Om Malik: showing us how it’s done

Dave Winer paid tribute to Om Malik on Twitter. I shared my perspective in reply and it seemed wrong to leave my response just as a tweet so I thought I’d re-post my response here too:

@Om is an inspirational blogger/writer. One of a very small group of people who represent what makes a blog such a wonderful medium (you too, sir). When I think about how to be a better blogger and writer, Om is usually the first person I look to for inspiration.

Here is the Twitter thread:

Photo credit: Om Malik by Christopher Michel, licensed CC BY 2.0

Online publishing will not die if Medium fails

Dave Winer recently said, “If Medium were to fail a lot of history will go with it”. Kevin O’Keefe picked up on this and commented on Twitter that this would affect content published by the White House too.

I read both Winer’s and O’Keefe’s comments as suggestions that Medium is Too Big To Fail and that its hypothetical failure would be disastrous. If that were to be the case, it would say far more about the folly of investing so much of their work into a platform that its users had no meaningful control over.

Update (2017-01-10): O’Keefe made a similar point in his blog post titled “Medium lays off one-third of its employees“.

Taking a step back

Before I go on, here is a little context if you missed it. Last week, Ev Williams published a post titled “Renewing Medium’s focus” in which he explained Medium’s pivot away from various forms of advertising it had been experimenting with.

I agree with Medium’s assessment of the publishing landscape and that there is a definite need to find more sustainable and productive ways to earn revenue through online publishing:

Our vision, when we started in 2012, was ambitious: To build a platform that defined a new model for media on the internet. The problem, as we saw it, was that the incentives driving the creation and spread of content were not serving the people consuming it or creating it — or society as a whole. As I wrote at the time, “The current system causes increasing amounts of misinformation…and pressure to put out more content more cheaply — depth, originality, or quality be damned. It’s unsustainable and unsatisfying for producers and consumers alike….We need a new model.”

I also agree with Medium’s conclusions about the current state of online advertising as a dominant way for publishers to make money. It doesn’t leave the Web or their readers in a better place at all (even though it supports the basic model):

Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get…well, what we get. And it’s getting worse.

So what Medium decided to do is pivot away from advertising models to something else:

So, we are shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people. And toward building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day.

What that “new model” isn’t clear and I doubt Williams and his team have a clear idea of what that will be. Whatever they come up with is going to have a big impact on online publishing because there are a number of other major publishers asking similar questions. Online advertising as a primary means of earning money online is a downward spiral to fake news and clickbait because it is all about attention.

What if Medium fails?

Medium is the lovechild of a self-contained social platform and blogging. It has beautiful writing tools and is designed to be a wonderful reading and engagement platform.

It has grown remarkably and it’s no surprise that so many people have invested so much of their creativity and thoughtfulness in their articles published to their personal profiles (the Medium version of a blog). A number of publishers have also shifted their publications to Medium’s platform based, partly, on the promise of revenue shares from Medium. It seems these publishers were also caught by surprise by Medium’s pivot.

There is a huge challenge in investing so much in a single platform that you have no real control over. As Winer pointed out:

Through all the zigging, the thing that has remained constant at Medium is the high quality and usability of the software. But it’s possible for others to do what they do, to be as easy to use, without the uncertainty about its future as an archiving system.

It is still very early days (literally) and I think it is premature to worry much about the prospect of Medium failing to find a sustainable revenue model for itself and its writers and publishers. Still, it is something to think about because what happens to Medium could well mirror the broader online publishing industry in the sense that if Medium succeeds, it could revolutionise that industry.

Before Medium

What struck me this morning when I read O’Keefe’s tweet is that Medium didn’t create something new. Instead, it built on a distributed network of independent publications that sprung up 10 to 15 years ago. Back then, we called it the blogosphere and comprised a growing number of independent blogs that referenced each other using annotations called trackbacks. Back then, people followed each other using RSS readers (Dave Winer is one of the creators of the technologies that made that possible) and commented on each other’s blogs.

The blogosphere wasn’t as coherent as Medium. It wasn’t as well defined or connected and not everyone used the same software for their blogs. That meant interoperability challenges. It was very much a version 1.0 of independent publishing but it was wonderfully empowering because it gave people like me the ability to create a space to write and share.

The blogosphere was the first real version of the social Web that has since diversified and coalesced in terms of formats, platforms and media. More significantly, much of what Medium’s functionality existed long before Medium existed and exists alongside it today.

Over time, WordPress surpassed Blogger (another of Williams’ and his colleagues’ creations) as the dominant publishing platform and it remains the leader of the pack with 27% of the Web using WordPress.

