My talk at Burning Man 2013: "Art Is A Technology"

I was asked to give a talk at the Palenque Norte lecture series at Burning Man 2013, which I thought was pretty crazy. The talk I came up with on the way to the desert was called "Art Is A Technology," and I've just gotten my hands on the audio. Half of the talk was an open discussion, and the questions were off mic and apparently edited out by PN, but I did an okay-enough job moderating on mic that you can still tell what's going on.

It was really fun to orate on the playa, and this talk clearly contains seeds of my upcoming book, which I did not know I would be writing at the time.

(direct mp3 download)

The talk was originally posted as part of a podcast on the Palenque Norte website.

How Smartphone UI Should Work

My current home screen

Grids of app icons drive me crazy. It was bad enough when they were an unruly mess of random colors (or blue) coated in sticky-looking gloss, but it's even worse now that they're all flat, white patches with something blue in the middle.

The problem is that these icons do not neatly correspond with the actions I want to take from my phone, and since they're so indistinct, I end up staring, studying my home screen when I should be doing something and then putting my phone away. That's frustrating.

Since app economics are driving big platforms like Facebook and Google to unbundle their services into a bunch of little apps, the problem is getting worse. Now, not only is the starting point for actions less clear, the various starting points are taking up home screen space and crowding out all the other things I need to do with my phone.

There's a much more sensible way for a phone OS to work. There are probably a variety of Android doodads that already work this way. A few things would need to change about iOS for it to work, and it's a radical departure, but this actually feels like a more Apple-esque interaction to me, and I sincerely believe it's the right way. So if I were a different Jonathan, I would rip out Springboard in iOS 9 (or, hell, iOS 8) and do it this way:

The unlock screen should look just like the new post screen of Tumblr for iPhone. This app has been doing it right for so long, and Apple should have been raining down design awards on it ever since. When you unlock your phone, you should be presented with all the basic kinds of actions you can take with your phone. They'd have awesome icons, but I am a word guy, so words will have to do:

Read|Watch|Listen|Play

Sound |  Text  | Photo

  Map |   Pay  | Video

   files   |   apps

When you tap on one of these icons, the OS should do everything in its power to make your next action be the task at hand. When you tap 'Sound,' the microphone should open. 'Text' should open a text field. 'Photo,' the camera, and so forth. Then you take the action immediately, and when you're done, you choose a destination app. The app then launches straight to an action on your input. Each action screen should also accept voice input ambiently.

The top row, 'Read,' 'Watch,' 'Listen,' and 'Play,' are for media and games, so they would show menus. They'd show recent items you were already watching, reading, or listening to, as well as notifications of messages (which would leave badges on the corresponding action menu icon, too). Finally, you could pin favorite books, sites, movies, records, games, or apps to those screens. You could, of course, immediately say "Play Osmos" to launch the game straightaway.

A key OS feature that iOS would need to make this UI sing would be the freedom to choose default apps for certain actions. If you didn't choose, the best choices would be displayed intelligently, but if you always want to launch Camera+ when you open the camera, so be it.

The two drawers at the bottom, for files and apps, should cover the rest of the cases. When you hold down on either of those, a menu should pop up showing groups: media/file type on the left, app category on the right. Launching an app from the apps menu would be an alternative way into any action you'd be able to take from the action menus.

If I haven't thought of everything, please educate me in the comments, but this seems pretty ideal to me.

For now, the existing app that brings the iPhone closest to this way of living is Launch Center Pro (disclosure: I have proudly done paid work for Contrast on Launch Center Pro and other apps). It works around the limitations of iOS that prevent us from living in the world described above in every possible way. I urge all iOS developers to build extensive, powerful URL schemes into their apps.

For the past week, I've been working with a totally clear home screen, starting almost every action from Launch Center Pro in the dock. My LCP actions are organized into groups that correspond as closely as technically possible to the above list of actions. I keep communication apps with notification badges on the second page. (The only reason Vesper is in my dock is because it's not yet compatible with LCP.) I've shared screenshots of my Launch Center Pro setup if you're interested.

Helping rebuild the Burning Man website

In February, I started a multi-month contract with Burning Man as a content strategist. It’s my first all-in gig with Ablaze Interactions, which is a great feeling, and it’ll keep a roof over my head while I work on my book. But even better, after volunteering on the Burning Blog for three years, this is my first chance to pour a big chunk of time and effort into Burning Man, which is one of my favorite things in the world.

I first attended Burning Man in 2008, and it totally rearranged my priorities. It helped me grow up. It turned me into a journalist. I’ve been writing about Burning Man ever since, as I’ve found Burning Man stories to be a strikingly clear lens into the wealth and poverty, the growth and decay of American culture at large.

Not long after my first public post on the topic in 2010, Burning Man HQ asked me to write from the official platform. In addition to my posts on the Burning Blog, I’ve done plenty of extracurricular Burning Man writing. I covered the event at my former day job, and I collaborated with my friend Sarah on a long-form gonzo story (and accompanying reader-contributed blog) about staying at the Temple at Burning Man 2012 for 24 straight hours. In 2013, I started editing the Burning Blog’s Tales From The Playa section, which lets me work with hundreds of Burners eager to tell their stories of what happened out there.

You’ve probably noticed that I have a thing for portals. That’s Burning Man’s fault, too.

Now my friends at the Org — as the Burning Man organization is often called in a mixture of jocularity and suspicion (and what an eminently Burnerly mixture that is) — have given me a chance to help them tell the redefining story of Burning Man as its fourth decade approaches.

This month, Burning Man announced its transition to non-profit status, which marks the beginning of a transformation of what Burning Man is. For the time being, the annual festival in the desert will continue operating more or less as it has been. But the organization that supports Burning Man is reconstituting itself around the mission of stimulating the year-round, worldwide growth of the kind of culture Burners create. You’ll notice at the bottom of the announcement a mention of a “new website this summer.” That’s what I’m working on.

Without going into too much detail right now, I’d like to share a few things about the job.

