Blogging

A (Very) Brief History of Unretrofied's Design

I haven't written anything meta about this site in a while, so I think I'm overdue to reminisce about its various design iterations. (That's a normal thing to do, right?)

If you like the sound of that, then read on, friend! If not, here's a 34-minute Ron Swanson supercut for you to enjoy instead. Actually you should just watch it either way. I can't top Swanson.

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For those of you who read this site solely in an RSS client and never click through to see my writing in its natural habitat, you may have missed a couple major redesigns in the last two months. Well, I say "major," but I haven't exactly been good at keeping track of version numbers.

Much like a trombone that ostensibly has seven slide positions but in practice has an infinitely variable range, there are particular "moments" in Unretrofied's design history that stand out to me but so many tweaks were made along the way that documenting specific versions seemed futile. I just [Joker voice] did things.

If you held a gun to my head and ordered me to assign some numbers anyway, here's how I'd do it:

Version 1.0
Unretrofied v1

Ah, this takes me back. I was so innocent back then, so naïve. This was my DF-wannabe phase. I still cringe a little, looking back at some of those early posts. By the way, the old site is still live if you want to, I dunno, click around on it or something.


Version 2.0
Unretrofied v2

This was my longest-lasting design by far. It was during this period that Unretrofied kind of started to take off, in terms of my writing ability and the amount of attention it received. I still love a lot of things about this design, particularly its newspaper-y aesthetic. As with many things in my life though, I needed to change it up after a while.


Version 3.0
Unretrofied v3

A short-lived but overall pleasant change from the previous iteration. Many of you will immediately note the resemblance to Shawn Blanc's site, something that earned me the internet version of a sideways glance from several people. I've been quite open about my reasons for the copycatting though.

As I've told everyone who has brought it up, it was an experiment I did while home alone one night, mainly to improve my CSS skills. Nothing more. I used Shawn's site as a template because I really like some of his design decisions, particularly the subtle ones people may not think about (link-list delineation, the transition animation that happens when you hover over links, etc).

This was never meant to be a permanent design. The only reason it stuck around for even a month was sheer laziness on my part. (Sorry Shawn!)


Version 4.0
Unretrofied v4

And now we come to the current version of Unretrofied, my favorite of the bunch. Some of the ideas I got from Shawn's site are still here, but I've mixed them with concepts from "v2.0" and ended up with something I'm pretty happy with.

I'd like to give a huge thanks to my internet buddy Sid O'Neill for helping me with several big CSS issues that were giving me trouble (read: things I broke while ignorantly tinkering). Most notably, the mobile versions of the site—at least on iPhone and iPad—are no longer broken the way they've always been in the past. In fact, this may be the most responsive the site has ever been.

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So there you have it, a brief history of my design iterations. I hope you enjoyed this little tour.

Content is Crap

Greg Satell:

“...content isn’t really king. Content is crap. Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow! What great content.” Nobody who produces meaningful artistic expression thinks of themselves as content producers either. So the first step to becoming a successful publisher is to start treating creative work with the respect it deserves.”

Blogging is Not Necessarily an "Amateur Thing"

Yesterday, I happened upon a blog post by Dave Winer that irked me a little (something he's managed to do in the past). He writes:

“It is possible for a professional reporter to blog, even when they're doing their job as a reporter. But it is not a professional act.”

[...]

“Why are bloggers important to reporters? Bloggers are your sources. They are the people who previous generations of reporters had to reach by telephone.”

His worldview seems to be divided thusly: there are bloggers, and there are reporters. Reporters are a step above bloggers—or, they are at least held to a higher standard. Their work must be objective, well-researched, and probably edited by a third party before publication. Bloggers are free to do whatever they want, accountable to no one but themselves. They share their knowledge and expertise for free.

I don't want to put words in his mouth because I don't follow his work that closely and I don't know him personally, but my gut tells me I'm on the right track. Assuming that I've correctly understood his gist, I have a few thoughts on the matter.

