Talkshow: I hope this is a joke

1gy0-4kj3qjurm9cybw87paThis morning one of the top stories in my Nuzzel newsletter – which puts together the most shared stories from people I follow on Twitter, so that I don’t get FOMO – was about Talkshow, a messaging app that allows you to text publicly.

Don’t get me wrong, I like texting. I text cat pictures, screenshots of internet funnies, comments about my breakfast, questions about my friends’ relationships, all the standard stuff. I use iMessage interchangeably with WhatsApp. And the majority of my message threads would be totally fine to appear in public. What I use Twitter for is public conversations: things I’d be happy for my friends to see, but I would also quite like other people to see it if they want to.

Anybody with a significant following on Twitter is likely also using it to have public back-and-forth conversations with one or two individuals. Often the same individuals – maybe their former editor, or a housemate, or someone from their industry who they like to engage in a bit of lighthearted sparring. It works well for public chatter, only occasionally interrupted by random Twitter users.

The two forms of communication – texting and Twitter – serve different functions as far as I’m concerned, and they work relatively well for these functions (even if Twitter is on the decline). But ultimately, quite a lot of what is shared publicly and privately is pretty bloody mundane for anyone not directly involved in whatever is being talked about. Cat pictures, Beyonce comments or otherwise.

So what the hell is Talkshow here for? This has got to be a joke. The messaging app for “texting in public” lets you invite whoever you want to be on your “talkshow” (aka your text thread), and it seems to have blown up in the tech press and beyond overnight (see Mashable, BuzzFeed, all the excitement on Twitter). The idea of it makes me shake my head and tut like a grandma. “Kids these days!” What is so appealing about sharing your random chit chat for others to see? You were doing that anyway on Twitter! And Instagram to an extent. And Snapchat. And so on.

The main reason I thought the app was a joke was because in the blogpost they shared, called Talkshow is texting in public, the founder cites a screenshot of what I think might be the most boring interaction I’ve seen in months:

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Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran’s fascinating text conversation

Internet, we have reached new lows. If that is what I’ve got to look forward to working with as a marketer or a writer, then things look pretty bleak. I don’t care that it was created by Michael Sippey, former VP of Product at Twitter. I don’t care that instant messaging via robots is going crazy at the moment. Or that Christopher Mims, the tech columnist from the Wall Street Journal had this to say about Talkshow:

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What I really think – after having laughed and maybe cried a little – is that Talkshow might go the same way as Jelly and Peach both did, which is to have massive media interest and hype for about three or four days, and then never be mentioned again.

Tweet me if I’m proved wrong @fakebananas

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Is it ok to ghostwrite opinion pieces?

I wrote something for content marketing publication The Content Strategist on something that’s been bothering me – am I ok with the fact that sometimes I write other people’s opinions for them? It’s a weird one, and ethically very grey. (Apologies in advance for the American spellings and phrasing, I had to keep to their house style)

Is It Morally Okay to Ghostwrite Thought Leadership?

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I was 21 when I found out that a friend was ghostwriting recipes for a celebrity chef. The recipes were published in a highly respected U.K. magazine, which really shocked me at the time. In my naivety, I could barely comprehend that the chef wouldn’t take time out of his day to sit and write his own recipes. It was almost as crushing as finding out the truth about Santa Claus.

At that point, I vowed to never enter what I saw as the seedy underworld of ghostwriting. Of course, years later, I conveniently forgot that promise as I found myself working in a PR agency, drafting comments and opinion pieces on behalf of so-called “thought leaders.”

Guest posts, op-eds, thought leadership—regardless of the terminology, we tend to think of these as staples of a CMO’s repertoire, a chance for executives to offer advice based on their experiences and show off their personality. In that case, shouldn’t the opinion piece be written by the person who gets the byline?

Ethically speaking, this practice still makes me deeply uncomfortable when I have to forge someone else’s thoughts. It probably goes back to the time I received a reply to my letter to the British Queen when I was seven years old and was disappointed to find it was written by her “ladies in waiting” rather than the Queen herself. To use a very British expression, I was pretty gutted.

Ghostwriting isn’t just an issue in journalism and blogging. Song lyrics, novels, autobiographies, letters—plenty of people propel their careers forward on the momentum of other people’s words. But whether we see it as morally kosher seems to depend on the industry.

Let’s look at academia, where using someone else’s writing is absolutely off limits. If you’re caught paying a shady essay mill to write your paper, you’ll probably be suspended and may face expulsion. You didn’t do the research. You didn’t write the paper. Your academic reputation would be in tatters.

