Oh, hi. It’s been a while. It should come as no surprise when I say that part of the reason I didn’t really blog while at Twitter was because I got used to making my technical commentary via Tweets. (I’m @neongolden ’round those parts, if you were wondering.)

But now that I’m no longer at Twitter, I find myself once again exploring the brave new world of Silicon Valley, and, well… I have to admit, I’m kind  of disappointed. Let me explain: Silicon Valley is in a boom right now. There are so many jobs! Everyone’s hiring! Everyone’s getting funded! Great ideas are being validated with lots of money and young talent is being put to work! Everyone feels good!  Right?  …Right? Not quite. Here are the patterns I’m seeing, with a dash of friendly (hopefully helpful) critique:

There are tons of jobs… for engineers. When you work for a big tech shop, people like to say that you can go anywhere and do anything afterward. While I think we should all feel that sense of empowerment, regardless of where we’re coming from, I feel it’s my duty to present to the reader the sobering reality: if you want to be something other than an engineer, designer, or product manager, openings are still scant and jobs are hard-won. Get ready to get competitive, especially if you’ve got a kickass resume and know you’re awesome.

Imitation: the sincerest form of flattery. Analytics for Pinterest! Car/ride-sharing! SaaS! Big Data! Crowdsourcing! Crowdfunding! For every great idea I see in a startup, there are ten others just copying existing ideas or trying to solve a problem that is wholly irrelevant to the general population. Don’t get me wrong, all of the above-listed genres can be made useful to large numbers of people, but my point is that there are more immediately relevant problems to be solved that people aren’t using tech to tackle – where is tech in green energy or green business? Where is it in healthcare? Its presence is not renowned in these arenas because everyone went to work at that new ride-sharing startup. Now is a time where seemingly any idea can get funded, yet people still seem too afraid to solve big, world-changing problems. There aren’t enough startups that are even trying to actively make our world a better place. I echo Kara Swisher’s sentiment that too many big minds are chasing small ideas. (Apparently she’s big on health care reform, too.)

Ads: the only way we know how to make money (besides crowdfunding). Of all the innovations in tech, it’s pretty shocking that the revenue model has hardly evolved at all. Say what you will about behavioral targeting and the social graph, the dominant model is still “we have a great product/service that people like. How will it make money? Let’s make it an ad platform!”

But, really? That’s the best we can do? I’ve got to be completely honest here. If a product is awesome, I’ll pay to use an ad-free version. I really relish the services I use that are still ad-free. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to pay attention to one thing at a time: it’s disruptive when an ad interrupts my experience online. (Typically this happens when I’m reading an article or watching media.)  But, ranting aside, making users pay for an ad-free service is about as innovative as monetizing your service by making it into an ad platform.  Sure, there’s always hope for an acquisition, but at that point, your product or service just usually becomes a part of a company that makes its money via an ad platform. Sigh.

Shoutouts to startups that have given me hope in my search:

Rally (the best social fundraising I’ve seen for nonprofits/causes)

Angelist/Jobscore/Jobvite (at least looking for a job is easier than it used to be…) – I’d love to see more services like these geared to people who want to work in other industries. Angel List’s model could work quite well for, say, non-profits.)

Scribd/Storify/Flipboard/Medium (social reading/publishing) – Like I said in an earlier post, the Internet won’t kill literature. It will help it evolve!

…stay tuned! If nothing else, I’ll post more inspirational statrups as I continue my search!

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Two years.

January 10, 2012

So. It’s been a while.  My last post here was in January 2010. I had been hired at Twitter a few weeks before that, and I still work at Twitter today.  A lot has happened in that time – suffice it to say that I’ve been learning a ton in both my professional and personal life. As I do so, the itch to blog came back, so here I am, ready and willing to share some of my favorite new technologies with you.

I’ve got a long laundry list to go through, and in the meantime, if you have any questions on Twitter that you’d like me to tackle, ask away!

Recently, I’ve been re-reading a collection of essays by one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Franzen.  One thing that stood out to me about How to Be Alone is its strong anti-technological bias.  The reticence of most self-proclaimed writers to embrace a new way of reading and writing is staggering to me.  I live by the argument that the texts we are seeing created online are just as valid as those anywhere else – and that those that live on will do so because of their relevancy not only to the present moment, but to the canonical works and established theoretical concepts that they are referencing.

I don’t know if Franzen’s changed his mind since he published How To Be Alone in 2002, but I certainly hope that anyone considering the validity of his arguments will pause and consider my rebuttals to Franzen’s arguments. Let’s start by addressing Franzen’s fear that the Internet is turning us into consumers of media rather than active readers:

the life I understand by way of books feels increasingly lonely. It has little to do with the mediascape that constitutes so many other people’s present. For every reader who dies today, a viewer is born.

