For the last few years, I’ve been neck-deep in conversations about non-normative gender. Those conversations just expanded today with the announcement that Diaspora‘s alpha launch collects gender as an open-ended text field (which was met with some backlash). For everyone just getting to this conversation, here is some context and backstory, based on what I’ve experienced so far. Note that this is limited to my own perspective and exposure, so please add links to other sources in the comments, in an effort to better flesh out the bigger picture.

The Preface, from Doppland

Two years ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, requesting that everyone think about how they are approaching Gender in their data collection forms. If you’re the least bit totally baffled by why we’re even talking about gender at all right now, PLEASE start by reading that letter. It’s gentle, it’s in plain English, and it explains a lot.

(I should also add: I organize Genderfork.com, a community expression blog about gender variance, which gets over 20,000 readers and a helluvalot of contributors and commenters per month. This is a large group of people who don’t don’t fit well in traditional gender categories, and their numbers are only scratching the surface of a bigger demographic. They exist. They vary. I know many of them personally. And I identify with them in many ways.)

Last year I attended the She’s Geeky unconference in Mountain View, where I led a discussion called “My Gender Broke Your Dropdown Menu.” I started by reading that letter, and then tasked the group with trying to solve the design problem of “what would be better than a two-option dropdown menu?” It turned into a conversation about all of the user experience, data management, and business issues that get pulled onto the table when Gender is in question, as well as a brainstorming session on how we might solve them. No surprise: we didn’t come up with a clear answer. But we did learn a lot more about the problem. Really, it comes down to the question of “why do you need the data?” Is it about encouraging self-expression, helping people find dates, making marketing decisions, or reporting user statistics to investors? Your primary goal impacts your choices for implementation.

I followed up on that workshop by writing another post called “Designing a Better Drop-Down Menu for Gender,” which listed all the ideas I thought could reasonably improve the data collection process, from a user experience standpoint (again: just go read it — this will all make more sense if you do).  This set of ideas was a work in progress, and the last idea in the post — a method for open-ended tagging — sparked a few follow-ups.  A designer proposed some early, stylized mockups; Kirrily Robert at Freebase created an alpha version, and Phil Darnowsky further riffed on the idea.  We were all just messing around with ideas at this point.

Then it got real.

Enter: Diaspora

Diaspora is an open-source, community-funded social networking platform that aims to have better privacy than Facebook and lets you own your own content. It’s in the very early stages (they just let in the first round of alpha testers last week), and is facing a lot of criticism on the quality of its code. But it’s still a great idea.

Sarah Mei, a contributor to the Diaspora project, was in that She’s Geeky workshop about gender and drop-down menus. That discussion, coupled with her own personal and professional experiences, led her to change the data collection method to an open-ended text field. She writes about the process she went through to get to this decision over here: Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora.

This has received support.

It has also perturbed some people.

…which has sparked further support for the change.

anil dash

Since Diaspora’s code quality still has a long way to go before it’s accepted as stable, I’m sure there will many more iterations to this field. So let’s keep an eye on the conversation and advocate for the best possible scenario.

vCard (and Microformats, and OpenSocial)

Guess what? Diaspora’s not the only project dealing with the Gender Data issue this week. As we speak, the vCard specs team is pinning the next iteration of how our address book data will be organized. Their original plan was to have a field called SEX that allowed for the following attributes (based on the ISO):

  • 0 = not known
  • 1 = male
  • 2 = female
  • 9 = not applicable

Tantek Çelik proposed a two-field solution: SEX (male, female, other, or none/not applicable) and GENDER IDENTITY (an open-ended text field), based on data and solutions he’d explored earlier at Microformats.org. This seems like a reasonable solution to me. (Note: this suggestion is strictly about organizing data behind the scenes. “What will profile forms look like?” is a different conversation.)

I chimed in with an explanation of about why the ISO system is inadequate and offensive, and expressed support for Tantek’s plan.

Kevin Marks pointed out that he and Cassie Doll had also worked out a reasonable data organizing solution, which was accepted in the early stages of OpenSocial and Portable Contacts:

gender:
The gender of this contact. Service Providers SHOULD return one of the following Canonical Values, if appropriate: male, female, or undisclosed, and MAY return a different value if it is not covered by one of these Canonical Values.

