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Should we follow Observables?

If all the social media platforms are moving from "subscribe" to "follow", what do we do to Observables?

Posted in Coding
March 19, 2021 - 3 min read
Photo by Yoann Boyer

With every new technology, we inevitably attempt to describe it with our existing vocabulary that applies to the older technology. A viral video shot on a mobile phone might be headlined with "[Phenomenon] caught on tape!", podcasters talk about being "on the air", etc. etc. So it only made sense that when the Blog (née "Web Log") was introduced, if you wanted to get new "articles" from it, you would "subscribe" to it, just like you would to a newspaper or magazine. But when you "subscribe" to a newspaper or magazine, you are paying money!

As of iOS 14.5, if you would like to subscribe to a podcast on Apple's Podcasts app, you must tap "Follow". This seems reasonable. Over the course of the last decade, the social media giants have more or less agreed that the verb for "I want to hear more from this entity whenever it produces content" is "follow". While Facebook still differentiates the mutually bidirectional relationship of "friend", for unidirectional bondings, it agrees with Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and now Clubhouse, that the word is "follow". From what I can tell, YouTube is the only remaining holdout on the Island of Subscribe.

The really interesting tidbit to come out of this news is that back in 2018, Tom Webster discovered that most people that don't listen to podcasts don't because they think they aren't free!

Now we are getting to one of the more dangerous perceptions — that podcasts cost money. This is a flat out misconception, but it’s one that we created with our continual insistence that people “subscribe” to our show. With the exception of a YouTube channel, you pay for things you subscribe to — magazines, satellite radio, HBO, the fruit-of-the-month club. The listeners we have may understand that podcasts are largely free. But many of The [millions of Americans who do not listen to podcasts] do not.

How interesting!

This immediately resonated with me because a year or two ago, I wrote a talk to discuss my JavaScript library 🏁 Final Form at a conference. I mentioned how what really set 🏁 Final Form apart from the competition was the use of the Observer pattern, which allows the library consumer fine grained control over rerenders via subscriptions. You can subscribe to exactly which parts of form state you'd like to be notified about when they change.

I sent my talk proposal off to be reviewed by a non-technical person who was offering to broker a deal with the conference organizers to get my talk accepted. She wrote me back and said, "I don't think they will accept your talk if you're going to be hocking a paid subscription service." 🤯 The twGo meanings of the word had never once occurred to me! In the same way that we took the old magazine/newspaper "tell me when something is new" nomenclature for blogs and podcasts, we had done the same thing with Observables. I used the word "subscribe" because RxJS did, and the "pub-sub" pattern long predates Rx.

This got me thinking... perhaps it's time to deprecate the word "subscribe" in our code as well as in our social networks? I don't really love follow(), but perhaps that's so ubiquitous in other realms that it's the way to go. The other obvious words that occur to me are listen() and observe(), evoking our senses of hearing and vision.

What do you think? Hit me up on Twitter to discuss... I'll be ________ing [to] your tweets.

© 2021 Erik Rasmussen