Certain writers seem to think that it’s acceptable to categorically argue against all digital media, as though every hypertext were created equally.  This is as ludicrous as saying that the trade paperback I pick up in an airport is the same as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time because, after all, they are both printed texts.  No matter what the medium, there will always be media that is created solely to be consumed, and there will also be texts that are created to engage a reader, to encourage thought and discourse.  Such texts DO exist in digital format – if you have never had the pleasure of reading one, I encourage you to examine rhizome.org, The Electronic Literature Organization, or UBUWeb.  (If you would like a recommendation of exemplary texts to start with, I would recommend The Dreamlife of Letters by Brian Kim Stefans, Talking Cure by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, or the Derridean masterpiece that is L0tus Bl0ss0m by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.)

Digital media can be just as relevant to the canon as print media.  Nor is all activity that takes place in front of a screen passive.  The argument that digital media estranges us from being literate in language – spoken and written – is completely, utterly, false.  Digital media consumed for pure entertainment value isn’t going to be educational, but it seems like Franzen just dipped his toe into the Internet and drew conclusions before encountering the digital texts that create the same readerly experience as books. (And again: there are plenty of books out there that are just as mind-numbing as a gossip blog or prime-time TV show.)  As thousands of newspapers and magazines find their physical copies too bloated  to turn a profit when published, we find them reincarnating themselves online.  How, exactly, are these less relevant, less educational,  less informative than their printed counterparts?

From this, Franzen uses theory by Sven Birkerts to fire a more pointed shot: Books teach us how to be alone  and clicking through a hypertext or watching a film is a less meditative experience, which he quantifies only by saying that  “‘domination by the author’ has been the point of reading and writing thus far.”  Franzen resolutely echoes Birkets’ argument that “the reader goes to the work to be subjected to the creative will of another” and that the future is bleak, where “efficient and prosperous information managers [are] living in the shadows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference.”

To this I say: Franzen, Birkets, you are both full of shit.  Have you so little faith in humanity that you think that it is going to self-select a future without literature, without art, without meaningful experiences that take place outside of a screen?  Do you really think that self-proclaimed geeks such as myself have not considered your interests as well?  Do you really think we’ve just conspired to call books obsolete and hand everyone a Kindle while we torch the libraries?  Come on.

But no, he doesn’t stop there.  The tirade continues:

‘the more complex and sophisticated our systems of lateral access, the more we sacrifice in the way of depth.'[…] Instead of Manassas battlefield, a historical theme park. Instead of organizing narratives, a map of the world as complex as the world itself. Instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data.

To be fair, Wikipedia was new when Franzen wrote this essay, but he either hadn’t used it yet or discounted the role it would play in the shape of the collective consciousness of the Internet.  Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect a well-respected writer who is generally judged to be well-informed to take stock of things like the open-source movement when making arguments as hyperbolic as the one above, but I live in a world where increased access to not only read but edit or create information has radically shaped the way we view history, and attendantly, the future.  The digital divide is declining, information access is becoming less and less a privilege and more and more the basic human right that it should be, and as it does, I see a world where people have equal opportunity to create texts – maybe not the ones Franzen is used to, but he has no excuse to discount an entire medium because of his personal discomfort with where this shift leaves him as reader or author.

By the end of the essay, the urge to ask Franzen “what are you really afraid of?!” was overwhelming. (Notable concluding sentences include “I rue the onset of an age so anxious that the pleasure of a text becomes difficult to sustain,” and “the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.”)

I don’t believe for a second that a decline in literacy, in engaging with texts in that special-meditiative-way that Franzen seems to think only books can provide, is imminent with the increasing popularity of digital communications.  But, if that is Franzen’s concern (or yours, dear reader), I encourage you to read the works of educational technologists concerning the matter. – Fear 2.0 is a great place to start.  Fear 2.0 will also help address some concerns over technology’s effects on literacy, which seem to be a concern of Franzen’s.  To which, I’d like to offer the succinct rebuttal: It’s the educational system, stupid.  And in lieu of a massive overhaul of American schools that a majority of taxpayers will never approve, we need to make as much information and educational means as available as possible.  Not everyone has the luxury of learning through books and professors – but that doesn’t make them less capable of learning and enjoying their textual experience.  Franzen seems to have forgotten that not everyone has a choice in how they engage with a text, and notably absent is his concern for how printed media killed the tradition of oral storytelling (because it didn’t). Similarly, printed texts will live on in an age of textual experiences that are increasingly digital.  Literacy isn’t dying – the ways we experience and author texts are simply changing.  They have before, they will again, and the ways we learn need to change, too – they can begin with an open mind and a willingness to seek out good texts (in all available formats) and promote them in order to enrich the community.

