Barriers to writing: what prevents more long-form content?

In my last post I talked about the problem of communication on the web, and its subsequent fragmentation. All the activity I pertain to in the post suggests the need and want to write to communicate opinions and points of view is stronger than ever, yet the success of these new platforms relies on people using them effectively, and beyond Twitter, I know relative few people who dedicate time to writing and creating medium- to long-form content.

I asked a flippant question on Twitter: for those of you who want to write and keep a blog but don’t, why don’t you? What are the barriers to starting? I don’t think I have ever had as many responses to a single question, which was fascinating, and the responses were full of interesting points of view which I shall attempt to summarise here.

But firstly, what’s the big deal?

Within the design and technology community, the supposed importance of writing has never been discussed more. At the extreme I’ve seen some people beat themselves up over writer’s block, and some full-on arguments between blogging luminaries on the right way to write and post. Personally, I belief is that it’s important to share knowledge, opinion, and points of view that help shape our young and immature industry; we’re in a privileged position to be at the early to help contribute to its future. But writing doesn’t have to be about work: your more than likely going to share interests to those who have chosen the same career paths, and it’s nice to step outside the echo chamber and explore the cross-sections.

It’s more than this though: long form writing can be a sort of catharsis; a way of taking effortful action on something you believe in, that is ultimately more satisfying than writing a tweet.

And of course writing can help raise your profile if you’re self employed, and help new clients and projects find you. I’ve written about a range of things on this blog that have directly led to interesting opportunities. If you work hard enough on your writing, you can become a maven in your chosen fields: John Gruber and Jason Kottke are two of the most well-regarded and visible bloggers in our community who are now well-regarded opinion-leaders on Apple (and tech) and culture, respectively.

So why don’t more people write?

Now to the responses to my question, neatly compartmentalised into four recurring themes:

Time, and lack of it. By far the most common response was a lack of time. This response feels so multi-levelled it’s difficult to know where to start to understand why it’s valid. I’ve always said that if you want something, or want to do something you enjoy, you will always make time for it. You make time to run around the park; you make time to go to the pub. Of course it’s fine to prioritise everything else over writing, but make sure you’re doing that not because of any of the following other reasons…

A fear of failure. This response cropped up often. It takes a little bit of something–let’s call it balls–to make something and let it loose to the public. But as a community (if you’re a designer or developer), we do this all the time. Designers (both beginners and the more experienced) post their work to Dribbble, Behance and Fiftytwo to seek feedback. Developers release their work on Github for all to see and use. The cracks are exposed, yet this somehow Feels Okay. There shouldn’t be any difference with writing. If you want to give it a try, nobody can criticise you for doing it. Apart from the occasional troll, people are going to respond very well. It could help at first to write privately, or at least write without then sharing posts on Twitter. Get into the flow with a few posts, share them with friends whose opinion you trust, and see what happens.

Lack of skill. Writing comes more naturally to some, in the same way sketching and coding comes more naturally to others. But without actually doing anything, it’s impossible to hone and develop any skill. I read well-regarded bloggers’ posts with envy: their brevity, tone of voice, and content are all something I aspire to but I reassure myself that they have been doing this for a decade or two. It would be impossible to match their skill from the outset, so it’s not worth comparing your own writing with that of anyone else. Of course as you feel more confident and proficient, you can always go back and delete old, cringe-worthy posts: I certainly have.

What would I write about? It doesn’t matter. Write for yourself. Scribble your thoughts down that you find interesting. That problematic client you had? Might be painful for you but will be interesting for others to read about and learn from. That amazing burger joint not many people know about? Everyone loves burgers: tell people about it! It only takes a paragraph or two. Share a link that you find interesting, but write more than 140 characters as to why. Reference someone else post and expand on it with your own thoughts.

All these reasons smell very much like those that Matias Corea suggested are the barriers to starting your own business, which I outlined in a recent post.

Finally, a few responses talked about pragmatic technical barriers to blogging: existing hosted platforms are usually far from perfect, and self-hosting solutions usually demand technical nous to get started. In my next post I want to talk about this in more detail.

