The Trouble with Instagram Stories

I enjoyed reading this TechCrunch interview with Kevin Systrom where he openly gave credit to Snapchat for their ‘Stories’ feature, and talked about how copying it for Instagram inevitably created something different.

What I’ve observed matches much of what’s been said: it gives most people a much larger starting audience compared to what a new Snapchat user has, which increases the likelihood of success; it’s really well implemented (I especially like that switching from one user’s Story to the next has a different transition animation than skipping a scene, making it much clearer that you’re on another person now); and it makes Instagram a more complete place to look into the two sides of a person’s life: the imperfect moment and the photograph worth sharing.

BUT one early side effect has also materialized, and it’s already changing the way I use Instagram. In short: I don’t want to see many of these Stories! I follow a variety of different accounts, from brands, obvious social media influencers/shills, dogs, cats, interesting strangers, and friends. It’s Day 2 since the launch, and many of them have flooded my feed with too much uninteresting stuff. For many of these accounts, I want their photographs worth sharing, but not their imperfect moments. And there doesn’t seem to be a way to only follow one type of content on a per user basis.

So I’ve started to unfollow people. Which I’m sure Instagram doesn’t want.

In fact, the last major feature they added (an algorithmically sorted timeline) was probably aimed at getting people to follow more accounts. It let me add people without cluttering up my feed to the point where I’d miss posts from those I really really liked. For example, I could follow Canon cameras’ account for their occasional spectacular photos, but still see more personally interesting updates from my friends first. No problem. This morning, I unfollowed Canon because their chatty video Stories were getting in the way of my seeing life updates from friends.

There isn’t this problem right now on Snapchat, which makes me think it might eventually win out if people want to keep these separate. I’m not sure how Instagram might resolve this, but there’s definitely a difference here. Namely, not all social content is created equal.


The one other reason why I’ll continue to use Snapchat is their new Memories feature. Instagram Stories doesn’t let me do the same things.

LINE Pop-Up Store Singapore, May 2014

Japanese-Korean messaging app LINE has opened their first pop-up store in Singapore, on a prominent stretch of the core shopping boulevard of Orchard Road. It will run for a month and reap immeasurable marketing value from the high visibility and sure-to-grow lines of fans eager to buy their cleverly designed character merchandise.1

I dropped by on its first evening tonight with some colleagues, and we spent between $20–60 each. I would have spent $100, but put down a pack of 100 art postcards ($55) at the last minute. This is on top of the $40 I’ve spent on in-app purchase stickers over the last year or two of being on the platform. I don’t think any other messenger currently comes close in terms of having built brand loyalty or monetization potential that doesn’t involve serving ads or selling personal data.

Standing outside and watching the crowd, I remarked to a UX designer colleague that no other messaging app could pull off something like this in the middle of town, not WhatsApp, not WeChat. He correctly observed that none of the others have strong IP from which to make their own merchandise to even sell in a store.

“And it’s all this bloody kiddy stuff!”, I said, clutching a plastic bag filled with stickers and a pair of mugs that look like the faces of a bear and a bird. “It’s not kiddy,” he started to protest before going, “Oh alright, I guess it is.” Takeaway: “Kiddy” is largely irrelevant in Asia.


18-to-29-year-old females are its “core target,” says (U.S. CEO Jeanie) Han, explaining that in Asia, once girls were using Line, boys followed – and then this young “hip” user base helped bring in older users “like a domino effect.”

“People, especially young folks, are really adopting our stickers,” she says. “The ratio of people who are buying things online like our stickers is actually quite high in the U.S., as well as the people who are using our games inside our platform relative to the total number of users, so we’re quite optimistic in terms of our market in the U.S.” — Techcrunch, March 2013


The crowd lining up tonight was about 2:1 female to male, which seems in line with LINE’s targeting strategy. There were a few people who definitely looked over 40, and everyone present was walking out with stuffed toys, diaries, notebooks, plastic folders, tote bags, mugs, badges and the like, all emblazoned with Brown, Cony, Moon, Leonard, Sally, James, and other characters I can name because I see and employ their images in chat conversations on a daily basis. LINE is lovable, obsessionable. Few others are by design.

