P072: On Asymmetric Familiarity

Was enjoying a recent episode of Brett Terpstra’s Systematic featuring Merlin Mann, especially the parts where they geek out about productivity software (so the whole thing pretty much). At one point, they were talking about Taskpaper and Taskmator when they had an interesting digression

Merlin: I like lots of task stuff… please don’t ask me if this means – <internet pedant voice>“So this mean you’re not using OmniFocus?”</internet pedant voice> – no that’s not what it means. It means sometimes I want to say here’s ten things that need to happen before I pick my kid up and that’s the fastest way to make it happen. […]

Brett: I use it for those short-term, immediate todo lists just like you do. I still use OmniFocus, but–

Merlin: Why is there all of this … need … to figure out what people aren’t using. It’s such a strange obsession people have. Like, people kind of care what you’re using but they’re really interested in what you’re not using. Why–

Brett: Because they’re $40 apps and people feel a certain investment.

Merlin: Yeah, and then maybe people who bought or didn’t buy that $40 app want to feel like they did or didn’t do the right thing.

And that all makes sense, but (and this is going to get super inside baseball so bear with me for the rest of this paragraph) to be fair, people are interested because Merlin Mann has sold more copies of OmniFocus than the Mac App Store.1 This is partly because Merlin is at least nominally affiliated with OmniGroup (makers of OmniFocus) and partly because we have come to know and trust Merlin over the years in a way that is weird and interesting and maybe new?

Familiarity Bred via Content

As of this writing, I’ve listened to 222 episodes of Back to Work and 155 episodes of Roderick on the Line. This is not meant to inspire envy in you, dear reader, but rather as an acknowledgement that listening to all the great shows has made me very familiar with Merlin in a very specific, wholly asymmetric way. Podcasts, blogs, email newsletters – any time you have a frequent, recurring connection, you are going to engender feelings of faux-familiarity.

Taking it one step further, it’s 100% human nature to attempt to discern a person’s motivations from their actions. And if you know something about that person – either from real-world knowledge or via this faux-familiarity – it makes it that much easier. The rabbit hole is when you end up picking and examining and parsing every utterance for a secret agenda, a hidden message, orders from the Kremlin. Every tweet is a subtweet. Every RT is an endorsement. It spirals out until the lack of a tweet is a sign of malice.

I get it, I really do. It’s fun to guess at things and it’s a rush to have your theories check out, but it must be utterly exhausting to read so closely all the time. Go easy on yourself, and for chrissakes, go easy on the people who give you this endless bounty of free content to enjoy.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron


  1. I’m not a scientitian, but this is a statement that could conceivably be literally true, not just nü-literally true.