March 10, 2014
I just wrote a post for NEXT Berlin which has provoked a little more reaction than normal. I admit - it's a more touchy subject than most, encompassing both a missing plane, and thus many lives at risk or lost. And it takes a side-swipe at the obsessions of the tech business right now. But despite the not entirely positive reaction, I'm pretty pleased with it, because it encompasses a lot of what I believe about blogging, both in terms of process and in terms of exploring ideas.
First of all, on the process front, it reflects one of my cardinal rules of doing blogging well: connect the impetus to blog with the action to implement as soon as possible.
I was procrastinating slightly about posting, because I wasn't massively enthused about the subject I'd come up with, and then I came across Mary's Facebook post, and the appropriate neurones leapt up of the cognitive couch, brushed the metaphorical pizza crumbs from their notional chests and went to work.
Why did this get me interested? Well, it invoked two of the things I feel strongly about:
1. Get out of the bubble
This is a serious one. I've talked before how I find the intra-journalist discussion about the digital future amazingly dull compared the the conversation happening at the intersection of journalism and everything else. That problem - the echo chamber of like-minded people talking to themselves is everywhere, and it holds us back. When you only look inwards, you keep finding the same old answers.
I feel that the internet of things - as a concept - is locked into that right now. Lots of people borrowing ideas off each other, but basically ending up with the same bunch of products.
This is one of these stories where two worlds come together to make a very interesting possibility. Mash together aviation - and its obsession to safety detail - and the efficient communications skills of the internet of things movement, and you have a very interesting potential partnership. If I could introduce the problem from one side of the fence to potential providers on the other, how could I resist?
Was the timing wrong? I don't know. If you have this conversation long after the event, then you get no traction for the ideas. In a sense, I was taking my cue from the aviation community, which certainly seemed to think that this was an appropriate time to discuss these matters.
2. Time for tech to grow up
The move to mobile and apps is great and everything - but isn't there more than this? It feels like the grand tech juggernaut has ground to a halt and has got utterly distracted by finding new ways for us to play games and chat to each other in increasingly simplified ways. Both of these are admirable things in their worn right. But is that really what we're going to use all this great tech for?
OK, I'm overstating the case. Interesting things are being done outside the startup/apps/VC economy, but you wouldn't know it from the the tech press right now. I think that needs to change. I think we need to puncture that happy little tech bubble, and start looking more deeply at how it really impacts life outside that sphere.
But right now, it's past 11pm, I have to be up early in the morning to deliver a day's training, so I'll leave further exploration of that idea for another day.
This is the seventh in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I'm going to try to write through March.
March 8, 2014
I started this daft writing project with ideas of fighting complacency. It's too easy to slip into habits in your blogging, to just keep doing what you did before, without any serious attempt to keep pushing yourself forwards. And, in a sense, I've been scuppered for two days by taking exactly that approach to my technology.
I've been using Movable Type to blog here for over a decade now, and I've been on a single webhost for the majority of that time - since 2007, in fact. Now, I'm seriously reconsidering that decision. The past 48 hours have not covered my webhost in glory. They killed my blog software - and then my whole account - with no clear explanation. It took them 24 hours to resolve a photo uploading problem once the site was restored - and they broke the site several times in the meantime.
And, to cap it all, they gave me utterly wrong information at one point - telling me that I was using very old software (which is true, if your definition of "very old" is two months), which is unmaintained (not true) and therefore my site was "probably hacked". Well, suspending my account because it was "probably hacked' is one thing, although the "probably" is a bit worrying; surely you should check before pulling down sites? Doing it without notification is another.
So, now I find myself wondering if I should migrate this blog to another of my hosting accounts - and that's another level of work that'll consume time I can ill-afford right now.
But then, I've also been reminded today how much technology does move on when you're not paying attention. It's been over a decade since I bought a printer. That one was on its last legs back in 2008, so I switched it for my late mother's printer when she passed away. That printer has been faithfully serving us every since, but I finally made the decision to do away with it earlier in the year, as the ink prices for it were getting out of hand. When the current cartridges died - it was being replaced. And that happened earlier in the week. This morning, a Canon Pixma 6450 arrived - and it has been a revelation.