In other words: male, female, nuffin’, or fill-in-the-blank. Works for me.

Things are still being finalized, but it looks like vCard will settle on one of these solutions, or a close variant of it.

What Else?

That’s about the extent of my knowledge on the Gender Data Collection story as it’s playing out right now. Let’s pool any links that show where progress is happening, and bring solutions to this obscure but highly sensitive design dilemma to light. Comments offering more constructive views and info are encouraged here (and flaming won’t be tolerated).

Thanks so much,
~ Sarah

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A year ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, asking people to stop and think about how they’re handling gender (and race, for that matter) in their community websites.  The short version is that if you’re requiring users to select their gender from a drop-down menu that has two options in it, you’re alienating some people. I didn’t offer alternative solutions at the time — it was just a request for everyone to think about it.

(Note: if you’re not clear on why gender is a complicated issue in data collection, please stop right now and go read that other post before continuing. This will make a lot more sense after you do so.)

After grappling with this problem on a few other projects, and talking about it in a session last week at She’s Geeky (I called it “My gender broke your drop-down menu…”), I’d like to now offer my suggested alternatives.

Alternatives to asking for a user’s gender in a required two-option drop-down menu…

Option 1: Make it Optional

Baby steps.  If the idea of getting fancy with your data collection method gives you nightmares, just remove the red asterisk.  Stop making it required! Most people will still answer the question, and those who don’t want to will select not to.  Put a plan in place for how to treat and account for those who don’t want to declare their genders, and you’re done.  It’s not the most celebratory or inclusive measure, but it is a very clean way to resolve a lot of problems.

Option 2: Don’t Ask At All

Instead of asking for gender, ask for what you actually want to know.

Is it what honorific should precede the person’s name?  Well, then gender’s not going to tell you if they’re a doctor or a reverend, is it? Give them a comprehensive list of options, and allow them to select none, if they wish. (And really, why do we use these again?  My preference is to drop them entirely.)

Is it what marketing you think they’ll respond best to?  Newsflash: not every woman likes baking, and not every man likes cars.  Ask them about their interests and market to them on that basis, instead.

Is gender not actually relevant at all, except that you think it makes for an interesting statistic? Meh. I’d like to convince you that you really shouldn’t touch it, but if I’m not going to win that argument, please see Option 1.

Option 3: Have a Third Option

Your drop-down menus can have more than two options.  Some people are trying three.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and here’s my current position:

  • “Other” is a poor choice for a third option.  Why? Because gender-nonconforming people are othered enough as it is.
  • A more useful choice would be “Decline to State” (or something similar) — then it’s not about non-conformity, it’s about privacy.
  • But taking this a bit further, I’d like to submit “It’s Complicated” for consideration as the new third option.  Most gender-nonconforming types will smile at you for it.  It tells them you understand.

I’ve seen some people try to implement a “lots of options” dropdown menu, but I don’t really recommend this route, for two reasons:

  1. What if someone looks at the list and doesn’t identify with any of the words?  You just alienated them much further than your male/female dropdown menu was doing before.
  2. What if someone identifies as more than one thing on the list?  Take, for example, a transsexual woman who is proud to identify as a woman.  Are you really going to make her choose between “trans” and “woman”?  Come on now.  That’s insulting.

If you change it from a drop-down menu (“pick only one”) to a checkbox menu (“select all that apply”), you solve issue #2, but you still have issue #1 to grapple with.  And let me tell you: if you think you can come up with a finite list of all the possible gender identities in the world, you’re wrong.

Option 4: Redesign the System

So you’re convinced that “male/female” is a deeply flawed data breakdown for the purpose of your website, but you want people to assert their identities, and you want them to get personal about it.  Okay, then!  Time to scrap the dropdowns and do something new.  Here are some ideas…

A “gender spectrum” slider bar. Take a look at how Blackbox Republic is structuring their sexual identity data:

blackbox

I could see a similar thing done with “masculine” and “feminine” at each end, and letting people self-identify.

