R.I.P. “IS” (Is is dead. Long live is.)


About a month ago, Facebook announced that it would drop the required verb “is” for its users’ status updates.  However they had some technical issues (Is is very complicated), so that change only took effect today. 

All the pundits seems to agree it’s a good thing. They write about how users were too constrained by starting their status with the verb “is,” how people would create grammatical atrocities (Bob is wants ice cream).  I found that a lot of people’s statuses, while not grammatically incorrect, often sounded awkward or lame (Bob is wanting ice cream).  As one friend of mine noted, the required “is” created a situation were, too often, “the passive voice is used.”  Bob wants ice cream.  That’s all there is too it.  Of course, Bob’s desire for ice cream is not really his “status” (Bob is hungry). But hey, the users are defining how they use this field, not Facebook. 

That said, I’m going to miss “is.”  The present tense, third-person, singular form of “to be” was a simple, beautiful constraint.  And like all constraints, “is” created an opportunity for clever solutions, because the worst designs are often the ones that don’t need (or want) to respond to any constraints. This is what they teach on the first day of class in architecture school. This is also what you see in the business world, and even with people. Operating under constraints creates more interesting outcomes.  Facebook created an interesting constraint, which became a hallmark of its culture. “Is” was an opportunity.

Even the folks at Twitter (a third-party service where you can broadcast text message content to various places, including your Facebook status) had a workaround on the “is” constraint (Bob is twittering: I want Ben & Jerry’s).   Yes, prepending the “twittering:” to the status was a bit annoying, but it gave Twitter some free advertising.  Probably this (along with the pressure of other third-party developers), more than anything else, is what pushed FB to drop the “is.” 

“Is” was like a little personal haiku challenge — a tightly constrained structure with manifold possibilities. You could use it to describe your location, activity, mood or other attributes — including your state of being — but you always had to start with “is.” You could make it a rambling sentence, or you could make it a single word.  Depending on how you wrote it and how often (weekly, daily or minute-by-minute), the “is” could take on a different dimension. There was a whole kunst to updating your status with the “is” constraint. Taking “is” away dumbs down the process, ever so slightly.

Other than the Queen of England, most people don’t usually refer to themselves in the third-person (and even the Queen uses the plural form — “we are not amused”) — it’s just not natural. So, OF COURSE it made us stop and think. That’s the point. Stop and think.  Hmmm, what *am* I right now?  Dan is settling in. Dan is elsewhere. Dan is not entirely convinced. Dan is obvious. Dan is neatly packaged. Dan is 40% alc. by vol.  Or how about this one:  Ilana is composed entirely of subatomic particles.  Constraints create context, and without the “is” as a context, that status wouldn’t have been as funny. 

“Is” will live on in Facebook, both out of necessity as well as by default in the status update field.  But as a quirky little riff to play with, “is” will gradually fade away.

Dan is eulogizing “is.” 

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on December 13, 2007, in Architecture, Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Steve is still using is.

  2. u should see the french stasuses.. Cecile is va aller prendre le metro a soir.

    the being clever with is lasted 2 weeks. but ia gree with the concept of constraints. constraints are not always a bad thing. More often than not, they’re the key to happiness!

  3. Yeah, I was wondering about non-english FB users, whether they kept with the “is” flow or ignored it.

    “is va aller” — yikes!

    Dan no está aquí.

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