Too Many Chat Apps

April 2, 2018
All of the chat apps currently on my iPhone

My blogging counterpart, Jeff Casavant, recently wrote a mini-series on the chat app Matrix. My TLDR understanding of Matrix is that it bridges multiple chat services into one app, creating separate rooms for each and replicating their structure (i.e. Topic-based channels for Slack, one-on-one instances for Facebook Messenger and so on).

I like this idea in theory, but I find it clunky in practice. 

Matrix is an impressive band-aid on the gaping wound that is text chat. Ever since WhatsApp and similar clients started gaining considerable attention we’ve seen a bevy of new chat apps.

It seems like every eighteen months I’m asked to join up with another one for some project or another. I have SMS/iMessage, Facebook Messenger for conversations with friends, Skype for Business at work (which basically no one uses), Slack for my podcasting team, Discord for my D&D group. Oh, and Snapchat, for whatever Snapchat is now.1

If I’m being honest, the chat app I enjoy the most is iMessage. And that’s because, at the end of the day, I know most people will check their texts. You can have hundreds of apps with chat features on your phone, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t pay attention to them. 

There’s a part of me that likes the separation. I like being able to mute notifications for an app when I’m not engaging with that group or project. I also like being able to separate personal conversations with collaborators from work on our projects. I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of apps right now.

As the chat space gets more and more fragmented I feel like I lose track of more people. I’ve run out of space in my brain to remember everyone’s favorite apps. Jeff prefers Matrix, Tyler only checks Messenger and my DM needs my latest character sheet uploaded to Discord.

I applaud the innovation in each of these apps and I’m glad to see Matrix trying to make sense of it all. I’m just ready for things to settle down a little bit. For now, I’m going to try to keep my inventory instant messengers down to two rows of my home screen.

All of the chat apps currently on my iPhone

This list doesn’t include any dating apps, because I’m honestly not sure if these classify as chat apps.

Apple Watch is my Co-Pilot

March 26, 2018
My Apple Watch showing a boarding pass

Delta Boarding Pass on my Apple WatchThis past weekend I was in New England, in three weeks I’ll be in Cincinnati and then three weeks after that I’ll be in Toledo, Ohio. These seasons of back-to-back travel always make me think a lot about systems and tools to improve my trips.

I don’t know that anything has improved my traveling life more in recent years than my Apple Watch. This tiny little computer I carry on my wrist is an absolute necessity whenever I leave my home city now.

One of the Watch’s killer features for me is it’s role in turn-by-turn navigation. Shown off in the first demo for the device, Apple Maps on the Watch is perfect for navigating new cities. I used it to get around Boston this weekend by train and on foot. The transit directions do a good enough job of telling you the ideal stops to enter and exit trains.

It’s the walking directions that really make it indispensable to me though. I love getting a tap on my wrist telling me to turn at the end of the block without pulling out my phone. Not only does this keep my hands warm inside my gloves, it also keeps me from looking a tourist which is both reassuring and helpful. The last thing I’d want is to get my phone stolen while I’m on the road.

I’m also a huge fan of Apple Pay. As more stores in the US adopt contactless payments it keeps me from reaching for my wallet, but it also keeps my transactions encrypted while I’m in foreign territory. On this last trip I started using the Watch’s Wallet app for my boarding passes at the gate too, which was way more convenient than digging in my pockets or my bag for my phone.

And that leads me to playback controls. Being able to control music and podcasts on the watch while I’m walking through airports is satisfyingly convenient. I go back and forth between devices for these functions, but its nice to have multiple options when I’m in a rush or my phone is underneath a couple of layers of jackets.

As much as I love my Apple Watch there are still a few features I think it needs for it to be the perfect travel companion.

While playback controls are great, they only work when your bluetooth is on. Right now Apple Watch and iPhone both turn bluetooth off as soon as you turn on Airplane Mode. So you have to manually re-enable bluetooth to regain controls on the Watch. This seems like an easy fix that could have been resolved a while ago.

And speaking of playback controls, it’s mildly infuriating that Now Playing has to be open and the watch has to be awake for turning the Digital Crown to control volume. I’d love to just reach down and turn without even looking at the display.

