Life Digitized

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Goodbye, college! Welcome to the cloud 🙂

A year ago I committed to going paperless and moving into the cloud. Now over twelve months later, I finished scanning and organizing everything that remained from high school and college:papers, tests, handouts, course readers and anything I might like to access again at some point. I also scanned all personal administrative, financial and legal documents that sat around collecting dust. I will recycle all of this paper and breathe a deep sigh of relief that I no longer have to cart  all that dead weight around.

The first thing you might be thinking is, “Craig, why would you go to all this trouble for documents you may never read again?” To anyone who knows me and my obsession with cataloging my life, this should not surprise you. To everyone else, my answer is not straightforward. The honest truth is, “just in case.” I might want to reference these documents again. Yes, clinical psychologists today have a term for that behavior: “hoarder.” Better and a totally different paradigm, I think, to hoard information that takes up zero physical space than piles of crap everywhere. Fancy me a “digital packrat.”

Some documents I refer to on a regular basis. Others I enjoyed rediscovering as I scanned them. The rest I will likely never see again. But at least now they’re organized, searchable (Google recognizes optical characters in PDFs and extracts information as searchable text) and accessible from anywhere. No more piles of paper to dig through or carry around. There are over 2,500 documents in my school folder alone, many of them tens or even hundreds of pages long. That’s a metric shit ton of dead trees!

Life in the cloud is certainly cleaner, lighter and easier. All of my files are mirrored across Google Drive, Dropbox and external hard drives (with the exception of over 14TB of video that I have not found room for in the cloud yet). I can access them all from my phone on the go and from any computer I can sign into. Google’s omni search bar finds not only web search results, but results from within email, contacts and all of these documents. Sometimes I search for a term and find the answer to my query in a class handout from years ago. Pretty wild. I suspect access to my personal information ecosystem will only get better from here.

So while it might not be as useful to me now, there’s no telling what fruits this project might yield in the future as the technology gods evolve.

Broadcast Contracts Will Kill Hollywood

It does not surprise me that Game of Thrones is the most pirated show on television. Without cable, I have no way to watch it. I’d happily pay $20 per month if HBO GO was open to people without cable subscriptions. Unfortunately, that’s not that case. None of HBO’s shows are available on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. I have no way to watch any of HBO’s shows except pay a $75 per month cable subscription for a television I don’t have, wait for them to come out on DVD, or pirate them. I’m a good boy with little expendable time, so I avoid Game of Thrones altogether. But 25 million people have not been angels and found the show through whatever means necessary. Who knows how many more people opt out entirely and forever pass the show by?

I’ve said before that Hollywood should concern themselves less with piracy and more with audience access. Simple supply and demand metrics – audiences demand content and providers are failing to supply to increasingly popular internet channels. It’s the whole industry’s fault for inciting piracy. They are missing out on an expanding margin of customers. In defense of HBO and others, production companies have entangled themselves in lucrative and restricting contracts with cable partners. To offer direct-to-consumer digital distribution would breach their contracts and deprive them of their single strongest revenue source. For most companies like HBO, that may never happen – at least not until everyone has internet televisions or the cable providers themselves die.

Broadcast contracts may be a reasonable excuse for holding content back from web distribution. But if companies plan to stand behind that excuse, they need to stop making such a big deal about piracy. By threatening or incriminating millions of people who cannot access your primary distribution method, you are alienating potential evangelists of your content and failing to understand the trajectory of your market. Web television is not a trend. In five years, most motion picture content will be consumed online – on connected televisions, game consoles, mobile devices or computers. To fight or deny this is foolish and egoistic.

I left Hollywood because no companies were willing to put the engineering muscle behind personal distribution channels. Beyond sheer web design and database builds, online services require customer service and billing infrastructure that can cost a lot of money. Fortunately, these things are getting easier and cheaper. An independent production company with enough content to leverage could easily set up shop on the web with a very controllable investment and small handful of people on the tech side.

If you want a sustainable career in the movie business, start or work for a company with full digital rights. Careful signing onto productions with traditional broadcast contracts and no digital rights – these opportunities, no matter how lucrative, are sinking ships. If they cannot find a way to breach contracts soon, they may not survive the next wave of liberated web-savvy competitors.

Consolidating the Online Content Experience

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Marvel’s The Avengers raking in a $200M+ opening weekend leaves little room to tell Hollywood that they are doing it wrong. The 40-year old blockbuster model continues to pay for the movie business. In the early days, the cinema experience was not far removed from attending a Broadway show: dressing up and cozying into ornate movie palaces staffed by ushers and orchestras. To expand the experience, multiplexes cropped up everywhere. To augment the experience further, Hollywood learned to tentpole a film, merchandise it and open theme park rides. The cinema experience is larger than life.