Against Facebook Messenger’s 200M monthly active users, LINE is said to have virtually the same MAU (out of 400M registered accounts). In comparison, WeChat (dominant in China) has 355M MAU, and WhatsApp has over 500M. I don’t consider WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger users to be the same thing2, and LINE has the greatest growth potential outside of its home country, especially in Asian countries with an affinity for Japanese culture, whereas the Chinese WeChat is likely to have a harder time. I’m pretty bullish about LINE’s success, even if their apps have a lot to improve on. For the record, LINE also reports significant revenues — $338M in 2013 — versus about $200M for KakaoTalk and $20M for WhatsApp.


  1. Within minutes of our arrival, I overheard a mom asking her two teenaged daughters, “What’s this about?”, to which they replied, “it’s kind of like WhatsApp.” 
  2. For one thing, WhatsApp is not functionally part of a platform, and probably won’t be merging with Facebook’s in the near future for various reasons. All the other messaging networks are at some stage of offering content, ecommerce, games, and enhanced communication services such as video-calling. 

One Week with the Jawbone UP: How its Design Inspires Behavioral Change

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I bought one of the newly revised Jawbone UP wristbands a week ago. For those not following the rise of wearable activity trackers such as the Nike+ FuelBand, they are essentially pedometers you put on your wrist as you go about your business each day (and wear to sleep at night, in some cases), that connect with your PC or smartphone to give you more insight into your health. The UP was one of the first products on the market, but suffered from design and manufacturing defects that led to a hasty recall and another year on the drawing board before it was finally re-released last Christmas.

It all started with using the free Moves iPhone app (by the Finnish company ProtoGeo) for about a week, during which I got a taste for recording and quantifying my movements. When I saw the UP on sale locally, it was an easy purchase. It’s only been a week, but it has been a behavior-altering experience for me so far. Along with its companion app, the UP provides a couple of key features.

  • Activity reports
  • Food logging
  • Sleep quality tracking
  • Social network awareness
  • Fiddle-free design
  • Comfort and style

Activity reports

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Open up the app and you’ll see at a glance how you’re doing against your set objectives. A healthy target is 10,000 steps a day, but few sedentary workers can meet that. Because UP is an internet-connected service, it’s able to tell you what others like you (in age, gender, height, and weight) are averaging. In my case, the average most do is about 5,500 steps a day. I decided to set myself a high but achievable goal of 8,000 steps.

What’s happened since? I’ve found myself striving to reach that by alighting one bus stop ahead of my destinations, taking the long way around the office, and going for more short walks whenever I can.

It translates your activity into calories burnt, which it shows you alongside an estimate of how many calories you burn just resting, and a total for each day. Every now and then, the application shows you “Insights”; pre-written facts and advice tailored to your own performance. Examples include deciphering hidden patterns in your behavior and mood, and helping you understand terms like “you walked 8,000 steps” with statements such as “equivalent to walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and back”.

Food logging

This part is optional, but you can enter your meals (or just photos of them) to keep a record of what you’ve eaten. If they’re available in the online database, nutritional information is attached. It has the same effect as using an expense tracking app: it makes you acutely aware of every little bit you put into your body, and alerts your conscience to the unnecessary.

In practice, having a vague idea of how many calories I’m consuming, coupled with the knowledge of how much I’m burning (or NOT burning, on idle days) has been powerful. If I know that I’ve only moved a minimal amount all afternoon, any random urge to snack quickly meets a mental roadblock — “Why would I need more calories?”

Sleep quality tracking

Like the popular Sleep Cycle app, the UP band can monitor your movements in the middle of the night, and map out your light vs. deep periods of sleep on a graph. And then at the best possible time close to your intended waking hour, it will silently vibrate in the morning.

You are asked to set a sleep goal for yourself, and along with all the other data it collects, this is plotted over a timeline of days, weeks, and months, which illustrates how good you’ve been at getting the sleep and exercise you need.

Social network awareness

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This is easily one of the best features of the UP. Other people can be added as “teammates” and their activities populate your Home screen, turning it into an Instagram of physical activity. You’re encouraged to inspect their details, leave comments, or react with a small selection of emoticons. You might see that a friend had a healthier lunch, or walked far more than you, or slept better than you. These events nudge you into behavior change.

When I started, one of the only people it found for me to add to my “team” was someone living in Japan that I only follow on Twitter and YouTube. I asked, she said ‘Sure’. I don’t know her personally at all, but I’ve found that reading UP’s activity feed is a unique interaction different from regular status updates. Being able to correlate your own physical state with another person’s through shared metrics, leads to a different sense of awareness; any encouragement you receive resonates that much more. Her most active day blew me away at over 24,000 steps, followed by 11 hours of sleep. It really spurred me on to try and find the time for activity. Multiply that by the number of people you follow, and the social features become an extremely compelling component.