  1. There is more gray area to this topic than Dave is allowing here. While he grants that journalists can often be bloggers, it is not a two-way street in his mind—not because of differences in expertise level, but because bloggers do what they do for free.

    But that's not always the case is it? The web is laden with bloggers who get paid, some quite handsomely, to do nothing but write blog posts. The quality of work between these people—and even between a given writer's posts, sometimes—can vary wildly, but the fact remains that they make a living doing what they do. To me, that is the very definition of professional.

    You might as well say that podcasters aren't professional the way radio hosts are, but that wouldn't be true either.

  2. Positioning bloggers as mere sources to be mined by reporters seems like a huge marginalization to me. Or a generalization, if nothing else.

    Not all bloggers treat their writing as some kind of public journal or as a venue to rant about whatever political nonsense is happening that week. That kind of thing certainly exists, but there are also plenty of bloggers who go the extra mile to report facts just as well (if not better) than a reporter might. And I would argue that there are also plenty of paid reporters who have produced unprofessional work. It's very difficult to be objective 100% of the time.

  3. I don't think "blogger != reporter" is a very useful distinction to make anymore. In a world where anybody with a smartphone and internet access can break a story hours before a reporter even knows anything is happening, it seems inevitable that the role of reporter will be gradually downsized in favor of crowdsourced information.

    Sure, there will likely always be a need for sharp editorial voices to stand out above the crowd and help us make sense of it all. Great writing is great writing, no matter the source. But if some brave soul decides to live-tweet a violent riot happening nearby, does that make her less of a reporter than someone gathering facts in safety from thousands of miles away? I don't necessarily think so.

    Here's another way to think about it: if somebody goes all-in on a journalistic story, investigating the hell out of it, doing interviews, the whole nine yards...but the next day decides to post about cat GIFs, what do you call them? A reporter one day but a blogger the next? Why draw that line in the first place?

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that the line between "blogger" and "reporter" is growing fuzzier all the time. It's not a one-versus-the-other scenario that I see playing out in the future, but more of a merging of the two sides.

To think otherwise is to be stuck in the 20th century.

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As a writer, my goal is to inspire others to be more creative and do their best work. If my writing has helped or inspired you in any way, please consider supporting this site with a modest donation or by signing up for the $3/month membership subscription.

An Interview with Me at the Wired Writers Guild

My friend J.D. Bentley invited me to do an interview about my writing workflows, publishing tools, and some other writing miscellany. I'm pretty happy with how this turned out, so I invite everyone to please go read it, especially if you're curious as to how I do things around here.

Thanks for having me, J.D.!

Day One Introduces 'Publish' Feature

One of my favorite apps just unveiled an upcoming feature that will allow you to publish any of your journal entries to a unique, responsive webpage. This is so cool.

Although I probably wouldn't publish any of my entries in their current state—mainly because I don't edit them very vigorously—some of them do contain the nuggets of ideas that end up on Unretrofied. I can imagine that other people who put more effort into their entries are going to publish some excellent stuff.

I'm excited to see where this feature goes. If you'd like to sign up to be notified of its release, head over here.

Things I've Learned in 2013

Inspired by a post Patrick Rhone did at the end of 2011, and another at the end of 2012, I thought I'd put together a list of things I've learned in 2013. In no particular order...

  • It's almost always better to sleep on an article draft and edit it the next day, rather than publish it immediately.

  • Although it sometimes hurts to cut things from my articles, even my favorite and most "clever" bits, they usually turn out for the better that way. Even if it means starting over from scratch.

  • Time spent on fiddling with my blog's design is better spent on writing.

  • It's best to ignore threads about my work on sites like Hacker News and Reddit. Even a large number of compliments can't stop those few detractors from getting into my head.

  • Don't give much thought to pageviews. A huge surge of traffic to the site can seem absolutely crazy for a few days, but really this sort of attention is fleeting. It's better to have a smaller, truly supportive audience that always has your back, than a large one that will bounce without a second thought.

