the candler blog

Marco Arment and Context

Technology, Writing

Marco Arment is many things to many people. He’s a podcaster of great energy, one of the current best in the business. He’s an independent iOS developer who made Instapaper, an early hit on the iPhone and then the iPad, and currently develops the popular podcasting client, Overcast. He helped build Tumblr, which would ultimately be bought by Yahoo for over $1 billion.

Marco is a tech success story. He is a celebrity. When the media treats him like one, though, it catches him off guard. I don’t understand why.

On Sunday, Marco published “Don’t order the fish,” a piece that takes Apple to task for Apple Music. I’m going to quote Marco here directly. This bit comes after praising Apple’s rock-solid sync services, like push notifications and iCloud Photo Library. Then this:

But the iTunes Store back-end is a toxic hellstew of unreliability. Everything that touches the iTunes Store has a spotty record for me and almost every Mac owner I know.

And the iTunes app itself is the toxic hellstew. iTunes has an impossible combination of tasks on its plate that cannot be done well. iTunes is the definition of cruft and technical debt.

And later:

With the introduction of Apple Music, Apple confusingly introduced a confusing service backed by the iTunes Store that’s confusingly integrated into iTunes and the iOS Music app (don’t even get me started on that) and partially, maybe, mostly replaces the also very confusing and historically unreliable iTunes Match.

So iTunes is a toxic hellstew of technical cruft and a toxic hellstew of UI design, in the middle of a transition between two partly redundant cloud services, both of which are confusing and vague to most people about which songs of theirs are in the cloud, which are safe to delete, and which ones they actually have.

One could argue that the above takes Marco out of context; that the only way to get the full impact of Marco’s piece is to read it in full. That’s only sort of true, because context often runs deeper than a single article.

Today, CNBC’s Squawk Alley did a segment on Marco’s piece, attributing “toxic hellstew” to him. This seems to be bugging Marco.

Marco has updated his article to include a link to a catchy song by Jonathan Mann about the 2014 WWDC keynote. One line Mann picked up on was Tim Cook quoting the headline of a ZDNet article by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: “Android fragmentation turning devices into a toxic hellstew of vulnerabilities.” Cook saying the line became something of a meme for a short while, most popularly in Mann’s song.

I follow Apple nerd stuff pretty closely, so I understood the reference. The thing is: it doesn’t much matter who invented the term, Marco absolutely just tied it to both Apple and himself. “iTunes is a toxic hellstew of technical cruft and a toxic hellstew of UI design” is absolutely something Marco Arment said. It sounds like he meant it and anyone, in any form of media, can pick up his words and run with them.

This isn’t the first time Marco’s words have taken on extra meaning. Back in January he published “Apple has lost the functional high ground,” a piece that blew up overnight and resulted in a mea culpa the following day. That piece, turns out, offers some great advice for Marco today:

I now need to write everything with the fear that any hastily written article might end up on TV, with the most extreme word in the article singled out with my name on it forever.


I understand Marco’s dilemma. He’s opinionated and loves blogging. But he sometimes acts oblivious to his standing in the tech community. His success has bred him an audience; his words hold more weight because of his status. I have trouble believing he didn’t know there would be an “Influential iOS developer Marco Arment says…” narrative thread others would pick up on from his post.

Back when the “functional high ground” thing flared up, I recall Marco discussing on his podcast, ATP, the idea that people who listen to the show and have been reading him for years have a better understanding of what that article was about. That’s true, but it’s irrelevant. The written word is amazing because it can be so easily quoted. Authors can be held accountable on a fairly even playing field. No inflection, no body language; just words.

It would be nice if everyone had the context they needed to understand the author’s intent, but that’s not reasonable. I know Marco’s work extremely well, but that’s years worth of material that I’ve slowly incorporated into my own knowledge. I’ve peppered this piece with a few tiny zingers that only those who follow Apple and/or Marco may understand, but that context doesn’t form the bedrock of this piece.

I love reading and listening to Marco. I hope he never slows down his creative output. I just think he shouldn’t be surprised when people take his words at face value, which is ultimately all they’re worth.