Technically the charger is an accessory, but I’m bitter about the lack of quality third-party Apple Watch chargers out there. I’d love a more portable solution than the long USB puck and string. Something integrated into the side of a portable USB charger would be cool. The Twelve South TimePorter makes a good solution for most situations, but I still think something better should exist.

On the whole, I probably use my Apple Watch more when I travel than I do at any other time. It’s a great little companion and I love it more with every trip I take. I can’t wait to see where my watch and I go next.

Uplifting Content for when the Internet is Just Too Much

March 19, 2018
Apple's classic "Sad Mac" sums up a lot of current web content

Apple's classic "Sad Mac" sums up a lot of current web contentWorking on the web, it’s very easy to get sucked into a weird sort of hive mind. Drama echoes around the blogs and think pieces of the contemporary internet in tones of angry indignation like the halls of a high school.

From career defining burnouts like Logan Paul’s trip to Japan to wide-reaching bugs and scandals like the Heartbleed bug, our industry seems to be the first to know and the last to forget about all kinds of terrible stuff. The recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica and its shady practices surrounding the 2016 US Election and the UK’s EU Referendum are following a similar pattern.

All of these things are terrible in their own way and I don’t mean to minimize them at all.

I am feeling a bit jaded by the current state of affairs online though. We’re three months into 2018 and so far it is not looking like a great year to be a creative on the internet.

Or is it?

In light of some of the frustrating and depressing news on the net I’ve consciously tried turning my attention to lighter fare. And it turns out there’s still a lot of great uplifting stuff online.

I wanted to share a short list of things that have been renewing my hope and excitement about the internet lately in the hopes that it might brighten your browser as well:

The Anthropocene Reviewed

Author, video blogger and podcaster John Green’s latest project is a monthly-ish look at the things humans have created or enabled in the world. Each episode includes historical rundowns of two topics which are then rated on a five-star scale. Topics range from Cholera to Diet Dr. Pepper. Like most things Green does, this podcast is smart and silly in a way that feels like it could only exist in the 21st century.

Cecil Robert

We’ve talked at length about the unique “music videos” of Cecil Robert on Dudes Brunch lately. This YouTube user’s unique ability to provoke an emotional reaction by placing music in desolate spaces is weird and wonderful. Some of the videos on this channel make me laugh, some make me want to cry, but all of them make me glad to live in a time where this kind of content is possible.

Africa by Toto Bot

It tweets lyrics to that one Toto song you like.

The Aunt Nancy

The impromptu resurgence and canonization of a stunt cocktail created on a goof for a podcast in 2003. John Gruber and Paul Kafasis discussed this at length on The Talk Show earlier this year and I can’t stop thinking about how weirdly charming  segment was. Also, the phrase “fistful of maraschino cherries” always brings a smile to my face.

I’m always looking for new fun little things from the internet. If you know some good ones, leave a comment.