Grooveshark

November 16, 2009

I’ve been using and watching Grooveshark evolve for almost a year.  Its development is similar to another web-based music player, the slightly older and ever-evolving Muxtape (which I blogged about here,) in that it’s a flash-based web app that’s extremely robust and easy to use – one which allows users to listen to music on-demand and create playlists from any songs they have placed in their queue.  Unlike the version of Muxtape it bears the most similarities to, its primary function is not as a peer-to-peer (P2P) based music-sharing service.  Another marked difference is that the look and feel of Grooveshark is extremely similar to iTunes, which makes it easy to adopt and very intuitive to use, even on first glance.

One of my favorite things about Grooveshark is that it allows me to listen to practically any tune I can name, no matter the level of obscurity.  It’s great for those of us who like to listen to an album before we purchase it on iTunes.  And if that obscure track isn’t out there, I can upload it to the database, so we can all enjoy it.

A few of my Grooveshark playlists have recently gone from 20-something songs down to just one – ostensibly because artists who feel this kind of dissemination of their work is tantamount to copyright infringement may ask Grooveshark to remove the songs I had populated into their database (via my playlist).  This is in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  I’m still happy to have a service that allows me to listen to entire albums of the latest and greatest, on demand, so I want to make it clear that those bands and Grooveshark have my continued support.

I’ve included a screenshot of my Grooveshark window, complete with a playlist all queued up and ready to go, below:

hipstergeek's grooveshark screen

My Grooveshark screen, showing the queued playlist "M. Ward." Yes, Grooveshark has ads, unless you pay to upgrade to an ad-free Grooveshark. I am neither Christian nor single.

If you’re familiar with iTunes, using Grooveshark should be a breeze.  Simply register a username and password, search the database for the songs you’d like to hear, add them to your queue, save the queue as a playlist, and listen happily ever after!

Tumblr

July 11, 2008

Initially, I got interested in Tumblr as a fun way to absorb a plethora of interesting media in those brief moments of “downtime” at work. But Tumblr is useful beyond its simple “distraction at work” element. To quote Wikipedia:

A tumblelog (also known as a tlog or tumblog) is a variation of a blog that favors short-form, mixed-media posts over the longer editorial posts frequently associated with blogging. Common post formats found on tumblelogs include links, photos, quotes, dialogues, and video. Unlike blogs, tumblelogs are frequently used to share the author’s creations, discoveries, or experiences while providing little or no commentary.

I dig it. I don’t need commentary, I just need to know what’s up. And multiple forms of media make this geek happy (remember, this geek is a creative writer/web geek/music & art enthusiast) – making Tumblr a pretty perfect fit, even if it took me a while to warm up to it. Tumblr keeps me up to date with current trends in media – and what’s not to love in that?

Plus, I find that Tumblr is a great way to share that YouTube video you think is hilarious without being the obnoxious co-worker who emails it to everyone in the department. No one wants to be that guy.

Did I mention that Tumblr is ridiculously simple to use? The only thing I found complicated was learning the reblog function (after I discovered, sadly, that there are no comments on Tumblr. Though, if I had read the Wikipedia article on tumblelogging sooner, I would have known that commentary is discouraged in tlogging). Your options for posts are simple: Text, Photo, Quote, Link, Chat, Audio, Video. That means everyone can find something to share. Sharing is so easy, even my parents could use Tumblr! (And I wish they would – I’m sure their posts would be hilarious).  You simply select the form of media you wish to share, upload the file from your computer (or paste the URL from your browser), and post away! Reblogging, once you find the button (hint: mouse over a post) takes one click.  Instant gratification is then yours.

Until my geeky but deliberately un-hip(ster) parents decide to sign up for Tumblr, you’ll have to be content with my updates – http://neongolden.tumblr.com

Yelp!

May 2, 2008

I like Yelp more than I like myspace. Maybe even more than facebook. Why? Because Yelp has more of an impact on my daily life – in fact, it’s based around my daily life (and that of others in my metropolitan area.)

The idea is simple: you review the good, the bad, and the decidedly mediocre of what your town has to offer. Got an amazing haircut? Yelp about it. Need to know where to take your date for dinner? Check Yelp and see which restaurants have high reviews, look at their price range, read descriptions of the service and ambiance–in short Yelp will help you get to know your city and get to know the places you’ve been wanting to go but perhaps hadn’t yet found on your own.

