Whenever I post about problems I have with Twitter's direction, I inevitably get a few people accusing me of acting entitled toward a service I don't pay for. In my experience, this is a pretty common rallying point for defenders of unpaid web properties: you're not being charged money, so what right do you have to criticize? Customer care and attention, it would seem, need only extend as far as a user's wallet. Don't like the direction a free product is going? You're free to stop using it any time.
We've got to stop thinking like this.
The problem with this point of view is two fold. First of all, none of these services are free. If they aren't selling you yet, rest assured they will be soon. I have nothing against advertising as a business model (as long as it's smartly implemented). But it's ludicrous to pretend that selling my eyeballs to advertisers doesn't make me a customer. We may not pay with our wallets, but we're certainly generating revenue. In my mind, that definitely creates a two-way relationship and an obligation on the part of the product-owner to support and listen to their community as the product evolves. Beyond being an obligation, it seems obvious that nurturing and advocating for an active and passionate community will lead companies to evolve their products more thoughtfully, leading to even greater revenue in the long-term.
The other problem is with this idea that if you're unhappy with changes to a product you love, you should just quit it entirely. Ironically, I've never heard anyone say this about their own free product. In fact, the best companies out there take the completely opposite stance. Even Facebook, kings of the tumultuous redesign, never implore detractors to quit Facebook. And although most of the time they stay the course with new product launches, slow rollouts help them catch user feedback early and adjust as they go. And though it's rare, they've even pulled entire features offline due to user feedback. But no matter what they never, ever tell dissatisfied users to quit if they don't like the latest changes.
The reason is simple, too: your most dissatisfied users are also your most passionate. When I was at Formspring, I remember seeing people tweet about how much they hated the latest design tweak and literally seconds later tweeting out requests for more questions on their profile. People would say terrible things about the increase in width (they couldn't see their custom backgrounds on smaller screens), but would use that extra space to compose long and interesting answers to questions. They cared more about the product than anyone else. When you say you want passionate users, it's a double-edged sword that way. You have to accept the gushing praise and insanely-high usage along with the criticisms, justified or not.
Product people: love the entitled, freeloading, passionate users. They're your entitled, freeloading, passionate users.
“Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”
— Fred Rogers, Life's Journeys According to Mister Rogers: Things to Remember Along the Way
I was reading Om Malik's post about Yahoo! this morning and thinking a bit about why companies like Yahoo! and MySpace feel irredeemable to people. So irredeemable that in our minds no amount of talent, rebranding, redesigning or corporate restructuring could make a difference. Personally, I like underdogs, but even I can't shake the idea that certain companies are doomed regardless of how many times they change course.
At its core, I think this view stems, not from a company's struggling product, but from its historic lack of character. How long was MySpace a wasteland of barely-navigable UX and physically-painful visuals? Even as Facebook pounded away at their market share with iteration after iteration, year after year, they rested on their laurels. It took nearly five years for MySpace to push out a thoughtful update to their site. And even then, that project was completed (admirably) by Adaptive Path, not MySpace. MySpace couldn't be bothered to make the right long-term hires to give their users a great experience. And while the latest design looks lovely, it won't bring back even a fraction of all those users who associate MySpace with auto-playing music and neon green profile backgrounds.
Looking at Yahoo!, the story, as any Flickr user will tell you, is about focusing on entirely the wrong things. Instead of putting resources and passionate folks onto Flickr post-acquisition, Yahoo! added more layers of corporate bureaucracy. Instead of making it easier for acquired companies to design and build for the future, Yahoo! historically made things harder. As a result, promising teams and products were either shut down for underperforming (though who could blame them) or left wallowing in corporate jail, unable to pursue new platforms or ways of thinking. What a waste. Who now could ever trust Yahoo! to launch or support a meaningful product? There was a time that they were leading the industry. Now, they're a punchline.
The sad part is that this perception makes it infinitely more difficult for companies to get turned around. Even if the amazing people (and there are always amazing people at these places) succeed at shifting internal priorities, their initiatives still stand a good chance of falling flat in the short term. Like starting a marathon hours after your competitors took off. Not only are you at a significant disadvantage, but it's likely the spectators all moved further down the track to watch the race. And unless a company is truly committed to change (think return-of-Steve-at-Apple level commitment), short term failures shake their resolve and they fall back to old habits.
