on the difference between communication, news, and entertainment

Recently it’s become plain that Twitter plans to add Facebook-style filtering to the Twitter timeline. In other words, Twitter would reserve the right to add or remove tweets from your timeline, rather than sending through every tweet from every account you follow (and none from those you don’t).

Twitter’s stated goal is to make your timeline more engaging, which makes sense based on how they’re monetizing the service. Twitter charges advertisers to promote content, which like any other advertising requires a big block of people constantly paying attention to be worth anything.

For some users, filtering like this means nothing less than the end of Twitter. That may seem overblown, but I think it’s a fair assessment. To be specific: filtering the timeline changes Twitter from a communications service into a news or entertainment service, which is inherently less valuable to me as a Twitter user.

I’ll step back and define some categories:

Communications services involve connecting to a network, then sending or receiving over that network with any other member, as a peer. Examples include mail, phone, ham radio, text messaging, email, IM, and Skype. Connecting to the network may involve cost (like phone service) or registration (like ham radio), but once connected you can send and receive to and from anyone. Communications services are often judged by the completeness and availability of the network (vs. dropped calls or missed emails).

News services involve curated content made by producers and received by consumers. They might use their own network (like newspapers or television) or piggyback on communications networks (like email newsletters or sports updates by text), but the content itself is their primary concern. News services are often judged by the accuracy and timeliness of their information. Choosing whether to cover a particular story is considered an editorial decision, but news services can get in trouble for presenting edited content as truth. (Thus “recorded earlier” notices, or “this interview has been condensed”.)

Entertainment services are like news services, but go a step further; they curate content to be engaging, without the requirement to be true or accurate. Entertainment services often go hand-in-hand with news services, delivered by the same network (like television) or even sharing the same packaging (like newspapers).

The lines between these are fuzzy, but one yardstick to use is the kind of complaints you’d find reasonable in each case. We complain to the phone company when we can’t make a call, but we don’t complain to them about getting 20 tech support calls from family each day. We complain to ESPN when they don’t cover enough soccer, but not that a broadcast game didn’t feature enough goals. Conversely, if the phone company blocked your aunt’s tech-support calls or ESPN added CG goals to the game, that would be unacceptable. You wouldn’t see it as “more engaging content”; it would make the service inherently less valuable to you.

At its core, Twitter is (and has always been) a communications network. It’s a broadcast network, like ham radio, but if I’m sending and you’re listening you expect to get my message. It’s a free service, like IM, but you’d rebel if you started receiving IMs from advertisers or found companies on your buddy lists without adding them. It delivers news and entertainment content, like the mail, but you’d be shocked if the post office rearranged your newspaper or tucked another DVD in the Netflix sleeve.

The justification Twitter gives for adding tweets to your timeline – hey, these are still real tweets, not ads! – misjudge the category they’re in. If CNN swaps news stories with other news, that’s an editorial decision we expect them to make. If AT&T connects my call to a random neighbor because my wife didn’t pick up, that’s bizarre and unexpected.

Considering it this way, I’m not surprised at all that Twitter users are threatening to leave if filtering is added. I’ll probably leave myself, and look for a social communications service that knows what kind of network it is.

Patreon and the future of free software

Crowdfunding is big, and Patreon makes it useful to frequent makers of free art. The model works so well that I think it might revolutionize the way free software is made and paid for.

Paying for software sucks

Ever try applying a mod to Minecraft? They’re free to download, and they can add immensely to the gameplay. The trouble is that to pay for them, the developers put the files behind the nastiest advertising-based paywalls I’ve ever seen.

Finding ways to fund free software is broken. Part of it is the broad and fuzzy meaning of “free” here; it might be crucial open-source software like Linux produced by thousands of developers, or a freeware game made in an afternoon. It might be “free” and supported by ads (like those mods), or “free” and funded by a deep-pocketed patron who benefits from it (like Google Chrome).

