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Thoughts

The web is a mindset

Posted on Mar 08 2016 in Thoughts

This is my editor’s note of Offscreen Issue 8, first published in April 2014. This issue is now sold out.

In today’s brave new world where our privacy has become a commodity and tweets can topple governments, it only takes a quick look at the news to realise that geeks rule the world — and I don’t mean that in a melodramatic or self-aggrandising way. The people behind bits and pixels find themselves in a unique place of power.

With the ability to influence millions if not billions of people, we’re facing some difficult questions about the impact and relevance of our work, the role of money, and how both correlate. In the era of Big Data, we are in the challenging position of bringing governments, corporations, and the public onto the same page, so all can work towards a common goal rather than against each other. All the while, we slowly come to terms with the good and bad of a lifestyle that is measurable, marketable, and hackable.

Listening to mainstream media or the average dinner table conversation, it’s easy to get sucked into a trend of scepticism about the web. You don’t have to be of any conservative affiliation to feel wary of ‘the next big thing’. For many of my friends, much of the web has turned into a place that’s made up of fluffy articles and stalking banner ads with the sole purpose of filling investor pockets before our data is gobbled up by freshly IPO’ed tech giants.

Has the web failed us? Have we failed the web?

What’s missing in these bleak assumptions is the realisation that the underlying values of the web permeate through all aspects of modern life. Beyond the sensationalised headlines of overnight billionaires and self-righteous hackers, you’ll still find a community that cares deeply about helping one another.

How else can we explain the altruistic principles of open-source software which in one way or another lie at the basis of almost every interface? It’s an ethos that lives as much in forum threads and shared repositories, as it does in the many conferences, hackathons and co-working spaces around the globe. It’s the ripple effects of our ‘sharing is caring’ culture that cause upheaval in established industries. No startup could exist without them.

Even though as an editor/publisher I’m now coming to terms with the slow-moving wheels of the publishing and print industries, I still feel as much part of the web as ever before. That’s because the real web is not return-on-investment or shareholder value, nor is it follower numbers or the latest shiny gadget.

The web is a mindset — a way of doing things. It’s collaboration and openness. It’s inclusiveness and non-hierarchy. It’s figuring stuff out, being creative and breaking some rules along the way. It’s constant reimagening of the status quo with no need for permission to get involved.

The web has forever changed the way we think about each other. That’s the web I’m part of. And it’s the web Offscreen wants you to see.

Kai Brach

The apps I use (updated)

Posted on Jan 11 2016 in Thoughts

I’m always interested in finding out what tools/apps other people use to get stuff done. In the spirit of sharing, here’s a list of current apps I use to work on Offscreen (by no means complete and in no particular order):

Simplenote
This clever, lightweight note-taking tool helps me capture thoughts and put ideas in order. Its power mainly lies in its ability to sync smoothly across all devices. I’m writing this very post in it and proof-read/edit it on my phone when I have a few spare minutes.

Dropmark
Through its Chrome plugin, I'm using Dropmark to save stuff I come across online during the week and want to feature in my weekly newsletter.

Zoho Invoice
My invoicing software, largely a remnant of my freelancer years. I still use it to invoice stockists, sponsors, etc. The last few updates have really improved the user experience. I particularly like this tool over others because it handles multiple currencies well. However, it doesn’t connect with my (Australian) bank account to reconcile transactions. Not hugely important to me at the moment though.

Google Drive
I never thought I’d be so reliant on a word processing app, but Google Docs has been indespensable for me since starting Offscreen. I create around 40-50 separate documents (one for each contributor) with every issue. Its collaboration and editing features make working with others on content simultaneously a breeze.

Gmail
I don’t use a native Mac app for my emails. I made the switch to using Gmail in my browser (Chrome) many years ago and still love it! (I have a paid account with Google, so no ads, more storage, custom domain name, etc.)

Receipt Bank
It’s my book-keeping app. I can either forward email receipts or upload photos of paper receipts (through my iPhone) and it does all the categorising, finding total amounts, tax, etc automatically. All I need to do is to export a spreadsheet at the end of the quarter and send it to my accountant.

