Jack Cheng  /  Essays

The Slow Web

June 2012  ·  12 minutes

One of the better spots to enjoy a bowl of ramen noodles here in New York is Minca, in the East Village. Minca is the kind of place just out of the way enough that as you’re about to get there, you start wondering if you’ve already passed it. A bowl of noodles at Minca isn’t quite as neatly put together as those of other ramen establishments in the city, but it is without a doubt among the tastiest. There’s a home-cooked quality to a bowl of noodles at Minca. And there’s a homey vibe to the restaurant. Minca is a good place to meet a friend and sit and talk and eat and drink, and eat and talk and sit and drink some more.

The last time I was at Minca, I had an especially enjoyable conversation with Walter Chen. Walter is the CEO of a company called iDoneThis, a quiet little service that helps you catalog the things you’ve accomplished each day. iDoneThis sends you a daily email at your specified time, and you simply reply with a list of things you did that day. It’s useful for teams who want to keep track of what everyone is working on, and for individuals who just want to keep track.

I first reached out to Walter because I was mesmerized by this koan at the bottom of the daily emails:

iDoneThis is a part of the slow web movement. After you email us, your calendar is not updated instantaneously. But rest up, and you’ll find an updated calendar when you wake.

iDoneThis is a part of the slow web movement. The Slow Web Movement. I’d never heard that phrase before. I immediately started digging around—and by that I mean I googled “Slow Web Movement”—and the lone relevant search result was a blog post from two years ago. If you run the search again today, you’ll find Walter’s writeup on his company blog, which reflects a lot of what he told me over dinner.

As we talked further, I said to Walter that as soon as I saw “the slow web movement,” I assigned my own meaning to it. Because it’s a great name, and great names are like knots—they’re woven from the same stringy material as other words, but in their particular arrangement, they catch, become junctions to which new threads arrive, from which other threads depart. For me, “The Slow Web” neatly tied together a slew of dangling thoughts.


Slow Web and Slow Food

The Slow Web Movement is a lot like the Slow Food Movement, in that they’re both blanket terms that mean a lot of different things. Slow Food began in part as a reaction to the opening of a McDonald’s in Piazza di Spagna in Rome, so from its very origin, it was defined by what it’s not. It’s not Fast Food, and we all know what Fast Food is… right?

Yet, if you ask a bunch of people to describe to you the qualities of Fast Food, you’re likely to get a bunch of different answers: it’s made from low-grade ingredients, it’s high in sugar, salt and fat, it’s sold by multinational corporations, it’s devoured quickly and in overlarge portions, it’s McDonaldsTacoBellSubway, even though Subway’s spent a lot of money marketing fresh bread and ingredients but it’s still Fast Food albeit “healthy” Fast Food.

Fast Food has an “I’ll know it when I see it” quality, and it has this quality because it’s describing something greater than all of its individual traits. Fast Food, and consequently, Slow Food, describe a feeling that we get from food.

Slow Web works the same way. Slow Web describes a feeling we get when we consume certain web-enabled things, be it products or content. It is the sum of its parts, but let’s start by describing what it’s not: the Fast Web.

The Fast Web

What is the Fast Web? It’s the out of control web. The oh my god there’s so much stuff and I can’t possibly keep up web. It’s the spend two dozen times a day checking web. The in one end out the other web. The web designed to appeal to the basest of our intellectual palettes, the salt, sugar and fat of online content web. It’s the scale hard and fast web. The create a destination for billions of people web. The you have two hundred twenty six new updates web. Keep up or be lost. Click me. Like me. Tweet me. Share me. The Fast Web demands that you do things and do them now. The Fast Web is a cruel wonderland of shiny shiny things.

Timely vs. Real-time

One of the centerpieces of the Fast Web is this notion of real-time. Your friend listens to a song, and you find out about it. The smaller the gap between these two, the closer it is to real-time.

Real-time interactions happen as they happen. Timely ones, on the other hand, happen as you need them to happen. Some real-time interactions, like breaking news about an earthquake, can be timely. But not all timely interactions are real-time. I’d argue that most are not. And where the Fast Web is built around real-timedness, the Slow Web is built around timeliness.

A great example of a Slow Web product is Instapaper. Instapaper takes the process of discovering a long article and reading it on the spot (real-time) and breaks it apart, deferring the act of reading until later, when we have an extended moment to read (timely). I may be stretching my analogy a bit here, but it’s kind of like boxing up a meal and putting it away in the fridge for when you’re hungry, except in this case, it doesn’t lose as much of its taste.

Likewise, iDoneThis takes a pretty standard interaction of creating an item in a database and then reading it back—one that might normally take less than few seconds to execute—and blows it apart.

A typical app might work like this: there’s a text field for you to type in what you did. You type it in and hit submit. The database gets updated and almost instantly you see the submitted text displayed back to you. iDoneThis takes those last two steps—the update and the review—and stretches them out from a few milliseconds to half a day. The database gets updated sometime overnight and the display-back happens the next morning in your inbox.

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Another name for this is turn-based, as in turn-based gaming. A traditional game of Scrabble or Pictionary is relatively demanding in real-time: it requires two or more people in the same place with both desire and freedom to play these games. Deconstructing the real-time experience gives you the Words With Friends and Draw Somethings of the world. An activity that would otherwise be impractical can now carry on in a manner more timely for each participant. Instapaper is turn-based reading. iDoneThis is turn-based data tracking.

But timeliness alone doesn’t make something Slow Web. Email, after all, is turn-based communication, and our email inboxes are probably one of the biggest sources of Fast Web distress. Those turn-based games can also quickly get overwhelming if we have too many of them going at once. What’s missing in these cases is an inherent sense of rhythm.

