The tango ever twists betwixt technology and its intended uses. The telephone, intended for serious man-talk of the business-y persuasion, found its fanbase amongst teens and housewives. The beeper, intended for serious man-beeps of the business-y persuasion, digitized the urban drug trade far moreso than the man-beep telecommunication grid; as quips some chick from a forum:
I’m an 80’s girl.. grew up with a rotary phone not a cell phone. I remember when beepers came out but we couldn’t get beeper because those were for drug dealers.. and Michael jackson… Hello his best years were in the 80’s!
Now the internet, in all its Discordian tomfoolery, may have turned the axiom upside down — where serious man-beep devices no longer weave their way into consumerdom, but quite the inverse.
Sites sporting the flimsiest veneer of purported public interest may be the very catalysts galvanizing wave after wave of popular uprising — so much the trend these days, these uprisings, perhaps owing to a collective catacylsmic apoplexy raging against the Legion of Morose Hipster Ennui — from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the Egyptian Uprising to the Popular Revolts of Brazil to Moral Monday, and more.
What do all these mass movements have in common? The power of lolcats.
The cute cat theory of digital activism is a theory concerning Internet activism, Web censorship, and “cute cats” (a term used for any low-value, but popular online activity) developed by Ethan Zuckerman in 2008. It posits that most people are not interested in activism; instead, they want to use the web for mundane activities, including surfing for pornography and lolcats (“cute cats”). The tools that they develop for that (such as Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Twitter, and similar platforms) are very useful to social movement activists, who may lack resources to develop dedicated tools themselves. This, in turn, makes the activists more immune to reprisals by governments than if they were using a dedicated activism platform, because shutting down a popular public platform provokes a larger public outcry than shutting down an obscure one.
Censorship, whether analog or digital, is a popular bludgeoning tool wielded by states threatened by the prospect of an informed, organized, and unruly populace. However, even the more draconian of governments recognize the people’s right to humorous pictures of cats, if not Marxist screeds against the repression of the proletariat. And woe behold the government who stands between the people and their lolcats.
Zuckerman states that “Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers. Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.”Zuckerman says that if a tool passes “cute cat” purposes, and is widely used for low-value purposes, it can be and likely is used for online activism, too.
If the government chooses to shut down such generic tools, it will hurt people’s ability to “look at cute cats online”, spreading dissent and encouraging the activists’ cause.
Beyond the buzz, the dubious business models, the TechCrunch posts, and the endless cocktail parties, which startups are making a measurable impact on people’s daily lives?
I posed the question to Facebook and received eight responses, along with a vibrant sidebar dialog on the benefits and drawbacks of the technology-infused world we live in.
Below are the recommendations, with a hat tip to each of the recommenders.
Grovo: Cloud-based E-Learning… for the Cloud!
Digital media pioneer David Kowarsky suggests NYC-based Grovo, a startup that helps people get their heads in the cloud. He offers an endorsement by way of caveat, since he works there: “Kind of a cheat to say — but I work there in part because I believe they’re making a huge difference,” he comments.
Grovo helps individuals and enterprises familiarize themselves with hundreds of cloud-based services, with training programs customized to each individual’s habits, experience, and goals. A Pro plan, ideal for companies, offers over 3,500 training videos, along with certifications, while a free plan equips users with a personalized training program, offering more than 1,000 videos for more than 100 different services.
Glympse: Permission-based Location Sharing
Dave Nielsen, Co-Founder of the CloudCamp unconference, recommends Seattle-based Glympse, a service that allows selective location-based sharing, bounded by invitations and time limits.
Integrated with Twitter and Facebook, and recently featured in Forbes, Glympse tracks the location of your iPhone, Android, or Windows Phone, and shares it selectively. Their hilariously over-the-top intro video chronicles a wide variety of use cases, from couples coordinating a meeting place, to laser tag enthusiasts checking in on the coordinates of their teammates.
Wunderlist: Best. Checklists. Ever?
Impressed by their stunning UI, multi-platform compatibility, famed ease of use, and extensive social sharing, filmmaker and Executive Producer Sarah Fisher recommends Berlin-based Wunderlist.