On my second day, two more people I interact with online bought their own. On the third, my girlfriend joined in.

Fiddle-free Design

While the UP is not designed to be worn and forgotten — its constant presence serves to remind you of your goals — it is designed to be worn and left alone. Its long battery life (about 7-10 days) is one of the ways in which this is obvious. Charging via USB only takes about 80 mins, which you can easily do while idle.

In chasing this long battery life, the UP eschews Bluetooth syncing, which other products like the Fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand have. To sync the UP, one must remove it and plug one end into a smartphone’s headphone jack. Jawbone recommends doing this about twice a day to keep up with your own stats and update your team. On the other wristbands, one only has to start the app, and they sync wirelessly.

I actually think this omission is a strength.

Like how shooting on film frees you from constantly checking how the photo came out on the little digital screen, thereby letting you take more photos and experience the scene you’re in, not continuously syncing the UP creates mystery, anticipation, and actually lets you get on with it and not fiddle with tracking apparatus every spare minute.

In his excellent essay about using a FitBit, Paris and the Data Mind, Craig Mod described looking at the LED display and seeing that he had climbed 96 flights of stairs one day. The next thing he did was walk halfway across the flat town of Palo Alto to the nearest flight of stairs he knew of, so that he could shift that number to read 100. It sounds like great exercise, but I don’t want to obsess over live numbers or end up conducting accuracy tests each day over how many steps it’s counting.

The UP way, you’re wondering things like “will I break my record today?”, and if you’re extra competitive, “I hope I don’t lose to so-and-so,” as you go about your business. Sometimes, by not knowing, you exceed your targets. And then you sync at the end of the day, and it’s like waiting for lottery numbers to be called out. It’s its own kind of fun.

Comfort and style

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The UP is available in 8 colors, of which 3 are available here in Singapore right now. I got the Black (sorry, Onyx), and it’s pretty nondescript and unlikely to draw attention. The brighter colors pop more, and show off a subtle zig-zag texture that identifies it as part of the company’s product range under design chief Yves Béhar. None of them are what you’d expect a “wearable computing device” to look like. The only button is cleverly hidden, looking like an integrated design feature. Two LED lights are embedded beneath the hypoallergenic rubber surface, and only visible when lit. It’s much thinner than the FuelBand, and could easily be mistaken for one of those Livestrong-type charity support wristbands from a few feet away.

These things help with making the UP an invisible part of daily life, which gives it potential to succeed at being adopted by more. But as the wearer, I always feel its presence (at least in this first week). The routines I’m developing around the app, around thinking about moving more, burning more, eating less, around how my teammates improve themselves, are the very definition of behavior change.

If having visualized, connected, and actionable data on your own body and movements sounds interesting to you, the UP will probably be a great addition to your life.

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.

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[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.

Year 9

When most of my peers and I started blogging with a proper content management system (CMS) like Blogger in 2000-2002, it wasn’t really clear what we were signing up for. Blogs were a new, hyper-public outlet for self-expression, a means of keeping in contact with friends, and for feeling the first waves of a democratic future where a student had as much right to virtual real estate as the multinational corporation that might one day hire him. Or not, depending on what he had posted.

Today, much of what a blog once offered has been decentralized by a slew of dedicated online services. Post your photos on Flickr. Keep a circle informed of your movements on Facebook and LinkedIn. Show off your art, photography, or design skills on any number of portfolio sites like deviantART. Share links and bits of media on scrapbook blogs like the ones popularized by Tumblr. Everything comes with social networking built right in. The standalone do-it-all blog has become something of a solitary pursuit as its necessity fades amongst newer internet users with a hundred other avenues for self-expression and communication. The word ‘blog’ is more strongly associated with a breed of continuously updated semi-commercial news and topical interest sites than it is with personal journals.

Perhaps the personal journal is a relic of the internet past – emblematic of our emotional reaction to a new technology, and the possibility of audiences larger than had been present before. Or perhaps they’ve disappeared under cover, gone to ground and reemerged with new names, part of our need to understand through categorization. So now there are motherhood blogs, cooking/dining blogs, birdwatching blogs, and so on. Once specific interests representing just a facet of their authors’ lives, these topics now serve to define their bloggers as amateur authorities through posts and reader feedback cycles so regular you can set your RSS readers to them, spurred on by commerce in the form of Google AdSense banners. The personal journal is dead because we reduce people to the one thing they do best.