Running the Streets

March 11, 2018
Running on the Beltline trail in Atlanta
Running on the Beltline trail in AtlantaI recently moved, and one of my favorite things about moving is finding new running routes in a new neighborhood. I love the way I’m not entirely sure which direction to take on the next turn, where I might run into a slight hill or which direction I should go to get home.
I started running six years ago at summer camp. Running the trails in the evenings after a long day’s work was a great release. And while I’ll always cherish those first runs and the friends who got me through those first miles its running the streets that really made me love running.
My first few runs in the “city” were evening jogs with Shaun Evans and Seth Alexander while I lived in Athens, Ohio. Founded in the early 1800s, Athens is full of winding hilly streets with cobblestone sidewalks and beautiful old houses. In my three years of running around Athens I learned every street in town.
There’s a uniquely intimate kind of knowledge you get about a place from running through it. It only takes one set of hard sprints for you to learn that there are five switchbacks on the way to the top of North Hill Drive. One bad fall and you’ll start memorizing all of the roots jutting up through the sidewalks on the west side. And you’ll learn it takes about one and a half noisy punk songs to get past Miller’s Chicken without stopping and blowing your whole workout on a greasy dinner.
Moving to Atlanta got made me excited for a whole new world of running route possibilities. A city this big was sure to have a great maze of streets to stride alongside. It didn’t disappoint. 
My first year in town I lived near Georgia Tech with its winding access roads and wide sidewalks. I was also on the edge of Midtown, Atlanta’s only true urban grid, where I could sprint short blocks. I was putting in some serious miles (for me anyway) and began training for a half marathon. As I started building longer routes I was learning more neighborhoods, passing more restaurants I wanted to try and memorizing more street names. One night on a long run on a new route I hit a crack in a sidewalk I’d never taken before and sprained my ankle. I was off the roads for about a month.
Last year I lived in Buckhead, near a short section of Atlanta’s Beltline Trail. I started running in races for the first time with some friends from work, but my new neighborhood made for some fairly boring training runs. It was a half-mile each way from my front door to the front gate of our apartment complex, and most of that was up-hill on the way out. I still managed to find a few fun side streets though, and I built a really consistent pace since I typically only had to wait for one crosswalk.
In my new place, I’m back in a neighborhood setting (the Old Fourth Ward) and still Beltline adjacent. My first few runs here have all been different. First, I took the Beltline to Ponce City Market for a simple, but beautiful 5k. The skyline views and street art make for great scenery. Next, I ran through the ornate old houses of Inman Park. Now I’m starting to explore some of Atlanta’s earliest side streets and seeing a lot of the same old architecture I remember from Athens.
Running the streets of a city/town isn’t for everyone. Stopping at the crosswalks definitely does break your momentum. There are more pedestrians to duck around than you’ll see on a good trail run. When I’m lacing up my shoes, though, it’s the variety and exploration that keep me excited to get out and hit the pavement. Plus, you really to get to know a city when you run a mile of its streets. 

Netflix launching Vertical Video Previews on Mobile

March 9, 2018

MacRumors reporting on a story from Variety

Announced on Wednesday at the company’s Lab Days press event in California, the upcoming feature will mean Netflix subscribers can watch 30-second previews displayed as vertical video on mobile devices.

I’m excited to see another major player embracing vertical video.

I’ll admit, I was a bit old fashioned at first and joined in the chorus of people telling everyone to turn their phones horizontal.

Now that publishers are actually creations content specifically for vertical consumption though its actually become a really interesting development in videography and editing. 

I wouldn’t want to watch a feature film shot vertically (yet, anyway) but I’m excited to see the format growing.

What I Learned from Having my MacBook Stolen

February 26, 2018
Apple logo on the exterior of a Mac
Apple logo on the exterior of a MacMy roommate and I have been excited to move for almost a month. We paid rent on two apartments this month just to get the place we wanted. Eight days before we were scheduled to move we went to a bar in our new neighborhood for trivia. While we were gone we had our apartment broken into and our computers stolen.
We called the police, an officer arrived quickly and he was very thorough while filing his report. After looking through the apartment he concluded that there were no signs of forced entry and we confirmed that the only things missing were the computers. His guess was that whoever it was had access to our apartment and knew exactly what they were looking for. After he left we fired up Find My iPhone, locked down our stolen Macs, set them to erase if turned on and went to sleep.
The next morning we filed insurance claims. Brandon’s documentation was fairly easy, he’d just purchased his iMac three or four months ago and still had the box and receipt. My MacBook Pro was purchased in 2014, so it was little more difficult. Thankfully after a quick phone call Apple found my original invoice and emailed to me.
Our next call was to U-Haul to book a truck to move us the hell out of that apartment. Over the next three days we moved everything we owned across town to our new place. I got my insurance claim accepted, purchased a new iMac and migrated my data over from a Time Machine backup.
This weekend was stressful, to say the least, and I would not wish the situation on anyone. In the event that it happens to you, here are a few cautionary elements to my tale of technical theft.

Document Everything

When it comes to leases, major purchases and insurance documents you should be keeping hard and digital copies of everything. Having searchable PDFs of our lease and insurance policies would have made the claim process a lot simpler, but the hard copies were a life saver.
Dropbox, Apple Notes and Evernote all have really solid document scanners built into their mobile apps. Take a few minutes on a rainy day and scan your important documents, you may need them some day.

