Featured Posts

My productivity cadence

Every time I have to switch to my Mac to do something (like an app or service that still doesn’t have proper iOS support), I remember how comfortable and familiar it is.

Every time I get back to my iPad, where I do most of my work and play these days, I remember how much more fun and interesting it is to me.

It’s a strange cadence, but oddly satisfying, in a way. Like periodically rediscovering a favorite food dish.

The case for trying Mastodon, a decentralized social network

I’m fed up with Twitter. Over the years the company has deliberately made its products worse in multiple, significant ways. It has also gone out of its way to ensure that racist, dangerous, and violent people have a platform with which to actively ruin society. Most recently, it came to light that CEO Jack Dorsey personally overruled staff to keep Alex Jones—an unhinged, violent conspiracy theorist—and restore Richard Spencer—a literal fucking Nazi.

I think Twitter as a concept can be a useful tool for society. But I worry that Twitter the company is hopelessly lost, and I’m done with it.

Like many other people recently, I jumped ship to Mastodon, an alternative, bite-sized social network with an odd name and some great new ideas. I’ve spent time learning about Mastodon’s mission and open-source, decentralized design, and I’m starting to think that this should be the way forward for social networks in general.

Here are various reasons why, ranging from large fundamental concepts and design decisions, to the smaller details that make a big difference.

The Basics

Mastodon is a simple, familiar social network, quite Twitter-like in daily use. You can post short messages, follow and mention other users, share links, photos, and videos, and add a short profile.

A key differentiator, which I’ll explore in a bit, is that Mastodon is decentralized, working conceptually in many ways like email. There is no single company that needs funding or can get shut down.

This is where Mastodon gets pretty interesting, powerful, and liberating.

Apps Are Welcome

Mastodon has an evolving API that welcomes apps. Remember what that was like? Anyone can create Mastodon clients and tools to interact with the service and data in myriad ways.

You can check my collection of Mastodon links for some interesting stuff, like this tool for finding an instance to join based on various criteria, or this visualization of all Mastodon instances. More on instances in a bit.

Chronological Timeline

It’s a little thing that makes a big difference. Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram added algorithmic timelines because it’s great for manipulative engagement and advertising practices.

Mastodon doesn’t play that game. Your timeline is an actual timeline, one post after the other in the order they were published.

But hey, as far as I know, developers are free to build a client with an algorithmic timeline if they think users might actually prefer it.

Mastodon is Built for People, Not Investors or Nazis

Mastodon is open source. There are no investors, no board, no advertisers—and none of their insidious incentives.

The simple fact is, in an advertising environment like that of Twitter (and Facebook, and Google), controversy is good for business. Which means Nazis, harassment, and trolls are good for business.

It’s why, even if Jack Dorsey claims to not be a white supremacist (for the record: I think he is), his actions of deliberately keeping around people like Alex Jones, David Duke, and Richard Spencer make him and others in management willfully complicit.

I want no part of that.

Mastodon doesn’t have to answer to some board of directors that want to see more more more revenue and monthly active users and #engagement and hey follow all these people who said ‘the’ once in their lives.

It can just be a societal tool, free to build useful features by and for us.

The Decentralized Advantage

Mastodon is decentralized, functioning a bit like email in some ways. Anyone can create a Mastodon instance—sort of like an email server—then choose to allow others to create a Mastodon account on that instance. Don’t worry, though, there are already plenty of instances that are easy to join. Here’s an easy tool for finding one.

In general, all Mastodon users can follow, mention, mute, and block all other users, regardless of instance. Instance admins can block other instances, and so can we in our account settings. This comes in handy when, say, a bunch of Nazis or a troll army spins up an instance (which they probably have to, since most other instances kick them off pretty quickly). Instead of having to block every individual jerk that wanders into your mentions, you or your admin can head ‘em off at the pass with a single click. I have already seen it happen, and it’s great.

Instances can have their own rules and CoC, such as prohibiting abuse (a common rule), advertising, or NSFW content. Some instances allow NSFW stuff as long as members use the Content Warning option to hide the content behind a hidden block.

Yes, Mastodon and all apps I’ve tried have an official ‘Content Warning’ option. I quite like it.