Closer to what we really need

As popular as WordPress is, it isn’t always as easy to use as Medium. It has evolved over time and it has its share of dials and buttons to tweak if you want to take advantage of more complex features. I don’t agree with Frederic Filloux who painted a troubling picture of WordPress in his post “A New Model for Medium” where he said:

First, for elegant text-based publishing, there is a need for a simple, easy-to-use, well-designed platform such as Medium. WordPress was supposed to deliver just that, but it took a geeky turn, saturating its ecosystem with scores of third-party plugins — more than 48,000 at last count — whose quality can charitably be called uneven. Most WordPress sites end up using dozens of plug-ins, each one bound to create its own set of problems: slow page-loads, crashes, random behaviors or update cycles that don’t match WP’s platform agenda. Unless you have sizable tech resources at your disposal, WordPress is a nightmare.

For starters, if all you want is to create a space and start writing, WordPress.com is a great place to start. Setting up is probably a little more involved than Medium because you have more choices when it comes to theming and other customisations. Medium is simpler, sure, and a compelling option for many. Still, discounting WordPress so handily is misguided.

Something I have noticed about open-source software is that it can be messy when compared to closed-source products. One of the reasons for this, I think, is that open-source software aims to be more inclusive and permissive. WordPress is a little messy by comparison with Medium, although the design isn’t terrible (at least, not from my layperson’s perspective).

The reason why it is important not to lose sight of this is precisely the concern that Medium’s shift has aroused and its challenges beg the recurring question: where should you publish your work?

As much as I like Medium, I am still a big advocate for publishing to your own space on the Web, even if you then syndicate elsewhere (including to Medium). You may not even control your site’s fate completely but you usually have more say over its future than a wholly hosted space. As Winer put it:

In the meantime, all the content that continues to pour into Medium is at risk due to the missing business model. And this is where I part with Filloux. I wonder why he only discusses Medium’s interest and the interest of its shareholders. What about his interest and that of other people who use Medium as their publishing platform? Is this the best way?

I argue that it’s not. That what we need is a better designed WordPress, or an open source Medium. Or something new that is inspired by Medium’s smooth UI, and WordPress’s open source heritage.

Where to now?

For now, Medium users can keep using Medium to publish their work. I still find great, thought-provoking articles there. If you are concerned about Medium’s future and the risk of losing your content, you can always export it and keep backups.

I prefer to write my articles locally first before I publish to my blogs. Once I’ve published to my blogs, I’ll syndicate to my social media profiles and, now and then, to Medium too. Medium is actually pretty good for this because it incorporates rel=canonical links that point back to your original blog post if you import your articles into your Medium profile. At least, this way, you preserve your work in your primary publication and if Medium goes away, you still have it all.

And if it all comes to naught and Medium shuts down one day, WordPress and others like them will continue to thrive. The IndieWeb movement is doing some great work to build on the early blogosphere technologies and link all of our blogs with our social profiles and to each other. Yes, it is geeky but I think it represents another bright future for publishing.

Back to Kevin O’Keefe

I started this post with the intention of responding more meaningfully to O’Keefe’s reply to me and, as you can see, it grew a little.

His last point here about people not returning to archives is a fair point although it isn’t the real issue here. The important thing is that there should be archives for people to return to if they decide to.

If, say, the White House exports its articles and archives them on a self-hosted site (which is very possible given how the White House will approach Presidential transitions), that content will be accessible through search and by browsing the site directly.

On the other hand, if Medium/Twitter/Facebook/Other fails and takes all the hosted content down into digital oblivion with it, you will have to rely on initiatives such as the Internet Archive to capture your material and store it for posterity.

I’m holding thumbs for Medium more because I want to see if they can come up with a new revenue model for online publications. The ad supported model works fine for now but it’s taking us down a path I don’t like all that much. As M. G. Siegler put it in his post titled “Long Medium“:

At some point, there will be a fundamental recalibration of the publishing model. Medium can be the catalyst for this, especially now with such a strong base in place.

Image credit: Marco Djallo

Thoughts about careers when I grow up

I enjoyed Jamie Rubin’s post titled “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up”, partly because I still ask myself what I want to do with the rest of my life? I am in the early years of my second career (or a return to an early career, of sorts) after being a lawyer for most of my professional life.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut, an astronomer, and a writer. One out of three isn’t too bad, I suppose. But most of my life, other people’s jobs have often seemed more interesting than my own. Perhaps it is an example of the grass being greener. Perhaps I am just easily influenced by what I see and read.

