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Boris

🎧 Boris Local

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Posts by @local

Rethinking tech work

I've recently discovered a pair of interesting characters, or influencers, you might say, and I've been binging on their podcasts and blog content for a few weeks now. Their names are Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and the two are... well, they're something else.

Okay, first, it's not really correct to say that I've discovered them recently, it's more like I rediscovered them. Both have been in my peripheral vision for years, and I had already read a book that they penned together. The book was called Remote, and I believe it came out about a decade ago, but I read it in 2016. So that's a few years already. Before that, they wrote Rework, which I haven't read yet, but which I think provided the bulk of material that I'm enjoying right now in podcast form.

Now, eight years later, I stumbled upon an interview Jason did with Lenny Rachitsky, who hosts a product management podcast, and this started a whole binge listening experience for me, finding other interviews Jason did, and by the way, a shameless plug, if you want to listen to someone's guest appearances on different podcasts, the tool you should use is Padverb, which I helped create. I'm going to put a link to it, but anyway, I digress.

So, Jason and David, what do they do? I guess it would be factually correct to describe them as entrepreneurs, although that wouldn't really do them justice, because they're more like practicing philosophers, and also because I think they would hate the very term entrepreneur, I think they prefer makers or something. On the business side, they jointly run a medium-sized company called 37 Signals, which they started, and which makes several group communication tools, products, the flagship product is called Basecamp.

The company supposedly posts eight-figure profits every year, and for a company that was bootstrapped without much in the way of investments, that's pretty freaking good, and that provides the first sort of talking point, or the first received idea that they attack, is that you need to have investors to launch anything successful in this tech environment. But there are other received ideas that they attacked, and that list is long, very entertaining, I enjoyed their reasoning and how they structure... how they tell their experience, how they structure their argument.

Sometimes they go a little far, sometimes, I totally agree that you don't need so many meetings and Zoom calls, I totally agree that working in physical proximity is not critical, but they've attacked in a kind of entertaining way the whole concept of the MVP, even the sacred cow of agile methodology, the two-week sprint.

One thing I sort of felt they were going too far with, or rather David was going too far with, is the attack on static typing in programming languages. I'm not going to go into technical details, but there is a reason why most languages do have static typing, because it saves a lot of work later after a product is launched. And of course, David comes from Ruby, which doesn't have static typing, it's a dynamic language, so he carries with him this kind of, this sort of philosophy of "just winging it." Anyway, I'm going to leave that discussion aside for the moment.

But here's the thing. I really.. Like I said, I've been enjoying their stuff, I've been binging on it, mostly agreeing, except the above thing, but I recently started sort of analyzing my agreeing with it, and I kind of came to the conclusion that maybe there's like a slight logical fallacy there. Because if you boil down their whole argument, it's basically that they are these guys that are commonsensical, normal, very much like the listener. They started this company by themselves, no investors, with all their.. you know... way of doing stuff that is, like I said, commonsensical. And they succeeded to the level that is beyond what most people even dream of, let alone, you know, can realistically achieve. And therefore, they say, you don't have to follow all these kind of standard practices. Instead, you can go with their approach. Of course, it doesn't guarantee anything, but it's kind of like, we did it, so why can't you?

Well, you know, suppose this is all true, and I mean, it is all true. But the catch is that they did it at a certain point in time. And also, who are exactly they?

So Basecamp, their flagship product, their cash cow – it's a very successful software as a service type business with over 100,000 paying customers. 100,000 or probably more, way more, but 100,000 is a good ballpark.

That company is led by Jason and David, who, you know, who sold way more than 100,000 books. I think it's actually closer to a million or maybe more than a million. They've been blogging not just for years, but for decades. They've done interviews, talks, presentations. My guess is their total audience is at least in the millions.

But in addition, David, as I've only recently found out, is the very person behind a very popular framework called Ruby on Rails, which I'm highly unlikely to ever try. But given how many people use Ruby on Rails, I would venture to guess that even a small fraction of them would be a huge, if not decisive, audience for Basecamp. Even a small fraction of them decided to subscribe to Basecamp, you know, that alone would make it super successful.

So is it possible that their success as "tech makers" and philosophers is partly due to the fact that they're famous, somewhat famous, to the tune of millions, in the perfectly targeted crowd of potential customers, which by itself almost guarantees that they're successful?

