Stuff I Wrote: February 2015

Writing Fountain penApologies for the delay in this post. Without further ado, here are my posts for the month.  Aside from a sole piece about MMA (Beating the Odds: UFC 183), my February posts–the few that got posted, anyway–all fit neatly in one category.

Tech

Stopping a Smart TV From Eavesdropping On You Could Be a Felony (Slate’s Future Tense)

Superfish: How To Get Unhooked From Lenovo’s Dangerous Spyware (ReadWrite)

Twitter’s Latest Anti-Harassment Measures Still Don’t Do The Trick (ReadWrite)

Time to Die: Let’s All Resolve to Get Rid of Flash (ReadWrite)

Empathy Can Change the World: An Open Letter to the Tech Community (Medium)

 

Empathy Can Change the World: An Open Letter to the Tech Community

Last fall, one of my closest friends took his own life. I can’t really do him justice with a pithy description, but I do feel compelled to try. He was UX consultant, a poet, a fiction writer. He was probably taller than you. He played the ukulele and liked taking long walks in the rain. He always had a book to recommend, a restaurant I should try, and someone to introduce me to. He was intelligent and thoughtful, wry and kind. We had long discussions about everything from food to fonts, fiction to 4chan. He often helped me rewrite hostile missives into ones that were more socially acceptable. And he walked all around San Francisco with me, meeting up with various people, delivering random gifts to my favorite startups, finding hipster cafes with good cupcakes, and pointing me to the bus I needed to take.

Sam playing the ukulele while I typed away at the Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge in 2013.

When someone commits suicide, the classic platitude is to say that there’s nothing anyone could have done. I have really begun to question this. It’s similar, in my mind, to when someone says that any kind of victim who survived a harrowing encounter “did the right thing.” I question this notion.

Here’s an example from my personal life. About a decade ago, I woke up one day with a stranger standing over my bed. Luckily, he ran away when I woke up and asked him who he was. Later, I saw that he’d tried and failed to break in through my back door—he’d cut through the flimsy screen with scissors or a knife, and reached his hand through and unlocked the bottom lock, but was unable to get in because I also had a deadbolt. However, I’d absentmindedly left my house keys in the front door, which is how he got in.

Was it my fault that someone broke into my home? Absolutely not. Did I ‘do the right thing’ by leaving my keys in the door, as evidenced by me surviving the encounter? Of course not.

There are other factors at play as well. Perhaps if I’d made different life choices, I would’ve been living in a safer part of town. Maybe if I didn’t have to drag my bicycle into the house, I would’ve been less likely to forget the keys. Maybe if I lived in a community where neighbors looked out for each other, someone would’ve spotted him. Maybe if the police had gotten there faster when he broke into other homes, he would’ve already been apprehended. Maybe if we lived in a society that handled crime more effectively, he’d have already turned around his life. The list goes on and on. Suffice it to say that many factors could’ve changed what happened.

Is suicide really inevitable?

So let’s say that there are factors that can make a home break-in more likely, and ways we can lessen the risk not only for ourselves but also for our neighbors and our communities. Couldn’t this also be the case for helping prevent suicide?

I don’t want to blame individuals for what happened to my friend. He was clouded by a fog of depression, and unable to see things as they truly were. There was an accumulation of events, coupled with his state of mind, that made things seem dire. This was not just a single event, but there is a single event I want to focus on. Because I feel that we as a society failed him, and that we can make changes in how we treat people and interact with them that could potentially reduce the types of feelings that lead people to suicide.

Sam and I used to chat online every day—sometimes multiple times a day. This was the last message that he sent me. I didn’t read it until the following day. By the time I responded, I later learned, he was already gone.

 

I’m not sure if everyone can relate to this, but I certainly can. It happens to me all the time. A lot of people don’t invite me to things and don’t try to hide the fact. People often reschedule multiple times, or stand me up. I get ignored at events. I watch people around me having conversations with each other and feel overlooked on a semi-regular basis. People often steal my ideas or repeat them at meetings—and get a much better response.

Interestingly enough, I see these very same people have these complaints about other people, ones higher on their totem pole. It’s like this weird platonic love triangle. The person who stood you up got stood up by someone else. That person who was so rude to you may be upset because someone with higher status was rude to them. That means that we should know what it feels like, right?

And that’s the other side of this. I am often short with people when I feel like they’re wasting my time, or when they don’t resonate with me. I have no trouble setting clear, strong boundaries. Often this is necessary—you know, like when you wake up in your own bed and realize that some dude’s broken into your home. But sometimes, it’s just not. For example, if I decide not to invite a coworker to hang out, I would like to think that I wouldn’t discuss these plans in front of him as if he were invisible.