Droplr
I use this little tool every day. It lives in my menu bar and I can drag’n drop anything onto its icon to either create a short-URL, upload a file or take a screenshot, and then make it available online. It’s been a super handy companion.

1Password
I have no idea how I’d survive the login mayhem without my trusty 1Password app. It stores all my secret words, and therefore it’s probably the most important piece of software on this machine.

Pocket
Oh yes, online content overwhelms me too. There is just too much I want to read, watch, listen to… I don’t get to read all the things I add to my Pocket app, but especially on long flights, I really enjoy catching up on interesting reads I’ve stored here.

Google Analytics
I occasionally check in with my analytics tool, but what can I say? I find it hard to get excited about statistics and numbers about my own website. I'm sure it can help me convert more users better, but who has the time to even figure out what half of it all means...

Campaign Monitor/MailChimp
Campaign Monitor was my go-to tool for email marketing, until I changed over to MailChimp. I like both of them equally and both have been big supporters of Offscreen. I decided to go with MailChimp because their creative branding/marketing suits Offscreen a bit better.

Wunderlist
I can't recall the number of to-do-list apps I've tried in the past, but when it comes to productivity apps like that I can confidently say "It's me, not you." I usually don't keep track of my to-do's religiously, but some of the longer-term items I now try to put into Wunderlist, just because they would otherwise make my calendar too messy and Wunderlist is free.

Adobe Suite
With Typekit, Indesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Lightroom and even occasionally Bridge, I do use a lot of Adobe products for the visual part of the magazine. It’s easy to criticise them for making software that crashes often, but when I’m in the depth of a project, I realise again and again that these tools are immensely powerful and have matured a lot over the last decade or so.

Dropbox
Puts my files online.

Podio
Podio is an extremely versatile project management software. You can essentially build your own app setup and connect lots of different interfaces. It seemed overwhelming at first, but turned out to be exactly what I was looking for in order to build a searchable/filterable database of potential contributors for future issues.

Arq
I back up my data to a hard drive with Time Machine and then use Arq to push an additional backup to my Dropbox account.

Atom + CodeKit + Github + MAMP + Transmit
My tools for working on the Offscreen website.

Tweetbot
Still the most powerful Twitter app and happy to support indie software, too.

Jumpcut
Simple copy-and-paste tool that allows me to have a plain-text clipboard history.

Fantastical
A little calendar menu app for quick access of my calendar. I use it for lack of decent alternatives. There are a few design issues that still confuse me after years of using it.

Alfred
Quick access to everything. It’s a search bar to help you open files, search Google, launch programs, do math calculations, insert often-used snippets of text, etc. I recently found a little plug-in that allows me to convert currencies on the fly. Nice!

RightFont
Recently bought this font manager to manage my growing font library. It's a little slow sometimes, but very reliable. Would buy again!

Piezo
Some of my interviews I do through Skype. Piezo is a little audio recorder that works in the background and spits out a simple MP3 files after the interview is over.

Clocks
Another mini app that lives in my menu bar and allows me to check and calculate global times/timezones. Handy when working with contributors from all sorts of places.

Screeny
I don’t record a lot of screencasts, but when I do, Drew Wilson’s little app never lets me down!

LinkBuilder
An app for generating PayPal payment links on the fly. I use these links to request payments for resending fees or to compile custom payment links for stockists.

Take your conscience to work

Last week I emailed my readers to give them a status update on the making of the next issue. As in all my pre-launch emails I included a list of what’s been happening here at Offscreen over the last few months. One of those things was the ad-hoc fundraiser for refugees that I ran back in September. Half an hour after pressing Send I received my first-ever hate mail: Gary didn’t like the fact that I was using Offscreen as a platform to support refugees.

While I think Gary and his attitude do not deserve more of my (or anyone’s) attention, it made me think about how ‘political’ a thing like Offscreen can or should become. (It’s depressing enough to think that humility and compassion is now a partisan issue.)

In my talks and here on the blog, I’ve long been promoting a more personal approach to our work. I believe that we can make better products and create stronger relationships with the people who buy/use these products if we build some of our ideology right into what we make. Thanks in part to the internet, we have the unique opportunity to put ‘corporate professionalism’ behind us and instead put our moral beliefs front and center.

