You are what you read

PG Wodehouse has always been literary comfort food to me. I read the books when I was younger, and I would say that they are some of the few that I have re-read, often in times when I have felt I needed something warm and sustaining. When recovering from illness or jet-lag or otherwise. The language is crisp and clean, almost musical, always with a wry smile. The stories themselves are predictable, yet still they catch you off guard. It is timeless, yet so very of its time.

But I am getting off topic. To return to the subject, the thing that often strikes me when I have binged on Jeeves and Wooster is how PG’s turn of phrase and sentence structure begins to crop up in my own thoughts. How I find myself mimicking his abbreviations and metaphor (artlessly I might add). Some mixture of him infecting my mind, and me commandeering his voice. It doesn’t last forever of course, but for a while I am a little more Wodehouse.

You are what you read.

I have spent some time on Twitter lately, what with all this news that keeps happening. I found myself wondering how that very different type of reading was permeating my way of thinking. Obviously Twitter as a whole doesn’t have the consistent author’s voice to clearly spot influencing one’s internal narrative. But there is maybe something of the context switching, the pithiness and irreverence, the anxious tenor, that I perhaps can increasingly identify.

Where I take pleasure in noticing a spot of Wooster, I enjoy these Twitter tics rather less, which is probably a sign.

I can only assume that other people observe a similar influence on their thinking, depending on what content they have been consuming lately*. Whose voice do you enjoy borrowing, and whose do you like less?

*Of course it might just be me.

Assume Forms

I wrote a few months ago about how books might evolve as a medium. Since then I have found myself reflecting more on some of the new mediums of communication the internet has afforded us.

Twitter looms large in public discourse, serving as a President’s soapbox, a VC Café philosophique and a place to do jokes, among others. The form itself is real menagerie, from banal one-liners to threaded diatribes. It feels ephemeral and is hard to search or organise; it is unstructured. It is highly contextual, to be experienced in the moment, rather than after-the-fact. A conversation, not a historic record (though surely Tweets will become cited artefacts soon enough). Twitter is perhaps the platform these confused times deserve (one might posit that the blue bird had a causal role, but that is best left for another time).

Email newsletters feel like quite an old format, but I find myself subscribing to more and more these days. Also a real mixed bag of content, from professional organisations’ weekly updates to the idle wonderings of creative minds. I enjoy newsletters because people seem able to be themselves – Yancey Strickler describes newsletters as part of the dark forest of the internet.

“These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments.”

There is something private about a newsletter, not just read in your browser but invited into your inbox, placed on your implied to-read list. I find that there are some I archive almost automatically (I should unsubscribe), while there are others I look forward to, just as I look forward to the bi-weekly arrival of Private Eye.

The third form I have been thinking about is by far the most niche, but is also the one which led me to write this post – blogchains. Described and invented at Ribbonfarm:

“A blogchain is longform by other means. Containerized longform if you like. A themed blog-within-a-blog, built as a series of short, ideally fixed-length posts (we’re trying to standardize on 300 words as one container size).”

Distinct from a series, more improvisational, responsive and evolutionary. In writing this blog, I have developed a few larger ideas that I want to build out, but I haven’t felt I have the will (or the audience) to write a big old essay. So maybe I will try blogchains on for size, with this the first one, inspired by James Blake – Assume Forms, on internet mediums.

Normalhuman

A foundational premise of this blog post is that jokes are better when you explain them in excruciating detail, so can we all get on board with that please.

If you are denizen of tech Twitter, you have probably heard of Superhuman. For those of you fortunate not to spend time on the Hell website: it is an email client, self-proclaimed “the fastest email experience ever made”. It has achieved its Twitter fame through a combination of invite-only exclusivity, high profile advocates and admirers (mostly proclaiming via Twitter), some noteworthy quirks (one-on-one onboarding, a $30 per month pricetag, beautiful pictures when you hit inbox zero), as well as what is apparently a genuinely transformative email experience.

I say apparently because I wouldn’t know – I am an Android user for my sins, so even though I managed to wangle a coveted invite (I know right), I was rebuffed at the final hurdle: there isn’t an Android app yet. My email signature will not indicate that I am Superhuman, at least not for a while.

In a fit of pique, I wondered whether maybe, just maybe, $30 was a bit much for just, like, sending email? Did I even want to see nice pictures at inbox zero? Why would I want an onboarding where someone else critiqued my emails? Was it actually all just about getting a golden ticket, and telling the world about it?

And thus, NormalHuman was born: the email experience you already have, just with a sprinkling of exclusivity.

I know what you are thinking: this is kind of weird, why are you explaining this quite shoddy attempt at satire? Cool your jets, I’m getting there. Because this post is actually an ode to the internet.

Everyone knows that the internet has revolutionised and democratised access to information blah blah blah. All manner of entities, from individual hackers to not-for-profits to big corporates have brought us products and services that are almost like magic, achieving a mix of fortune and fame along the way.

What I think is less well understood is how easy it is in 2019 for a person with an idea to bring that to the world at speed, with internet scale (even if that idea is a half-baked internet parody), thanks to a mix of tools, community and a little bit of luck. Let me break this thing down for you.