  1. As a five-time Burner who dove face-first into the language and stories of Burning Man culture, I’d say I’m on the skeptical/critical end of the spectrum. While I certainly credit Burning Man for helping me transform, I’m far from sure that it’s changing the world for the better. And all that said, after a month of work, meetings, and conversations about the new direction for the Org, I am beyond stoked.
  2. I promise you that the new Burning Man is not taking itself too seriously.
  3. And yet, every person with whom I’m working genuinely feels and has carefully considered the Org’s stated desire to provide art, tools, and practices for healing late-capitalist cultural trauma.
  4. The Ten Principles are an awesome frame for ethical and inspiring action — especially when we have to deal with how they conflict with each other — and they’re the design mission we’re on for launching this new thing.

I’ll keep you posted about how this work is going as things shape up. I promise to be an accountable man on the inside.

Photos by the great Scott London, used with permission

In Real Life: I’m writing a book!

Now that the (metaphorical) ink is dry on the contract, I can share some details about a sweet new development in my work-life.

I’m writing a book called In Real Life. It’s about developing a spiritual relationship with technology. It’s aimed at people who are wary of the online life for psychological or spiritual reasons, but it will appeal to design- and workflow-conscious techies as well.

High technology facilitates our relationships, teaches us about our world, protects our health, and enables our work. These are sacred spiritual functions. But it can also be used for profoundly unspiritual things, like distracting us, feeding our anxieties, inflating our egos, and so on. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we hire technologies to do all these jobs for us.

If we want to do spiritual work in our lives, we have to give our technology spiritual jobs. We can’t just blindly accept the jobs tech companies give us — constantly buying things, carelessly sharing private information, clicking on ads. We have more uplifting jobs to do, and we shouldn’t refuse the help of technology just because of the temptation of distraction. If anything, that temptation should help us hone our practice.

This book will be a guide to social, professional, and spiritual life online. It will suggest new practices for users (that’s us), and it will propose better design thinking for tech makers and companies. It’s my middle way between the boundless enthusiasm of Silicon Valley and wary Luddism in the New Age world.

The book is due in June — *cracks knuckles* — and it will come out in about a year.

IRL will be published by Parallax Press, the publishing outfit of internationally-beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. This is a humongous honor for me, as close followers of Everything is ablaze! surely realize. I’ve written about my affinity for Buddhism before, and the title and whole ethos of this site comes from my favorite sutta.

The most astonishing part is that Parallax came to me, not the other way around. It’s all because of the amazing questions about spirituality Glenn Fleishman asked me when I was on The New Disruptors (so THANKS, GLENN).

I’ll be trimming down some of my other hobbies while I write this book, but my record is still on schedule to be in your ears very soon.

Also, the book is not providing me a living while I write it, so I’m eager to sign on some new consulting clients for copywriting, editing, music, or voiceovers. Check out the amazingly shiny and new Ablaze Interactions page and hire me for your projects! I assure you, I’m in very good writing shape and will work promptly.

Stay tuned for more updates about In Real Life! I’ve got some articles for big publications in the pipeline.

Music helps.

Ian Pellicci patches in the finishing touches.

Ian Pellicci patches in the finishing touches.

It’s my last day in the studio. Ian and I are mixing the last few tracks of Portal, the rock record I wrote. It’s an emotionally heavy time in my world for all kinds of reasons, and to be finishing my first record — a lifelong dream — in the midst of all kinds of other drama is pretty surreal. It’s overwhelming enough to make me want to blog about it again, at any rate.

There’s a sentiment I want to add to my public comments about making records, just in case anyone is listening.

I am beyond privileged to be able to do this. To have the time, help, and money I needed to make this record is a blessing of life-scrambling proportions. I’ve put almost everything I’ve got into this, and I’m so grateful that I could.

But I want to share something I learned from this process. If your dream is to make a record, you can do it. This is the best time to be a musician in all of human history. If you can hear it in your head, you can get it out into the world. You. All of us. And if you want to, you should.

I worked pretty hard for a few years to save up for... something. I didn’t actually know what. I just knew I should save up because the thing I wanted to do someday wouldn’t pay. Not at first. Not like tech blogging did, anyway.

Then I found my calling as a portalkeeper, and I began to disentangle myself from the ad-driven media matrix. All I knew was that I needed to make something lasting and meaningful instead of fleeting and trivial. I built one portal, and then another — with the invaluable help of many dear friend-collaborators — and I was proud of what I built. But every time I clicked ‘publish’ on one of those projects, I knew I wasn’t done building.

All the while, I was writing these songs, and then I booked some studio time, and then I had a deadline, and then it was time to record. Those two weeks we spent making these tracks changed something. I was working harder than ever, and I couldn’t stop. This was It: making records. Making a record, at least.

This can’t be the last, though. I’ve got the bug now.

But I will release Portal. That p-word will have “(2014)” next to it for the rest of my life. It will be a record of that time, and time will move on from it. And the next record will be of a different time, after I’ve grown more.

I can’t help it. It just pours out. I’m spilling sound. (Yes, these are lyrics from my record.) Do you feel me?

Since my ““career”” began, I’ve been trying to find a way to tune my skills toward helping people, to find something I can do with my whole heart in it. I’m starting to hope that I’ve found it. I already know music helps people, because it helps everyone I know. I don’t know if I can make music that helps anyone else, but my music helps me. Making it helped me more than anything I’ve ever done.

If I can help you feel like I do right now, I will do anything I can.

You can make your record. I promise. It seems expensive, it seems “time-consuming” (whatever that means), it seems impossible. I know. I thought it was, too. But it isn’t impossible. If it’s in you, we need you to get it out. You’ll feel better. We’ll know you better. You’ll inspire us. This is how music helps.

You’ll probably need help, though. If you can make a record all by yourself, you must be some kind of superhero. If you’re like me, you’ll need the help of your friends, and I want to help. I want to be your music friend. If you want assistance or advice on making a record, just ask. It would be an honor.