Somehow, these consequences don’t apply in a professional setting. Instead, if you pay someone to write your professional guest post, your reputation could be bolstered instead. What about if I paid another freelancer to write this article under my name, would that be ethical? No, not really. Plus it would be weird. Society’s rules on this front are pretty arbitrary.

Across the publishing world, I believe we should give more thought to whether it’s okay to continue ghostwriting without any sort of disclosure. Apart from walking away entirely from ghostwriting opinion articles, which a lot of us can’t afford to do, this is an opportunity to reassess how we put them together.

A collaborative ghost

Even though ghostwriting is misleading by its very nature, some assignments are better than others. The difference often comes down to collaboration. Is it a question of making someone’s existing thoughts sound prosaic or are you doing all of the work yourself without any of the credit?

Inventing opinions for other people can be demoralizing if you do it for long enough, and it’s even worse when the person getting the byline doesn’t have anything new to say. If you want to fabricate something from scratch, writing fiction is probably a lot more fulfilling (although there’s less money in that).

But in many cases, clients should be willing to share some thoughts. Make time to meet in-person or over the phone to discuss the topic. Get into their heads, note the way they speak, and ask where their business is headed. Pay attention to their senses of humor. All of these factors will typically lead to more accurate representations of someone’s voice, which smooths out some of the moral wrinkles and could lead to more repeat business.

Once you finish the draft, it also helps to get feedback from the client. Hop on the phone and ask what the person really thinks of the piece. Do they disagree with any major points? Would they say a phrase differently? Is there a personal anecdote they can provide that adds to the narrative (and makes your job easier)? You may have to go through a rewrite or two, but doing so will make the piece stronger.

Due credit

Collaboration can certainly help some of the issues with ghostwriting, but changing the creative process for the better still doesn’t fix the end result. At some point, most ghostwriters probably think: What if I wrote this for myself? What if I got the recognition for my effort?

For now, there’s no way for ghostwriters to get paid the same rates and get credit for a thought leadership byline. But a minimal tweak could change that.

When some celebrities sign book deals for memoirs, co-writers are included in the byline, just in a smaller font. It might seem strange at first, but why couldn’t bloggers use this same system? Or at the very least, put some sort of disclosure at the bottom of the story to acknowledge the name of the person who actually wrote the post.

While marketers may have a reputation for being manipulative, we do also have a duty to call bullshit. If you’ve been in the game a long time, it’s easy to justify your decisions instead of thinking about ethics and morality. I find myself in constant conflict over this, and I think it’s important for us to give the pros and cons of ghostwriting some serious thought.

To be clear, I’m not calling out freelancers who take on the work. We have the ability to flesh out ideas relevant for a wider audience, easier to understand and more shareable. Ghostwriting assignments often pay well and can be a good way to make connections with executives. They also let us work on our brainstorming and writing skills without the fear of negative criticism on social media and comments sections.

But just make sure you’ve made peace with what you’re writing. Otherwise turn down the money, and protect your personal voice. You’ll sleep better for it.

Check out the original piece here on Contently.

Personalised DNA Scarves

I wrote for VICE’s technology website The Creators Project about the launch of an amazing British startup creating textiles based on your own DNA profile:

Wear the Perfect Genes with Personalized DNA Scarves

Ever wanted someone to weave you a scarf based on your swab sample? It might not be on your Christmas wishlist just yet, but this unusual gift is designed to open up the conversation around art, technology, and DNA profiling.

Female entrepreneur Iona Inglesby, 26, came up with the idea for Dot One while studying at the Royal College of Art in London. She was fascinated by the idea of family tartans and using material to represent identity, but felt that the designs she saw had no inherent value that made them relevant to individuals. She saw DNA profiling as a way to create entirely unique designs, rather like unique codes, and initially experimented with DNA personalized tartan for her own family.

Fast forward to 2015 and Inglesby has just launched a line of bright textiles and prints based on DNA profiles. Apparently we share 50% of our genetic makeup with bananas, 80% with orangutans, and 99.9% with all eight billion humans on earth. So this narrow sliver of 0.1% of our deoxyribonucleic acid is all that marks us out as different.

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The results add a customizable layer to the art scarf game, a field previously pioneered by Philip Stearns’ glitch art scarves and Slow Factory’s NASA photo silk prints. Using the same testing methods as those used for paternity tests and forensic identification, Dot One sends you a kit in the post to take a swab from the inside of your cheek. Data from your sample is used to make your personalized design in the form of a scarf or print (with plans for a wider range in future). Inglesby tells The Creators Project, “A DNA profile is made up of examining 23 locations on your chromosomes. Using an algorithm we created, we translate the raw figures into colour and pattern which visually represents your genetic data.” Families can also jointly submit their DNA profiles to commission a family tree which maps gene inheritance from one generation to the next.