The tools

I’m not suggesting that Normalhuman.net is a groundbreaking thing. It is actually quite simple: it is a single page website, with a sign up form, some nice pictures and transitions, a $5 card payment option, and some analytics tracking in the background. I guess what is significant is that ten years ago, that would have been quite an undertaking, requiring a chunk of time and at least some custom development. Today, it took a couple of hours of messing around with some user-friendly point and click tools.

The hub of the whole thing was built on Carrd. For those who don’t know it, Carrd is the world’s simplest one-page website builder, by one-man powerhouse AJ. I have been using it for a couple of years, and I have huge respect for how the platform has developed in that time – it has added some great new functionality, but it has done that while remaining incredibly simple, staying true to its core use-case (easy to make single-page sites). If you have never made a website before, and want to put something of your own on the internet, I can’t recommend a better place to start – it was my first port of call, and I was off the mark.

I wrote some slightly irreverent copy. But a few word jokes does not a good satirical website make. I needed to beef that sucker up.

Superhuman has an access request form, so Normalhuman had to have one too. The act of a couple of minutes in Carrd, linking up a dusty old Mailchimp account I once set up. The internet doesn’t need another wax lyrical about bootstrapped Mailchimp, so I will simply say: it was easy to do.

Given the wonderful aesthetics of Superhuman, I had to make sure my stock photo game was up to scratch. I hadn’t come across Unsplash before, but their photos were beautiful so I snagged a few for Normalhuman, plus their simple embedding API was just what I needed. I got some nice transitions going, and the whole thing started to look kind of professional. We were cooking on gas.

I wasn’t sure what to do about the endorsements from high profile people, a compulsory component of every wannabe unicorn website – I didn’t feel like I could put real people’s faces up there. Fortunately I was reminded of the slightly chilling thispersondoesnotexist.com, an endless stream of AI-generated faces. I could put a face to a quote with impunity (sorry computers).

I talked to a friend of mine, who said I should add a card payment option in there. Carrd of course has a seamless payment integration with Stripe. I thought why not? And added a $5 widget (proceeds to go to Wikimedia). It was my first time using Stripe. Having worked on a couple of payment integrations for bank wires and credit cards in a previous job, it was kind of uncanny how easy it was to go from no Stripe account, to accepting payments. Truly a wonderful user experience.

Then, in a moment of optimism, I added Google Analytics tracking. Needless to say this was also very easy to do in Carrd.

Not going to lie, I kind of gave up when I got to designing the logo. It is the number eight. Don’t ask me why.

The community

Having made a joke website, it could have gone the way of some of my previous satirical efforts – URLs passed on to like-minded friends, otherwise largely forgotten. But I thought I might as well prod it out into the world, so I did two things. Firstly, I created a Twitter account, and secondly I posted it on Product Hunt.

I’m by no means an active Product Hunt user, but I think it is an interesting community which surfaces some cool stuff (I read their daily email). I’d never “hunted” anything before, but thought it might get some attention if I was lucky – the VC Starter Kit (a masterpiece) had done pretty well on Product Hunt, so there was some precedent for joke websites. I Hunted it, pushing it out into the void.

Back to Twitter, where I have only recently started engaging and posting things on my personal account, having spent a decent chunk of time lurking. While I have some issues with the platform (not for now), it does spark some really interesting conversations, and I have really appreciated the fact that you can engage directly with people a world away. It was in the hope that I tweeted my Product Hunt page, and tagged @Superhuman.

A little bit of luck

So NormalHuman got lucky a couple of times. The Superhuman team saw my tweet, and they seemed to get it. A couple of them followed my Normalhuman account, and retweeted or liked or whatever it is one does on Twitter. The site got some traffic over a few days (~4K people!), some people gave me their email address to apply for access. I got a nice feeling that some people had seen the thing I did, and thought it was ok. Which is about all one can reasonably hope for. I was pretty happy with how it had all gone, and was trying to explain to my family what it was (“so if you follow Tech Twitter…”), when I checked Google Analytics – about 1,000 people were concurrently on the site.

Interesting.

To Twitter!

It became apparent that Benedict Evans had included the link on his weekly newsletter, which goes out to >100K people, which explained the sudden influx of traffic. As a reader of said weekly newsletter, it was kind of cool to see my joke website included. I emailed Benedict, who informed me that it was one of the most-clicked links that week. Still not sure what to do with that one.

But I am sure that it totally obliterate my previous metrics, with a halo lasting for a little while as some other people picked it up. As of writing, >17K people have visited the site, >2.5K people have applied for access, and, in the most miraculous outcome of all, 18 people paid $5 for lifetime membership, with all profits to go to the Wikimedia foundation.

Spot the moment the newsletter landed

So that was all good fun.

Some miscellaneous thoughts I may unpack a bit more later: Twitter is an incredible place to spread information (or disinformation). Newsletters with large readerships are a powerful tool. People are pretty willing to give out their email address. People are mostly up for a laugh.

To people who visited the site: I hope it made you smile (I know it’s not like ha-ha funny, we’re in wry smile territory here and that’s ok).