The New Disruptors: I Want to Teach the World Wide Web To Sing

The Internet’s Glenn Fleishman was gracious enough to interview me on The New Disruptors last week. We talked about the online indie cultural revolution, as one does.

After being Internet friends for a while, Glenn and I met at XOXO, where Glenn is basically the president. That conference is all about making good things independently, rather than staying in the rat race. Glenn has been in that crowd for a long time, whereas it’s pretty new to me. I’ve been cranking on my indie ideas for a few months, but XOXO really opened my mind.

I wrote a post there called “Love can save the media,” which explains my designs on the music business and introduces my new music podcast, The Portal, which I do with my favoritest collaborators. Glenn and I talked about that stuff, but we went way back into my educational background, music and mindfulness, and what it was like for a weirdo like me to be a tech blogger for a few years.

Hope you find it interesting.

Love can save the media

IMG_4410.JPG

Why haven’t we saved music yet?

This is the kind of overly dramatic question people ask in blog posts about media. When I was a journalist, I read “Why haven’t we saved journalism yet?” every day.

Hands have been wringing about “saving” various media since the Internet Age began, but no “savior” has come. Bands, shows, and publications have failed, companies have gone under, jobs have been lost. My Job! My Job! Why have you forsaken me?

(Okay, I forsook my job, but I wouldn’t have forsaken it if I thought I could’ve “saved” it.)

But at the same time, new bands, shows, and publications have started, companies have launched, and jobs have been created.

It’s almost like media are industries subject to economic cycles, just like other industries.

Gosh, maybe solutions to media cash flow problems will come incrementally instead of magically and all at once.

Oh, geez. I’m sorry for the snarky tone. Sometimes it feels like that’s the only way to communicate with media people (besides earnest messianism). I learned the ropes on Twitter, which is a website for media people to talk about themselves and each other in terse, snarky messages.

Anyway, my first point is that media people need to chill out. Tech makes media easier to produce and easier for more people to consume. There is no way that can be bad. The only thing that can be bad for media is if people don’t want to read, watch, or listen to them anymore. They still do, though. Other problems are just details, and it’s our job to figure those out.

So, let me restate the opening question. Why haven’t we stopped worrying about music yet?

I’m asking about music because that’s what I’m working on right now, but I suspect I’m going to find some answers to that question that apply to other troubled media, too.

What’s the problem?

I’m at the XOXO conference right now, and we’ve heard from tons of independent musicians who are making a living thanks to the Internet. They haven’t Saved Music™ yet, but they’ve saved themselves. It’s possible. You just have to know what problem you’re solving, so you can work hard to solve it.

I’ve identified four bottlenecks (so far) in the way music is made and sold. Three of them are clearly tech problems.

Two are hardware problems constraining music quality:

  • expensive mobile bandwidth
  • earbuds

One is a software problem inhibiting music sharing and discovery:

  • URL clarity for music sharing

Companies, not musicians, will presumably solve the first three. But the last bottleneck is a social problem, and all the Internet-savvy indie success stories have solved it:

  • artists’ time with fans

Before the Internet, this was impossible at the scale of successful musicians. A band can’t hang out in person with thousands of people and still have time to do its job. But it didn’t matter as much before the Internet Age. Music was scarce, and shows and records were enough of a relationship with musicians to satisfy fans.

Now music is abundant and easy to get, and so are tons of other things on which to spend time and attention, as well as the people who make them. Social Media™ make it possible for creators and fans to have a relationship. The key to building a loyal following on the Internet is to be available to the people who love what you do. If they can get to know you, they’ll better appreciate what you do. If you show them love, they love you, too. All you need is love. Isn’t that great?

The problem with music is that it takes tons of time and focus to make. You can’t tweet while you play piano, and — if you’re big-time — you have to run around touring and doing media appearances all the time. If you can manage to be available to your fans while racing around the world between studios and shows, you can still be humongous rockstars, even in 2013.

Instagram is easy to use, not very time-consuming, and it offers a neat little window into people’s real lives. That’s why it’s so beloved. But I think there’s a better medium musicians could use to establish relationships with fans.

Audio. Duh.

Listen to musicians

The scary story about the music industry is that people no longer value the experience of listening to music enough to pay. They’ve come to expect music to be piped into their ears for free. How do we make people care more about what’s coming into their ears?

Love.

They already love music. That’s why they’re listening to it. But if they loved the musicians, they’d care about them, hopefully enough to pay them. So musicians have to let their listeners get to know them alongside their music. They can do that by letting people listen to them talk.

Yes, I’m talking about podcasting. Hooray for podcasts! They make everything boring better: driving, washing dishes, cleaning the house, sitting on a plane or a tour bus, and so on. Anytime there’s dead air, you can use podcasts to fill it with interesting and/or funny people. And as any podcast listener knows, you grow to love those people for making your life less boring.

Musicians are natural podcasters. It is already their job to make interesting sounds. They don’t have to pay anyone to make their intro music. Some of them have really great voices. It’s a match made in heaven.

Imagine if your favorite band recorded a half-hour conversation once a week on the tour bus about how they chose the playlist for the drive. They’d talk about why they love the music they love, and they’d inevitably talk about the tour, they’d tell cool backstage stories, and they’d talk about what they’re working on next. What fan wouldn’t love listening to that?

Sometimes they could have their friends in other bands on the show, and suddenly each band would double its fan base, at least for one episode. That show becomes an opportunity to grow the pie permanently.

Best of all, a podcast is a chance to share new or rare music, and it’s packaged up inside a whole show, making it a pain to edit out and pirate. It’s a special treat for the biggest fans.

All this adds up to an intimate, regular opportunity to ask fans to support the music, and thereby the people behind it, with money.

Enter The Portal

I’m testing these ideas with two of my best friends and musical collaborators. We just launched The Portal, a podcast for music lovers. We talk about loving, making, and listening to music, and we’re going to have all kinds of indie music people join us as guests. Maybe we’ll figure out lawyers someday, so we can have musical guests who are signed to old-school labels. And yes, we’ll make all the intro music.