But it’s not just about the knowledge! Like any good social networking site, Yelp brings its members together. You’re constantly encouraged to write more by compliments left by other users. Adding pictures to your profile will bring you closer to “elite” status (read on), and your reviews are reviewed (ooh, meta!) and awarded points by other members based on how cool, funny, or useful they are. If enough members think your review is relevant, you might be featured on the home page as the review of the day – and then the adulations will pour in. (Having recently been the ROTD myself, I must say – it’s actually quite thrilling!)

What’s even better is that Yelp constantly brings its communities together in real life, too. I’ve attended many an Unofficial Yelp Event – generally a happy hour gathering arranged by fellow yelpers, ordinary users with day jobs like me. Even better are the VIP events for “elite” members (my roommate is a member of the Elite squad) where entire restaurants are reserved and many freebies are given away–everything from henna tattoos to hoodies.

Knowing that Yelp exists, I don’t think I’ll ever be afraid to move somewhere new. I can just look up the metro and see what the locals are up to – I can always find a cool new place to visit, and even if I have a bad time, it’ll make for an interesting review.

You can find me at http://emilyp.yelp.com

ETA (10/9/2008): This post was written when I was new to Yelp and reflects my views as a novice yelper. I have since been awarded Elite status and have worked with Philadelphia’s Community Manager, Carrie Estok, to promote Yelp in that region. This post was meant to express the impressions I had of Yelp at that time, and is not meant to be used as a resource outlining how Yelp actually works.

I have received (and subsequently deleted) several comments from dissatisfied business owners; I urge these persons to discuss their concerns with their local Yelp Community Manager, rather than airing them in the comments section of this blog.

Muxtape

May 1, 2008

You may wonder why it’s been so long since my last post. Well, friends, I knew as soon as I made my last post that I wanted to talk about Muxtape. Muxtape is the new darling among web 2.0 hipsters, and for good reason – it takes all the ease of creating an iPod playlist and combines it with the fun of sharing a real mixtape.

Not quite. Muxtape’s got a lot of issues. The first is its “mp3 only” stipulation. I don’t know about you, but most of my mp3s have been converted to AAC thanks to built-in features of iTunes that control what happens to music I import from CD. This was a major headache for me. Three weeks ago, as I’d painstakingly crafted a flawless playlist – with perfect transitions and everything! – I found I could only upload half the songs to muxtape because the rest were in the wrong format. What do you mean you don’t like OGG files, muxtape? We all know they have the highest sound quality–come on.

So I went back to the drawing board. I hunted down mp3 files of the songs that didn’t make it on the first upload. I checked their file sizes, I uploaded their mp3 versions–only to get an error/timeout message every time. (Error: The file you uploaded either wasn’t an mp3 or the upload was interrupted. Try it one more time, if it fails again (but plays on your computer) Muxtape can’t handle it yet.) What’s the deal, Muxtape? I’m trying so hard for you. I spent hours trying to give you what you asked for, but you still won’t take it. If I had been trying to upload an mp3 of Phantom Planet, I’d understand why you kept rejecting it – but Broken Social Scene? You really can’t handle them? Spoon, either? I’m crushed.

And here we are four weeks later – I still haven’t completed my muxtape. This is in part because of my difficulty uploading files, and in part because my street cred is on the line and I can’t just upload any random assortment of songs.

My personal struggles with muxtape are only the tip of the iceberg. But, in its defense, I think it’s great that people have a quick way to share mixes – muxtape fills a void in my soul that was created when I completed college (thus severing ties with the college radio station) and could no longer broadcast a set of songs to the world every week. If I could get muxtape to take my songs, I’d start sharing again and you could subscribe via RSS to always get the newest updates on what I’ve posted. Like a real mixtape, you can pause and play at will. Unlike a real mixtape, you cannot fast-forward or rewind, though you can skip songs by clicking on a new one. The fact that it’s streaming is nice–your friends can hear your music without having it eat up space on their hard drives. It’s good for you, too – you can share your music without having to pay to host it on a server.

In the age of flash-drive mixes, muxtape is an odd mutt. I think it exists more for the people who enjoy listening to mixes than for those who make them. Anyone who’s ever made a mixtape knows that half the fun is struggling with obselete technology, knowing you have to time the pauses just right, knowing that it must work as a cohesive whole because you can’t just “skip songs.” Overall, I love the concept, but am less than pleased with its execution. When muxtape starts accepting more file types, you can find me at http://neongolden.muxtape.com/