How about a little empathy?

It would be grossly inappropriate for me to tell people they have to spend time with people they don’t like. Forcing social interactions is not a solution. At the same time, we know from studies on solitary confinement—to take this to an extreme—that human contact is absolutely necessary for people. If people knew that inviting a coworker to lunch or a happy hour—even if he’s a little bit sulky—could make a huge difference in that person’s life, how many people would refuse?

And what about that person you do like? I think people don’t realize how much they mean to others. That person in your meet-up group who you kinda want to hang out with, but aren’t sure they’d be down? It’s possible that they have nobody to talk to outside of the somewhat forced interaction of your group. You could reframe their entire construct of the world by just taking a bit of a risk—assuming you’re emotionally resilient enough to handle the possibility of rejection.

When I invited Sam to my wedding, he asked me if I actually wanted him to come or was just being nice. I reminded him that I was terrible at being fake nice. He realized I was being genuine, and came to the wedding, which was about three months before his death. It was the last time I ever saw him. If he had any idea how much of a void so many of us feel with his absence, or how big of a difference he’d made in so many people’s lives, he may still be here. Perhaps we should’ve made it more clear to him. Perhaps the people he had everyday contact with should’ve let him know as well.

When someone is suicidal, the oft-repeated advice is to tell them that they should talk to someone or see a therapist. Sam was seeing a therapist. And he talked to me about his depression on a regular basis. Ultimately, I couldn’t hold space for so much sadness. I told him at one point that he could only complain about three things a day. I used his constant stream of sadness as an excuse to indulge in my own. I think he was better at being there for me than I was for him.

It’s impossible to know for certain if anything anyone had done could have helped Sam, if shifting the environment around him to one that was more welcoming and inclusive was all he needed. In any case, I do believe that we as human beings have a choice. We can be stuck in our own heads and our own egos, focusing only on impressing others, and perhaps in the process creating a backdrop in which someone else’s depression grows. Or we can reach out to people, even if they’re a bit shy or awkward or can do nothing for us, and show them that they’re valuable anyway—in the process, chipping away at their depression or false view of the world.

I can’t really explain how potent this loss is to me. I miss Sam every single day. Whenever something good happens, I wish he was around to share it with. Whenever something bad happens, I long for his perspective. Some days I don’t even want to go online because he won’t be there, making silly jokes and adding bite-sized insight to any topic that comes up. I don’t know if this will ever change.

If there’s anything that we can take away from this, I hope that it’s to have a little bit more empathy, especially to people you may not think belong. Maybe that guy at your GLBT meet-up is genderqueer and needs a lot of support, rather than being a straight dude trying to infiltrate or take over or co-opt your event. Maybe that person who’s quiet and kinda shy has been eating every meal alone for months and needs someone to talk to. Maybe that person you’re using for free development would love to get coffee or drinks with you, and the rockstar investor you’re dying to meet is booked for months and wouldn’t remember you anyway.

We’re all busy and have grandiose plans, and many of us are trying to grow our businesses or make a name for ourselves. Reaching out to the people we really admire is of course a higher priority than extending a helping hand to someone we don’t really know all that well. But sometimes doing so can make a huge impact on their lives, and maybe, just maybe, people in fragile emotional states will stick around a little bit longer…until something else turns around for them. And that can make all the difference in the world.

My husband and I stuck to emoji-only texts for 48 hours. Here’s what happened.

I used to use emoticons and emoji quite liberally and without much thought, but a few things have made me puzzle over my decision to use them at all, as well as my level of frequency.

First, I’ve been using Slack with three of my clients, and emoticons magically turn into emoji i that platform–sort of like in Gmail chat, but of course Slack is a more professional context. Second, I somehow found myself frequently perusing the emoji options on my phone, and wondering why there’s no cupcakes or popcorn or a number of other images on there… even though emoji buttons on phones are a fairly recent invention. And finally, I started spending more and more time sending encrypted emails using Thunderbird/Enigmail, which also allows for emoji rather than just emoticons. (If you don’t know the difference between those two terms, read this explainer.)