We’ve published Episode 0. It’s called In The Living Room, and it explains what we’re up to. (Rebecca and I each play a song at the end!) Episode 1 will be out very soon, and then we’ll publish once a week.

You can subscribe to The Portal by iTunes or RSS, so please do.

Music helps

Why did I switch to music? Because I love it the most. Because everybody loves it the most. Because I was tired of having to write when I had nothing to say. Personal reasons. Whatever. I think music is cooler, okay?

I’m trying to help people be creative all the time, whether they write, play guitar, make apps for the iPhone, or dance burlesque. After years writing in all caps about telephones, I’ve simply decided to move my general media experiment into my favorite medium. But think about my findings in your own terms and see if it helps.


(This post was originally published on Medium, but I don't quite trust that site yet.)

The Portal – A podcast for music lovers

A new portal has opened. 

Welcome to The Portal, a podcast for music lovers. Whether we listen to it, make it, or just sing it in the shower, music matters. My friends and collaborators, Kirk Benttinen and Rebecca Marcyes, and I are going to bring you a weekly conversation about it.

Much music will be played. Many guest stars will appear. We'll do interviews, storytelling, performances, experimental noise-scapes, dramatic readings, whatever sounds are necessary.

We just released Episode 0. We'll release Episode 1 very soon, and at that point, you can expect us once a week. 

Episode 0 – In The Living Room

In our first pod-conversation, we talk about bringing music out of the corporate boardroom and into everybody's living room. Podcasts, too. Here at The Portal, we're into listening to things. This preview episode will give you a sense of what you'll be listening to. At the end, Rebecca plays "That Twangy One," and Jon plays "Being Stuff Together."

You can enter The Portal at theportal.in. Follow us on Twitter at @intheportal. You can also follow my music Facebook page for more.

Subscribe in iTunes (and please rate the show!)

Subscribe via RSS

 

Ablaze Interactions

My Octopress sticker. The site generator powering The Daily Portal is derived from Octopress.

My Octopress sticker. The site generator powering The Daily Portal is derived from Octopress.

“A lumber company sees their waste. They can’t ignore their sawdust. But we don’t see ours.”

— Jason Fried, Sell Your By-products

Ablaze Interactions is open for business.

I’m now available for contract work. I can help with writing copy, audio content, planning and designing your website, or any other task a writer, musician, and former tech journalist can help you do to reach your people online.

I want to work with makers. I’d love to help writers build the publications of their dreams, like I did. I want to do the same for musicians. There’s so much the web can do for music than hasn’t been explored yet.

And as much as I loved working across the table from app developers during my time as a tech blogger, now we can work side by side. I love iOS apps. I love explaining them and showing them off. I’ve already started working with one of my favorite developers on an upcoming launch, and I’d be thrilled to do more iOS work.

The footer of The Daily Portal reads “2013 / An Ablaze Interaction.” It was my first design. I had a dream of my perfect publication, and — with the help of my friends — I built it. I’m going to keep building it and writing on it, probably forever.

I want to keep practicing all my crafts, putting the results on the web, and helping cultures form. As I get better at solving my own creative problems, I’ll be able to do the same for others. I can help them put their own ideas online, so they can interact with the whole world. And I think that will help us all make a living.

That’s the mission of Ablaze Interactions.

The Ablaze.co site is an octagon, which is an abstract representation of the octopus. That’s my spirit animal, in case you didn’t know. The octopus, of course, has eight arms, which I think would be very handy. I, at least, have eight skills I can use to help my customers.

But don’t just take my word for it. I’m not going to boast about those skills until I have something to show for them. So for now, only the publication and the agency are shown, and you’ll see a hint about what’s coming up next. As I build more examples of what I can do, I’ll fill out the octagon.

If you want to work together, enter the big portal in the middle of Ablaze.co, and you can send me a message. You can follow Ablaze Interactions on App.net, Facebook, and Twitter.

Podcast with Lyra McKee on journalism and doing what we love

I just had a fun and impassioned talk with kindred spirit Lyra McKee, founder of The Muckraker and an editor for Mediagazer, about what we're doing to try and fix journalism. We talked about writing, reporting, business, falling on our faces, and getting up in the morning. Here it is for your listening pleasure.

(sorry about the audio echo issues that pop up a couple times at the beginning. Lyra fixed them partway through the conversation.)

Two new interviews

I've done a couple more interviews since the launch of The Daily Portal, and they both turned out pretty well. I joined Alex Arena on his 15 Minutes With... podcast to talk about my plans for the site. I also did an article-length interview with Micah Singleton for the relaunch of Current Editorials, where I got a chance to talk more generally about where web publishing is going.

The Daily Portal is open

I just opened The Daily Portal.

It's a web publication about the future we're making and what it's doing to us.

I'll post true stories about people and relationships, work and play, art, science, design, and technology, with a little bit of spirituality sprinkled in. It's the stuff we're all thinking about lately.

It doesn't work like a blog. Each issue of The Daily Portal is a collection of posts that go together. If you follow the site, you'll get links to the latest issue when it comes out. The goal is to work up to publishing a new issue every weekday.

The Daily Portal is a seasonal site. The coverage will be planned in seasons that last a month or two, and they'll be pre-announced, so you can see what's in store. That doesn't mean there won't be stories between seasons, though.

For now, it's the preseason, which means I'm experimenting out in the open. I've still got plenty of features of the site to build, and I'm also way at the beginning of planning Season 1. I'll keep you well informed about upcoming seasons. In the meantime, just subscribe, enjoy, and tell me how you like it.

This publication will be my main thing for the foreseeable future. I'm just building up a head of steam in the preseason, but the plan, as I explained in detail on CMD+SPACE with Myke Hurley, is to crowd-fund the seasons. Season 1 is already shaping up to be a barnburner, but it'll be a few months yet.

I've got other business plans that I think are pretty interesting, too, but they have to be built first, and it will take a while. But I'm not getting distracted by delusions of sustainability. I'm thinking about impermanence. That's the true nature of things, anyway.

