On the limits of constrained media and self expression


After writing my last post on easing content creation, I’ve found myself repeatedly thinking about constrained media.

Here is the excerpt that got me thinking (with the most salient part of it bolded):

You can drastically simplify content creation by constraining the media format. There are many examples of this

  • Twitter limits you to 140 characters. Now you don’t need to worry about content length.
  • Tumblr makes certain types of posts super easy: photos, quotes, links, chats, audio files, and videos. You could write a long blog post, but it is easier to quickly share an image or quote that you like.
  • Pinterest and Instagram limit you to a single image, with an optional block of descriptive text.
  • Vine limits you to a six seconds of video.

The flip side of constraining the media format is that it limits self expression. Fortunately, media often has weird properties related to self expression, similar to doing arithmetic with infinity. Divide infinity by 2, and you feel like you’d have less, but you still have infinity. Divide it by 10, or 100, and you get the same thing. Media often works the same way. A blog post offers an infinite amount of self expression. An image or a 140-character tweet feels like less, but still offers infinite self expression.

If you follow this line of thought, it naturally leads to some interesting questions. Are there limits to constrained media? At what point do you lose the potential for infinite self expression?

Coincidentally, the YO app has just recently exploded and raised $1.2M. For those who haven’t seen it yet, it is a stupidly simple app: press a contact’s name, and the app will send the a push notification which says ‘YO’. Did I mention that it is stupidly simple?

Whatever you may think about it, the YO app is gaining traction and gaining in usage. And from a constrained media perspective, it is fascinating. The YO app is about constrained as you can get from media creation. It is effectively a 1-bit creation app. You either get a ‘yo’, or you don’t.

So what are the limits of self expression for a single bit of information?

It turns out that there still aren’t any limits: the potential for self expression is still infinite. Why? Because all of the context around the ‘yo’ matters: the sender, the receiver, the timing, and the situation.

A ‘yo’ could mean:

  • Yo, whats up?
  • Are you free?
  • I’m free now.
  • (from your SO) Love you — just thinking about you.
  • (from your annoying friend who send you 50 yo’s today) I’m going to continue bugging the shit out of you
  • (after a date, from a friend) How was that date last night?
  • (after a date, from the date) I had a good time. Would like to see you again.
  • (a week after a date, from the date) Why haven’t you called me back?
  • you could go on and on varying people and situations…

This is exciting.

The Internet has been around for quite a while and we are still inventing new ways to create content and express ourselves. On one end of the spectrum, we have apps like Medium and Storehouse who are letting users create elaborate stories using multimedia. At the other end of the spectrum we have apps like YO. And in between, there is a ton of possibilities.

When it comes to content and self expression, there are no limits.

Photo credit: paintingsthatmove

Content creation for all: 8 ways to simplify online publishing



The World Wide Web enables publishing at an unprecedented scale. Anyone can create content, and any piece of content can be instantaneously distributed to anyone in the world.

Pretty awesome, right?

There is just one thing: although content creation has never been easier, the number of people who create is surprisingly small. This has become known as the 1% rule: 1% of people create the content, 99% of people consume.

There isn’t anything wrong with the 1% rule, but it isn’t ideal. The web enables everyone to have a voice, yet 99% of people don’t take advantage of it. If more people created content online, we would have more shared perspectives, more communication, and in general, more people connecting over their passions and interests. You have to believe that the world would be a better place.

Content creation should be easier, and fortunately, it can be. Seemingly small product design decisions can make a big impact for encouraging content creation.

As a thought experiment, let us start with this blog post. Long form blogging turns out to be a particularly difficult form of content creation. If we study what makes this post difficult to create, we can uncover several ways to simplify and ease content creation.


1. Strip away identity.

If you look at the top of this blog, you’ll see my real name. Do you know how difficult it is to write under my real name? I’m afraid of publicly being wrong, sounding like an idiot, or even worse, coming off as a complete jackass.

If we separate my real identity from my online identity, writing becomes easier. I become less fearful of what others think, and may write things that I otherwise wouldn’t.