As more and more people post what I thought were private emails I sent to them on public listservs or websites, outdated and out-of-context tweets are anonymously forwarded to my clients, and I get responses to emails I sent from third parties (gotta love the forward button) or notice new readers (go cc: go), I’ve found that sending encrypted messages makes me feel safe. Of course, it’s possible that my encrypted emails will also get posted or forwarded by the person who decrypts them, but it seems like that’d be a dick thing to do, and would therefore be more unlikely to happen. I’ve been taking advantage of my veneer of safety by sending goofy, rambling encrypted messages with dumb questions, and, of course, overusing emoji. It feels a little childish, and my response rate isn’t at an all-time high, but using encryption to send silly emails with lots of smilies reminds me of middle/high school days listening to riot grrrl bands belting out revolutionary punk rock while wearing barrettes and baby doll dresses. Totally my style.

And yet I know I cannot overuse emoji with clients. I mean, I’m on listservs for professional groups where people shame unnamed strangers for using too many exclamation points. Recently a colleague posted a thread about a grammatical error in a tweet someone had posted after the unexpected death of a family member. I would hope that if I was mourning and sudden death of a loved one, my grammatical errors would not be the foremost item on others’ minds. Still, I spend a lot of time reading and rereading any article submissions, as well as any business emails, making sure that I present myself well.

The decision to use–or not use–emoji and emoticons in business emails reminds me of puzzling over how I am perceived in person. I learned early on that smiling too often makes it very difficult to be taken seriously, but not smiling enough comes across as abrasive or even rude. I’m a huge extrovert, so am often happen to be surrounded by people, but am often quickly reminded that facial expressions can come off as unintentionally flirtatious,  which I surmise is also true about emoticons. Then there are the interviews. I cringe when people ask to video chat. I want to put people at ease, but also need them to give me useful answers. In emails, my written words can be harsh, so I sometimes use emoticons to try to soften them. I often second-guess myself, though, spending way too long in draft mode.

Obsessing over finding this elusive balance is, well, exhausting. That’s why texting back and forth with my husband is so much fun. I can be a total goofball without worrying about future professional repercussions. And though we do send each other random image of typos on billboards or public signage to laugh at, we mostly send really silly and lighthearted messages because it’s fun, and because we have no one to impress. So yes, we go nuts with emoji, and I’ve sent as many as a dozen cutesy ones in a single text.

We decided to send a day just sending emoji to see if we could communicate, and this is how it went.  First he sends me Thumbs Up Sign. I guess he is having a good day! So I send back Smiling Face With Sunglasses because I’m cool like that. Next I get Couple With Heart , which looks just like us…

…so I respond with Face Throwing A Kiss. Now we’ve got Monkey. I decide to up the ante and send See-No-Evil Monkey Hear-No-Evil MonkeySpeak-No-Evil Monkey. He sends me Banana, which I figure is for his monkey…So I sendBananaBananaBananato feed my monkeys. I also add Cherries and Heart Decoration. He sends me Lollipop, which is oh-so-literally sweet.

Now I’m trying to tell him I was going to work at a cafe. This was one of the emoji I sent, as well as a few others that describe the exact location–but I couldn’t find them on Emijopedia. Hot BeverageBut wait! OMG we have a letter coming! It’s a complicated story I can share privately over encrypted email, but basically there’s a certified letter I’m deliberately trying not to sign for. Whenever the mailman or FedEx or UPS come a-knockin’, I pretend I’m not home. I send this: envelope-with-downwards-arrow-aboveenvelope-with-downwards-arrow-aboveenvelope-with-downwards-arrow-aboveenvelope-with-downwards-arrow-above !

In response to this letter, he sends me…well, Clinking Beer Mugs. Cheers? But seriously, whu? This makes no sense! Me: http://emojipedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/black-question-mark-ornament.png

He responds with Ear Of Maize.

But no matter. It’s a beautiful day out, so I send him Sunrise. And Face With Stuck-Out Tongue And Winking Eye. And some old-fashioned X’s and O’s.

He sends me a bunch of treats, which is really sweet. I send him every fruit I know.

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 11.27.18 PM

Then I’m trying to convey that I just signed a bunch of contracts for new assignments. Can you tell? 

Then I remember that I could make a “fruit” joke, by sending “French fries.” If you don’t get the joke, watch this video. No matter how stressed out I am, this scene always sends me into fits of riotous laughter.


I also send another personal joke (which I won’t get into). He is shocked.

Okay, so I never did get coffee, so now I think it’s time to go to a cafe, and am trying to ask if that’s cool, because we eat dinner together. Hot Beverage Clock Face Seven Oclockhttp://emojipedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/black-question-mark-ornament.png

Him:  Face Throwing A Kiss.

I blow a kiss back but at this point I’m so confused by our exchange that I decide to wait until he gets home so we can talk it out. Well it turns out that he understood NONE of my emoji because he thought we were just sending random images–which is what he was doing. Sigh.