Rubin’s post reminded me of recurring thought that comes to me when I contemplate careers, particularly urges to change careers. I noticed that there is a difference between pursuing a passion and working in that field as a career, at least for me. I have often thought it would be great to be in a particular profession because it seems so exciting and fulfilling, only to realise that the day to day experience of that work isn’t quite what it seemed to be from the outside.

The best example of this was going into law. As a law student, reading cases and watching legal dramas on TV and in movies, legal practice had a certain appeal. I thought that practice would reflect what I saw in fiction. The reality was pretty different and involved a lot of admin and paperwork with little of the Boston Legal/Suits style and excitement.

I started to develop this theory that some types of work should remain passion pursuits and not full-time occupations. At the same time I suspect that this cynicism may be the result of not having found the expression of the work I find myself longing to do that helps me achieve that satisfaction I hope for.

In the meantime, I look for work that incorporates the activities I enjoy the most or, at least, afford me the time to pursue my passions around my work. My current career, content marketing, involves a lot of writing and strategy work. Both activities stimulate me.

I look at photographers I admire and wonder what it would be like to become a professional photographer. Spending my days with my camera in my hands seems like an almost ideal life and yet I know that behind those phenomenal shots is a lot of experience, hard work and funding to make it all happen. I also wonder if I have the skill to work at that level so I spend my non-work time making photographs, hopefully refining my skills along the way.

My plan for the year ahead is to make more of an effort to blend my photography and my writing and to see what comes of that combination. I think that could be a really interesting combination.

Now and then, like Rubin, I’ll also read a book that sparks a desire to do something different when I grow up. I’m not sure when I reach the point where I can say I have grown up but it must come along soon, right?

Featured image credit: Pixabay

6 December is my Social Anniversaries Day

6 December has become my Social Anniversaries Day! This morning I saw a personalized video celebrating my 10th “Faceversary” (the anniversary of me joining Facebook).

In even bigger news, today is also the 12th anniversary of this blog. I published my first post titled “In the beginning …” on 6 December 2004. At the time this blog was called “Wired Gecko” and it has been through several iterations and used various domain names since then.

In the beginning …

Excluding this post, I have published 3 910 blog posts and have 8 567 comments so far.

Blog status as of 2016-12-06
Milestones

The next major release of WordPress, version 4.7, is also due to launched today too. I’m sure Automattic wasn’t thinking about me when the release date was planned but it’s a nice synchronicity nevertheless.

I’ve been thinking about my blogging again lately. I haven’t always been particularly consistent with how much and when I write but I have been expressing myself through my writing in one medium or another for almost 25 years.

You’re miserable because you’re not writing

I write for many reasons. Sometimes, as I explained in my post titled “You’re miserable because you’re not writing”, I write “because it unblocks the dam of emotion that has built up”. Mostly, I write because I have a strong compulsion to share ideas and interesting things.

"Writing, to me, is the meaning of life"

The more I write, the more I learn and, soon enough, “that all gives way to a wonderful flow that you don’t want to stop so you keep writing to keep the pipes clear and fresh water flowing”.

I write a lot about writing because it is so much a part of how I express myself. My other big outlet is my photography and I tend to swing between writing-intensive and photography-intensive phases. Occasionally, like the last week or so, I am somewhat balanced between the two.

It’s a flow. It comes and goes. That is the nature of my writing and photography. Hopefully I will discover how to bring the two together in the year ahead. I have a feeling that achieving that will uplift both passions and create new opportunities for me.

Here are some of my thoughts on this blog’s 10th anniversary. I think they remain as relevant today as they did two years ago:

This blog began its life under a different domain on 6 December 2004. It has survived in one form or another until now, thanks and no thanks to me. I started my blog after tinkering with blogging back in the primordial days of the social Web when blogging was the New Thing, after interactive fora. Keeping a blog alive for 10 years feels like an achievement. Having 3 527 blog posts under my metaphorical belt (not counting this one) feels like I have made a meaningful contribution towards documenting my life and the things that interest me. It is something worth commemorating.

Image credit: Pixabay

Nostalgia about writing on paper, something more tangible

Jamie Todd Rubin shared his nostalgia about writing in a different time in his post titled “Writing on Paper“. He wrote about a much more tangible experience of writing and, even though I have a preference for digital, I empathise with him to a degree.

Writing on Paper

He isn’t talking about writing on paper in the sense of writing long form with a fancy ballpoint and pages of fine paper. Instead, he looks back at the satisfaction he had typing with a typewriter and seeing the pages accumulating on his desk.

