Fish: An Essay With Maximum Impact, Thanks To Minimal Gestures

Robin Sloan’s “tap essay” suggests that interface design isn’t just for products–it’s for ideas, too.

Fish: An Essay With Maximum Impact, Thanks To Minimal Gestures

How many links, videos, statuses, GIFs, tweets, posts, and pins have passed through your optic nerves today? Out of those, how many have you “liked” enough to repost, reshare, reblog, retweet, or otherwise share? And out of those, how many do you actually recall anything of substance about? Robin Sloan is troubled by this phenomenon, and says so in his new “tap essay” for iPhone, “Fish“. It’s a written argument, but it’s not really an e-book; it’s an interactive product, but it’s not really an app, either. Think of it as an idea-with-an-interface. Not a big idea–“Fish” only takes about 10 minutes to read/tap through–but an important one, about the difference between liking something on the Internet and really loving it.


Sloan’s argument unfurls like a slide deck written just for you: It’s composed of little more than words on plain colored backgrounds, simply-but-lovingly laid out end to end. When you’re done reading what’s onscreen, you tap to reveal the next one. That’s it. You can’t slide, swipe, or go backwards. The spartan interaction design imbues Sloan’s essay with a relentless, almost cinematic momentum (helped in no small part by typographic match-cuts, preacher-like repetition, and a deft sense of when to deploy a single, vivid image).

The wonderful thing about “Fish” is how the details of its construction also work to bolster its argument. For example: Why iOS, and not a HTML5 app? “Easy answer: Apps on the phone get special privileges,” Sloan tells Co.Design. “They get the whole screen; they get a kind of intimacy; they get to stick around. The web is great for a lot of things, but looking at my own laptop screen, I see a crazy landscape: crowded pages in dozens of tabs below browser chrome surrounded by 10 other desktop apps. So on one hand, I just wanted to escape that environment. On the other hand, I wanted the kind of focus and intimacy that’s possible with an app.”

Sloan also built “Fish” on his own without a developer, using online courses to teach himself Objective-C (iOS’s programming language). “I think designing the form is part of the fun,” he says. “It uses, and requires that you develop, different skills. I think it’s a different kind of authorship. That’s another reason I made this app on my own: I wanted to be its author, all the way down.”

So what, exactly, is “Fish” all about? Everyone who reads it will probably have a different takeaway, but my meta-takeaway is this: Ideas need interfaces, too.

Sloan told me that “Fish” was originally intended to be a blog post. And if he had been content with that format, he would have published it, a bunch of people would have read it, “liked” it in various places where intriguing ideas are liked, and then … it would have become just another formless drop entering the info-ocean online.

But by creating “Fish” as an iPhone app, Sloan gave his idea an interface of its own–which is to say, he gave it edges. Surfaces. Form. Sloan’s point, in “Fish,” is that a big part of the difference between liking and loving a digital artifact is being able to fix it in time and space in such a way that your senses can privately contend with it, not just the tiny part of your frontal cortex that distills information into 140-character strings and spews it back out. It’s the same reason why we may love toting a thousand books and magazines around on Kindles and iPads, but often stiffen at the idea of throwing out the handful of volumes on our bookshelves.


“Fish” doesn’t have the ontological solidity of a beloved chapbook, but being embedded in an iPhone is about as close as a digital artifact can get to sacred status. Objects appeal to our senses and our minds, have place and space, and can acquire more meaning as time goes on, not less. (The polar opposite of a tweet.) Their surfaces and edges are what let them afford being more-than-just-liked–or in Sloan’s words, loved. Ideas don’t have surfaces, but they can have interfaces. “Fish” is a great example. And I love it.

[Download “Fish”]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.