Note: one huge problem with the spectrum model is that it’s too flat.  I believe there are people who have “a lot of gender” (i.e. dripping both masculinity and femininity all over the place) and “not a lot of gender” (i.e. minimizing signals of any gender whatsoever), and on the spectrum, they might look the same.  But that brings up my next idea, which is…

A second dropdown that asks how important gender is to them. Take a look at how OkCupid handles religion.  You get one dropdown menu for how you identify, and a second dropdown menu for how important it is to you.  For some people, their gender is a strongly identifying factor in their lives.  For others, it’s nearly irrelevant.  What if we just started asking that question?

okcupid-dropdown

You could also…

Get fancy and use Kreative Korp’s SGOSelect menu (or some variation on it), which basically says: if you have a traditional identity, you can use the simple form.  And if you want to get more specific, you can switch over to the Advanced form:

sgoselect… but it still runs into the “finite number of options” problem, even in the Advanced view.

And that brings me to my last suggestion, which so far seems to be my holy grail. I worked this out with my co-founder team at Boffery while we were strategizing the user interface… with some outside input from Kirrily Robert of Freebase:

An open-ended tagging field that suggests words as you type. I want to be able to define my gender as “female, androgynous, genderqueer.”  And I believe that if we were all encouraged to, we would come up with a great rich vocabulary that uniquely characterizes ourselves in all the ways a two-option gender set is trying to do, but failing at.  If the tagging system were set up to automatically suggest words as you typed, you could either loop in to what others are saying and be associated with that group, or create your own words and add them to the lexicon. The result would be a rich mix of groupable/categorizable labels (marketers: this is far more meaningful than what you’re currently working with), along with the ability for us to self-identify however we want.

I don’t have a picture for you ‘cuz it hasn’t been built yet.  But if anyone understands what I’m talking about and wants to test it out, let me know.

I want in.

Love,
Sarah

ETA: immediately after I posted this, a designer took a stab at the open-ended tagging field idea and sent me early concept mockups.  Check ’em out!

Over dinner last Thursday night, maymay and I spent several hours discussing what makes a Good Web Development Team, based on our particular work styles.  Here’s what we came up with (refined from a crude notebook sketch):

collab-webdevteam

Particular things to note here…

  • All team members have direct access to one another, and are encouraged to work together in real-time.  Quality assurance, scope agreements, user experience development, and engineering development all depend on direct collaboration.
  • D@n has already pointed out that we left out Sys Admin.  That’s a good point, and it should probably be its own person, with direct lines to Front-End, Back-End, and Project Manager.
  • He also expressed concern about QA not being a specific person.  I stand by the current model for dev teams that don’t aspire to grow any bigger than the setup above — peer-checking is sufficient.  As maymay put it, “QA is a state of mind.”  It’s always happening, and it can be structured to happen systematically.
  • Job roles and personal skills don’t always perfectly align. In my case, I can play both Front-End Developer and Project Manager, each with a particular flavor.  And maymay can take on both Front-End and Back-End Developer roles if the expectations are right.  But for both of us, it seems the case that if we only have to take on one role per project, we’re able to do better work.

This is just an abstract exercise in theoretical structuring based on our experience — not meant as anything to be set in stone. Take it for what you will, and feel free to expand on it.

Enjoy!,
Sarah

I think I’m ready to consider my next large contract, but only if it’s exactly right.  And I mean that: I’m perfectly happy right now hanging out in Small Contract Land, and I won’t let anything big into my life unless it’s absolutely the right match for both of us.  But maybe that perfect match is out there somewhere, just waiting for me to wink in the right direction. Let’s find out…*

Passionate Multi-Talented Consultant Seeks Online Community that has Lost its Way

Me? I’m a smart, tech-savvy online community organizer who gets really excited about making good stuff happen in the world.

You? You’re the extended online community of a company that appreciates you and wants you to be happy, but that doesn’t quite know how to take good care of you yet. You have a lot to offer and you can tell this organization wants you to shine, but for some reason, somehow, the pieces just aren’t lining up.

At your core, you’re a real catch (and you know it, too). You enjoy lively, informed discussions and you sincerely care about helping people. (In fact, you often have so many ideas about how the world could be better that you can hardly contain yourself! It’s okay, I understand that.) You’re creative and multi-faceted with lots of hobbies and interests, and you bring what seems like lifetimes of experience to the table. Anyone would consider themselves lucky to have you, but it’s disappointingly rare for you to be with someone who grasps exactly how precious and invaluable you really are.