Two become one (tech edition)
First of all, it's replacing two devices. Both my old printer and scanner are exiting, with one device taking their place. Welcome back, desk space.
Also, it connects to my wireless network - and, joy of joys, it supports AirPrint, which means I can print from my iPad and iPhone. It was quite something to tap the sharing button I've never used on my iPhone - the one marked "print" - and see a page pop out of the printer a few seconds later. What was more impressive was loading up some 6x4 photo paper and seeing a perfect little print popping out.
And then I realised how much time I wasted getting prints from Boots and those little printing kiosks when sending letters of thanks to people who bought Hazel clothes. This printer is capable of producing just as good results, faster, and without leaving home. The price is not much different. Sticking with that old printer was a false economy, in terms of the time/money trade off. I should have done this a while ago.
Time poor, cash… OK
Mentally, I've never quote made the journey from "time rich, cash poor" to "time starved, cash comfortable". I still make decisions based on saving money not time - but since Hazel came along, time has been at an absolute premium, and I'm not yet making sensible decisions about how to deploy my money to ease that time pressure a little.
Am I paying too little for my web hosting - and suffering huge losses of time as a result? Would some sensible investment in hosting and a managed move to WordPress pay off in the long run? Where else in my life is corner-cutting costing me precious time? These are questions I need to be asking with more rigour - and focus.
March 7, 2014
Hey, all. I hope you're having a good Friday.
I have two apologies to make.
The Accidental Spammer
I was informed yesterday that several people were getting completely blank e-mails en masse from my e-mail address. They do appear to have originated from this server, and either changes made by me or my webhost seem to have put a stop to them. My apologies if you got hit by it.
Silence of the Blogger
In a possibly-related incident, my webhost blocked access to my blog's software late yesterday evening, and followed that up by suspending my account entirely. I've not had a complete explanation as yet - depending on what they do say, I may be looking at moving hosts, which will be fun.
Because of this, yesterday's long form post never got done (and, indeed, for a few hours there was no published blog for it to appear on). That means that sometime between now and the end of the month, I'll have to do two posts in one day...
March 5, 2014
Today, I taught my last formal class for this year's class of Interhacktives at City University. The two terms I teach them in have gone astonishingly quickly, but I've enjoyed it very much. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with what they've learned, both in their final assessed piece of work and in their careers to come.
And as something of a parting gift, I wanted to leave them with five general pieces of advice for their no-doubt brilliant future careers:
1. Know your kit
Android versus iOS, Mac versus PC, Canon versus Nikon. None of this matters. All of them are perfectly good bits of kit that will allow you to do you job. Just make sure that you're familiar enough with them that they effectively disappear, leaving you to focus on the journalism. Don't rely on your work IT department to provide you with what you need - they're always behind the curve and are working to different agendas. Make the right kit choices for you, and put the time in to make sure you know how it works. It'll pay off in spades, because it gives you the time and the skills to produce really good work. Which leads us to...
2. Invest time to save time
Digital journalism is about working clever, so you can work hard but effectively. The best time investment I've put in during the last few years is learning Markdown. This is a "language" for writing web copy fluidly, without having to hard code the HTML and without the time delay of constantly going up to click on the formatting buttons. So far I've written this post - links, crossheads and all, without touching the trackpad once. All the formatting has been done using Markdown, and it'll be translated to HTML when I publish. WordPress supports it. Medium supports it. SquareSpace supports it. Great skill to learn, because it makes me faster. Find things like this. Take the time to learn them.