The problem and the fragmentation of content and communication

I’m fascinated by the recent startup activity that seems to addressing the “problem” of communications and discourse on the web. Within a relatively short time, we have seen the launch of Svbtle, Medium,, and Branch. I’m not going to spend any time discussing the pros and cons of each since I’m not a member of any of them yet (I think my invitations are in the post, or something) [Update: I just got my Branch invite and it is very, very nice indeed.] but just say that it’s interesting that each have started to address a nuanced aspect of the “problem” communications on the internet.

That’s the second time I put “problem” in quotes because I’m not actually sure what it is, but here’s my attempt to characterise what it might be:

  • Discussion is hard
  • Expression is hard
  • Discovery is hard

The frustration of trying to have a discussion with n+1 people on Twitter is widely felt, so I’m excited that Branch is a well thought-out, nicely designed product that aims to address this problem. You can take a conversation to Branch, and then publish said branch as a publicly viewable, carefully moderated conversation on a given theme. The use cases for individuals, groups, and even enterprise are obvious.

The second problem is one of expression, but can be sub-divided into two further issues: the medium itself, and on being expressive.

As with texts, the stilted terseness of Tweets mean they can be misconstrued and ineffective, whereas the wide-open limitless spaces of individual blogs can over-egg simple points of view, rendering them unheard and unappreciated. Platforms like Posterous sprouted up to cater for this half-way solution between the tweet and the blog post, but with Posterous having been acquired by Twitter we will have to wait to see what fills the space left in the middle.

The problem with expressiveness is that few platforms can really achieve the wet, spit-laden sort of conversation that is ultimately most effective. Forums are usually bloated and prevent flow; commenting systems feel inadequate, and hyper-threaded community platforms like Reddit and Hacker News feel overwhelming, especially to uninitiated. Branch seems to want to emulate real-time human conversation both in terms of turn-taking and small-group chatter and I’m excited to see how this feels in practice.

The third aspect of the communications problem is discovery of content. I am an extremely voracious reader of posts and articles that I find via Twitter, a small handful of bloggers (I’ll list them in a future post), and directly through subscriptions to my favourite magazines. All these are squirrelled away into my Instapaper account for some late-night reading or sweaty Underground ride, but because there’s usually some time between finding a link and reading it, Instapaper for me feels like discovery through quasi-serendipity. It works nicely for me but a great deal of trash ends up in the pile, and I forget why I saved them: often with context and comment having been stripped from a post, a quarter of its meaning is lost.

Despite having plenty to read I do fall into the trap of feeling I’m missing out. This is now compounded by the rise of Svbtle and Medium. I like them both but already feel overwhelmed by the wealth of material on them both. I need help sifting to find the gems. I’m not sure what mechanic needs to exist to help here. Medium rates articles by “goodness”, and Svbtle’s equivalent is “kudos” (but Dustin Curtis already has a “featured members and posts” section, which helps navigate the network). I’m unconvinced either are good measures of quality. They both fall into the trigger-happy like mentality of the Facebook Like; a mechanic laden with as much meaning as an ironic double-thumbs up. A share, a comment, a curated pick, or re-post by people whose opinion I respect are superior measures.

As a side note, the rise of the “curated link list” is a nice development. Readlists and lists in Kippt are both sources of reading goodness, but both have already exploded with content and the number of lists to work through are too numerable to handle.

Where does this leave us? I’m excited by the prospect of new channels of quality content, but nervous that the sheer volume and disperate fragmentation of platforms will diminish their true value, especially when they start to compete with each other. I’m hoping for competition on quality; not of users and pageviews. This is at odds with the economics of networks so it remains to be seen how the endgame might look.

In my next post I’m going to talk about the barriers people feel they have to writing content.

An app to help you remember and buy good wine

This is hardly going to save the world but the other day I had a little idea that you can have for free, because it’s something I’d like to use.

Like you–probably–I like drinking wine, and have enjoyed some great bottles in restaurants and bars over the years. But even though I try to remember a given bottle’s name and vintage, I’m almost certain not to follow up and find out where I can buy it.

So here’s something that could help: an app to help you remember and keep track of good wine.

