Baby duck syndrome

Screenshot: Text-mode Citadel interface, still working after all these years


I haven't heard the term "baby duck syndrome" in years. Back when I first started using online services -- in 1985,  before some of you were born -- I heard it a lot in conversations among programmers working on a system that I used a lot. It's a reference to a P.D. Eastman children's book. Although the baby bird in the book wasn't a duck, it's the same idea: the hatchling assumes that the first creature it sees must be its mother, and tries to become attached to it.

Applied to computers, it means we get attached to the first system we use and judge all others in that context. If you cut your teeth on Windows, you might find Mac OS X or Ubuntu Linux to be confusing, even though both of them arguably are easier to use. But it's not limited to usability. It's an entire set of expectations.

It also applies outside of computer-human interfaces. When something new arrives, we try to make it into something old.

When the Web came along, most newspaper people tried to make Web newspapers, and in the process missed revolution after revolution: portals, search, local search, and social media. Presented with a blank slate in the form of tablet computing, they're doing it all again. I could round up everybody in the newspaper industry who understands the implications of HTML5's geolocation services and fit them into one car. It might be a stretch limo and we might be crowded,  but I'll bet we could do it.

Sometimes the baby duck syndrome is useful, if you chance upon the right "mother."

I discovered the online world through software called Citadel that encouraged conversation. I got so interested in it that I wound up running my own dialup bulletin board system and even created a Citadel newsletter.

When the Internet opened up to commercial use nearly a decade later, I looked at it as a huge leap forward in terms of conversational opportunity -- not just as a one-way publishing platform along the lines of print and broadcasting. The pre-Web online service we built at the Star Tribune in 1994 featured integrated discussion forums and community group publishing.

As to why this didn't enable me to invent Facebook, I have no excuse.

The exact software that I used in running my 1980s-era bulletin board is gone, but a multiuser clone is still around. Today, Citadel is not just a bulletin board but has grown into an email, groupware, calendaring and scheduling tool with interfaces to the Web, special client software, and standard office tools. The old text interface from the days of 300-baud modems is still around, and I was surprised to find my fingers remember most of the commands. My current baby duck fixation is on Thunderbird, which works fine with it.

So my weekend has disappeared into moving my home email system onto software that I first discovered when I had a full head of hair. I've acquired a "new" server -- well, newer than the crusty antique that I've been using for my blog for about eight years now. My blog is moved to the new system and seems to be working OK. I still have more than 15,000 photos on Middle Daughter's gallery to migrate and all sorts of loose ends to attend to. Everything should be a lot faster now. 



Interesting piece on the baby duck syndrome (a term I had not heard but concept I certainly have perpetuated!). You know the answer, of course, to the question, "Why could God create the world in six days?" He had no installed user base. It's arguably a mistake, but one reason we make new systems look like old ones is to reduce whining about retraining.