The Strong Technologies2020-08-14
I feel like a curmudgeonly sort recently. I'm honestly a pretty optimistic and positive person. But I'm becoming increasingly technically curmudgeonly. I don't think it is age turning me conservative. But I feel like I'm moving back to what I find tried and true in many ways. I feel resentful in a lot of cases where I can't really reasonably go back. So what am I talking about here?
Well I don't like Spotify and their attitude towards music, artists or their attempts to turn podcasts proprietary. But I do have a lot of music library built up there, from when they were an up-and-coming challenger with a very snappy client. So leaving has an enormous cost of effort or lost music. My feelings on Netflix are similar. There are shows I want to watch. But I also just want to table-flip the whole idea of video streaming services because they are proliferating and the good shows are getting shifted around until there is not a single good offering anymore. Their offer is deteriorating and the whole value proposition to me was that they had almost everything I wanted. Facebook is terrible and mostly in my rearview mirror. Twitter is useful to me but I keep revising and limiting my use of it. Tweetdeck is helpful there. All the even more modern apps, your Instagrams and TikToks, are generally very silo:ed app experiences which rubs me the wrong way. I put my gardening on Instagram. That's about it.
So what did it used to be? Spotify was an MP3 collection. That's not exactly legal but everyone was doing that particular open secret. Film and TV was roughly the same unless you were getting Netflix DVDs in the mail or just buying them from bargain bins. Social media mostly wasn't but the ones that existed were usually forums or communities with specific topics or goals. The same kind of scoping so many want to go back to now before all the contexts we lived in collapsed in on one another. The reason why most of the good stuff these days happens in smaller groups in different chats.
Anyhow. I distrust the proprietary but am generally willing to accept some proprietary measures in the name of a decent business model for some kind of entertainment. But with everyone building their own sandcastle it doesn't feel like any kind of progress. There isn't a sweet new standard for buying video that means you can use any compatible player to stream your stuff across the platforms. No, Netflix has an app on almost anything and a web thing. But there is no cooperation towards a common standard for moving that particular industry forward and making things less painful. Proprietary products on proprietary platforms with no interoperability is uninteresting and weak to me. Even if they invent a really cool codec or some amazing UX you won't see the benefit of that elsewhere. You aren't moving the state of the art for the human collective much. You aren't contributing. That's fine according to capitalism (a different discussion, let's not right now) but proprietary progress without fitting it into the surrounding world is deeply uninteresting to me. Apple does this a lot. Sadly so does all the Android flavors. And this is why wearables still suck so much.
So to take the positive and optimistic view. What is good?
I find that there are a set of technologies that have proven very reliable and that people who care about this stuff seem to gravitate back to. I currently see it with content creators that want a better sense of control over their destiny and ownership of their platform and business. Typically you'll see these:
- E-mail & Newsletters
- Websites & your own domain
- RSS feeds
So let's dig in a bit. Why are these good?
E-mail & Newsletters
Most people don't think much of e-mail. It is the social plumbing of the web and wider Internet. When all else fails or you just want people to get a hold of you in a reliable way, e-mail is pretty good. For content creators it is magnificent. If you get yourself a newsletter mailing list, people that have chosen to be contacted by you, that want to read what you have to say, then you have a broadcast medium to reach out through. You can't rely on people coming back to your website unless you publish new things quite often and keep top of mind. The Questionable Content webcomic comes to mind. It publishes every weekday, I didn't have it in RSS or anything for the longest time, I just opened it habitually. But not every piece of content is the same, not every creator can set that kind of cadence. And e-mail allows you to get in touch weekly, or monthly or intermittently with whatever your readership, viewership, listenership is. It won't be everyone, but it can be the critical core that makes sure people find out when you publish things.
