Writer Robin Sloan, who you may know from Snarkmarket or Twitter, recently launched the free Fish app for iOS. It's essentially an essay in app form stripped bare, which can only be moved forward with single taps. The "short but heartfelt manifesto" is about the giant divide between liking something on the internet and loving it, and the app's novel design helps to reinforce the message.
In Fish, there's no option to copy or paste text, scroll, highlight, or interact with text — there's no skimming, only reading. The lack of a back button slows you down, forcing you to read each line. Variations in typography, color, and number of words on the screen set the pace and tone. Fish mixes navigational taps with blank cards, strong color shifts, and the rare photo — a trend seemingly done to death in the typographic videos done around 2009 and 2010 — and it turns out to be surprisingly effective in slowing you down to consider each thought. The way short phrases and single sentences each live on their own brings to mind the recent reworking of David Foster Wallace's Kenyon College speech in This Is Water where each sentence is set on its own page.
Of course, our attention has been under attack for decades, but with a new study revealing that "digital natives" switch devices and platforms every two minutes, it's worth noting how rarely we come back to things we see — or even like — online. While Netwon N. Minow looked at the television landscape in the '60s and dubbed it a "vast wasteland," we've got a completely different problem today, an "endless flood" of great writing, video, music, and more that's impossible to keep up with. My YouTube watch later list stands at 121, and my Instapaper queue has long since passed 2000. It's easier than ever to be whisked off into hours of clicking around the Internet, filling up your digital queues, and the rush of tweets, Tumbles, likes, and favorites show no signs of slowing. As we digitally upvote more, the act of sharing something online increasingly means less, and Sloan calls for considering what it is we're highlighting and sharing. What should we do with those things that truly resonate with us?
It never comes across like an all caps INTERACTIVE! experience or hypertextual experience from the CD-ROM era
Fish is an interesting mix of app and essay, and it fortunately never comes across like an all caps INTERACTIVE! experience or hypertextual experience from the CD-ROM days. While Sloan does include a couple panes in the app where you can tweet, the app's design shutters any urge to share, tweet, jump to Wikipedia, or link to the web. And this resonates personally: jumping around is very much how I read online now. Unless I'm reading a print book or Kindle, I've usually got a couple articles loaded up at the same time, and a Google search for clarification, research, or more stories is just a tab away. While Fish may occasionally come across as Snarkmarket twee — it's tough in our irony-addled age to take "loving" anything on the internet with a straight face — it helps you step back and consider the "endless flood" and how you focus your and others' attention. Check it out here.