Same stuff, again :(

Discovery on Medium: Improving the Front Page

For the last few weeks, what I see when I load Medium is the post by Ev about building Medium, the one about McDonald’s and the one about teens & social. I loved them all but I want to see something new.

Medium is amazing. I love reading here and I basically stopped using my Tumblr blog for writing (sorry Marissa). And while I’m sure you guys are working on a million improvements, I have to tell you about my chief complaint - the front page - and even offer some solutions!


“MOST RECOMMENDED TODAY” (MRT)

I think MRT as a heuristic for discovery is suboptimal, at least in its current implementation. As I mention in the subtitle of this article, it leads to some articles being displayed repetitively for long periods of time. I think there are many structural reasons for this (chief among them that some people will obviously naturally have greater readership than others) and I hope that the engineers and product designers will take those into account in future versions.

Without moving away from MRT completely, there are some easy fixes that could enhance the experience. One approach could be to not display articles I have read or recommended on the front page. The advantage of this approach is that Medium is already tracking which articles I recommend, so it would probably just involve a fairly simple addition to the database query that spits out the MRT list.

The reverse approach would involve allowing people to mark articles they want to hide from the front page, which would involve creating an additional database table, but would allow the reader to hide an article without having to recommend it first (as negative as that sounds).

There are other considerations that could encourage more variety of content: should an article from November 2012 even be eligible for the front page? Should Medium employees and friends be featured on the front page? (I could argue both ways!)

In non-programmatic solutions, given the editors at Medium’s employ, I would actually advocate for an expanded “Editor’s Pick” section. These guys reads a lot of stuff - let them tell us what’s good!

Another solution to the content discovery conundrum would be to leverage the existing network on Twitter and ask/answer the question this way: What are my Twitter friends posting / reading / recommending on Medium? Medium does not have an API or else I would be hacking away at that. (Speaking of which, will Medium have an API?)


The Layout

I love the white space, gorgeous typography and large font on Medium. So it is with a heavy heart that I have to point out that in its current incarnation, the front page only shows three articles before you have to scroll. Clearly, that is not the end of the world - scrolling is easy - but when I’m just doing a cursory browse through the site and I see the same three articles on the front page, my brain wants to say “nothing new, moving on” and I have to force myself to dig down to really explore what’s new. Obviously the changes to MRT I wrote about above will help pull new stuff up, but even without those, there could be some decent ways to bring more content to the top:

  1. On a 26'’ monitor (not that rare these days), it might be possible to accommodate two columns of articles tastefully without killing white space.
  2. The sub-head text could either be dropped or shortened. 99% of articles get me to click with their title (and author). Worst case, one or two lines of sub-head text should be sufficient.
  3. The front page font could be … smaller? I think the large font is amazing for actual article reading but not strictly necessary for the front page or some parts of it.

One of the reasons why I love Medium is that it has introduced me to new people and ideas. I hope that the front page will evolve so that discovery on Medium can be even better.

Thanks for reading and yell at me on Twitter here.

Next Story — The Get-Rid-Of-Crap-Every-Month Club
Currently Reading - The Get-Rid-Of-Crap-Every-Month Club

song dong “waste not”

The Get-Rid-Of-Crap-Every-Month Club

A modest proposal to get rid of useless crap, make some money and save the world.

More.

No word captures the essence of consumer capitalism better. More clothes, more food, more computers, more toys, more electronics, more books, more magazines, more cosmetics, more cars, more houses. And no other business model represents this better than the XYZ-of-the-month clubs which have been popping up all over the place. Subscription commerce, they call it.

But what about the opposite?

You don’t have to be particularly wealthy or clinically diagnosed with hoarding to (at least occasionally) feel like you’re getting lost in all the crap in your apartment or house. And if you’re anything like me, you can’t bring yourself to get rid of stuff you don’t need for a simple reason: the hassle of taking it to Housing Works (or another charity).

To fight the plague of accumulating crap I came up with a business idea: after you sign up, you get an empty box in the mail with a paid return label every month. You fill it up with stuff you don’t need and send it back. You then get a $10 check.

How does it work?

The cost of postage and the check along with all the processing costs are covered from the money generated from sales of valuable crap. Remember: one man’s crap is another man’s treasure. The company could either set up its own site for selling cheap interesting stuff (clothes, posters, decor, toys, gadgets, etc) or try to sell in on eBay, Gazelle and other existing outlets. Whatever doesn't get sold can be donated to a charity or sorted and recycled. Hence: saving the world.

Now, who’s with me?


If you want to get updates about and/or participate in this project sign up for the newsletter.

Also, check out the conversation over at Hacker News and contribute.