I’m reminded of this excellent piece by Elizabeth Farrelly in which she describes how professionalism has become this destructive myth forcing us to leave our conscience at home.

Professionalism, which most of us were brought up to admire, implies compartmentalisation. It used to mean something good and noble; leaving petty emotions at home, taking your higher self to work, thinking beyond mere profit, doing good, committing to altruism. Now, it means almost the opposite.

Where ‘professional’ once meant 'bound to higher truths’, it now denotes payment. Professional dancers, politicians, footballers are those who do it for money. What this indicates is professionalism’s slide down the moral razor. Now what we leave at home is not petty emotion but conscience. (…)

Out there, in just-nuke-it profit land, those glimmerings of deeper knowledge – human wellbeing, nature’s dignity and how these twist together into spiritual value – are easily derided. Out there only the measurable matters.

For the next issue (spoiler alert!) I’ve been interviewing Yancey Strickler, the co-founder and CEO of Kickstarter. It’s a company I hugely admire not just for their immense success, but for how they managed to stay true to their early beliefs. Yancey talks about how idealism drives them:

We think that idealism is incredibly important. We tend to view idealism as being naïve, but maybe that’s exactly why it’s so important. What we sought to do with our mission and philosophy is lock in that idealism from the very beginning to ensure that it’s always a part of who we are. I think there is a certain magic in that.

Every big company once started as a small one, and while it’s not the case for all, many of them lost their soul or their meaning somewhere along the way. How often do we see people reminisce about their younger selves asking, “Remember when we cared about these things?”

Obviously, Kickstarter operate on a much different scale than Offscreen. But no matter how big or small, we all frequently face crossroads where we get to choose between following our conscience or succumbing to the lure of ‘professionalism’.

With Offscreen, I feel extremely lucky and privileged to be given a voice, to be able to provoke people’s thoughts on a particular subject in the hope that it instils just a little bit more empathy and humanity in them. And in the same vein, I hope that small acts of kindness towards people in need remind us of what it means to be human in a fairly dehumanising industry.

If you disagree and would rather not support me in doing so, email me and I will cancel and refund any order on your subscription that hasn’t shipped yet.

To Gary: I’m saddened that you have such strong feelings against people who are fleeing war. Let’s hope you never end up in a situation in which your life depends on the compassion of others. But just in case, I made another donation to the Australian Red Cross’ refugee efforts in your name.

Update: You guys never stop to amaze me. Since I made this public, many of you made further donations in the name of Gary. If only he knew...

You are running a barber shop

As I was walking past one of Melbourne’s oldest barber shops the other day, a four-year-old blog post by my Twitter buddy Trent Walton popped back into my mind. In it, Trent talks about his local barber shop to remind us of the value of making things personal. Even though we internet folks stare at screens all day, we can still make an effort to get to know the people on the other side, to show them that we’re empathetic human beings that appreciate other people’s work and opinions. It also means opening ourselves up to criticism (and praise!) and allowing our identity to be linked to our words and our work.

Most magazine makers I talk to hesitate to add a personal touch to their own publication. “The magazine isn’t about me. It’s about [topic].” I felt the same way. It took me a few issues of Offscreen to be OK with printing a photo of my own mug next to my editor’s note. It took me longer to turn the About page of Offscreen’s website from a sterile descriptive paragraph into a personal pitch for my magazine, telling readers who I am and why I decided to start Offscreen. I originally intended my blog to be a place for complementary content to the magazine, but it was the first behind-the-scene post that got a lot of shares and encouraged me to write more about my own process. All the signals and feedback I received couldn’t be clearer: my readers wanted to know more about the backstory – the why and how of the magazine.

With an increasingly automated and software-driven lifestyle, giving a publication a human touch seemed like a welcome change. From heavily photoshopped magazine covers to scripted, hyperbolic TV shows – if today’s media feels out of touch with reality, it’s because it is. It’s virtually impossible to tell what’s authentic and what’s not. Add to that the fact that in our local communities, the old mom-and-pop shops are disappearing, replaced by faceless mega-chains that turn individuals into marketing personas. Everything around us tell us that being human equates to being unprofessional.

