R.I.P., Vine: what I learned from sharing 100 six-second clips

I can’t lie: When Vine came into the world in January of 2013, I thought that sharing six-second video clips was ridiculous. My comment at the time was that we had moved one step closer to the blipvert ads of Max Headroom.

vine-app-logoI resolutely avoided the Vine app (not hard to do when my phone was chronically out of space) until a year and a half later, when I found myself staring at a crosswalk sign that kept saying “Change Password” instead of “Walk” or “Don’t Walk.”

There was no other choice. I installed the app and uploaded my first of many six-second clips.

I’ve now shared exactly 100 of them–a nice round number I didn’t quite notice until Twitter announced today that it would kill this video-sharing service.

The most common theme of my Vines has been “weird stuff at tech events”: dancing robots, another dancing robot, a drone herding painted sheep, a bot barista, and a two-faced TV. That last clip, shared from CES this January, has been my most viewed one, thanks to it being embedded in a Yahoo post.

But I’ve also found that six seconds is just the right amount of time to illustrate an inefficiency in a smartphone interface, document an obnoxious abuse of Web coding, and catch a smartwatch failing to keep up with the time.

Vine turned out to be a crafty way to share non-tech tidbits too: the tide going out, the view from the front of a Barcelona Metro train, the American flag in a breeze over the Mississippi, butterflies flapping their wings, a plane taking off from National Airport.

I realized that having a completely artificial constraint can force you to be creative–just like Twitter’s 140-character count or a print headline’s two-column cap impose their own discipline. And I learned that having only minimal editing options pushed me to get a clip in one take instead of thinking I could clean it up later (meaning I would never get around to doing so).

Meanwhile, you all who shared your own Vines helped keep me entertained, informed, and sometimes weirded out.

Now that’s all winding down. Why? Twitter’s post announcing the impending shutdown of Vine’s apps–but not the vine.co site archiving our clips–said nothing about that. Twitter’s struggles to monetize Vine had to have been an issue, but I’d like to think that the Vine below may also help explain what went wrong.

 

Sparring with a 3-million-plus-follower Twitter account

I expected angry feedback to Wednesday’s post about WikiLeaks and its increasing recklessness, but I didn’t know how that would play out. The @WikiLeaks Twitter account has 3.33 million followers and a history of jabbing at critics, and the story of WikiLeaks posting a trove of Democratic National Committee e-mails–with zero attempt to blank out personal data like Social Security numbers–intersected with the angst of Bernie Sanders fans who are themselves not known for social-media silence.

WikiLeaks Twitter interactionThe WikiLeaks account quickly took exception to my post (and supportive tweets) in responses ranging from boastful–“The Hill, Gawker and others published alleged DNC docouments months ago. Only WikiLeaks had impact.”–to dorm-room BS–“Sure. Anyone who exposes the estabishment by telling you the truth is not your friend. We got it.”

Many of those three-million-plus followers then started liking and retweeting those tweets. I’m not used to seeing my notifications fill left-to-right from so many people clicking on the same tweet.

My new interlocutors came from different places. Some were hardcore WikiLeaks defenders. Some backed Donald Trump and so were in favor of anything making Democrats’ lives more difficult. Some were Bernie Sanders fans convinced that the DNC had stolen the election from him, despite the absence of proof.

(Sorry, Bernie fans: The Democratic Party–especially the woefully-mismanaged DNC–is nowhere near organized to pull that off. Also, you might want to think about where your militant confusion of a party bureaucracy’s dislike of your candidate with “rigging an election” might end up taking you.)

I tried to reply to the tweets directed at me but soon lost count, leading to me feeling I was reliving Seinfeld’s “jerk store” episode when I saw rebuttal-worthy material half a day too late.

But I did not have to answer any hateful crap attacking my gender, race, ethnicity or religion. Every time that happens, I think I’m playing this game with a WHT PRVLG cheat code.

After a day of this amusement, it was nice to see Edward Snowden come to the same basic conclusion as me and then get his own moralizing response.

Twitter reminder: The block button’s there for a reason

The block button on Twitter can get a bad reputation when people in a position of power use to ensure they won’t hear a dissenting but informed voice–even when it might help them do their job or their work outright requires it.