Next Story — The Startup Backlash
Currently Reading - The Startup Backlash

The Startup Backlash

A reading list and some thoughts

There was a time not too long ago when going into finance or consulting was the post-graduation path to success for many young people. You didn’t even need to be a finance major to get aggressively courted by the bulge bracket firms. Goldman Sachs, in particular, seemed to have an obsession with taking the most liberal-arty kids and schooling them in the dark arts of the Excel spreadsheet and the PowerPoint presentation. En masse, Wall Street was sucking up the young and impressionable bright minds to work on products like collateralized debt obligations. If you don’t know how that experiment ended, google “2008 mortgage crisis”.

Fast forward ten years, “google” is a verb and a handful of my friends my age or older - many of them without technical backgrounds - are working for the company the verb comes from. Working for a tech company - or starting one - has become the hot career path. Everyone, from Mayor Bloomberg to the author of this article, has concluded that “coding” is the new “writing” or, more accurately the new “everything”. It was therefore only a question of time before we would see some sort of backlash against tech broadly and startups specifically. And indeed, it seems we are now going through a cultural moment where it’s impossible to go through a week without an article that trashes some aspect of the “tech scene” getting passed around.

This backlash might have reached its crescendo in George Packer’s article in the New Yorker; however, the fascinating aspect of this criticism is how much of it comes from within: people who have worked in technology startups criticizing aspects of the industry and the impact it is having on its environment. Here I collected just some of these articles (followed by some thoughts).


George Packer, “Change The World”, The New Yorker
Alex Payne, “
Letter To A Young Programmer Considering A Startup
Michael O. Church, “
Don’t Waste Your Time In Crappy Startup Jobs
James Somers, “
Are Coders Worth It”, Aeon Magazine
Chris Tacy, “
Douchebags Like You Are Ruining San Francisco”, Valleywag
Paul Carr, “
Spies Like Us”, NSFW Corp (unlock valid only for 2 days - hurry!)


I started this article reminiscing about the finance-driven era for a reason: namely that in criticizing “tech” and “startups” as a valid career option for young people, one should be aware that the alternative in the modern world of professional services is, by and large, Wall Street.

James Somers supports this point when he says:

We’ve become a vortex on a par with Wall Street for precocious college grads.

Without passing a judgement on Wall Street (do I even need to), I think it’s useful to remember the broader context here. Somers continues with this sharp point:

But we’re not making the self-driving car. We’re not making a smarter pill bottle. Most of what we’re doing, in fact, is putting boxes on a page.

This gets me to the next level of criticism in this backlash which seems to be that much of what tech startups do is silly or stupid or pointless or socially-meaningless or not revolutionary enough. In his article, Packer makes a similar point in this observation:

It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.

All of these observations are perfectly valid in a narrow sense. Broadly speaking, however, what I see is something different. Even if the vast majority of engineers and designers today are obsessing about boxes on a page and photo sharing apps and car rides, the sheer amount of money and attention that is going into technology today sends a strong signal to kids who will grow up in the future: technology and design matter; maybe you should study a STEM subject?

The other reason why the disappointment embedded in Somers’ and Packer’s sentiment is misplaced is what I will call the social portfolio theory. The same way that VCs invests in 50 shitty startups and expect to make maybe one phenomenal exit, it’s unreasonable to expect every or even many startups to make something truly revolutionary and socially impactful. What they both either forget or gloss over is that aside from thousands of silly apps we have seen some remarkable innovation. Take MOOCs for example. While saying they will revolutionize education is far from a foregone conclusion (many vehemently disagree with that notion!), I invite you to go listen to this interview with Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, for some moving examples of people from remote parts of the world with no access to education who take their classes.

And so, while it’s often tempting to dismiss the industry because of numerous examples of silly products, I think that criticism is plain unreasonable. The stronger criticisms, I believe, come in the realm of relationships: employee versus the company; the company versus its environment.

Are startups automatically better learning environments with a more exciting career path and better pay? I think Michael Church’s article gives some good reasons why that may not be the case. Anyone considering work in a startup should read his very specific advice.

Is tech bad for the country? Packer unwraps for us how Silicon Valley has affected the world it ostensibly resides in and the portrait is not very flattering. (Chris Tacy does an even more vivid job.) And yet, while calling out the industry for its hypocrisy with regards to diversity and social engagement is a fine point, broadly speaking, I find it difficult to distinguish what tech is doing to the valley and SF from what Wall Street has been doing to New York and London for decades. Is the problem here tech or (our special kind of) capitalism? Doesn’t every industry say the government is a problem? (From my experience in the health care industry, I can testify to you that they do.)

