Queuing online might be the only way to save free services

Mailbox may have a queue, but at least it still exists.

Ellis Hamburger, at the Verge, writes about the growing trend for apps launching with a waiting list:

In 2013, you can order a pair of cargo shorts from across the globe in less than 30 seconds, so why can’t you download the latest email or photo app to your phone? "Can’t they just add more servers, or throw more money at the problem?" you ask. The answer isn’t so simple.

Most apps go through months of bug testing before launch, but it’s impossible to foresee the user behaviors that will throw off your servers on launch day, like when one early Mailbox user moved 40,000 messages into his inbox at once. "We didn’t plan for that," Mailbox CEO Gentry Underwood says. "Two hundred and fifty [beta testers] is a decent data set, but when you increase that several orders of magnitude you find edge cases."

It's a good piece diving in to a practice which is becoming increasingly common online. And, as if to underscore why it's necessary, RSS service the Old Reader on Monday announced that they would be closing to new users, and throwing off everyone who joined after March 13 2013, in order to lessen the workload on the founders.

The site, which we recommended as one possible home for exiled Google Reader fans, experienced a massive surge in use once Google announced they would be killing their service. That announcement happened on March 14, hence the cut off day the Old Reader has set for keeping accounts. And so the people behind it have decided they can't keep up:

In March things became “nightmare”, but we kept working hard and got things done. First, we were out of evenings, then out of weekends and holidays, and then The Old Reader was the only thing left besides our jobs. Last week difficulty level was changed to “hell” in every possible aspect we could imagine, we have been sleep deprived for 10 days and this impacts us way too much. We have to look back.

The Old Reader could perhaps have prevented this by instituting the same kind of queueing system that Hamburger describes. But perhaps it just underscores what is fast becoming conventional wisdom when assessing start-ups: if you aren't paying for a service, you have no expectation that it will stick around. That's why when we recommended Reader replacements, we described the payed-for nature of Newsblur as a positive; and it's why, although the Old Reader will have lost the trust of most of their potential users, those users have no real right to complain. What did they think would happen?

The Old Reader announces its closure. Photograph: Old Reader

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.