Twitter block buttonThink of investor and Web pioneer Marc Andreessen blocking veteran tech journalist Dan Gillmor this morning, Cleveland Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia blocking  The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery last week, or Donald Trump social-media director Dan Scavino, Jr., blocking my friend Robert Schlesinger, U.S. News and World Report’s managing editor for opinion, last month.

(Robert told me that getting blocked by one of Trump’s mouthpieces couldn’t quite match his dad Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., landing on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, but he still considered it a badge of honor.)

Seeing that kind of childish behavior makes me want to leave the block function–which stops a user from mentioning you or even seeing your tweets when logged in–to victims of GamerGate-level harassment.

But then I saw my notifications fill Wednesday with irate responses to my Yahoo Finance post about Twitter banning professional jerk Milo Yannopoulus. These tweets were marked by an absence of logic, facts and grammar–and, once I replied to some of them, a general unwillingness to consider that they might not have all of the answers to the universe in their possession.

I enjoy a good argument (you can see I waded into the comments on the post) but I also have a finite number of hours in the day. And being swarmed by trolling replies with no evident interest in an actual debate is properly read as a distributed denial-of-service attack on my attention span. There’s even a term for this kind of behavior: “sea-lioning.”

So I gave fair warning, blocked a handful of the worst offenders, and felt much better afterwards.

Then I politely answered an e-mail from an angry reader about the Milo post and got a more nuanced and understanding reply not long after. I wish that Twitter allowed for that sort of learning–for some testimony from people who have tried to engage with their Twitter trolls, see Ariel Bogle’s post at Mashable–but maybe some people just don’t want to admit in public that they were wrong. I will try not to fall into that habit myself.

I see you all have some questions about your “cable modems”

After I filed my latest USA Today column–a reminder that it’s still generally a waste of money to rent a cable modem–one of my editors said they would play up the post. He and his colleagues may have used some sort of cheat code, as the column has drawn more feedback than almost anything else I’ve written for USAT since starting this column at the end of 2011.

Old coax cable close-upAmong the 100-plus comments and 40 or so e-mails I’ve received since this piece went up Monday morning, the most common queries addressed Internet services that don’t involve any cable-television infrastructure.

AT&T’s U-verse was the most frequent subject of readers’ curiosity, followed by Verizon’s Fios and then CenturyLink’s digital-subscriber-line offering. I didn’t cover them in my cable-modem column because they all branch off the telephone evolutionary tree–AT&T and Verizon use fiber-optic lines built on top of their phone networks, while CenturyLink’s DSL relies on traditional copper phone lines. None depend on the local cable plant; all compete with it at some level.

Am I going to write back to all of these readers to explain that they’ll see my column is properly framed once they understand some first principles about telecom? No.

Many normal people just don’t classify their home Internet service by which regulated local monopoly began building out its infrastructure decades ago or how how high its wires go on a utility pole. The problem isn’t that some think of their phone and cable companies as functional equivalents, it’s that too many others can’t because only their cable operator delivers both television and high-speed broadband.

Besides, AT&T’s policies about U-verse hardware are interesting enough–especially compared to Verizon’s–to justify a follow-up column. Look for that this weekend.

2015 in review: less change than usual

I’m ending 2015 writing for the same core set of clients as in 2014–Yahoo Tech, USA Today and the Wirecutter–which ranks as unusual for me. That could change (yes, I’ve read some of the same stories as you about Yahoo’s prospects) but if it does I will figure something out.

2015 calendar view

Another way to look at things would be to say that I need to put more effort into my self-marketing. As in, I only sold a handful of stories to places outside those three, only two of which were new clients. I’m working to improve on that.

But overall, I can’t complain too much about 2015. In addition to once again providing me with the chance to learn and write about a topic I find interesting, this year saw me stumble my way into interviewing will.i.am, shake hands with the last man to walk on the moon (so far!), and have the honor of Washingtonian naming me one of its 100 “Tech Titans.”

After going a year without buying any major new hardware, I have a new phone, a Nexus 5X, and a new tablet, an iPad mini 4. I still need to upgrade both laptops and my desktop, but the computer industry will have to wait until 2016 to get my money.

