Skip to main content

5 Minutes on The Verge: Robin Sloan

5 Minutes on The Verge: Robin Sloan


Writer Robin Sloan, who you may know from Snarkmarket or Twitter, recently launched the free Fish app for iOS and took some time for 5 Minutes on The Verge.

Share this story

You may know writer and media inventor Robin Sloan from his writings on media and technology at Snarkmarket with Tim Carmody and Matt Thompson, or more recently from his fascinating Fish tap essay for iOS. He previously worked at Twitter and Current TV, and will publish his first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore this fall. Sloan took a few minutes to talk to The Verge about the making of the Fish app, dealing with the web's endless flood of content, and more. You can find him online at @robinsloan.

Why make this an app? How does making it a "tap essay" change the reader's relationship with the work?

Mostly it's because of this great privilege accorded to iOS apps: they always get the whole screen.

I love the web, but man, I look at my browser and there are like twenty tabs up there, all jostling for space and time, all framed by a mosaic of other apps, other work, other entertainment… so even when I really am paying attention to something on the web, there's this peripheral haze.

I wanted to escape that environment. I wanted to make something that demands your full attention — something that's maybe even a little unreasonable about its demands. Thus: iPhone app, no back button, one sentence at a time.

How did you think of the relationship between content and form when creating Fish? How do you see the app fitting into other work you've done like Annabel Scheme?

The app and the argument definitely work super well together, and one of the questions I'm asking myself now is: Could you use this format with other kinds of content? Like… fiction?

Whether it's Fish or Annabel Scheme or The Truth About the East Wind, I often find myself crafting custom containers to hold the kind of content I want to create. (Most people encounter Annabel Scheme as an ebook these days, but back in 2009, my Kickstarter backers got a cool package in the mail — something spookier and more interesting than a book from Amazon. So the containers aren't always digital, either.)

In the case of Fish, I did the writing, design, and code all at the same time, so the form and the content were fused together. I'd change some words, get an idea, change some code, see if it worked, change more words, and so on.

It's my favorite way to work. I'm a better writer than I am a programmer (or book designer, or…) but I still enjoy using all of those tools, and being the author of the whole product, not just the text.

Even on my first run through of Fish, there's definitely a visual and almost audible design language present. Without other distractions, I very much noticed a disembodied "reading voice" in my head. How much of that was a fortuitous outgrowth of a UI that only allows single taps forward, and how much was it inspired by other forms of media?

I'm glad you picked up on the voice! Yeah, that's also a result of working on the form and the content at the same time. I'd tap through the app — god I must have tapped through it a thousand times — and as I did, I'd pick up on the rhythm of the words. So then I'd change them to accentuate it even more. I'd smooth out the rough spots. I'd break things up to stretch out the pauses. It was a pretty gradual process, but what emerged was a style that sounds more like a speech, or something written for the stage, than it does a traditional essay. And now that rhythm is one of my favorite things about the app.

You make the point that it's rare for people to go back to a site, a movie, or a story these days, even when it's something that they've "liked." Are better annotation tools — think of a more modern version of the commonplace book — a way forward?

Maybe — but then again, I've shared a lot of things over at Snarkmarket, which like most blogs is at least partially a commonplace book, and I rarely return to my old posts there. Maybe I should build a button that serves up an old post at random. I'd click that.

But you know, maybe better tools can't solve this for me. Maybe I just need to work on some better habits.

To your larger points about loving and liking online, is there a parallel with the slow food movement or Michael Pollan's "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants?" Is it a question of slowing down and paying more attention to what we're consuming and sharing, or something more?

"You gotta keep the burrito out of the house."

I hadn't thought about that before, but yeah, I think there definitely is a parallel there. And part of the parallel is that both prescriptions are hard. I mean, I know Pollan's maxims, and I believe in them, and I still struggle to eat the right way.

I really do think it has a lot to do with habits. There are also ways you can sort of strategically constrain yourself. You can box in your future (unreliable) self. If you're trying to follow Pollan's maxims, and you buy real food — instead of another Annie's Organic Rice, Bean and Cheese Burrito, which looks very much like real food but alas, it is not — well then you're one step closer to eating real food. You gotta keep the burrito out of the house. That's the first step.

So what's the web equivalent, I wonder?

If you've got a decent internet connection and a charged mobile device, it's enormously hard to be bored these days. How have you seen the effects of that playing out?

People have been talking about that recently, but I don't totally agree. The stimulation I get from my phone does not feel like the opposite of boredom to me. It actually feels like a different flavor of boredom… a twitchier flavor. And sometimes it's almost more irritation than stimulation. It's an itch. So it's like, great, now we're bored and we're itchy.

Really, the opposite of boredom isn't stimulation, but deep engagement: full brain, full body, full whatever. That's what we get from books, movies, video games. (Maybe tap essays, too?) And of course we can get it from non-digital things, like cooking or playing or just wandering around and watching the world outside.

When in doubt, drop your phone in a drawer and take a walk.

How do you stay focused?

There are two Mac apps that I find super useful. One is Fred Stutzman's Freedom, which irrevocably disables your internet connection for an hour or two. Whenever I need to sit down and write, I fire up Freedom.

The other is Adam Mathes's DoOneThing, which is a to-do list that only holds one task. It was a revelation when I found it. Now my menubar is always staring me down with the single thing I really want to do — the real thing, the task at hand, the work that, when completed, will redeem the day, make it a victory.

"When in doubt, drop your phone in a drawer and take a walk."

What were your favorite books and movies from last year?

Ellen Ullman has a new novel out this spring. Her publisher (also my publisher) reprinted her two previous books to accompany it, and they were both total revelations.

I've always thought there ought to be more books about the real experience of programming. Not "how do you do it," but "what does it feel like." I'm not a very good programmer, but I've ventured far enough to sense with certainty that there is real literary density there.

So it turns out Ullman's books, Close to the Machine and The Bug — one a memoir, the other a novel—constitute the truest and best-written depiction of computer programming, um, ever. Seriously, if people a couple hundred years from now want to know what life was like before the Great Googlezon programmed itself, they'll read Ullman. Both of those books of hers would be super edifying for Verge readers, I think.

But I read those books of Ullman's just last month… and now I'm totally struggling to remember what I read last year. See? This is the problem.

What online projects, services, and apps are you most excited about in 2012?

I'm curious to see how Branch grows, and I'm eager to find out what else the Obvious Corporation has up its sleeve. It will be fun to see BERG's Little Printer in the flesh. And I'm keeping a close eye on The Chimerist because it's chronicling the stuff I'm most interested in right now — iPads, blown-up books, new kinds of reading.