Today, more than ever, the character of your company matters. With every decision you make, every feature you prioritize and de-prioritize you're telling users who you are and what you value. Is your company one that prioritizes internal processes and hierarchy over shipping products? Is it one that puts shipping something over shipping later? Or do you take pride in regular, major releases even if they temporarily confuse and infuriate your users? All companies, including yours, develop patterns like these, both good and bad. Look back and honestly evaluate those patterns and see how they hold up against who you want your company to be.
And if you're wondering if users really think about your company's character on a day-to-day basis, don't worry. They don't. Character isn't determined on a single day. Character is what you build for the long-haul. It's what you evaluate every decision against, no matter how small it may seem at the time. It's the most valuable asset you have and you should protect it with all your might. Because when times get tough (and, in time, they always do) smart people aren't just going to bet on your new CEO or latest redesign. They're going to wager on who you've been.
Smart and measured steps to ensure that users know what they're getting into. These rules should also help prevent multiple-quantity rewards that unintentionally mislead backers into feeling like they're purchasing instead of funding. I still think it's equally important to stress to backers through Kickstarter's own UI and messaging that they're investors in an idea, but maybe this iteration will be enough to cement that.
And while I obviously agree with the latter camp, they're all missing the point. Apple didn't just not put NFC in this version. I don't think they will (or should) put it in any version of the iPhone. Simply put, NFC is a step backward from where the app ecosystem already is. Taking my phone out of my pocket to pay is just as forward thinking as taking my wallet out. Bumping phones with someone to share a photo is about as innovative as hitting the share button in the photo gallery.
Apple (or anyone for that matter) doesn't need to add a new technology to enable the future of payments and sharing. That future is already being invented with wi-fi and cellular data and is way better than anything that could be done with NFC. NFC, in fact, is the antithesis of the Internet. Near-field vs. any field. Touching my phone to the counter vs. ordering from anywhere. Companies implementing this sort of backwards-thinking technology shouldn't be celebrated. They should be chastised for implementing tech that essentially leaves us no better off than when we started.
I still don't love the general direction of the company, but Twitter's announcement this morning drives at the consistent experience they've been trumpeting about for the past two years. As a baseline for a family of products that will remain in lockstep as the platform evolves, it's a huge success for Twitter and its users .
The one gripe I still have is the Mac application being left out in the cold.
I was at XOXO this weekend and have to say it was one of the most amazing conferences I've ever attended. There were some great takeaways I've been simmering on and will try to write about over the next week.
The Internet wasn't always this way.
There was a time when we wouldn't have trusted anyone on the web asking for money to fund their dream project. There was a time when we connected with web sites, not the people who created them. There was a time when web companies were as opaque as real companies, and that was okay because it was all we knew. There was a time when companies had histories instead of present and continuing narratives.
The new era of personally connecting with brands we consume and their creators is the culminating realization of the Internet's potential. The original promise of a digitally-connected world was that we could shrink the globe and bring people together; that we could expose and humanize distant cultures to each other in real time. What we didn't expect (but should have) was that exposure leaving us longing for similar humanization of our daily lives - the people we interact with locally, places we live and companies we give our business to. We found that those deeper human connections result in richer, more meaningful experiences, along with a higher overall quality of products and services.
And how do creators make those connections? By telling us their stories and letting us act as a part of them. By driving for relationships instead of transactions. By explaining who their company is and what they stand for. Not just with an About Us page, but with every action they take. Simple, VHX, 20x200, Kickstarter, Etsy. All focus on the connections people want to have with their bank, with the film they watched, with the art on their wall or the handcrafted piece on their bookshelf. All of these companies strive to convince us all that companies can be people too. Or, at least, that companies are made of people and are thus capable of people stuff (like empathy and optimism and playfulness).
