tom Coates

“What is the point? Beats me.” Russel Heimlich

“I have to say I was absolutely gobsmacked by how utterly pointless it is.” EirePreneur

(The last one is, short of a personal insult, pretty much the harshest thing anyone has ever said about work I've been involved in.)

To address Tom Coates' point, if you're entertained we've done our job. If you're puzzled then maybe we can help explain things better next time. But I don't mind if some of our work is seen as a folly (“an extravagant, frivolous or fanciful building, designed more for artistic expression than for practicality”). Not everything that everyone does has to be useful or profound. (Nevermind that we've personally found Twitter Blocks a useful way to explore the Twitter network in the last few weeks, with frequent remarks of “I didn't know X was on Twitter”).

Jim Bumgardner (aka KrazyDad, author of O'Reilly's Flickr Hacks) addressed the “so what?” response to frivolous work in a blog post called Utility is Overrated a couple of months back. In the comments there's a comparison with Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. In it, she states that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”. I don't want to point at Twitter Blocks and say “art” (the Motorola sponsorship in particular makes that tricky) but I think that people are thinking too hard about things if they're looking for the “point” of it.

I'm not asking that people stop casting a critical eye over what's presented to them, especially when it's being hyped to death and it's commercially branded. It's fine to ask “what's it for?”, especially of new tools or things that aim to improve the efficiency or effectiveness of this or that. But why not also accept that some things might just be for entertainment and ask “am I having fun” once in a while instead of looking for a problem to be solved or an important statement to be read? Some things just are.


Hm. I think somehow you managed to capture that comment of mine in the ten minutes it was up online before I revised it to the rather more accurate: “I’m not sure this is much more than a beautiful and interesting folly, but it’s beautiful and interesting which is more than can be said for most of the internet. Yay Stamen!” I quickly reacted and then read it back and was surprised by how badly it had captured my feelings.

I didn’t mean folly to be a negative thing either. I meant it in pretty much exactly the way that you had suggested, although I will admit that I had sort of been digging around it trying to work out if it gave me another perspective on the conversations that had been going on. I guess one of the things one assumes about data visualisation is that it will expose new patterns or relationships that you couldn’t see otherwise. Instead, I think I found myself looking for those relationships while enjoying the clicking around and navigational qualities instead. Perhaps the confusion here is in the visualisation versus interface space - ie. that it’s less about looking for pattersn as it is hypertextually exploring conversations.

Posted by Tom Coates on 2 September 2007 @ 10am

just *slightly* obsessive-compulsive? =P

This is really just off the top of my head, but I think that the ‘acceptance’ of something like twitter blocks is a three-tiered thing. That
1. the person actually uses twitter (and therefore has some stake in understanding *what* is being visualised)
2. the visual is understandable
3. the visual is engaging/aesthetic.

Personally, I fail on point 1, which sort of means I fail on point 2 as well!

Negative comments are good - but it’s so easy these days to judge things quickly and publish every thought that pops into people’s heads instead of being constructively critical. Don’t take people’s comments too personally!

Posted by andrea on 3 September 2007 @ 2am

Tom from our talks this is just the kind of interface some one like me with Dyslexia realy likes to so, I know the “text” limited out there may not like it but maps if info and links just hits the right note with me.

I think is more than Folly I think as I have said meny times,
Computers should be about an adative interface to there media.
Limmiting our selfs to just praticalitys has lead to the bland static interfaces we see to day. Its time to shake the bout and more than just make “Art” pease to show what mite be but to make realy interfaces that push us out side the locked windows views we Info-nauts are traped in, we need to feed a life online with better stuff than the grool we have been swolowing for years.

(look at that spelling now that a fecking work of art)

Posted by Sean Varney on 3 September 2007 @ 7pm

Thanks both for the comments, and Tom for clarification.

I’ll probably wait a few days before I respond again, but Mike from Stamen has posted as well which pretty much rounds off my thoughts on this for a while:


Posted by TomC on 3 September 2007 @ 7pm

[...] Tom Carden responds to blog-criticism for Twitter Blocks, Stamen’s new twitter visualization.  He notes that much of the negative response is surrounding the *utility* factor of the project.  The most relevant thread from all this seems to surround this idea of the cult of utility, why things like this are generally appraised on how effectively they help you perform a task.  This is the classic Venture Capital 101 idea: Here is the Pain, and here is my Solution.  Offering the customer a solution to a nagging problem is this built in mechanism lots of people have, and it ultimately can guide their reaction to anything they see, particularly on the web.  Tom points to Jim Bumgardner’s article entitled “utility is overrated” as a response to this line of criticism. A question like “what good is it?” presupposes that all things must serve some common good. They must save lives, or repair toasters, or solve the world’s fuel shortages, or above all, make enormous sums of money. In short, everything must have a use, and frivolity should be avoided. [...]

Posted by hauntedcastle.org » Blog Archive on 4 September 2007 @ 4am

[...] Tom Carden’s responses to the criticisms of Blocks Posted by zeroinfluencer Filed in UX, Media Commerce, Authentic Media, social networks, UI, Marketing, Software, Communication, technology [...]

Posted by Commercially Building on Public Conversations « Zero influence on 5 September 2007 @ 9am

[...] 1. Twitter blocks came out. 2. A lot of people started bitching (on twitter, jaiku, etc of course coz no one seems to be bothered making full-fledged arguments on blogs anymore) that their visualisation was *pretty but useless*. 3. Stamen defended themselves aggressively. 4. In light of the fact that the internet is full of people who amuse themselves filling up pages of cats staying stupid things, I think they should relax. 5. The best defense is offense. Keep at it guys, you’re doing great work. [...]

Posted by designswarm thoughts » Blog Archive » Between a rock and a hard place on 6 September 2007 @ 9am

[...] I won’t address his specific criticisms of Blocks here because agree with a lot of them and we’re working on improvements that should go some way to addressing them. However, I do take issue with beginning criticism of the piece using the “standards of canonical information visualization”. This relates to the uselessness posts Mike and I made earlier in the week. [...]

Posted by Random Etc. : Blog Archive : More Musings on Uselessness on 8 September 2007 @ 1am

[...] In response to the criticism, Tom Carden made an excellent point: It’s fine to ask “what’s it for?”, especially of new tools or things that aim to improve the efficiency or effectiveness of this or that. But why not also accept that some things might just be for entertainment and ask “am I having fun” once in a while instead of looking for a problem to be solved or an important statement to be read? Some things just are. [...]

Posted by Eloquation » Blog Archive » Four things your web app needs to remember on 6 October 2007 @ 2pm

[...] the product is completely useless (emphasis on conventional) as so obviously demonstrated by the criticism surrounding the launch. But, it still gets used and, considering many of the other web apps out [...]

Posted by Dear One Trick Ponies: « This page intentionally left ugly on 29 December 2007 @ 12pm

[...] people complained about its uselessness. One of the designers of Blocks is Tom Carden. He writes in a response to the criticism on his [...]

Posted by Playing With Complexity (Leapfroglog) on 9 July 2008 @ 7am

[...] response to the criticism, Tom Carden made an excellent point: It’s fine to ask “what’s it for?”, especially of new tools or things [...]

Posted by Four things your web app needs to remember : i tell stories on 2 April 2010 @ 3pm