It makes sense, though, right? I mean, if you saw the State of the Union in emoji, it was pretty hard to understand without looking at the corresponding words. Actually communicating with images instead of just using faces to try to further clarify a point or be cute or tone down language that may otherwise be construed as abrasive is…well, easier.

We decide to start again, the next day, after a few more exchanges, mostly indicating that it’s a nice desert night or that I’m on my way home.

The next day, we both agreed on the ground terms, but it wasn’t much easier. We blew more kisses, sent hand-holding emoji, and some more references to the weather. He sends emojis to remind me to eat lunch, because I’m a workaholic, and sometimes forget. I try to show that I am eating lunch, but don’t recognize the subsequent rice bowl. Oh! There’s someone knocking at the door–could it be the postal carrier?! But he’s worried that I accidentally got tricked into signing it, and I take a picture of what it was–just a box.

My conclusion? First, it’s hilarious that images could be interpreted differently–that we had to discuss how to communicate. But even after that was done, I really like words better. They can be as silly and adolescent as images, but the other person is more likely to get what you have to say. And I start to feel very childish. Case in point:  I stopped using emoji partway through this post because I didn’t want people to have emoji fatigue.

Since then? Aside from trading one dog photo each, my husband’s only sent one smiley, and I haven’t sent a single one. I guess we can be goofballs without them.

2014 Awards Nominees…and Looking for Judges!

220px-The_sun1I thought it’d be fun to round up a purely subjective list of what I consider the best in journalism: reporters who do their job and won’t take a no even in a world of PR politeness,  fiercely political (or just plain funny) parody/satire/comedy, whistleblowers or citizen reporters putting systemic change in their own hands, or even just people calling media out when appropriate.

This is an incomplete list based on what caught my attention throughout the year, along with nominations from Facebook friends. I am looking for volunteers to make additional nominations, as well as for judges. Since new media comes out every day, judging will not take place until January.

Here are the preliminary nominees, along with a list of nominees that were disqualified, either because the story is from before 2014, or because the link didn’t fit neatly into any one category.

Best whistleblower/citizen reporter

 Most badass reporter

FU, Media

Best parody/satire/humor: political

Best parody/satire/humor: non-political

Disqualified (not in 2014)

Disqualified (didn’t quite fit in a category)

2014 Year in Review

2013-Desktop-Background-Free-1024x640Each year, I follow in the footsteps of Chris Guillebeau, and complete an annual review. I look back at what went well and what went badly, and make some goals for the following year. In the spirit of transparency, I’ve been sharing the majority of my notes publicly. I think it’s important to be honest about the good and the bad, and hope that it will help others.

In the next week and a half, I’ll wrap up 2014 with lists of my most popular posts and projects, and some lighter fare like end-of-the-year lists and shoutouts. But for now, here’s my painfully transparent year in review, warts and all. I hope it helps you take a look back at your year and plan for the next.

What went well this year?

Okay, this year was pretty amazing. Here it is in 21 bullets:

  • First and foremost, I got married to the love of my life in July. (!!!) Wedding planning can be hectic, of course, but everything came together so nicely and we had a beautiful ceremony and reception. Then we spent an amazing week honeymooning in Alaska. We went hiking, got massages, stayed in boutique hotels and tiny cabins, floated down the Kenai, had some beers in Homer, and spotted saw Dall sheep, mountain goats, grizzly bears, and moose… as well as a million eagles. We also ate some of the best seafood in the world. I couldn’t be more happy.
  • I turned 35 and celebrated my 5th year of freelancing.
  • I moved from Minneapolis to Phoenix, with stops in Omaha, Denver/Boulder, and Albuquerque. Getting back to the Southwest has been a goal of mine, so I’m pretty thrilled to be here. And it was a treat to visit friends along the way.
  • I went to the Contently Summit in New York City, the Online News Association conference in Chicago, and a UPOD Academy in Los Angeles. I also visited San Diego with my husband, just for fun. It was great to meet up with so many people for drinks or coffee at each stop. I really enjoyed all the events, especially the ONA conference.
  • I gave two lightning talks, one Ignite talk in Minneapolis in defense of mediocrity, and one Ignite Afterhours talk in Phoenix on naked photos in the age of surveillance (AKA safer sexting).
  • I took an improv class and also learned how to pick locks.
  • I got a nice crash course in online security, and learned all about encryption, password managers, two-factor authentication, etc.
  • Using what I’d learned firsthand and tapping into other people’s expertise, I wrote an ebook (which is free!) on ways to stay safer online. I worked hard to make it organized and accessible, unlike much of the material I’d seen in the wild.
  • I also moved this site over to SSL, to give people a bit more privacy while browsing.
  • I wrote 156 posts or articles and had about 150 published (including a few stragglers from last year). I interviewed a total of 137 sources, and worked with around 37 editors or clients, for about 28 sites or magazines and a handful of brands. My favorite sites were Slate’s Future Tense, and TakePart (the online arm of Participant Media). I also enjoyed writing for the Content Strategist, the Freelancer, Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, Made Man, and Experience Life… and many others.
  • I am really proud of around 32 of the stories I did. And although it sometimes feels like friends and strangers alike all want to jump in and nitpick often subjective or minute aspects of posts, I’m pretty confident that there were no major factual errors in my work, though I did misspell Johns Hopkins in a big-name site.
  • I got a total of 34,339 shares for posts I wrote (yes, I track all this stuff in a geeky spreadsheet), and 29 journalists shared one or more of my posts this year. I also increased my income by 25 percent.
  • I took my first email-free, work-free vacation (for my honeymoon!), and am about to take a second week off for the holidays.
  • This year, I also walked away from a lot of clients and projects that were bad fits, which is something I’d never previously had the luxury of doing.
  • I started a podcast, the Elephant in the Room, and had some fabulous guests discussing interesting and sometimes controversial topics in five episodes (and hoping to post the sixth soon).
  • I threw a really fun all-girl party here in Phoenix, and lots of amazing women came to drink wine and play Cards Against Humanity.
  • We also hosted my in-laws for Thanksgiving, and my husband’s three best friends stayed here for a while. Love having visitors.
  • I managed to have a super-classy, non-trashy bachelorette party (spa day, dinner and sketch comedy and drinks), and have a blast anyway. Though I did somehow lose my car at one point…
  • My travel hacking went amazingly well.
  • I’m kicking butt at fantasy football.
  • I helped grow tons of veggies and herbs in a really awesome garden (which I had to give away when we moved).
  • I renamed the “lazy Susan” the “effective Susan.”

What didn’t go well?

This list is shorter, but the challenges run deep…

  • My very good friend Sam Blake committed suicide. This has been devastating for me, especially since we were so close and talked on chat almost every day (sometimes multiple times a day). I really, really miss him.
  • Somehow I ended up on someone’s bad side, and he/she sent me a nice batch of anonymous death and rape threat emails. This was followed by a lot of thinly veiled phishing attempts. Unfortunately, I didn’t handle the thing well (hello, Twitter meltdown!)–partially because I was dealing with Sam’s death at the same time. He would’ve been one of the first people I’d discussed it with. Stressful is an understatement.
  • I tried to get a group of people together for a birthday dinner at my favorite Thai place in Minneapolis, and everyone either no-showed without even canceling. This was really depressing and I spent about a month after that deliberately not talking to anyone socially–except for my husband, of course, and my friend Sam. It made me realize that–despite a group of friends I’m still in touch with–the Midwest isn’t a good fit for me. It is hard to live there without having grown up there like (almost) everyone else.
  • I had a failed crowdfunding campaign on Beacon, which was pretty depressing, especially since I would’ve lost money on the project I had outlined even if I had gotten enough subscribers.
  • I volunteered for the Nerdery’s Overnight Website Challenge, an event where teams of developers, designers, and sometimes copywriters work together to help nonprofit organizations redo their websites in a 24-hour marathon session. This was my second year at OWS, but didn’t go as smoothly as the first. Unfortunately, our new site never launched, nobody but me showed up to meet with our non-profit during the awards ceremony, and trying to resolve this after the fact went nowhere. It is hard to put a lot of time into a project that fizzles and ties because of one’s teammates/fellow volunteers, but there it is.
  • For the first time in years, I’ve been completely unmotivated as far as working out. I got my blue belt in BJJ at the end of 2013, and barely did BJJ in 2014. And for the first time in my life, I got on a weird weight loss rollercoaster–so I looked great for the wedding but gained all the weight back, and the some.
  • I had five posts killed and have three in purgatory. And even though I mentioned that I was proud of 32 of the posts I’ve written, that means I was ambivalent about 118 of them, or around 80 percent. I felt like a lot of the work I did was somewhat meaningless. A lot of the topics I had to write about, especially relating to marketing and SEO, just felt like I was adding more noise to the world. In some instances, I felt like it was edited in a way that detracted from my message or weakened the post (though this was subtle and not blatant, unlike past years). I had several editors who wouldn’t allow me to see final edits before a post went live, and though I walked away from these clients, it was still disappointing. In general, I felt like most e of the people I worked with this year didn’t care about my professional development–which makes sense as a freelancer. I know that I will need to find a way to address this going forward. I want to work with more people who will push me to improve and really challenge me.
  • I worked too much. Part of this was to save up money for the wedding, for moving, and so forth. At one point I literally made a list of neglected items (like going to the dentist) and it took me months to get to it. I didn’t have a lot of balance this year.
  • Although I had a lot of fun traveling, at conferences, etc. I have felt pretty lonely for good chunks of the year. I feel like there’s a big disconnect at times between many people who want to talk to me (often because they want introductions, etc.), and many of the people I want to talk to (who often don’t really want to talk to me and are busy trying to find higher status people they want to talk to). At times I feel that there is very little resonance, and I haven’t made the types of meaningful connections I’d like to make. Despite all of the connections I’ve made, it’s been a pretty lonely year.