Pay for Renters’ Insurance

Paying $15 each month ended up saving me $1,300 on a new Mac this week. And because my insurance covers my possessions at replacement cost the payout was for the price of a new machine rather than the value of my four-year-old one. There have been enough advancements in computers in the last four years that I’m actually getting a decent little upgrade out of this too.*

Keep Back-Ups

A lot of my non-techie friends roll their eyes at the obnoxious old hard drive I keep at my desk. It spins up every three or four hours and when it does it is loud. However, as I type this my new iMac is restoring all of the data that was on my old MacBook from the night before it was stolen. Repurposing an old hard drive for Time Machine or a similar back-up solution will save you a ton of time and headaches if this happens to you.
I store all of my active documents (current projects, raw podcast audio, receipts, etc.) in Dropbox, so all of that will come down from the cloud pretty fast. My music library and photo library are backed up through Apple Music and iCloud Photo Library respectively so those will be back soon enough too.
My concern coming out of this burglary is that the thieves could have easily snatched my Time Machine drive when they took my MacBook. Needless to say, I’ll be looking into cloud-based back-ups this week.

Use Find My iPhone/Mac

Find My iPhone/Mac is turned on during the setup of every Apple product, and I’m assuming similar solutions exist for Android. This was crucial because it allowed us to remotely wipe our machines as soon as the thieves turned them on.** We all leave a lot of digital fingerprints behind on our devices and the last thing you need after losing a laptop is having your identity stolen. 
I received an email the day after my MacBook Pro went missing saying that the machine had been powered on and immediately wiped itself clean of all user data. That was the most satisfying email I’ve gotten in months.

 *I’m going from a 2.6 GHz Intel i5 in my 2014 MacBook Pro to a 3.0 GHz i5 in my 2017 iMac with the same stock RAM and a 1 TB HDD instead of a 256 GB SDD.
** The only frustrating part of setting this up is that it basically guarantees you won’t get the GPS blip of where your device has been taken. Since we knew ours were insured it was easier to just wipe them than try to recover them.

Make Facebook Useful Again

February 11, 2018
Facebook Thumb

Facebook ThumbAs you can probably tell from recent posts on this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about Facebook lately.

You can call it wishful thinking, but I’ve been seriously trying to get back to a place where Facebook is a useful social tool.

Remember the early-ish days of Facebook? Let’s call it 2007-2012 or so, back when we actually used to share our lives there and talk to each other about the things we posted? I’m not saying that no one does this anymore, but my friend group certainly doesn’t.

I think there are a lot of reasons for this, but here are just a few:

Marketers Ruin Everything

As the brash social media influencer Gary Vaynerchuk has taken to saying, marketers (like Vaynerchuk) ruin everything. We, the public, join a platform and enjoy its intimacy and novelty until the advertisers find out about it. Then the tug-of-war begins. 

How many ads can a user stomach before they leave a site? How can ads look more like content and less like ads? How can we boost engagement? How can we lower CPMs? And so on and so forth…

Facebook, in particular, has been ruined for a lot of people by marketing. The wealth of data on the site has made it a gold mine for advertising technology to exploit. Facebook, the corporation, has (in my opinion) been a bit too eager to sell their data in the name of profitability. It’s beginning to hurt their credibility and drive their users to contribute less to the site.

The Attention Competition

When users get tired of Facebook, either because of ads or because the novelty has worn off, there are now plenty of other networks courting their attention. It wasn’t long ago that Facebook’s only real competition was MySpace. Now there’s more competition with a wider variety of features and innovations than Mark Zuckerberg probably ever anticipated.

In the past, Facebook’s band-aid fix to competition has been to buy it up or rip it off. The company is well known for cramming the features of other popular apps into its products. In doing so, they make their core product bloated and fail to do any one thing really well.

Stories are much better on Snapchat (and even Instagram) than they are in Messenger. I don’t know anyone who uses the Facebook Camera that lives to the left of the News Feed in their mobile apps. And don’t even get me started on Facebook Watch.

The competition for public attention is fierce, but spreading themselves thin seems to have taken Facebook’s eye off the ball. I don’t think I’m on Facebook to buy used furniture or watch viral videos. Didn’t I join this site to keep up with my friends?

