The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

Scrabble® at the speed of . . . silicon

Okay, so we’ve known for a while that “Angry Birds” is chewing up most of the free time that technological efficiency has granted us over the last handful of years. If you’ve been wondering, though, about the rest of this “cognitive surplus” (as Clay Shirky calls it), I have that answer for you. As Alec Baldwin reminded us last month, our stolen minutes are probably going to “Words with Friends” from that newly public behemoth of a social-gaming company, Zynga.

Scrabble’s iPhone app

As the world knows, Baldwin’s refusal to “turn off his electronic device” got him kicked off an American Airlines flight last month and became a minor cause célèbre. It led to plenty of jokes, a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek self-loathing, and (of course) a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which Baldwin apologizes to himself on behalf of American. Nevertheless, l’affaire Baldwin is not the only thing that has drawn attention recently to online Scrabble® and its many clones. For instance, there was the fact that the iOS version of “the ultimate word game” was a free “pick of the week” at Starbucks recently . . . necessary, most likely, because while Scrabble may be “ultimate,” it ultimately may be at risk of marginalization.

I must begin by confessing that part of the value proposition that drew me to Facebook, back when I joined in August 2007, was one of the earliest of those clones: Scrabulous, a perfect and perfectly executed online rendition. Within days I was engaged in games with friends (and friends’ children) across the country, in fact using it as an excuse to entice some of them onto the network as well.

You see, I’m always looking for Scrabble opponents. Back in the 1970’s, once I was out of college and working nights in the slot of the Tribune sports desk, the opportunities had dwindled to basically three: (1) my friend Ann, with whom I would play with an agreement not to keep score; (2) me, myself, and I, with whom I would play four-handed Scrabble with the board on a turntable (Linda would come home after work, find me at the kitchen table, and ask, “Which of you is winning?”); and (3) the reason I kept paying my annual Mensa dues: Scrabble by mail with other members.

So now it can be told: It’s not electronic bill-paying or e-cards that are causing the Postal Service to crater. It has to be reduced demand for Scrabble by mail! (While I no longer remember the precise mechanics of, say, “drawing letters” with my pencil pals, I certainly recall staring at the mimeographed game-board grid before filling it in and mailing it off.)

Lexulous on Facebook

Back to 2007-08. All went swimmingly until Hasbro, the copyright holder, realized it had darn well better assert its intellectual property rights. Over time, Scrabulous’s Indian developers ultimately resurrected it on Facebook under names like “Wordscraper” and “Lexulous,” but with different rules and, most notably, an eight-letter rack of virtual tiles. This last infringement-avoidance attribute led to some amazingly high-scoring games among the 566 I played, many (as in this example) with my old Tribune pal Maurice Possley. But before long I was turning my attention back to “the ultimate word game,” cheerfully paying 99 cents for the iPhone app to go along with the Facebook implementation.

Words with Friends

But then along came this “Words with Friends” thing. No, it’s not Scrabble, nor was meant to be. It has a strange board layout that creates ridiculously high scores for boring single words, even bigger gaps between winners and losers (right), and a seemingly odd distribution of letter tiles. In its favor, however: it also has a virtually unlimited supply of opponents . . . nearly 16 million monthly users, 3,406,673 of whom have “liked” it on Facebook, and at last count 153 of whom are numbered among my Facebook friends.

Frankly, I wish they’d all just switch back to Scrabble®. But if they did, what would THAT do to Zynga’s stock price?

The technological octogenarian

A man, a plan, a canal ... er, an iPhone and Facebook.

A man, a plan, a canal ... er, an iPhone and Facebook.

My father turned 80 on Saturday, and my sister and I and our spouses went out to The Holmstad, my parents’ retirement community in Batavia, for the occasion. Shortly after 5, we were in the Holmstad dining room, the 6 of us armed with our 5 iPhones and high expectations for a festive meal.

Festive meals can, of course, take a while to arrive; so, as photo opportunities go, the one at right was way easier to seize than most. When I grabbed this image with my iPhone camera, I suspected that all I had to do was write the right caption, upload it to Facebook, and wait for my thousand or so Facebook friends to decide if they, too, found it interesting.

“Dad checks Facebook on his iPhone while waiting for 80th birthday dinner to arrive….”

It was just a few minutes after 5 p.m. By the time we got home from Symphony Center (where we went after the birthday bash ended), it had more interaction than any other single thing I’d ever posted on Facebook. “Awesome,” wrote Don. “Dad rocks,” noted Marie. “So that’s the old block off of which you are a chip,” observed Eric.

And then there were all the folks merely clicking Facebook’s thumbs-up “Like” icon. It should be noted that many of them don’t even know him!

