How I Read on the Internet

Yesterday Eddie Smith wrote that Read Later is dead and I figured now would be a fantastic time to post some related thoughts about how I read on the internet[1].

Incoming: RSS, Twitter, Chat, etc

Online information comes from various sources. I subscribe to hundreds of feeds in NewsBlur. I follow a bunch of people on various social media platforms. Friends send me links via email or IM or Slack or other private messages.

If the item is short and I have a moment, I read it then… it’s like a reading adaptation of the 2-minute “Process it now” mantra from Getting Things Done. I read pretty quickly, so I can read many (most) things I come across on the spot.

Reading Later

If not, it gets sent to Instapaper. I have a recurring weekly task in OmniFocus to review my Instapaper queue, but in reality I do it far more often… Instapaper tends to be my bedtime reading.

After Reading

Once I’ve read something:

  • If it was rather unremarkable it’ll simply get archived in Instapaper.
  • If I found it interesting, I’ll save it to Pinboard for reference.
  • I might also choose to share it out to Twitter.
  • If it leads to a followup task, it gets sent to OmniFocus.

By deferring any sort of longish reading to Instapaper, I can rapidly move through incoming streams, then shift into reading mode later.

  1. This is how I read. It probably isn’t how you read. If you read in some other way and it works for you, that’s fantastic. I’m okay with that.  ↩

The Three Phases of New Creative Technology

It’s interesting to watch technology advances in the photo and video realm[1] that make previously-inaccessible options possible for the general consumer.

Three quick examples that come to mind are GoPro cameras (offering cheap, durable cameras capable of HD video or time lapse photography), the Hyperlapse app (making sped-up timelapse photography extremely simple), or the slow-motion video capability Apple has introduced with the last couple of iPhones. A tweet from Brian Krogsgard brought this to mind as he notes the potential for a particular technology to be “way overused”:

It seems to me that we see these technologies move through three phases:

Creative Technology Phases

  • At Introduction, we’re all excited by the promise of the new technology as we watch the carefully-crafted demonstrations.
  • We then enter a phase of novelty where something is interesting merely because it was made with the new techology. A video was interesting simply because someone made it with a GoPro on their head. A slow motion video was interesting simply because it was a slow motion video of something not often seen in slow motion. There’s nothing wrong with the novelty phase – even if it seems like something is overused – it can lead to some interesting material. The general formula at this point is often "Let’s do ____________ (thing we’ve already done) using __________ (new tech / equipment).
  • Finally we move into what I call the creativity phase, where folks apply real creative thought in combination with the new technology. Instead of applying the new technology to what’s already been done, this is where folks figure out what previously-impossible thing can be done now with the new technology.

When I discuss “possible” and “impossibility” above, some of it is purely technical but it’s also an issue of accessibility. Folks could make sped-up timelapse videos long before the Hyperlapse app, but to do so required both camera hardware to capture the timelapse along with software (and software skills) to create the final product. Hyperlapse eliminated those barriers.

The future is pretty neat. What else will we see move through these phases soon?

  1. I suspect the same applies in other fields.  ↩

Success: Pants Optional

Lots of folks talk the talk about being a new/revolutionary/distributed/non-traditional company or workforce, but who’s really doing it? And is it really working?

What about a company with:

  • over 100 employees
  • employees all around the globe
  • only one office, and it’s an office that’s rarely used, even by the folks who live in that city
  • every employee working from… anywhere. At home, in a coffee shop, a coworking space…. anywhere they have connectivity

Sounds neat… but you wonder about what this company makes and whether it’s successful.

That Company Is Real and You Can Learn From It

The company is Automattic… they’re the folks behind and they work with the open source community to build and maintain WordPress, the popular web platform that now powers over 17% of the internet. Things seem to be working out.

Experienced project manager, author, and speaker Scott Berkun spent over a year working with Automattic as a team lead for – and one of his terms for his employment was that he be allowed to write a book about the experience. That book is The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work, and it’s now available for purchase. I had a chance to read the book. The tl;dr summary is that it’s really good.

Stories Lead to Observations

There are a few ways Berkun could’ve gone with the book and I’m pleased with the approach he chose. Most of the book is narrative storytelling, relaying experiences (both specific and broad) that he had while leading his team as part of the larger organization. Some of these are specific to a product challenge faced, while others are broader topics such as company culture. As a team lead, he worked with a variety of personalities (on his team and others) and he provides interesting insight into working with various situations in the distributed workforce… something which might have been a quick water cooler conversation is different when your teammate is thousands of miles away.

Most of the narrative chapters contain little observations and analysis weaved into the stories. After several of these narrative chapters, the author interjects chapters that are intentionally higher-level… less storytelling and more analysis. Aptly titled “The Future of Work”, this series of three analysis chapters could stand on their own as a short business book… but interspersing them among the storytelling chapters provides valuable context. The stories support the conclusions and the conclusions aren’t as deep without having read the supporting stories.