To people who applied for access: I am sorry that I don’t (currently?) have an email client to offer you. GDPR mandates that I let you delete that data if you want, just hit me up if that is the case @GetNormalhuman.

To the people who paid $5: you are absolute angels. I will be making a payment to Wikimedia forthwith.

To team Superhuman: kudos for being cool about it. If you will still have me, I’d love to give the service a try, even just on my old Macbook Pro.

To Benedict Evans: thanks for the boost, that was fun.

To AJ and all the people who made the tech I used: thank you for the leg up. Keep doing what you do.

I am conscious of course that this kind of wide-eyed one-eyed optimism has lead to all sorts of issues for technology companies big and small. There is much more nuanced and thoughtful reflection to be done. But I had an enjoyable micro-experience of the positive power of the internet, and I wanted to share it here.

Siempo

One of the few daily newsletters I almost always skim is Product Hunt‘s Daily email. Pretty short, digestible and themed (hello Harry Potter), it generally fits quite nicely into a commute or equivalent. The other day the theme was “10 Apps for your mood“. As well as the usual heavyweights (Headspace, Calm), it featured a fewer up-and-comers that launched on Product Hunt in the last year.

The one which caught my eye was Siempo, which promises to “turn your phone into a healthier digital experience 📱” (emoji theirs). That sounded pretty good, so I downloaded it to give it a try.

Off the bat the user experience is quite intimidating, as it pretty immediately asks you for every phone permission under the sun, making me instantly suspicious. Perhaps it’s on me – I didn’t know initially that Siempo was a “Launcher” app, effectively replacing your phone’s Home screen and App catalogue. Now I do know that, it makes sense that it would need pretty invasive permissions, but it still feels weird. Whatever the weather I think Siempo could do a better job explaining what is going on before you give it permission to view your blood type, and could also maybe reassure you of the robust privacy of that information. Rant over.

Once you have done all that, you are presented with a basic black and white UI instead of your normal home screen.

I spruced the background up with a photo my brother took of the Green Bridge of Wales. Freebie bug if any Siempo people are reading: the yellow circle space seems to be treated like an icon, as in it shuffles around when I try and rearrange things.

Siempo aims to “put you back in control of your apps and protect you from overuse”, and it is surprising how effective a nondescript home screen is. Colourful branded icons are gone, and most non-core apps require you to search for them, rather than your thumb’s muscle memory taking you there. Introducing this minor friction acts as a reminder, and more than once I find myself putting my phone down to focus on what I was doing as a result.

There is also the concept of “Flagged” apps, which you don’t want to spend time on. Siempo had a few pre-populated – Twitter (guilty), Snapchat (not guilty), YouTube (not guilty) and LinkedIn (on the odd weird occasion). I left them in as they were. These apps don’t show up in the main search results, requiring you to go to a separate taboo section, another simple segregation which is actually quite effective. You can also opt to be reminded when you have spent too much time on a “Flagged” app (if you hand over yet more permissions), some gentle prompts and a counting clock showing up at the top or bottom of your screen.

Siempo lets you batch up notifications, so they only arrive periodically or at a certain time. My phone (a OnePlus) treats the batches kind of strangely (they are all Siempo notifications when they come through), so I haven’t gone for this one yet, but I do see the utility during periods of focused time.

I could think of some additional potential features. Analytics is one, given all the data I know the app has – it would be interesting to know where I am spending all my time, and I have always thought that notification analytics would be cool to see. I would also be interested in Time of day controls or switches, so I can be “at work” or “at home” and have different experiences accordingly. I think there is a trick missed integrating something like Unsplash in the name of lovely photos for people to look at (value-add stuff I know). On a more serious note, the lack of a payment option for the service is a bit unnerving, particularly for a product that has quite so much of your personal information. Everyone’s got to eat, I am happy to pay for digital services I value, and I feel like lots of people are increasingly of that view. If anything, finding a Patreon page with only 5 backers made me all the more anxious, but maybe there is a business model underneath it all that I am unaware of (and happy to update this to reflect that if anyone is in the know).

Overall though I am pretty impressed with Siempo, and at the very least it made me think quite a bit about my phone usage. I have friends who have contemplated ditching their smartphone altogether in favour of a less distracting brick phone – I think this software-based approach is a less drastic middle ground.

It made me think about trust – in giving access to Siempo, I was reminded of how much my smartphone knows or could know about me. Having worked in a couple of tech companies, I actually think the extent to which that data is actively used right now is less than one might suspect (or fear), but things could certainly go in that direction. You are also trusting them to keep your information safe, which is probably actually the bigger concern.

It made me wonder why smartphone makers don’t give you more control over their inbuilt Launcher apps, instead letting addictive apps run amok across your home screen and attention span. Controlling that experience, or at least giving people tools to do so if they want, is something I hope phone companies are thinking about.

So quite a lot taken away from a random app downloaded on a whim, but that is probably because Siempo strikes a very current nerve. Phones at their best are magical devices that create wonderful experiences and foster global connection, phones at their worst are attention slot machines. Siempo is focused on (preventing) the latter, which is certainly a noble cause.