Another thing is paid newsletters where you basically subscribe to a newsletter. Why email here? Well I guess the delivery mechanism is convenient. Everyone can handle their email however they want, filtering, automation, etc. And getting email you actually want is usually not particularly upsetting even if you dislike your email overall. But what about protecting the content? Usually not a concern. Most indepdent creators, especially writers don't really suffer heavily from someone forwarding a paid email. When you support an independent writer you are usually more invested than to just turn around and broadcast it. And I'm not sure there is any market for torrents of paid newsletter archives. I haven't checked. Paid e-mail newsletters seem to work. E-mail is very reliable, fairly standardized and works. No one entity owns it and if some corporation tried to completely screw it up the economy would collapse. So incentives are fairly good to keep e-mail working. And so it works for the indie creator as well.
YouTube is especially interesting in this regard because it has become notoriously unreliable in letting video creators actually reach their Subscribers and even the people that "hit that bell". A lot of people have trouble with their work not surfacing to the people that actually follow them. Being able to reach out to your core following through e-mail to go "I made another thing!" is immensely powerful and much more reliable.
I really dislike popovers and nagging about signing up for someone's newsletter, there is a lot of growth-hack, dark pattern bullshit around this. Because it is marketing and business and there's always plenty of people who chase the numbers rather than consider what their efforts project and what behavior they are excibiting. So I absolutely get being skeptical of e-mail newsletters. I follow a bundle of them that I found useful. Some are just straight news, tracking the Elixir community stuff but some are writers sharing more considered thought or insight behind the scenes of projects. I find that quite engaging. I run my own newsletter. It won't pop up here. You'll find the sign-up at the bottom of the page if you are curious.
Websites & your own domain
So even if you stitch a business together with your Substacks, your Calendlys, your Memberfuls and your Patreons, having a domain to refer people to is incredibly powerful. So when Patreon collapses or Substack gets bought by something or whatever might happen, the core of your online presence is under your control (asterisk: through domain registration, weird system, separate conversation). And you can direct people elsewhere when the time comes to move on to some other service or to bring it all back home under your loving care.
So a website might not be incredibly fashionable but having one remains beneficial and it is a good place to direct people as the central core in whatever sprawling system of services and platforms you exist on.
It is also nice if your email doesn't come from a free Gmail. I think that's a bit more classy.
Not the most used technology but compared to YouTube subscribing it is very reliable. It didn't die with Google Reader. I use Feedly, there are many options. And having an RSS feed allows some of the more invested readers to actually read your updates at their leisure. I also provide and RSS feed. As Promoe once wrote "We preach what we practice, cause it's easier that way than backwards".
It is also the open technology behind our next point which has a bit more sizzle to it. It even makes noise.
There is a suprising strength to hearing a voice on a regular basis. It builds a strong connection, arguably faster than you connect to a writer's voice. At the very least the nuances hit you faster. I am absolutely thrilled that there is an open practice for the spoken word that has solid traction and public interest. It is heavily tied into a strangely closed registry in the form of Apple's podcast directory but that part isn't actually required for podcasting to exist. It just simplifies matters significantly and allows podcast clients to bootstrap their directories.
Podcast builds right on top of RSS and I expect podcast clients (podcatchers?) outnumber the more general RSS "news reader" clients significantly in install base.
The usage pattern of podcasts feels different to me than most RSS reading. For the podcasts you follow closely every new episode is an exciting, comfortable or interesting listen. It is a very strong way of connecting to people. And it is open. Anyone can do it.
These technologies and these approaches are reliable, open and powerful. They can be polished or rough, they can be free or paywalled to some extent. They are flexible and they integrate and combine with one another allowing people to build content businesses online. Note that there isn't a really compelling solution for video that I know of. Not one with any traction next to YouTube at least. Let me know if you know some good options for that.
I think we are in the middle of a pendulum swing where some creators are moving away from proprietary platforms and taking more control of their relationship with their audiences. And I think a lot of audience is trying to remove themselves from engagement-driven timesink platforms that don't respect their users. The majority will still be on YouTube and all the socials. But the movement seems significant. And I'm all about it.
If I'm all wrong, all right or anywhere in between and you want to tell me all about it feel free to reach out via good old email firstname.lastname@example.org or @lawik on Twitter. And maybe next time we will go through the top 3 Gopher clients that your doctor hates, just to keep it old school.