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Dave Winer

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aaron swartz lead

I met Aaron Swartz in Cambridge shortly after he’d been indicted for downloading lots of JSTOR articles on MIT’s network in 2011. My Wired colleague Ryan Singel had been writing about his story, and I’d talked a lot with my friends in academia and publishing about the problems of putting scholarship behind a paywall, but that was really the level at which I was approaching it. I was there to have brunch with friends I’d known a long time only through the internet, and I hadn’t known Aaron that way. I certainly didn’t want to use the brunch to put on my journalist hat and pepper him with questions. He was there primarily to see his partner Quinn Norton’s daughter Ada, with whom he had a special bond. The two of them spent...

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The UserLand Software logo. Image: Dave Winer

What’s in a word? A lot according to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of mobile-payments company Square. Dorsey, who also help create Twitter, believes that the technology industry needs to reconsider the word user and find something less “derogatory” to refer to people that use its products and services.

As he points out, the word user in the context of software has mainly negative origins, often being used to refer to “a person who wasn’t technical or creative, someone who just used resources.”

That’s hardly how most of see ourselves when we log in to Twitter, Gmail or Facebook.

“It’s time for our industry and discipline to reconsider the word ‘user,’” writes Dorsey on his Tumblr blog. “We speak about ‘user-centric design,’ ‘user benefit,’ ‘user experience,’ ‘active users,’ and even ‘usernames’…. While the intent is to consider people first, the result is a massive abstraction away from real problems people feel on a daily basis.”

It’s easy to sympathize with Dorsey’s argument; after all, who wants to be referred to by a word otherwise mainly associated with drug use? Indeed I try to keep the word user out of Webmonkey articles for just that reason, but sometimes writing around user is more awkward than just, er, using it. That combined with the fact that the best alternative Dorsey can come up with the is the word customer, which is better but can still be equally dehumanizing in some contexts.

As with most debates about word choice and language it comes down to the intent the word is being used to convey. As RSS founder and longtime software developer Dave Winer points out:

Every decade or so this question comes up. Why do we use that awful U-word to describe our users? It’s hard to even formulate the question without sounding stupid. And every time the discussion comes up, it lasts a while before everyone gives up because there really aren’t any better words, and this is the word everyone uses so what are you going to do.

What Dorsey is doing is eliminating the word from Square’s vocabulary, telling employees that customer will replace user. He goes on to add that “we have two types of customers: sellers and buyers. So when we need to be more specific, we’ll use one of those two words.”

Dorsey also says he’ll pay out $140 if he ever uses the word again.

Winer believes in a different approach: embracing the word user. Winer even went so far as to name his second company UserLand Software.

In the end what matters is not so much what you call your users, but how you treat them. “The answer” writes Winer, “is to love those users so much that they don’t mind being called users. That’s an art a lot of tech companies have yet to master.”

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LessChrome HD Offers a minimalist take on browser chrome

Mozilla Labs has released a new experimental Firefox add-on, dubbed LessChrome HD, which hides the URL bar to give webpages a bit more room. The idea is to only show the Firefox user interface when needed, the rest of the time the screen real estate is given over to the actual webpage.

The LessChrome HD experiment is available through the Mozilla Add-ons site and you can even try it out without restarting Firefox. LessChrome HD works in Firefox 4 and above.

LessChrome HD doesn’t dispense with the URL bar, it’s just hidden. Moving your mouse anywhere into the window chrome will reveal it, as will the old cmd-L keyboard shortcut or cmd-T to create a new tab. Mozilla refers to this as an “on-demand interface.” In other words, it’s there when you need to navigate and disappears when you’re just reading something on the page.

LessChrome HD is somewhat similar to the new hidden nav bar option in Chrome 13 and seems to hint at a new UI design direction for browsers: hiding the URL bar. The extra screen real estate is useful if you’re using a small screen laptop, but even if you’ve got a massive monitor the minimalist user interface helps focus your attention on the web page, rather than the web browser.

Not everyone likes this trend. Software developer Dave Winer likens the missing URL bar trend to building a house without a backdoor, writing that the URL bar is “the way you can be sure you can get somewhere even if all the powers-that-be don’t want you to go there.” I’d argue that LessChrome HD and Chrome 13’s URL bar experiments are more like hiding the backdoor than eliminating it. That said, I’d hate to see this become a default in any web browser. It seems to work well as it is — an add-on for those that want it, while those that don’t can safely ignore it.

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