Publishing stuff

One of the things I love about the internet most is the fact that it puts the power to publish into the hands of pretty much anybody. There are many ways of doing it these days, whether by using a tool like WordPress like I do here – which can be pretty complicated – or perhaps by using Medium, which continues to interest and confuse me in equal measure.

So I was quite excited to come across a really simple thing called publishthis.email which allows anyone to create public webpages by just sending an email.

I immediately got in touch with my friend Lloyd about this, knowing that he shares my enthusiasm for publishing stuff, and also how he really enjoyed using Posterous which did something similar, albeit in a slightly more complicated fashion. Posterous was bought and shut down by Twitter a few years ago.

publishthis.email works in a ridiculously simple fashion. All you do is send an email to page@publishthis.email and a web page is created for you – the link to which sent by return to you. Any formatting in your email is preserved and any pictures you include are uploaded and added to your page.

Here’s my rather boring first effort at a page. Lloyd’s is a little more exciting.

And… that’s it. There’s nothing more to it and it really is that simple. Oh, except for collections. When you send your email, if you add a + and the name of a collection (basically a group of pages) after page and before the @ in the email address (so, for example, send to page+davescollection@publishthis.email) a dynamic list of those pages is then created, with its own URL, giving you a very rudimentary blog.

Here’s my rather boring first effort at a collection.

There’s loads missing, like human readable URLs, navigation links between pages and so forth. However, whether they come or not, publishthis.email is potentially really interesting as a way of very quickly getting text and images onto the web to share with others.

It’d be good to hear what folk think about tools like this, and what uses they could be put to.

Content so good you’d pay for it

Picture of a typewriter.

I’m a massive fan of the writing of Ben Thompson – and so should you be. The analysis he provides on his blog is superb – and it’s free!

Interestingly, he also provides extra content for a fee – a daily email with even more in depth analysis of the technology topics of the day. Just $10 a month, or $100 for the whole year. Members also get access to a forum where you can chat to Ben and others who are interested in his work.

I subscribe – the extra content is great, the forum helpful, but more than anything, I want to support this guy to keep doing great work.

Ben posted recently that he has broken through the magic barrier of 1,000 paying subscribers. 1,000 True Fans is the title of a post by Kevin Kelly outlining how the long tail of the internet means that focused, high quality niche communities can be financially sustainable.

So, 1,000 members doesn’t sound like a lot, relative to all the people on the Internet, or the memberships of supersites like Facebook or Twitter. But 1,000 people paying $100 a year is $100,000 a year! To do a thing you love doing! Add in a few consulting days a month and there’s a good living to be made.

I’ve written before about how I would love to find a way to be able to just live off content creation. After all, I have this blog, with thousands of readers, an email newsletter with over 700 people subscribed, a reasonably popular podcast, and my webinars seem to go down well too.

Of course, it’s hard work. I’d imagine the pressure can build up when you have to produce really great content every single day. Figuring out what people might pay for and what they would expect for free isn’t easy either.

But it is super-interesting to know that to make a living as an independent is achievable and that you don’t need to have Buzzfeed levels of traffic to do it.

Convenience vs control

Everything in life is becoming a balance of convenience versus control. Only, it’s not so much of a balance as a mass grab for convenience. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, sometimes it does.

Take food for instance. We love the convenience of ready-made meals! Those microwaveable lasagnes make cooking so easy – you don’t need to know how to make a lasagne, you don’t even need to know the ingredients for lasagne!

Only, such is the great convenience that we lose control of what we are eating. We end up consuming horse meat without knowing it. Horse meat may not technically be bad for us, but not even knowing what we are putting into our mouths is a scary place to be.

So what do we do? Retreat to the fields and only eat what we pluck from the ground, or slaughter ourselves? As delightful as that may be, it’s probably not practical, so some sort of compromise is needed. Some of course are happy to put up with all manner of inconvenience to have total control over their diet. We might laugh at them now and again, but I can’t help but feel that the last laugh will be theirs.

What does this have to do with technology? Well, the convenience versus control thing is happening all the time when we use computers, too. Almost every aspect of our use of technology involves us choosing between these two things.

Cloud computing is a classic example. No software to install or maintain! Access your files from anywhere! Let us worry about viruses and all that stuff – just make sure you have an internet connection and a browser!

We do this all the time, sometimes without knowing it. Letting the easy convenience of having Amazon look after our ebooks, Apple our music collections, Google with pretty much the rest of our lives. A recent example is Adobe making their software subscription only. If you stop paying your subscription, will you ever be able to open your files again?

Most of the time, this is fine. It’s a simple trade off and it’s unlikely anybody will get hurt. The downside of systems built around convenience though is that when they go wrong, they are pretty difficult to fix. They aren’t designed for the user to fix them and often these companies aren’t able to cope, either. Ever tried getting hold of Facebook’s customer support? You’ll know what I mean.

