Week 9.21

Hi again, we’re almost 9 weeks into the year which feels about right in terms of how long we’ve been at it, but not really when you consider net output. I’m still in a mental state of January. Unintentionally, this issue seems to have formed itself around the themes of nostalgia and work.

• For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been unable to get Debbie Gibson’s We Could Be Together (1989) out of my head. It can surface in the morning as I’m brushing my teeth or at any other time, like during a Zoom call. I said on Twitter that it might be down to how the song brings me back to a simpler time. It’s an escape hatch from the onslaught of today’s complexity and drudgery, straight into a corner of childhood memory where the days were long but full of possibility.

That brought me back to my old Tolerable 80s mix on Apple Music, which I’ll now try to update a little bit. Forgive the fact that some liberties are being taken: there’s at least one song from the late 70s and another from the early 90s.

While doing this, I discovered I’ve never heard Cyndi Lauper’s first album from 1984, She’s So Unusual in its entirety, just the hits like Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Time After Time, and All Through The Night. It’s a pop debut with astounding, timeless songwriting. Her cover of Prince’s When You Were Mine, one of my all-time favorites, is crystal meth icing.

• I was absentmindedly reading the Substack newsletter bookbear express, by a random person named Ava that I follow on Twitter, when the album’s first track came on. In a neat coincidence, Cyndi sang “money, money changes everything” over her essay on work done out of love and how to square it with making a living. Around the same time, this article from Ness Labs about the fallacy of “work-life balance” arrived in my inbox. It argues that the definition of work can’t be limited to your day job, because things that take up time and energy, like caring for a loved one, can feel like work as much as life. If the lines are going to blur, then instead of chasing balance one should embrace that fate will deliver a rollercoaster of work and life extremes over time.

I don’t think it’s complicated. When someone says they want more work-life balance, it usually means their non-negotiable employment has crossed some boundary too many times, leading to a state of joylessness (Life-lessness). This isn’t a case where love is in the picture; people would bend and square the boundaries themselves if it was. Nor is it likely about being so in love with your work that finding time for life becomes a struggle. This is about people being squeezed. Being able to sustainably protect your boundaries is a privilege that comes from power. Seeking work-life balance means seeking leverage against external systems. At the end of the path is either profound love or liberating apathy.

“I want more life, fucker”

• I can’t remember when or how I started following Ava, but at some point I found a cluster of young tech people in California. When articles started coming out about a COVID exodus from San Francisco, I was already seeing it play out on my Twitter feed.

Finding and interacting with random people on the internet continues to be one the greatest perks of being alive at this point in history. A conversation yesterday (okay, more like one-sided lecture) with some kids born in the 1990s led to the discovery that they didn’t know what Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were. Feeling very old, I told them about growing up with computers that weren’t even networked. And when they finally were, how we would use modems sitting atop our PCs to phone other people’s PCs, and browse text-based UIs they’d set up for trading files and leaving messages for other guests. Because most BBS operations only had one phone number, a Friday night could be spent mostly trying all the ones you knew about until you found a line that wasn’t engaged.

They were proto-websites, built for one intimate visit at a time, and I have fond memories of the basic BBS I set up for friends to visit. Fast forward a couple of years, and I’d abandoned the local BBS scene for the absolute expanse of the internet, where you could chat with people in real time, anywhere in the world. I think it’s always good to reflect and take in the staggering perspective of what our simple brains have had to adapt to in one lifetime.

Maybe I should make a social networking site or app that replicates the BBS experience. Only 10 people allowed in at once? One person per city?

• The elder millennial story hour actually began when I realized that Jed McCaleb, creator of Ripple (XRP) and Stellar (XLM), also made eDonkey and Overnet, P2P file sharing networks that I used the hell out of in the early 2000s. “What’s eDonkey?”, John asked to my absolute shock. He was probably six years old while we were ripping, mixing, and burning. On hindsight, it makes total sense McCaleb moved in that direction. I think my exposure to Overnet’s decentralized network technology back then made it easier for me to grasp blockchain concepts years later.

• More Dispo photos were taken this week, practically on the daily. I have a short wishlist for feature improvements: 1) EXIF info embedded in each exported photo, 2) a 3:2 aspect ratio option to match actual 35mm disposable film photos because 16:9 is super weird, and 3) a fixed focus option that overrides autofocus and just locks to 3 meters or something, so it’s instant when you hit the shutter and some shots will be beautifully out-of-focus every now and then.