Paid software isn’t much better. Despite the revolution brought by app stores (Steam and iOS in particular), the pay-up-front model still encourages developers to concentrate on a flashy big release with lots of features. Bug fixes and UX improvements are appreciated by users, but those users aren’t paying anything extra to get them.

In general, though, there’s a developer who has to choose between building your app and working on something else. Whether you’re waiting for a bug fix that keeps Kafka from paging you at 3am, or an update that adds reentry heating to Kerbal Space Program, you might find yourself wanting to shovel a little extra money in that developer’s direction to help them choose.

From the developer’s side, the ideal business model would be to give away the software to as many people as possible, then pick out the ones who can’t live without it and charge them as much as they’re willing to pay, monthly if they’ll put up with it.

Enter Patreon

Patreon was created in 2013 by Jack Conte, a musician who wanted to get his videos in front of as many people as possible. Jack didn’t like the two choices available to pay for them: YouTube advertising and iTunes. He was tempted to try crowdfunding, but couldn’t imagine running a new Kickstarter campaign for every new video just to cover a few hundred dollars.

Patreon works a lot like Kickstarter, but it’s progressive and recurring: Someone who loves Jack’s videos and wants him to make more can go to his Patreon page and pledge $1 toward the next video, which carries over to each video after that. Jack can then see how much patrons have pledged for the next video, whether $3 or $3000, and budget accordingly. When the video is done, Jack distributes it for free (to everyone, not just backers) and finds new people who love the video enough to kick in another dollar.

Patreon is new, but it’s already working well for both big and small projects. It provides recurring income to the artist, and a direct connection to the patrons. The patrons are paying a small amount for each release ($1 isn’t uncommon), but they can easily see how their pledges add up to give the project a decent budget. In some cases, artists have already dropped advertising because it annoys patrons who are kicking in enough to offset the income.

The key to Patreon’s model is that it encourages frequent releases of art made with the patrons in mind. When Jack is deciding whether a new video is worth doing, he has two natural questions to ask: “Will my patrons think this is worth the $1 they pledged?” and  ”Am I willing to give up that patron money if I don’t do this?” The result is a regular cadence of good art.

Patreon is ready for free software as-is

If you’ve worked with an open-source software project, this might sound familiar to you. There might be lots of people waiting on new releases that fix bugs or add crucial features, but there are only so many spare hours in the day to work on them. A steady stream of patron dollars might encourage developers to work on their free software projects rather than take a contract job or start a new app for the App Store.

Patreon is neutral about the kinds of projects it accepts, so a developer could theoretically set up a Patreon page and start accepting backers right now. Each time an update is released, instead of linking to Youtube the developer would link to the update on GitHub or RubyGems or wherever they normally would.

Links back to Patreon could be added to the project’s README or changelog, or better yet mentioned on feature requests and when closing bugs. After a while, I imagine the relationship between backers and good releases would become plain in both directions: If you want better software, pledge more. If you want us to give more, make real improvements more often.

Frequent updates make better software

As a side benefit, the Patreon model would support the agile software development model. Each iteration (a short development cycle, usually with a fixed time) is judged on whether a notable improvement was shipped to customers, and patrons would be more likely to pledge based on the same metric. Bug fixes can be as valuable to existing users as new features, so there would be a strong business case for fixing bugs and making UX improvements each sprint that otherwise wouldn’t get on the roadmap.

Semantic versioning might see a surge in use, too. Rather than bundling flashy new features into big releases that justify re-purchasing software, the Patreon model would reward regular, repeated progress. Without a monetary reason to treat a point release as a major version (cough Twitterbot 3 cough), the field might be clear to set version numbers based on API compatibility.

Build funding into project sites

The obvious next step would be to create a patron-funding site specifically for software projects. GitHub is already a great community for describing, delivering, and collaborating on open-source software. Integrating patron funding would probably be straightforward. The same could be said of RubyGems or any other site that keeps track of version releases, too.

