confessions.jpgLast night I stayed up later than my body wanted me to, doing little more than refreshing my inbox. Click. No new mail. Click. No new mail. Click. No new mail. Click. Junk mail. Click. No new mail. Click. Letter from a friend. Read. Keep as new. Click. No new mail.

It’s an addiction. Responding takes energy, but just checking to see if I’m being thought of only takes a click.

Having just returned from 11 days out on the East Coast in quasi-vacation mode, I’m behind on my inbox. There are about 50 messages that I intend to reply to, many of which could be handled in less than two minutes, but I don’t want to do that. I want to sit with each one and give it my full attention. I want to respond with as much time and focus as I would if I were looking the person in the eye. Many of these emails come from people that I can’t easily grab a coffee date with, so I want my response to genuinely convey my appreciation for them and my commitment to our relationship. Two minutes is not enough for that.

As a result, those emails sit in my inbox unanswered for days because I’m not ready to redirect my attention. I’ll usually flush that folder to zero about once a week, giving everyone the lengthy responses I believe they deserve, but let’s face it: seven days is not a quick enough response time for most people to feel loved.

While I was clicking refresh on my inbox last night, I was also refreshing my twitter application, looking for other lost souls who were awake at 1am and trying to feel less alone. But twitter shocked me out of my daze when it stopped giving me tweets and started giving me error messages:

Twitter returned a "bad request" error. This happens when you exceed 70 requests per hour. Avoid running other Twitter applications or refreshing too frequently.

Am I really that bad?

For someone who resents the idea of responding to emails in less than two minutes or five sentences, I sure do adore a communication platform that limits me to 140 characters or less. Why? Because with Twitter, I can only type 140 characters, and people can only type 140 characters back to me. It’s the extra lite version of blogging, email, and phone calls, and therefore I am not able to use it as coffee date substitute. Sense of responsibility removed.

Let’s take inventory. I have 205 friends on Facebook. I have 124 friends on MySpace. I have 117 professional contacts on LinkedIn. I share my most personal writings with my 113 closest friends on a private network. There are 109 blogs in my “always read” folder. I follow 56 people religiously on Twitter. I realize that these numbers may seem low compared with some social media hounds, but here’s my commitment: (with the occasional exception of blogs,) these are all people I actually care about and am genuinely connected with. My networks are valuable to me and I fight to keep them that way. Because of this, those numbers seem absurdly high to me.

Meanwhile, I habitually leave the ringer off on my cell phone because I can’t stand small talk or interruptions. I also haven’t been available by instant message in over four years. If you need my attention immediately, I’ll respond to a text message (direct twitter messages have the same effect — but you have to be one of my Religious Fifty-Six for that to work). If you need my attention within an hour or two, email is best. But if I don’t feel like your email requires an ultra-quick or immediate response, it might get circulated into my “respond when I have adequate time” folder, and we already know how that works.

The exception to all of these is always work. I’ll answer my phone for clients and contractors. I’ll respond to their emails right away. I’ll even use instant messaging if it’s for the good of the project. You can see where my priorities are.

But when I’m not being paid for fast responses, I like to handle things in batches. I don’t do dishes as they get dirty; I wait until my sink is full and then I throw on my ipod and dance around my kitchen until it’s clean again. To me, that’s far more satisfying. I’m one of those focused passionate types who’ll naturally spend an entire day only walking, reading, writing, researching, coding, blogging, talking with a friend, or staring at the ocean. And if I’m extra lucky on those days, I’ll remember to stop and get lunch before 4pm.

Timothy Ferriss, in the Four Hour Workweek, recommends only checking and responding to email once a week, and using an autoresponder to let people know that this is how you function. Unnecessary emails and obsessive data hunger fall away.

I could see this working for a world traveler, but for a computer-bound web worker? Would that even be possible?

Or would it be embracing my natural system and ditching compulsive behavior?

