Not so Svbtle

A few weeks ago I got an invitation to Dustin Curtis’ hip new(ish) blogging platform called Svbtle. The original announcement created a bit of a stir around the Intertubes. It was supposed to be both a clean, minimalist writing environment and a fresh new platform for vetted, competent writing. Here’s a relevant excerpt (emphasis mine):

I wrote this engine entirely for myself, without the intention of opening it up to other people. But since realizing that it has improved the way I think and write, I’ve decided to open it up to a small number of vetted bloggers. At least at first. The goal is simple: when you see the Svbtle design, you should know that the content is guaranteed to be great. Network bloggers are encouraged to keep quality high at the expense of everything else.

If it sounds provocative, that’s probably because it was meant to be. The emphasized line in particular, is fighting words, as they say. It’s been about a year and half since that post (at least that’s how long I think it’s been, Svbtle posts don’t seem to have visible timestamps). Now that I have an invite, I thought it would be interesting to see how things have held up. Is Svbtle really all that Mr. Curtis cracks it up to be?

At face value, the original claim seems to have fallen flat. The idea for a minimalist writing platform was copied and open-sourced almost immediately and there’s also a Svbtle-like WordPress theme. Given that Svbtle will let you use your own domain name, it’s hard to tell that you’re reading a Svbtle post unless you care to look. So much for seeing and recognizing the Svbtle design. But what about the rest of the claim? Are we really guaranteed that the content is great?

Svbtle currently positions itself as a “new kind of magazine”. The current About page reads as follows:

We’re a network of great people mixed with a platform that takes the best things from traditional publishing and combines them with the best parts of the web. We want to make it easier for people to share and discover new ideas.

The Svbtle blog announced that they received an undisclosed amount of VC money (good for them). They currently have over 200 writers and hope to build “the future of journalism”. Svbtle is building us up to expect not only good writing, but great writing and journalism. The current state of Svbtle doesn’t give me much confidence. As of this writing, many of the posts on the Svbtle front page would probably only be of interest to a certain section of Silicon Valley resident.s Posts like “The 3 competitive Defenses of Enduring SaaS Companies” and “The Single Best Content Marketing Channel for your Startup” make me think that Svbtle is more a thinly veiled mirror of Hacker News than a magazine devoted to ground-breaking journalism.

To me at least, Svbtle is not so much subtle as confusing. Who are these 200 writers? Why did they get invitations? They claim to span “at least eight disciplines” and journalism doesn’t seem to one of them. If Svbtle is supposed to take the best things from traditional publishing, then where are the editors and expert photographers? If Svbtle is going to be “an important place for the sharing of ideas” then where are the comments and where do I send Letters to the Editor?

Furthermore, this confusion isn’t just on the outward, public face of the endeavor. As a writer, it’s not clear to me what I get from publishing on Svbtle. A group of 200 writers is not exactly exclusive, especially when I have no idea what the invitation criteria are. I don’t see any Terms of Service, or an Export button for that matter. The invitation email claims “One of our main goals is to help members become better writers”, but there’s no mention of how that’s supposed to happen. Is there a peer review or editorial process? If there is, what are the qualifications of the editors and reviewers? I just wrote and published a short post and there doesn’t seem to be any of those things. Can I be kicked out and my posts deleted at a moment’s notice?

I suppose that for people dissatisfied with their current blogging platform Svbtle might be an interesting alternative. But it’s not for me. I’m perfectly content with WordPress when it comes to actual writing and Tumblr when it comes to everything else. I’ve never been distracted from my writing by the various controls and buttons and Svbtle lacks too much of what I’d consider essentials for a modern blogging platform.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that I simply don’t get it and that Mr. Curtis has some grand scheme that I don’t grasp. For the time being, though, it seems like Svbtle is simply just yet another blogging platform. It’s a different flavor than WordPress, Tumblr, or Medium, and some will be drawn to it for that reason. At this point, someone will no doubt point out that I won’t get it unless I try it. While I’m skeptical of that line of reasoning, I would like to give Svbtle a fair chance. Maybe the writing experience really is that much better. If I can think of something that needs publishing and isn’t relevant to The ByteBaker, then my Svbtle blog is where it will go.

(As an aside, I’ve been thinking of starting a research blog, along the lines of Lindsey Kuper’s,. I’d use Svbtle for that, but there seems to be no support for inserting syntax-highlighted code snippets.)

