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Power of the Digital Pen

Remember the days of high school English class or getting a big paper assignment in college? I do. I never minded the act of writing; I was the type that thought having a “pen pal” in some far off country was pretty cool. (Mine never wrote back). However the concept of getting an assignment that had to be ten double-space pages with a max of a one-inch margins or a paper that had to be exactly 1000 words always seemed daunting. I always waited until the last minute to do it that made the entire experience even more traumatic.

My personal favorite was from Mr. Hart’s AP English class: Describe your view through an imaginary window. I am still slightly aggravated with myself to this day, or I should say, perplexed, that I didn’t just think to look out of an actual window in my house and describe what I saw. Instead I sat at my desk with the worst writer’s block, tapping my pencil against the desk, painfully trying to force an imagined view into my head. What’s funny is I think back now to the trauma of it all and really can’t remember what I wrote; I think it had something to do with icicles.

So it is with that in mind that I often think about how much the web changed the written landscape. Think about how many writers and content producers beyond traditional media (you know, the people who loved writing and creating the stuff even back in high school).  Many of them are a direct result of the advent of the digital pen. Much of the content produced may not be Poe, Emerson, Rand or Shakespeare but it doesn’t need to be.  Clive Thompson has an essay called The New Literacy in the September issue of Wired that focuses on this phenomenon and also reflects on whether the “digital pen” is hurting the overall quality if writing.

People are creating some of the best content on the web today. Blogging enables thousands to produce incredible content across genres. Think about a well-thought blog post that you’ve read recently. Descriptive title, subject statement, number of paragraphs backing up an argument and some type of conclusion perhaps. That sure sounds a heck of a lot like the type of assignment many of us ran from.  And that doesn’t scratch the surface.  There is the micro-content world that Thompson touches on such as Twitter and Facebook.  Look at the extent of content, solid writing at that, taking place in the enterprise in the form of business plans, emails and PowerPoint presentations.

Content creation takes place us around us all the time.  Writing is getting churned out like crazy. The digital pen has enabled us to publish our thoughts in an easy way.  Even those of us who dreaded writing our view through an imaginary window could rail something out in 20 minutes without thinking twice. I find this truly amazing.

And guess what, how’s this for an essay?  519 words.  Knocked it out the iPhone on the train ride into the city this morning.  Wonder if Mr. Hart would approve?

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Analogy of Status Updates

It’s been some time since I took the SATs but I always enjoyed the “analogy” section of the test.  Okay, as much as a standardized test can be enjoyable, it is up there with using a freshly-sharpened #2 pencil to fill in those little ovals.  If you don’t remember, here’s an example:


(A) oriole : bird

(B) horse : pony

(C) shark : great white

(D) ant : insect

(E) stock : savings

It seems with growing frequency, I’m pulled into conversations regarding Twitter with many who are just now learning about it.  Great Time article on Twitter by the way.  Yes, I get the often “I just don’t get Twitter.”  I used to think that too when I first heard about the service.  I quickly no longer thought that.  But, recently, I get “Why use Twitter when you can just update your status on Facebook?”  And this throws me right back into the 90’s:  “Do you use the internet?” “Oh yes, I use AOL all the time.”  So back to my SAT analogy:

web : AOL :: Twitter status : Facebook status

Remember the walled garden of AOL, how many users would think that was the web, never venturing out into the wild world of the wide web.  Times change but I see history repeating itself.  The struggle and growing awareness of open and closed systems.  There is a tremendous amount of value being generated off the openness of Twitter than is available within Facebook, where your status network can only be as big who you are willing to have in your personal friends’ list.  The same goes for status in LinkedIn and who you are willing to have in your professional connections’ list.  The situation is certainly more complex than AOL of the 90s but strikingly similar.

It takes practice

I was watching Gary Vaynerchuk’s talk and Q&A session at SXSW.  Been following Gary’s growing online business for a while now and written about him several times.  At about 16:25 of the session, Gary talks briefly about his early days getting his video blog up and running.  He tells the audience to go back his first 50 episodes.  So, I hopped over and took a look at the very first episode of Wine Library TV.  It is a night and day experience from watching episodes of late and Gary as an online personality.  Here it is:

What struck me is something quite simple: It takes practice. If you are trying to build a serious social media oriented brand, personal or business, it doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve spoken to a number of people who have thought of starting their own blogs or even video blogging themselves. I’ve even thought about doing a few video posts myself. Often (I assume like people early in TV careers but who knows), there is apprehension of getting in front of and speaking into the camera. Writing for me was just easier to jump into, it feels more protected. But video blogging is very interesting and adds a whole different dynamic. It certainly makes it more personal.

