Rating vs. Curating

Today the popular iPad app Flipboard which bills itself as “the world’s first social magazine” released a major update which introduces “the beauty of print, the power of the web.” Heady stuff, to be sure, but as usual— I’m hung up on the m-word. More and more, magazine is being reduced to nothing more than a form factor. It’s pretty fonts and consistent layouts. It’s an empty vessel for — whatever. Don’t get me wrong: I use Flipboard. I love Flipboard. It’s a beautiful aggregator of personally relevant content. It’s brilliant at generating a cohesive package from a variety of channels in ways that are intuitive and enjoyable to consume.

Flipboard is many wonderful things. It is not a magazine.

And the reason, of course, is curation. I know, I know. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger buzzword and it’s easy to disparage the term itself because of its overuse, but the fact remains that it’s the best way to describe what many of the best publishers are doing on the web and on the tablet.

My problem with Flipboard calling itself a magazine stems from the utter lack of curation. Or worse, the notion that curation can be crowd sourced.

Magazine is your friend the gourmet chef. She invites you to a dinner party and your mouth immediately begins to water because you already know the meal will be an immersive, multi-sensory experience. Course after course of surprising, yet ingenious combinations of textures and flavors. Intentionally paired with the perfect wine to complement and draw out the subtleties you would have otherwise missed. A coherent expression flowing from a perceivable point-of-view. It’s edited. Your friend wants feedback to what she’s serving up so her next meal can be even more impressive. She wants you to come back for more.

By comparison, Flipboard is potluck.

The iPad has breathed new life into this whole discussion and opened up a new frontier to publishers — as I’ve mentioned. Some of the brightest folks in the business are thinking and writing about it. Even guys like Khoi Vinh have chimed in. Writing about the web more broadly, Rand Fishkin penned an excellent post on the need for what he calls “benevolent editors” beyond just the algorithm and the crowd. It’s tempting to think of ourselves as little editors making little magazines — wielding our “Like” buttons and retweets. But the truth is that when done well with pacing and insight, a magazine is much more than just a collection of things that have been deemed worthwhile. It takes us on a journey we didn’t even know we wanted to go on. Whether or not our friends care to tag along. There’s Texas and then there’s Texas. The difference?

Curation.

Leave It To Beaver

Summers in college, I worked for a carpenter framing additions, building staircases, and installing trim. I was a cutter. My colleagues would shout down measurements and my job was to grab the correct piece of lumber, measure the desired length, set the appropriate angles and chop. Two-studs-eleven-six-and-thirteen-short-on-a-forty-five coming right up. Unfortunately, seven sounds a lot like eleven and sometimes I’d make a wrong cut. Anyone who’s worked in construction will recall what I heard then. The carpenter’s cry would rattle the ladders, momentarily drowning out generators and nail guns: Measure Twice, Cut Once!

Lots of people apply this same wisdom to the building of websites and I can see why. It’s tempting to think of the web as a known quantity and a website as a fixed vessel. And the construction metaphor is helpful so far as it goes — primarily when talking to neophytes. But a website is the sort of house that needs renovation the day after it’s built and the web is far from known. With the obvious exception of preparing images in Photoshop or Fireworks, the philosophy of Measure Twice, Cut Once has little place in a serious conversation about building for the web. When you’re making a website, whether your business card says IA, UX, Designer or Developer, you are not creating a final iteration. Not even close. You are building — in the best of times — the latest evolution of a space which is engineered to scale and flex in response to the changing needs of it’s owners and users. At worst — it’s the overpriced custom cabinetry that looked great on paper, but turns out to be utterly useless in the kitchen.

Consider the lowly beaver: nature’s busiest builder. Once he finds a tree that’s roughly the right size and shape, quick as he can, it’s felled and into the river. Pretty tough to tell how a particular piece of wood will perform from the safety of dry land, so the beaver gets it into approximate position before he starts trimming and fitting. But the job’s hardly done. Whether he’s working on a dam or a lodge, the thing about rivers is that they never sit still. One week, there’s a flood and the next, a drought. And that beaver just keeps on reading the river and building to suit — shoring up the dam or adding a layer to his lodge for winter. How do you think they earned the reputation for being so busy?

The beaver could spend months at the drawing table perfecting his blueprints, but he knows the river won’t wait. With both mountain streams and site traffic, flow is hard to forecast — the best we can do is be ready to adapt and have the right tools close at hand. We must be not just willing, but eager, to build and build again to meet the changing currents.

Mind the Gap

It’s been an interesting few days in the world of mark making. First, GAP Inc. unveiled a new logo on their website which swiftly became The Biggest News in The Entire World. Then, for a week or so, people bitched and moaned about it. They designed their own better logos. For free. They made fun of each other for designing better logos for free. They flocked to other mediocre mainstream retail outlets for comfort and familiarity — then, in a move historically reserved for French military units and very reminiscent of the Tropicana re-brand debacle, GAP surrendered to the horde.