Instances and Multiple Timelines

Some of the largest instances are open to everyone, as long as you follow their generally welcoming CoC. But many instances cater to various topics or communities, such as technology, LGBT, or photography. This is useful in a few ways.

To be clear, I asked around and it doesn’t seem like topic-centric instances will kick anyone out for not posting about the topic X times a week or month.

The purpose of an instance catering to a topic is to help people find other like-minded folks. Think of it like attending a topical meetup or networking event—the central topic brought you all together, but many conversations will veer elsewhere. This probably makes the most difference when it comes to Mastodon’s three timelines:

  • The standard Home Timeline of all the people you follow
  • The Local Timeline of all the people on your instance—this is where picking a topical instance can be useful, but not necessary
  • The Federated Timeline Of your instance, everyone you follow, and people they follow

Mastodon Cannot Die

Because of Mastodon’s decentralized structure and open source foundation, there is no single company that needs funding or can get shut down.

Some instances may come and go. But users can simply move their accounts and content to another instance, or spin up their own instance that still interacts with the overall fediverse of connected instances.

This aspect poses unique potential and perhaps challenges for the way Mastodon and, more specifically, its instances can manage moderation, funding, and maintenance. But those are good discussions for other blog posts.

Public and Private Posts

Something I’m very happy to see in Mastodon is the option to post privately to varying degrees:

  • Unlisted– You can post to your local instance and followers, but not the public timeline
  • Followers-only – Only for your followers, not the public, Local, or Federated timelines
  • Direct – Direct messages that support multiple recipients

Give It a Shot

Like everything in life, Mastodon is not without its challenges and problems. But it has been fun and interesting and useful in all the ways that social networks used to be. Except this time, we have more power and fewer dangerous incentives, which gives me an optimism I haven’t felt in a while.

You can learn more at JoinMastodon.org, and scroll down about halfway to find a sign up tool with a growing directory of open instances. You can find me at mastodon.cloud/@chartier.

Watch Anecdotes: People from the IL DMV and emissions offices

Watch Anecdotes: People from the IL DMV and emissions offices

I love talking to regular, non-tech/nerdy folks about how they use their tech. I think it’s a great way to get out of my industry perspective bubble.

Between checking our car’s emissions and renewing my license, I’ve spent some time in Illinois government facilities over the past two weeks. One thing I noticed was Apple Watches on a good number of employee wrists. Both people I worked with owned one, and both happened to be middle-aged women. Once we got chatty, I asked them how they like and use their Watches.

Here is a roundup of the anecdotes they shared:

  • They both really like their Apple Watches
  • Both stated early on, almost apologetically, that they were “not very technical,” and “I don’t know everything this does. I just know what I like.” Somehow we’ve made too many non-tech folks feel bad for not having PhDs in their gadgets
  • They both text fairly often
  • They make more phone calls than they expected to
  • They like the nudges to get more active
  • One had RunKeeper installed but she didn’t mention it
  • One said she likes to look at her pictures, and made a point to add an album of just the ones she wants
  • They both use some notifications to stay in touch with things but “definitely turned off a lot of them”
  • Both hope to get 4G model so they can leave their phones home sometimes. “I can do everything I want most days without it, so that would be nice”
  • On that point, one said “my girlfriend’s Watch has the red dot so you know it’s the nicer one”
  • Neither of them seemed worried about the extra fee required to use 4G on their watch. One said “oh it will be totally worth it”

I don’t have a grand thesis. But maybe this can help inform some of our thinking around the Watch’s surprising popularity and the appeal of the 4G version, especially when it comes to semi-untethering the Watch from the iPhone.

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.

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.

Some recent changes to the newsletter

I just posted a short roundup on Patreon of a few changes I made to the newsletter. You should check it out there, but I’ll summarize here.

First, it’s back to being free to everyone. I tried Patreon-only for a while, but subscriber growth plummeted. I get great feedback on the newsletter overall, so maybe I didn’t do something as well as I should have, or maybe I need to add something more to justify a Patreon-only tier. We’ll see.

I also switched the backend from MailChimp to Revue. It’s a newer alternative to MailChimp that focuses on things more in line with what I care about: writing and sharing good reads from around the web.

If you haven’t seen this week’s issue or are thinking about subscribing, you can check out a few past issues and subscribe here.

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.