Gestures, Links and the Ampersand

Sorry if this went out twice – corrupted the entry in the database somehow.

There was what I considered an inconsequential discussion on Twitter earlier this week that I was involved with. While my memory certainly isn’t perfect, I think it started when Steve Gillmor stated (again) that “links are dead”.

That statement, taken for what it actually says, doesn’t make any sense to me. People are making billions of dollars a year from links. Evidently I wasn’t alone because others asked Steve what he meant.

I asked Steve to explain it in Twitter – 140 characters (or 280, if it took two Tweets) and he basically didn’t respond. I imagine he’s tired of explaining “gestures” and “links are dead” – he’s been doing it for quite a while.

My opinion is that if he has been arguing these things for this long then he needs to simplify his message. I don’t think his message is wrong at all – but I think his delivery of the message is flawed.

In the context of that train of thought, I wrote:

realy [sic] smart people make really complex things simple. Like Winer did with RSS.

Some people (at least Karoli, and based on some of the NewsGang Live recordings I have heard since, probably Steve as well) thought that was a slap at Steve Gillmor.

It wasn’t intended that way – and although I don’t apologize for what I said, I wish I could have phrased it differently. But Twitter does have it’s limitations. Foremost being 140 characters per message.

So I’ll take a few more words to explain what I meant.

I talked to Steve Gillmor for the first time sometime within the last six months. I can’t remember exactly what spawned the conversation, but it did revolve around his idea of “gestures”. One of us called the other and we actually spoke for well over an hour – much of that was me trying to get my head around Steve’s though process. We also talked a bit about politics, and families, etc. It was a very pleasant conversation. But at the end of the call I told Steve something like, “I admit, I still don’t fully get this – and I plan on continuing to question you about it, and raise awareness with others”.

Steve said something to the affect of “GOOD! I want people to talk about this!”. We ended a nice and friendly chat that I found intellectually stimulating.

Then I started calling into the NewsGang Live show every now and then. I think we’ve had some extremely interesting conversations and I know some of Steve’s listeners agreed with me on occasion, and other times with Steve – depending on the topic. Often Steve and I agreed. But I also think people enjoy a little lively debate. Sometime Steve will create that (as a true showman should). Sometimes I would.

When I saw people asking Steve what he meant by “links are dead” on Twitter I jumped in. Time to raise awareness, and all of that.

What I realized though is that Steve wasn’t answering the question – probably because of a combination of already answering it a thousand times, and the fact it was limited to 140 characters on Twitter. That’s when I realized that Steve had no “elevator pitch” for these ideas. He couldn’t communicate them quickly (they are complex, so that is understandable).

It was within the context of me thinking about Steve’s lack of an elevator pitch that I made the “make really complex things simple” statement. I’m used to dealing with startups and I know how important it is to have a message that is accurate, intriguing, and concise.

So believe what you will – I was not slamming Steve – I was actually trying to help him.

Since then Steve has twice made comments on his show that make me think he’s pissed off about this exchange. And if he is, then that’s fine. I don’t need everyone on the planet to be my friend. And it is apparent by listening to some of my conversations on NewsGang Live that Steve and I disagree on some things. Sure, I’ll call in and argue with him. WTF would I call in for if I agreed with everything and everyone? Where’s the fun there? What opportunity is there to learn from new ideas and differing perspectives if everyone agrees on everything?

And this is one of the reasons I respect Steve – he constantly invites people that rub him the wrong way at times. Jason Calacanis is an example – although often full of amazing insights, Jason can also be pretty demanding to “manage” on a call. But he gets invited back again, and again – and honestly, some o the best NewsGang shows, IMHO, are the ones where Jason gets on a roll and the listeners can imagine Steve’s blood pressure shooting through the roof as he tries to get a grip on his own show.

So I am not suggesting Steve doesn’t like people that disagree with him. I’m pretty sure that he loves surrounding himself with people of different opinions and perspectives. Most highly intelligent people I know do.

So I hope that clears up the Twitter part of this debate. Was I arguing with Steve? Hell yes. Was I being rude to him – I don’t think so, and it wasn’t my intent.

Do I think Steve makes sense with his gestures and “links are dead” memes? Yes, once I understood what the hell he means by them – which isn’t easy, for two reasons. Every explanation I have seen on “gestures” has been hundreds of words long, if not more. Second, Steve seems tired of trying to find a new way to describe them.

Until a few days ago when he wrote a new blog post called Swarmtracking. This post isn’t really even about gestures or “links are dead” – but I think within this post I found the most concise descriptions for each that I had been trying to get from Steve on Twitter:

In the pushback around this issue, I’ve also referenced my shorthand expression for a comparable observation of gesture fidelity in the blog space, namely the use of links as a measure of authority and respect: Links are dead. What I mean by that is that I often choose not to link not as a measure of disrespect but as a measure of an increased recommendation or gesture of authority. In essence I’m suggesting you link to or follow the person, not the individual post or item.