I came into this book as someone who knows several Automattic employees; I was previously familiar with the distributed workforce and I knew a bit about some of the tools and processes that allowed it to happen. That said, I was curious about conclusions – what would an outsider say after a year as an insider, and how would it be said? I walk away with these key points being made or reinforced:

  • Personality and Skills Trump Job Titles – it’s important to hire smart people. Ideally they have a deep knowledge of a specialty but also a broad familiarity such that they can help with tasks outside that narrow topic.
  • Tools Matter – much like traditional workplaces require the infrastructure of an office, conference rooms, parking spaces, and centralized phone systems, a distributed and timeshifted workplace requires an infrastructure of its own. Text and video chat, group discussion software, and other tools allow for team members to communicate both with themselves and with the company as a whole. It’s not just that any tools are needed: good tools are needed. Automattic rarely uses email. There’s a section in the book about that… it doesn’t mean that Automattic doesn’t exchange text communications, they do it in different methods which seem to be more manageable.
  • It’s Really About Trust and Communication – while the methods and madness might be different when a company is in one building versus hundreds, ultimately the success of the organization and the teams within it depends on workers’ abilities to trust each other and to communicate. Whether that’s big-picture vision stuff or in-the-weeds details, communication is key, and faciliating that communication, regardless of environment, is essential for success.

If you care about how business is done, I’d highly recommend the book. If you’re a WordPress user and you want some insight into how the sausage is made, there’s a good bit of that as well. Scott Berkun is a smart man and a great writer, and The Year Without Pants is an excellent read.

Uncategorized / Untagged Content Penalties

As bloggers, writers, journalists, and other Google Reader users search for a solution to the disappearance of Google’s ubiquitous feed tool, one of the most popular alternatives is the NewsBlur service. Offering web, iOS, and Android portals to one’s feeds, NewsBlur provides a clean interface and supports quick keyboard navigation for power users.

Training NewsBlur

Another neat feature of NewsBlur is that you can “train” the software about which topics, authors, and feeds are of most (or least) interest. Power RSS users often subscribe to hundreds of feeds… in my case I have subscriptions that include:

  • individuals’ personal websites/blogs
  • news websites (both general news and niche news)
  • company blogs for products or services I use
  • blogs and websites of my competitors

The list goes on… while I subscribe to all of these feeds, some are of more importance than others. RSS is not email; it’s not critical that every item be read in a timely manner (or at all). Some topics are of more importance however. NewsBlur allows a user to indicate which tags, categories, authors, or keywords are more or less important, and it provides an interface such that if I’m quickly dipping into my feeds, I can easily view only those items that match my “most important” indicators.

Categories and TagsYour Untagged, Uncategorized Content is Going to be Overlooked

What I’ve discovered since I’ve started tagging is that there are a lot of folks leaving tons of posts as “Uncategorized” and there are quite a few content management systems that aren’t serving up categories or tags at all. This means that I’m not going to see these items and feeds if I’m using NewsBlur’s priority system to view my feeds. If, for example, I’ve told NewsBlur that I want to prioritize things in a WordPress category, or tagged as having to do with Flickr, your unmarked content won’t be caught.

Help me to indicate I might want your content. Categorize and tag appropriately.

Alfred 2 Workflow: Create OmniFocus Tasks

[Alfred icon]Here’s an Alfred 2 workflow for creating tasks in OmniFocus. This workflow contains three separate actions:

  • New OmniFocus task – keyword ofnew – creates a new OmniFocus task in the inbox using the argument supplied as the task description:
    ofnew Enter the Task Name Here
  • New OmniFocus task from Chrome URL – keyword ofchrome – creates a new OmniFocus task pulling the page title from the currently-focused tab in Google Chrome, with the corresponding URL as a note
  • New OmniFocus task from Safari URL – keyword ofsafari – creates a new OmniFocus task pulling the page title from the currently-focused tab in Safari, with the corresponding URL as a note

Feel free to adapt, modify, and build on these scripts as you see fit. If you find a problem, please leave a comment below and I’ll update as needed.

Download CreateOmniFocusTasks.alfredworkflow

Why I’m Bullish on Google+ Again

I joined Google+ on the day that it became available, and have always enjoyed the service. I generally find the web interface to offer a nice, visual view that allows me to easily connect with and browse the work of other photographers. It’s a much nicer experience that some other leading social networks.

While the Google+ web browser experience was pretty good, their mobile experience (at least on the iPhone) was pretty bad. There was a lot of wasted space, navigation was cumbersome, and some serious performance problems made it an onerous task to do something as simple as post a status update or share a photograph. My mobile photo sharing continued to focus on other applications while I mostly ignored Google+ when I was away from my desk.

The lack of a good mobile app led me to question how much time I’d spend with the service in the future. I became skeptical.

And then last week, this happened:

Google+ photo display Google+ photo display

An update to the iPhone app brings a new, beautiful photo-centric display which makes browsing a Google+ steam a very nice experience… arguably even better than the Instagram stream which now looks a bit plain by comparison. It’s easy to +1 photos (just tap on the + count), easy to comment, and the performance when posting new items is improved. In short, Google got this mobile experience right. Mobile photography is a big deal ($1 billion for Instagram, anyone?), and a beautiful mobile experience represents a big plus (pun intended) for Google.

There’s one big piece that’s missing (still): an API for third-party apps. My current mobile photo workflow involves using Camera Awesome to upload mobile photos to SmugMug and then cross-post to social services (sometimes Twitter, sometimes Facebook, sometimes Instagram). If I could post the images easily to Google+ as well, that would be a huge time-saver that could only increase my usage of Google+ while on the go.

I’m on the fence about switching to Google+ as my primary mobile social network (instead of Instagram). The API would make it easier, but it’s not too bad now with the new app. There’s a local Instagram meetup in a few days; I’m curious to hear what other Instagram users think about the new Google+ interface…

Join me?