• On Wednesday, I left the house and met with some colleagues past and present that I hadn’t seen in awhile. We went to Vatos, a Korean-Mexican place that does margaritas with makgeolli, which are exactly as sweet as they sound. It was great to see them again, which got me thinking about the central role social tools like Telegram have in helping to maintain these connections. Can you believe that we’d once have to make voice calls to each of these people to organize a quick dinner hangout?

I’d like to add Dispo to that list of tools, because shooting a shared photo album is a new interaction that might help to keep people in touch although they’re apart. I’ve started a private roll with that group to experiment, but the uptake may be a little slow.

• I got just a disappointing 15 minutes of videogame time in this week. Looking at the Switch’s upcoming release calendar, I hope to have more free time in the middle of the year for Japanese mystery visual novels and the remastered Skyward Sword, a game I never allowed myself to get on the Wii on account of not having completed Twilight Princess.

• Disney+ launched and we signed up to have a look. The catalog is a little better than I expected because the local incarnation includes content from a company called Stars that I’ve always been vaguely aware of from their movie channels on the cable TV in hospitals. Stars brings the kind of older Hollywood films that Amazon Prime Video in the US seems to be good for, but that we don’t have here.

I woke up this morning and suddenly remembered the 1994 Alec Baldwin “superhero” film, The Shadow, based on a radio series from around the WWII era. I had to see it. It wasn’t on any service except the iTunes Store: $5 to rent and $15 to own. This kind of nonsense is why streaming services still can’t offer an experience as good as eDonkey once did.

➟ How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood

Alexis Madrigal, for The Atlantic:

What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented.

Using large teams of people specially trained to watch movies, Netflix deconstructed Hollywood. They paid people to watch films and tag them with all kinds of metadata. This process is so sophisticated and precise that taggers receive a 36-page training document that teaches them how to rate movies on their sexually suggestive content, goriness, romance levels, and even narrative elements like plot conclusiveness.

The data can’t tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making. When they create a show like House of Cards, they aren’t guessing at what people want.

What a huge undertaking, and a demonstration of Amazon-like patience for a company like Netflix—slowly, quietly, build a long-view competitive advantage in technology and process that becomes impossible for others to copy, and that eventually enables a whole new range of products that are themselves hard to compete with.

This sort of rich metadata is what I’d expect IMDB to have, but a categorization exercise of so much subjective material benefits from the guidance of a single hand, while self-policing committees take much too long.

Singapore’s Pacific Rim Jaeger: URBAN REDEVELOPMENT

Singapore's Pacific Rim Jaeger: URBAN REDEVELOPMENT

Pacific Rim has a load of digital marketing bits out online, some created by Qualcomm Snapdragon (official microprocessor of the film’s Jaeger robots) on their Facebook page. One of the best is this Jaeger Designer app, which lets you modify a Unity 3D model with different parts and colors, and then render a poster featuring your own country’s robot defender, which you can also name. I think Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment sits nicely alongside the U.S.’s Gipsy Danger and Japan’s Coyote Tango.

Seeing the movie this Friday night in IMAX 3D and pretty damned excited.

Finding a Home for Your Copywriting Portfolio or: How I Learned to Stop Channeling an Art Director and Love the Words

Lots of portfolio tools advertise the ability to create a gorgeous website online within minutes, but how many are suited to showcasing a copywriter’s work? This post covers getting a basic presence up for a handful of your projects. More comprehensive site builders are only briefly mentioned.

It’s often said that people only look into their CVs between jobs, but taking stock of what you’ve accomplished on a regular basis is a really good practice. But with a standard resumé, updating a paragraph about your current employment several times a year isn’t attractive. Fortunately for people in the creative industries, there’s the portfolio, which can be very satisfying to compile, if only to remind ourselves how little victories on a project tend to make up a bigger result.

Not Your Creative Director’s Portfolio

Over the last few years, I’ve seen a fair few creative portfolios, and increasingly, when one asks to see some work, a URL gets sent instead of a PDF. When I was starting out in advertising about 8 years ago, we routinely brought physical folders of printouts to interviews. If you wanted the job, you might make an extra copy to leave behind. If you’ve heard some creatives calling their folios “books”, it’s because that’s what they really were.