@adders you gotta add an addendum to 2. Learn to touchtype & learn to type **really** fast on a touchscreen. D'you like the Markdown there!— ilicco (@ilicco) March 5, 2014
3. Never be afraid to experiment
People who tell you what the "right" way to use an online service are usually wrong. Why? Because these things change over time. Like any social system, the dynamics are constantly changing, and the evolving technology beneath them - and around them - just accelerates that process. IGNORE any article that tells you how to use a new social platform within the first month or so of that platform's life - maybe the first six months. Behaviour patterns take a while to emerge, and even longer to settle down. The people who create the service are often atrociously bad at understanding how it will eventually be used. Learn by experimenting - and by watching the experiments of others.
4. Find your peers
I've had a cohort of friends and colleagues around me as long as I've been doing digital journalism. The likes of Kevin Anderson, Robin Hamman, Joanna Geary, Alison Gow, Sarah Hartley, Andy Dickinson, Graham Holliday, Martin Stabe, Glyn Mottershead and Paul Bradshaw have been influencing my thinking for over a decade, and way too many others to list have joined that on-going conversation about digital journalism in the time since. We've shared experiences, knowledge, failures and successes, and through that driven the field forwards. This field is moving too fast for any one person to keep up with on their own - so find people you trust, and continue sharing your experiences with them. If those are your classmates, so much the better.
5. Don't obsess about journalism
Many of the things that will change journalism won't come from within journalism. Pay attention to what your peers all over the world are doing, sure. But cast your net wider. Many of the disasters we've seem in media's attempt to develop online community have happened because the people behind it haven't looked outside the media frame of reference. There's experience, learning and methodology that's been developed over two decades that's been ignored or missed simply because the discussion about the future of news has turned inwards. Disruption comes from the outside: if you want to see it coming, you need to be looking the right way.
This is the fifth in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I'm going to try to write through March.
This blog is eleven years old today.
But really, who cares on a day when:
- Mail Online took over Metro Online
- Flipboard bought Zite
- BBC Three heads to being an online-only channel
It's interesting tracking the relative ages of those things, though. BBC Three is less than a month older than this blog - it was launched on the 9th February 2003. While Metro newspaper dates back to 1999, the website appears to have launched in 2004 - making it younger than this blog. Flipboard and Zite are both whippersnappers, both around three years old.
So, I need to face it. This blog, while not even teenager, is old. But while it may be old, at least it has stamina...
Photo by Martin Snopek, and used under a Creative Commons licence
March 4, 2014
I've been reading - and throughly enjoying - Leander Kahney's book about Jony Ive. Ive himself remains somewhat elusive in the story, but his work leaps out, and in the end, that's what matters. The stuff about his childhood and early entry into design is interesting, but the story really accelerates once he joins Apple and then, critically, Steve Jobs comes back into the company. Then the tale really becomes compelling, because you start to see more insight into what Jobs actually did with the company when he came back than even the official Jobs biography really showed you.
This is what it comes down to: Jobs remakes the company. He turns Apple into a completely different beast. It's not a company driven by engineering, like most tech firms, nor by marketing, which critics accuse it of, but by the Industrial Design department, who actually lead the development of the company. Everything is then structured around taking the designs that emerge from Ive's team, making them work as pieces of technology, and making them profitable as products on the shelves.
What's fascinating is the degree to which the people around Jobs manage him, how they manipulate him into signing off on the ideas and designs that they want to see succeed. Jobs is predictable enough in his reactions, that winning his sign-off was almost a game. His famous taste-making is actually well distributed through the company, giving me more hope for the future of post-Jobs Apple than I expected.
There's no such thing as best practice
The two key players in the transformation remain Jobs and Ive - neither of whom had a formal background in business in any sense, yet they built one of the powerhouse companies in the world. What I find compelling in this is their combination of utter comfort with lifting the best ideas from wherever they kind find them - the Apple design process is actually lifted from the way satellite or aviation companies work - but complete disregard for the shibboleth of "best practice". It's a company that's confident in its own mission and quite prepared to go to the lengths needed to make that vision come true. It's decision making is swift, and centred. It's the execution from that vision that takes all the time and energy.