Does this strike you as a logical fallacy to think that their advice could be applicable to others? I'm not sure. I'm just asking.

So yeah, it's a question. What do you think? Asking for a friend.

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Karma, Policed

KMO published a Substack article yesterday, which I wanted to comment on.

The article deals with the decline in the quality of online discussions on any topic. So... the thrust of his argument is that the big online platforms that have been kind of accumulating more and more, a bigger and bigger percentage of our discussions, have been moving to implement various algorithms designed to optimize specific metrics. And the metrics had to do with reactions that people give in response to various posts. These reactions can come in different forms. For example, the most primitive form is the ubiquitous like button, but there are other feedback mechanisms. For example, Reddit utilizes so-called karma, which the way I understand it boils down to like a sum total of upvotes and downvotes on your posts. Now, that may seem like a logical way to create like auto-regulation for each board or subreddit, but over time what it does, it actually constructs a very effective echo chamber. And the meaning of those upvotes and downvotes becomes simply upvote means I agree, downvotes means I disagree. People who I disagree with will be voted out of this board because their posts will become invisible. And so this group devolves into an echo chamber. KMO described it much more eloquently than I just did. And I really recommend that you go and read the whole article for yourself. But I wanted to make two comments.

First, if anyone still remembers a big online empire that was called Gawker that went bankrupt as a result of a somewhat frivolous lawsuit, was it 10 years ago or maybe it's not quite, maybe eight years ago, that empire was presided over by a publisher called Nick Denton. Now, Nick is a somewhat controversial figure, but it's completely irrelevant to what I'm going to say. Now, one thing to notice on Gawker properties, comments were kind of important. They were actually the main reason people often read this website. So Denton was very concerned about maintaining a certain level of vigor and insightfulness within those comments. And I think it was somewhere around 2011 when he went to the South by Southwest conference and gave an extended talk on the subject of online comments. And I think during that talk, he made some excellent points. One of them was that he was very aware of the fact that if you let people vote for the popularity of each comment or poster, which would then result in comments that represented the majority opinion rising to the top. And for Nick, with his muckraking instincts, that was the exact wrong thing to do. Now, the second point he was making, which was kind of similar, is if you keep doing it, you keep rewarding people expressing that prevailing opinion, then you're actually attracting the exact wrong type of commenter. It's the commenter who has absolutely nothing to add, nothing interesting, nothing insightful, nothing new. And if that person is attracted by having a high karma, high number of points, stars, upvotes, or whatever, that actually makes it only worse. So in summary, this is the person you definitely don't want to give too much visibility to. On the other hand, if a story has a villain, and that villain shows up in the discussion board, you should definitely give that person number one spot, regardless of how popular or unpopular they are. Of course, they're going to be unpopular. This is the villain.

So I think Denton's talk from more than 10 years ago and KMO's article from yesterday, they both make the same general point, which is that the comments whose visibility is based on this kind of social signal, upvote, or karma, or things of that nature, they're going to be fundamentally broken. So it's a wrong thing to optimize for. And it results in poor, more echo chamber discussions.

Now, I don't want this to happen to this platform. And of course, there are major differences between Gromco and Reddit, for example. But still, as we build our tool set for moderation, and for discovery, we're going to try to do our best not to fall into the same traps that all the major platforms seem to have fallen into, as argued masterfully by KMO in his article yesterday on Substack, which you should probably go and read yourself, because I probably didn't do justice discussing it here. But once you do that, feel free to come back and leave a voice comment with your opinion on this whole issue. Because that's just good karma.