Another thing that’s changed since the mid-noughties is how the presentation of a copywriter’s work has gone from showing a few ads and/or documents with long-form writing samples, to being very close to how the art guys do it. Big, colorful pictures that would reel even an illiterate eye in. Some writers’ books now haven’t got a word in them.

Carbonmade
Carbonmade: Your online portfolio, the door to a bright future in children’s illustrations

Most of the people I’ve met showed off work on portfolio cum social networking sites for creatives. Places with start-uppy Web 2.x names like Carbonmade, Krop, the Behance Network, Cargo, Coroflot, and to some extent, Dribbble. Some respectable, shirt-wearing creatives had portfolio sites on their own domains, and the ones who didn’t return their pencils used blogging services like Tumblr.

What I’ve noticed is that very few of these solutions are suited to the needs of creatives who self-identify as copywriters.

Copywriters Are A Needy Bunch

Designers, illustrators, and art directors are well served by the many visual portfolio tools out there. Flip through a few examples and you’ll notice a tendency to not explain the images — when it comes to showing off craft, the work often speaks for itself. Maybe it’s because most tools just don’t allow text at all, but I’ll come to that later.

I think a writer needs a little room to take his viewer through the work. So much of what we do is problem solving and just not visible in the finished consumer-facing work (nor should it be). Some of the things a writer could supply to complement a piece of work are: some background info, a project or team story, the strategic line between proposition and product, an elucidation of the idea (if one exists), how the piece works with a wider campaign or positioning that the brand has pursued, and any measured results that came out of it. Touching on just a little of the above, versus a caption reading “Banner Execution #2” on a photo of a toothpaste tube telling a joke, can help explain yourself come Judgement Day.

Five Steps to Happier Portfolioing

The more I saw, the more I started to wonder, where should a copywriter put their work online? To answer that question, I signed up for a bunch and put them through their paces, and also asked colleagues and industry friends for their (possibly subjective) opinions on the leading ones. Here’s what I know, filtered through what I didn’t like.

1. Keep Good Company

Maybe this won’t apply where you are, but Cargo (or CargoCollective) ostensibly carries a reputation for being full of student work. I don’t know where that comes from; too many cans of Heinz baked beans styled like Warhol prints? That said, there’s probably nothing wrong with using Cargo if you ARE a student. Coroflot seems to be another good place for junior creatives to get their work in front of recruiters and large brands. DeviantArt was ranked below the two, because your application will disappear into an HR drawer labeled ‘Slashfic Writers’.

Krop
Krop: Your killer headlines will need killer headlines

For professionalism, I was advised to try Krop. It charges a not-insignificant monthly price of US$10, in the league of premium site-building services like Squarespace. I didn’t see anything that justified the price against Krop’s drawbacks. Amongst those I asked, Behance enjoys a neutral to positive reputation that will not stand in the way of your looking righteous.

As far as domains and URLs are concerned, it’s also about the right associations. If you’re on a site built for creative work, then piggybacking on their domain isn’t an issue. For example, having “behance.net/name” is okay, but “name.tumblr.com” looks like a collection of meme gifs. Using a “name.com” is great as long it’s not the “best-name-online.com” that GoDaddy recommends when your name of choice is taken.

2. Know the Tools You’ll Need

Behance
Behance: Owned by Adobe now, so you’ll have to hit refresh for minor HTML updates every 10 minutes

Plenty of sites simply don’t let you annotate or supply a paragraph of text beside your large and beautiful images. It’s practically textist. Krop is a major offender. And since we’re talking your garden-variety copywriter here, and not those mystical hybrid writer-designers who can tastefully superimpose text within their images, an ideal tool would allow writers to enter text on the page itself. In that regard, Behance trumps Krop, which only allows a short caption for each image. Not only is Behance free, it allows the mixing of as many images, embedded videos, and text blocks on a project page as needed.

Most importantly, if you’re going to be uploading work where you’re especially proud of the writing, make sure it can be read! Being able to click and zoom in (or load the original image) is table stakes, but plenty of sites I’ve seen don’t do it. This is the point where your portfolio’s tab gets closed and your reader goes back to a ‘Hunger Games Wedding Ideas’ board on Pinterest.