This feels like a good model for a company in a time of change. When the world shifts around you fast, sitting back and using endless committees to make decisions just makes things too slow.Equally, sitting around and waiting for "best practice" to emerge, or seeking "best of breed" solutions is just management jargon concealing the fact that you have either no idea what to do or no confidence in your own judgement, and then have to wait for someone else to show you the way. And that means praying that you can execute faster and more efficiently than someone with the smarts to come up with the idea you're copying, and a head start on you.
Everything that makes businesses strong in times of incremental change makes them vulnerable in times of rapid disruption.
Playing the mug's game
It's a mug's game trying to figure out what you should do, based on what Apple has done. Even Jobs himself advised his successor not to waste any time wondering about what he would have done. But this tale of a bunch of people without any of the traditional business qualifications taking a company being run into the group by people with those qualifications and making it fly does tell you a lot about accepted business wisdom.
And once you see this pattern, you can't stop seeing it. The internet is full of people wanting to learn how to do social media by reading a list of the top 10 ways to use service x for purpose y. And it's horseshit. It's trite nonsense fed by the cynical to those lacking in confidence. One company's, one customer base's answers are not another's. If you really want to stand out, be a magpie mind, and mix the best bits that you steal from others with the best bits of creation from your own brain, and forge something new.
Anything else just makes you a pale imitation of someone else.
Like I said, bloody good book.
This is the fourth in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I'm going to try to write through March.
Two notable things from the FT's 2013 results:
The FT's total circulation grew 8% year-on-year to 652,000 across print and online, the highest paying readership in its 126-year history. FT.com digital subscriptions grew 31% to 415,000, more than offsetting planned reductions in print circulation. Digital subscribers now represent almost two-thirds of the FT's total paying audience and corporate users grew nearly 60% to more than 260,000.
And mobile usage:
Mobile is an increasingly important channel for the FT, driving 62% of subscriber consumption, 45% of total traffic and almost a quarter of new digital subscriptions
This is the digital transition and the mobile transition happening at the same time.
Is there actually a difference any more?
Full disclosure: the FT is a client of mine, through eConsultancy
I've not tried out embedding a Flipboard magazine on here yet:
And now I have. My life is richer, somehow.
March 3, 2014
So, I knew there would be at least one day in this idiotic project of mine when it would be really hard to get it done.
I wasn't expecting it to be day three.
For various reasons - that pretty much come down to a tube strike - I've just delivered a full day's training for a publisher client of eConsultancy, and then gone on to do two and a half hours with one cohort of students at City University. That, gentle reader, is one long and cognitively intense day.
So, I'm sat on a train rattling its way back to the coast, sat just across from a grumpy man watching video on his iPad, and trying to see if I can think of anything coherent to say this evening. Here's one thing:
I love niche journalists.
Loving the niche reporter
There's something in me that loves working with really good journalists who have drilled down into a reporting specialisation and can ride the wave of their readers' enthusiasm for a subject. It doesn't matter how dull some of these subjects might seem at first glance; if you really roll up your neuro-sleeves and get stuck in, you can find what's fascinating and exciting in any subject at all - and that's an incredibly valuable skill to have right now.
All of us who are connected to this here internet thing have one thing in common: we're suffering from information overload. There's a reflexive viewpoint that suggests that things would be better if we went back to just having a few selective gatekeepers publish for us, but that very clearly isn't going to happen. Genies have an almost pathological aversion to going back into the bottle, whatever fairy-tales tell you. The there's the Shirky position of "we need better filters". But I distrust constant algorithmic filtering of what I see - filter bubble ahoy! - and rather enjoy the idiosyncrasies of good old human selection.
Attention crisis journalism
The common response of people seems to be flight into speciality. When presented with overwhelming levels of information, you look for tools or processes to just narrow down to the subjects that are most important to you. For example: how many national or international news stories did you really car about today? The only one that's actively crossed my radar (on an admittedly busy day) has been the developing situation in the Ukraine, that tickles away in the back of my brain, making me feel nervous that, if we're not very careful this could turn into something bigger and nastier than we expected.
