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Medium is becoming an interesting writing community that actually pays

To get it out of the way, the pros and cons of Medium have been discussed thoroughly elsewhere. But in a recent newsletter, the company shared some stats about its paid membership program that I think are at least worthy of discussion.

In short, Medium’s membership program sounds kinda like Netflix. It charges readers $5/month, then divides that money between the writers of all the articles people read. For now, Medium doesn’t even take a cut off that $5; the full amount goes to writers.

Eventually, I wager Medium will have to do something like either raise that price or start taking a cut. But I applaud the company’s effort to avoid advertising.

For example, here are a few of July’s payment stats:

  • 47% of authors or publications who wrote at least one story for members earned money. 9.8% of active authors earned over $100.
  • $16,007.02 was the most earned by an author, and $2,260.42 was the most earned by a publication.
  • $2,059.72 was the most earned for a single story.

Medium also put out a call for stories on topics they want to feature in August. I think the company is doing a good job venturing beyond its tech roots:

  • Code as Art: Stories celebrating the creative side of coding.
  • Losing My Religion: Perspectives on parting ways with faith, for better or for worse.
  • Not Another First Time Story: Reflections on doing something unexpected for the first time (particularly off the beaten path, so no: first ex; yes: first hex).

If you write something in any of these ballparks, email editors@medium.com with the subject line “Partner Program Submission” and the title of your piece.

AirPods are the new iPod earbuds

AirPods are the new iPod earbuds

Or, anecdotally, let’s take my beloved home of Chicago. I travel in and around the city quite a bit and AirPods are everywhere. They’re on the train, in the parks, on sidewalks, in meetings, at desks, in bars, and at large, busy outdoor public events.

AirPods are also used by everyone. Kids on the train, sometimes their parents, cyclists on the lakefront, post-millennials, all genders, exasperated businesspeople in suits on phone calls, joggers, tourists, pre-millennials, startup coworking types, the young, the old, intrallennials, you name it.

I wonder if AirPods are the most visible “there’s an Apple customer” since the first iPod and its earbuds. I think it’s more significant this time around, though, since AirPods are not included with any product (yet?). AirPods are a deliberate purchase.

They are also probably outside the realm of what many owners previously paid for headphones, if they ever have. If I’m right, going from paying $0 to $159 for headphones seems like a big deal.

Like any company, Apple has had its stumbles lately. But the AirPods seem like a phenomenon on another level. I’m excited to see how Apple evolves them.

The problem with Slack’s approach to accounts versus Discord

Most of you have probably used Slack long enough to get invited to at least a couple rooms. Or maybe 5. Or 12. We technically have to create a new account for each room, even if we choose to use the same email and password for each one (but please use unique passwords).

This separation of Slack rooms into islands unto themselves makes sense for Slack from a business perspective. Some rooms want or need stringent data retention and security policies, so Slack offers paid options on a per-room basis. But many other Slack rooms are just people hanging out in the spiritual descendent of an IRC chat room.

This system creates an increasingly tedious burden for users who join multiple communities. Even if you use a password manager, you still have to manually log into each room. Slack tried to ease this friction by sending authenticated emails that will automatically log you into every Slack room tied to that particular address. But this is problematic on a couple of levels.

The most important is that it’s a duct-taped solution that creates clutter and friction. Have some communities spun down, but still lumber on? Did you leave some communities which weren’t useful anymore (but not delete your account, because how do we even do that)? Too bad, Slack’s email will still automatically log you back into every one.

I get why Slack’s business model is designed this way, but I don’t expect it to change any time soon. This makes me wish more casual communities would consider Discord as an alternative. It started with a focus on the gaming community, but has since expanded its features for a broader audience. For starters, you create a single account, then use it to join multiple rooms. Adding and DMing friends is also room-agnostic. Think of it like Facebook, where you can join multiple groups with a single account, though you do have the option to customize your profile details on a per-room basis.

Discord has many of the same features as Slack, including free standard accounts, strong mobile apps, file and media sharing, separate channels, account permissions, and integrations with 3rd party services. It also adds free, low-latency voice and video channels that support multiple people.

In my experience, Discord seems to be much more popular almost everywhere outside of tech. For example, many communities and creators on Patreon, YouTube, and Kickstarter will offer access to a private Discord room.

However, Discord’s business model is focused on the individual, not rooms. Rooms are free to spin up (you can even create them from an iPhone or iPad), and you can join as many as you want. If you—the individual, not a room admin—want to score a few extra perks and support Discord, you can pay for Discord Nitro. It adds things like a higher upload size, an animated avatar, and the ability to use custom/animated emoji across all rooms (a perk that makes way more sense than manually uploading them to multiple Slack rooms).