Historically, handles (or user names) have been used for anonymity. They were used back in the days of IRC and forums, and are still used today on many popular sites like Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Handles help with anonymity, but don’t ensure it. As time goes by, users leak information which can often be pieced together. With enough time, a motivated third party may learn the real identity behind a handle.

You could go further with anonymity by dissolving the idea of an online identity. For example, Secret uses transient handles. You have an identity, but it is a weak identity, a random icon that lives within a single conversation. Or, you could go all the way and completely dissolve online identity (e.g., Startups Anonymous).

The more you strip away identity, the easier it gets to create content about anything. And the more honest people get. It isn’t surprising some of the juiciest secrets are surfaced in anonymous social networks.


2. Constrain the audience.

This blog is public. That means that anyone anywhere in the world can read any bit of this blog and catch me looking like an idiot. As I continue to write, the chances of looking like an idiot increases. Doesn’t sound too good, huh?

Writing for the world is hard. There are things I will publicly announce to the world on this blog or on Twitter, but it is a small subset of the things that are on my mind. If we constrain the audience to my Facebook friends, things get easier. I’m more likely to share my current status. If we limit the audience my close friends and family on Whatsapp, I may share a rumor, a racy joke, or what is actually on my mind.

Audience matters, and the more comfortable the audience is, the easier it is to create honest and authentic content.


3. Constrain the media format.

The content in this blog is unconstrained. A post may be of arbitrary length and include any combination of images, videos, and text.

The unconstrained nature of a blog post makes it flexible and expressive, but also brings up many questions for content creators. How long should a post be? Should I add images? How many images? Where should they be placed? What about a video? Or a GIF? Should I have split this post into two posts or leave it as one? There are many questions to ask, and each question makes it less likely that the ‘publish’ button will be pressed.

You can drastically simplify content creation by constraining the media format. There are many examples of this

  • Twitter limits you to 140 characters. Now you don’t need to worry about content length.
  • Tumblr makes certain types of posts super easy: photos, quotes, links, chats, audio files, and videos. You could write a long blog post, but it is easier to quickly share an image or quote that you like.
  • Pinterest and Instagram limit you to a single image, with an optional block of descriptive text.
  • Vine limits you to a six seconds of video.

The flip side of constraining the media format is that it limits self expression. Fortunately, media often has weird properties related to self expression, similar to doing arithmetic with infinity. Divide infinity by 2, and you feel like you’d have less, but you still have infinity. Divide it by 10, or 100, and you get the same thing. Media often works the same way. A blog post offers an infinite amount of self expression. An image or a 140-character tweet feels like less, but still offers infinite self expression.

If you can simplify the media format while still allowing for infinite self expression, it is probably a win.


4. Remove the feeling of permanent publishing.

Most bloggers have a complex relationship with the ‘publish’ button. I definitely do. The button is the source of accomplishment (it feels great to ship a post into the real world!), but it is also a source of stress.

Blog posts feels final in two ways.

First, publishing a blog post feels like a one-time action. Once I hit that ‘publish’ button, it gets sent out to the blogosphere to RSS, my WordPress followers, and email subscribers. Most likely, if it is going to be read, it will be read at this point. Later on, someone may stumble upon it through a Google search, but old blog posts quickly loses interest as well as discoverability on the Internet. Second, the post feels final because it kind of is final. Once it gets cached in a search engine, or archived by archive.org, it is accessible forever.

Removing the feeling of publishing makes content creation much easier, and there are several ways to do this.

The first way has already been mentioned in (2) constraining the audience. A Facebook startus or a Whatsapp message doesn’t feel like publishing because it is relatively private (compared to this blog post).

Second, you can also remove by feeling of publishing by encouraging works-in-progress. In college, I used to manually write HTML for websites. I wouldn’t have any problem leaving my work online for people to see because it was a work-in-progress. Wikis are the same way. You can easily add to them because it is expected that the content will be edited/removed at some point in the future.