How many stories in the worlds of journalism, publishing and tech have a paid attention to? I've read about a dozen or so, and saved a similar number into my "read later" apps of choice.
The glut of national news
Here's the thing: I think the news business is the wrong way around. I think we have way too many people producing the general news and opinion that most people have only a snacking interest in, and way too few working in the real niches of information and interest that people have an almost unlimited appetite for. The disruption we're going through right now is that imbalance of supply and demand starting to work its way through the system.
National newspapers are getting ever more desperate in their search for sustainable business models now the bundling effect of the printed package has gone, while the under-supply in the niche sector has largely, in the consumer space at least, been met by the rise of the enthusiast blogger in the space. This is amateur in the true sense of the word - someone who does it for love, not money.
This is why consumer mags are having such a torrid time transitioning to the web - why pay to read slightly distant journalists writing about your passion, when you can read the words of passionate participants for free? I suspect the collapse of the consumer magazine will happen sector by sector - how many computer games mags are left on the shelf? - and will lead to the destruction of many well-know brands, simply because the publishers have left it too late to start answering the question of their role in this changed world.
The new consumer publishing ecosystem
But that's OK - as we've seen in the gaming sector, new professional entities hiring journalists have emerged, who explicitly exist in that diverse ecosystem of amateur and professional. They interact with - and recruit from - the passionate bloggers. That trend will only accelerate.
Right now, it feels like a great time to be a niche journalist - because as our existing institutions crumble, we can seen new ones rising. I'd feel a lot more uneasy if I was committed to generalist reporting - because we're not seeing similar new institutions launch in that space.
Learn to love the niche, my friends. It's where the hot publishing actions is in the attention crisis age.
This is the third in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I'm going to try to write through March.
March 2, 2014
So, here's a question. Why am I putting myself through the horror of trying to write something substantive for this blog every single day in March?
Leaving aside the possibility of an unexplored masochistic streak, the fundamental reason is because I want to. I like blogging. I love it, in fact. It's been nearly 13 years since I discovered it as a medium and it shifted my world around completely. I'm a busy man, though, trapped between a hectic four-day-a-week consultancy career (long may that "hectic" last) and the demands of being 50% of the available parenting resource for a little girl who has hit the toddler years fast and hard, and is accelerating towards the terrible twos as quickly as she possibly can.
The modern 40s are so busy it's hard to assess them. Researchers describe the new "rush hour of life," when career and child-rearing peaks collide.
Sell, Sell, Self
This blog has got pushed to the sidelines repeatedly since I became a free agent and a Dad, and the closest thing I have to a New Year resolution this year is to rectify that. There are prosaic, financial reasons behind that: my blog remains my showcase, the source of much of my work, and without it I'm essentially doing very little marketing right now (my workload is leaving little room for the round of coffees and lunches that make up my self-promotion). The busy period will end - and I need something there to keep me in people's minds.
However, it's also the place where I crystallise my ideas about the subjects I follow. Some of that "writing myself into existence" has transferred into my lecturing and training, where I've been forced into developing a new language around some of my areas of expertise just so I can communicate them effectively - and that's a subject I intent to return to this month - but my blog still remains the most compelling way of doing so. Why? Well, because I can expose my ideas to the criticism of my peers - and that's incredibly useful in making sure I'm talking something that approximates to sense.
Blogito Ergo Sum.
Also, some people have been doing something similar, and that lodged the idea in my head. MG Siegler kicked off the year doing something like this. The Man Mayfield pushed me into subscribing to Dan Hon's current experiment in daily mailings (leading to his probable nervous breakdown given the volume he produces) has been a daily(ish) prod to my own conscience.
Besides, a couple of recent posts which have garnered good engagement (and I feel dirty using that word) have reminded me that it's the personal stuff that makes a blog fly. Be it photos from the US, or an insight into an advert I ended up appearing in, that kind of material makes a blog engaging and human in the way some links and commentary doesn't.