For this reason, I do not recommend using ‘free’ services that reserve this ability for paying customers, e.g. Carbonmade. Behance won’t zoom either, but you can at least reproduce your copy on the page using a text block.

3. Create a Gallery, Not a Blog

Your Tumblr should look like this
If you must Tumblr, your portfolio should look a lil’ sumthin like this wicka wicka

When a portfolio site is built on a blogging CMS, and looks like a linear blog, expectations are set for a diary of constantly evolving works-in-progress. Visitors will be less impressed by your last post being 18 months old, even if it was ahead of its time.

Of the sites I’ve seen built on simplistic platforms like Posterous, Tumblr, Blogger, Pinterest (you gotta see this Hunger Games wedding), too few employ themes with a static front page serving as a table of contents. If your platform of choice doesn’t let you do that, find a new one. A scrolling page of entries without proper navigation is counterintuitive to your purpose: showing your recent work at a glance, and putting more details one click away.

Some sites will also format and present a version of your resumé in addition to your portfolio. Behance and Coroflot are two that stood out for me.

4. Decide If You Want Feedback with That

Socially enabled sites like Behance are proud of their communities. You can follow people doing interesting work, and browse a stream of their recent work right from your front page. Gold stars, comments, resharing; all that stuff. But there’s a real need for portfolios that don’t talk back, and if you’re familiar with the teen movie trope of parents embarrassing their sons with baby stories whenever a girl comes over, you’ll understand not letting a potential mentor or employer see the “helpful” suggestions you’ve been given by others. Or your witty mom-centric replies.

Moreover, as we’ve already covered, many of these sites are for designers and not copywriters. I’ve heard this sentiment several times: “Designers have Dribbble, but where do copywriters go to share their work and get constructive feedback from peers?” It’s a gap that no one has filled. Until then, my advice would be to keep the two as separate as you can. Find an avenue for copy feedback that works for you, and display your work on a pedestal where it belongs.

5. Keep Open Secrets

Another feature that’s rather important but not always available: the ability to secure projects with a password. Some client work can never be fully public, but if there’s a story in there worth telling, you might open it up to select viewers. Please don’t set your password to “password” or your first name, or have no password at all and instruct the HR person to ‘just press Enter’, because that just makes it look like passwords are a new concept to you.

Choose Your Own Ad Venture

The first conclusion I drew is that you’ll want to spend some money to get this right, although it doesn’t have to be a lot. Whatever your choice, make sure it looks good on mobile devices and doesn’t rely on Flash.

Squarespace theming
Squarespace: Can you handle this much customization? Find out with a free 14-day trial.

My preferred solution has always been to create pages on a personal site, using whatever CMS you’re comfortable with, but that involves a fair amount of set-up and manual work. In contrast, the allure of these modern portfolio services is undeniable. Most come with the promise of page views from fellow creatives baked in, and who doesn’t like getting ‘Liked’? The drag-and-drop features and professionally designed templates are also particularly good for copywriters. Uploading a bunch of comps and artwork almost always results in a presentable page.

Of all these services I evaluated, the only free one that would meet the needs outlined was Behance. Their paid option is called ProSite, but its fancy templates frustratingly strip away the extra text that makes their free pages compelling for writers. If that gets fixed, it would be a complete winner.

If you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty, then Squarespace, Breezi, Virb, and WordPress are sound bets. The first two have no free options and start at around $8/mo for a standards-compliant, responsive design site. With templates as starting points and pixel-level control over every detail, they are suited to people with knowledge of web design but who don’t want to code.

Virb
Virb: If it’s good enough for a coffee bar in Portland, why not your portfolio?

Virb is another all-in-one hosted site & blog solution that costs the same as Krop ($10/mo) but lets you do more. There are templates that let you bundle images and text together quite simply and beautifully.

The open-source WordPress.org software is pretty much the gold standard for consumer CMS on the web, and if you don’t want the hassle of installing it on your own servers, WordPress.com has an ad-supported “hosted service” that takes care of everything for you, with few compromises. A number of portfolio-ready themes are available, but do pay for the domain mapping upgrade, because “name.wordpress.com” looks almost as bad as it would if it said Tumblr. Almost.

