Robin Sloan sets his recent novel Sourdough in a familiar present or near-future San Francisco where startup culture sits uneasily on top of previous incarnations of the city’s many subcultures. The portrayal is a nuanced mix of sympathy and critique that can only come through familiarity. It is enthusiastic, but skeptical.
One small choice struck me in connection to this balance, and I think Sloan’s solution to this problem provides an interesting perspective on the role of online, networked defaults in our lives.
With the proliferation of corporate-owned, private online platforms and tools and their de facto status as default services, verisimilitude in fiction requires some acknowledgment that these branded services exist, but aesthetics or politics may compel us not to use specific names.
Sloan’s characters use “an expedient online retailer” or “the expedient image-based social network”. This construction sidesteps the datedness of brandname references while acknowledging the ubiquity of these services. More interestingly, I think, it deflates the power of the brands in a more subtle way than some of the more stridently anti-corporate formulations I have seen. It says “we have come to rely on the services these companies provide, but we need not care if these specific instances survive.”
This concept of ‘expedience’ encapsulates a lot of my recent hesitation around closed, branded, and/or privately-owned online services. So much of their strength comes from their convenience and ubiquity. They are the choice of people who don’t have the time or inclination to dig deeper in that area; they are sometimes actually better or even exceptional, but frequently they are simply expedient.
My primary reaction to this technique while reading was on these aesthetic grounds, but it strikes me that there is also some product design guidance here as well. People making services that want to deliver more to those who care need to focus on being sufficiently permeable to the expedient choice to defray the cost of connoisseurship. Expedience can trump excellence even for enthusiasts when it comes to networked platforms.Manton Reece’s goals for micro.blog, for example, seem to track with this, though he still has a long way to go to make it a reality. It’s something I intend to keep in mind while I think about product ideas that are services in areas with existing expedient choices. I am happy to make things that addresses niches that appeal to specific tastes and interests, but I need to be careful not to make it too difficult to balance peculiar enthusiasms with expedient pragmatisms.