Better Interfaces, Better Products
Identity via algorithms, wallets as browsers, crypto's "front page" — how interfaces govern the way we interact with the world
“SQUARES BREED SQUARES”
As a self-proclaimed chronically online person, I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that much of my identity — from the places I go out to eat, to the way I decorate my apartment, to the clothes I wear… even to the jobs I take or the friends I have — has been defined by code. Perhaps it is a result of the fact that the state of social media today may be less of an interaction between a user and a given “network” of others, but instead an interaction between a user and what we can call an ‘algorithmized’ version of self. I am curating my feed, but moreso, my feed is curating me.
In a recent piece, I wrote about the concept of linguistic relativity, or how we use language as a mode for coming to terms with our surroundings. I believe there is a version of this concept that extends to human behavior. Our language structures our experience of the world. Our interfaces govern how we interact with it.
Take TikTok, for example. TikTok’s emphasis on fifteen-second video creation pushed short-form entertainment to the forefront of consumption. It now feels exponentially harder to watch a Netflix show, or even a YouTube video, and stay engaged, versus opening up TikTok to be captured within only a few moments. You see this with web3 entertainment company Mad Realities, which originally began with a YouTube video series but pivoted, and then grew a TikTok following to over 350,000 in four weeks by launching a slate of original shows:
Along a similar vein, we’ve seen the TikTok-ification of the music industry, where as economics moved from CDs and downloads to streaming, songs got shorter. Even today, with TikTok as one of the major distribution channels for new music, we see artists add “TikTok-approved” verses into their songs, like Jack Harlow’s “First Class” or Drake’s “Toosie Slide.” The medium fundamentally altered the message.
New York Times columnist Ezra Klein writes about this, too, arguing that “the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think… it is the fault of the platform – it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used.” Our physical lives increasingly reflect our digital reality, shown by places like the Museum of Ice Cream and other shops and tourist destinations that have redesigned their locations to be more “Instagrammable.”
We see this particular flavor of technological determinism all over the Internet. Another popular example is Twitter’s original character limit. Because Twitter began as an SMS text-based service, the original Tweet length was limited to 140 characters, partly driven by the 160-character limit of SMS, with 20 characters reserved for usernames. Of course, the collateral damage of this seemingly innocent choice was beyond what we could have anticipated, as we were crushed under the weight of fortune cookie accounts and the dreaded “Time for a thread.”
“We shape our tools, and thereafter, our tools shape us.” – John M. Culkin (1967)
I acknowledge this is a pretty bleak outlook so far. But I’d like to argue that herein lies the opportunity: better interfaces will lead to better products in return. As my partner Jarrod Dicker articulates well, change the outputs, change the inputs. I have a couple ideas for where I’d like to see this in web3 consumer products:
WALLETS AS BROWSERS
The interface of a wallet governs how we interact with the tokens held at that address. For example, most wallets display NFTs as square images, which resulted in almost every NFT project in 2021/22 being… well, a collection of square images. Squares breed squares. In conversation on this topic, one developer told me, “I was more focused on making my NFTs render great on OpenSea than actual contract code.”
So what happens to the inputs when we change the outputs? My guess is the interfaces that respect the NFT as a file format — whether the NFT be a JPG, GIF, MP3 or otherwise — will indirectly be responsible for the creation of net new types of cryptomedia. I want my wallet to be a browser. What’s a Music NFT if I can’t listen to it? What’s a piece of Digital Fashion if I can’t try it on? Wallets are more than just a display case. I write about this more here.
BLOCK EXPLORERS AS THE “FRONT PAGE”
If we want better cryptomedia, we need better ways to interact with it. Better outputs, better inputs. My view is that a lot of this starts with the block explorer, which is almost analogous to a search engine for the blockchain.
Block explorers claim to be unbiased pieces of software for visualizing blocks, transactions, addresses, and network metrics (transaction fees, block size, etc.). However, I believe the interfaces of these tools are quite biased, as they selectively choose which information to bring to the forefront, and which to hide under the hood. Take Etherscan, for example, where on-chain messages (let’s say a secret admirer wanted to send a note to your wallet) are not actually listed as messages, but instead as “transfers” of 0 ETH from one address to yours. To actually find the message, you’d need to click into the transaction hash, click another button for “More,” and then toggle to view the input data as UTF-8. No wonder nobody sends messages this way.
This is one of many examples of how I see bias in block explorer interfaces. In this case, I imagine a better output (an easier way to read these on-chain messages) would lead to much more interesting inputs. Flirting on-chain! Murder mystery stories! The Amazing Race… but crypto! Anyway, you get the point. Better interfaces, better products.
It’s not a block explorer, but a similar tool that does this particularly well is Dune Analytics, which updates its homepage dynamically based on trending Dune dashboards (curated sets of on-chain SQL queries). In a way, the Dune homepage becomes a “front page” for what matters in crypto at a given time. This is what the homepage looked like on June 13, 2022, the day Celsius announced they were halting all swaps, withdrawals, and transfers due to “extreme market conditions,” triggering a broader selloff:
Dune isn’t just data analytics. It’s journalism. The point is, in a world of public data, every company is a media company. The tools to parse, share, and curate this web of information aren’t just tools, they’re interfaces, and the interfaces with better outputs will lead to better inputs, which is why we’re here to begin with. I’m looking forward to seeing what other opportunities might emerge in this vein.
New interfaces will change the way we both create and consume media on the Internet. This won’t just affect the product experiences themselves, but also the way we organize to develop content and applications to be consumed by others. Blockchain technology is a massive unlock on this front, because it democratizes the ability for any individual to see important activity and information at the inception of its development, and it changes the way these products are built in return. While in traditional media these roles all existed with a banner brand, today they are able to be pieced together through our collective ability to create from the information we find. And that is massive.
This piece was written for the inaugural Boys Club Zine. If you haven’t checked it out already, you should — with authentic storytelling, beautiful curation, creative ad models, and new modes of distribution (both print & mint!), the Zine is brilliant. I am so grateful to Tash, Deana, Monty, and the entire Boys Club team for including me alongside so many incredible individuals.
Thank you to David Phelps, Kiran Cherukuri, Soren Wrenn, Jarrod Dicker, and many others for informing my thinking on this piece. If the piece resonated at all, I would love to hear from you. You can reach me via Twitter DMs.