While all of that may work for three or four titles, hundreds of motion pictures barely scrape by each year. The internet and a proliferation of choice in the new millennium continues to threaten the sustainability of the movie business. The entertainment industry as a whole keeps falling behind the times. They still depend on Nielsen‘s myopic ratings and surveys to make strategic market decisions. They collect little to no data on their viewers to leverage repeat conversions. They build no intimate relationships with their customers and create few opportunities outside the theater to communitize their content. They embrace an antiquated scarcity model by rolling content out onto different platforms across rigid windows weeks and months apart, thereby eliciting content access demand and piracy. Merchandise still sits on retail shelves or on random websites online, far from the experience of seeing the movie itself. Without update, these practices may be fatal. While box office may be up (due largely to increased ticket prices and 3D or IMAX premiums), attendance is down – even more painful when considering population growth.

All of these issues could be solved by incorporating a thicker web layer into and consolidating the filmgoing experience under one roof – literally and figuratively. By converging merchandise, community and content into a digital or real world platform, Hollywood could make all facets of their business more accessible and leverage entire catalogs toward a more scalable, niche-friendly or cost-effective practice. Loved the movie you just saw? The theaters should make it as easy as possible to leave the theater and impulse buy a plush or action figure of your favorite character. Imagine if you could buy merchandise from and connect with other fans on a movie’s page in Netflix? Organize public screenings or petition for a sequel with the masses online? The community layer would add to the consumer experience and give filmmakers a platform to understand how people engage with their work.

I love the movies. I love the theater. I want the industry to succeed. These issues are reparable. If the industry can recruit key talent from the web tech sector, surrender a century’s worth of logic around brick and mortar business practices, build relationships with consumers online and put storytelling first, there may be a glimmer of stability and hope for film professionals and moviegoers alike. We’ve got work to do. There’s plenty of stories to tell and opportunities to make a living by producing great content.

Phones Can Call People, Too

I think people forget that phones can still be used for voice conversations. I get so many back and forth text messages or email chains on a day to day basis. In the hours that pass trading notes, the discussion could have passed and resolved in a handful of minutes. Texts make sense for updates. Emails make sense for a bigger pile of information. For making big decisions or catching up? Not even close.

Call someone. It’s quicker, more personal and less ambiguous.

There’s a System for That

If you’re having organizational trouble or find yourself doing the same mundane task over and over, chances are pretty high that someone else out there shares your pain. With a little bit of research, you may even find someone who has already conquered your problem. At any rate, it’s worth a look. The internet is a pretty big place these days. There are apps for everything.

As times change, brand new problems crop up all the time that may not yet have structured solutions. Depending on the complexity of your problem and processes, other people’s solutions may not serve your own. If you cannot find a solution, it’s up to you to build one. Given the challenges and material complexity of designing solutions (be they software, logistical or cost), most people opt out and choose to continue suffering. Don’t do that. Don’t settle for the mundane. You should never have to do the same thing more than once – unless you want to.

Would You Use Your Own App?

Before launching your app into any application marketplace, you should test for demand. That’s business 101. But before doing that, there is an easy way to pre-test the market for interest: honestly ask yourself, “Would I use my own product?” It amazes me how few people ask this question. We are all parents of our creations, so of course we’d say yes. But like parents raising children, we can’t all realistically say our children are physically fit and attractive. Some can. Others would have to make a case. It’s the same thing for products and services. We can’t all say that our tools are useful, amazing or accessible. If that were always the case, failure wouldn’t exist.

When designing a piece of software, put yourself in a user’s shoes. How hard is it to get started using the app? How much privacy must I compromise? Is it fun to use? Will my friends think I’m cool if I use it? Is it better than another app I use that does the same thing? If you don’t like the answers to your own questions, your users won’t either. Do not be afraid to return to the drawing board, especially when you cannot completely endorse your own product. Save yourself the time and shame if, deep down, you know the truth.

Leaving A Data Legacy

I would love to know how my grandparents lived their lives half a century ago. Now that all but one have passed, I’m left with only a few pictures and stories. While there may be a Big Fish fantasy charm to the finite amount of information I have, my curiosity endures.

FoursquareI finally adopted Foursquare in January and checked in nearly a hundred times since. To this day, I struggle to find direct utility in the service (beyond specials, which I have never successfully used). That said, I am a data nut. I appreciate the value of collecting information on my life, whether I do anything with it or not. I’m too lazy to keep a journal, so social and location services help a lot. Despite the fact that my data may be used to serve the gains of others, I (perhaps naively) trust that these services will evolve to capture and interpret the nodes of my life back to me and all who follow.

I am of the camp that sees big data not as a violation of personal privacy, but as a path to building a data legacy. I don’t presume to become wildly famous and expect the world to care what I ate for breakfast yesterday. No, I mean to say that I want to leave slices of history for my children and children’s children to better understand me and the times I live in. Does anybody really care that I had Pad Thai for lunch yesterday? Fuck no. But the next generation might appreciate a rich data set on American dining habits and dietary evolution. My grandchildren might appreciate that Pad Thai is one of my favorite dishes.

Like donating your body to science, I want to donate the computed history of my life to the next generation of sociologists, historians and nostalgics. I want my grandchildren to have access to anything they could possibly want to know about me and learn from my mistakes. We all have an opportunity like never before to contribute to the nuance of our generation’s history books.

So, in spite of all this privacy hooplah, I will continue to check in and contribute to big data through applications and organizations that lend to a long shelf life and value for greater societal context.