  • Babies will always, always choose to throw a screaming fit at the most inopportune times. This is a universal constant.

  • Some of the most well-received pieces I've published have been the ones I spent the least amount of time editing or put the least thought into. The internet works in mysterious ways.

  • After I lost my job and we started having to budget ourselves more strictly, my wife and I discovered we can get by on surprisingly little money. Eating at home rather than at restaurants has been the biggest factor for us.

  • I have just about everything I need in life, despite having a lot less income. I have a loving wife, a supportive family, a two-year-old son who makes me laugh, and a roof over my head. Like anyone, there are plenty more things I wish I had (more gadgets, a bigger house, etc), but really my life is quite comfortable at the moment. I consider myself extremely lucky.

  • My wife is even more supportive of my writing endeavors than I previously thought. She's amazing.

  • My parents and other family members don't really have a clue what I do for a living, despite my attempts to explain it.

  • It's often better to try calmly talking my son down from one of his hysterical fits rather than lose my own temper about it.

  • Let kids experiment with their environment a little. It might be annoying when they make messes, or that they want to get a cooking pot out of the cabinet and start hitting it with a spoon, but they're just exploring and learning about the world around them. Don't immediately shut them down all the time or you risk stunting their curiosity and creativity. (Unless they're about to accidentally hurt or kill themselves, obviously.)

  • When interviewing people, it's difficult to find the balance between staying out of the interviewee's way and maintaining a certain flow to the conversation, but so rewarding when that balance is found.

  • I need to journal more often.

  • I need to read more books.

  • Audiobooks are more engaging than I thought they would be. I never really gave them a chance until a roadtrip we took earlier this year, and now I wish I'd done so sooner.

  • Being off the internet for a week wasn't so bad, and I hardly missed anything important. I should do this a few more times a year.

As a writer, my goal is to inspire others to be more creative and do their best work. If my writing has helped or inspired you in any way, please consider supporting this site with a modest donation or by signing up for the $3/month membership subscription.

'Instant Gratification'

Daniel Jalkut:

“No more waiting for permission to share your thoughts, arts, or inventions with the world. And no more excuses for holding back. Got something to give? Put it out there and see what sticks.”

The slow extinction of 'gatekeepers' – publishers, record labels, banks, book stores, et al – is one of my favorite things about the web these days. It's never been easier to make yourself heard around the entire world, and all it takes is the press of a button.

It's both terrifying and liberating at the same time.

Membership Drive Giveaway 2013

Welcome to the first annual Unretrofied membership drive and giveaway! I'm beyond excited to get the chance to make this site a full-time gig, but a bit nervous at the same time. The only way I can make this happen is with your help, and I figured I'd sweeten the deal a little for you by putting on a membership giveaway.

The Giveaway

From now until 11:59pm CDT on Sunday, October 20th 2013, anyone who signs up to become a subscribing member of this site will be automatically entered into a drawing. All previously-subscribed members are also eligible.

Thanks to the generosity of several of my friends and favorite companies, I've been able to put together a very nice lineup of cool stuff you could potentially win.

Why Subscribe?

I'm not thinking of the membership as a monthly donation (although you're free to look at it that way, if you wish). I want to provide some extra content and benefits to membership subscribers:

  • Unretrofied Connect - A quarterly email publication that features exclusive/bonus content not found here on the blog. I'm still experimenting with the content and format, but I've got some really exciting ideas in the pipeline.
  • Automatic discounts on any stuff I may sell in the future, like t-shirts, ebooks, etc.
  • Automatic access to drawings and giveaways.
  • I've got ideas for other perks down the line. Maybe a daily podcast, à la Shawn Blanc?

The Prizes

Note: the prices in parentheses are merely the dollar values for each individual item, not something you have to pay as a winner.