Third, you can delete by design. This has become a big thing with ephemeral content. Snapchat and Frankly are two great examples here; your content lives for only a few seconds, and then it disappears. Or, it feels like it disappears. I would bet that the content lives on their servers forever, but what matters is the ephemeral feeling.


5. Enable references to existing work.

This post includes original content. Original content is difficult to create.

You know what is easier to create? Existing content.

It sounds a little funny, but people do this everyday sharing links on Facebook, Twitter, and Delicious. Or, sharing images on Pinterest, imgfave, weheartit, etc. Or quotes from other websites.

“Creating” such content isn’t as much creating as it is identifying with content. There is so much content out there on the web, and more gets churned out on a daily basis. While we consume existing content, it isn’t difficult to find something that we identify with and want to share.

It turns out there is an extra big benefit to sharing existing content: it is simple from an interaction standpoint. Websites have employed one-click buttons for resharing, reblogging, repinning, etc.


6. Add context.

This post started with an empty text input field. There was no context. Just an intimidating blank canvas.

Creating content within a vacuum is difficult. Adding context makes creation easier.

A common way to create context is to add a prompt, such as an image to caption or a URL to comment on. Creating content within a context tends to be an emotional response, a sign of agreement/disagreement, or a perspective/comment. Sites like Quora, Quibb and Reddit lets users create prompts for other users to react to. Sites like Pinterest and Tumblr let users write a note within the context of an image, video, etc.

Oftentimes, a reaction to a prompt becomes another prompt. For example, a message which requires a response. Or a comment that invites a reply.


7. Constrain reactions of others.

Allowing others to comment on your content can be intimidating. Unconstrained commenting allows anyone to come along and shit on your thoughts.

Because of this, it is often a good idea to constrain the reactions of others. Products do this in different ways. Quibb constrains its membership, only allowing vetted members to comment. Secret constrains comments to your friends and friends of friends, effectively removing the vast majority of trolls on the Internet. Tumblr is designed to encourage likes and doesn’t emphasize comments. Medium and many other blogging platforms require comments to be OK’ed by the original poster. Some bloggers implement a timeout functionality where the comments section for posts become closed after a fixed number of days.

Most people enjoy thoughtful comments and reactions, but this is the Internet, and there be trolls everywhere. Finding a way to limit reactions to content can be a big win.


8. Watch the content container.

This blog post doesn’t exist on it’s own: it lives within a blog called ‘On life and startups’.

Blogging isn’t easy. If you’ve ever started a blog, you’ll know friction involved here. There are a lot of question involved with creating a blog. Which platform should I use? What should the tagline of the blog be? Will the tagline be too restricting? Should I blog about everything on my mind, or specific topics? How often should I update the blog? What if I stop writing? What if I run out of ideas?

Giving users a single container often has these problems. For example, I have the same problems on Twitter. My twitter stream has become the startup version of Alex. I don’t share many other things on there, even though I have other interests in my life outside of startups.

One approach is to give users multiple containers. A great example is Pinterest, which gives users the ability to create multiple boards. The boards allow a user to be their full selves. They can share DIY stuff in one board, good recipes in another, and their favorite infographics in yet another board.

Another approach is to free containers from user accounts. Medium makes posts and collections feel independent. I can curate multiple collections, and my posts can be syndicated on all collections that want to contain them.

Yet another approach is to simply free content from containers. Secret does this by making each secret independent. Secrets don’t live within a user profile. And since user identities only exist within a single secret, all secrets feel independent.

It may seem like a small thing, but the relationship between the user, content, and the container makes a difference when it comes to content creation.


Enable content creation, change the world.

Did you notice a trend throughout this post?

Some of the largest and most successful social media sites are defined by their methods for simplifying content creation. Twitter is defined by its 140-character tweets. Pinterest is defined by allows users to curate multiple collections of images. Snapchat is defined by images that self-destruct. Medium has been purposefully vague about intentions, but it is clear that it changes the relationship between users, content, and collections.