So, nine years on and I’m still at it. Still not quite sure what I signed up for, but with some changes I’ll be making here this week, a little more sure of where I should take this.

iPhone app review doublebill: Birdhouse & Twitbit

(This iPhone review and others like it have been moved to my new app review site, positivemachine.com. Why not have a look?)

Birdhouse / Twitbit – $3.99 & $4.99 respectively


Why Pay? It starts with a free app, Twitterrific or TwitterFon for most people, and for awhile it seems like you’ll never have a need for one of those “Pro” Twitter clients that your geekier friends talk about. Reply a message here, send out a cute quote there, it’s all good. Cut to a couple hundred followers later, and you’re riding the doubt train harder than a doped up pop star with 50 concert dates to deliver. You need a little something extra to keep your edge. You ask your live-in doctor for one of these:


Birdhouse is like a Twitter ninja. A ninja who’s spent his entire life learning to unsheathe his blade, stab a man, and put it away again in under half a second. He can’t climb walls, farts loudly all the time, and is 99% colorblind as well as good ol’ regular blind, but if the man you want assassinating is right there in front of him, there’s no one else you’d sooner hire.

You can’t read tweets or search hashtags in Birdhouse. You can’t see who’s mentioning you, and you sure as hell can’t see anyone’s avatar pictures. You can’t see anyone, period. But what you CAN do is train up a hundred of your best jokes, sharpen them on the stone of Favrd destiny, and then go out to cut some motherfuckers up. The downside: if you don’t have any jokes, it calls up your ex-girlfriends to make fun of your package.


Twitbit almost didn’t make it onto my list. Its first version was a little bit like Rain Man, you know, but I won’t get into specifics because people tend to send me hate mail when I talk about the retard in that movie. Suffice to say, Twitbit showed up a little over a month ago with a single winning trick up its sleeve: Push Notifications.

For example, you could be doing something else on your iPhone, like making a kick-ass playlist of Billy Joel and Air Supply songs, but if someone tweeted “@sangsara your music library sucks, faggot! Btw I’m sitting behind you on the bus”, you’d get it immediately as a pop-up on your screen. The rest of the app was a little behind the curve until a recent update added threaded DMs, a photo browser, saved searches, and many other refinements. The result is one of the best general purpose Twitter apps five bucks could want to buy. Plus, chicks dig the fat bird on a speech bubble-egg icon.


Birdhouse Rating: B
Twitbit Rating: A

Buy Birdhouse on the iTunes App Store.
Buy Twitbit on the iTunes App Store.




Birdhouse media:



Twitbit media:



iPhone app review – Facebook

(This iPhone review and others like it have been moved to my new app review site, positivemachine.com. Why not have a look?)


Name / Category: Facebook / Social Networking (v2.5)

What it costs: Free



What it is: A way to overshare while on the go.



Why you should get it: Last week, I was induced to join a cult called iPRAMS, or iPhone Radicals Against MobileSafari. Our group believes that it’s no coincidence MobileSafari’s initials are MS, which makes the iPhone browser part of the conspiracy that began in 1997 when THAT other company bought $150m of Apple shares. Under my newly sworn vows, I can no longer use the browser to access Facebook’s mobile website on my iPhone. Thank heavens for this app which does exactly what the website does!


Why you shouldn’t: iPRAMS recognizes the independence and diversity of all iPhone users, which includes those who might want to use MobileSafari and the Facebook website instead. So if you want to help the devil spread a thinly-veiled mobile version of Internet Explorer 8, go right ahead.



“But I’m Not A Member of iPRAMS” Rating: 2/5

Download Facebook for free on the iTunes App Store.

Below: Facebook iPhone app

Below: Facebook site in MobileSafari

Is it the little things that count?

Awhile ago, a friend working overseas who I don’t get a chance to meet very often told me that he checks in on this blog every now and then when he wants to know what I’m up to, and usually comes away disappointed. I think he specifically said that he doesn’t care about what gadgets I’m after, what I thought about films I’ve seen, or what I find interesting, etc. Now, this is not the kind of talk many friends get away with, but because I only have to be insulted once every 18 months or so, I let it go.

But the thought that someone might be more interested in reading narratives on the minutiae of everyday lives – months after the fact! – rather than the critical choices that express our personalities, continues to strike me as strange even now, several weeks on, in the middle of the night.