If you let me in, I will be that someone. I will listen to you, find out what you need, and do whatever I can to provide for you.  I will ease your internal conflicts and nurture the parts of you that want to make the world a better place.  I will help bridge that gap between your needs and your organization’s needs, and I will empower you to make a meaningful difference in the way they approach their work.  Under my care, you will grow stronger and healthier, making it possible for you to also grow bigger.

But I need to tell you up front: I’m not interested in a traditional relationship. If you’re looking for the perfect partner who will meet all of your needs for the rest of your life, you’ll have to keep looking — that’s not me.  I have a rich and varied lifestyle with room only for hot, life-changing affairs, and I want us to live in the moment on this one. I’ll come in to your life, strengthen you, heal your wounds, and make the connections you’re craving. I’ll show your organization exactly how valuable you can be to them, and I’ll teach both of you to take care of each other directly, so you won’t need to rely on me. And then I’ll let you stand up on your own.

Are you okay with that?  I know the goodbye will be hard, but I think you’ll agree with me that it will have all been worth it.

A little more about me… I’ve founded and nurtured several online communities that grew in size and scope over time by natural interest. I’m fascinated with what drives people to contribute to things, and obsessed with helping them find ways to do it. I’m excited, engaging, optimistic, and interesting. And I also work my butt off.

I’ve been blogging and building websites for over ten years, and have expert skills in HTML and CSS, as well as strong social media savvy. I’m also a formally trained technical writer with a knack for making complex things easy to understand.  I’ve been making a living as a technology consultant for over five years, and I work well in lots of different environments, including from my home. I’m in San Francisco, but you can be based anywhere.

The arrangement I’m looking for would involve a contract (I’m not an employee) at respectable business rates.  My ideal commitment would be about 20 hours a week over a period of 6 – 12 months, but I want to make sure all your needs are being met, too.

If you know the matchmaker who can arrange this affair, please send this to them, and I will owe you a hundred hugs.

And if that matchmaker is you, I look forward to your reply. Please email me here:

info at sarahdopp dot com

…and we can further explore our compatibility.

With great appreciation,
Sarah

* a hat tip to Havi for this format. (Have you read her stuff yet? She’s wonderful.)

Just a few minutes ago on Twitter, I quoted a snippet of my phone conversation today with John T. Unger:

Me: “…so basically, I’m just going to get everybody to love everybody.”

John: “If anybody can do that, it’s you.”

Then, realizing how out of context that snippet was, I added some clarification:

By “everybody” I mean “queers, sex nerds, artists, deviants, geeks, and creative folks who dance to the beat of their own drum.”

Call me naive, but I really do believe that covers everybody, with lots of internal overlap.  But okay, yeah, I live in a bubble, and it’s worth defining what that bubble’s all about sometimes.  I also acknowledge that a whole lot of somebodies have stopped defining themselves in those ways, so I’m not gonna worry about them right now.

I want to tell you about the dreams in my head… about the things I’m most excited about, and the structures I’m looking at for how I can serve more people and make our lives more exciting.

One of them is a monthly discussion series I’m kicking off in December at the Center for Sex and Culture (San Francisco) called Deviants Online.  Here’s the press info for it:

Deviants Online
hosted by Sarah Dopp
with special guest Mollena Williams

Tuesday, December 8th, 6 – 8pm
Cost: $10-20 sliding scale, no one turned away for lack of funds

The CSC is proud to announce this new monthly discussion workshop!

Deviants Online will explore the ever-changing “best practices” for social media: facebook, twitter, myspace, flickr, blogging, email, websites, and everything else.  How can we shine spotlights on what we care about without annoying our friends? What are smart ways to strengthen our relationships and broaden our networks? And how exactly do we get our (many) personal sides to co-exist with our professional life on the same Internet?

As queers, creatives, sex nerds, and other rebels, our lives depend heavily on our friends and extended communities.  Whether we’re looking for work opportunities, an audience, or an army of allies, we can all benefit from having a broader network built on trust and appreciation.

In this discussion workshop, we’ll explore what works and what doesn’t when it comes to representing ourselves online. The material will include a balanced mix of “how to think about it” and “how to do it,” and we’ll have plenty of time for questions. Whether you’ve just signed up for facebook or have been blogging for years, you’ll leave this workshop full of ideas on what you want to try next.

Deviants Online is hosted by Sarah Dopp, social media educator and founder of http://Genderfork.com.  It will also have a special guest co-facilitator, Mollena Williams!