I'm using this site to try out my wildest dreams about how publishing on the web can work. If I only get to do a season or two before it's time to move on, I'll consider it a smashing success. Even just in the past three months, I've learned more about what I want to be when I grow up than I did in the rest of my career so far. The whole point is to learn.

And I hope we all learn something. This site is for you, really. I give you The Daily Portal. I hope you enjoy it.

Jon on CMD+SPACE podcast

I had the great honor of joining Mighty Myke Hurley on the CMD+SPACE podcast today. We discussed The Daily Portal, my departure from ReadWrite, the truth about @NextTechBlog, and the future of web publishing.

CMD+SPACE: Blogging 2.0, with Jon Mitchell

I enjoyed it immensely, and I hope to be a 70Decibels guest again sometime soon! Thanks again, Myke, and congratulations on your HUMONGOUS news!

Leaving ReadWrite & my next moves

Well, this is exciting.

I have a bit of news, O readers of my work blog. After a year and a half of tech bloggery, I'm leaving ReadWrite. My last day is February 15.

No, I don't have anything lined up. I'm starting my own thing.

What? That's crazy! I know. Read on. You'll see.

ReadWrite Stop

I'm not leaving because of ReadWrite. I'm leaving in spite of it. I've stuck around there because I love the site's attitude. ReadWrite(Web) has always been known as a straight-talking site, and that's why I fit in there. And lord knows Dan Lyons is a straight talker.

The current crew is more than capable of taking the new name and the new design and turning it into a new phenomenon. In particular, keep your eye on Taylor Hatmaker. That's a skilled MechWarrior right there.

ReadWrite's Taylor Hatmaker infiltrating Twitter headquarters

ReadWrite's Taylor Hatmaker infiltrating Twitter headquarters

I think I've done my duty as part of the ReadWrite legend. I'm thrilled at how my colleagues and the readers have taken to the ReadWrite Pause series. I don't know how all these tech blogs popped up without one of them thinking to write regularly about what technology is doing to people, but I'm so glad we started.

And remember Homeless Hotspots? That was a pretty crazy story.

I've had my tantrums about name-brand tech blogging. I've also had my fun at its expense. I don't think it's much of a service to humanity, generally speaking (with some eminently notable exceptions). I mean no disrespect to the people who do it well. I admire their skill at steering a loud and unruly conversation. I just don't think I'm cut out for it.

I've wanted out for a long time. But I wasn't going anywhere until I had a plan. I do now.

So what's next?

dailyportalsplit.png

The Daily Portal

I'm starting a website.

It'll be called The Daily Portal. It will live at TheDailyPortal.com. You should follow it on Twitter, Facebook, and/or Tumblr. I wrote a bit about it a couple weeks ago, and the response was surprisingly awesome. That post is all I'm going to say for now — outside of more cryptic tweets, tumbls, and Facebook posts — other than that I'm doing it.

Well, and this: It's not a tech site. It's much broader than that. It will be built around a model I've come up with while watching the way blogs work for the past few years. I want to see if it can be done.

I'm building it from scratch. That will be worth the experience no matter what happens. And I'm going to take my time and do it right. My vision of it is so clear. I think you'll love it.

And hey, if you're really interested, you might want to sign up for the mailing list for some early, secret messages.

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While I build the site, I'll be tweeting and tumbling as usual and writing more frequently on Everything is ablaze! I'll also be reading a ton of useful things, which you can follow, too. Web readings show up on Twitter on @AblazeReads. Books will be on readmill.com/ablaze, which I just discovered and about which I am psyched.

I also plan to play a bunch of music. Oh, Burning Man. I'll be doing a bunch more work on that. A whole bunch. If you're into that, you'll find out more here on ¡Eia!

Thank you.

To anyone who made it down this far, thank you.

It fills me with awe that people on the Internet follow what I do, and I can't thank you enough for being out there and talking back to me. I just hope what I'm doing helps. That's why I'm starting this new thing. I want to do more to help.

In exchange, your feedback is what helps me. When I threw this Daily Portal idea out there after a weird day at work, I couldn't believe how well it was received. I kept trying to get people to talk me out of it, but they kept talking me into it instead. So here we go. I'm doing it. Keep talking to me.

How To Save Blogging From Itself

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I didn't want blogging to be like this, to be honest. I didn't want it to be so much like publishing. I thought it was going to be more like talking to each other.

But at massive scale, it seems like money has the effect of making all forms of online communication just mediocre enough to exist. Blogging, talking, photography, whatever it is, it's all available to everyone now in just-awful-enough form.

Investors realized that mundane communication could be made into a mass medium supported by advertising, and we got "Web 2.0" social networking. That competed with High Publishing for attention. The competition squeezed on the ideals of both kinds of communication, the line got hazier and hazier, and now it's all a big blur: communication, publishing, marketing, advertising.

What's the difference between those things right now? I'm begging you for an answer to that question.

Fully Mediated

There's a wide, hazy line between communication and entertainment. That's the line walked by online media industries. Communication is useful and entertainment is fun. People pay attention to a message to the extent to which it's either useful or fun. Who can blame them?

Now that we're "fully mediated," as the founders of ReadWrite's parent company like to say (pun intended), every single second of the day is an opportunity to mediate someone. That's mediate as a verb meaning "to inundate with media," in case that wasn't clear.

Attention is scarce. Communicators and entertainers are in an arms race to spend effort and money capturing attention. If your message isn't more useful or fun than everything else when it reaches it's recipient, it was a waste of your time. So news, entertainment, marketing, all of it goes for the lowest-hanging fruit.

Welcome to the downward spiral of making shit for the Internet.

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Commoditized Conversation

I wanted blogging to be more like Ender's Game. In that fictional future, the web is this giant global coliseum of ideas that compete through the dazzling rhetoric and personality of their authors' characters. If the character is good enough, the networks pay you just to be that character, to syndicate it around the world. All the champions write back and forth to each other, and the world watches.

In that book's vision of future media, the author's identity is not important, just the message. In fact, the two blogger characters are pseudonymous kids. That's why I started when I was a teenager. I wanted to be like Demosthenes and Locke.