One of the biggest promises of the web is that is allows anyone to publish. Anything that makes this process easier is a huge win for the world.

Have some other ideas on how to simplify content creation? I would love to hear them in the comments.

Better yet, build the idea and get it out there. If you discover a new way to simplify publishing, or create a new combination from the examples above, you just might change the world.


Photo credit: want2scrap

All that matters..



Pretty awesome huh?

It is funny how all that matters in many products is the feeling of progress.. the feeling of leveling up. It doesn’t have to actually mean anything. It just needs to feel meaningful.

And the best way to indicate progress is a number:

  • Your like count
  • Your follower count
  • Your karma score
  • Your experience points
  • …whatever…

Gamification baby!

Now, please don’t mind me. I’m going to hit the publish button, and see if the follower count goes up on this blog 😉

Living online lists


After my post a two days ago, I’ve been thinking more on the idea of living online documents.

As I wrote in the post, there isn’t a good chance that the average online article will get re-written or refined much for quality. The incentives don’t seem to be there.

However, there may be one type of document that may work as a living online document: lists.

We see lists all over the place. Do a google search for anything (social networking sites, SEO strategies, best personal development blogs, whatever) and you will come up with many articles that are essentially lists. People love lists. So do writers. Buzzfeed has pretty much used it as a content strategy, and look how quickly they have grown.

The thing about most lists is that they often purport to be exhaustive or complete. At least that is what we would hope for. What good is the list of top SEO strategies if it is out of date when someone Googles for it later?

What I’m getting at is that a good list should have lifetime value. A good list isn’t just something that should be treated as “news” and then thrown away the next day. A good list takes time to create, and is valuable because it pieces together everything that matters in a certain topic.

Why let a list go out of date if it can be occasionally updated? If I owned the blog post that was number one result for the Google search “top SEO strategies”, I would have incentive to update it. The post probably gets a ton of traffic, and keeping it fresh and up-to-date would help keep it there (assuming that Google’s algorithm can be thought of as a rough heuristic for quality).

Here is an example that has popped up recently. In the past few weeks, there have been several highly-shared articles on startup postmortems. These are valuable things to think about; entrepreneurs should learn from failures as well as successes. These are two of the popular ones:

  1. 51 startup failure post-mortems :: CB Insights
  2. 14 startup postmortems :: Ryan Hoover

These posts by CB Insights and Ryan Hoover are great, and are on a topic which I believe the startup community needs to discuss more often. But beyond that, they ended up inspiring several other founders to write postmortems. Now what? The two articles are fixed at 51 and 14. They are still good for now because they are only missing a few articles, but what happens a year from now? Or five?

Here is where a living online document could work. I had actually been keeping my own list on the side while experimenting with Soulmix:

I’m not saying my list is better now, but unless the authors of the previous two lists update them (which blog authors rarely do), I’m sure that over time, my list will end up being the better piece of content on this topic.

This is just an example, but I think it gets the point across. You could apply it to lists of SEO strategies, great gangster movies, or pictures of Kim Kardashian and North West.

As I’ve been experimenting with Soulmix, I’ve been trying to figure out what it could be, and this popped up as an interesting thought. I think that is pretty cool. There are issues with how to publish or do social shares with updating lists, but the idea of well-maintained lists sounds like a great thing for the readers on the Internet.

P.S. Soulmix is in a private beta, but if you’d like to join and help figure out where it might go, just request an invite 🙂

Photo credit: Flickr/juliejordanscott

We get what we want, and we want shitty content


During the 100-day blogging challenge, I wrote a post on living online documents. In it, I wrote about how I would occasionally go back to edit my old blog posts, and how the Internet would be a better place if all writers did this. Why keep adding content online when we could be polishing existing content to make it great?

This is a good idea in theory. Quality over quantity. It appeals to the artists and craftsmen who live to improve and polish their products.

However, in practice, the real world seems to work differently. Businesses/careers rise and fall based upon page view counts. Page view counts equal attention, and businesses/bloggers/etc. will stop at nothing for more reader attention.