Slack is great and possibly a better fit for some companies that must adhere to industry regulations. But I would love to see more tech communities give Discord a try.

I canceled our Amazon Prime membership

I canceled our Amazon Prime membership

As you may know, Amazon is raising the price of Prime to $120 per year. Initially that struck me as too much, but after sleeping on it, today I decided to cancel our membership. I did it for two reasons.

Value

Over the years, Amazon has been packing Prime with a ton of different services including streaming video, music, and discounts on certain product categories. But the only thing Jessi and I cared about was two-day shipping. Prime makes a lot of sense if you use some of the other things it offers, but we simply don’t.

And while free two-day shipping on most (but not all) stuff is great, it isn’t that novel anymore. A lot of companies offer the same thing, and none that I’ve used require a membership for it. There’s usually a minimum purchase amount, but with the way we shop online, it isn’t a problem for us.

In other words: the one thing that made Amazon Prime valuable to us has been eclipsed—internally by all the other features Amazon stuffed into Prime, and externally by an industry that stepped up to compete.

Principles

This is the tougher one to discuss and quantify, but in short: I’ve grown to dislike Amazon, the company. Some of its warehouse workers have to pee into bottles to avoid punishment or losing their jobs. It has far too many stories about employee intimidation and making them wear tracking devices. I get that some consider tracking to be a standard in some parts of the warehouse industry. I’ve worked in warehouses and on assembly lines, so I get it. But this discussion is for another time.

Amazon is also quietly one of the last major holdout advertisers on Breitbart, a dangerous and destructive website that frequently publishes anti-Semitic screeds, insidious propaganda, and drivel like “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?” No I’m not linking that one. Yes it’s still online.

Sum of the parts

Individually, would any of these reasons be enough for Jessi and me to cancel Prime? Outside of ‘we don’t get our money’s worth,’ maybe not. But I haven’t even touched on other increasingly important problems plaguing Amazon, like counterfeit products and fake reviews. It’s getting harder to just find the legitimate product I want and trust that its reviews are from genuine owners who bought and actually used it.

After a good night’s sleep and a morning cup of coffee, all of this added up to a clear answer for us. Our Prime membership ends in May. But I started shopping elsewhere a couple months ago ago to see what life was like after Amazon Prime.

It’s fine.

Photo by Jesse Bowser, Unsplash

What if we didn’t have to grant access to *all* contacts?

What if we didn’t have to grant access to *all* contacts?

Granting permission for an app or service to upload our contacts can be quite useful. It can also be dangerous to the privacy of everyone involved, and people are understandably losing trust in large parts of the tech industry.

But what if it wasn’t a binary, all-or-nothing permission? What if we could limit access to a specific set of contacts?

Maybe it’s a group we add contacts to, maybe it’s a switch we could flip on each contact (something like ‘Shareable’ or ‘Public’). It would be nice if we could also flip this switch on our own cards, for when we share them with someone new.

An obvious drawback is that the onus is on the user. I might be willing to flip that switch when a friend or colleague asks, but I wager a lot of people wouldn’t want to bother. It might lesson the very meaning of having this mechanism. A possible logical conclusion of all this might be some kind of centralized service for storing, sharing, and controlling our contact information (setting aside my distaste for the business side of Facebook, it does have some great options here, right down to controlling which friends, if any, can see each personal detail such as your home address, email, and phone). But that’s another discussion.

I don’t think these controls would be a panacea, but they might give more people the flexibility and privacy to use contact-powered apps and features. Between some of my contacts being my various doctors and a few friends who don’t want their information uploaded to most services (for good reason), I would certainly like to see more attention spent on these problems.

When you have to choose between your arm or your phone

From a friend of mine, in a chat thread about portable battery packs:

Fun fact: when we’ve had amputees test myoelectric limbs we’re developing, they often volunteer that they’d like a USB charging port so they can charge their phones from the big battery in the limb. We then explain that it’s a big engineering challenge to get the limb to last all day on a charge, as things are, so there’s not residual capacity for phone charging. They inevitably reply “If I have to choose between my arm working or my phone, I’m going to choose my phone.”

Other perspectives on the Touch Bar

I think a lot of hate for the MacBook Pro Touch Bar comes from I Hate Change-ism or just plain group-think. I think this happens with a lot of new products and tech, and I find it to be obnoxious and repetitive. There, I said it.

