Better Time-passage Indicators

An old calendar stamp.
“Calendar” by John Nuttall

One of the things you see quite a bit on the web is indicators of when something was posted, edited, recorded, etc. And they have two predominant forms:

  • Posted two hours ago
  • Posted April 1, 2014

The web could use better time indicators, though. For example, if you are looking for a bug in some software, and there was a major release in March, you probably want to only see things since then. So having time indicators that show relations like that could help. If the site you’re using is showing a time-since indicator, you have to stop: “okay, it is November and this says six months ago, so that’s around the right time.” If it said March, it would be more convenient.

But if it’s a closer-to-now time, what then? A comment posted earlier in the day might say, “posted two hours ago.” Again, you have to do a mental conversion: it’s noon, so 10am. It’s 6pm, so 4pm.

And then you have earlier-in-the-week times. Instead of “three days ago,” why not, “Wednesday?” You remember Wednesday easier than thinking, “it’s Saturday, minus three…”

What will time indicators of the future do instead?

For one, they should age. After a month has passed, it’s better to say month and year versus n months ago. The switch-to-weekday if it’s in the past week thing is probably good, too.

For another, they should eventually (as we begin tracking ourselves) learn to incorporate personal markers. Saying, “this comment was posted just after you ate lunch” might give you better mental context than saying, “four hours ago.”

Intermediate times might be harder to fix. Three weeks ago on a Tuesday? If you keep up with elections, they could say, “on the day of the recent election.” But what if there wasn’t anything significant to tie it to?

The other part of this is the potential benefit of iconic time. We have icons for all sorts of things, but not for time. What is the symbol for an hour, for example? For a day? A week, month, year?

Having icons for these units could simplify visual recognition. A day might be some sort of sunrise-sunset icon. A week might be a seven-pipped design with the pips being suns. And so on. Searching through some of the Unicode symbols, there are:

  • Non-Western symbols (nth day)
  • Alchemical symbols (hour, day, month)
  • Weather symbols (sunrise, sunset, moon phases)
  • Food symbols
  • Holiday symbols
  • Sports/activity symbols

And so on. There are analog clock faces, but they probably wouldn’t simplify much. If a sporting event has a fixed time that everyone knows, it might work. Food symbols could signify specific meals (e.g., pizza for breakfast). Weather symbols for sunrise and sunset could be used, as could holidays under some circumstances. Animal symbols might work, too. A rooster for dawn and a cow for dusk/night. The British could use a teapot for whenever it is they sing “I’m a Little Teapot” every day. A beer mug could be used for happy hour.

But it might really be better to invent new, abstract symbols for times (or at least modernize something like the alchemical symbols for hour, day, and month).

Also, it’s important to note that improving time displays only makes sense for casual viewing. If you’re working in the context of times and dates, say in a spreadsheet, it’s not needed as much. But when your main focus is not time-related, having easily digestible times can save you a few cycles here and there.