This weekend Dan Harmon posited that the Internet is the world's greatest people connector. I would contend that it's not the Internet connecting people (any more than a television or an alphabet can by themselves). Rather, it's these empathic and humanizing services and products we're creating that are bringing us all closer together. Through these services we're rediscovering our sense of community (this time at a global instead of local level) and responsibility to each other and to our collective destiny. The Internet wasn't always this way, but if XOXO this weekend was any indicator, it is now and there is absolutely no going back.
Internet comments have long been a source of pain for popular web sites. On one hand, the ability to participate with a story gives readers a closer connection with the site and probably drives a bit of returning traffic. On the other hand, comment sections are wretched hives of scum and villainy. Internet Trolls, functional illiterates and just straight-up assholes consistently overwhelm threads with nastiness that drowns any reasoned and thought-out discussion. User voting systems sometimes help, but the reality is that most blogs' comments sections aren't worth the read.
In the ensuing discussion about the Disrupt comments section, my friend Keith Robinson mentioned that he's been using Branch to create more controlled comment threads. For those unfamiliar, Branch allows users to create topics and invite others to comment about those topics. The branch created is publicly available and anyone can ask to join the discussion, but must be approved by the branch's creator first. As a result, the conversations on Branch are generally intelligent, respectful and help drive a topic in multiple directions from a variety of viewpoints.
You know, like comments sections are intended to do.
Instead, we've spent years promoting this idea of casual commentary over rational and thoughtful conversation. Favored shouting matches between strangers over conversation amongst peers. Chaos over curation. I don't want to hear what just anyone thinks about the Apple-Samsung trial, Twitter's recent API changes or the upcoming presidential election. I want to read discussion from the people that steep themselves in the topic. That's why I love Branch. I don't want or need to be a part of every conversation. But I love reading conversations and debates amongst informed individuals who carry unique and varied perspectives. I'm glad we're finally rediscovering that sort of interaction.
So blogs of the world, please kill your comments sections. Replace them with Branch links and make your authors responsible for the discussions. And Branch, if you're not thinking about making your product embeddable, you're crazy. You're the future of discussion on the web.
Twitter's outspoken desire for a consistent experience and their inability to deliver that on more than one platform speaks volumes about the company. If they ran Apple, they'd create five new music formats and then discontinue support for MP3 because it's “inconsistent.” Instead of attempting to unify their UX, they've reportedly killed the Mac app and limited the ability of third parties to support it (or any platform, really). Now people are just waiting to see which of the other apps get killed off sans-replacement, with many looking to Twitter's neglected iPad app as the next to get the sunset treatment.
I'm all for cannibalizing your own products, but that means replacing them with something better, faster, stronger. Leaving well-loved apps out to rot (and severely limiting replacements) isn't merely bad form, it's a statement that Twitter's values as a company.
To my friends working for Twitter: I'm sorry for harping on your company so often lately. I realize you don't set the policy and that you probably either a) want to keep the Mac app alive or b) know something the rest of us don't. It's just that your service is so powerful and beloved that it's hard to let these things slip by without mention. Our collective hope is that by raising our voices in opposition, we may somehow have an effect on future decisions. Day after day we see the product we care for contorting itself into a company doesn't align with our ethos.
To steal a little from Simon Sinek: we used to believe what Twitter believed. We're looking for any reason to believe again. Give us a reason.
Kickstarter lightly screens projects to make sure they meet pre-defined rules.
Kickstarter is not involved in the projects themselves in any way.
Creators should (but are not required to) be transparent. If severe problems arise, creators are solely responsible for handling them.
Creators are legally required to fulfill the promises of their project.
Kickstarter will not refund any money, not even their percentage, from a funded project that fails to meet their obligations.
Projects are not guaranteed by Kickstarter.
Kickstarter has made it easier for conscientious backers to figure out if the project owner can actually complete their project. But Kickstarter themselves do not screen for ability to complete projects. Again, Kickstarter is not involved in any way.
To their credit, they're mostly clear about their level of involvement: zero. They make the site, they take their cut and that's that. I'm a bit confused about creators being “legally required” to fulfill their promises, seeing as I can't imagine Kickstarter actually taking any project owner to court (if they did, it would make people way more wary of using Kickstarter to raise funds). Are backers supposed to somehow find each other and bring a suit? What about Kickstarter's cut (that the project owner never sees)?