In 2003, two high school friends and I started a Movable Type blog on WiredOpinion.com, (which we shouldn't have let expire, so we could have sold it to Wired Opinion, but that's another story). We used our real first names, but we didn't reveal our ages or identities. We just wrote about the 2004 election season. We had our points of view, and we wanted to be part of the conversation. And we were.

I'm not saying that world is over. There are a few pseudonymous characters like Kontra who are doing it solo, driving the conversation in their fields, and those in the know hang onto their every word. It's still theoretically possible for anyone to join the conversation. But isn't it telling that Join The Conversation™ sounds like a cynical buzzphrase from a digital marketing firm?

I don't think we've lost our chance to have this kind of web. But we might have to dig it out of the rubble. At the moment, all the media money is being thrown at rebuilding the old world all over again, and the prognosis isn't good.

The Web We Lost

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Maybe Anil Dash can help. He helped make Movable Type (back when he was at Six Apart, which is now Say Media, which is ReadWrite's parent company. But no interests were conflicted in the making of this blog post). I read his posts in December about the web we lost and how to rebuild it, and I couldn't help but feel guilty. Here I am "shovel-blogging," as Merlin Mann calls it, and people like Dash who were part of the invention of blogging are just slowly shaking their heads.

So I asked him how this came to be.

Jon: Why has the web as a market — and the tech audience in particular — come to favor a press comprised of enthusiast brands rather than one of independent experts blogging together?

Anil Dash: It seems like the online media market has forced formerly-independent writers to band together simply because of the business models around advertising (and to a lesser degree, subscription), which only worked at scale.

Though we may be in the waning days of the traditional page view-based economy, advertising networks basically only work if they're bundling together a big number of writers/creators, and that's easier to do on a few sites than across a lot of independent sites.

Jon: Is there a way we can use this centralized press relationship to bring about a better web instead of just maintaining the status quo?

AD: It seems like it must be possible to hack the current cycle of coverage where a huge number of me-too companies pay a small number of PR flacks to spam an even smaller number of key media outlets.

Part of me imagines independent voices joining together into something akin to the web rings that used to be popular in the early days of the web, and having a centralized pitch queue where inbound requests for attention are shared between them in a way that makes the pitches public.

Hopefully shame would be a good enough deterrent to raise the quality of some of the pitches, and similarly the peer pressure of other writers working in parallel would force the worst writers to improve their skills.

Jon: It strikes me that there's a parallel between the enthusiasm for this kind of content and the enthusiasm for the kinds of content delivery we've gotten in this era of the web. That is, "The Web We Got" has info silos full of ready-made, processed content, and "The Web We Lost" was better organized for independence, collaboration, and expertise. Does the nature of pro-blogging emerge from the more fundamental economics of the web? And does that mean we have to change the whole web business if we want to change the press?

AD: Yep, seems like your question here touches on the point I arrived at at the start — our industry gets the journalism that its media economics optimize for. Fortunately those economics are being radically shifted, so maybe that will lead to a new period of innovation and some fresh voices.

That sounds beautiful, but there's so much inertia preventing us from getting there. There's just so much attention out there to be mined, and the marketing forces behind the media companies are scrambling so hard to get at it. How's that going for them?

Old Media Monsters

The flexible form of the blog has been adapted to the fossilized, utterly finished media empire mentality, emulating the old media brands that were big and strong enough to survive the digital transition (so far). But the results are so goofy. Look at team tech blogs. Look at us. Why are there dozens of us? What are the differences between us? I see a red one, a green one, a blue one, an orange one. Are there any more substantive differences?

Well, sure. There are different people at each one, each with different talents (although so many of us [but not me!] have worked at multiple others previously). These brands — if they even have enough character to deserve to be called that — are all stages for a rotating cast of characters. But are these characters the least bit interesting? No. They're Nerds Like Us™. But that's a ruse. Real nerds have their own blogs, write about what matters to them, and don't have to prove anything to anyone. Tech Bloggers™ are attention farmers. We don't do nerdy stuff for a living. We do entertainment stuff about nerdy stuff.

Tech blogging started as a form of personal blogging just like the political blogging I was doing as a kid. The tech blogs that are still interesting are still exactly the way they were then. Others, like ours, went big and sold out. We took the guise of the medium developed by the real nerds, and we turned it into what tech blogs are now: enthusiast brands, umbrellas for confederacies of barely informed writers tied together into a mutant super-organism.

This is what is called Tech Journalism™. What is journalism?

We're All Journalists Now

I read a lot more about media than I do about tech, to be honest. And why shouldn't I? Like I said, that's what I actually do, as opposed to what I do it about. And much of the pixels spilt about media these days are spent on the scary, French-sounding word Journalism™.

Journalism™ is something very important that big, ad-supported entertainment/classifieds ads companies used to subsidize in order to command more respect. It was a public service to get to the bottom of things and tell the truth, an essential function in a democratic society. When the sources were few and the demand for attention was relatively low, it was a good thing for media companies to spend money on. In the Fully Mediated™ world, it's not so clear.

Some tech bloggers love to call themselves Journalists™. Others refuse that lofty mantle. I could go down a deep rabbit hole right now talking about what is or is not Journalism™.

But I'm not going to. It doesn't matter.

Journalism™ is an elitist stick to beat people with. Do you know what the word journalism means? I mean, what it literally means, like in the French words it's made of? It means "writing down what happened today." Now that we're Fully Mediated™, we're all writing down what happened today all the time. We're all journalists now. If we all do the right things, spend our time in interesting ways, and write about it, we'll have good Journalism™.

As old media business models race to the bottom, we'll eventually figure something else out. Maybe it will work like the clean, well-lighted über-web-ring Dash describes. Whatever the case, the problem is more basic than a problem with Journalism™. All communication is awash in noise. These days, the signal gets out by old fashioned word of mouth. No matter what kind of communication we do, all we can do is concentrate on making good signal. We'll make it sustainable once we figure out how. We have to.