Wunderlist is difficult to explain to those who have never experienced it — how could a checklist app inspire so much elation and joy? Just ask the company’s millions of users. Wunderlist transforms an everyday activity into a beautiful, seemless, and intensely powerful productivity tool, suited both for individuals and collaborative groups, without sacrificing the intuitiveness afforded by a pen and paper.
Citymapper: Urban Transit in Your Pocket
Forget about Google Maps (as Apple would prefer you to). Chuka Chase, Hackstar at TechStars London (and Ninja in Residence at #sfbeta), recommends next-generation travel startup Citymapper, whose iPhone and Android apps simplify the experience of two of the world’s most complex cities: London (where the company is headquartered) and NYC.
Self-styled as “the ultimate transport app,” Citymapper helps users tackle a wide range of urban logistics — calculating the cost and time of taking a cab vs. taking a bus, for instance, or mapping a route between your current location and your workplace. Incorporating real-time datasets, Citymapper provides up-to-the minute arrival times for transit networks, along with delays and station closures.
Dashlane: Three flavors of awesome.
As soon as Lyne Noella, Director of Sales & Marketing at Speechpad, recommended NYC/Paris-based Dashlane, I went to the app store and downloaded it.
Dashlane expands and simplifies the web and iOS user experience with three feature sets:
Password manager: Automatically import your passwords from Chrome or any other browser into your secure password vault. Save any missing passwords as you browse. Make a new password right within your browser. Get automatic alerts when websites get breached.
Autofill: Dashlane offers a smart form autofill that works – not some of the time, or even most of the time – but every time. Stop wasting time checking if everything is filled right, and correcting mistakes. Stop leaving your data unencrypted in your browser cache. Dashlaners save up to 50 hours a year with autofill alone.
Digital Wallet: Securely store your payment types in Dashlane’s online wallet. Get express checkout and flawless form filling everywhere you shop online. Automatically capture receipts of all your purchases. Always have your digital wallet on you, and never have to store your credit cards on sites that you don’t completely trust.
Splitwise: IOUs Made Easy
Splitting bills and expenses generates headaches amongst friends and roommates the world over, but it doesn’t have to. Randall Leeds, Committer at Apache and Developer at Hypothes.is, likes Providence, RI-based Splitwise, the startup that makes group payments a breeze.
Available on web, iOS, and Android, Splitwise tracks group payments and keeps track of running balances, making it easy to remember who owes whom, and for what. The company recently launched Plates, the free iPhone app for splitting restaurant bills.
Rdio: Internet Radio Worth Working For
It’s a truism that the best startups inspire passion amongst their users, so much so that many will join the company as a result. It happened to David Schleef, whose love of Rdio prompted him to join their San Francisco headquarters as Principal Engineer.
Rdio is the groundbreaking digital music service that reinvents the way people discover, listen to, and share music. With a catalog of 20 million songs — available to play instantly or in perfect-mix stations — Rdio connects people with music and makes it easy to play any song, album, artist, or playlist. The company launched in August, 2010, led by Janus Friis, co-creator of Skype.
Featured in Billboard, Wired, TechCrunch, All Things D, and Forbes, Patreon helps fans connect with artists, funding each one of their projects, piece by piece. Particularly popular for music videos, current projects also include comics, paintings, portraits, and poetry.
Life: As Seen On TV
What if, in the rush toward an augmented life, we lose track of what life is all about? Lifelong technologist, entrepreneur, author, and podcast host Stever Robbins wonders if we’ve gone too far. His favorite startup is “life,” commenting:
Beta is full. We expect several openings shortly after the release of Google Glass, when we expect to lose many members permanently, freeing up a lot of open space.
He goes on to say:
I often see tech fanboys and girls slavishly worshiping at the altar of the latest gizmo or app, as they increasingly make their lives LESS efficient and less productive.
Keep in mind I’m an uber-geek myself. I’ve written more code than most programmers alive today under the age of 40. I own 2.5 computers for every member of my household. I’m not a Luddite by any stretch of imagination. But I do have the perspective to reflect on the quality of relationships, friendships, and interaction both pre- and post- Internet and cell phones.
At least so far, I find pre- to be superior over a wide range of situations.