Mobile Should Not Port Web (Or Vice Versa)

Cramming the web experience into a smartphone is naïve. Any person with a shred of user interface appreciation should understand that we interact with desktop or laptop computers in very different ways than our phones or tablets. The devices are not directly interchangeable. It amazes me how many designers and companies forget it. Many hop on the mobile bandwagon and try to squeeze every feature into a claustrophobic mess. What’s the point?

I loath Facebook’s latest mobile app. It overwhelms the user with every possible feature from the suite (a collection of nonsense that makes it the slowest and most cumbersome app on my Galaxy Nexus). I do not need access to my pages or Facebook apps; I do not want to curate user groups or manage my friend list. Even events should live outside of the app – preferably in my calendar where they belong. I just need my messages, wall and news feed while I’m on the go. That’s it. Save my processing for something else.

While by no means an elegant app, Wells Fargo keeps things focused by opening with only two options – mobile banking or find an ATM. No offers for loans. No investing or insurance. Just simple tools to manage my money on the go. That’s it. Straightforward, simple and relevant.

On the flip, many mobile-first applications forget that they can approach their mission from a completely different angle via the browser. Instagram, with the mission to “share your life with friends through a series of pictures,” has an irrefutable opportunity to expand photo consumption onto a larger palette. Right now, their website is an embarrassing static splash page. Imagine a stunning and immersive fullscreen browser magazine ripe with friends’ photos, updating live as their world evolves around you. A powerful experience you will never have on a 3.5 inch screen.

Mobile and web can help you approach your core mission from two different angles. The mobile experience should feel immediate, focused, actionable and succinct. The web experience should feel expansive, explorable, comprehensive and open.

Before you port your experience to one device or another, first ask yourself two (rather obvious) questions: (1) What tools do people absolutely need on their phones versus their computers and (2) how would user interaction differ with the same tools on different devices?

Mobile could let you explore all the comprehensive offerings of a cross-platform application if you want to, but the unique-to-mobile (U2M) experience should come first. The Foursquare check-in is a perfect example of a U2M tool that adds to the unique-to-browser (U2B) experience of exploring a map of your data.

More platforms should debate U2M versus U2B and not try to cram a square block into a round hole.

The Death of the Ticket Stub

I am one of those pack-rat weirdos that keeps all of his ticket stubs. I have kept every movie stub since summer 2004 (16 years old). I enjoy stubs for the same reason music buffs enjoy vinyl cases: when you touch something, the memories flood back. When I review my stubs, I remember who I saw the film with and my reaction to it. If asked without stub in hand, I probably couldn’t tell you. I see so many movies that most of them disappear into the depths of my head.

My friends, the ticket stub is dying. Most of my favorite theaters, including the ArcLight and Landmark chains, have largely surrendered ticket-grade stock in favor of cheaper receipt paper. Like normal cashier receipts, the ink fades quickly. I can’t read half the stubs collected last year. As if to crush my heart further, ArcLight’s new stubs don’t even have perforated edges: the takers rip the paper down the middle, leaving you with a half-torn memento and broken dreams.

Look, I appreciate the cost of quality stock and the financial decision to downgrade. Selling thousands of tickets a day, that novelty expense hurts the bottom line. And I’m sure someone can even make an environmental case for lighter paper. But it makes me sad.

Before long, theaters may not print stubs at all. There is a huge push for mobile ticketing. Near field communication technology and supporting software like Google Wallet are looking to turn your smartphone into your wallet, credit cards, gift cards, loyalty cards, and ticket stubs. While I find this trend very exciting (and very much look forward to having an app document every movie I see so I do not have to anymore), I mourn the death of the ticket stub. I will have less than a decade of stubs to share with my children before ticketing moves into the cloud. After that, who else cares? There’s nothing novel about a digital list.

Inventory Your Relationships

When I say, ‘Inventory your relationships,’ I don’t mean, ‘Treat your friends like retail products on a stocking shelf.’ I mean, ‘Keep tabs on everyone in your network.’

Like reviewing notes taken in class, study your mobile contacts list, address book, or friends list. Take note of the people you haven’t spoken to in a while. If you find yourself curious about or missing updated information on a contact, you should reach out to him or her and catch up. Send a note, invite for coffee, arrange a phone or video call – whatever you find comfortable. Learn what keeps your friends busy, where their talents lie, what interests they have, and where they want to go next. Catch up, offer help if you can, and take notes to update your rolodex. Promise to stay in touch.

Never rule anyone out; people can change. Some of the shady characters in high school may have sobered up to start multi-million dollar businesses. You never know. You will be surprised what happens when you reach out to old relationships, especially the ones you were never close with before. You might uncover a great opportunity, discover a shared interest, or find romance. All three have happened to me. Partnerships of all kinds form out of rebooting network connections.

Recycling old relationships can be far easier than meeting new people because you already share common ground. I would even argue that keeping your network fresh by staying in touch is equally as important as growing your network, if not more so. As I have said before, it’s not about who you know, but who knows you. It is important that your contacts remember you. Stay fresh in other people’s minds, keep them fresh in yours, and keep your network strong.

It all starts by skimming your phone during downtime. Stay in touch.

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