This thought is so radical I think I need to go browse my inbox for awhile for comfort…

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I just got a snazzy little digital camera for Christmas. It’s 12 megapixels, it fits in my pocket, and it takes beautiful pictures. There’s only one problem: out of the box it makes loud beeping noises every time I press a button. And much to my dismay, the “OFF” switch for this is NOT quite so intuitive to find (hint: clicking the “MENU” button isn’t going to bring you there, and the instruction manual hides the answer). But after many wincing minutes of “Okay, I think we’re gonna need to return this damned thing,” I finally mashed enough buttons that I ran into it.

So if you’re trying to enjoy your brand new toy and find yourself fighting with the same problem, I bring you… THE SOLUTION!

  1. Click the “HOME” button once or twice until you see a menu.
  2. Use the Right arrow key to scroll all the end of the list, where you’ll find “SETTINGS”
  3. Click the Middle button to select “MAIN SETTINGS”
  4. Use the Right arrow key to select the first option: “BEEP”.
  5. Click the Middle button to toggle the options for this setting.
  6. Use the Down arrow key to find “OFF” and select it with the middle button.
  7. Click the “HOME” button again to get back to taking pictures.

All better!

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Four years ago, on a hot summer day, I was bored and decided to start a new website. This particular website was intended to be a community space and publishing venue for writers. I gathered up a few friends to help me sculpt it and get the word out, and together, we named it The Writ.

The Writ had massive ambitions and zero budget. For the first four months, it survived entirely on coffee, cigarettes, insomnia, optimism, and keg party marketing. When its membership jumped from 4 to 100, we were beside ourselves with shock. When we secured a $1200 grant to help with the web programming, we felt like we’d won the lottery. When we found a guy in Romania who promised to build us every web feature we ever dreamed of for $1200, we were certain that literary world domination was well within reach.

And then, when we all burned out from volunteer hours and discovered that Mr. Romania wasn’t the programmer of our dreams, we quietly admitted failure, gave up on the project, and moved on. It would die, we figured, without us — but hey, it was fun while it lasted.

So when the damned thing refused to die, we didn’t quite know what to do about it. There it was, living on without leadership or maintenance, with broken features and mysterious glitches, with ugly designs and spam-bloated forums, and with a passion and force that made absolutely no sense to us at all. New members were signing up. People were posting writing. People were commenting on each others’ work. People were creating community.

And that’s how I know I didn’t get it. In all my pride and ambition, I had missed the point entirely. It wasn’t about making things bigger and better. It wasn’t about creating a sustainable revenue model, or establishing a fancy brand, or extending deeper into the community. And it most certainly wasn’t about us.

The Writ now has over 5,500 members. People post new writing every day, and most pieces receive constructive feedback from readers. Over the last four years, several people have stepped up to take the leadership reigns and in doing so sparked new life into the community. But that role is too taxing to sustain long-term as a volunteer without a programming staff, and its presence is usually short-lived.

Does that matter? Not as much as we thought it would. The community members don’t really care if they have a leader or not. All they care about is being able to show up, share their stuff, and connect.

That’s it.

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There’s a yucky yucky trend going on in social media right now: Asking for Address Books. This is evil. Do you hear me? EVIL!

BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD!

KNOCK IT OFF! PLEASE! JUST QUIT IT!

Okay — step back. What am I talking about. I’m talking about when you go to LinkedIn or Facebook or MySpace (or pretty much ANY of them now), and the website smiles all cutesy at you and says, “Oh, hey, I’m really glad you like our website. You know, there are probably people on here that you’ve never thought to search for, and it’s a real shame that they’re not in your network yet. But if you just give us the username and password to your Gmail account, we can check all of your friends’ email addresses against our database and find all of them for you. It’s quick, it’s easy, and your friends will thank you!

Sounds harmless enough, right?

Don’t give it to them!

I don’t care how much you like them, or how safe they tell you they’ll keep it for you, or how much convenience they’re offering you. Your address book is your address book and it does NOT belong in the hands of a social networking website.