  • Whip out your iPhone and take a photo of the bottle you’re enjoying. Choose to tag where you are too, to jog your memory. (Yes, this is basically Instagram.)
  • The photo gets uploaded to a service which is passed to an Amazon Mechanical Turk queue, where somebody will key in the relevant information about the bottle against a normalised database. (There are tonnes of apps that allow you to record wine information, but you have to key in the information manually.)
  • You’ll then have a record of the wine you enjoyed and where, for future reference, searchable and browsable on a web-app. The usual sharing and discovery options will be there for you to share your favourites and recommendations with friends.
  • The obvious monetising opportunity is to have large wine merchants suggest to you the best deals for the wines you have enjoyed. Berry Brothers and Rudd might offer you a mixed 12 bottle case for a bargain price, or Majestic might undercut them and offer you 6 bottles of a particular favourites for far less.

If you make it, please let me know.

UPDATE: and as if by magic, Jeff Heuer notes in the comments below that the app does indeed exist, and looks pretty good:

Smallknot — a platform to help invest in local, small businesses

I heard about Smallknot on Monocle’s The Entrepreneurs, but didn’t follow up by taking a look at their website until now. I’ll let them explain what they do:

Smallknot lets you invest in the small businesses in your community in exchange for goods, services, special perks and benefits. We work exclusively with local businesses that are looking to expand and grow but need a little extra capital to get there. Maybe your favorite coffee shop wants to build a new back patio, or your favorite pizza place needs a new oven. For a lot of local businesses, even very successful ones, projects like these get put on hold or never happen because of a lack of access to capital. Banks don’t lend to the smallest businesses in your neighborhood, and credit cards are costly and expensive. With Smallknot, you can help fund a project in your neighborhood and get back real value paid back in kind and at a premium.

What I love about this idea over, say, contributing to Kickstarter campaigns is that my investment is an actual alternative investment: in return I would get effectively 100%+ of my money back in the form of goods and services provided by them, and the intangible return of feeling good about supporting a favourite, already-established, local business.

The platform is serving Williamsburg and Greenville right now, and from what I can see has only served a handful of local businesses which is a Good Thing. I hope they stay small for as long as is practical, since it’s the connection each business has with its community that makes it so special.

On Human Design: a fantasy conference

As you may know I love going to conferences, but those that I enjoy the most tend to be much less oriented towards the internet, development and digital design, but ones that take a broad theme and ask speakers from all sorts of disciplines to talk on that theme.

Or at least that’s the sort of conference I would like to attend, but they don’t really exist. Usually if a conference does have a theme, the majority of speakers would spend the first five minutes talking about the theme, and then out comes the showreel; yet-another-here-is-my-portfolio-style talk.

I’ve always thought that if I had the time, money, and will to host an event, I’d want to orient it around the theme of designing for humans and individuals, and invite individuals from a wide variety of disciplines. I feel there’s far more to learn, and more value to be had, from hearing the opinions and work of what practitioners from other industries beyond our own, and provide a space for people to collaborate and cross-pollinate ideas.

So here is the full line-up for my fantasy conference.

  • Marije Vogelzang — a dutch “eating designer” who designs extraordinary eating experiences, and consults to the food industry alongside personal work that explores the way we interact with food and the people we dine with. There is a great video to watch that provides a comprehensive overview of her work.

  • Jonathan Harris — simply my favourite interaction designer whose projects explore our relationship with technology and each other. His most famous project, We Feel Fine attempts to visualise the emotions of the world by parsing emotive language from a variety of sources on the internet.

  • Erica Eden from Smart Design — I saw Erica talk at an AIGA conference and she had some fascinating things to say about design for females, and how nearly everyone fucks it up. You can read some of her pieces on Smart’s website, or read more articles by her on Fast Company.

  • Iain Tait — for a long time I considered Iain to be responsible for some of the only interesting work in digital advertising during his tenure at Wieden+Kennedy, but has since moved to Google Creative Labs. He’s a fellow psychology graduate too, so I’d particularly be interested to hear how this informs his work.

  • Andrew Shoben of Greyworld — “playing in the city” is the strapline for Greyworld, who produce fascinating urban projects; little interventions that delight those that encounter them throughout the urban environment. As urbanism is destined to expand at terminal velocity, I think those who help make urban environments stimulating for their inhabitants have such interest opinions to share.