Readers seem to demand new content, and value it over old content. Just look at the magazine rack in any bookstore: 95% or more of text in the magazines on that rack are low quality.

“30 days to rock hard abs.”

“The 7 things that drive women/men crazy in bed.”

“The 10 amazing vacation spots you’ve never heard of” (even thought you probably have heard of them).

Yes, most of it is crap.

For any given topic, you could probably do a quick Google search and find something better. Or you could just step away from the magazine rack, and find the best book on that topic. But chances are that you won’t because this is NEW crap, and obviously worth buying. And when we finish reading the new crap, we can wait until next month for the newer crap.

You can take the above argument and substitute “magazine rack” with most any pop-news web site or your FB/Twitter news feeds. I should say that my Twitter news feed tends to have higher-quality news (since I curate who I follow based upon interests), but there is still a lot of noise in there.

Long story short, businesses will give us what we want, and on the whole, we want new shitty content on a daily basis. Thus, there is little incentive for career writers to provide consistent quality over quantity.

An alternative for promoting quality content.

There may be an interesting alternative that promotes quality, and also works alongside our daily reading habits. Instead of hoping for higher quality content, we could create platforms for readers to pick and choose the best content. These platforms would encourage users to think about what is best online, and collect stuff in the areas that they are passionate about.

We are seeing movement towards this online with content curation and collection tools. Pinterest and Tumblr both enable uses to express what they love online. Medium enables writers of all shapes and sizes, but promotes quality by allowing readers to curate their personal favorites.

The cool thing about these content collection/curation platforms is that on the flip side, they become engines for discovering great content. Sure I can use Pinterest to collect pictures I like, but it is also amazingly useful for discovering new stuff I may like. Same thing with Tumblr and Medium.

This is one of the big reasons that I am building Soulmix. We all have our interests and passions. I’m interested in building startups, beautiful pictures of cities, and figuring out this thing called life. I consume new content every day, and most of it is crap, but whenever I find something I love, I save it in Soulmix. By doing this, I’ll always have access to my favorite stuff, but as a side effect, all of this great content is neatly organized for sharing with friends, as well as the entire Internet.

These content curation platforms don’t solve the shitty new content problem, but they are the beginning of movement towards reorganizing the web to promote great stuff. I’m excited to see where it goes in the coming years.

Photo credit: Ken Hawkins/Flickr

Blogging everything you know


I came across this awesome and hilarious picture today on Twitter. After laughing a bit at the picture, I immediately began thinking about blogging.

Specifically, I was thinking about bloggers in the startup world. Is it possible that with the seemingly endless supply of startup-related blog posts, the best secrets to success are still unpublished? It makes some sense, right? If you have knowledge that puts you at a competitive advantage, why would you risk that advantage by revealing it in a blog post?

My guess is that for the most part, this isn’t true in the startup world.

Founders, entrepreneurs, and VCs could write everything they know, and it probably wouldn’t hurt their chances of success when compared to others. One, startups are all different; there is no recipe for success. Two, even with the best advisors/mentors, startups still seem to have a ridiculously high failure rate. Three, most startup advice isn’t 100% right or 100% wrong. There is a gray area, and they may apply in certain situations but not in others. Four, entrepreneurs tend to be the kind of people who forge their own path. They have their own ideas, vision, and strategy. Even if provided “perfect” advice, many probably wouldn’t follow it exactly.

There is probably more to say, but you get my point.

I’m not sure how to feel about this as a blogger. It means that no matter what I write, it probably won’t hurt my chances of success. But it also means that no matter what I write, there is no guarantee that the writing will be useful to others. Chances are, what I write is flat-out wrong, or wrong for many people.

I suppose that is OK.

Earlier, I wrote about my reasons for why I write. In retrospect, I still very much agree with it.

I write for myself. I can’t guarantee that what I say is right. And I can’t guarantee it is right for the reader. But I can guarantee that the thought process is useful to myself.