For more information, please contact Sarah at [info at sarahdopp dot com].

I’ll have a real website up for it soon. (Promise.)

I also want to tell you that I’m partnering with Sarah Sloane of Equilibrium Consulting to make magical things happen. She’s helping me manage my consulting work (omigod i have a schedule now) and scheming exciting plans with me about how we can do more for those everybodies I mentioned above.

What’s really going on? We’re building a self-sustaining community of smart, creative, interesting people who work together (as clients, consultants, and co-conspirators) to make awesome things happen. I’m already in it… we’re already doing it… we just need to iron out a few more edges.

“…so basically, I’m just going to get everybody to love everybody.”

I’ll tell you more soon.

Love,
Sarah

ETA: The Deviants Online site is available here:  http://www.deviantsonline.com (YAY!)

Somewhere in the middle of running the “Hacking, Mashups, and Other Rebel Coding” session in the BlogHer 09 Geek Lab yesterday, I remembered that I never told the Internet how I solved the “Twitter to Facebook Pages” problem. It turned out to be an impressively convoluted daisy chain of a hack, and I’ll lay it all out below. But first: what am I talking about?

The Twitter to Facebook Pages Problem

A number of people (including myself) live on Twitter these days, and keep Facebook around as a secondary home. Personally, I’ve found it helpful to auto-broadcast my twitter updates as facebook status updates, so my Facebook friends know what I’m up to. There’s a very simple facebook app called “Twitter” that will manage this connection, and it’s super-easy to set up. (Note: If you want to start doing this, please do it with care. If you tweet a LOT, you could seriously annoy your facebook friends with this connection).

Meanwhile, Facebook launched their new and improved “Pages” functionality a year or so ago, which means that non-people (companies, projects, organizations, websites, okay and people too) can have facebook profiles that look and act like normal profiles, except that folks become “Fans” instead of “Friends.” This is awesome… except that the Twitter app FAILS MISERABLY when it tries to connect a twitter stream to a facebook page. It just doesn’t work right. A bug somewhere. They say they’re working on it, but it’s been a year now, and I don’t think we should hold our breaths.

So… I started a Facebook page for Genderfork, and wanted the Genderfork Twitter updates (which are AWESOME, thanks to the fantastic work of Bird of Paradox’s Helen) to show up as status updates on that page. This would be helpful and relevant, and it would make a lot of people happy. But, of course, it can’t be done. At least, not the easy way.

It’s also worth noting that we schedule our tweets for this account in advance using TweetLater.com. This means that any solution that requires us to tweet from X application probably won’t work for us, because it would mean we’d lose our scheduling abilities. It’s also worth noting that TweetLater does have a paid solution that would cut out some of the steps below… but Genderfork has no money, so we kept looking.

The Daisy Chain Hack

Ready for the answer? Here it is:

TweetLater.com -> Twitter.com -> Yahoo Pipes -> Twitterfeed.com -> Ping.fm -> Facebook Pages

Didja get all that?

Lemme break it down…

TweetLater.com -> Twitter.com: This is how we normally do things. I won’t go into those details here.

Twitter.com -> Yahoo Pipes: You’ll need to use your Twitter RSS feed, and this includes your username before every tweet, which gets annoying quickly on Facebook. So we’re going to run your feed through a hack someone set up on Yahoo Pipes that will remove your username from it. Go to this page, enter your Twitter username, wait for it to generate a feed, and click the “Get as RSS” menu option. When you end up at a funny-looking text-based page that shows your tweets on it, copy that URL. You’ll need it for the next step.

Yahoo Pipes -> Twitterfeed.com: So you copied the URL to your RSS feed, right? Cool. Now go to Twitterfeed.com and create an account. The go to “Create New Feed” and set the dropdown box to Ping.fm. Give your feed a name (doesn’t matter much what it is) and enter that RSS URL you grabbed. You’ll want to make a few changes under Advanced Settings on this page, too: (1) Change posting frequency to 30 minutes, (2) Change Post Content to include “title only,” and (3) turn off “Post Link.” Now wait here a minute.