The problem is (the real problem, I think) is that the tools available just don’t adapt well to the way Steve looks at the world, and the way he thinks the value of something could (should) be measured. This is pretty apparent with his whole argument for not using the Ampersand (@) in Twitter replies. That’s discussed in the “Swarmtracking” post as well, but Steve doesn’t explain it well – he did on a NewsGang Live Podcast yesterday. And basically it comes down to three things:

  1. The iPhone Twitter client Steve uses doesn’t support an easy way to use the “@” – it takes him three buttons to insert the Ampersand. Crappy tool, that one!
  2. Steve doesn’t understand what the ampersand really does on Twitter. He seems concerned that using it somehow excludes people from the conversation (which I find I completely disagree with – often I see someone I follow use the @ with someone I don’t follow – that makes me go look at that person, follow them, and thus expand the conversation. I see no negatives in using the @ sign and nothing but negatives in not using.
  3. Sure – you could argue that even if Steve doesn’t use the @ sign I can manually copy and paste the twitter name into twitter and looked that person up. And I could. But I don’t – for the same reason Steve really doesn’t use the ampersand on Twitter – he is too lazy to. Just like I am too lazy to cut and paste the name into Twitter.

So the whole Twitter ampersand issue is bogus – Steve’s tool prohibits Steve from [easily] taking advantage of the full functionality that most other Twitter clients provide. And his decision that it just isn’t worth his time to use the ampersand reduces the potential network effect on conversations for all of the rest of us that DO have full-featured clients.

By NOT using the ampersand Steve is sending a gesture – in this case, I think a bad one. One that says, “my tool makes that hard for me to do, so I won’t do it, even if that makes things a lot harder on all of the rest of you”.

I’m sure Steve will have more to say about this over time, and I probably will as well. Perhaps in our respective blogs, maybe on Twitter, and almost certainly on the NewsGang Live (assuming Steve un-mutes me)!


  1. @Patrick – jeesh, I knew that! Funny thing is – I just blindly quoted what someone else wrote 🙂 I should think more, post less 🙂

  2. Patrick says:

    Quick correction, the Ampersand = &

    @ = the at sign.

    Wikipedia has a good explanation of where the word “ampersand” came from:

  3. @Karoli – my more in depth response to your post.

    I agree Steve is an extremely bright guy. For most of my life I have worked with/for extremely bright people – I love the inspiration, the feeling of something great about to happen, and I have always been in awe of their unique abilities.

    But without exception these same people have, to put it nicely, lacked some people skills. Most quite severely.

    Steve has people skills. AND he is smart as hell. But he doesn’t see and/or understand everything – so I like to give him my non-Utopian perspective sometimes. Like with data privacy. Steve things the market will fix this because the consumer will force them to. I think the consumer is mostly lazy and partially ignorant on the issues and will do NOTHING. And eventually government will regulate. I don’t want that – I think that is bad for companies, bad for taxpayers, and bad for consumers.

    That’s why I would prefer that business comes together (sooner rather than later) and figures this out. For the consumer and instead of the Government doing it.

    And there is no reason Steve’s approach and mine can’t work together towards the same basic goals of giving users control of their data.

    I think we both want the same things – but we have different approaches to achieving it. And that’s fine – take both approaches and see where we get!

    Steve can follow his path, and I will follow mine. Somewhere the paths will intersect – and that’s where we will need to stop and re-evaluate where we are.

    Always enjoy your conversations,


  4. @Karoli – I’ll comment more on this after I feed my kids, but one thing I *finally* realized – Steve is looking at this issue from the consumer perspective, which is great, and kudos to him for it. I was looking at it from MY customer’s perspective. Once I realized the difference between our perspectives, Steve’s views suddenly had much more clarity to me.

  5. I actually understand the @ sign controversy and it makes some sense. Using Twhirl gives me the ability to look up that user with one click (with or without the @) so I’m not horribly inconvenienced by it.

    to understand Steve’s logic with this, you have to look at the ratio of those he follows to those following him. He follows about 50 people and has over 1000 followers. As I understand it, @replies don’t go out to people following but not followed. (I could be wrong, I haven’t tried it).

    By not using the @, the conversation goes out to the 1000+ followers in addition to those he follows.

    The links are dead meme I do agree with and definitely get it better now after reading his post. When you think about it, it does make sense — links are routinely gamed for google juice, SEO and other benefits which often leaves one with the sense that the guy selling V*** is the top authority on that male thing they advertise all the time (trying to keep the spam noise down here…), as opposed to someone who really is.

    I’m glad I misinterpreted your response about explaining simple things, though I stand by my comment that RSS is not as simple as it seems, at least with regard to application.

    This much is true: Steve Gillmor is one of the smartest guys out there when it comes to thinking through the concepts behind the applications. He’s as close to a seer as I’ve ever known on the web, which is why I trust his opinions so much. No matter how abrasive as he can be, he gets it. Every time.

    Attention is a great example of complex simplicity. Borne from the idea that our attention can be saturated and also measured, the Attention trust comes into being. He meant it conceptually, but of course, this is now the hot topic in commercial metrics — how to measure attention versus clicks? He had that nailed years ago…and hopefully in time for our attention data not to become commoditized.