In no particular order:

Combined, this comes out to be 112 items with a total value of about $950.

How to Win & Other Rules

Anyone who signs up for a membership before 11:59 pm CST on Sunday, October 20 will automatically be entered into the drawing.

If you are already a member with an active membership, you are eligible to win.

You do not have to live in the United States to win — international members are most welcome and most eligible.

The drive ends at 11:59 pm CST on October 20th 2013, and the drawing will be held sometime the following week. It will be random and I will contact the winners via email.

This probably goes without saying, but not everyone who signs up will necessarily be a winner. Please don't send me an angry email if your name isn't drawn. It's a completely random process and I have no control over it.

UPDATE: Several non-US readers have inquired about the zip-code field on the membership payment form. I've tried to contact Helium about this and haven't heard back yet, BUT a couple readers have had success using '00000' for the zip, or even adding a zero at the end for an Australian postal code. If you have any issues, please let me know.

Prize Requests

If there is a certain prize in particular that you’d like to win over another, please make a note of it when you fill out the mailing-list entry form at the end of the subscription process — if you have no preference, then ignore this step and I will pick an item at random for you.

(Also: if you're one of the few existing members who signed up before today and didn't know what was going to be in the drawing, get in touch and I will add your request to the list.)

I can't guarantee that each winner will get the exact thing they want, but I will do my best. If I may say so though, every item on this list is pretty awesome so hopefully you won't be disappointed no matter what happens :)

Thank You

A big thanks goes out to all the people who were generous enough to donate these prizes. Whether or not you win a prize, these are all people whose businesses you should be supporting. Check out their stuff and buy it if you can.

And of course, a huge thanks goes out to any and all of the readers who have stuck with me so far, especially those who have found it in their hearts to help me make my dream come true. It's not hyperbole to say that I couldn't do any of this without you guys, so thank you. I couldn't have asked for a better group of friends.

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So what are you waiting for? If you haven’t yet signed up to become a member, now would be a good time.

A Guided Tour of Brett Terpstra's Blog

I honestly had no idea that so much work has been put into all the little nuts-and-bolts that run Brett's site. It's basically a mix between a blog and a webapp, which tickles the geeky side of my brain.

Currently, I'm just enjoying what happens when I hover my mouse cursor over the 'Donate' button at the bottom. Sometimes it's the little touches.

The Self-Selecting Audience

Merlin Mann, from a podcast interview in 2009 (transcription mine):

“But the truth is, I've been able to attract a pretty broad audience for what I do by being very specific about who I wanna reach. And there's a funny self-selecting bias to that that delights me.

I love when I post something on Twitter and a bunch of people unfollow me. It delights me. Because that...that is the sound of my audience getting better.

Absolutely spot-on. I feel like this is a good reminder not to take it too personally whenever someone unfollows you on [your social network of choice].

If you're a socially anxious person like me, I totally get it. It's tempting to watch your follower count like a hawk, hoping against hope that it won't go down even by one number. Whenever it does, you take it personally and wonder what you did to drive them away. This is especially true for people you respect/admire — I've had a couple of my heroes unfollow me in the past, and I'll be honest, it hurts.

The thing is, everyone has their reasons for unfollowing someone else, and they might not be what you think they are. Maybe it wasn't something you specifically did or said — maybe they just felt overwhelmed by their feed and had to prune things a little. Maybe you did inadvertently offend them, but so what? It probably wasn't going to work out anyway.

Don't spend a lot of time fretting over what anyone thinks about you, and especially stop trying to please everybody. It's just not possible. Your self-worth is not dependent on your follower count, your RSS subscriber numbers, your Klout score, or whatever other metric you might be paying too much attention to.

“I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Bill Cosby

Just keep doing the thing you love, and if someone's interests align with that, then you'll be on the road to building a group of friends – or audience, if you want to call it that – that will really matter to you and support you in the long run.