And so every time I’m asked what advice I have for fledgling indie publishers, I essentially rehash Trent’s blog post. Give your readers a face they can relate to and a person they can talk to. Give them a reason to support not just a brand or a label, but the hard-working individual(s) behind it. Instead of a polished PR message, give them the full story – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And, importantly, give them credit for enabling you to do what you do. In short, make it personal.

Photo by Club Barber Shop

Yes, Offscreen (too) has a diversity problem

Posted on Sep 21 2015 in Thoughts

A few weeks ago, when I was still in the middle of wrestling through the content for issue No12, there was a point when I realised that the line-up on the cover would be uncomfortably homogeneous: Everyone is white. Five blokes, one woman. I once again hadn’t delivered on my own promise of promoting diversity. And it weirdly snuck up on me, too.

About a month prior to that I had confirmed an encouraging list of three women and three men, all of whom had assured me that they were interested and would be able to make time for an interview. All of my candidates seemed excited to be on the cover of a print magazine. But, of course, it didn’t take long for my hopes of finally getting a more balanced line-up to crumble.

When people drop out, they usually don’t email me with a clear “Sorry, I can’t do it!”. I understand that everyone is really busy. So part of my process is that I frequently I follow up via email and Twitter over several weeks, treading the fine line between reminding them of deadlines and being too pushy. Typically I get “I’m on it!” or “I will start this weekend!” responses until eventually they either send me a brief note (“Too busy after all, sorry!”) or they simply stop replying.

That’s the reality of doing long-form interviews over the internet. The line-up I had worked so hard on fell through once again. (In fact, there was a moment when it was unclear whether Ariel Waldman would be able to finish the interview, which would have meant that we’d be left with 100% dudes on the cover.) With more than half of my line-up not responding, I was already running late and getting really anxious about it all. You may remember my blog post about being stuck in The Swamp. Well, that was it.

Of course, after 11 issues I somewhat anticipated these problems so I already had a list of folks I contacted to ‘fill in’. But telling busy people that you want to do a 5000-word interview and an extensive photoshoot with them on short notice often results in nothing but a friendly 'maybe we can make it work for the next issue’. And so I frantically went through my contacts and my contacts’ contacts to find worthy replacements…

Putting together an issue of Offscreen means that I’m trying to simultaneously steer about 50 contributors and photographers towards a common deadline. During that intense six-week process of gathering, producing and editing content I have to make constant changes to the original list of contributors. And so when I finally emerged from that stressful and nerve-racking process in early August, I sadly realised that after all the dropouts and changes I had to make, diversity took another backseat. (In all fairness, while the cover is pretty 'white and male’, across the entire issue the ratio looks better: out of 30 contributors 17 are men and 13 are women).

The above is a long-winded way of saying ‘sorry I let you down’. I received a few tweets and emails since launching issue No12 that rightly pointed out the lack of diversity on the cover of Offscreen. No12 is not the only issue in which white guys took over the line-up. It happens more often than I like to admit. There are some issues where I managed to do better, like issue No9 and No10, but overall there is still much room for improvement.

I’ve talked about this problem in previous blog posts, but I wanted to summarise my thoughts here once again and hopefully get some more feedback and ideas from you, my readers.

“It’s almost always just white, successful dudes? What about women and ethnic diversity?”

I hope my little explainer on the process above showed that I really am trying hard. I don’t take this topic lightly. Every single issue I struggle filling even one interview slot with a woman. For some issues I had between two and four women lined up and ready to go, but – you guessed it – they all dropped out or stopped replying. Of course, being busy and dropping out is not unique to female contributors, but the scarcity of women in our industry makes finding a replacement on short notice that much more difficult.

Many of you have written to me with a list of names – folks that don’t fit the typical caucasian stereotype. I follow up an every suggestion. Many of those suggestions read like this: “You should check out XYZ, she’s doing some amazing design work for [company]!” or “XYZ just got funding for this cool app last week. You should interview her!” or “Have you seen this talk by XYZ? She’s the CTO at [company] and has lots of experience in scalability.”

