Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Stars, hearts, and the smudgy bias of micro interactions

When Twitter introduced retweets and favorites, the world was given two forms of social currency that were transparent, low-fidelity metrics for how far 140 characters could reach. Unlike retweets, favorites were complex: they could be endorsement, acknowledgement, bookmarks or even ironic swipes; they were social tips, a subtle nod, a more neutral action than the ham-fisted Facebook LIKE.

This week, Twitter retired the “favorite” action, represented with a star, in favor of “like”, represented by a heart.

Functionally, nothing has changed; only the word and icon are new. But the semantics and connotations are not interchangeable. What began as a more-or-less neutral action is no longer.

Within social media, we’re playing out a complicated social experiment where the worlds of language, iconographic abstractions, user intent and micro interactions collide. These little binary toggles, whether they be stars or hearts, are digital grunts that say nothing but communicate everything.

This intersection is where the bias of software design shapes how we interact. Twitter’s interface change shifts the user intention away from a neutral interaction. Emotion is introduced. And that complicates things.

First, the word.

On a spectrum of emotional language, “like” carries significant baggage.

Emotional weight of different interaction words

There’s meaningful difference between “favorite”, which is near-neutral language, and “like”, which is loaded with positivity and chummy reinforcement. When I see a tweet that I want to save for later, but don’t really like, how does this action serve me? What about a tweet I want to recommend, but still don’t really like? How does it serve the author? Twitter is flipping innocuous intent into one-direction reinforcement. Can we ever trust the “like” button to represent what it literally claims?

The heart icon exacerbates this.

Hearts and stars — or plus signs, smiley faces, checkmarks, hamburgers, magnifying glasses, diamonds, horseshoes, clovers, blue moons — are subject to interpretation and have to fight an upstream battle of institutional bias. For most, a red heart does not mean “like” — it means “love”. Ask any kid around Valentine’s Day. When Twitter (or others) disrupts that meaning, it smudges what we intend to communicate. If a red heart means “like”, what do we have left to represent love?

Facebook realized the limitations of a binary thumbs up and is testing a wider spectrum of micro interactions. (And to their credit, they associate a heart with “love”.) Medium has separate buttons for “save for later” and “recommend”; Vimeo separates “watch later” and “like”; YouTube has “add to watch later” and “like” (and “dislike”). Specificity of intent is needed when interacting with content.

Perhaps Twitter recognized and was understandably uncomfortable with the ambiguity of “favorite”. Perhaps they wanted to be clearer about intent. But their fix just homogenizes a user experience that is already painfully eroded from its democratic origins and smacks of appeasing short-view shareholders.

“Stars, hearts, and the smudgy bias of micro interactions” was originally published on Medium.

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Family trees

Sometime in the 1940s, a biplane flying over central New Jersey lost control, dropped to a few dozen feet above ground, barely dodged a house built before George Washington crossed the Delaware, smashed through the top of a giant walnut tree, and then rolled into a graveyard where it all ended in a tumbling ball of fire, gravestones and debris. The pilot’s body was never recovered but the town erected a small granite marker anyway.

The unlucky walnut tree had a trunk that divided like a wishbone. The impact pushed the limbs apart and cracked the central trunk with the violence of a lightning strike. One half listed over my grandfather’s small, boxish house, the other teetered over a narrow country road. With stubborn defiance to gravity, the halves held together.

My grandfather was advised to amputate at least one half, if not take the entire tree down. As a gardener by trade, he understood when to mend a broken bone and when to sever a lost limb. As a frugal and tenacious product of the Great Depression and WWII, there was no way anyone else was touching his tree.

With two large bolts, five feet of ship-grade chain and no ceremony whatsoever, he literally yanked the tree back together.

Fifty years later, his grandson stared up at a perfectly healthy, wishbone-shaped walnut tree that had black chains as thick as wrists mysteriously sprouting out of the bark.

For evidence of divinity, I suggest a late September hike in the Adirondack mountains. This year I had the opportunity to spend a day climbing the modest 2,513 ft Jenkins Mountain, which is less a “climb” and more a really long walk through beaver-dammed wetlands, flood-washed gullies and house-sized boulders carelessly dropped by glaciers 13,000 years ago. And trees. Millions of trees. Gently blushing yellow, orange, red, brown and every other glowing shade of autumn.

view from the top of Jenkins Mountain
The top of Jenkins Mountain. In every direction: trees and silence.

The golden-green canopy from the endless groves of hardwoods—beech, birch, ash, maple—is so dense that it feels like an intermittent heaven. The sky beyond is a kind of jewel-tone blue. The silence is so complete that you can almost hear the sunlight washing over the leaves.