It had already been a big day online in Owen World; a very complimentary link from Scot McKnight’s popular blog, “Jesus Creed,” was sending my Feb. 27 essay on past and future literary artifacts into the top 5 of my posts over the last year. (Scot drove about 4% of my overall traffic in 2009, and at this rate he’s going to achieve his tongue-in-cheek goal of sending me more readers than does Northwestern.)

So is an octogenarian iPhone-ing Facebooker really all that noteworthy? As Linda observed at home tonight, people born in 1930 have had to adapt to changes that are in many ways more dramatic and less incremental then any of us younger whippersnappers. Television, for one. Church-run retirement homes with waitstaffs and Starbucks counters, for two.

So what are you waiting for, gentle readers? Get your dads and moms their own smart phones and social network accounts. And then send them to

Happy birthday, Dad.

Take that, winter!

‘Tis winter now; the fallen snow
has left the heavens all coldly clear;
through leafless boughs the sharp winds blow,
and all the earth lies dead and drear.

–Samuel Longfellow*

So let’s say you are not dismayed that Longfellow’s sharp winds are blowing (“the skies are chill, and frosts are keen”).  In fact, you’re nicely bundled up, wearing insulated mittens, among other accoutrements of the season.

And your iPhone alerts you that someone has just texted you.

So now those nice, thick mittens are causing you a problem: to respond to that text after you fumble for the phone, you’re going to have to expose your electrically charged fingers to the keen frost.

Admittedly, it hasn’t been all that cold around here since about 1986 – well before the era of capacitave touch interfaces. But for those of you in Fargo, Flin Flon, and Fairbanks, I would like to alert you to a solution that appeared among my Christmas gifts: the Pogo Sketch from Ten One Design in Montclair, N.J. (average low in January, 19 degrees; record low, minus 14 degrees, 1985).

This battery-operated aluminum stylus, the size of a small pen, transmits an electrical charge through its cushioned tips, so you can keep those pinkies toasty when using your iPhone, Droid, Storm, or similar labor-saving/time-wasting device.

So grab your phone, your Pogo Sketch and your mittens, and head for Frostbite Falls.  Minnesota is lovely this time of year, don’t you think?

(* younger brother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

An app and an attitude

“Eye contact is a fundamental human signal — all kinds of studies have shown, for example, how people are more likely to cooperate with one another when they can make eye contact. When we don’t have it, when we become anonymous, we not only lose some of that impulse towards cooperation, we seem to become susceptible to all kinds of behavior we might not otherwise engage in.” –Tom Vanderbilt, author of “Traffic”; interviewed by


I really like the book “Traffic,” which came out last year.  One of its interesting theses is that traffic is a social issue as well as a transportation issue, and that – given how much we time we spend in our cars – understanding traffic in that context both is informed by, and helps to explain, human nature.  As someone observed when it came out, its audiobook version would be a good choice for commuters.

Excuse me, did I just collide with your inbox?

Excuse me, did I just collide with your inbox?

I thought of the idea he explicates above again this morning, when my ex-Tribune pal Drew DeVigal of the NYT twittered a link to this story: “Email ‘n walk – compose emails while on the move.”  Relevant quotation: “The subject and message fields appear over the top of a instant video feed via your iPhone’s camera.  This way you can type AND walk without worrying about what may be in front of you.”

We could wring our hands about new excuses for stepping into traffic, but as the quote up above might indicate, I’d just as soon as wring my hands about the social piece.  Vanderbilt says in “Traffic” that, in a car, eye contact stops at 20 miles an hour, adding a whole layer of danger and uncertainty to the task of driving.

Even at a snail’s pace, and while engaged in way fewer than the 1,500 to 2,500 skills necessary to drive a car, emailing and walking … well, you get the idea.  It’s not about the obstacles you run into.  It’s about the isolation that gives your subconscious self permission to feign anonymity, isolation, and total focus in the midst of distracting multitasking.

Vanderbilt again: “As the inner life of the driver begins to come into focus, it is becoming clear not only that distraction is the single biggest problem on the road, but that we have little concept of just how distracted we are.”

It could be argued that today many people not only crave distraction, they wouldn’t know how to exist without it.  But there’s no one to argue with; they’re texting from behind the wheel, or while six feet away from the curb.


ADD END, added 5/20: Drivers in Tennessee were the worst, with 42% admitting to texting and driving, according to Vlingo Corp., a maker of voice user interface software. 

via One in four mobile users admits driving while texting. | Computerworld

Hmmm.  If both the driver and the walker are texting, how will they ever form a social contract?