This is what I tell the uncountable number of people who want to get on the blogger stage. I can't tell you how many emails I get from people who are doing the exact same thing I do every day, but doing it in obscurity, wanting to know how to "get into blogging." I tell them, "Go out, talk to people, get their stories, write them up, then publish them. People will notice, and then they'll hire you. That's what I did."

Photos by Jon Mitchell (except Anil Dash's headshot)

Brainpicker's Affiliate Marketing Experiments

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I wasn't the only blogger intrigued by Dick Wisdom's uncovering of some shady affiliate marketing sites registered to Maria Popova, Good Blogging advocate, mastermind behind Brain Pickings, and co-creator of the Curator's Code. I've been a fan of her quality-driven approach for a long time, so it was a bit shocking to see the kinds of spammy stuff Mr. Wisdom found publicly attached to her name.

The sites are all designed for gaming search engines, and that's sort of the opposite of Curation with a capital C. It's spam. Some of it has to do with health questions, which, as my frien-tor Mat Honan said, tends toward a serious issue of messing with search quality. So I was concerned. I didn't like thinking of a blogger I respected as a potential spammer.

And on the other hand, choosing blogging as a career is not exactly a guaranteed home run. Having a side business is understandable. But not so much a sketchy one.

So anyway, I talked to Popova, and she didn't want to speak on the record, but it's okay. There are plenty of ways for us to understand and misunderstand what this was on our own.

Helpful person Sudama Adam Rice tweeted me an interesting example, which I was too much of a n00b to remember. WordPress itself got tangled up in all kinds of shady affiliate marketing stuff in its early days, and it was all just a misunderstanding... apparently.

The WordPress explanation was that, basically, software to help search-optimize stuff the right way needs lots of testing. And because of how freaking complicated Google is, it's easy to screw up and do it the completely wrong way.

Now again, the substance of my conversation with Popova is off the record, and I'm not going to blow that. But if you look at the stuff Mr. Dick Wisdom found, you'll see that the sites are old, and many of the domains are about to expire. If they're renewed, then we'll have more questions for Popova. But if they aren't, I think it's reasonable to assume that someone who wants to make a career on the Web will dabble in all of its arts to learn how they work. I'll say that, given what I've seen, I could believe that's all there is to it.

This could also be a top-secret money-making scheme, but then why would someone who is otherwise quite good at Internet forget to anonymize the WHOIS listings? In any case, we'll see in a few months when the domains expire, as they are set to do.

DON'T SPAM.

UPDATE 11/28: Well, Popova took all the sites down. That doesn't look so great. I guess that settles that, though!

How I dealt with PRserve

I read this TechCrunch post about banning PRserve with some interest, because I had an interesting email exchange with Chris Barrett, founder of that agency, some months ago. I'll just post the emails in full. I think they'll be instructive to people in this industry.

From: Dan Frommer

Subject: Fwd: Hi Dan - Intro and Pitching process for RWW

Lolz.

Begin forwarded message:

From: Chris Barrett

Hi Dan,

   I just wanted to reach out and say hi.  I was wondering what the best way to pitch RWW would be?  I have a PR for startup agency and this past year we have worked with startups and founders from Neil Patel and KISSmetrics to Ryan Holmes at HootSuite to many startups going through Dreamit Ventures and TechStars incubators.

We never send the same pitch out to dozens of tech outlets.  We like to be super targeted and as much as we can pitch exclusive pitches to individual tech outlets.

Most of my clients prefer to have us pitch TechCrunch or Mashable first, but I'd love to start to offer them the opportunity to pitch RWW on some of their exclusives.  What would the best process be for this?

Would you also be open to receiving pitches if TC or Mashable runs the story first and we allow RWW to be the 2nd story within the hour of the initial story going live?

What is the guest post pitching?

Let me know!  Just want to figure out the best way to work with your team!

We've placed over 200 tech stories this past year and would love to add RWW to our outreach!

Thanks.

Best regards,
Chris Barrett
Founder
PRserve

Here is the email I sent Chris in response:

Hi Chris,

Dan Frommer passed your note along to me, and I want to make sure you get a thorough answer to your questions.

We are opposed to the very idea of story "placement" by PR. We do not care about embargo times or "firstness." Most importantly of all, we are not interested in writing the same stories as anyone else.

We do our own reporting, we find the stories that interest us, and we reach out ourselves. We do happily read incoming pitches from start-ups, but we're only doing so to look for relationships with companies and individuals who seem interesting, and those are rare. In short, we almost never get our news from unsolicited email.

We don't have any interest in the vast majority of things published by TechCrunch, let alone Mashable.

We have no interest in scripted launch events, nor do we care about usage statistics from a single product unless they are statistically significant. We only run infographics if they're prepared by trained scientists. I would estimate that we are interested in less than 5% of the email PR pitches we receive.

As far as what we do cover, think of it this way: We write about trends, not products. Tech products and companies for us serve as examples of trends in the economy and society, not as the core of a story. We'd rather watch something unfold over a long period of time than write about a brief snapshot of it. Check out this guide I wrote to pitching ReadWriteWeb, and feel free to circulate it widely amongst your colleagues:

I hope that helps. If it sounds like we can work together, I look forward to it. But please be respectful of our time and unread-message counts. We're very busy reporting, and we don't have time for incoming email that doesn't help us do our jobs.

Thanks for reaching out,

Jon Mitchell
Staff writer, ReadWriteWeb
@ablaze | +Jon Mitchell

His reply:

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your email and I'm sorry if the email came off rude in anyway.

I never pitch an outlet that we haven't had prior contact at... and I truly appreciate you taking the time to respond to the email and letting me know what RWW looks for in stories.

I'll be sure to let you know if I have any clients who are part of a larger trend that would be a fit for RWW.

Thank you so much for your time!

Best regards,

Chris

Mine:

Sounds good, Chris.

Why should there be any more to it than this?