Jenkins Mountain is part of Paul Smith’s College, where my dad graduated with a degree in forestry. He knows everything there is to know about trees in the northeast United States: where they grow, why they die, which to burn, how to saw and sand them into beautiful furniture.

I don’t know why, exactly, but this is important to me. I often feel disconnected from nature, and seek those connections. Perhaps that’s why significant trees often appear in my timeline as shadowy but influential cast members. I wonder if others feel the same way, or if they anthropomorphize mountains, or streams, or sand dunes. Everything has a face if you’re patient enough for it to show itself.

Before my parents moved to the Adirondacks a decade ago, they lived in an ancient house in New Jersey surrounded by acres of rambling lawn and then acres more of our neighbors’ farmland, all of it criss-crossed by patches of scruffy woods. For deer, it was idyllic.

Right behind our house was a triptych of apple trees. Not picturesque, leafy, cartoon-like apple trees, but ancient, squat, sprawling, thick, twisting, grumpy old men apple trees. Every spring they shed a thousand whip-like branches. Every fall they dropped a million apples. Some years, when the apples were sweet, we made applesauce, apple crisp, apple-rhubarb pie and apple butter. When the apples were bitter, the worms and yellow jackets had their way.

A few years after my son was born, I took him to the garden shop where we bought a small apple tree sapling. We spent the morning in our Kansas backyard plotting the location, digging, planting, watering. At first, it grew nicely. But when we moved back east a few years later, the apple tree had stubbornly grown only a few inches and was drenched in a sickly, wilting brown discoloration. I never could get anything to grow in that yard—berry bushes, sunflower plants and tomatoes all fell—but the inability to grow a simple tree was particularly tough.

Someone later told me that apple trees grow best when they’re close together. This makes sense. It precisely matches the ethos of my family. We pollinate ideas and feelings and experiences, and we stand together in the most perfect summer afternoons and the bitterest winter snows.

Between my dad’s woody ways and a stint in an active Boy Scout troop, I’ve collected bits of treeish knowledge over the years. I can identify some trees by their leaf, some by their bark, and I know how to make great campfires from pretty much nothing. I don’t have a good reason for holding onto this knowledge except that it occasionally impresses my wife.

Her prowess is more in the social environment. She deftly reads others’ emotions and intent as easily as tracing the veins of an oak leaf. This is mighty handy, because when it comes to navigating a social environment, I have all the grace of a log.

After we married, we spent ten years in Kansas. Work, kids, etc. Not a bad place, but tough for people that brag about being born in New Jersey. When we moved back, I often joked it was “for family, food and the ocean, but not necessarily in that order”. It’s taken me a long time to understand I should have added trees to that list. Kansas is truly flat: geographically and ecologically. The prairie, if you haven’t guessed, is not for us.

After my grandparents migrated permanently to Florida, my grandfather’s sister moved into the boxy house underneath the walnut tree. A bit of a spinster and old bitty, she kept to herself, a bit Ms Havisham without the dramatic backstory. Our visits to the house were few.

My mom and dad found her dead in her basement from a brain tumor the size of a tangerine that had never been diagnosed. With no husband and no children, her branch of the family tree ended abruptly in a small ceremony in the same graveyard hit by the biplane decades earlier.

I don’t remember the funeral. I don’t recall much except weird licorice candy and watching 3-2-1 Contact on her tiny black and white television. But I do have a postcard-crisp memory of sitting with her on a cement bench underneath our bosomy cherry blossom tree whose vast limbs puffed up into a towering frozen firework explosion of the softest pink every April, and then in the second week of May, exhaled every petal at once to bury our garden under a snowy, rosy carpet.

Most trees are quite mortal and pass away without fanfare. Walnuts, for example, commonly grow well beyond 200, but are anything but immortal. Most birch trees have a humanish lifespan and fall before 100. Age becomes a liability as the inner core decays and the height and bulk grow more susceptible to wind. By rot or by force, nature collects its due.

Hurricane Sandy’s true damage was not from flooding, but wind. Tyler State Park in Pennsylvania lost hundreds of trees in one night—almost all of them several stories high and hundreds of years old.

Fallen tree in park
2013: A victim of Sandy in Tyler State Park, resting peacefully one year after the storm.

After the storm, my wife and I, with our kids, walked the inner paths of the park, along the main creek and over the steep ridges, where astounding stretches of trees had been laid waste by 40 mph winds sustained across almost 12 hours. We talked about the trees’ death, what it meant, what would happen next. It was weirdly emotional, like visiting a war memorial that bore names from your family.

Today, the shells and skeletons of the lost trees remain where they fell, spidery grey monuments that will decay over decades. Saplings have sprouted where sunlight finally has an opportunity to reach.