Unfortunately, I’m not just after amazing designers or talented coders or well-funded entrepreneurs. There is a huge amount of talent out there, and everyone is doing crazy cool stuff. But what I’m after is a person with a very interesting and inspiring life story. People that have done a lot of different things and have insights and opinions that are uniquely inspiring – and, most importantly, they need to be able to express these opinions in an elegant and thoughtful way. Plus, their work needs to be related to the web and technology because that’s what Offscreen is all about. Once they fulfil all of these criteria, there is another big hurdle: they need to be accessible enough to actually do an interview with me and a shoot with a photographer, and reserve enough time to make it a great piece. The thing about interesting people is that they are often very busy.

When it comes to women in particular, I also get a lot of emails suggesting the same names over and over again. There are a few dozen women that have been interviewed numerous times on various blogs, in podcasts, and in business magazines. Unintentionally, they’ve become the idealised prototypes of 'successful women in tech’. Without taking anything away from their success, I just don’t want to reprint the same interview over and over again just for the sake of a better ratio. It seems to me that most of the media landscape is struggling with finding a fairer ratio, and so you see a lot of familiar faces pop up again and again.

Add to the above my own personal preference of the type of people/stories I want to feature in Offscreen. As an avid reader you will know that I value independent makers and projects that have the potential for positive impact on our lives. Sure, I occasionally feature projects that are just fun to hear about (like that beer-brewing robot or 3D-printed jewellery), but overall I like ideas that challenge the status quo in a meaningful way. I simply can’t get excited about projects in the fashion or beauty space, for instance. With the risk of falling in the prejudice trap, based on my own research and the many suggestions I get, there are a lot of female entrepreneurs (especially in the US) that try to innovate in these areas. Frankly, it’s just not what the magazine is about. Note that I’m not saying that all women work in fashion and beauty. I am saying there are a lot of tech success stories about women in those fields.

Lastly, I want to add that apart from emails reminding me of more women, I also get a lot of requests from people in non-English speaking countries that add to the complexity. “Why don’t you feature more people from France?”, “Hey, there are awesome apps being developed in Lithuania! Why are all these people in your magazine from the US and UK?!”, “You know, Asia has the internet too!” There are various reasons why featuring more non-native-English speakers is difficult. Most of them have to do with language barriers and fitting translations into the already tight schedule and budget. Also, finding a reliable photographer in places like Nairobi or Mumbai is harder than you think.

I also briefly want to address a specific question I received recently: “Why don’t you put more photos of women on your cover?” Choosing a cover photo is pretty tricky – especially if you don’t have a budget to specifically commission cover shoots. Once I have received all photos of our interviewees, there are usually 2-3 shots in total that can actually work on a cover. (I’m not going into details what works and what doesn’t, but it essentially comes down to having a great quality shot with the right angle, light, backdrop and facial expression. It’s not unusual for larger magazines to spend a whole day just shooting a cover photo, something I can’t afford and my interviewees can’t make time for.) Since I’ve so far always only had one female interviewee in the line-up, the chances of getting a great photo of her are slim. I worked with Helena Price for the shoot of Ariel Waldman in issue 12, and as Helena can attest I specifically pointed out that I’d love to feature Ariel on the cover. But as it often is the case, Ariel is a busy person and time was limited, so we only got a small selection of photos, none of which I thought would have made for a great cover. In the end, it purely comes down to 'getting lucky’ with the photoshoot. So obviously, if I manage to tackle the overall diversity problem, my covers should become more diverse too.

I just came back from XOXO in Portland and I was very impressed with the diversity there – amongst attendees and speakers. I said before that organising conferences and making a magazine share similar challenges when it comes to a diverse line-up. But there are also differences.

Doing an extensive interview about someone’s life story is different to giving an inspiring talk on making great comics or creating a lively Youtube audience. Many of my friends are public speakers and while I very much admire their work and their expertise in a particular field, I wouldn’t necessarily consider them for a long interview. Again, there is a difference between being talented and having an inspiring story to tell that spans personal and professional topics.