Readers should note that, while I hope this stuff helps other people somehow, these kinds of posts are often letters to myself just as much as they are to the rest of the world. Don't confuse me as trying to be some kind of Life Guru™, because I'm still trying to figure all this out too.

My Squarespace 6 Wish List

As you may know, Unretrofied is a site powered by Squarespace 6. There are a whole lot of things to like about the service, but it's certainly not without its faults. Considering the way Squarespace seems to be keeping the entire podcasting industry afloat with all those ad-spots and sign-up offers, it would appear that a lot of people are still switching to the service in droves.

I think it's only fair that they know what to expect after signing up, don't you? So what I've done below is write something of an open letter to Squarespace, asking them to fix these basic issues that have been lingering around for months and months.

Now, I should note that I have absolutely zero information about what the developers are working on behind the scenes. For all I know, they could already be ironing out at least some of the issues I'm about to list. This is just my list of complaints as it stands right now.

Editorial for iPad is Out

I've been anxiously awaiting the release of Editorial after Federico Viticci mentioned it a while back, and now it's finally here. Speaking of Viticci, you should go read his epic review of the thing.

If you'd like a more summarized description of Editorial, go check out my post about the app on Tools & Toys.

International Man of Mystery: An Interview with Matthew Alexander

International Man of Mystery: An Interview with Matthew Alexander

Introduction

Matthew Alexander is one of those individuals who can't easily be put into any single box, metaphorically speaking. Being a jack-of-all-trades, he excels in several areas, such as writing, podcasting, entrepreneurship, consulting — the list goes on.

On top of that, he is a genuinely nice person, with a beaming attitude that definitely shows in his work. He's one of my favorite people to joke around with on Twitter, and I was excited to interview him for this series. This turned out to be one of the longer interviews I've conducted so far (in a good way!) because we went into lots of different topics. I really think you guys will enjoy this one.

 

Making Something Great: An Interview with Chase Reeves

Making Something Great: An Interview with Chase Reeves

Introduction

Chase Reeves is a designer, writer, and marketer with a penchant for drinking cocktails and getting lost in his own head sometimes — in a good way! He made his name on the web with his blogs Ice to the Brim, a site about finding your creative habit so you can make great stuff, and Father Apprentice, an exploration into the meaning of young fatherhood.

Lately, Chase has been busy with a new project known as Fizzle, a site with video training courses intended to inspire and educate online entrepreneurs about growing their business. I've had a chance to check out the courses myself, and I can attest to their quality and personality.

Chase is a high-energy fellow, and I laughed out loud several times throughout our email exchange. I hope you guys enjoy it as much as I did.

Tooting Your Own Horn

A little while back, I heard about an email newsletter through Patrick Rhone called The Listserve, and it sounded pretty interesting so I signed up. I'm glad I did.

Essentially, what they do is pick a random person every day out of their ever-growing list of subscribers (currently numbered at 23,310) to write about almost anything they want, and it will be sent out to the rest of us a few days later.

The stories told within these emails – which are from people of all ages, all over the world – are often inspiring, thoughtful, and educational, and it is truly a joy to receive in my inbox every day. I can't recommend it enough.

About a month ago, one particular email – titled "Tooting Your Own Horn" – stood out to me in particular. It was written by a guy named Connor Tomas O'Brien, and something about it really struck me, because it addressed something that's been on my mind for a while now.

Here's a quote from the email:

“It’s a shame that, in some cases, those who are most comfortable with self-marketing are those without anything interesting to promote in the first place. Meanwhile, some of the greatest living artists and thinkers are right now almost certainly working in obscurity, lacking the confidence or the platform to show the world what they’re doing.

For those of us that aren’t prone to shouting about ourselves, we risk being drowned out by those that can and do. The presumption is that if you don’t say anything, you don’t have anything to say, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Those that are quiet are sometimes just waiting for a gap in the conversation. They’re waiting to be invited to speak.”

Man, it's like he's speaking directly to me. In a world full of people constantly shouting to be heard, my voice feels very small indeed.