I seem to need to relearn - or, at least, reinforce in myself - these kinds of lessons every few years. That's no bad thing, because it also forces me to check and re-evaluate what I know in the light of changes that have happened over that period. After over a decade's blogging, it would be horribly easy to get into a rut - and I don't want to do that.
Somehow, over the last six months, I've slipped into being predominantly a trainer. The majority (but not the entirety) of my work has been teaching other people stuff. That's great, as far as it goes. It pays well - very well, at times - and is something I seem to be good at. There's also a pretty evident gap in the market for someone with my particular skill set, which works well for me.
I don't want too walk too far down that path, though. I enjoy both the strategic consulting and the content creation aspects of my work, too, and I'm going to be putting some more effort into landing that kind of work in the coming months. In the meantime, though, it's important to do as well as teach. And this blog is the place where I can do whatever the hell I want - even a stupid writing project when I'm far too busy already.
This is the second in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I'm going to try to write through March.
March 1, 2014
I had an odd experience on Facebook the other day. It's probably the closest I'll ever come to those apocryphal tales of warriors emerging from the jungles of Asia to discover that the war ended decades ago. A friend posted about the GoTo security flaw that has afflicted Apple devices, that was fixed over the last week or so.
He mentioned, in passing, that Apple products were no longer the bastion of security they once were. Someone immediately popped up ranting about "90% marketing and 10% security by obscurity", and I thought "Really? There's still someone out there fighting the Mac versus PC war?"
Serving in the OS war trenches
I served my time in those trenches a good 15 years or so back. I valiantly fought for my beloved Mac against the overwhelming hordes of PC users that made up my friends and colleagues. I used to feel guilty about it, like it was an embarrassment from my youth, but I've sort of gotten over that. I was battling to preserve an OS that I preferred using, in a time when there was a very real possibility that it might disappear. There's nothing wrong in standing up for choice. In that, that's why today's Android versus iOS battle doesn't even feel remotely similar, because both OSes are doing very nicely, thankyouverymuch. Neither is at any risk of expiring. In fact, as a consumer, I'm rather enjoying watching two strong competitors drive each other ever onwards. It means a better device in my pocket, whichever side I choose.
This Facebook warrior that started this rambling thought process, emerging from the jungle, is coming out to find that his side, which we'll call Micro$oft for old times' sake, won. And what it won was - irrelevance. You can't dispute that Microsoft still has an utter stranglehold on corporate computing, putting a PC on the desktop of pretty much every corporate drone out there. And you'll have to pry PCs from the cold, dead hands of gamers everywhere.
If it's not mobile it doesn't matter
But beyond that? The landscape has changed, and all the interest - and sales - are in mobile devices. Poor old Microsoft is a distant third in this game, climbing up nervously even after it saw BlackBerry plummet down past it a short while ago. It's been utterly unable to turn its market dominance into PCs into amiable strategy in the mobile age, and has made the unedifying discovery that its critics were right: its main selling point was being a cheap, flexible knock-off of an Apple OS. How does it know? Because Google's cheap, flexible knock off of an Apple OS is kicking its butt in the marketplace.
The irony is that Microsoft has done it right this time. It built something fresh, original and iconic in Windows Phone. And it can't shift it in any significant numbers. Only its hardest core fans have gone for it, and its traditional buyers have gone Android in their droves. It's a pity, because like many Apple fans, I really like Windows Phone.
Never trust a fanboy
If there's any moral to this tale, it's possibly that: never take business strategy advice from Apple fanboys. Oh, and don't fight last decade's OS wars. It just makes you look silly on Facebook.
This is the first in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I'm going to try to write through March.
February 28, 2014
You know that quote you always hear?
Information Wants To Be Free.
It's not the whole quote.
Here's the entirely of it:
Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. ...That tension will not go away
The whole quote is so much more interesting than the shortened version. And people only quoting the shortened version tell you a lot about themselves…