What do I want in 2015?

It’s a little embarrassing, since many of these items were on my list last year to accomplish this year…but here they still are.

  • Work-wise, I want to do more investigative reporting and perhaps long-form pieces covering science and tech and even social movements. I want my work to make a real difference in the world…and I want it to be more personally challenging.
  • I have a book idea I’ve been nursing, which I want to consider pursuing.
  • I want to go through the available resources in some professional groups I’m in, and add “learn Python/Django” back to the list as well.
  • Updating this site is on the list as well, specifically the images on the right.
  • I’d like to find more like-minded people I respect to spend time with. I’ve been to a lot of events and meet-ups, but haven’t really met many people I resonate with to hang out with. Maybe another improv class? I’m also trying to find the best coworking place for me.
  • I’d like to do non-work things, such as reading fiction, and spend time outdoors. I am looking at two potential courses I’m interested in which have nothing to do with work..
  • I’m still working through a lot of decluttering madness.
  • My ongoing quest to become 100% debt-free is always on my mind. I made great strides in 2014, but am still looking forward to more.
  • The usual health goals: sleeping more, watching my diet, working out, maybe even finding a new BJJ gym. I really miss the physical fitness aspect of my life, and need to bake in more consistency.

Whether you share what’s on your plate for 2015 or keep it close to the chest, I hope you have the best year ever! Here’s to learning and growing and evolving as we move forward.

Stuff I Wrote: July 2014

Writing Fountain penJuly was an amazing month for me. I got married to the love of my life, took the first entire week off of work since as far back as I can remember for our amazing honeymoon in Alaska, and then immediately came home and started packing to move from Minneapolis to the Phoenix area. Nevertheless, I managed to get some writing done. Here is a list of 12 posts I wrote that were published outside of this blog last month.

Building An Audience

Knowledge Bombs

Damage Control

MMA

Yum

Stuff I Wrote: June 2014

Writing Fountain penHere are 20 posts I wrote that were published outside of this blog in the month of June. I’m really grateful to be writing for some of my favorite sites in the planet, and I hope you get a lot of value out my writing.

Media

Content Strategy

Search

Health

Miscellaneous

What I Learned From My Failed Crowdfunding Attempt

avatar_aa368c6d5c31_128As you recall, I was working on getting 40 backers for a crowdfunding project on Beacon, to write about people overcoming odds to learn new skills. I unfortunately did not get all of the backers needed for the project to be a success. This really bummed me out because I love what they are doing and think the cofounder I interviewed is a genius… and because I really believed in the project–and still do. But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining, and I learned a few things in the process. Here are the lessons  got out of it.

1. Details are really important.

I hired one of the best editors I know to take a look at my project draft and help  me flesh out the concepts. And I think it was the best investment in the project. It helped me get incredibly clear on the stories I wanted to tell. Even though the project didn’t get enough backers on Beacon, I plan on pitching and writing articles in the same vein, and possibly working on a book proposal. Having great clarity on the approach for each segment will be my guiding light.

2. Did I mention that details are important?

Along the process in getting the project posted, I was asked some probing questions about my project description, which made me realize that the person asking wasn’t really clear about what I was trying to do. Some suggested changes would have given off a different impression than what I had intended. And a couple of times, updates with typos or errors were sent out, which I felt reflected poorly on the project and on myself. One of the biggest mental blocks I have right now is my often unrealistic expectation that people who manage projects I work on will have a greater understanding of them than I do. I’ve found that my desire for a de facto meritocracy is compounded even more when it’s a project I care very deeply about… the more passionate I am, the more I really need to work on my own patience.

