Charting the Evolution of Communication Design
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Christopher Murphy is a writer, designer and educator based in Belfast. Creative Review described him as, “a William Morris for the digital age,” an epithet he aspires to fulfil daily.
I was one of the early backers of Dalton Caldwell’s proposed service App.net, “a real-time social feed without the ads,” intended as a different kind of social platform. I read his post, Announcing an Audacious Proposal one evening at the outset of the project and, believing in what Caldwell was trying to achieve, fired up my computer, pulled out my credit card and backed the project.
What struck me as important, as someone who maintains a presence on the web as a significant part of my career, was the importance of securing the username I wanted early, which is why I didn’t hesitate and – after thinking through the implications and promise of what Caldwell was proposing – backed the project right away.
I was backer no 895, I secured the username @christopher.
When the Alpha launched I participated in the global feed (and continue to do so). It was an exciting time, reminiscent of the early days of any new, fledging web service. App.net was full of optimism and promise; I was hopeful the service would achieve full backing and I was delighted when, 38 hours in advance of the deadline, it hit its funding goal.
This morning I received an email informing me that another user - @christopher on Twitter - had subsequently claimed my username and I would need to claim an alternative. In short, the username @christopher was no longer mine. Like many others, I was extremely disappointed as I had backed the project early and, unlike similar, free services, given my credit card details to secure a username that was important to me.
On App.net’s launch there was considerable, heated discussion about the manner in which the service was proposing to handle Twitter users who claimed “their” Twitter usernames on App.net, after others had claimed them first on the competing service. The company proposed existing Twitter users should be able to claim “their” usernames if they supported the project during the initial backing period, leading to the risk that some early backers might ‘secure’ a username, only to lose it shortly afterwards.
Many thought that the process of claiming usernames should be on a first come, first served, especially as early adopters were happy to pay to support the proposal, taking a risk before the project was funded.
It was a point Caldwell addressed in an App.net project update (under the subtitle We Will Make Mistakes). It’s unfortunate that the ability to claim usernames and the relationship between App.net and Twitter wasn’t more clearly thought through before launching. More importantly, it was an unfortunate approach towards timings, and the relationship of risk to reward, especially for early adopters, as I explore shortly.
Dalton Caldwell launched App.net as a paid alternative to Twitter and the direction it was taking by adopting an ad-supported model, as such it seems arbitrary to link App.net and Twitter usernames together. It seems at odds for Caldwell to be so critical of Twitter (and other social platforms) when he wrote about What Twitter Could Have Been, calling for a fresh start and a rethinking of how social real time feeds work and yet, in the implementation of this new platform, tie it to a pre-existing platform, one he had been critical of, namely Twitter.
If this were, indeed, a move to start with a clean slate, why tie it from the very start to Twitter?
If we agree that it’s entirely Mr Caldwell’s decision to forge a link between App.net and Twitter, it begs the question, up until what point should Twitter users be allowed to claim “their” username on App.net? Caldwell decided that this should be the funding goal deadline. I would argue differently.
I think a fairer way to do this would have been to allow Twitter users to claim their username up until the $500,000 goal was reached, not beyond, as that was the goal early backers took the leap of faith to support.
Once the $500,000 goal was reached anyone backing the project (claiming their Twitter username or otherwise) was no longer taking a leap of faith to try and kickstart a service, they were backing a service that was at that point - by virtue of reaching the $500,000 goal - funded.
Those taking a leap of faith and funding App.net before the $500,000 goal at which it would become a viable service were investing to back a service into existence; those funding it afterwards, but before the funding goal deadline (38 hours later), were investing to claim a username in a service that - at that point - existed. As @sean, on App.net, puts it eloquently:
There was no risk, only reward after the funding goal was reached. That was a bad call.
It’s a subtle, but critical point; but it’s one that reflects the levels of commitment of backers before the funding goal was reached and after the funding goal was reached.