Twitterfeed.com -> Ping.fm: In another window, browse to Ping.fm, create an account, and make sure you’re logged into it. Then jump back over to your Twitterfeed window and click the “Application Key” link (it’s a section header) on the page. It will launch another page that will give you a long secret key. Put that into your Twitterfeed window under Key to complete the process. It will ask how you want to post to ping… via microblogs, status updates, etc. It doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as you remember it and pick the same method when you get to Ping. Now submit that page. You’re done here.

Ping.fm -> Facebook Pages: This part’s a little confusing. You need to follow Ping’s instructions to set up a connection between your Ping account and your Facebook Page. This involves first creating a link to your profile, then adding the Ping app to your Facebook page, and manuevering buttons and switches until everything is set to the right thing. When you think you’re done TEST it by posting via the Ping.fm interface to microblogs or status updates or whatever you set in your Twitterfeed setting. It should show up on your Facebook Page and NOT on your Facebook Profile. If any of that’s not perfect, keep clicking and poking.

If all of that went as planned, you’re done now, but have no instant-gratification way of checking your work. So just sit back and wait for your next tweet to fully propogate, and see if it ends up on Facebook. You’ll need to give it an extra hour or so of wait time to be sure… there are some delays built into this process. (If you run into problems, go back and check to see that Twitterfeed.com is recognizing new posts.) Mine didn’t start working for three days because Twitterfeed was blocking Yahoo Pipes URLs (they seem to have fixed that now). But now it works beautifully.

Lemme know if it works for you.

Tags:

micropaymentheart.pngI want to believe in micropayments.

It’s like Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the economic stimulus package, predefined timelines for large projects, nonfat lattes, and God. I want to believe in micropayments because it gives me hope

I’m talking about hope that we’re on the right track. Hope that we have a viable, sustainable alternate plan for the business models we’re turning upside down with our new technology. Hope that we can decentralize power without losing it altogether. Hope that we can survive without the monopolies. Hope that artists will be able make a living just by inspiring people. Hope that the average Internet user will soon derive as much satisfaction from giving financial props to someone they find valuable as they’d get from buying them a beer.

I naively believed we were close to this reality because someone — iTunes — is actually finally doing it well. I believed the biggest barrier was form of payment: if you have to enter your credit card number or go to a separate payment website or do anything that takes more than a click or a few keystrokes, the method won’t catch on.  iTunes broke that barrier for iPhone users when they required us to sign up for an iTunes account (and enter our credit card number in advance) just to download those nifty free apps. We didn’t like entering our credit card number, but it was Apple, so we knew everything was gonna be okay. Now that we’ve done it, whenever we get a song stuck in our heads at 3 AM and decide we need to listen to it right then, all we have to do is enter a password and it’s ours for 99 cents. A password. Just a password!  Anywhere we are.  It’s brilliant.

It was so easy to take it a step further: if Apple can do it, other industries can’t be too far behind.  Heck, we could even let Apple become the new PayPal and run all of our micropayments throught them, since they already have our trust.  Why not?  Let independent artists have their own merchant accounts.  Expand the system to cover writers, filmmakers, painters, and photographers.  Let high school kids make 50 cents each time one of the cool screen savers they create is downloaded.  Let me pay for shareware incrementally based on the number of times I use it.  Let me donate to a nonprofit in small chunks whenever they inspire or move me.  Empower the bloggers to fund each other.  Make it easy for us to put our money where our hearts are.  

I was this close to swallowing the whole story of technological utopia when Clay Shirky — in his infinite clarity — shot it down this morning.

“The essential thing to understand about small payments is that users don’t like being nickel-and-dimed. We have the phrase ‘nickel-and-dimed’ because this dislike is both general and strong.”

So… people don’t like micropayments.  Oh. Right.  (And… now that I think about it, yeah okay, I kinda hate them, too.)

And…

“The lesson of iTunes et al (indeed, the only real lesson of small payment systems generally) is that if you want something that doesn’t survive contact with the market, you can’t let it have contact with the market.  …small payments survive in the absence of a market for other legal options.”

So… iTunes is an aberration that only works because the music industry is kinda screwed up at the moment.

He ends with:

“We should be talking about new models for employing reporters rather than resuscitating old models for employing publishers; the longer we waste fantasizing about magic solutions for the latter problem, the less time we have to figure out real solutions to the former one.”

But Clay!  I wasn’t talking about employing publishers! I want the micropayments to go directly to the reporters!