Why? Here’s why:

  • Spam. We know it, we hate it, we’re sick of it. When you give out your address book, you give out a list of email addresses that are connected to legitimate people who use the Internet regularly, and this is very valuable to email marketers. Your social networking site will promise you that your email addresses are “safe,” but sometimes “safe” means, “We promise we’ll ONLY share it with our partner companies — you know, our hundred closest friends. And by the way, when a larger company buys us out, those rules will probably change.
  • Impersonal Invites. I’ve received invitations to social networking websites from people I’ve barely ever spoken to — people I would need to reintroduce myself to if I ran into them at a party. Why did this happen? Because those people gave up their address book to a website, and that website went ahead and invited every email address that wasn’t already in the system. If you let this happen, it can make people feel uncomfortable, and it can make you look disrespectful. The worst part is that you might not even be aware that it’s happening.
  • Trust. You don’t give your friends’ phone numbers out to strangers. Please don’t give their email addresses out to a centralized database. That information is theirs to share; not yours.
  • Identity Fraud. They’re asking you to give out full access to your email account when they ask for your address book. Your email account is a critical link to your internet identity. Access to it is supposed to be a SECRET!

This plays into another yucky technique (which is as old as dirt, but far more powerful with the emergence of social media): Data Mining of Personal Information.

There’s a service called Rapleaf. It allows you to plug in your email address and find out what your reputation looks like on the web. The same people run a service called UpScoop, which lets you plug in all your address book data and social networking site information to scan the profiles of everyone you know — public and private — so you can “keep up with your friends.” The same people run a service called TrustFuse, which lets email marketing campaigns check boatloads of email addresses against the Rapleaf and Upscoop database to find out lots and lots of information about the people they’re trying to get money out of. (Edit: Here’s a good analysis of the RapLeaf/UpScoop/TrustFuse drama if you want more. )

Evil, I tell you. Evil.

Do you read the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service of every website you give a username and password to? I don’t either. We like to function on trust. And if someone I respect invites me to use a service, I will often take their word for it that it’s a good service. But now I can’t do that anymore, because I don’t know for sure if they’re actually inviting me, or if some robot monster manipulated them into giving them my email address before they even had a chance to create a profile.

Social networking is a good thing — it’s doing phenomenal things for communities at an international level, and it’s important that we represent and express ourselves on the web. But please pay attention to what people are asking you for out there.

And don’t underestimate the value of your friends’ information.

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Once upon a time, there was a social networking website called Friendster.

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Friendster had a good thing going for awhile, being the only decent social networking website on the Internet and all. But then Friendster made a few mistakes, and people stopped using it. Even though Friendster is still out there today, most people consider it dead.

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Then another social networking website came along called Facebook.

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Facebook had a good thing going for awhile, too. Since Friendster had already paved the way for social networking, there was already a broad user base to draw from, and LOTS of people joined Facebook. (Facebook made some pretty big mistakes, too, but we’re not going to get into that right now.)

Facebook and Friendster had a lot in common. They both let people post information about themselves. One of those information pieces was “relationship status.” You know, like single, in a relationship, married, etc. Friendster went a step further than the standard categories and added a category called “it’s complicated.”

Facebook decided this was a good idea, and they did the same thing. After all, many relationships are complicated, and it’s important to let people express themselves in a way that fits.

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Then Dead-Friendster yelled out, No! No! We said that first! It’s ours! And they added a trademark symbol to it, to claim their territory.

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And then the Internet laughed and ignored Dead-Friendster, because even though Dead-Friendster wanted to be important again, you just can’t trademark a complication.

And because the Internet is a cruel, cruel place, the Internet decided to give the trademark (in spirit) to Facebook. Just to spit in Dead-Friendster’s eye.

And they all lived complicatedly ever after.

The End!

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So, you’re in a conversation with someone who’s clearly not noticing the confused look on your face. This person has gone off on a long-road tangent and is using words and acronyms that you’ve never heard before. What do you do?

Here are my suggestions (besides, you know, the obvious blank stare or “could you explain that?” responses):

1) The Brush-Off

Variations:

  • “Nah, I’m not really a Star Wars geek.”
  • “Sorry, I don’t speak Swedish.”