I love Kickstarter. I think it's a fantastic, well-executed product that has helped lots of people find funding for their idea or dream and given way more people hope of one day making their ideas and dreams a reality. As a backer, I've gotten a lot of value not just out of the rewards, but out of seeing cool projects succeed. However, I think they're backing themselves into an awkward corner by simultaneously claiming no responsibility, while also claiming project owners are legally obligated to fulfill their promises. There are a couple ways they could clear things up and give users, particularly backers, more clarity and confidence in what Kickstarter will or won't do.
Offer support to backers of failed and unresponsive projects
This is the option I like the least, but if Kickstarter wants to legally obligate project owners, it's the best solution I can think of. Currently, how backers are supposed to find each other to take legal action against a delinquent project is pretty nebulous. I guess they could use the project's comments system, but who's receiving those via email? You could also walk through and message every backer individually, maybe. But come on.
What would be useful is having a Kickstarter support channel that a) helps backers reach out to unresponsive creators and b) provides backers with a method for contacting and organizing other backers from the same project. That last one is pretty tricky, but if a creator won't respond to Kickstarter themselves reaching out, it seems reasonable (and “severe” enough) that the company could at least help backers organize themselves for next steps.
The plus side is that Kickstarter remains a neutral party still effectively acting as a handshake between backers and creators. It also allows backers a way of verifying that the creator is MIA. It's also a great way to encourage creators not to leave dead air when their project is in jeopardy. On the other side, this solution magnifies the litigiousness too much for my taste and I think there's an easier way to guarantee everyone involved knows where they stand.
Single reward tiers. No legal ramifications mumbo jumbo.
Most people I know personally don't seem to be that upset when a Kickstarter project fails or doesn't come to fruition. Maybe that's a result of all of us living in startup land where products are born and die every single day. Maybe it's because we appreciate how hard the creation process is. Whatever the case, I and most of my friends view Kickstarter as investing in potential products, not as purchases.
The problem is that Kickstarter has focused its efforts on highlighting rewards for backers. It's become a requirement that, in order to get your video game idea funded, you must provide t-shirts, stickers, trips to meet the team, custom character creations, etc. As a result, the spirit of Kickstarter has become twisted along the way. Products with single reward tiers either wise up and add more very quickly, or they die. When VC's fund a company, the company doesn't build a variety of products for each VC depending on their level of investment. They build one product and give the investors input channels and early access. I can't imagine having to put together a dozen different products on top of the real product I wanted funding for. It's insane.
Kill multiple reward tiers. People can donate what they want, but if you hit a certain minimum, you get the product if it ever ships. If it ever ships is important. We're not buyers, we're backers. We're speculating that a product can be built for x-amount of dollars by people we've likely never met. There's risk involved. Buckle up for some disappointment now and then of a project dying. That makes the projects that ship all the more exciting.
Sure, you probably won't see as many OMGWEHITAMILLIONDOLLARS Kickstarters, but who cares? If the goals are to get projects funded and to connect people who care about building products with people who care about the products existing, I think you could sleep well at night. Fewer reward tiers means more time spent by the creators on, you know, creating. No option to litigate (along with clearer messaging about the nature of backing projects) also means expectations are more reasonable on the backers side.
I'm excited for the future of Kickstarter and plan on backing many more projects. They've single-handedly democratized the way products and ideas get funded and have opened the doors of success for thousands of budding entrepreneurs. I just hope they don't lose sight of the forest for the trees.
A lot of people are surprised, considering my career, that I have my BA in Creative Writing rather than design. Truthfully, making design my career didn't even cross my mind once during college. Although I spent a lot of free time teaching myself Photoshop, HTML and CSS (I learned Photoshop and HTML when I was sixteen), I mostly viewed my obsession with design the same way I viewed my love of technology: as a fun hobby that paid once in awhile. Instead, I concentrated on honing my fiction and planned on getting my MFA. Then, hopefully, I would publish a short story collection and start my life as an author. Right before graduating, I was fortuitously admitted to the MFA program at The New School in New York. Everything seemed to be falling into place.