Using her background in design to bring this to life, Inglesby hopes to make science more accessible to the general public and to stimulate conversation and debate around genetics. “Many people negatively associate DNA testing with clones and designer babies, but there is so much incredible research going on which actually empowers us as humans and will radically change our healthcare,” Inglesby argues.

Dot One is one of a raft of startups helping people to better understand their bodies, such as 23andme, which was the first to popularize direct-to-consumer DNA testing, back in 2006. Many technology companies are beginning to make breakthroughs, creating products that help the general public decode the language that their cells are built with.

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The Dot One range was also inspired by coding, but not the sort we know today: it was in part a result of a trip to Bletchley Park near London (home of the Enigma machine) and a synthetic biology workshop. Inglesby spotted a connection between the two, and a connection with weaving: “The teleprinter code at Bletchley was almost identical to weaving punchcards I’d seen—a binary system like all computers. Even DNA is being experimented with as a storage device for binary data, but with ATCGs instead of 0s and 1s. Theoretically you could fit all the world’s binary data in the amount of DNA to fill up a teaspoon!”

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You can see the article on the Creators Project website here.

If you’re here to speak English, then..!

I was asked by The Debrief to investigate a possible “anti-tourist backlash” happening in Berlin while I was living there in 2013. Some of it was petty badmouthing of silly tourists – just like we do in London – but some of it was more sinister. Read more about it below:

‘IF YOU’RE HERE TO SPEAK ENGLISH THEN F**K OFF’. WHAT’S BEHIND THE ANTI TOURIST MOVEMENT IN BERLIN

THE DEBRIEF: FOR MANY TOURISTS BERLIN HAS BECOME THE ULTIMATE PARTY DESTINATION, BUT JUST HOW WELCOME ARE THE MILLIONS WHO FLOOD TO GERMANY’S CAPITAL EVERY YEAR?

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Go to Berlin these days and you might not just see the Bradenberg Gate and the inside of infamous club Berghain (if you’re lucky), but you’ll also notice some not-exactly-friendly signs. ‘Berlin Doesn’t Love You,’ signs have started popping up in the windows of notorious tourist dive bars. Similar slogans such as ‘Yuppies Raus’ (translated Yuppies Out) and ‘Fucking Tourists!’ are dotted around the city and scrawled on toilet walls – an indication of a new anti-tourist backlash. It would be easy to read these signs and assume visitors are no longer welcome in the party capital of Europe. A capital which in last year alone attracted 11.6 million non-German tourists.

But who’s behind this anti-English sentiment spreading through the city? I’ve moved to Berlin from London for nine months and the general consensus amongst non-nationals here is that the police are a little bit ‘racist and aggressive’. There’s also been reports of attacks on tourists going on without anyone in authority batting an eyelid, arsey Airbnb and hotel policies saying they won’t accept groups of tourists over a certain number (presumably to weed out rowdy hen or stag dos) and anti-gentrification protests, with people taking offence with non-national ‘hipsters’ moving into previously cheap areas of the city like Kreuzberg and hiking up the cost of living.

But the main hatred being directed towards tourists is coming from club bouncers, although a Spanish friend had ‘Heil Hitler!’ shouted at him at the street while coming home with his boyfriend from a disco at a U-bahn station. In fact a word that came up several times while researching opinions in Berlin was ‘protecting’: bouncers, Berliners and expat punters want to safeguard their amazing, untainted club scene. ‘When the club bouncer lets in “tourists” or people that are not used to the Berlin scene, the club or behaviour in people changes,’ one friend told me recently.

Even Brits who live in Berlin are not cool with antisocial behaviour of certain tourists. ‘Berlin has crawled back from being a divided city to a proud city of multiculturalism and bohemia. To pollute that with drunken assholes is obviously annoying,’ says my friend and resident Cat.

How to avoid the anti-tourist backlash? Well behave like, as JFK would put it, a Berliner. Especially when it comes to clubbing. The most important ‘rule’ is this: when queuing to get into a club don’t be a dick. Hen and stag parties are often made to feel unwelcome here, and may have to argue their way into a club and overpay on the door price, as I noticed a group of 15 wizards and monks found last month. Other unwritten rules for entry seem to be that you shouldn’t be speaking English or Spanish, or visibly drunk (we’re talking a different scale of drunk to the UK – Berlin bouncers wouldn’t let in 95% of people you see out on a Friday night in Manchester). And once you’re in don’t take photos inside the club or you’ll get an angry German bouncer next to you in a matter of seconds. You also shouldn’t dress up like you would in the UK – heels are a no-no. This is actually one of the appealing things about the city; that you won’t be judged for being dressed down. Unless you are wearing a penis whistle. That’s a different matter.