Anecdotally, I’ve struck up conversations with a few strangers in cafes and lounges, and they’ve had positive, unique perspectives on it. Generally they like it, they don’t miss the F keys since they “barely” or “never” used them, and they have fun discovering the new or previously hard-to-access features that apps place in the Touch Bar.

But there are also plenty of happy experiences and positive anecdotes to be found. Here’s a brief selection of links I’ve been collecting:

I hope these can help some people see how the Touch Bar is an improvement for good portion of users.

I wish Blendle worked more like a feed reader

Blendle is an attempt at micro-transactions for news. Whether you use the website or its iPad and iPhone app, you can pick your favorite topics and publications, dump a few bucks into your account, then skim a tailored selection of stories Blendle thinks you want to read. You get to see headlines and brief summaries. Clicking through to read an entire article will quickly and silently pull anywhere from 15¢ to 50¢ out of your balance.

As much as I want to help news get as far away from advertising as is pragmatically possible, I think Blendle’s approach to curating articles could use a pivot. Or maybe it just needs an alternative interface for people like me who want to skim all available news and cherry pick what we want to read.

In other words, I wish Blendle had the option of looking and working like a traditional newsreader a la Fiery Feeds, NetNewsWire, Feedly, and their ilk.

I have around 350 feeds in my Feedly Pro account, organized by topic across some two dozen folders. I use Fiery Feeds to read, so my typical approach is to tap a folder like Apple, Game, or Photography and skim through headlines and brief excerpts from the sites I follow for each of those topics. When a headline grabs my attention, I tap it and read.

I like this approach because it allows me to quickly get at least a basic snapshot of the happenings in any of my interests and industries at any time. Algorithmic, curated content has always proven to miss things that I deem important, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, or Blendle.

I like Blendle’s overall mission, and I’d like to see it grow and gain more of a foothold. I’d also like to see more experiments in this space. At the least, give it a look, maybe a try, and share it with some friends who might like the way Blendle serves up news and interesting articles.

The downside of paid upgrade pricing for apps

I haven’t used a particular app in a little while. I just got a new Mac and I wanted to start fresh with it, so I had to re-download said app.

As it turns out, the app received a major paid upgrade since I last used it. The bad news is that I can’t find a download for the previous version for which I have a serial number. Now I need to spend $40 if I want to use this app again. Hooray?

By comparison, I re-downloaded a subscription app from the Mac App Store. I started it up, and it found my App Store receipt/account whatever and started working right away. No serial numbers. No $40 dead-stop paywall. No digging through email. No contacting support. It Just Worked.

I’m not trying to make a grand blanket statement about one business model or another. This is a large, complex discussion, and there is no One Business Model to Rule Them All.

But in this particular instance, I need to spend $40 I wasn’t planning on spending if I want to get back to work. From a user perspective, this sucks.

A flaw and solution for iMessage group conversations

Group iMessage conversations can get pretty notification-y, what with all the GIFs and LOLs and thumbs ups. It may be tempting to shut off notifications altogether, but then you might miss actually important messages, including those meant for you.

I think a strong solution to this problem is part technical, part cultural.

The technical part

Apple has a partial feature solution in place. But it isn’t applied evenly across macOS and iOS, and I would argue it isn’t very discoverable.

In short: Messages on macOS has a feature in Preferences > General awkwardly called Notify me when my name is mentioned. This means that, if you’re in a busy group conversation, you can click Details in the upper right, then turn on Do Not Disturb and ask people to include your first name in any messages you really need to see.

It’s like @ mentions in Slack or Discord, except you don’t need the @ in Messages. In the screenshots with this post, my brother’s message triggered the alert.

The ‘uneven’ problem comes in with iOS. While you can enable Do Not Disturb on your iPhone and iPad (although it’s strangely called ‘Hide Alerts,’ which is a separate problem), there is no “Notify me when my name is mentioned” feature. All messages, even those including your name, will arrive silently on iOS.

To me, the obvious technical solution is for Apple to bring feature parity to iOS and, ideally, pick one name.

The cultural part

I’m making an assumption, but I don’t think there is a strong culture in group messaging of “mention my name to alert me for something important.” In most apps I’ve used (Messages, Telegram, Wire, Line, Skype, etc.), you either get alerts for every message, or you don’t.

But if Apple could bring feature parity, and/or if you work mostly on a Mac, it might be worth trying to bring this idea to the table with your regular chatting friends. Group conversations could become more flexible, and we may not have to draw such a hard line between joining, staying in, or Do Not Disturb-ing them.