  • Richard Rogers — I chose Rogers specifically for the work his practice did for Maggie’s Cancer Care Homes. An incredibly challenging brief demands a carefully considered solution; so successful that the project won the practice the Sterling prize in 2009.

  • Cameron Sinclair — if you haven’t seen Cameron’s fascinating TED talk on open source architecture, take a moment to do so. Architecture for Humanity is a charitable organization that seeks architectural solutions to humanitarian crisis and brings professional design services to communities in need.

  • Michael Bierut — it’s difficult to chose somebody or a firm that has consistently delivered interesting graphic design solutions that adress human interactive, but I think Pentagram’s work on city signage and environmental design—particularly for their work in New York City—could be an interesting contribution. It also helps that Michael is a brilliantly entertaining and charming speaker.

  • Robert Hammond from Friends of the High Line — there has been no more successful public space created in an urban environment than the High Line, and the story of the community that helped kickstart the project is fascinating. Or if not Robert, I’m fascinated by James Corner Field Operations who was responsible for the landscaping of the park: how do you plant and shape a new park for consumption by the general public.

  • Dougald Hine of Space Makers — as an industry we talk at great length about how to encourage online communities to grow and flourish, but the conversation about how to cultivate “offline” communities is often lost. Space Makers’ first project was to reinvigorate Brixton Village, and Dougald talks passionately about the importance of reinvigorating communities.

This isn’t an exhaustive list and there must be many more sectors that I have considered that I’d love to feature. For instance, I’m unfamiliar with design for medicine and prosthetics, so if you have any suggestions who I should invite to my fantasy conference, I’d love to know.

Wander — an interesting approach to the “location thing”

I actually wrote this piece way back on February 2, 2012, but Keenan told me to keep it under wraps until they properly launched. Well now they have (sort of), so here are a few thoughts on the platform:

Today I met Keenan Cummings, co-founder and creative director of new location app Wander.

With location-oriented startups popping up every week, it’s easy to dismiss them as very me too, but I like two aspects that set Wander apart:

With Wander, you create and curate a location journal – not simply a list of places.

With Foursquare and such apps, checking into a location is like flippantly tossing a pebble in a bucket. You don’t necessarily care about the act of checking in. Instead, Wander offers its users beautifully designed, theme-able journals, reminiscent of Tumblr which allows you to log comments/opinions/memories (short, or long-form). The layout and design of the site is such that you will want to take care to carefully curate and add content to your journals; plural because you can create as many journals as appropriate (per city, for instance).

The delineation between am there, been there, want to go there.

Unlike Foursquare, you don’t need to be in a particular location to post it if you don’t want to. You could create your own thematic guides from your desktop for instance, and answers a lot of the questions I raised in my recent post about location apps. Keenan also mentioned an interesting use case: he has visited Stockholm just once, but loves the city and creates posts in his journal, curating his memory of the city.

Designing, and educating, user behaviours from the outset.

Wander identifies a location using asterisks. So if I were to post a location: “I’m at No Fun in L.E.S.”, the system will parse the string and identify that No Fun is a specific location, and create a link to its entry in its data store. This is an unusual interaction, but Wander plan to educate users about how to use it way up-front so the early adopters hit the ground running. It’s this careful approach to launch that I think will pay huge dividends as the app grows in popularity.

Brand confidence

I was chatting with Simon Whybray a few days ago, who said something that I really liked while talking about the London restaurant Meat Liquor. I’ve not been yet, so I asked him what it was like and why he loved the place. He explained that why he liked it was difficult to put his finger on, and in fact most people claim there are better burgers to be had in London. But there was this intangible element that was implicit in the brand; he suggested it was its confidence.

I love the idea of a brand having confidence but which is communicated so subtly that it’s difficult to even see it. A confident brand is like that guy you know who is understated and humble, can make a gathered crowd laugh, and also has a nice hairstyle.

This made me think about other brands that convey real confidence without desperation or inauthenticity, and what were the elements of the organisation that contribute to the feeling. Rapha and Mr Porter are both extremely confident brands, but are both fashion-oriented and frankly quite obvious examples.

Can you think of any confident brands? Airlines, food, FMCG, travel, and technology are all sectors who must have their own confident brands, so if you think of any I’d love some suggestions in the comments.