A tree’s growth is dictated by myriad vectors of genetics and environment. DNA promises potential, context limits that potential. Each apical meristem, housed in the buds in the tips of each branch, is the seed of a new branch, a tiny nub of possibility. Most wilt to nothing. Many grow into shoots and sticks. A few expand into branches that give life to countless more possibilities.

Every forest has a unique complexion of tree species. There are males and females, groves and clearings, clusters and individuals. Every tree has a unique branch pattern. Every leaf has unique vein markings. Every cell carries unique DNA. Every atomic facet is unique until the very end.

My wife and I married almost 13 years ago. We have produced two loud, competitive, sensitive, creative balls of genetic offspring. My son has his mom’s hair, builds a lot of Lego spaceships, literally runs away when his girl-crush gets close but is a habitual cuddler with his mom and dad. My daughter is the tallest girl in her grade, has the knock-you-on-your-ass fire of a linebacker but loves playing with stuffed animals, and writes elaborate stories of sleepovers and birthday parties. I don’t know how they could be more different and I cannot imagine them apart.

I don’t know how they’ll grow in this world of sun, soil, decay and beauty, or what new branches of life their future holds. But I do know that we’ll spend a lot of time consulting the trees along the path.

walking through woods with kids
Not all living things are peaceful. Photo by Suzanne Potts.

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The mommy economy

“With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France, contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world.”

— Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, 2012

Ms Kolbert bases this statement on studies that explicitly track childhood responsibilities. Not that we need any studies. Who doesn’t recognized that this generation of kids is the most spoiled, petulant, entitled group of delicate flowers ever to grace our economy. It would be easy for our inner hippy claim every generation of adults has said the same thing and brush this sentiment aside, except this generation has bestowed upon us a gift of empirical evidence: technology that simulates their coddling parents.

Mom, come pick me up. Mom, I need a place to stay. Mom, bring me food. Mom, deal with these leftovers. Mom, find a parking space for me. Mom, bring me a double tall latte. Mom, do the laundry and my dishes and fix that step and then pick me up a salad from Tender Greens.

Apps exist for all of these things.

Without any real responsibility except to sit down, it makes sense that the digital economy our finest generation is building, and trying desperately to convince us is the future, is a large scale capitalist pyramid scheme that asks the rest of the world to plod through inconvenient menial tasks without insurance, representation or fair wages while we sit here and check Facebook.

Playboy is reinventing its brand right now

The past week has seen numerous articles on Playboy magazine’s decision to stop exhibiting nudity in its print edition. This follows the move earlier this summer to remove the same content from its website so it would be “safe for work”, which has resulted in quadrupled web traffic, mostly from social media. As Wired observed, this is what happens when platforms rule.

The old joke of reading Playboy “for the articles” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as its interviews, fiction and journalism have become its most valuable content. But not its most valuable asset.

This paragraph from the New York Times captures it perfectly:

The company now makes most of its money from licensing its ubiquitous brand and logo across the world — 40 percent of that business is in China even though the magazine is not available there — for bath products, fragrances, clothing, liquor and jewelry among other merchandise. Nudity in the magazine risks complaints from shoppers, and diminished distribution.

In 2009, in the dark days of the recession, The Motley Fool plotted the brand’s value at $500 million, with only 10% of that attributed to the print magazine. Today, it’s likely worth much more. That same year, Susan Gunelius wrote a book profiling Hugh Hefner as the ultimate brand champion. In sheer global recognition, the bunny is as culturally recognizable as the swoosh or the apple.

And like Nike and Apple, who have positioned themselves for growth through brand reinvention, Playboy is actively transforming before our eyes. When the disrobed women, mansion parties and recreational pajamas fall to the wayside, will the equity continue to grow?

A font aligned with the axial tilt of the Earth

It’s fascinating when a company invests in the creation of a proprietary font for use across their communication. Both the investment (it ain’t cheap) and the commitment (five years minimum) are considerable, and typically the press releases announcing them are like a puff pastry of hyperbole.

The new font for (“Booking Sans”), a joint effort between Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam and Colophon, goes a little extra though:

Booking Sans - Example

Amazing and audacious: what a great story to match the brand promise of “Planet Earth’s # 1 accommodation site”. But what the blargh is axial tilt? A Google Images search will tell you everything, but, essentially, the Earth rests to the side, not straight up and down. Our axial tilt is why we have seasons:

Axial tilt of earth

That’s totally science and everything, but the font in discussion is a normal sans and not angled, or italicized, in any way. Where is the “subtle embrace”? As a start, here are the same words with a 23.5-degree grid laid over:

Booking Sans - Grid

The proportions and geometry of the font follows standard bold sans best practices. There’s nothing obnoxious. The fun is in the detail:

Booking Sans - Highlight

It’s not a loud thing, but the nuance here is fantastic and the subplot to the broader visual identity helps bring to life the story. More examples over on It’s Nice That.

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