But okay… fine… you win.  It won’t work for that, either.

So what’s our Plan B?

Coming up on a year of working with Cerado. First time I’ve let a tech contract last that long. And still in love with them.
(via twitter)

Putting together my October invoice for Cerado this morning, I realized this month will mark a year with them.  I’ve been building websites for ten years and living in the Bay Area for four, and this is the first tech contract I’ve let last more than 6 months.

For the last however-many years, I’ve been clinging tightly to the philosophy that if I stay uncomfortable, I’ll grow faster. And I’ve found that shifting jobs every few months is an excellent way to stay uncomfortable. (So is avoiding monogamous relationships, but that’s a can of worms I’ll save for another time.)  I tend to do something for just long enough to learn it, get good at it, and it to my repertoire. Then I arrange for someone else to take my place, and I move on. Why stick around for things to get easy?  I’ve got too much more growing to do.

I’ve been told by various people that at some point, I’ll want to settle down and keep a steady job.  I’ve also been told that I’ll want to get married and have kids.  And that I’ll wish I had my degree.  And that I want to stop working when I’m 65.  And that Pluto’s not really a planet.

That’s nice.

Anyway, my point is: I prefer change to consistency, growth to comfort, and flexibility to structure.  And that’s why I’m still at Cerado.

We do cool stuff, and it’s different every month.   Since being there, I’ve taught airplane mechanics how to use social networking tools; redesigned BlogHer.com; created a monthly newsletter; built a viral online quiz; and managed the development of a new product that’s so fascinating, I’m still not sure I understand it yet (but it works).  It’s kind of like changing jobs every month, only without the “changing jobs” part.

I get to wear all of my hats.  I manage, I write, and I build.  Most firms would probably prefer that I pick one of those and do it consistently. Cerado, on the other hand, thinks it’s pretty cool that I jump around and do whatever I want to do on a project.  When I get to a spot where I need more help, I pick the thing I’m least experienced with and ask Chris to go hire someone for it.  So far, this strategy seems to be working just fine.

I get to do all my other cool stuff, too.  I’m not quite sure how I pulled this one off, but I seem to have landed in a company that thinks the more I do outside of it, the more valuable I am.  So I travel and go to conferences as often as I can, and I just take my work with me on the plane.  Even more miraculously, though, they’re incredibly supportive of my adventures in queerdom and sex geekery, and I’m getting lots of encouragement to make Genderfork, Queer Open Mic, and Boffery successful. This blows my mind.

I get to work with amazing mad geniuses. Hanging out with Chris Carfi and Mark Resch (and all of the other mad geniuses they tend to attract for lunch meetings) has created frequent surges of brilliance and a constant reminder to think.  Example: In the middle of a meeting one afternoon, Mark made a casual comment about something that would make his life easier.  He and Chris immediately jumped on the idea and started working out all the details for how they could design that product and bring it to production within a month.  Five minutes later, they were back on track with the meeting.  I blinked a few times, shook my head, and carried on.

So in case you were wondering why I’m still hanging out with this strange posse, it’s because they’re a perfect fit.

The BlogHer Geek Lab in Washington, DC was loaded with questions about how to improve a blog and increase its reach.  I ended up on my soapbox more times than I expected, ranting about misinformation and imploring bloggers to rethink their strategies.

I’m summarizing most of my rants below because I think they’ll be helpful to some people.  Please keep in mind that I’m coming at this from my own experience.  I’m not an “ad revenue” blogger, and there are plenty out there who can give you tips on what they’ve done to be successful. I encourage you to go talk to them, too.

The Goals Rant

If you ask me, “How can I make my blog better?” I’m going to ask you what “better” means.  What are your goals? If you don’t know, stop whatever you’re doing right now and figure them out.  Here are some common ones:

I want to…

  • express myself in a creative, positive way.
  • vent my frustrations in a safe and constructive way.
  • work through some challenging issues.
  • document a process or experience.
  • create a space for myself that’s separate from my daily life.
  • establish a certain kind of reputation.
  • convey a certain tone and aesthetic.
  • serve a certain community in a certain way.
  • build a community that supports me.
  • make money with ads and affiliate revenue.
  • find new work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • maintain my existing work/jobs/clients/customers.
  • give friends and family a way to keep track of me.
  • keep track of my thoughts and the interesting things I’ve found on the web.

