Indie Publishing
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Human Scale

Posted on Aug 03 2017 in Essays

This essay by Michael Honey first appeared in Offscreen Issue 7 (now sold out).

“Is there anything you like to ask us?” A typical question you hear at the end of most job interviews.

“I am a bit worried,” I said, “about the whole idea of relentlessly driving down supplier costs just so that people on the internet can buy marginally cheaper consumer goods.”

Silence.

I’d like to think that my question rocked him to his core, made him reconsider his life up to this point, caused him to abandon principles he never knew he held. In reality, he was probably making a this-guy-is-an-idiot face to his coworkers on the other end of the line.

“Well, if you feel that way, our organisation might not be a good fit for you.” He hung up and it was over.

I don’t know what I was thinking. If I felt that way, why did I talk to them in the first place? Because it’s always worth talking. Because they were interested. Because it’s nice to feel wanted.

As an independent web guy I often wondered what it would be like to be hired by a giant corporation. I would enjoy the security that comes with money and a big company job. I know from experience that years of worrying about being able to pay the bills take their toll. But I would also be wondering what I could have built instead, had I gone my own way.

If I took that role I’d disappear for a year or two, and out the other end would come a better login screen, a cleaner list view, an improved signup form – and a big paycheck. Those are nice to have but at what cost? The usual pitch that a big company makes is that they have the resources for profound impact on a large scale. Often though, that impact is spread out over millions of users, and it’s in the service of giving corporate investors better capital returns.

‘It doesn’t scale’ is a criticism leveled at many new ideas. It’s true, some things don’t scale to millions of users. No venture capitalist throws their money at an idea that makes just a decent living for a small team. You need explosive growth to reach a worldwide market. But how many things which are good when small get better by becoming bigger? That local restaurant you love can’t scale to millions of users. Do you really want your favourite indie band to aspire to stadium-level fame? People get cheaper books, and an independent bookseller closes its doors to make way for a giant warehouse full of underpaid people working ten-hour shifts. You order your groceries online, but you’ll never bump into your neighbours at the local shop. Is this progress?

I’m aware of the disconnect between decrying large enterprise and, say, owning an iPhone. Some things, good things, are unbuildable without a critical mass – thousands of builders and millions of users. Acknowledging that, though, isn’t it also true that most things get worse as they get bigger? Humans are good at family, middling at community, dysfunctional as nations, and self-destructive as a planet. What doesn’t scale is our ability to relate to each other as human beings instead of target markets, as eyeballs to monetise.

I love technology and the internet and the wonders that it brings. I, too, build it for a living. But I don’t need another social network or more ways to share photos or further technological assistance for catching up with friends. What if we stopped building new things for a while, and tried to make what we have better?

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to go huge, to build something for millions, to double in size every few months, to scramble for market share – and then to try and find a way to pay for it all by putting ads on it. Maybe some day it’ll happen.

If I’m honest with myself, I probably would have taken that job had they offered it to me. I would have spent a couple of years generating shareholder value. I would have gained some management experience, a familiarity with Powerpoint, and some inexpensive consumer goods. But instead, I’m now working with a small team of people on human-scale projects for clients I respect.

I’m glad I asked that question.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

Erased Experts

Posted on Jul 26 2017 in Essays

This essay by Sabrina Majeed first appeared in Offscreen Issue 11 (now sold out).

We have always been here.

Lurking in the shadows of your forums, passing silent judgment on your conversations, even joining in if we felt compelled to do so. You didn’t even realise it was us you were talking to, us you were so embroiled in heated debate with. We became good at disguising ourselves, donning ambiguous avatars and cryptic display names, basking in the freedom offered by anonymity. We congregated as our true selves in corners of the internet that you didn’t even know existed. Long before Pinterest and Tumblr became the designated spaces that you – you, with your anxious need to categorise and contain — would relegate us to. We were there.

You didn’t really think you were the only ones who could spend hours in the solace of a dark room, illuminated only by the comforting glow of a screen, did you? Softly clacking away at a keyboard, leery of waking up a family who just couldn’t comprehend why you needed to be online at four in the morning.

For a young girl growing up online, the internet was a source of sexual awakening. There was the early solicitation for age, sex, and location, and the late-night instant messaging marathons with internet boyfriends. Whether I was perusing the female-dominated, libertine world of fan fiction, or curiously poking my head into a more visceral, male-oriented landscape, I always kept my pointer carefully positioned over an exonerating browser tab, ready to pull the trigger if I heard footsteps approaching my room.

The web does not discriminate in its seduction. Its siren call is a whisper of white noise with the resounding wail of a dial tone. It echoed in my ears when I was at school, at the mall, with friends, always beckoning, and insatiable in its demands for my time and attention.

Yes, we were there too! Furiously scrolling and clicking in an attempt to escape the banalities of adolescent life. But few noticed. We were erased. Just as we were erased from the pages of history, like our contributions to society and our participation in the wars that toppled dynasties and drew new lines in the sand.