2) The Signal
spock2.jpgSome friends and I have been trying to introduce the convention of throwing “star trek fingers” as a non-verbal signal that you need a definition. It’s less interruptive and more respectful. It just happens to be lacking a bit in widespread adoption, but I figure we can get past that… Try it sometime!

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there are a heckuvalot of tools out there. Here’s what’s working for me right now:

  • Thunderbird – Managing my email (loving: filters, folders)
  • Firefox – Browsing the web (loving: tabs, the web developer extension)
  • WordPress – This blog (loving: admin panel, active community of developers)
  • Google Reader – Blog-reading (loving: tags/folders, shortcut keys, starring)
  • Ma.gnolia – Collecting miscellaneous links (loving: bookmarklet, preview thumbnails)
  • LiveJournal – Keeping track of friends (loving: filters, threaded comments)
  • Flickr – Sharing photos (loving: tag searches)
  • Twitter – Microblogging and keeping track of tech pals (loving: SMS integration, Twitterrific, the fact that I can display my most recent tweet at the top of this blog)
  • Last.fm – Listening to music (loving: discovering new music that I actually appreciate)
  • SocialText – Keeping track of work notes (loving: separated workspaces, useful text editor)
  • LinkedIn – Professional networking (loving: the reviews people have left for me there ::blushes::)
  • GreenCine – Keeping my apartment stocked with good movies (loving: the independent film selection, not giving money to NetFlix)
  • EggTimer – Timed reminders (loving: the “repeat alarm” feature, for jumping-jack breaks every ten minutes during bust-ass sessions. seriously.)
  • Electric Sheep – Screensaver (loving: being continually surprised and impressed)
  • Skype – Group chats (loving: conversation history, decent emoticons)

You’ll notice that I didn’t name Facebook, Gmail, or Google Docs — the current darlings of the web tool landscape. I have accounts with all of them, but to be totally honest I don’t have much use for any of them right now. And I’m okay with that.

If you’re curious about my hardware, here’s what I keep nearby:

  • A dented and refurbished (yet sticker-free!) 15″ Mac PowerBook G4 Laptop (in a backpack that does not look like a laptop bag).
  • 30 GB ipod (with cheap-ass black earbuds that do not look like they’re coming out of an ipod)
  • Treo 650 (which is not meeting my needs as well as I’d like, but I just had it replaced, and I’m not ready to upgrade)
  • Whiteboards – Capturing ideas, organizing quick lists, brainstorming, doodling
  • A Moleskin 1-page-per-day calendar notebook – Recording major tasks, goals, and hours worked each day
  • A regular lined Moleskin notebook – All other notes, journaling, lists, and spontaneous poetry
  • My Roomba – Vacuuming (loving: automated scheduling, how incredibly freaking adorable it is)

The missing piece for me right now is a camera (mine recently bit the dust), but I’ve already put in a good word with Santa on that one.

This post was inspired by Web Worker Daily’s list today.

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I got a ride home from the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) from a VP at a Fortune 500 company, and we talked about the complicated natures of our love lives. It felt a little bit like driving home after summer camp, especially since I was on Day 2 with my jeans and underwear. Fortunately, though, I was sporting a nice clean IIW schwag t-shirt, which was neatly ironed for me by the astrophysicist who let me crash on his fold-out hotel suite couch the night before. This, of course, happened after I sang and danced to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” with the conference organizer during karaoke.

The last session I attended at IIW was called “Newbies4Newbies.” Five of us conference first-timers sat around a table with one of the community’s longtime members and talked about our experience. We were all pretty much on the same page with observations:

  • The sparse conference website and jargon-heavy materials provided beforehand gave us the impression that this was a self-contained community. We felt like we were crashing someone else’s party.
  • We ended up in some conversations that were way over our heads, and felt a moment of panic that were very, very much in the wrong place.
  • We took some initiative to figure out what was going on, and started to notice how passionate and productive this community was.
  • We began to feel like we were being heartily welcomed by everyone we talked to, and saw people going out of their way to make sure we were able to engaged in the conversations.
  • We connected with great thinkers and leaders who made themselves available for our questions and ideas, and who took the time to explain complex ideas to us in language we could understand.
  • People recognized that we, as newcomers, had a valuable perspective to offer on what they were doing, and they asked us to share it.
  • We felt like we had become an integral part of the community, and we were sad to see the conference end.