In the meantime, if you’re looking for modern, journalistic writing that covers a variety of topics, I recommend a publication like New Republic.

What do you do to break a creative block?

I’ve been wanting to get back to blogging for a while now. Unfortunately a combination of graduate student life and not wanting to spend even more time than I already do in front of a computer has made me put that off. At the same time, I’ve been having some bursts of activity on Quora. I think Quora is an interesting site and serves a a good purpose, but I’m not very happy about its Walled Garden policies and I would like the information I put in to be more generally available (at least the stuff that doesn’t involve the more obscure points of Tolkien’s legendarium). So for today at least I’m going to report an answer I wrote up while i was waiting for my experiments to finish.

The post asked about overcoming creative block, in particular writer’s block. The poster said that time was sometimes, but not always a factor and that s/he had been writing quite prolifically before. (The previous sentence made me realize that English desperately needs a gender-neutral third-person pronoun that isn’t ‘it’.) Given my blogging predicament, I avoid this uncannily relevant. Anyways, without further ado:

Personally I’ve found that what helps is a combination of three things: good routine, new experiences and boredom.

First, routine.  If you’re having trouble getting time to write, or trouble sitting down to write even when you have time, a strict routine can definitely help. As Somerset Maugham supposedly said : “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Find a quiet space, free of people and distractions, grab some coffee (or tea, or just water), turn off the Internet and your phone and just write. Write anything. It doesn’t have to be in your preferred genre or what you’re trying to write. It can be an essay, a journal entry, a letter to friend (or an enemy). The point is just to get into the habit of writing. Once you’re comfortable with sitting down for some time each day and just writing something you can move on to what you actually want to write.

Second, experiences. If you’re going to be a serious writer then it helps to have things to write about. While it’s definitely possible to create interesting by isolating yourself in a cabin in the woods (see Walden by Henry David Thoreau), I think it’s a safer bet (and far more interesting) to gather lots of interesting experiences and ideas and weave them together in interesting ways. Travel new places and keep your eyes, do things you thought you’d never do, talk to people you normally don’t interact with, eat foods that look strange and unfamiliar, look up random topics on Wikipedia, explore a new subject each month. The more ideas you have in your head, the easier it will be to have things to recombine and use as a basis for interesting writing.

Third, boredom. As a complement to the above, as you’re gathering experiences you need to have the time and energy to put them together. Spend a Saturday on the couch (or the hammock if you have one) with the TV off and without any people around. Stand in the checkout line and just stand. Get bored sometimes, don’t rush the mindless things like doing the dishes and vacuuming. You need to put interesting things in your head but you also have to give yourself the chance to let them interact and recombine. This part is often hard to do because you feel like you should be doing something productive, but I believe this stage of just letting ideas percolate and react is crucial to any creative activity.

Finally, to make the most of the above: carry a notebook and pen always. It doesn’t have to be a fancy Moleskine or anything of the sort. It just needs to be something where you can record interesting experiences and ideas and look back on them later.

Good luck and good writing.

Reading in the computer age

Once upon a time, computers used to be used for computation. To some extent they still are. But for the millions of people with computers on their desks and in their bags and pockets, computers are more regularly used for communication. And no matter how much we might like video conferencing or VoIP, much of that communication is textual. People read and people write. A lot. I don’t have any definite statistics, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that the average person today writes and reads a lot more than they did ever before. While there has certainly been an increase in literacy levels over time due to a number of socio-economic reasons, technology has played no small part in the growth of human informational output (and input). Though there’s lots of ways to produce and distribute information, text is still the easiest and most popular and so it’s something I want to focus on.

World Literacy levels (from wikipedia)
World Literacy levels (from wikipedia)

With the rise of blogs and dead-easy online publishing tools, it’s become easier than ever for the common man to take part in an existing conversation or to start his own. Even more recently, microblogging tools like Twitter let you take textual snapshots of your life and start mini-conversations around them. Furthermore, social network sights let you create conversations around pretty much anything that you can find online (and a lot of what you find offline). FriendFeed and Facebook in particular do good jobs of encouraging conversations. While it’s become really easy to write and publish your thoughts (which I think is a very good thing), the first problem that creates is:

Who’s going to read all the stuff that’s out there?

