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Business - Written by on Sunday, October 19, 2008 17:40 - 2 Comments

Jeff DeChambeau
XKCD, YouTube, and the Emerging Personalities of Applications and Companies

Every so often, Randall Munroe,  author of the XKCD webcomic, gets it right — really, really right. A while ago, Munroe had this to say about comments on YouTube, something I tend to agree with most of the time (just search for any term that is mildly related to a controversial issue, and feel your brain melt as you push your way through increasingly inane comments filled, with growing amounts of four letter words — often typoed down to three, or even two letters). A recent XKCD comic followed this up, suggesting that YouTube read back comments to the users about to post them, so that the users are given a chance to see just how little they really are contributing (leading them to conclude that “I’m a moron… I… I didn’t know..”). YouTube was paying attention to this suggestion, and actually added audio preview as a(n optional) feature.

It’s cute, but moreover, it shows that YouTube (and Google) understands that a number of video comments would have been better-off not posted (a point similar to my previous post, about the extent to which online systems should be designed to protect us from ourselves). Not just that, it shows a lot of personality, something that seems like something of an odd comment when talking about a website or large company. These personalities serve to “de-technologify” technology, making it easier to simply interact with it.

Some examples; things that made me smirk (or frown) as I tried out new software and websites:

  • Google’s Chrome Browser — when something goes wrong in Chrome, you’re not presented with some snippet of code in HEX along with an error code. Instead, you get “Aw snap, something went wrong.” It catches you off guard the first time, and it’s not drab or boring like a typical application error.
  • 404 pages — Things will go wrong and people will try to access pages that don’t exist, there are lots of ways that a webmaster can choose to let a visitor know that something isn’t right.
  • Windows Vista’s Cancel or Continue — a good example of a complete lack of personality, especially on a prompt that shows up far more than is necessary, it ends up simply becoming a nuisance, making the software aggravating rather than useful.
  • OSX’s bootup login prompt — when a mac boots up and requests a password, if you enter the wrong password, the window shakes. It’s simple and communicates that you typoed, all without the need for a popup asking you to try again.
  • Winamp — I don’t think that many people use Winamp anymore, which is too bad, because it’s always been great software. Way back when I first loaded up Winamp, the software autoplays a clip “Winamp, it really whips the llama’s…” — backside. Nothing especially functional, but it still serves to set the software apart, and stayed in my memory to this day.

As we do more and more things with and through software, that software itself becomes the face of the company that designed it. For personable companies and applications, having a certain degree of transitivity between the personalities of the applications, and the personalities of the companies, becomes a very good thing.

Looping this back to the XKCD-YouTube example, I appreciate that Google/YouTube is able to recognize that there’s a lot of rubbish-comments on their site, and that they’re able to make light of the situation in a very public-facing way. This doens’t mean that my YouTube usage is going to go up (the only way that could happen is if more hours were added to the day), but it does serve to make the company a little more human, and a little more likeable — not a bad accomplishment if I’m trying to decide where I want to go to watch online video content.

My list above is far from exhaustive, are there any companies or applications that strike you as really having some personality of their own? Does it improve your experience, or detract from it? Or, are you just waiting for the day when most of our overt interactions with technology are intermediated through Turing-capable virtual people, complete with their own, robust personalities?


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Oct 19, 2008 23:24

you might like this firefox addon – the youtube comment snob.


Jeff DeChambeau
Oct 20, 2008 13:24


This is fantastic. The novelty has not yet worn off though, as I keep clicking the comments to see what I’m missing (not much, as it turns out!). The plugin is doing a great job of filtering out stuff that I’d rather not see.

Thank you!

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