Nerds Don't Think Like Normal People

Why the things we think are good ideas don't always work

September 15, 2021

So Luke Smith put out a new video where he was brainstorming a possible solution to a problem. Now several months ago I gave myself a policy that I would refrain from talking about new Luke Smith things because the portion of my audience that is interested in that most likely has already consoomed that content so I'm just wasting your time by repeating it to them, and the rest of my audience doesn't care and if you want to get more people to visit minimalist websites then it is a good idea to make content that is not exclusively tailored to people who are already into minimalist websites and stuff like that but instead something that a broader audience would enjoy. I'm going to be breaking that rule today because nerds (much like people who get their news from sources only biased in one direction) often have a rather skewed vision of the world. This is something I've been guilty of at times and is something that I try not to do because it isn't healthy or smart to be looking at a skewed version of the world. It is important for people to have their bubbles popped and this video, or really some people's response to this video, is an opportunity for me to make that happen.

Luke's problem and solution

Now to get back on topic, the problem Luke was grappling with was the fact that normal people seem to refuse to use RSS. RSS is of course great, Luke has done many videos on it, I've written about it multiple times, other Linux YouTubers have made videos about it, and various other people with websites like mine have also written about it, RSS is great for consumers because it puts all the content they're interested in in one spot and it is great for creators because they only have to update one file to push things out to their subscribers. But despite its merits and people trying to push it normal people still don't use it. I've actually thought about writing about RSS again but decided against it because I feel like I'd be participating in an echo chamber by doing so since so many people are doing the same thing without changing very many minds. It is very hard to get people who aren't computer nerds to do unusual things with their computer like download an RSS reader (especially when Windows doesn't have any good ones).

The solution that Luke thought of to this was to create a program that take an RSS feed as a parameter and produce what would essentially act as a mobile app that would just hold the contents of that RSS feed and present it in a format that normal people are already comfortable with. For example if you open a tweet on a mobile browser Twitter will recognize that you are using a mobile browser and give you a prompt asking if you want to download the app for a better experience, despite what people who are disciplined with their computer use might think this is actually an incredibly effective way to get people to download an app because most people will think "ehh, why not?" when faced with this prompt. A program like Luke described would bring RSS feeds to normal people without them doing anything that they aren't used to doing.

The response

Complications of making an app

In a perfect world this sort of thing would be completely doable, but this isn't a perfect world and this video shows how unfamiliar Luke is with the mobile development landscape, the worlds of iOS and Android are walled gardens and one only has slightly less security than the other. I saw a few people mention the $100 a year price tag Apple had on publishing an app and then you also have to consider the hoops that you have to jump through. Many people don't realize that you have to register a bunch of stuff with Google just to get a prototype app to give notifications in a virtual machine, and I'm sure that some person out there would argue that if you root your phone and modify your installation of Android you could bypass some of that but that person would be forgetting that the app we want is targeted towards normal people who probably still have the junk apps their phone came with installed on their phone despite never using them.

But that type of doomer response is one that a person should expect from a video like that, and anyone seeking to succeed in life should overcome that mindset and ignore people who shut down good ideas that easily. What I really wanted to talk about was the other response I saw in the comments of the video on Luke's Peertube.


The majority of the comments on this video on Peertube talk about a technology called ActivityPub and how it is a much better solution to the problem that Luke was describing and none of the people making those comments actually understood the problem Luke was describing or the way that normal people interact with technology. But before I get into that I guess I should tell those who don't already know that ActivityPub is the protocol that most federated internet services are built off of, things like Peertube, Mastadon, and Gab which are all things that normal people have never heard of, or, in the case of Gab, already have a negative opinion of.

Now the problem that Luke was actually describing has two parts.

Easy management for creators

Luke didn't mention the first part of the problem until the end of the video but I'll mention it first because he said that it was what got him thinking about this in the first place. He mentioned that whenever he makes a podcast episode he has to do a bunch of stuff on Apple and Google and Spotify and whatever and he doesn't really want to have to go through all those sites not just because he doesn't like using those sites but also because doing all that is a lot of work compared to just updating an RSS feed. Using fediverse stuff isn't any easier than going through Google or something, in fact you could argue that it is harder since you either have to find someone you trust running the right software on their server who will let you use it, or you have to set up the software to run on your own server which may not be all that straightforward and may even require you to start paying for a larger or more powerful server. I find that people who don't actually publish things on the internet underestimate the amount of work it actually is at times and that for us updating a single RSS file is all we really want to deal with after finishing something.

Finding something that normal people would actually use

Now of course this was the less important part of the problem he talked about, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't notice it, the more important part of the problem is where the skewed worldview of the fediverse nerds starts to mess them up, normal people don't care about federated software. The world of software is much larger than many people realize and, from the point of view of a developer, it is filled with many interesting and exciting things, more things than are really useful. A mistake that many developers are tempted to make is to add a particular new technology to a project to satisfy the developer's desire to try out the new technology rather than to satisfy the needs of the project. As one is trained to become a professional software developer they are taught that they should never do this because it often wastes time and produces a sub-par final product. We see this a lot these days with people putting things like machine learning and blockchain technology being pushed into areas where they have no business. These fediverse people are looking at this problem with a similar mindset.

The thing that bugs me the most about these people is that they don't realize that the solution they are proposing is already in use and it isn't working. This one guy pretentiously commented something that when translated into normal person sounds like, "ActivityPub is great I'm watching this video because I got a notification on my such-and-such phone from such-and-such app with my account I registered on such-and-such website that lets me subscribe to your peertube and comment in a federated way." These people acknowledge that Luke is already using the thing which they claim to be the solution to his problem yet they don't stop and ask themselves why Luke is still having the problem. Clearly it isn't working despite Luke telling his audience multiple times over the past year to start watching his videos on peertupe instead of YouTube. Compare the amount of views Luke gets on YouTube to what he gets on PeerTube, in two days this video has gotten a thousand views while in less than half that time the same video has gotten over eight times that many on YouTube. The last video he uploaded on YouTube has twenty thousand views there but it hasn't even broken one thousand views on peertube during the entire month that it has been out. ActivityPub is not working.

The reason for this is that normal people don't look at technology the same way that we do. I was in a mobile development class a while ago and the professor asked the class what makes a good app then my classmates started saying things like having a dark mode and being able to customize things and even change the colors of certain things, after this the professor stopped that discussion and told us that normal people don't care about that sort of things, most normal people leave their phones and computers on their default settings, they just want things to be simple and work right. If normal people can't be bothered to set up an RSS reader, they definitely won't want to take the time to jump into the complex world of ActivityPub, the solution to the problem of people not wanting to do something slightly complex is never to give them something harder to do.

So there is my wake-up call to all of you who have traveled too far down the fediverse rabbit hole, I don't really have anything against the technology and I'm definitely not trying to offend anyone who uses it, I'm just here to remind you that normal people see and approach technology differently than we do, and that if the only tool you have is a hammer that doesn't mean that everything you see is a nail, eventually you have to realize that pounding your flat tire with it isn't helping. Nerds don't think like everyone else. This isn't a solution for this problem for the same reason that the year of the Linux desktop will never come.