Anyway, whether you are writing or using video as your medium, it takes practice. Just like everything else. Because the web makes everything easier, I think we fall into the trap that everything on the web is easy. Starting a blog, building a business, writing an iPhone application. If you want to be good (and gain a comfort) doing something, you have to practice and put in a good deal of effort. And for some, it comes naturally easy and they need less practice. For others, they need more. Just like everything else in life.

Disqus must be Disgusted

Okay, I’m probably exaggerating but it sure makes a good headline.  At this point, most have heard the news that Automattic, parent company of WordPress (which powers this blog) acquired IntenseDebate for an undisclosed sum.  Offical news here, here and here.

IntenseDebate is one of the major blog commenting platforms out there.  The other is Disqus, the one I use on this blog and one I tend to favor based on overall reliability and feature set.  Both companies clearly get the value of commenting, user-generated content and the real power of conversation aggregation.  But if I were to put the two on a score card on execution, Disqus demonstrates real innovative thinking on how to put an overall platform together and paint their vision of what conversation aggregation can do and how to do it.  This was evidenced by their very early integration into WordPress and Daniel Ha’s continued work to integrate into FriendFeed once they emerged a critical aggregation player as well.

But, what is also clear is WordPress understands the value and importance of the comments on blogs (not that they didn’t before).  And as the major blog platform, WordPress has the value chain power to use this strategic acquisition to emerge as the leader in blogging as well as commenting.  And it is for this simple but important reason, that they acquisition is a huge coup for IntenseDebate in prepping for the future to potentially become the ultimate winner in this segment.  There is a sheer numbers game here and by WordPress rolling Intense’s toolkit out as part of their builds, it will instantaneously deploy Intense’s technology to blogs everywhere.  That removes one key obstacle for Intense that Disqus will continue to have to overcome in order to gain market share:  convincing blog owners to install.  Now, for IntenseDebate, it happens automatically.

Let’s hope that WordPress remains agnostic in their approach to continue to allow third party developers to build, promote and florish inside the WordPress platform.  I would like to continue to remain a Disqus user and expect to see fantastic things from them.  I will be keen to see how Disqus responds because we could be witnessing a business case of value chain integration that will be very tough to withstand.

Twitter Issues, Tissues for Short

Two facts are known through the web and tech community regarding Twitter: 1) It has quickly moved from a simple ‘what are you doing?’ tool to the poster-child of the micro-blogging phenomenon 2) It has been having huge scaling issues which has been causing service outages over the past several months. Both facts have created BIG issues for Twitter (Tissues).

I cannot add anything to the second Tissue, others have blogged about the technology and architectural framework issues that Twitter is experiencing. Ironically, Tim O’Reilly messaged his interest in blog post detailing some hypothesis about Twitter’s issues via a tweet itself. I definitely recommend reading it. Anyway, technology is one major Tissue, let’s leave it at that.

Secondly, micro-blogging has taken hold. This is also a major Tissue. Quite simply, there are so many things in the world you can convey in 140 characters (the character limit that Twitter allows in a single message). Anything you can think of, even notifying others of earthquakes, can fly in seconds over Twitter.  Because of this dynamic, many are shooting their thoughts over Twitter instead of blogging.  I find myself tweeting much more than blogging because I find I can convey much of the thought in two sentences so why ‘go on’ about it.  So we are witnessing a change in human behavior or at least the behavior of early technology adopters, we still must admit most of the world doesn’t blog or tweet.

Anyway, one could argue this dynamic is basically causing Twitter to slowly but surely handle all of the messaging load from every blogging platform out there, a major Tissue. In fact, now even when people blog, they shoot a note out via Twitter that their blog post is posted.  When they use FriendFeed, Tweets are fired out.  When people reply, Tweets are fired out. So Twitter’s success, adoption and use cases is what is causing all of the Tissues to begin with and could lead to Twitter’s downfall, the ultimate irony.

It is this irony that I find the most fascinating of all.  I’m personally rooting for Twitter.

BTW, I could have used Twitter to convey much of this via Twitter instead of blogging. In fact, I did to make a point.  And don’t forget to find my tweet notifying you all that I published this blog post ;).