Rhythm vs. Random

Let’s say I told you there was a new HBO drama that aired for one hour from 9-10pm every Wednesday night. Once you decide it’s a show you’re interested in and can make room for, the act of watching takes over. It becomes about the show. Now let’s say I told you there’s a new HBO drama that’s sometimes an hour, sometimes half an hour, sometimes two hours, that may or may not air every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, between 6 and 11pm. Suddenly it’s no longer just about the show. It’s about whether or not the show will be on. What next? becomes When next?

In the Fast Web, we’re faced with this proposition numerous times a day. The randomness and frequency of the updates in our inboxes and on our dashboards stimulate the reward mechanisms in our brain. While this can give us a boost when we come across something unexpectedly great, dependency leads to withdrawal, resulting in a roller coaster of positive and negative emotions. The danger of unreliable rhythms is too much reward juice.

Reliable rhythms lead to predictable outcomes, and rhythm is an expression of moderation. Apps like iDoneThis have this moderation: you receive your email prompt at the same time each day, and each interaction is similarly demanding. Unlike your inbox as an aggregate, where there can be a large range of demandingness: there are newsletters you can scan and trash, personal emails that require lengthy responses, and everything in between. The lack of moderation means sometimes you spend a few minutes going through your inbox, and other times you spend a few hours.

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That’s why most email productivity systems are concerned with a form of moderation: standardization. They encourage you to standardize the size and demandingness of the interaction (archive or delete messages and move on, transfer email requiring lengthy follow-ups to a to-do list, limit responses to three sentences) and standardizing the frequency (limit checking email to x times a day, at specified times).

A great example of rhythm and moderation in practice is the rollout of Wander. For the weeks leading up to their beta launch, Keenan and crew took what could have been a first-run experience on another site and stretched it out over the course of four weeks into something akin to an advent calendar. Every week there is a similarly demanding interaction: give a place, pick a photo, type a reason.

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Another service that does this well is Budge from Buster and the team at Habit Labs. Budge is built around notifications reminding you to do the daily things that improve your life in small but beneficial ways, like flossing, meditating, or tracking your weight. Once you’ve signed up, you can interact with Budge solely through their notifications. In the past I’ve gone for weeks without visiting their site or app while still happily using the service just by replying to the timed texts I get on my phone.

This is a tremendously important distinction between Slow Web and Fast Web. Fast Web is destination-based. Slow Web is interaction-based. Fast Web is built around homepages, inboxes, and dashboards. Slow Web is built around timely notifications. Fast Web companies often try to rack up pageviews, since pageviews mean ad impressions. Slow Web companies tend to put effectiveness first. Here’s the crazy thing about Budge: the better it works, the less I use it. Once I get in the habit of flossing, my brain takes over, and I no longer need the notifications. Walter describes this credo well in the aforementioned blog post:

Behavior change, not growth. Behavior change is about improving the lives of others, scale is about ego. Getting scale after nailing behavior change is easier than nailing behavior change (and thus having a shot at durability) after hitting scale.

It doesn’t mean Slow Web companies can’t grow. It simply means that they put effectiveness before growth. And effectiveness leads to a sense of gratitude—I may be done flossing with Budge, but there are other things I could improve, and having been through it once, I trust the company even more.

Knowledge vs. Information

Timeliness. Rhythm. Moderation. These things dovetail into what I consider the biggest difference between Slow Web and Fast Web. Fast Web is about information. Slow Web is about knowledge. Information passes through you; knowledge dissolves into you. And timeliness, rhythm, and moderation are all essential for memory and learning.

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Again, iDoneThis serves as a fitting example. After you use it for a few days, you start seeing at the bottom of your daily emails the things you’ve done in the past, a day or a week before. It’s kind of a contained version of Timehop, Benny and Jon’s product that, once you’ve connected it to your various social accounts, sends you a daily—get ready for this word—digest with everything you did a year ago on that day.

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Timehop and iDoneThis both help us remember and reflect, and this gives us perspective. It grounds us in the flow of time, or perhaps lifts us up above the treetops. iDoneThis is the only task management tool I’ve come across with the potential to help you realize you’re working on the wrong thing. Fast Web derives value from the just happened or the soon to happen. Slow Web unlocks value from deeper in the past.


The Slow Web

Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information. These are a few of the many characteristics of the Slow Web. It’s not so much a checklist as a feeling, one of being at greater ease with the web-enabled products and services in our lives.

Like Slow Food, Slow Web is concerned as much with production as it is with consumption. We as individuals can always set our own guidelines and curb the effect of the Fast Web, but as I hope I’ve illustrated, there are a number of considerations the creators of web-connected products can make to help us along. And maybe the Slow Web isn’t quite a movement yet. Maybe it’s still simmering. But I do think there is something distinctly different about the feeling that some of these products impart on their users, and that feeling manifests from the intent of their makers.

Fast Web companies want to be our lovers, they want to be by our sides at all times, want us to spend every moment of our waking lives with them, when sometimes that’s not what we really need. Sometimes what we really need are friends we can meet once every few months for a bowl of ramen noodles at a restaurant in the East Village. Friends with whom we can sit and talk and eat and drink and maybe learn a little about ourselves in the process. And at the end of the night get up and go our separate ways, until next time.

These Days

My debut novel, about the human side of technology. Available now. Details.

About Me

Jack Cheng is a Shanghai-born, Michigan-bred, Brooklyn-based writer. Full Bio.