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Pod or Not

Many people watching the tech media space have commented on the fact that the definition of podcast is slowly changing. The original definition was that a podcast is an audio blog that publishes what's called an RSS feed, essentially a specially formatted text file, which lists each episode with its name, description, and most importantly, the location of the corresponding media file, which is usually an audio file. So a feed like that can be added to and then automatically queried or played through pretty much every podcast player, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, whatever, there are dozens. Well, the Spotify, Spotify, the app, it used to be a music app, and now it's both a music and podcast app. And it just so happens that the company behind this app started stirring the pot in 2020, 21, when it began acquiring both podcast production companies and tech startups in the space. And most controversially, it signed a gazillion dollar contract with Joe Rogan, who prior to that signing of a contract had been duly publishing an RSS feed compatible with every player out there. But post contract, he made his show a Spotify exclusive show, meaning that he would stop publishing an open RSS feed and make his program playable only through Spotify. And that's what they pay them his gazillion dollars for, to make you go and use that app. So that created a somewhat absurd situation in which the most popular podcast out there, and by most general agreement, I think, the Joe Rogan Experience is the most popular podcast, is technically not a podcast. It's, it's just an exclusive show on a specific platform, playable only through one player. Well, he also puts his videos, short videos on YouTube, but that doesn't really matter. Like the full content is Spotify exclusive. And speaking of YouTube, YouTube got into the game too. And it started muddying the waters by claiming that some YouTube programs with videos uploaded to YouTube and playable only through YouTube are also podcasts. So there's this whole terminological singularity that is emerging, where almost anything that's personality centered in multimedia, and comes out periodically, regardless of the genre format, distribution, almost anything like that can be called a podcast. And now there's video podcasts, there are podcasts with RSS feed without an RSS feed, exclusive to one platform, all of that is called a podcast. Where I'm going with all this is that I wanted to say that I'm more than just a disinterested observer, I guess I'm more of a participant in this kind of melee. We're making tools for you to publish something that is very, very similar to podcasts. In fact, it's so similar that you can almost call it a podcast and be absolutely honest. Because by the definition of the old definition, the presence of an RSS feed makes it a podcast, you can just create your Gromco audio blog. And once you have at least one post, you can go and there's going to be a button on your profile that says export in RSS. And you can go and grab that RSS feed and submit it to Spotify or Apple. And if they accept you, which I don't see why they wouldn't, you'll find yourself in in their apps. And if they even if they don't accept, you can still sort of hard import it into most players because you have the RSS feed. But it's actually not my point. My point is that we're playing in this field, but we're nudging you in a slightly different direction. That direction involves shorter, more off the cuff episodes. And importantly, with one additional cool feature, which is the ability to incorporate listener responses in audio, almost as part of your program. I mean, to the extent that you want to do it, assuming you do that podcast that you can start with Gromco would be sort of a collaborative effort. Would it be still a podcast? Well, what do you think?

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Where is home?

So, I noticed this thing yesterday, which you may or may not have experienced yourself. Just to set the scene, I'm traveling right now, and I'm actually feeling a bit under the weather. But when I arrived at my apartment, my temporary apartment, it didn't look very welcoming. The lighting was weird, the apartment was facing another building, everything was just kind of awkward, and still is, it wasn't really cozy, so I didn't feel at home. But a few days later, which was actually yesterday, I started cooking dinner, and as I usually do, I popped in a podcast that I often listen to while cooking or doing dishes, and suddenly Those familiar voices and intonations of the hosts made me feel like I was home. And I then realized that it had happened before like this, when I would become habituated to a place with the help of an arbitrary podcast or program. And I thought, you know, this was kind of weird. Has anyone ever noticed anything similar? It could very well be that I'm imagining this thing, but my hunch is that I'm not, so let me know.

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What we are building

So, now that we've got this awkward first post out of the way, I'd like to explain what it is that we're building here, but I have to preface my explanation with a disclaimer that this thing is an early-stage startup project, and it just might end up doing what's known as a pivot. That said, the way we see it right now, Gromco is a low-barrier tool for publishing interactive short-form podcast-y content. Let me try to unpack those three things. The most important of them is interactive, and what it means is that each post, or an episode if you like, can, and should, invite audience feedback, ideally using the same medium – for example, voice. So this is the reply button that you see everywhere. Short-form, well, that's pretty self-explanatory, we just don't envision people posting long content, and podcast-y means that it's kind of like podcasting, but with audience participation. So we'll make this thing compatible with legacy players, like Apple and Spotify, we'll do it through the magic of RSS, and so people will be able to consume your Gromco voice blog using those apps. But crucially, you don't need to know much about these technical underpinnings, you don't need to know much about RSS, or even podcasting to start. If you can speak into a microphone and press a button, you're in. So hopefully this makes things clearer, if not, the reply button is right there.

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Shout-outs for @local