There’s always Twitter and Facebook if one wants status updates, but that can’t be what he meant. Who would want to trawl through half a year’s worth of anyone’s Twitter stream? Microblogging, like the worst supermarket sandwiches, is generally worthless and meant for immediate consumption. Unless you’re a fake celebrity account with carefully crafted witticisms (see @CWalken), chances are your lifestream’s value as entertainment is virtually null after 48 hours.

Before I started thinking about this, my view was that Twitter presents microscopic detail from which a more complete picture of a life can be fabricated. In this story, blog posts are overviews; providing structure. Also, keep in mind that the two accounts of time spent (the descriptive report and the vocalized introspection) will coincide at some point. For example, if you hear a lot about my activities, you’d be able to discern a pattern that indicated my tastes. Conversely, if I told you how I felt about theatre, you would know not to look for me in a Sunday matinee.

I wonder if the opposite is true. Twitter and status updates are not detail, they’re noisy overviews. The most coherent image one can put together will still be a best guess estimate. Real detail resides in thought and writing. The way most of us use Twitter, with truncated phrases and inhibited rhythms, it’s no substitute for going without a word limit. In much of today’s communications, you can’t be sure whether it’s the voice or the format you’re hearing. It’s the reason why I can skim a friend’s blog posts from years ago and remember how they used to be. It’s also the reason I keep my own.

After having tried to keep my different interests in separate blogs, and failed, it’s come back to this. I’m grateful now for having one single place that periodically captures the things I’d like a future version of myself to know I once considered important, and for friends to know today, however unappreciative they might be.

Coming back, and Blip.FM

If you’re reading this on the website and not through my RSS feed, you’ll notice a new widget above the main blog text, under the Flickr photos, for a new service I discovered this morning via Leo Laporte’s Twitter. The intention is not to make this look like a MySpace page, but it’s nice having someplace to show off all the things I’m doing online. Qik video, the new multi-author Haiku Log, and all that.

About a year ago, I split up my blog into this one and blast!, which is reserved for links to things I find, with little additional writing and no original content such as photos I’ve taken, movie reviews, or whatever. Of course, it’s exceedingly easy to post to a tumblelog like blast!, and the idea of being “productive” on a daily basis can be very gratifying. This main blog has only suffered as a result; consigned exclusively to “long form writing” and Matters of Great Import – I almost never felt inclined to start a post. I suppose I intimidated myself.

Well, hopefully that will soon be changing. I’ve equipped myself with the latest version (3.0) of Ecto, a sleek and awesome blogging tool for Mac OS X, and BlogPress for the iPhone. The intention is to post more frequently, and more freely, for my own benefit (I have terrible, terrible, clinically decaying memory, and looking back on any record of my life is usually a revelatory experience).

I also recently made the decision to open up some previously locked accounts to search engines and the public, out of a desire to see if I would get stalked, and feel my online privacy violated in the way that young people are becoming increasingly immune to. This should all tie together nicely and see mundane elements of my daily life filling this page, and my mutilated body in a gutter by the end of the year.

So what was that about a new widget up top? Ah yes.

As a music discovery and sharing service, Blip.FM goes places one-time web favorite Muxtape never even thought possible. Yes, you can put up handcrafted playlists of great music to share with your friends, but by taking on the best elements of Twitter and other social networks, it also means that the experience of listening to what your friends (and like-minded/like-tasted strangers) have discovered is virtually automatic. In other words, it’s a Push model.

Say I’ve just gotten up earlier in the morning than I have in weeks, maybe months – true story today – and upon seeing my bedroom all lit up with warm daylight, I think of the music video for The Roots’ Birthday Girl (starring Sasha Grey, but that’s another story) and want to hear it. I go to http://blip.fm and search for it. Blip finds an MP3 of the song somewhere online, I suspect blogs and free file hosting sites, and starts playing it. I write a short note and “blip” it, which is very much like “tweeting” something. Now, Birthday Girl starts appearing on the Home pages of all my “followers”, or contacts. What this creates is an infinite playlist of music I probably want to hear. The site identifies with people with similar tastes, which makes it easy to make new friends and replace the ones you’ve suddenly discovered a distaste for.

Blip also integrates with Twitter, Friendfeed, Tumblr, and a raft of other online presence apps and blog platforms, so you can push out instant-play links to all your contacts. I only hope they’ve sorted out the legal side of their business model and stick around longer than Muxtape did. There are links to buy the songs you’re hearing, and I’ve read something about them winning additional VC funding, so things look sorta positive.

My DJ name is Brandmaster Flash, a reference to this man, of course.