Now you purport to ‘make room’ for us on an internet you’ve claimed as your territory, as if it hasn’t been just as much ours all along. The rise of social media holds us accountable to our true identities, and anonymity is no longer a guarantee. The threat of exploitation is all too common, and voicing one’s opinion in a public sphere always bears a certain amount of risk. We now have to fight to feel welcome in the very spaces we’ve always occupied. It’s retrograde.

Even those few sites where femininity is allowed to visibly flourish, the spaces that dare to cater to women’s interests are dismissed as frivolous and unsubstantial. Should those strongholds fall to their founders’ desperate need for male validation, then perhaps we will become digital nomads once more. In the past our attention was fleeting and we were loath to tie ourselves down, to nest. New plat- forms popped up like frontiers itching to be explored, and we happily planted our flag.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that Bill Gates had access to the early computers during his childhood and college years. Gladwell looks back on those early interactions with technology as foreshadowing for Gates’ later success. Twelve-year-old Mark Zuckerberg had ZuckNet, a messaging program built with Atari BASIC. It was arcade games for Elon Musk.

Where do I hear about the woman who found her calling after building custom Livejournal layouts, who learned HTML so she could spruce up her Neopets shop? Or about the designer who can trace her success back to posting desktop wallpaper art on DeviantArt and GaiaOnline?

We need to start talking about them. We need to understand and celebrate the origin stories of women in technology just as much as those of men, and make those stories part of our industry’s cultural lore. Not only for the sake of looking forward and inspiring the next generation of creators, but to be able to look back and be reminded that this is our domain too. We are experts, CEOs, and role models. You can’t make room for us, because we’ve always been here.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

How I personalise Offscreen’s launch newsletter

Posted on Jul 19 2017 in Production

Email is a medium most of us had written off when social media came around. Yet, as a small business owner there is not a more powerful marketing tool than a well-maintained newsletter list. I'm an avid Twitter user too and I do get a lot of referrals from re/tweets, but it pales in comparison to the visits, sales, and replies I get from email campaigns. (By the way, Facebook as a promotional tool is completely useless unless you are willing to turn your messages into paid ads which, in my opinion, always feels a bit disingenuous.)

For the launch of issue 17 I sent out an email to the ~10,500 people on my 'Offscreen Updates' list. This list is separate from my weekly Dispatch list and I usually only email subscribers of that list once or twice in between issues to inform them about the status of the next issue. If you have ordered anything from the Offscreen website in the past, you've been added to that list automatically. As such, this list consists of current and past customers – some are just following along passively, some buy issues occasionally, some are active subscribers of the magazine.

Four months in between issues is a long time to remember what you last ordered, so I use my launch newsletter to inform everyone about their individual order or subscription status. Here's how I make that email as relevant and clear as possible...

Disclosure: I'm using MailChimp, a current Offscreen sponsor, for my newsletters. It's possible to achieve similar outcomes with all major email marketing providers. This post was not commissioned or paid for by MailChimp.

Adding merge tags to the subscriber list

My custom order management system is connected to MailChimp via their API. This allows me to sync the following data about each customer to my MailChimp list:

Besides the obvious ones, like email and name, I also sync the number of the issues they bought (ISSUES), the type of subscription they have (SUB) and an authorisation code (AUTH). The auth-code is a string of numbers and letters unique to each customer. I use this auth-code to enable existing customers to log into their Offscreen account, but I can also use this code to send them to the Offscreen checkout page with their shipping details pre-filled.

List segmentation

I use MailChimp's list segmentation feature in conjunction with merge tags to split the list on two major groups:

Group A: those who have already ordered issue 17.
Group B: those who have not (yet) ordered issue 17.

I then create two slightly different email campaigns for each group.

Existing customers and active subscribers to the magazine (Group A)

All customers who have already ordered and paid for issue 17 (e.g. active subscribers) receive an email that shows the following note:

Here's where the auth-code comes in handy because I can include a link to the customer's account – no login required.

Live preview of this email

Past customers and passive newsletter subscribers (Group B)

For those who have not (yet) bought the latest issue, I display a call to action to purchase the issue and/or subscribe. I split this group into two more sub-groups: 1) those who have previously ordered something on Offscreen and have an existing auth-code, and 2) those who haven't bought anything before and are just following Offscreen as a newsletter subscriber.

All customers since our relaunch have an existing account (auth-code) and so I can add their auth-code to the checkout URL which pre-populates the order form with all their shipping details. This speeds up the checkout process – they just have to add their credit card or PayPal account credentials.

Those newsletter subscribers who haven't bought anything recently get a standard set of links without any pre-filling magic.

Live preview of this email

And that's pretty much all. I think getting a clear status update about your previous order/subscription goes a long way in regards to a great customer experience. If you know a little bit about email marketing and merge tags then the above won't seem overly fancy to you. It just requires an email list that is in sync with your customer database. If you never heard of merge tags before, here's a quick intro by MailChimp. I can highly recommend using them to make your newsletters more relevant and useful to your subscribers. Happy emailing!

Issue 17 now available

Posted on Jul 18 2017 in News

🚀🎉 Today we're launching Offscreen Issue 17! 🚀🎉 There'll be two major shipments this week with the first one happening later today. Order now to be part of the very first batch leaving our warehouse in Berlin.