In all the years that I’ve been writing on computer—and I’ve been writing on computer for far longer than I ever wrote on a typewriter—I have never found the experience to be quite as satisfying. It is physically easier for me to write on computer than it was on a typewriter. But it just isn’t as satisfying. I miss the accumulation of pages.

Typewriter memories

I don’t think I did much writing on a typewriter. My writing career began in school where most of my writing was done with a pen on paper and progressed to typing in Wordstar (or something like that) on our family PCs.

The few times I used a typewriter were somewhat satisfying. I vaguely remember the smell of a typewriter and the look of paper that had been typed on. It evokes some degree of nostalgia but not something I would necessarily want to return to.

One thing about typewriters that is appealing is that you just write. There is no messing with line spacing, font sizes or any of that stuff. As Rubin pointed out:

And besides, you can take WYSIWYG too far. Formatting distracts me from what I am trying to write. I am not trying to layout a newspaper or magazine. I’m writing a story, or a post.

This fidgety aspect of modern word processors is what drove me away from MS Word in a cold sweat. It is why I do most of my writing in plain text with MultiMarkdown. The thought of having to mess around with formatting just to write stuff makes me physically ill.

Still, I love the flexibility of digital and the prospect of all my work being fixed on sheets of paper that I can’t backup, edit and publish in minutes on the Web makes me itch.

It’s like film photography

In a way, using a typewriter and paper is a bit like going back to film photography. Digital photography makes us a little lazy. There is nothing to shooting dozens or hundreds of photos because we can filter out the ones we like and discard the rest.

When you make photos on film, you have to be a lot more deliberate about what you shoot and you don’t have that instant gratification of seeing your photo on the camera’s screen right afterwards. You have to wait for the roll of film to be processed and either have prints made or the negatives scanned. That changes the dynamic of photography quite a bit. As Om Malik put it in his post “Experimenting with film photography“:

You also can’t put a price on the lesson you learn with film — think before you shoot. Compose the photo in your mind before you try and press the shutter. And be deliberate.

I’m tempted to find some rolls of film and shoot them with my old film camera but, as with my writing, I don’t see myself replacing digital with film. The flexibility and opportunities to manipulate and share my work means I’d keep returning to digital. I shot a lot of film in school and even managed to get into a dark room a few times.

If anything, I wish I still have the negatives so I could scan them all. That part is increasingly important to me.

My romance is with the Web and with digital sharing, though, not with paper and film negatives (although I have fond memories of my time with both). At the same time, I appreciate Rubin’s words about his longing for a more tangible writing experience. There is definitely something there worth preserving in some way.

Image credit: Pixabay

Facing a blank page

A blank page can be a little intimidating as a writer. Staring at a blank page and being unable to fill it with something intelligible is a common experience of writer’s block, the bane of most writers. I say “most” because there are probably some writers who find the challenge of writer’s block to be just the thing they need to break through it.

I’m not one of those writers.

Lately I’ve realized that despite all the writing that I do in my day job, I don’t do much personal writing. When I realise this and decide to start writing more frequently, I go utterly blank.

Well, that isn’t entirely accurate. I have ideas that I want to write about but they seem to fade awfully quickly and seem silly the next day so I shelve them.

One of my most effective muses when I do write is my collection of feeds and I came across a very appropriate item that I want to share. Brain Pickings has a post titled “Facing the Blank Page: Celebrated Writers on How to Overcome Creative Block” that includes a video with snippets of interviews from various writers about the dreaded blank page:

It is a highlights video drawing on a series of slightly longer interviews with each writer that were published by the Louisiana Channel on YouTube:

I think I resonated most with Philipp Meyer’s and Lydia Davis’ thoughts about the blank page but each interview is worth watching if you, like me, find yourself staring at a blank page frustratingly often.

You can find the Brain Pickings post with selected quotes here:

Facing the Blank Page: Celebrated Writers on How to Overcome Creative Block

Image credit: Pixabay

My strange writing process

My writing process can be a somewhat strange now that I think about it. I have a brief to write new text for a redesigned website and I find myself sitting in front of my screens with my handwritten notes to one side, waiting.

It feels almost as if I can only really begin writing when the more abstract concepts and outlines condense into something more tangible and intelligible. At that point the structure becomes clearer and I can start capturing it all in text that flows.

It reminds me a lot of fantasy movies or TV shows when characters stare at some magical text that transforms from some sort of unintelligible script into plain English text, unlocking some ancient secret (or, more commonly, some terrible Evil that becomes the focus of the rest of the show).

