Ode to ᵗᶦⁿʸ ᵗᵒᵒˡˢ
Today, an exciting treat: Escape the Algorithm’s first guest post! This one comes from programmer / computational poet / writer / wanderer Spencer Chang. If you enjoy it, you will also enjoy subscribing to his newsletter, which Spencer describes as “the internet equivalent of an ongoing postcard series.”
One of my favorite things to do on the internet these days is to find tiny web tools and libraries that just do one niche thing really well (or at least, decently well, with personality).
From generating ASCII art, to finding Wikipedia articles about places near your location, to changing the faces of images to look at your cursor, the web is full of wondrous gadgets (peruse my full catalog). I keep these tabs pinned in a browser window and think of them as my internet toolshed. I head to the river when I’m in a visual mood. I scroll through transparent textures when I’m in need of an interesting feel. I go to careful words to play with language when it’s not coming out the right way, and I go to my local clipboard converter when I need to reformat text for my go-to text editor. I even have a place I visit to create ᵗᶦⁿʸ ᵗᵉˣᵗ (you’d be surprised how often one needs tiny text!).
I like how distinct these tools feel, each with its own story, personality, and origin. I’ve grown fond of them as I make memories in the timeless sea that is the web. My hands are accustomed to their interfaces. My cursor skips over the introduction text as soon as I arrive; the clang and clack of industry begins.
As they are optimized for a specific task, single-purpose devices tend to look and function pretty uniquely, which makes them hard to miss. Some, like avocado slicers, are made fun of for how niche they are while others, like the ultimate bonsai scissors, are celebrated for their dedication to a single craft.
Sometimes design constraints provide a fertile environment for finding new creative uses: a vanity mirror may be affixed to a pair of crocs in order to more easily glance at the underside of flowers. Purists may be shocked at the idea of using bonsai scissors to snip green onions, but I like that we challenge the purported precision of these tools. We don’t make it easy for them.
We often fall into the trap of wanting to build something that is the solution to everything, the tool to end all tools. But there is a simple beauty to single-purpose implements that don’t claim to be anything they are not, that do the one thing well, and nothing else. There’s something charming about their smallness as a foil to the big SEO-optimized monolith multitools that fit neatly into the mold of the prevailing landing page aesthetic. I may be more likely to trust a site that is a little unresponsive, or that features grammatically incorrect language that’s dry and lengthy, or that wasn’t designed to be used on mobile, or that occasionally breaks entirely, because all of these things are perfectly human.
Its maker isn’t trying to convince you to use the tool because they likely made it to solve a problem for themselves, first and foremost.
Tiny tools mesh well with the rising culture of getting creative value out of the things you already have. We glamorize the creative resilience of making a feast out of kitchen scraps and leftovers to sustain ourselves (“girl dinner”). And, we love finding new life hacks to avoid buying more things.
When you try to make something that solves everything, you obsess over questions of power: how to make something that is omnipotent and everlasting. But when you make something that does one thing well, the questions are much more personal: does it solve my problem? and for how long? and who for? and where will it push the space around it? I want to see more efforts that embrace the pluralistic nature of the internet, that allow tiny tools to converse with each other in a proverbial toolbox, while preserving their unique personalities.
Starting small isn't a bad place to start.
What are some of your favorite small tools and libraries you’ve come across on the web? When do you wish you could combine them together? Do you already cobble some of them together regularly?
[Editor’s note: https://unicodeheart.com/ spent about a decade in my bookmark bar.]
Thanks again to Spencer for contributing! You can read more of his work here:
Internet diving hauls presented without context
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