If you have purchased anything from us before, please check your inbox. The email shows whether a previous purchase of yours includes this issue. Obviously, as a subscriber you will automatically receive every new issue, but it's worth checking your account occasionally anyway to make sure that your shipping details are up-to-date. Can't find the email? You can always check your order history/status on my.offscreenmag.com.

Issue 17 includes insightful, intimate interviews with...

  • Tom Loosemore – Founding member of the UK’s Government Digital Service, the government organisation behind the groundbreaking GOV.UK.
  • Heather B. Armstrong – Known to most under her pseudonym 'Dooce', she's one of the web's most successful bloggers.
  • Jason Santa Maria – Design and typography aficionado and co-founder of A Book Apart, he's currently creative director for Slate.
  • Ashwini Asokan – Co-founder of Mad Street Den and outspoken proponent for creating an ethical and legal framework around Artificial Intelligence.

You can find all the details on our issue details page.

This issue would not have been possible without the support of our generous sponsors: Abstract, Adobe Typekit, Adobe Creative Residency, Craft, Harvest, Hover, MailChimp, and SiteGround. And of course, a big 'thank you' to all Patrons of this issue.

Don't forget to share your feedback and photos via Twitter and Instagram once you've received your copy in the mail. Any questions, just contact us. Enjoy your read!

The Disaster Factory

Posted on Jul 12 2017 in Essays

This essay by Greg Knauss first appeared in Offscreen Issue 8 (now sold out).

I’m a programmer, and therefore live in a world of worst-case scenarios. Networks fail, hard drives crash, and those troublesome human beings persist in disgorging all sorts of nonsense into every interface my software has. Computers are incredibly complex and delicate systems, and they fail in dramatic and unexpected ways, without warning, every day.

No, no, I’m fine. My eye twitches like that all the time.

In an environment as insanely chaotic as our modern technological infrastructure – made up of the most advanced science we have, and often held together with chewing gum and good intentions – the only rational response is a deep and abiding paranoia. Experience has taught me to see my software as a writhing mass of Achilles’ heels, a horrific Shoggoth, every line of code a potential disaster. And so I wrap each in a thick, protective layer of negative assumptions, so that when things do go wrong – and they will – the program can (best case) recover quickly or (worst case) not actually kill anyone.

I wish I was exaggerating. Twenty years ago, a few weeks into my first professional programming job, I read a story about the software in a certain type of X-ray machine. An overflow bug had been found, and the upshot was that the machine had been accidentally mega-dosing every 256th person it scanned, effectively giving them cancer. Paranoia doesn’t seem response enough.

By the way, don’t mention this at parties. People tend to look concerned and then sidle away. And never follow up with the story about the rocket that exploded because of a misplaced semicolon.

But programmers – engineers of all stripes – can’t afford to look away. They need a relentlessly negative outlook, to come up with the most horrific thing imaginable, add contingencies to prevent it, and then invent something even worse. It’s what keeps our mechanised world ticking along, what keeps most catastrophic failures safely theoretical and leaves computers merely frustrating instead of murderous. While most have heard of Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can go wrong, will.” – only the nerds know Finagle’s corollary: “...at the worst possible moment.”

Hug a coder, folks. They could use it. Because what the software industry calls ‘best practice’, psychologists call ‘catastrophic thinking’, and it’s awfully hard to spend ten hours a day worrying about disaster and not have the aptitude you develop for it follow you home, like sentient toxic sludge from a grade-B monster movie. It can infect your relationships, your personality, your real life.

For me, it took years to even see that it was happening. Unanswered phone calls became car accidents. Marital tiffs became grounds for divorce. Heavy traffic became late arrivals became missed opportunities became career stagnation became destitution. Anxiety at the omnipresent but-what-ifs grew until the entire world was shadowed by the spectre of inevitable but unrealised doom. The true pleasures of the real world – serendipity, trust, joy, love – became suspect, not to be believed, traps waiting to be sprung.

But the realisation that I was unconsciously extrapolating to the worst-case scenario in my personal life has helped me enormously. Anxiety defeats the rational mind by preventing a sensible examination of itself; it panics you into action at the expense of introspection and self-assessment. But assessment – the quiet, sensible consideration of risks, outcomes, costs, benefits – is vital to a well-lived life. Reward comes from risk, and a life without risk is a life spent under the bed, cowering.

It’s well-worn common sense that programmers need a break from the keyboard every once in a while. They should be standing and stretching and refocusing their eyes. They should get regular exercise and eat right. They should probably not have the local pizza place on speed-dial.

But programmers should also take a break from programming, from the mindset it inspires and the rationale it requires. Stepping away from the machine is both a physical and mental act. Seeing the world afresh, with clear and unswayed eyes, is as important and rejuvenative as a long walk or a good night’s sleep. Just as programming requires the world to be viewed as endlessly dangerous, perpetually teetering on chaos, actually living in it often calls for the exact opposite.

Because the world is a beautiful place, your friends and family love you, and the warm sun in the sky isn’t going to go nova anytime soon. Probably.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

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