Unfortunately, the financial aid package that arrived later promised to more than quadruple the amount of debt I had (after four years at USC), not accounting for room and board. After thinking it over, I decided, rightly or wrongly, to take a year off, go home to Louisiana and apply to other better-funded programs the following year. In the meantime, I got a job at Starbucks in Baton Rouge to both pass the time and earn enough to live on my own. I continued writing, though my pace slowed with the addition of a full-time job. During the next year, I researched a lot of respected MFA programs, applied to all of them and waited.
I wasn't accepted by a single one.
I remember receiving the final rejection and the feeling of dread that swept over me. What was I supposed to do? I could keep writing, sure, but these rejections were a huge drain on my velocity. If I wasn't good enough for an MFA program, maybe I wasn't good enough to make writing work as a lifestyle. And without that, what was I supposed to do? Working at Starbucks, while fine, was not something I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to make an impact. I'd thought writing was my tool to do that. Without it, I didn't think I had anything left to give.
I was pretty depressed. I began going out every night (sometimes with friends, sometimes without) to keep my mind off of things. I threw myself into my job, working as many hours as they had, taking every open shift. I even started working shifts at other stores when I had too much time on my hands. I did everything I could to not stop, to not think about my the trajectory of my life. If I did stop, I became paralyzed with anxiety and lost hours to feelings of worthlessness and helplessness.
All the while, instead of pursuing my writing, I threw myself into my hobby - Photoshop and Textmate. Each week I'd spend my free time meticulously reworking my personal site - the look, the code. It offered the creative release I needed along with a problem-solving component that kept me occupied for hours at a time.
Months later, it occurred to me that, perhaps, I had my career and hobby reversed and that maybe I should take a shot at designing professionally instead. The tough part of this realization was, as I think it always is, admitting defeat. Thankfully, I was able to swallow my pride and started researching where some of my favorite web sites were being built. And wouldn't you know it, they all pointed toward a single location - San Francisco.
From there, I started looking at jobs in the Bay Area. I wasn't even looking at technology or design jobs specifically. I was looking for anything to get out there, anything that could act as a stepping stone. Geography, at that point, was my biggest hurdle and I knew that if I could just get to the city, I could work my ass off and make something happen. I interviewed for a marketing job at a hotel, applied for editorial jobs at local newspapers and even called a few Starbucks stores there to talk about transferring internally.
Serendipitously, not long after starting my search, my friends' startup got funded. I'd met them thanks to an English class at USC, they remembered I was a web designer and, because we'd kept in touch, knew I was looking to move. They needed a designer on the cheap and offered me the job. After a nerve-wracking phone interview with Bryce, their lead investor, I packed my things and flew to Oakland, California.
To this day, I'm still not sure why I didn't direct all that energy at writing instead. I certainly could have, though now I'm grateful I didn't. As it turns out, I love design. I love the problem-solving. I love making people's lives better, or easier, or (in a perfect world) both. Most importantly, I have this feeling that, if I keep at it, I have a chance to change the world for the better; to create something that affects how we live and empathize and interact with one another. Just the thought of someday achieving that level of impact fills me with more purpose than my writing ever did. When I think about that, I'm a little mad at myself for not considering this line of work far sooner.
So stop spending so much time worrying about what to do with your life. While you're busy worrying, you're losing valuable time actually moving forward. Forget what you went to school for. Think about your hobbies, about the things you love doing in your spare time. Could you make a career out of some of those things? I'll go out on a limb and say yes, you definitely can. Not knowing what to do frees you to pursue those passions, to try things you hadn't considered seriously before.
Once you find the thing, take any steps that will put you in a position to succeed. In my case, that meant moving to a new city. In your case, it might mean reaching out to people who are doing what you want to do. It may mean starting smaller than you'd like. It may mean taking an unrelated job at a company you love and working toward your goal from within. The great thing is, that once you've found the thing you're passionate about, you won't bat an eye at doing any of these things. Because what you're pursuing isn't simply a hobby anymore. It's much, much more.