The Tyranny of Convenience – The New York Times

A good article by Tim Wu in the New York Times, on the effects of convenience.

Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable.


Yet our taste for convenience begets more convenience, through a combination of the economics of scale and the power of habit. The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.

(Extend that line of thought to Twitter/Facebook vs. individually owned websites distributed across the internet as a heterogeneous and diverse culture of sharing and interacting…)


We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. When you can skip the line and buy concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating.


Source: The Tyranny of Convenience – The New York Times


This is why blogging largely died out (Alan pointed out in the comments that blogging has definitely not died out, and that there are still bajillions of active blogs. Which is awesome. But it still feels different now, to my curmudgeonish self) , replaced with tweeting. This is why RSS largely died out, (also, not so much actually dying out…) replaced with algorithmic activity streams. Because it’s easier to just numbly follow a stream. This has huge implications on how we interact with each other, and how we formalize our thoughts. It’s a race to the bottom, to the easiest possible form.

10 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Convenience – The New York Times”

  1. Thanks for this, I’ve been thinking much of the phenomena that a lot of our choices online reflect the allure of convenience for the now vs the effort it takes for something that lasts. I do wonder if the extrapolations Wu makes that are consumer-based extend to the digital (probably so). I’m also not quite so ready to pin the hinge point on the walman, one could pick many things- TV dinners; microwaves, starbucks.

    I take a lot of pride in walking over driving, taking the stars not the escalator, working with my hands in the dirt in the yard, recycling/composting/reusing over trashing. The payoff is insanely good, but maybe I’m weird.

    I have to counter a bit on the oft-repeated line that blogging/rss died. I did this in response to a Cole blog post (oh you were there already); it’s a relative numbers thing. What exactly is that conclusion based on? Usually it’s one person’s own experience. To be able to make that sweeping conclusion, one would need deity like power to see everything published on the internet.

    Try some numbers (they can be argued with)

    84 million blog posts a month at WordPress,com
    ~400 million tumbr blogs
    4 million blogs in edublogs
    Shops like VCU’s Rampages running over 30,000 blogs (estimating, I know Tom Woodward said last yea

    Those hardly look like fizzling graphs to me. It’s significantly more activity than in the hey day of blogging; hardly dead. It’s just that its been dwarfed by much more activity elsewhere, and is also a function of there being orders of magnitude more people online than 12 years ago.

    It depends where you sit. On a daily basis I come across personal blogs, new voices with as much energy as in the 2000s. Not dead by a long shot.

    1. Yeah. “Blogs are dead” is demonstrably false. “Blogs feel different with n=1” may be more like it. Something is different, but that doesn’t mean blogs are really dead, or dying. Same with RSS. Both are alive and well, if we choose to use them. And many are.

      I read a post by Watts Martin, comparing LiveJournal and Twitter and blogs, and he made a good point that running your own blog can tend to make it feel necessary to post Important Things™ because they’re on My Own Domain™ and on my permanent record, rather than just blabbing into the ephemeral wind. I paraphrase.

      I love the way you’re still blogging – active, engaged, and doing it because you want to. I’m trying to get back to that. I think I lost some of that sense of play when I got wound up in PhD Research Mode™ and Institute From the Future™ institutional importance. Gotta let that crap go.

  2. I think that’s where I struggle with the “the web is broken” narrative. We’ve got lots of working tools. We’ve got lots of options. It just seems like lots of people aren’t interested. The web seems to be pretty ok but four five websites suck and have lots of people on them.

    1. Not random, but I’ve been playing around with rebuilding my blog to feel more bloggy. The fancy theme I was using felt too fancy and important. Stepping back from that, hoping I’ll post more often if I take it less seriously… The other theme was also acting weird in a few spots – especially around comment posting and replying.

  3. Going off of some of Alan’s and Tom’s comments I think the thing I miss is that the people I really connected with in the blogging world are blogging/commenting less. I have to shoulder some of the blame too.
    Awhile back Mike Caulfield pointed out (in a blog post? tweet? I can’t recall) that with the shift to reading on smartphones it is much harder to comment/blog a response because who wants to type that all out on a tiny keyboard? That comment was a revelation for me. I hadn’t stopped reading blogs through my RSS reader, but I had started reading them on my smartphone which added just enough friction to the whole process that I pretty much ceased to comment. Reading on a smart phone definitely didn’t inspire me to open up a fresh new post and respond on my own blog. I now am more conscious of the device I’m using when I read through certain feeds (I’ll read my comics on my smartphone but save my “Ed Tech” group for when I’m sitting at a computer).
    Some of this feels like “well duh”, but it is funny to me how I’ve allowed convenience to creep in to my life without me really noticing it.

    1. I agree entirely (although I’m sure other people feel/behave differently). The phone resulted in me not writing comments. I no longer read any RSS feeds on my phone. I’ve also taken Twitter off it as well. I do that occasionally. I find certain interaction patterns drag me into depression. That may or may not be algorithms at work.

  4. 100% agree with the “it feels different” – I still date the change to Google killing off GReader. I know there were other aggregators etc and it took a while longer, but 2011-12 seems like “Peak Blog” in retrospect. Certainly not the conversational space it was back then. Alas.

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