The tricky part, though, is getting the balance right; Patreon and Kickstarter have both done a great job (and put in some serious UX and community work) distinguishing “backers” and “pledges” from “donors” and “tips”, which seems to make all the difference. Software-patronage sites would have to work to connect the money pledged to real and regularly-delivered improvements to the software.

Still, I hope this model gets adopted by software projects sooner rather than later. I’d love to pay for updates to an amazing Minecraft mod by kicking in a dollar instead of dodging sketchy ads. Wouldn’t you?

Space is Awesome in 2014

In case you missed it:

We have a space station in orbit. You can see it as it passes overhead. People have lived there for over a decade. From what I’ve read, living there is a pretty magical experience.

There are two commercial companies launching regular cargo shipments to the space station, plus cargo launches by the Russian, European, and Japanese space agencies.

People still have to ride a Russian rocket to get to the space station. A few commercial companies are working on better ways to get there.

The space station has a cannon that launches small satellites into orbit, including bunches sent up on commercial cargo flights. One company is launching 30 earth-observing satellites at once, because they can.

There’s a nuclear-powered robot on Mars. She’s been there for over a year. She occasionally tweets selfies. She joined a solar-powered robot that’s been roving for over a decade. Another robot just landed on the Moon, the first one in a long while.

At least one commercial company is flight testing their passenger rocketships. Another is hot on their heels. We’re all impatiently waiting for flights to space, including hundreds of ticket holders.

One of those cargo-launch companies launched and landed the ten-story-tall first stage of its rocket. On its tail. Eight times.

An asteroid-mining company is using crowd-funded money to build their first asteroid-finding space telescope. It will also take selfies.

We now know of over a thousand planets around other stars. (You can help find more, or just get updates on your phone.) We have a photograph of at least one of them. There’s a new telescope to take photos of a lot more.

When you look up at the sky tonight, count 25 stars. (It’s easy, because there are millions in view.) One of those 25 is a Sun-like star with an Earth-sized planet  in the habitable zone, according to our best estimates.

There’s more going on than I can even list in an overview. A decade ago, most of this was science fiction. Welcome to 2014, when space is awesome.

how to ruin a Kickstarter

As Kickstarter gets more popular, I’m seeing more lousy Kickstarters. Most of them get ruined because they break the fundamental rules implied by any Kickstarter project:

1. If you don’t meet the backing goal, this project will not happen.
2. If you do meet the backing goal, this project will happen.

In case they’re not obvious enough, an example:

The Furry Pink Car Example

Let’s say I built an absurdist art car, and I want to add furry pink seats in time for the next Burning Man. I have a good reason to want the new seats: riding in the car without them is uncomfortable enough that people complain loudly. However, I don’t have the funds to add them myself.

I have some rewards in mind: an exclusive video of the seats being installed, a ride in the car itself, and for top backers, your name painted on the passenger door.

I know there are plenty of people who would back my project, so I’m ready to go. How could I screw it up?

Remember: If the goal isn’t met, the project won’t happen.

Easy. I could state my project in broader terms than I’m actually funding. “Absurdist Art Car at Burning Man 2013!” My project video could talk all about the car, with a quick mention of how pink fluffy seats would be nice.

When potential backers read that title and watch that video, they’re left with a big question: “You already have this car. Why do you need more money?” From the project page (which is all they have to go on!) it sounds like the project will happen whether they back it or not.

I had this feeling about a recent space company that went the crowdfunding route. The rewards were the usual space-company merchandise, and the project boiled down to “Help us do what we’re already doing!” My contribution wasn’t going to make a difference, so I didn’t bother.

How could I fix it? Change my title to “Pink Fuzzy Seats: The Only Way To Travel” and describe the benefits (and unreasonable expense!) of the all-important seats. If the money doesn’t come through, the art car will be as uncomfortable as it was last year, so no rides for anyone!

Great! How could I screw that up, then?

Remember: If the goal is met, this project will happen.