The Long Tail of “Friendship”

A lot has been written about how Facebook has changed as more people join it. Gone are the days when you could post a rant about your ex without them or their friends or their family or your family seeing it. Everyone is on Facebook now. 

And even though it’s not literally everyone it feels like functionally everyone. Most people you meet are probably on Facebook, and they would probably be willing to add you as a “friend.” But when your roommate, your mom, your boss, the barista at your local coffee shop and everyone you went to high school and college with are all “friends” the term starts to lose meaning.

Anything you post has to be acceptable to all of those audiences. The algorithm decides which of your various connections see your content. The more people react to your post (positively or negatively) the more people see it. If you get into a political argument with a distant cousin, all of your friends follow the action blow-by-blow. If you get engaged, everyone you’ve ever known sends you their “Congratulations!”

What deserves to last?

All of those posts and comments also last as long as your account does. “On This Day” has made us all painfully aware of the cringe-y garbage we’ve shared over the years. And if anything we share can resurface at any time, that begs the question, “What deserves to last?”

The pressure to post things that paint us in our best light is higher than ever and so is the pressure to not waste peoples’ time. You don’t want to be the “friend” that gets unfollowed for sharing too much stuff, but you don’t want to be a digital hermit either.

A lot of the ephemeral nonsense we used to share, from selfies to sandwiches, is moving to networks like Snapchat that don’t have the same level of permanence. This makes sense. In six years, no one will care what you had for lunch, right?

The problem becomes figuring out what deserves to an entry in our permanent timeline. I have no idea, and it doesn’t seem like most other people do either. 

I was out with friends this week and there was a longer-than-average pause when someone suggested we take a group photo. This felt weird even as we’d been sending photos and videos to Snapchat all night. Looking back through my archive that night I realized I only have maybe a dozen photos of myself with these friends from the two whole years I’ve lived in Atlanta. 

Compare that to the earlier days of Facebook, when I carried around a digital camera and took and posted photos of everything. I’m not saying I want to go back to posting dozens of duck-faced selfies every weekend. I just realized I miss having more permanent records of the fun and meaningful things I’ve done since joining Snapchat and sharing Stories on Instagram.

Make Facebook Useful Again

My quest then, is to make Facebook useful again. I want to spend less time looking at ads, find ways to ignore the bloated features, prune down the number of “friends” I follow and share more of my actual life.

I haven’t completely lost hope in Facebook, but I do think it has lost its way. And maybe we have too.

Creativity in Podcast Advertising

February 5, 2018

From Wired’s Podcast Listeners Really Are the Holy Grail Advertisers Hoped They’d Be:

For starters, it means you don’t need to worry that your feed will become populated with shows nearly identical in structure and length as podcasters rush to optimize around the new data—the doomsday podcast equivalent of, say, pivoting to video.

This article has been blogged near to death at this point by podcasters and advertisers alike. However, I think many people have missed this key section.

One of the big fears of increased interest in the podcasting medium has been that showstopper will become same-y as advertisers gain more influence. The current analytics seem to show that this will not be the case.

Anyone who ventures past the NPR and Gimlet Media realm of podcasting should hopefully know that by now. Shows like Maximum Fun’s My Brother, My Brother and Me have done a fantastic job of integrating ads into the content for years. Nate Dimeo, of Radiotopia’s  The Memory Palace, recently supplemented his advertising supported content with a residency at The Met.

Podcasters across the industry are playing with form, show structure and monetization models in a way unlike the infamous “pivot to video” of four or five years ago. It gives me a lot of hope for podcasts as a medium and generally makes me skeptical of pieces like the above from Wired.

Instagram Finally Allows Post Scheduling

January 30, 2018

From the Instagram Business Blog:

Today, we’re introducing new features to the API, such as allowing businesses to schedule posts, view posts they’ve been tagged in and view other business profiles.

I am over the moon excited about this. It’s honestly been my biggest complaint about Instagram since I started working in the social media industry.

Instagram themselves don’t seem to be all that excited though. The post on Instagram’s own blog doesn’t include a single quote from their leadership team. Instead it includes this quote from the CEO of HootSuite:

The scheduling and publishing of Instagram content has been the number one request for our 16 million customers…Hootsuite is excited to partner with Instagram to make this happen.

Telling isn’t it?