I met up with a local group of programmers this week, and the conversation turned to Slack .
“It’s truly a shame,” one said.
“Slack is just prettied-up IRC ,” another responded. “It’s still lacking so many of its great features, too.”
And, of course, they were partially right. IRC is a fantastic open protocol that does a lot of what Slack does. IRC channels are still one of the first places I turn to when I’m stuck on a programming problem.
But what these friends failed to realize is that they live in a different world than the vast majority of people do. While finding an IRC client and joining an IRC channel may be trivial for them, for most people it’s borderline impossible (and forget about binding webhooks for third-party integrations). Most people don’t even know what the word ‘client’ means .
Not only do technical and non-technical people at times fail to interface well with each other, sometimes they don’t even speak the same language.
“Stupid question, please don’t upvote. I’m just doing the setup for Learn Python the Hard Way. What is my terminal program? Thanks.” ShamelessDistraction
Slack took something that worked well but was completely inaccessible to the vast majority of people, and turned it into something that everyone can use. In doing so, became one of the fastest companies to reach a $1 Billion valuation ever.
It’s a trap technical people need to ensure they don’t fall into. We tend to discount the learning required to get to the level we’re already on, and we subconsciously expect others to know everything that we do.
Many of the people that drove the adoption of Slack are, in the spirit of Harry Potter, muggles. The people bemoaning the fall of IRC, according to the same (somewhat flawed) analogy, are wizards.
Wizards and muggles require different tools.
“Fifteen years ago I was making video calls over my GSM phone, chatting with people via SMS, AIM, and ICQ, etc. Literally nothing [created in the past ten years] is in any way amazing to anyone who actually remembers life ten years ago. We had smartphones. We had social media. We had web forums. Just because you’ve dumped money into some of them doesn’t make them special or even interesting.” – stonogo
I love looking at the first time Drew Houston pitched Dropbox on HackerNews. Most of the early consensus was that Houston had wasted his time and that Dropbox was reduntant.
“You can already build such a system yourself quite trivially by getting an FTP account, mounting it locally with curlftpfs, and then using SVN or CVS on the mounted filesystem. From Windows or Mac, this FTP account could be accessed through built-in software.” – BrandonM
For hackers, Dropbox already existed. It had for years. If anything, Dropbox made it more difficult to manage files across multiple machines, because you had to use an annoying drag-and-drop GUI instead of chaining Unix commands in your terminal.
But Dropbox wasn’t built for hackers. Dropbox was built for people like my mom, or my father-in-law, who calls his iPad “the machine.” Dropbox was built for muggles.
The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. -William Gibson
My guess would be that we will see more of this type of innovation in coming years. This is frustrating for many hackers, because it feels like stagnation. For some, if the boundaries of technology aren’t being pushed, everything else is just twiddling our thumbs. I respect that.
But it’s important to recognize that the boundaries of technology are being pushed faster than ever for the vast majority of the planet — the part that doesn’t know how to code. They may not be the boundaries of what is theoretically possible, but they are the boundaries of what is practically possible for the majority of the people on earth.
And to me, that is very exciting.
We’re entering a new era — one in which the tools and communication that the select few have loved for years can be turned over to everyday people. Some kid in the bronx can have access to the same information that was only accessible by the rich or technical only a few years ago.
We’re entering an age of painless accessibility, as hackers are exposing the world they’ve lived in to the rest of humanity.
And there are so many potential applications. Just a few examples of what can be done (courtesy of some brainstorming with others ):
- Take a command that would run over files on a filesystem, and instead run it over pages on the Web.
In the Grep->Google vein, what else can Unix commands do that can’t be done online? There are infinite applications of this. For example, there are probably even more applications of something CRON-like than IFTTT or Buffer. What would people create if they knew how to write scripts? Talk turned into IRC which turned into Slack, becoming exposed to more people along the way. Blogging is basically timestamped text files in a per-user directory. Grep->Google is a stretch, but Unix provides the basic building blocks of functionality amongst files and webpages.
- Take Unix commands that are difficult even for hackers, and make them simple and error-free.
rsync -> Dropbox. awk -> spreadsheets (Visicalc, MS Excel).
- Extend the same Unix-y principle and expand it to Bash one-liners.
“tail -10000 httpd.log | cut -d ‘ ‘ -f 1 | sort | uniq -c | sort -n | tail” is a pain for even hackers to type in. There are a few commands that, if I’m honest, I’ve only ever copied and pasted (for example killing servers running on a specific port is one example).
Not all of this stuff would turn my life upside down, but some of them would rock my mom’s world. If it would change everything for my mom, it could possibly overturn entire portions of the computing world.
If you’re a wizard, you don’t have to focus solely on building things for wizards. Build things for muggles, too.