Messing this up is more subtle, but a lot more common. There’s an assumption underlying my whole project, something I might completely miss by (correctly) stating the goal narrowly. Take a look: can you spot it?

That’s right: I need a working, drivable art car. The rewards require it, the seats are useless without it. If something happens to that car so that I can’t take it to Burning Man, then I’m on the hook to fix it.

WITHOUT asking for more money. That’s the really tough part. Going back to those fluffy-seat backers with a second Kickstarter (or IndieGoGo, or anything like it) seems natural, but it’s dead wrong. By asking for new funds to make an old project possible, I’m casting doubt on my ability to complete that project at all. Why would my backers throw good money after bad?

I often see this problem with films and other art projects, the kind that have lots of steps. (Writing, shooting, editing, post-production, distribution, aigh!) It’s natural to make the film the project, with backer rewards to match, but if you’re just funding the first steps you should only provide rewards from those steps. (A rough cut of the film, for example.) Don’t offer the whole film if you’re only funding part of it.

In my case, I’m resolving to keep the car running and get it to Burning Man, no matter what. It’s something I would have had to do anyway, but now my backers are relying on me to get the furry pink seats on the road.

Note that I’m not going to list “car breaking down” as one of the “risks” or “uncertainties” on the project page, either. If Burning Man is canceled, that’s an uncertainty. If faux pink fur melts in the Black Rock sun, that’s a risk. However, I’m pledging to do everything I can to get the car there, and it’s reasonable to expect me to deliver on that promise.

back of the envelope: daylighting on Mars

Sometimes I need to work out a rough calculation to check whether my idea of something science-fictiony has any basis in reality. It doesn’t need to be super-rigorous*, but close enough to tell if my conception is way off the mark.

In this case, I’ve been thinking about how it might feel to walk around a city on Mars. It’s likely to be mostly underground to help shield against radiation, but there should be as much daylight as possible to save energy. On Earth, that kind of daylighting comes from skylights, windows, and (my personal favorite) light tubes.

But what about on Mars? Mars is farther from the Sun than Earth is, so it gets less light on the surface, but how much less? Is walking down a Martian street destined to feel like a gloomy overcast day?

First I had to get a grip on how to measure daylight. An obvious comparison is solar radiation, measured in Watts per square meter. Depending on time of year, Mars gets between 1/3 and 1/2 as much solar radiation as Earth, because it’s about 50% farther from the Sun. That’s handy for figuring solar power output, but the human eye isn’t so linear.

Another way is illuminance, measured in lux. Though the exact conversion factor between solar radiation and lux is a bit tricky due to the eye’s reaction to different wavelengths, I gather that the relationship is linear. Thus, using some standard Earth values and scaling them:

on Earth on Mars (min) on Mars (max)
direct sunlight 110,000 lux 38,000 lux 55,000 lux
indirect daylight 20,000 lux 6,800? lux 10,000? lux
clear sunrise/sunset 400 lux 130 lux 200 lux

(I’m assuming that indirect daylight is scattered as well in Mars’s pink sky as it is in Earth’s blue. Something to check later.)

Filling in a few other Earthly values for comparison:

bright overcast 25,000 lux
dark overcast 10,000 lux
studio lighting 1000 lux
office lighting 500 lux
cloudy sunrise/sunset 40 lux

So it looks like daylight on Mars wouldn’t look too different from daylight on Earth. It’s orders of magnitude more light than during “golden hour” on Earth, which is plenty to get around by. It would probably feel like a partly-cloudy day, since there would be more light than even the brightest overcast day, with sharply-defined shadows.

For daylighting, this probably means that Martian interiors would need twice as many Solatubes to get the same level of illumination, but we’re still talking about a fraction of the available daylight. In other words, using Earth-style lighting techniques should keep a Martian city street from feeling gloomy.

*Note the use of Wikipedia sources. Kids, don’t use Wikipedia as a source if you want anyone to take you seriously.