Still, some of those who I spoke to about this article where keen to stress that you can still be accepted in Berlin as an expat or a tourist, as long as you behave appropriately. ‘It’s one of the most openly accepting cities of differences in cultural, sexual, and lifestyle expression that I’ve lived in,’ says Brit Emma, who moved to Berlin a few years ago.

And there’s still an awareness that the influx of money from internationals has a positive side to it. They bring skills with them (like mixing gin and tonic), money (in the wrong currency) and for the most part, a pretty open frame of mind.

So come visit Berlin! Just remember to keep your clothes on. And leave the penis whistle at home.

You can read the original article on The Debrief here.

 

Obituary of a startup: How.Do

Last month creative Berlin-based startup How.Do announced it was closing, and today, June 30th, marks the end of their journey. Despite a short lifetime, the company’s achievements and potential, which inspired a huge network of makers, seemed to merit the obituary of a long, well-lived life. If you believe in life after death, do you ever wonder where the spirit of a startup goes?

How.Do is – or was – a platform started in 2012 in Stockholm for sharing micro-knowledge, that is to say an app for recording photos with up to eight seconds of audio to create chapters of a How.Do, a way of sharing everyday knowledge in a beautifully simple way.

How.Do wasn’t originally supposed to be an app. It was concocted like a potion, with ideas, academic theories and philanthropic desires stirred into it, but when the founders Emma Rose Metcalfe and Nils Westerlund concluded that the tools needed to share knowledge were a camera and a microphone, they concluded that everyone carries these tools around all the time.

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How.Do founders Emma Rose Metcalfe, Edward Jewson and Nils Westerlund at the Maker Faire, New York

Metcalfe, from the north of England, came from a background in service design amongst other things, and has all kinds of unusual stories to tell such as the period of her life when she lived in a cabin in the woods. Westerlund, on the other hand, was an expert in sound, very data-driven and had been working at SoundCloud, the darling of Berlin’s startup scene. It was on a study trip to India as part of their Masters that the pair realised they wanted to work on something together, combining sound and image to create an experience that’s meaningful.

Their academic approach is immediately obvious if you speak to either of them about How.Do – the choice to make the audio eight seconds per chapter was drawn from research at the time about learning, memory and our ever decreasing attention spans. Both founders were fascinated by what Metcalfe refers to as the “emotional durability of sound”, and they remained concerned during the lifespan of How.Do that content should have a longer term social value, rather than appear fleetingly on a homefeed.

“Oh shit we made a company”

Suddenly what had been a study project had gained momentum, and they’d already brought on Edward Jewson as a co-founder and CTO, who pushed out a beta product for friends to experiment with. Friends and acquaintances asked regularly when to expect a new release, and Metcalfe explains that this was empowering and encouraging, but they said to themselves “Oh shit we made a company. What do we need to learn now?”. Metcalfe soon found she was at risk of failing her Masters degree due to pouring her energies into How.Do, and during a crisis meeting with her professor it was suggested that she should combine the two, resulting in her degree being on the meaningful distribution of experiences. They had to start behaving more like they were running a business, rather than like students, which meant following in the footsteps of other startups.

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Invites to beta test How.Do

In May 2012 they registered as a limited company in the UK while still based in Stockholm, with the rather charming name How Do You Peel A Banana? Ltd, and at the end of the summer they raised a significant seed round and officially launched How.Do. The funding came from Horizon Ventures, Peter Read (an angel investor in the UK who also invested in another creative startup which later failed, Gidsy), and Wellington Partners, which praised the How.Do founders’ “extraordinary vision”. People had faith in the company and the product. One of the founders’ mentors Henrik Torstensson, who was the head of marketing at Spotify, had used the app silently while the founders watched him and anticipated his opinion. After what felt to them like an interminable wait, he simply said, “There’s some kind of weird magic in this. I can’t tell what it is”. Alex Ljung, co-founder of SoundCloud, was also impressed, stating “That’s the magic of sound right there”.

I’m a dreamer

With gold lining their pockets and ready to scale their business, they continued their journey on the startup trajectory. The team moved from their living room in Stockholm to Berlin, a cheaper hub of creativity, and found it suited them well to be amongst a keen ‘maker’ community. At first they shared an office with other startups at the Wostel, a coworking space in the trendy, low-rent area of Neukölln in the south of the city. The Wostel has also previously housed other popular Berlin startups Amen (which has since disappeared) and Loopcam, and out in the back yard sits Hüttenpalast, an unusual hotel of caravans and dens where dreamers can roost for a weekend.