Conditions for entering my Flow State

There are a few ingredients that create a better set of conditions for that transition to a Flow State which is where the magic happens. My starting point is my music choice (today, a selection from Steve Jablonsky’s Transformers and Ender’s Game soundtracks seems to work today).

I almost always write better when I listen to movie or TV soundtracks (the instrumentals).

The next key ingredient is a relatively undisturbed space to process my distractions, procrastinate a little and slip into my Flow State. That one is tricky, especially when I am working in an open office and have colleagues talking to me about ongoing projects.

One way to compensate for a lot of background noise in the office and visual distractions (distractions, generally, are not great for me – as it is my attention tends to be fragmented) is to turn up the music until the music overrides the distractions.

Handwritten notes to ground me

Making handwritten notes is a great way for me to lock in the concepts and flow even though I write almost exclusively on my laptop. There is a lot of research into the benefits of writing on paper as opposed to making notes on a digital device. As much as I have an overwhelming preference for digital, handwritten notes and sketches have become crucial and I carry a spiral notebook with me in my bag.

I think handwritten notes also help me break through any blocks I have about what I am writing about. It’s almost as if writing my notes and drawing little sketches that capture concepts for me help me force through the stubborn membrane of a creative block.

Maybe such a physical medium is essential for me to ground myself so I can connect the abstract with the tangible? It feels like something along those lines.

Building in some procrastination

A more recent realisation is that I will very rarely dive straight into the writing part and sustain it till I have that piece of textual brilliance. I almost always procrastinate and distract myself with something.

Rather than fight it, I’m working to channel it. One way I do that is by writing something different. This post is such an exercise. It helps me release some mental mosquito and start the process of clearing my creative pathways for the Real Work.

A frequent side benefit of this indulgence is that some of the concepts cook away in the recesses of my mind while I’m not focused on them so, when I am done with my distraction, I’m closer to the essence of what I want to work with.

It seems to work for me so far.

At some point, just begin

Of course the one challenge is to just begin at some point. I used to wait for the stars and planets to align before starting to write and that very rarely happens. Even when it does, I was too distracted to notice.

Instead, the thing is to give yourself some flexibility but set a limit. When it feels as if you could keep yourself distracted beyond the point of airing out the room and opening the blinds for some fresh air, you have to sit yourself down and begin. Your first words may be utter rubbish but the main thing is to write them.

I find that as I write, clarity emerges from the text and I can always go back to the earlier stuff and edit it (sounds obvious in retrospect).

Sitting down with the expectation that your first draft will be perfect is a great way to block yourself. Besides, it’s unrealistic, certainly for me. My work often takes shape as I am writing so expecting that the first words that spew out will be creative gems is a sign that I am deluding myself.

On that note, I have some work to do. Tell me about your process. You know, while you are waiting for your on-ramp to your Flow State.

Image credit: Picjumbo

Writer’s remorse and things you can’t take back

Writer’s remorse is a horrible, sickening feeling. It’s usually accompanied by the thought (or words), “I probably shouldn’t have told you that!”.

There are days, weeks even, when stuff happens and my first impulse is to start writing about it and sharing it with BIG BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS because, as we all know, that Makes It All Alright. Actually, it rarely does, but it seems like the Right Thing To Do at the time.

I’ve written about why writing is so important to me (quite a lot) and when I have one of Those Days, writing is one of the few outlets that work for me. I’m not the only person who resorts to words in challenging times. Take this advice by Chuck Palahniuk, for example:

The challenge in times such as these is how to express yourself constructively. By “constructively”, I mean not in a way that wrecks your career, relationships or results in the sort of outcome you know you will regret later.

Flying off the proverbial handle and publishing your most visceral thoughts on the public Web may seem like the right response to a difficult situation, at the time. Unfortunately, it is also often conducive to that profound regret and shame you may feel the morning after a questionable encounter in a dimly lit bar.

In times like these it is usually wise to follow suggestions that you not click the “Publish” button right away. Even if publishing immediately seems utterly necessary and delaying means not having the desired impact.

Just don’t publish yet. Give the fog time to dissipate, give yourself time to process it all. Then edit and publish (if it is still relevant).

There are times when that expression of rage or profound disappointment needs to be expressed. Other times, it’s ok to relegate your verbal fury to your growing folder of post drafts to gather digital dust.

Some days, just the process of taking those thoughts and feelings and expressing them are enough. Publication isn’t always the answer, as easy as it is to do it.

Today is one of Those Days for me and the one piece of advice that bubbles up from the recesses of my foggy mind is this: Don’t be bitter, be better.

I’m going to publish this one, though.

Image credit: Pixabay