That is, until the NSA scandal broke. Nothing made the libertarianism of Silicon Valley more disingenuous than the fact that many of these companies are tools of secret government surveillance. This is why I had to include Paul Carr’s article about Silicon Valley’s participation in our security state infrastructure. The NSA revelations added a whole new dimension to the “changing the world” ethos.

I’ll conclude this little article review with an anecdote. I recently had dinner with a friend who was telling me about the relative difficulties of raising capital for funding something like an HIV drug trial versus a “small tech startup”. The bottom line was: why spend $200 million on a potentially lifesaving drug when you could fund a couple of hundred startups in hopes of 1 or 2 becoming billion dollar companies? This anecdote left me uncomfortably unable to find a silver lining: how do we as a society make sure that all capital doesn’t end up funding text boxes and photo-sharing instead of other critical innovation?


Discuss this article on Hacker News. And I’m @akristofcak.

Next Story — Three Things I Wish Someone Told Me On Graduation Day
Currently Reading - Three Things I Wish Someone Told Me On Graduation Day

Three Things I Wish Someone Told Me On Graduation Day

I graduated college ten years ago so I am not the wisest guy in the room just yet. But reflecting on the last decade, here’s what I would say to my 22-year-old self:

1. Your first job is not your last job

New graduates obsess about their first jobs like their life depends on it. There’s an entire machinery set up on most campuses to feed this obsession. And while your first job is important, it’s almost certainly not what they will be doing for the rest of their life.

No one at career services tells you this, but some of the most successful people out there have changed their careers completely multiple times.

Instead of obsessing about what you should do, focus on where you will learn the most and meet the most interesting people.

2. Save *every* business card

I mean this figuratively and, to some extent, literally.

You have just gone through some 16 years of schooling, and all you have ever been evaluated on is tests, papers and exams, so it’s natural to think that the recipe to success and happiness looks like this:

When in reality it looks something like this:

After entering the work force I was shocked to find out that many successful people are not that smart — at least not book smart.

Besides, all the education you worked so hard for is worth even less relatively speaking because there’s plenty of very smart super-educated people out there especially if you live in a big place like New York. The thing is, not everyone can translate those degrees into success and happiness. And yet, all you have ever been evaluated on until now is your knowledge. So—especially if you’re not a natural schmoozer and socializer—it might take some time to sink in just how important relationships are. And that’s okay! In the meantime, save every business card you get your hands on. They will come in handy later. (PS, I mean ACTUAL. PAPER. CARDS. Otherwise you’re literally one bad sync away from your entire phonebook getting erased. Trust me, I know. *curses at Apple*)

3. Don’t get lost in adulthood: join a club, learn a skill

If you’re lucky enough to be headed for the same city as many of your classmates, you may think that nothing will change in your social life.

And at first your new life will probably be great. But it won’t take long before jobs, significant others, weddings, kids and other things broadly known as LIFE get between you and your friends.

You will have to make an effort to have a fulfilling social life (especially if you’re slaving away in one of those 75-hours-a-week jobs). The sad truth is that adult life offers very few opportunities for meeting people and you really have to architect that. It took me almost five years to realize this — and then I joined a running club and my life changed completely (I even met my husband through running!). Think of something you want to do that’s unrelated to work, find a club or group that does that and join them.

Just as it takes effort to maintain a social life, it takes some work to make sure that your brain does not turn into a mush after a couple of years. Secretly, most jobs are somewhat repetitive and while you can learn a lot doing them, you will almost certainly get hungry for something new and totally different from what you know and do. For me, this was coding, for you it could be, I don’t know, baking or bird watching. These are more than just bourgeois hobbies: my mother in law (a pulmonary hypertension specialist) always jokes that making pottery is what prevents her for going crazy and killing people (I always ask her for more mugs and plates, just to be sure).

Good luck.


Talk to me on twitter.


Next Story — 10 Signs You May Be Addicted to Running
Currently Reading - 10 Signs You May Be Addicted to Running

10 Signs You May Be Addicted to Running

Edit: Check out this story on Tapestry.

1. When you go on vacation, your suitcase looks something like this:

Source

2. While vacationing, you “randomly” find a 10K to run while you’re there

3. …until suddenly your vacations are entirely planned around marathons

4. Eating pasta is called “carbo-loading”

Source

5. And it shouldn’t be confused with “fueling”

Source

6. Your shoe closet looks like this:

Source

7. You know that PR doesn’t stand for “Puerto Rico”

Source

8. You have an opinion about GPS watches. A strong one.

Source

9. You consider this fun:

Source

10. You cry when you cross the finish line because you’re happy / tired / sad / hungry / angry / cramping / dehydrated.

Source

Edit: Check out this story on Tapestry.

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