What Twitter could have been, but won’t become

You could argue that one of the most potent markers of a software product’s success is the number of extremely strong opinions their users have about what it should, shouldn’t, and indeed, could have been. And recently there’s been an interesting flurry of discourse about the future of Twitter, seemingly sparked by a single post by Michael Sippey.

I’ve enjoyed two directly opposing posts recently about Twitter that have resonated with my own thoughts on the platform.

Dalton Caldwell recently wrote a compelling post about what Twitter could have been:

Perhaps you think that Twitter today is a really cool and powerful company. Well, it is. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have been much, much more. I believe an API-centric Twitter could have enabled an ecosystem far more powerful than what Facebook is today. Perhaps you think that the API-centric model would have never worked, and that if the ad guys wouldn’t have won, Twitter would not be alive today. Maybe. But is the service we think of as Twitter today really the Twitter from a few years ago living up to its full potential? Did all of the man-hours of brilliant engineers, product people and designers, and hundreds of millions of VC dollars really turn into, well, this?

This resonated with my own thoughts that at its most reductive core, Twitter could have been the de-facto, universal notation language that helps humans and organisations exchange information and knowledge in a manner that everyone and everything could interpret. No other protocol has ever achieved anything close. So my hat was doffed to Caldwell as he managed to eleoquently explain this better than I, and is an opinion that is forming the basis for the future of his firm,

The problem with agreeing with this argument is that, well, I’m a bit of a nerd, so of course this is what I’d want it to become. Anil Dash entered into the conversation with a superb post of his own with a counter-argument:

Nobody wants a realtime cloud API company. I mean, I want one, but speaking from a statistical standpoint, that isn’t what any normal person wants.

He continues that people complaining about Twitter not being this open network are:

…lamenting that Twitter isn’t just for geeks anymore. This isn’t some nefarious plan by the tyrannical cabal that controls Twitter to create a Horrible Commercialized Network For Kardashians; It’s a result of the fact that so many normal people showed up to use the service.

Geeks are lamenting that they don’t dominate and control this network, and expressing it in the only way we know how: Through technological triumphalism. If the culture of a giant network doesn’t resemble the culture we prefer, then it must be a problem that can be solved by making the network more technically complicated.

And thus ends the argument, for me at least. Twitter is not, and will never be the utopian, open API that connects users with one another. Twitter is designed instead for open communication and the democratic* dissemination of opinions and media.

What this debate does highlight is the easy trap we can fall into. Folk like us who live our lives via the internet are often so closed and ignorant to the wants and needs of a broader audience. Being niche has its place, but for a firm whose revenue model relies on a massive user-base, becoming a media conduit is the right decision to achieve a greater goal.

  • Well, hopefully. We’ll see how that pans out.

Building brick walls

I love this quote–and the fact that Allan Yu quoted it–in a profile piece in Complex magazine:

You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.

An NDA’d idea is a bad idea

I’ve been to a few meetings recently where I had to sign an NDA before the client could reveal the details of an idea-slash-project they have been pondering.

In each, the idea turned out to be so spectacularly awful that I’d have a hard time convincing anyone else to listen as I relay it to even my most Samwar-ish, vicious copy-cat unicorn development-cum-design friends who have the free time and will to copy ideas as they please.

The wasted time and pained nods and smiles have frustrated me so much that I will not sign any NDA in the future, apart from in the following circumstances:

  • I know before-hand that your idea employs technology, science and magic so astounding that you genuinely have a competitive advantage of unbelievable scale or could impact share prices. (In this case, I don’t expect to be signing any NDAs in bad coffee shops in WC1.)
  • You are Apple.

On the other hand, the best ideas have been those I’ve heard about where a meeting has ended with a simple, “so, I’d really appreciate it if you kept this under your hat?”

And of course I will, and have.

I’ve a hat-full of decent ideas that I think are decent and which I won’t be trying to execute any time soon because I believe in the people behind them and want to see them execute.

If you feel the need to shroud your idea in an NDA, you’re speaking to the wrong people and it hasn’t felt the breeze of open discussion that certainly turn it into something much better than it is.

(And if you’re someone who I met recently who NDA’d me and are reading this: I’m really sorry, but this is indeed a cowardly way to tell you that your idea sucked.)