[Branch] Do we still need to physically experience music shopping?

[Branch] Do we still need to physically experience music shopping?

I thought I was perfectly fine with digital discovery, Spotify-style apps and the iTunes Store, but at the risk of losing the last big retailer in town (HMV), and remembering how one could wander for hours and come out with armfuls of new music, I think I’m going to miss the tactile/spatial experience of old. There’s something about walking in and seeing with your own eyes a handmade display promoting an album you’d never heard of, and becoming curious. A thumbnail doesn’t do that.

Branch is a relatively new startup and service that allows anyone to set up ad-hoc, public discussion spaces. The person who sets the topic (or question) can invite others over Twitter or email, and any other viewer can ask to join in by simply writing what they would say if they were already part of the discussion. After that’s approved, they’re in. It’s an elegant and well-designed system, but still relatively unfriendly to some.*

For my first attempt, I asked the question that came to mind after a late visit to the local HMV last night, after the news broke that their UK offices are now in receivership (broke ass). I’ve already enjoyed the experience immensely, even with just two other participants, and look forward to using this more.

As for the topic of discussion, it’s something I want to think about more. I still believe in the power and value of music discovery outside of clickable lists and webpages. Creating a different sort of physical music retail presence is something I’d love to work on for a future client.

* One friend who I invited balked at the standard Twitter authorization screen that said ‘this app is asking for permission to “See who follows you on Twitter” and “Tweet on your behalf”‘ — pretty standard and harmless stuff that most frequent Twitter users don’t even blink at, but frightening language for others all the same.

Why Can’t Twitter Be Like Foursquare?

Turf Geography Club

I never thought little ol’ Foursquare could lead the way for Twitter, but their approach to the third-party access and monetization problem shows more class and understanding. For the past few weeks now, instead of investing in a user experience that users would choose, Twitter’s stated solution has been to make their apps the only ones in town.

Thanks to a tweet from @tarngerine today, I discovered Turf Geography Club, a location-based iPhone game built atop Foursquare’s place database, with additional Monopoly-like mechanics for upgrading and defending your property. It stands out from all the other “check-in and own this location” type apps by taking a flat-out fun (as opposed to a utility) approach: retro 16-bit style graphics, a Wes Anderson-inspired aesthetic (evident in the name, video trailer, and writing), bears, compasses, illustrated logbooks, and nonsensical references to an eternal struggle between man and nature.

What I liked was how I could suddenly start using Turf as my Foursquare client of choice, checking in as I usually do, but also playing this separate, app-specific metagame at the same time. Likewise, I can choose to use Path to document my movements with friends, and share a subset of those actions to Foursquare, for my other contacts to see them. Or I could document something private in Day One, the journaling app, and still check in to Foursquare from there where the location made sense (publicly, without sharing the contents of my journal entry).

Whatever you think of Foursquare and the people who use it, you can’t deny that this is what everyone would love Twitter to continue being, and what the company seems bent on defying: a confident social platform open to innovative ways of being used.

Foursquare recently updated their mobile apps in a big way, taking focus away from previous key features such as Mayorships, and emphasizing discovery and recommendations instead. The Foursquare app is now really good at showing you things of interest nearby, in categories such as food, shopping, and sightseeing, based on recommendations from other users. I can’t get those in Path or Turf, but my one-way actions in those apps feed back into the enrichment of Foursquare. That’s reason enough for me to keep the Foursquare app on my phone in addition to all the other ones that offer check-in functionality.

Twitter’s mobile apps also do a couple of things that third-party apps aren’t allowed to. It shows interactions that your friends have had on the service: tweets they’ve liked, people they’ve recently started following, and it shows supposedly personalized things of interest: local trending topics, and popular links being shared. The latter is where their advertising monetization is meant to happen, and it’s something that no one loves because it’s often dead wrong about what we want to see.

Imagine if Foursquare’s app showed you places you would never go, or check-ins from people you didn’t know or like. What would be the value in that? Instead, contextual intelligence and expert data mining help Foursquare stay valuable and interesting to users when they want to explore, while their availability to third party apps keeps users active and in the equation. The people at Twitter can’t go wrong throwing everything behind the creation of that value, in the interests of long-term viability, instead of shutting down the future of their service that may come from apps like Turf.