Culture matters too, and perhaps philosophy as well. For computing, who are the equivalents of the Romanian butchers who sold us that horse meat? They are Silicon Valley companies, all funded by VC money, looking for a payout via the stock market or by being bought by a bigger company. Now, I’m not necessarily against this per se, but one does have to bear in mind that all these companies don’t actually care about their users, or their data – or rather they do, but only in relation to how they can make money from it.

So there’s a way in which these companies and the services they provide are ephemeral – they are there to make money rather than for some higher social purpose (in other words, Amazon doesn’t really care about the future of the novel, they just want to sell us – or, technically, rent us – ebooks). When they get swallowed up by another company or just run out of cash, they won’t care too much about the users who rely on the convenience they have seduced us with.

We could claim control of our computing in the same way those seeking control of their diets do, by doing it all ourselves. Use free software, run your own servers, manage your own data. Again, sometimes we laugh at such people, and imagine them wearing hats made from tin foil. But they won’t be the ones left looking daft when the company you entrusted all your stuff to goes bust.

Of course, there’s a middle way, a sensible approach. We don’t all have to learn Linux and bash scripting (although it might be a good idea to at least know what these things mean), but we should understand where our data is, who actually owns it, and grab a copy we can keep safe just in case.

Permission taken

Well worth listening or watching this talk from Dan Gillmor:

Once, personal technology and the Internet meant that we didn’t need permission to compute, communicate and innovate. Now, governments and tech companies are systematically restricting our liberties, and creating an online surveillance state. In many cases, however, we’re letting it happen, by trading freedom for convenience and (often the illusion of) security. Yes, we need better laws and regulations. But what steps can we take as individuals to be more secure and free — to take back the permissions we’re losing?

Our regressive web

Ryan Holiday writes in Our Regressive Web:

We’re regressing because we’re so focused on the new that we forgot the importance of the old. The tech press is too busy chattering about other “innovations” like retargetingpaywallsnative advertising. Except those changes are at the margins—at best. And because of that distraction or lack of understanding of the bigger picture, we’ve watched some of our best products get destroyed—as other services launched bonafide extortion as a business model.

Open or closed – does anything online ever last?

It’s only now, a couple of weeks after the announcement, that I feel I can talk about the demise of Google Reader. Up til now, the whole thing has just been too upsetting. Reader is the site I turn to first in the day, before email or Twitter, and the one I check last as well.

I have about 600 odd feeds pouring into my Reader account which I skim through everyday – some I read in their entirety every time, others I’m happy to just dip into now and again as the fancy takes me. It’s ok – RSS isn’t email, you don’t have to read it all.

Reader is also an important part of my publishing workflow. A lot of people find the links I tweet and the regular posts of links on this blog to be helpful. That’s all driven by Reader and by the stupidly simple act of clicking once to ‘star’ a post. Then, thanks to IFTTT, they get sent to my blog and to Twitter, like magic.

Reader was an app that used RSS feeds, an open standard – excellent! It’s because of this that we can move our subscriptions to one or more of the many possible replacement services that exist or are springing up.

What’s more, Reader was also an API that other apps could hook into. The most used purpose for this was to synchronise the read status of feeds between apps – for example between a desktop and a mobile interface.

For instance, on my laptop I use the Reader web app, but on my phone I use Reeder which always picks up where I left off thanks to Google’s API.

The trouble comes because people came to rely on Google’s Reader API to deliver a service, and development around similar services just stopped. So when Google decided to take their ball home, it meant nobody could play with it any more.

Still, the fact that RSS and OPML are open standards means we have other software options to move our feed lists to, and while they may no longer rely on Google’s vast infastructure and databases, they ought to work well enough to meet most of our needs.

But the point is worth making again – we can only do this because the open standards existed and we all use them – deliberately or not.

The second point is that even when a piece of software like Reader operates using these standards, if people come to rely on them, then control is surrendered in exchange for convenience. That’s fine, as long as we know this is happening and can take steps to regain control when it’s needed.

So, I’m not saying that we should all stop using other people’s services, that we should abandon convenience in favour of control. Just that we should have back ups in place – of our content, sure, but also backup plans so that our activity can carry on even when our favourite tools disappear, as they surely all will do.

We held the latest UKGovCamp at IBM, a venerable old technology company. Will Facebook last as long as IBM? Will Google? Will Amazon?

Best be prepared by assuming probably not.

The dream is fading fast

John Naughton:

Because we’ve all bought into the techno-utopianism of the early Internet, we tend to assume that it’s always going to be open to everyone. But as more and more of the world goes online, it’s clear that we’re heading in a very different direction — towards an online world dominated by huge, primarily foreign-owned, corporations which are creating walled gardens in which internet users will be corralled and treated like captive consumers, much as travellers are in UK airports now. The dream that the Internet would make everything available to everyone on equal terms is fading fast.