Travel for work took me to most of the same places as last year, with one exception: Dublin. Going there for Web Summit in November may have been my favorite business trip of the year, because the trip doubled as an overdue reunion with some of my Irish cousins and an overdue introduction to the youngest among them.

I hope your year also afforded a chance to reconnect with friends or family you hadn’t seen in too long. Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you in 2016.

 

Donald Trump supporters have some opinions

Thursday’s post at Yahoo Tech critiquing Donald Trump’s notion of “maybe, in certain areas, closing the Internet up in some way” did not go over well among Trump fans.

Trump-supporter messagesI expected as much, but I did not quite expect to see quite their rage so poorly expressed–like, for example, the fellow whose entire message consisted of a one-word subject header, “Bull,” and the “Sent from my iPhone” signature. Another disgruntled individual closed with “Your a Complete ASSHOLE.”

A few less spittle-flecked messages expressed disdain for my calling The Donald a blowhard or a loudmouth. My response: If Trump isn’t one, then those words no longer have any meaning in the English language.

Several asked why we couldn’t cut the terrorists off from the Internet when North Korea, China or Cuba maintain an iron grip on their citizens’ online access. Well, if we could exercise that level of control over Iraq and Syria, wouldn’t we already have rounded up the Daesh death cultists by now?

Finally, a few led with “you’re just a member of the liberal media.” Hoo boy, I’ve never heard that one before. I will have to warn my colleagues about this novel insult they may come across on the Internet.

On the other hand, a couple of people wrote in to say they appreciated the story. So I’ve got that going for me.

 

Things I have learned from writing 500 posts here

With Thursday night’s post here, I joined the 500-post club. That club is nowhere near exclusive, should not confer any special benefits and hopefully has no existence outside the 500-post badge WordPress.com popped up on my phone. But writing 500 posts still seems like a notable milestone, even if it took me close to five years to reach that mark.

500Here’s what I’ve learned from it–or, if you prefer, how little I’ve learned from it:

Write regularly: Apathy is the death of all blogs, and after the first few months I found myself letting two weeks or more go by without a post. I seized on the idea of writing a weekly recap of where I’d written, spoken or been quoted, and that in turn meant I’d have to write something–anything–else each week to avoid having this become a completely self-promotional exercise. That’s mostly worked since, except that I often wait most of the week to write that extra post.

Write quickly: This is the one outlet I have online where whatever I write gets published instantly, with no further delays because an editor wants to look it over again or schedule it for a better time for reader traffic. I have no minimum or maximum word count. And yet I still overthink a lot of posts here, as if it’s still 3 p.m. on a weekday in 1998 and I have another two hours before my editor will want to see the top of the story.

(As my editors in this century can attest, this happens often with my paid assignments too.)

Popularity can be a total mystery: It’s been wonderfully instructive to see my how site’s stats change (most of my paying clients provide no such insight), then to realize how little those ups and downs match my own efforts to promote my posts on social media or by adding a link to a story elsewhere. Instead, my most-read post this year was an item about setting the time on my wife’s sports watch that I wrote on my iPad in a fit of nerd rage (note what I said above about writing quickly), and which I don’t think I’ve ever bothered to promote since.

WordPress 500-post badgeOther booms in popularity have come about when other sites have pointed readers my way (thanks again, Loop Insight!) or when enough other people on Twitter have shared a link to something here.

Try not to anchor yourself to one site’s algorithm: The emphasis is on “try”–Google’s search drives an overwhelming amount of the traffic here. But at least this site exists outside Google’s orbit and those of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other first-tier tech giants. That’s what I wanted when I set up shop here: to have a home base, as Dan Gillmor has been saying for years, that isn’t the property of a company vying to create its own online empire. (WordPress.com is still big, but it’s not trying to become everybody’s social network, messaging system, or shopping mall.)

Ads can be annoying for publishers too: I don’t like seeing schlocky or noisy ads anywhere on the Web, but I really don’t like seeing them here. But I have no more and maybe less control than many other small publishers–my only options are to hide ads from logged-in WordPress.com users or to show “additional ad units,” with no option to decline auto-playing video or those “around the Web” remnant ads you’ve seen at 50 other sites this week.

And yet I keep the ads on, because they make me a little extra money–and they continue to educate me about a part of the business I have little to no visibility into at my regular outlets.