The solution to PR press embargoes

Everybody knows that news embargoes are the stupidest thing about public relations. They’re the stupidest thing about journalism, too, especially in tech. Since we’re too swamped and/or lazy to do our jobs and go find our own stories, we accept these embargoes and perpetuate the dull cycle of reader-hostile PR recycling.

Well, embargoes are over if you want it. I’ve got a solution. But first, just for fun, let’s belabor the problem, so we can really get in the mood to solve it.

The embargo problem

In the absence of news, spin doctors create scarcity around scripted events, exploit journalists’ insipid obsession with firstness, spoon feed them dollops of fluffy pseudo-information, and so graciously grant the journalists permission to do their jobs at a mysterious time selected by arcane astrological methods. That’s not how life on Earth works, but it’s status quo here in the attention farming business.

Every company thinks they’re an Apple or a Google or a State Department, someone who actually controls the discourse. So they hire a PR agency to write their bombshell press releases about their new augmented reality mobile coupon-sharing network, email blast it out to reporters and tell us we can’t break their [BREAKING NEWS] until 6:31 a.m. Eastern time.

When the appointed time rolls around, a dozen blog posts about the same exact information appear simultaneously on different websites, redundant with each other, as if the information just spontaneously manifested itself.

And the readers, who are not idiots, much as the people spamming them wish they were, wake up to a feed clogged with copies of the same information and utter the sacred syllable, “MEH.”

And that’s what happens if it goes well, which it frequently doesn’t. Someone posts the story early and “breaks” the embargo. So what’s everyone else supposed to do? They publish right away if they’re nervous people, or they scrap the story, dashing the poor PR person’s dreams against the rocks.

Then the thousands of twitchy early adopters who read this kind of blog post all rush to click the link, which is either dead, or the company is still testing the site it’s launching in less than 24 hours, which promptly crashes under the nerd strain. Or nothing bad happens, and some people get to see a website a few hours before PR said they were supposed to.

No matter which scenario unfolds, everyone is pissed off now, the journalists, the PR firm, and the company. And why? Over what? Did the blogger do something maliciously? If the post went up three minutes early, maybe, sure. First! But no, usually they posted inadvertently because they screwed up trying to convert 6:31 a.m. into Pacific time and type it into their CMS.

And when the mistake is made, and the post is live, the offending journalist is left to contemplate his future on the PR blacklist, wondering, “Why the fuck was I going to publish this while everyone in the world is asleep, including myself?

Why do embargoes exist?

Insofar as anyone has derived a logical answer to the question and attempted to explain it to me, here is why embargoes exist:

Unfortunately, not all companies can “get” as much “press” as they think they need to maintain the buzz while they do the nitty gritty work of building their business. So they and their PR teams identify points in their development cycle that they can use as landmarks — a new hire, a funding round, an app update — and they decide to script news events around them.

The thinking is that the embargoed information will seem exclusive, enticing reporters to write about it, and that the lead time will give everyone a chance to write a good story instead of rushing it out when the news is already out there.

Why embargoes don’t work

The first fallacy in the embargo idea is that companies need to “get press.” If the information is worth finding, people will find it. Bloggers will even write about it. When an upstart company — one without de facto press clout, like Obvious Corp. — has news to share, it posts it on the company blog. Blog posts have a way of getting around the Internet. You know, when they matter.

The second embargo fallacy is that incremental company news is what people want to read. Again, the best companies in the world are exceptions to this, but every company thinks it’s the best in the world.

Companies love their products, and that’s beautiful. But people who aren’t steeped in that company’s particular problem all day only need to know a few things: does the product work or not, should they buy it or not, and, in some charismatic cases, who made it. Embargoed press releases and scripted 30-minute PowerPoint meetings do not give journalists adequate answers to these questions, so these kinds of stories don’t help readers.

Helping readers, may I remind us all, is the only thing that matters to anyone involved in this transaction.

The third embargo fallacy is the one that burns me the worst as a journalist: the quality argument. I assure you, the luxurious 36-hour window provided to us by PR is not freeing us to work extra hard on this story. It’s letting us bang it out in the exact same amount of time, schedule it, and forget about it, so we can get on to the nine other stories we’re working on.

You find that disrespectful? Suck it. We’ve got work to do. You know what’s disrespectful? 200 emails a day about the exact same thing you’re emailing us about.

And the icing on the cake is the feeling of watching an embargoed story go up, feeling kind of proud of it, since this company wanted to talk to little ol’ me, and then seeing the other sites’ stories pop up. Oh, there’s one. There’s another one. Shit. I am complicit in spamming my readers.

It is out of this feeling that my solution arises.

The solution to embargoes

The solution to embargoes is not for journalists to merely refuse to accept them. We can’t. We have to accept them before we see the information, and what if it really is interesting? The reality is that, half the time, it’s kind of interesting-ish, and we have to make the Faustian bargain of skipping it and missing out or writing it and trying to be the best of 15 posts about the same thing, a status that does not really exist.

The solution all journalists want is for PR to grant us exclusives. If your little newslet is so perfect for me, just give it to me. Do your homework, figure out who the best reporter in the world is on your particular topic, and give it all to him or her.

But that will almost never happen. It’s too much work for PR without enough “press.”

So here’s the solution. It’s in journalists’ hands. Before you accept an embargo, demand to see the press list. Ask the PR person which other reporters and publications he or she is pitching for this story.

If they don’t tell you, whoops, no story. If they do, you’re armed with the ability to do something interesting.

PR might not know the skills and aptitudes of particular reporters, but reporters do. They read each other all day every day. They know how each person on that list will cover the news. They can anticipate it and react to it. Advanced knowledge of who might write this story would give reporters the only thing their readers want from them: a distinguished take on the news.

In a good world, this would snap everybody out of it. Journalists would be able to accentuate the differences between each other. This would separate the pack, it would make PR’s job of identifying the right writers easier, and it might even accelerate the future of journalism away from commoditized information and toward the value of differing voices.

Is this a good world? Will PR ever give reporters the press list? I don’t know. It will take balls to ask. I’ll have to deal with getting left out of some stories.

I guess I’ll just have to find my own things to write about.