(XOXO definitely featured some people that fit the bill. I tried to introduced myself to many of them while I was there and will follow up with them soon. Fingers crossed!)

With issue No12, my budget finally allowed me to get some help with finding and organising contributors. My editorial assistant Ivana has already been very helpful and a big reminder to continue to work on improving diversity. However, I think after just one issue she’s also come to realise that it’s harder than it seems from the outside.

Finally, I want to be clear that I fully understand that the onus is on me to improve diversity. ‘Receiving bad suggestions’ is not an excuse. However, Offscreen is still pretty much a tiny one-man operation. In order to make this publication a sustainable full-time job for me, I need to at least release three issues per year. With the current process, this gives me around six weeks to gather content and conduct interviews. As I’ve hopefully shown, my heart is in the right place (really, I get it!), I just often struggle to make good on the promise. And to be honest, I have no idea whether I will succeed with issue No13. But you can be sure that I’ll continue to try my best…

If you do want to help (thank you!), here’s how: instead of a whole list of people, please think about just one amazing person who you think fits the following criteria:

  • she/he has an interesting career and life with lots of unique insights and a great story to tell that would inspire our readers
  • the web/technology is a crucial part of what she/he does
  • she/he is accessible via email and is most likely able to make time for an extensive interview and photoshoot

If you know someone you think would inspire our readers through a long, intimate interview, please send over their name and any links that help me find out more about them (interviews, videos, podcasts, etc).

Feel free to also send any suggestions or feedback you have on the topic. Thanks for your support of Offscreen, despite its imperfections. :)

UPDATE: Since writing this post I’ve received a lot of emails. It seems easier to do a ‘reply-all’ through a brief update here...

I was told that some companies are only willing to sponsor events if x per cent of their speaker line-up is female. Apparently there are recruiting agencies that have specialised in placing women at companies where the workforce is at least x per cent female. To me (yes, as a guy) having these sorts of forced quotas in place seems kind of counter-productive. Nobody wants to feel that they were invited as a speaker or hired in a new job purely because of their gender or the colour of their skin. In both cases, the onus is on the event organiser and the employer to create an inclusive, welcoming environment.

Up until this post, I have never kept exact count of how many men vs. women or caucasian vs. people of colour I have in an issue. Of course, I always wanted to have a more balanced and more diverse pool of contributors, but to me it was never about hitting an exact target.

My biggest concern about Offscreen has always been that it (unintentionally) becomes a mouthpiece of Silicon Valley’s digital elite. No doubt, some of the most talented and forward-thinking people can be found in the larger San Francisco area, but it’s also a massive echo chamber that in many ways has lost touch to how the rest of the world functions. I truly admire some of the ideas and creativity coming out of Silicon Valley and, as my readers will know, I happily include many of them in Offscreen. However, I have always put a lot of effort into also covering stories that have nothing to do with what’s currently trending on TechCrunch.

The startup that 3D-prints orthotic braces for kids, an India-based organisation that helps the poor with setting up their first savings account through their mobile, or a non-profit that hopes to reform tech education across the UK putting an emphasis on kids with a migration background – these are stories of and about diversity. They are stories by people with many different backgrounds affecting all ethnicities and genders in many countries around the globe. I’d like to think that presenting these stories does more to promote diversity than simply adding two more women to my interview line-up in order to make Offscreen look more diverse. Can a powerful story about the lack of funding in education – told by a white guy – contribute more to this discussion than an interview with an award-winning female designer? If the goal of the diversity debate is to empower minority groups, I believe the message is often more important than the messenger.

With all that said, I totally understand that women and people of minority groups face many challenges in having their voices heard that others just don’t. And that’s why I think it’s important to make an extra effort to reach out to women and people in those minority groups and to provide a safe and inclusive environment for them to share their stories (which is one of my core values. I did and I will continue to do exactly that, as I’ve described above. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t yield more results, but it’s not because of a lack of trying. If it was just about a better ratio and if I didn’t mind pretending that all is well in the tech world, I would have had a very balanced line-up from issue no1.

Dispatch
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