“Workshop” is a fitting term for the event. It really was about getting stuff done. Before I realized what was happening, I found myself helping to spearhead two new working groups which now have clear missions for ongoing roles in the community. The first is called Inclusive Initiatives, and its plan is to coordinate events and identify research studies that will help bring to light a wide range of perspectives on what the public needs from identity solutions. Somehow, I became the Stewards Council Representative for this group (go figure).

The second group sprung out of the “Newbies4Newbies” conversation. We’re rallying together to help bridge the gap between this brilliant community and the people who could join it but don’t know how. Our hope is that by making the website more accessible, developing clear introduction materials, and identifying people who can serve as mentors within the community, Identity Commons will broaden its reach, its influence, and its pool of resources for being effective.

This community is pulling the Internet into an arena where our information is safe and manageable by us, the users. Its projects include things that will take our passwords out of the hands of people we don’t trust, and take our consumer experiences out of the hands of marketers. It’s “the good fight” for our rights on the web.

Listen to me. I’m on a soapbox already. These people got under my skin.

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I’m here at the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) in Mountain View, getting a crash course in internet-style identity politics, complete with plenty of new tech jargon.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the premise:

There are a lot of situations in which you need to provide information about your identity on the Internet (logging into an account, purchasing something with a credit card, leaving a comment on this blog post, etc.). Â It’s an elaborate system of exchanging information, and it has its faults (we’re familiar with things like identity fraud, lost passwords, getting locked out of things we should have access to, and not knowing whom to trust).

IIW is a place where people get together and talk about the problems, solutions, questions, and new technology being developed around the issues of identity on the web.  I am completely surrounded by brilliant thinkers here — people who sit around and make decisions about what’s going to happen next with the web. It’s humbling.

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As I talked about in previous posts, Social Media can help you reach lots of people for very little money if you know how to use it well. For me, the magic key to Social Media is blogging. But through talking to other people, I’ve found that most non-bloggers either

A) don’t think it’s for them, or

B) don’t know how to approach it.

I’ve also noticed a few myths floating around the blogosphere and its conferences lately, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t helping the situation. So here are my debunkings:

Myth #1: The blogosphere is full. Whatever you want to say is already being said.

Fact: The blogosphere is a cloud, not a box. If you have something to offer, start sharing it. Some people will pay attention while others won’t, and that’s not what matters. What matters is that you’re giving yourself a voice, and you’re joining a network of other voices. You might just need to trust me on this one — it’s worth it.

Myth #2: You can make money from your blog.

Fact: You can make money through your blog. It’s possible to make decent money by putting ads on your blog, but first you’ll need to become absurdly popular and get tons of visitors coming to your blog every day. The bad news is: most of us will never get there. The good news is: your blog can still put money in your pocket, even if you’re not displaying any ads at all. By building a relationship with your readers, you develop an audience asset that can bring you business. By having a public voice that is continually posting new thoughts, you present an image of authenticity that adds value to your reputation. And whether you’re a consultant, an organization, a business, or an employee, all of these can have a positive impact on the amount of money others are willing to give you. But watch out, this brings up another myth:

Myth #3: Blogging will make you valuable.

Fact: Blogging will amplify your value. If you have something of value to offer the world — be it your insight, your advice, or your experience — your blog will crank up the volume on how much people appreciate you. If, on the other hand, you’re not already tapping into something of value within yourself, blogging isn’t going to help.

I’m of the (admittedly idealistic) opinion that everyone has something of value to offer, though, so I think you should start blogging right now.

Start here:

  • Typepad.com – If you’re willing to put a little money into having a truly awesome blog.
  • Blogger.com – If you’re looking for something free and easy.
  • WordPress.org – If you have a few tech skills and want to make it your own.

Once you’ve got it running, please send me the link. I’d like to keep an eye on it. Thanks!

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