That’s right. Tonight, waving white flags with blue squares on them and shouting something ludicrous about crowd-sourcing, they went back to their old logo.

This is in no way a commentary on the aesthetic value of the new logo, you can get plenty of that elsewhere from people a lot smarter than me — what concerns me is the prospect of a future where branding and design decisions are made by the mob. Crowd-sourcing is awesome. This isn’t it. This isn’t even design by committee. If the internet had been around, could someone like Paul Rand or Milton Glaser have ever existed? Someone with singular vision, willing to be booed at first — believing that history would eventually prove him right. Or would IBM still look like a meatball wearing a corset?

There will always be people who prefer the old and sometimes those people will be very noisy. Evolution is uncomfortable, but throwing eggs at everything we perceive to be a downgrade isn’t just juvenile — it’s dangerous. It undermines what’s great about the web. It’s wonderful that we have forums for discussing the relative strengths and weaknesses of different brand identities and it’s fun to see what out-of-work designers woulda-coulda-shoulda done, but at the end of the day: it’s a logo.

And it would have been okay.

Towards A New Publishing

Publishers stand at the edge of a bright future.

Never before have so many opportunities existed to tell stories to so many people in truly meaningful ways. Whether on television or radio, in the print or digital arena, viewpoints are being offered up constantly—all vying for audience attention and trust. They all want to be the channel through which people encounter the world, and there are plenty of channels out there. Perhaps most exciting to me is the emergence of the latest evolution of the magazine.

The word magazine comes from the Arabic for “storehouse” or “to store up” and the modern connotation first appeared in the 17th century in the titles of books of information intended for certain groups of people. Early examples of niche publishing. Since then, magazines and other periodicals have pushed the boundaries of user-centric communication again and again. Titles like National Geographic, Popular Science, and Sports Illustrated have made an art of catering to a very specific segment of the population about a very specific subject. Some are personality based, some politically aligned, and some just express a point-of-view that forges a loyal readership through strong editorial voice and vision.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Those same points-of-view are now being delivered across an ever-broader range of media platforms to increasingly savvy and demanding audiences. These days, the name of the game is saying what you want to say in a way your listeners want to hear. Luckily, the potency of the tools to do this are scaling in proportion with the newest platforms. With most digital interactions, publishers can track if, when, and how users engage their content and get instantaneous feedback to what they did and did not like. An editor’s dream come true!

Last week, Time magazine announced their plans to begin charging readers a fee to access magazine content on their website. Mind you, this is the same content that is printed for sale at newsstands or delivery to your mailbox and also the same content that appears in their five-dollar iPad edition. This model assumes that the kinds of people who read Time only want to engage it on one fixed platform. People that read the print magazine wouldn’t be caught dead looking on the web for news and information. And the last place you’d find an internet user is holding an iPad. Huh? Not sure if this is laziness, lack of foresight, or desperation, but it seems to me that Time, Inc. is squandering a huge opportunity to publish their (still popular) channel on every platform their readers might want to engage it in a way that is distinct and compelling, as opposed to redundant, and uh—disappointing.

Imagine if publishers leveraged individual platforms to do what they do well. Dedicated apps on smart phones and tablets have very specific strengths, as do browsers in a PC environment. If the majority of a magazine’s readership want to receive a print edition, why not give them interactive features and video on your website and augmented photo edits and exclusive long-form articles on their tablets? If they love the browser edition, why not surprise them with a beautifully produced print publication every now and then? Publishers could include lush photography and supplemental author profiles or behind-the-scenes content to show their audience that the magazine’s stories transcend medium. And here’s the kicker: They could stop charging for every stinking platform. Magazines are known for their advertising prowess, so why not sell space to relevant advertisers or charge a one-time subscription fee to gain access to the channel? Deliver more than they expect, and they’ll keep them coming back to your magazine—regardless of platform.

PRINT AS OBJECT
There will always be people that want to own content in a tangible format. Whether we’re talking about your uncle who still collects LP’s, your brother’s impressive DVD collection, or your mom’s library of cookbooks, the human connection with our objects will persist. My encouragement to publishers would be to let your print-edition books become beautiful objects. Keepsakes. Perhaps even heirlooms. Enough with the crappy paperbacks and low-rent Twilight knockoffs. Release that rubbish for Kindle. Embrace the emerging seriousness of print. Part of the appeal of pixels is their transience, but ink should be permanent.

THE IRON IS HOT
So what’s the big deal? Computers have been around for ages right, so why now? One key reason: truly beautiful design has come to the screen. Resolutions are higher. Images are brighter. Text is crisper. Typography is—well—attainable. Whether designers are creating immersive experiences in the browser or sharing up-to-the-second news through a dedicated app, for the first time in history publishers can (and should) demand the same visual excellence on the screen that they’ve come to expect in print.