What lay ahead was endless potential. The founders drew up a list on the wall of who they would love to employ, and were unafraid to approach anyone, finding that everyone was accessible and happy to have a chat: “It was incredible,” they breathe. They set about assembling their fantasy team, employing creative spirits from Italy, the UK and even flying a software engineer over from Argentina. They listened to feedback about the app, they iterated and they analysed. Co-founder Westerlund says “We were tracking every move of our users in closed beta”, aiming to understand how people used the product, what users wanted out of it, and learning in the process what the constituted the “right information” to track.

Despite being another app on people’s smartphone, How.Do cultivated an incredibly passionate community. The team hosted regular ‘Fix-It Nights’ where strangers and friends met to help each other fix broken things. There was no pressure put on attendees to create a How.Do tutorial while they were there, about for example ‘How do you solder wires to fix a broken electrical cord?’ which I learned from a friendly stranger. They cut up their pizza with scissors, shared beers amongst their disciples and spread a lot of positivity and human kindness in the process. Their app, after all, was to “empower people to empower people” as Metcalfe described their philanthropic leaning.

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How.Do captured the imagination of the maker community

How.Do’s efforts gained support and encouragement from other startups which are now enjoying success and wider recognition, such as Sugru and photography app EyeEm. How.Do did not garner as much media attention as these peers, though tech website GigaOM profiled the app. David Meyer, the journalist who wrote the piece, described the app – which admittedly went on to be improved in functionality – as being “not quite there yet”. He also said that it was “maddeningly close to be something else” and that “there’s something in this thing”, which seemed to ring true even as the company started to wind down recently. There was some kind of weird magic in there.

“We almost made it work”

Interestingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, research this year has shown that startups that fail tend to end 20 months after their last round of investment. How.Do raised in October 2012, and is now closing exactly 20 months later. It would be easy to dismiss How.Do, treat the failure as an inevitability; another casualty of the bloodthirsty startup scene. It unwittingly fell into the grooves left by other failed businesses. But How.Do just didn’t fit the mould of being a ‘tech startup’. It broke the rules in a sphere that is all about breaking the rules. Trying to fit How.Do into the tech startup straitjacket is like trying put more and more helium balloons into an unsealed box. There is simply too much colour, and energy, and human emotion bursting out of the sides for it to behave like other businesses.

The app was in some ways superseded by other apps with different purposes but convergent technology such as Vine, which appeared in the early days of How.Do, and using Twitter’s clout and an even easier interface than How.Do, it rocketed in popularity. YouTube, an internet dinosaur compared to How.Do, also improved its offering during How.Do’s lifetime so that viewers could see in a pop up bubble a preview of that section of the video. How.Do had wanted to give users control of video in the same way, to skip forwards, backwards or right to the end to find the part they needed. It’s now hard to believe that YouTube didn’t have this chapter view previously, but this iteration made How.Do a little more redundant. “We almost made it work” says Metcalfe.

Startup graveyard and startup ghosts

Although it is accepted that startups fail, nobody tends to visit the startup graveyard, lay flowers or even celebrate the ideas that were once alive and gleaming. Ideas get dismissed quicker than users delete a ‘has-been’ app from their phones, but these businesses, even if they no longer leave tangible things in their wake, they leave their users behind.

In spring of 2014, the How.Do founders had to make an unpleasant decision and pull the plug. “When we pushed out the blogpost, it was quick. We realised it was really happening”. They began moving out of their office, which by now was in Etsy Germany’s studio in Kreuzberg, Berlin. They sold off their officeware, tables and chairs using a Google spreadsheet to update people as to what had gone already. The official ending day is 30th June, and by the time of the founder interview in early June, it was still unclear what would remain of the technology. The servers, the founders explained, are much too expensive to run to allow people to keep using the How.Do service, so the future availability is uncertain.

For now, the founders are in limbo while the creative spirit dissipates from the business corpse. The feeling of freedom finds them a little uneasy; unsteady on their feet. Metcalfe has been making the most of her differently shaped days, “I can spend my lunchtimes doing whatever the hell I like”, she says, and was pleased to find out that it’s free to watch the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsing during the day. “There was a man laid down listening to the music with his eyes closed and his shoes off, which is quite fantastic”. As for what’s next, the team members have different plans ahead but for the moment are keeping quiet about where their creativity will manifest itself.

“So that’s what freedom feels like” says Metcalfe, “I don’t know if I like it”.