Certainly not us. Let’s face it, there is far more text out there than any human could ever hope to read and comprehend in a reasonable amount of time. Being the tool-building primates that we are, the solution that we’ve started to come up with isn’t surprising: we have machines to do it for us. Search engines and the many recommendation tools are all essentially reading machines that go through all the text on the web and produce a very small subset that our limited human brains to handle. Sometimes the machines don’t quite do the job, so we need some human intervention a la Digg and Reddit.

But the question is still far from fully answered. Alex Payne of Twitter takes a long, hard look at the future of feed readers and comes to the conclusion that “feed readers as we’ve known them are dying” but neither algorithmic processing nor human-social-network filtering works well enough to be a viable replacement. I tend to agree and I don’t see a solution myself.

I prefer a judicious use of both computational and human filtering. I rely on Reddit and Hacker News to provide fresh, new information sources, and then use Google Reader or Diigo to collect, index and manage my readings. However, it’s not ideal and requires more manual work than I’m comfortable with. We will certainly need better semantic technology to make sense of the growing amount of data, thoughts and opinions out there. At the same time, it’s not just a question of finding and organizing information, but also of remembering it when we need to. This brings up Question 2.

How do I remember everything I’ve read?

I read a lot. I read books for school and pleasure. I read scholarly articles for research. I read blogs to get a continual stream of interesting ideas and information. I read articles that float to the top of social news sites. I read Twitter and Facebook to keep track of what my friends are doing (and sometimes to read things they’ve read and written). Even by a conservative estimate, I would say I read an average of 5000 words a day, probably more on some days. I’d be lying if I said I remembered even a fraction of this. I can remember perhaps the name of the article, maybe where I read it, a few keywords and phrases here and there. This isn’t just a case of bad memory, (though I’ll admit my memory’s not as good as it could be), part of it is a conscious decision not to hold in my mental RAM stuff I don’t need at the moment (or in the very near future).

It would be great if I could remember even detailed summaries of what I’d written, but in the absence of really good memory and recall, outsourcing my memory is the next best step. And it’s not just me. In the old days you’d have tons of bookmarks saved in your browser or maybe even save the HTML files to disk. I did a bit of both. Today I use social bookmarking in the form of Diigo and Zotero for managing journal articles PDFs. For any form of memory system, full search is a must. Loose organization is also essential. Dynamic, multiply redundant systems such as tags and keywords are superior to static filesystem-like organization. It would be nice if this tagging were smart and automatic, but even manual tagging is very useful. Highlighting and inserting notes is also helpful if used right and in proper amounts.

The main point of all these tools is to simply to make sure that you find what you’re looking for with minimal time and effort. In some ways, there’s a redistribution of effort to save-time from find-time in the form of tagging and the like. Some tools like DevonThink go a step further and automatically extract relationships between documents. Being able to highlight sections and add notes becomes useful if you’re reading articles as part of a research project. These tools aren’t perfect and certainly won’t do your thinking for you, but they are a step in the right direction.

Such tools only make sense if there’s really something you want to do with the information that you read. Thankfully there are a lot of things you could with it. You could (and probably do) share it with other people. You can also join the conversation surrounding any piece of text, either by commenting on it (if it supports comments) or posting the article to an aggregator like Reddit and commenting there. You could also use it as the base seed for your own independent piece. Personally I view all my reading as input that will ultimately get processed into some form of writing. In many cases it gets translated into blog posts, comments or email, but in many others its still waiting for the right time.

Writing in the 21st century deserves a blog post all its own. Since I’m already over a thousand words, my observations on writing are getting pushed to the next post. I want to explore the issues related to writing in a bit more depth because I feel they are a bit more nuanced (and as a writer myself, I have a serious stake in writing in the computer age). Stay tuned.

Moved to a new home

Those of you who tried accessing the blog a few hours ago might have been seeing some unusual template changes and changes in the post order. That’s because I just moved away from to paid hosting and it took me a while to get everything set up and running properly. Right now it’s mostly the same blog, but with a fresh new theme. In the near future, I’ll be starting to put up longer articles that are too long for a blog post and make some more customizations to the theme.

For those of you who are interested, I’m now hosted at FatCow which had a really great deal whereby I pay less than $5 a month for unlimited space and bandwidth. Even better, I’m only committed for a year, so if things don’t work out, I can easily move after that without hurting my wallet. Here’s looking forward to a year as an independent website.