Readers may or may not recall that back in December, I started up a membership subscription for this site. Since then, I've not talked about it much publicly at all, nor have I tried doing anything like a membership drive to encourage sign-ups. I merely placed a link in the top navigation bar and left it at that.

The result? Well, let's just say I'm not exactly close to quitting my day job yet.

It's a difficult thing, putting oneself out there and asking for people to support what you do. I've never been comfortable with sales or marketing, but I feel very strongly that writing this site is what I'm meant to be doing.

So, I'm setting my meekness aside for a moment to ask that you check out the membership subscription if you haven't done so yet, or make a one-time donation if that's more your speed.

Any support you can give goes a long way, and is very much appreciated :)

Rick Rubin on Creativity

I was just reading through the Daily Beast's recent interview with music producer Rick Rubin, enjoying the article but not really learning anything I hadn't already known about the guy.

Then I reached the penultimate paragraph, where they asked him the secret to having a good ear for music. This is what he came back with, and it really struck me:

“I never decide if an idea is good or bad until I try it. So much of what gets in the way of things being good is thinking that we know. And the more that we can remove any baggage we’re carrying with us, and just be in the moment, use our ears, and pay attention to what’s happening, and just listen to the inner voice that directs us, the better. But it’s not the voice in your head. It’s a different voice. It’s not intellect. It’s not a brain function. It’s a body function, like running from a tiger.”

It's a shame this is where the interview ended, because it was just getting good in my opinion.

I think what Rick is saying applies to more than just producing music, it's about all creativity. As creative people, how often do we avoid making great stuff because we try too hard to intellectualize everything or worry about all the ways something might succeed or fail, all before we've even started?

Maybe it doesn't apply to you, but I know I'm certainly guilty of falling into this trap now and then. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that despite any failures, it's more important to go with our gut instincts and actually do the work instead of getting in the way of ourselves before we've managed to take the first step.

Just some food for thought.

URI.LV is now FeedPress

A couple months ago, I switched from Squarespace's built-in RSS feed to one provided by the service URI.LV. Today, they've announced a change in names, and are now calling themselves FeedPress.

From the announcement:

“As we’ve grown, it’s high time we re-launched and re-branded. URI.LV was intended to be a temporary name. It simply does not roll off the tongue easily. Today, we’re exceedingly happy to present to you FeedPress. We have spruced up the website and have given it a responsive design. If you visit your stats page on a smartphone, it should flow nicely. For iOS users, you can tap your bookmark button and add FeedPress to your home screen (it sports a nice Retina ready icon).”

I like the new name a lot better.

This shouldn't cause any issues with my RSS feed, but let me know if you see anything weird and I'll get it taken care of.

'Designing Blogs for Readers'

Matt Gemmell discusses the way his blog's design has changed over the last decade, and lists some ground rules for making your own site more readable.

“I don’t think there’s any reasonable way, or any need, to separate vanity and ego from a personal blog. Writing is inherently about its author, and is a product of their personality and opinions – that’s not something to be shy about, and we shouldn’t try to change it either. So, write for yourself – and hold yourself to an appropriate standard, because you’d better believe that others are judging the person as well as the piece – but as soon as you publish your views, you’re inviting readers to take a look. I think that the needs of the reader and the author are more aligned than many blogging systems seem to believe.”

I went through the list and discovered that Unretrofied meets many of the criteria Matt calls for, which I'm kinda proud of because I'm not a web designer by any stretch of the imagination.

I've just always strongly believed that sites explicitly meant to be read should not be designed so as to interfere with anybody's reading experience. That would be stupid, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks so.

There are a few little things that could be changed to meet his standards (such as making visited links more obvious), along with some items that have always bugged me but I haven't gotten around to fixing yet (like the way my Fusion ad can interfere with other elements on mobile devices), but overall I'm glad to know I've tinkered my way into a fairly readable site.