3. Crowdfunding can feel like groveling.

I usually have no problem selling, but for some reason, asking people to pledge felt like begging. I was even more leery of asking multiple times. Although I got a lot of exposure about the project and thought it would sort of sell itself, I felt weird being very salesy and overly promotional when it didn’t. Even asking people to share the project with their friends felt a little icky to me. The truth is that you burn through a lot of social capital doing so, and I had a feeling the project wouldn’t be backed the entire time, so it felt like wasted effort.

4. Passion projects can make selling even harder.

Knowing that even 40 people at $5/month wouldn’t cover my expenses made it more difficult for me to work hard to reach the goal.

5. Timing is everything.

I was hesitant to launch this campaign so close to my wedding, when I already feel like a mere wedding invitation could come across as a request for gifts, and before a planned move cross-country. In retrospect, I wish I would have waited, even knowing that summer launches don’t work as well.

6. It is hard to mobilize people around a common idea rather than a theme.

I’m thinking a campaign based on just one central topic, such as weightlifting or programming, would have gotten more support within that specific niche than the way I went about the campaign.

7. Recurring subscriptions make people nervous.

They’re worried they’ll keep paying even when no updates are made. I think it’s a valid concern, since I subscribe to a Beacon writer who hasn’t updated in months. Having access to every other story in Beacon is pretty great, though.. In any case, a lot of people wanted a non-recurring model that was lower than the two we set (at $30 and $55), which would’ve been okay if I had reached critical mass. Otherwise, though, a$5 donation toward what is supposed to be an ongoing project doesn’t mean very much, which is why Beacon uses an ongoing subscription model I think people used to Kickstarter are more comfortable with a non-sub model and magazine/literary journal people are more comfortable with subscriptions. Both rely on a critical mass or a certain amount of cash in order to work and help fund a project. In any case, it seems that we are still learning what works and doesn’t work in the crowdfunding space.

8. Sometimes it may be easier to go through a gatekeeper.

I have never had luck building an enormous email list and selling people on my list info products. However, I’m really great at getting publishers and brands to pay me to write. Most people have the opposite experience. I don’t know that one is  necessarily easier than the other, but perhaps different people are geared towards different models. In any case, there’s no way I am giving up on this idea, though perhaps Beacon isn’t the answer.

9. There is no real sense of closure when a project isn’t backed.

Once my project didn’t get funded, I didn’t have a nice debrief call or anything. It just sort of fizzled and died.I don’t even have email addresses for everyone who pledged, though  plan to try to find them so I can keep people informed on the status of the project. I still don’t feel like the idea is any less valid and the amount of support I did get feels like a partial win for me, but I still feel like the whole thing isn’t really resolved yet.

10. Some projects are really sticky. Others aren’t.

In the middle of my crowdfunding attempt, I was asking friends on Facebook if they knew of a magazine that read like a cross between Wired and Made Man, or Men’s Journal, but was geared towards women. Women who like gear and tech, and want to decorate but only if it’s done in 20 minutes and costs $30 or less. Women who want to know the best beer bars or burger joints rather than the best grapefruit and yogurt. Women who don’t wear heels and like to go camping and are addicted to apps. A lifestyle site that’s less political than Bitch or Jezebel, and with less fashion and celeb news than PureWow or Refinery29. That post got hundreds of comments, with writers and readers alike very interested in getting involved. For some reason, some types of projects just get people excited more than others. I’m aware that this could be entirely different than how they’d react once it comes time to actually pay for it, but it’s interesting to me what people react to strongly, and what they don’t.

Why I Want To Write About “Impossible” Things (And How You Can Help)

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 2.23.22 AM“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast…” -Lewis Carroll

It was 1998 when I first stepped foot into Shimer, a very bizarre, non-traditional college, as a student. Our motley crue, which would best be described as a ragtag group of idealists, didn’t look like much. We had off-the-chart standardized test scores and poor grades. (Mine? 1240 SAT–out of 1600 back then– 28 out of 32 on the ACT,  and 2.3 GPA.) Many of us would pool our money together to make sure weed was always plentiful, but couldn’t always do the same for food. Our student body included high schoolers who evaded becoming dropouts by making it into the early entrant program. We also had a handful of adults juggling work and families with school on the weekends.

Some of us struggled with basic social skills. Some of us (me!) struggled with basic hygiene skills. And I’ve sadly watched year after year as my dear friends and classmates lost their lives to everything from drug overdoses to suicide. If there’s a central theme that binds us together, it may very well be our  existential crises and consistent collective struggles with addiction, depression and every other issue under the sun.