If you have a lot of these goals (and hopefully some others I haven’t named yet), that’s great!  Now you need to prioritize them. Which ONE do you care about first and foremost? How about second? Third? Fourth? Lay them all out in order — NO TIES! It’s fine if your priorities change in the future, but you need to be honest with yourself about what they are right now.

Once you’ve got that, you’ll know what “better” means. And you’ll probably be able to brainstorm about 20 answers to your original question without any help from me now, too.

The Money Rant

So you want to make money from blogging, and you’ve heard that ad revenue is the way to go.  That’s great and I completely support you, but let’s talk about it for a minute.

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jiffy lube (by Joe Dunckley) http://flickr.com/photos/steinsky/193395157/I’ll strategize it, architect it, and design it.  I’ll help market it.  I’ll direct the team that’s assembling it.  I’ll even tweak the engine and apply the paint job if we’re short on staff.  But if doing all this also makes me responsible for changing its oil every three thousand miles and providing roadside assistance when it has a flat tire, then suddenly I stop being good at my job.

Websites are like cars. I’ve used the metaphor and I’ve heard it from others as well.  Even the prices are comparable — do you want a $500 clunker?  Something that’s either reliable or sexy (but probably not both) for $5000?  Or are you putting down 25 grand for your new baby?

We’ve got website mass-manufacturers. Website mom-and-pop mechanics.  Website fuel (hosting?).  We sell services that make your website stand out in a crowd.  We even give them vanity plates with the special character “.com” on them, and hand out free bling for your sidebars.  Let’s keep going with this.

Where are the Jiffy Lubes?  Where are the reliable, bonded, high-profile, maintenance shops that you can feel confident handing your hosting passwords to every six months or so for a good, honest, and slightly-overpriced assessment of how things look under the hood?  They should be able to upgrade things like WordPress, edit that homepage content you only care to change every once in awhile, advise you about any larger issues, apply some Spam Guard, and send you on your way before dinnertime.

And while we’re at it, where are the website loans for new businesses?  And where is the website insurance against hacking, hosting failure, and freeway Digg collisions?  How can you upgrade the sound system that is your website copy?  Where can you get all that bird shit washed off your outside user-generated content surface?  Where can you have your server space vacuumed?  How are you supposed to know when it’s time to get your timing belt replaced? Where are you supposed to go to do that?  And how can we hold mechanics reliable for doing what we ask without ripping us off?  (I suppose that last problem still hasn’t been solved with cars, so maybe I’m asking too much.)

Rusty Car Storage (by Dave_7) http://flickr.com/photos/daveseven/2522577075/I hate watching people’s transmissions die after driving 100,000 miles without a tuneup.  And I’m even less fond of being handed that panicked problem while I’m right in the middle of designing a beautiful new car.   But I don’t blame them for it — they don’t have much of a choice.  The resources aren’t out there on the side of the road, reminding them to come in for a checkup.  Where’s the freaking Jiffy Lube?

If it’s getting to the point where “married couple” is just another way of saying, “two-website household,” it’s time to scale the industry to address the needs of consumers.  Too many people assume that whoever built a website is going to be responsible for it forever — even if there’s no maintenance retainer plan in the contract.  And true, we — as web developers — created that assumption because we wanted to hold on to our clients.  But how many unloved, unmaintained websites are out there now, rusting and creating an eye sore on someone’s front yard because “maintenance” was an assumption instead of a plan?  Drop your pride and get real for a second.  You’re not happy about it but you don’t want to do the work to fix the situation, do you.

I no longer work on projects where the “designer” and the “programmer” are the same person.  I find that — even if someone can do both — their work will be much better if they only have to do one.  Having two separate bodies engaged in that arm-wrestling match makes for a better website.  And a less crazy team.  Even though I used to try to do both of them myself.

I’m adding maintenance to the pile now.  I don’t think the manufacturers should be the maintainers.  I think it’s a conflict of interest, a disservice to the consumer, and a white lie that’s tainted with an extra layer of fear and pride.

It’s time for the Jiffy Lubes to start popping up on the suburban street corners of the Internet.  We’re ready now.  And please, do it well.

photo credits: “jiffy lube” by joe dunckley and “rusty car storage” by dave_7 — thanks, guys!

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