Watch a group of 20-somethings out together at a restaurant, all texting and web browsing and not interacting face-to-face and that does NOT look to me like people finding meaning in technology. It looks like a lot of people whose dopamine systems have been consciously hijacked by Facebook and other apps that are designed to interrupt, distract, and seduce.
What are your favorite startups? How do you think the pace of technology has shaped our life, for better and for worse? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Mister Splashy Pants, the snollygoster of internet whales.
Language giveth, language taketh away; as new words percolate into popular speech, others fade into vernacular’s Valhalla, joining the erstwhile if long-forgotten ranks of eath (a nifty Scottish word functioning both as adjective and adverb meaning “easy”) and the still-comprehensible, if alliteratively gangly, landlubberliness (“the state of being like a landlubber”).
The high priests of English officialdom reside where they have always resided: in the hallowed halls of dictionary editorial boards. (Not all countries follow suit, by the way: French is governed, quite literally, by the L’Académie française, an arcane committee established in 1635, ruled by forty lifetime-appointed members called immortels.)
Each year, English dictionary boards determine, to fanfare approaching the lexical equivalent of Oscar nominations, which newbies (first known use: 1970; defined in already-quaint terms as “a newcomer to cyberspace”) might join the ranks of “ranks” and “the,” among a hundred-thousand-or-so brethren that now include such technology-infused utterances as:
woot (“used to express elation, enthusiasm, or triumph”)
MMORPG (clumsily, “an internet based computer game set in a virtual world, which can be played by many people at the same time, each of whom can interact with the others”)
cyberbullying (“the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages”)
mash-up (“something created by combining elements from two or more sources”)
sexting (“the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone”)
Sometimes, however, the internet serves a second role: that of preservationist. The very threat of extinction can serve as a word’s revivalist champion, rekindling obscure vocables via a process whose moniker itself has yet to enter the dictionary, but is surely in contention: the Streisand effect, in which “an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.”
In 2003, Mirriam-Webster quietly laid to rest a dated gem: snollygoster, a nineteenth-century Americanism that, in 1895, the Columbus Dispatch creatively defined as, “a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy.” (Neither “talknophical” nor “assumnancy” have any known usage outside this definition, making this phrase as mimsy as the borogoves.)
More broadly referenced as “an unprincipled but shrewd person,” snollygoster enjoys a newfound popularity, a tweedy, rejuvenating hipster moment in which someone, somewhere, probably in Brooklyn, indignantly huffs that they said snollygoster before it was cool. Quoting an Atlantic article quoting Mirriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper, “We have, oddly enough, seen more unironic and unself-conscious use of snollygoster in print in the last few years.”
With a decisive +1 from The Atlantic (not to mention a TED talk), snollygoster may be approaching an Arrested Development / Grover Cleveland moment, becoming one of the few words to enter, leave, and re-enter the bindings of Mirriam-Webster’s tome. M-W’s own Stamper waxes optimistically about the odds of this happening — that if snollygoster continues to resurge, the dictionary’s curators will “certainly consider adding it back.”
Much of snollygoster‘s triumph may be attributed to the ephemeral, viral pull of the internet, an attention engine that, in a manner similar to Cupid (the god, not the dating site), strikes immortel-likepopularity into words, memes, clips, and so on, seemingly at random, but often with delicious irreverence.
As with words, so with names, as Greenpeace discovered in 2007 when inviting the internet to vote on the proposed name of a humpback whale in the South Pacific. Inserted amongst 29 other candidates, with benign, whale-sounding names like Aurora and Kaimana, was “Mister Splashy Pants,” likely intended as a joke, but one that the internet took very, very seriously.
From Facebook to Twitter, and particularly on Reddit, Mister Splashy Pants became a cause celebre, spiking traffic on Greenpeace to “near-untenable levels” and capturing an oceanic 78 percent of the vote, rivaled only by “Humphrey,” who bogarted a second-place 4,329 votes, less than three percent of the total.
When the internet refuses to let something die, it lives. The fate of snollygoster seems now to fare as swimmingly as that of Mister Splashy Pants, and it’s only a matter of time before the term is dropped by a New York Times columnist, before turning into a verb — “Bob snollygostered his promotion to Assistant Manager with monumental talknophical assumnancy.”