I am doubtful Caldwell and App.net’s policy will change, no matter how unfair it might appear to early adopters. I do, however, think it’s important to stress that this should have, and could have, been thought through much more carefully and that there are lessons to be learned.
Perhaps, above all, what this points out when launching a new service, is the need to be 100% clear about the risks and rewards one offers and put considerable thought into the relationship between those risks and rewards as they imapct upon your early adopters.
Innovators and early adopters are, by their very nature, those who sit at the extreme left of Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations Model, they encourage others to use a product or service, they exert influence. Influencers have the ability to both encourage or discourage the uptake of a new product or service. As things stand, many of the influencers who took a leap of faith to make App.net a reality now feel disappointed to say the least.
Writing for Harvard Business Review on the fine, and in this day and age, often under-celebrated art of grammar, Kyle Wiens states:
If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me.
As an opening sentence to his article – I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. – it sets the tone perfectly. As anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of ill-considered grammar, especially in a professional context, can attest, it can bring out fervently unfavourable reactions and, as Wiens puts it, result in your application making a swift journey to the bin.
Like Wiens, I share Lynee Truss’s, “zero tolerance approach,” to punctuation and grammar – the building blocks of professionalism and credibility. If writing isn’t your strong suit there are plenty of books on offer to broaden your knowledge. Get one.
If you’re a beginner, Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a great starting point, and a gentle introduction into the world of well-used punctuation. If you’re looking to level up, look no further than Strunk and White’s celebrated The Elements of Style.
On a completely unrelated note, the article also amusingly highlights the problem with CMS generated URLs.
Publisher McGraw-Hill’s higher education division is to pursue direct digital sales to students with plans to launch a a direct-to-consumer ecommerce site in August, in advance of the new academic year.
I think this approach, where publishers sell directly to students is going to be the way we see things moving forward in higher education. It allows publishers to maintain higher margins, cut out various distributor middlemen, and, by selling students content packaged per semester through a subscription model, allows the publisher to build an ongoing relationship, directly with students themselves.
As we move increasingly towards a knowledge economy where learning is lifelong and extends beyond the end of a period of study at university, establishing a relationship with content consumers is going to become critical. It’s interesting to see McGraw-Hill pursuing this strategy, I don’t doubt we’ll see more educational publishers moving in this direction.
Increasingly our profession is one underpinned by team working, with services or products developed and delivered by tight knit teams, spanning a range of competencies, under the careful guidance and direction of a - hopefully well-equipped and inspirational - leader. 1
All too often the role of leader is mistakenly perceived to be the easy one, after all the leader doesn’t do anything… right? Wrong. Brian Evje, writing for Inc., explains Why Leadership Is So Hard, and it’s a great read, highlighting the challenges leaders face and, “Why sometimes they need to do a lot less.” As he puts it:
Many burdens of leadership are well known and visible: getting people to back a common purpose and vision, managing change, and maintaining a balanced personal perspective. But there are a number of hidden challenges, common to both new and old leaders, that underlie the more familiar work. To be a truly effective leader, you’re going to have to address them as well.
Evje identifies three hidden challenges that leaders must address, including: the challenge of showing competency (the trick, don’t over compensate and micro-manage in an effort to show ‘what you’re capable of’); what to do when you can’t ‘do’ anything (in a nutshell, direct the action, don’t act yourself); and the ever-tricky issue of knowing when to let go (control, as anyone who has ever lead a team can tell you, is a difficult balancing act that’s hard to master).
If you’re leading a team, or working in a team under a leader, take a moment to read Evje’s piece, the dynamic isn’t as clear cut as you think and - regardless of your role – you’re sure to learn a little something about the challenges we face as our teams grow and evolve.
If you’re seeking a primer on leaderships skills, look no further than Thomas Carlyle’s excellent On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic History, published in 1841, but still every bit as relevant today. ↩
Beautiful. (And just purchased.)