CONTENT IS (STILL) KING
Our magazines and periodicals are being delivered across a broad spectrum of platforms to wherever the audience may want to engage them with surprisingly consistent messaging. Publishers are intentionally putting ink on paper when they want it to last and they’re doing it beautifully. But what are they saying?

This is where that idea of “storehouse” comes into play. Maybe in the 1600’s it was enough to just compile a bunch of random stuff that was interesting only to a unique subculture, but these day’s that doesn’t quite pass muster. We, the readers, want curation. Believe me, if I could come up with a non-buzzword that was as strong, I would use it. I’ll say it again: Curation. Our storehouses must be showrooms. Editors and strategists should be perpetually reviewing what’s been said, what the readers thought about it, and how they can best be engaged tomorrow. Aside from the slick advertising and elegant design, there’s an intrinsically human reason Apple has already sold three-million of their shiny consumption devices. Publishers rejoice:

We want perspective. We want connections. We want magazines.

Citizen Brain

Accountability Over Anonymity

There is an emerging need to forge, manage, and even guard our digital alter egos. How we choose to meet this challenge will directly shape the culture of our online communities. We can allow the web to become a virtual Las Vegas with a hedonistic anonymity that leads to a “what-happens-online-stays-online” attitude. Or, we can think more like citizens and build a community based on shared authenticity and accountability.

Recent technological advances have provided amazing opportunities to reinvent ourselves and find new connections in ever-growing networks. It has opened the door for many to become whoever they’ve always wanted to be. One hilarious idea can make you an instant celebrity on YouTube. Starting a blog can gain you a legion of loyal readers. But this new found freedom is a call to be creative, to be ourselves, and to be authentically good citizens.

What makes you credible and interesting is your unique personality. Your background. Your perspective.

Loose Lips Sink Ships

You’ve no doubt heard horror stories of people being fired or dumped over a single indiscretion online. Some folks in the ensuing discussion will vehemently insist on the need for increased anonymity and privacy on the web. They will advocate the creation of clean email accounts, cryptic screen-names, and non-discernable profile pictures. Remain ambiguous and you can say whatever you want without the possibility of negative repercussions—problem solved!

Not so fast. Turns out, the real people, warts included, are the real heart of social web.

Shine a Light

In part, this explains why MySpace languishes while Facebook continues to grow. After a certain point, no one on MySpace seemed real any more. All ties with the known universe were severed and it just felt like a lame Halloween party. This was great at first, but the buzz of anonymity quickly turned into a hangover. Facebook has plenty of shortcomings, but the fact that it’s tethered to existing (read trusted) networks in the real world is a huge key to it’s success.

One of the foundational bonds of any sustainable community is a shared code of conduct that is adopted and enforced together. It’s worked on Craigslist and countless other self-moderated websites and it will work across the broader social web.

Sadly, there are people in places like Iran and China who must maintain a certain level of anonymity for reasons of personal safety. But even in these places, you can see traces of the underlying need for authenticity. When a dissident rant emerges on a website belonging to a known individual, it’s much more likely to make the jump from Twitter to CNN and be regarded as meaningful, actionable journalism. People with hidden motives operate in the shadows, but honest citizens are happy to stand in the light.

Masking our true identity online is extremely harmful to the future of social media. At the end of the day, the actual people associated with online identities are what make them relevant, trustworthy, and worth investing in. I have very little interest in building relationships with people living in a world without consequence. Therefore, I propose that we opt for online citizenship. In the short-term, this will be less fun. A sweeping, self-inflicted reduction in jackassery. Long-term, though, I think we’ll all be okay with less of this sort of content, and get used to people behaving more like—well—actual people.

You Are What You Tweet

I’m certainly not envisioning a world free of smut, spam and slander. There will still be plenty of content online you wish you hadn’t seen. But when it comes to standards for interaction, I’m proposing a middle-ground. A cooperation for our common sanity. You need to be okay with not posting venomous rants about your boss, and your boss needs to be okay with you uploading pictures of your recent trip to Cancun. This authenticity thing goes both ways. Real people drink beer. Real people have messy relationships. Collectively, we’re just going to have to be okay with that.

That said, there will be consequences for the content you choose to publish. If you post images of you using illicit substances or tweet about patronizing the local gentleman’s club, be prepared for us to know you’ve done those things—and expect for them to have ramifications with your employer and perhaps your spouse. Let your actions be consistent with the person you want to be. That way you can claim ownership for your identity both on- and offline. If you have no taste, no self-control, or no sense of boundaries, this will be a problem for you—but I’m guessing it already is.

For most of us, allowing our realities to show through while striving to be good citizens will go a long way toward fostering an authentic and sustainable community.

Equatorial Sun

Spent some time after Thanksgiving on the white sandy beaches of Costa Rica with our dear friends, Adam and Ashley. The relaxed lifestyle and sheer beauty of the flora and fauna down there make for a really wonderful time.

There are a few more snapshots in this set on Flickr. Can’t wait to go back!