And yet there was one thing we could always do, no matter what else was going on in our lives. We could read any book in the entire Western canon, sit around an octagonal table,  and figure it out together.

One time I got stuck in Chicago with a new used bike I’d just gotten. Apparently I read the start date wrong because they didn’t yet allow bicycles on the Metra, not until the next day. The kind bike shop owners offered me a ride–a really long ride–to campus, which was close to the Wisconsin border, and asked me to ‘work’ while I waited for the bike shop to close. I secretly idolized one of the women working there. She wore clunky bike jewelry and had lots of tattoos, sure, but what I really loved was that she seemed to know more about bike repair than anyone else in the store. But when she handed me tools and told me to do something and instructed me to figure it out when I asked questions, I didn’t think I had it in me. I asked someone else for direction and she later told him he wasn’t supposed to help.

What is the difference between these two situations? What makes a group of students, many of who had failed at just about every academic skill they’d ever attempted, get to the point where they expect to be perfectly able to not only puzzle through every book but analyze it, no matter how undecipherable it may be? And what makes someone who’s perfectly capable of wielding a combination wrench AND a patch kit decide that paying someone to replace a tire is the only legitimate option?

These questions are fascinating. How is it that some people overcome blocks, real or perceived, to figure out how to do things they know they’ll never master, whle others struggle with the basics? Why is it that some non-technical folks can figure out how to code in their 50s, while other people decide they’ll never even learn how to use email? How come some city folk can learn wilderness survival and others decide to try to avoid anything outdoorsy altogether? How do you teach yourself a sport in which you’d always have a handicap?

Is it a mindset issue, where you simply will yourself to learn something and won’t give up until you get there? Is it just a burning desire to beat the odds? Or are there particular subsets of skills that can be developed that are transferable across disciplines?

If you’re as interested in these nuanced stories as I am, please consider sponsoring my crowdfunding campaign on Beacon. Just $5/month gets you access to stories about people who gain proficiency in seven different areas, despite handicaps. Topics include coding, drawing, music, Olylifting, language acquisiton, and more! A subscription gets you access to hundreds of writers on the Beacon platform… and you can cancel any time.

If a recurring subscription isn’t your cup of tea, you can pay $30 just one time for a non-recurring 6-month subscription.

Check out the information here: http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/seven-impossible-things-before-breakfast.

Many people focus on underdogs who beat the odds to become truly amazing, and many people focus on the prodigies, champions born and bred. Most of us exist in the murky area between the two. We’ll never be world class, but can make a choice between proficiency and ignorance. What makes some people choose one over the other?

Back me and I promise to explore this in depth and come up with answers that are more nuanced than truisms and more accurate than doomsdayers would like you to believe.

http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/seven-impossible-things-before-breakfast.

 

Travel Hacking 101: How I Flew To New York For Five Bucks

800px-El_viaxeru_d'UrculoSo I’ve been visiting New York for the amazing Contently Summit, which I’ve got a lot to share about, but the question I’ve been asked the most is how I managed to land a five-dollar flight to New York City.

People often ask for travel hacking information, and it’s incredibly complex. I really recommend Chris Guillebeau’s ebooks and courses on the topic, as well as the many resources available online.

But a lot of people don’t want to hear theoreticals. They want nitty gritty details about specific trips. So here are the steps I took for this particular trip. (And by the way, this is all completely legal.)

1. I got a Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express. The annual $95 fee was waived for the first year.

2. As a promotion, they offered 30,000 SkyMiles for anyone who meets a $1,000 minimum spend.

3. Since I’m not in the habit of putting that kind of cash on a credit card, I went to CVS and bought two Vanilla Reload cards. I used the credit card to put $500 on each card. (Total cost: $3.95 X 2 = $7.80) This process is referred to in travel hacking circles as”manufactured spend.”

4. I also got a free BlueBird card.

5. I transferred the money from the Vanilla Reload card to my BlueBird card.

6. I transferred the money on the BlueBird card back into my bank account.

7. This got me a $50 statement credit, 30,000 bonus miles, and a free bag check on each flight, as well as priority boarding.

8. I got 2500 more points over about six months  by using the card and then immediately paying it off.

9. I redeemed the 32,500 points for the trip I wanted. The flight to NYC cost me 12,500 points and the return flight was at a higher 20,000 point tier. Cost: $5 for the flight. (The tickets I wanted went from $440 to $604.

Amount spent: $7.80 + $5.00 = 12.80.

Amount saved:  $50 credit, $50 for the bag check, $440-604 for the flight.

Total saved: $540- $704, minus the $12.80, equals $527.20 to $691.20 in savings.

Questions?