‘Yes, and’

Image by Donovan Valdivia via Unsplash

I have been trying to make sense of what is going on around the world over the last couple of weeks. George Floyd should not have died. He died because he was black. George Floyd is the tip of the iceberg. Before him there were many, many more: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner – many of whom have not got justice despite it being years since their death. 

The lives of black people have been taken so heartlessly not only by people in the US. The UK has a lot to be responsible for, apart from its own share of deaths of Black people. As Afua Hirsch said in her Guardian article last week:

The British government could have had the humility to use this moment to acknowledge Britain’s experiences. It could have discussed how Britain helped invent anti-black racism, how today’s US traces its racist heritage to British colonies in America, and how it was Britain that industrialised black enslavement in the Caribbean, initiated systems of apartheid all over the African continent, using the appropriation of black land, resources and labour to fight both world wars and using it again to reconstruct the peace. 

The structural racism that causes Black people to die again and again is not what non-Black people want to discuss unless they are forced to. It is a system that has been built over years, decades, centuries, and it will take time to dismantle, if we are lucky enough to even get there. There are a bulk of resources to read on this issue – here are ways you can learn in the month of June alone, so I won’t list them all here. If you are not black and want to understand why Black Lives Matter has taken on so much urgency, please give some of them a read, watch or listen. 

These discussions are hard, but they need to happen. I am far from educated enough on the subject of racism, anti-racism, structural racism, or anti-fragility – I’m still trying. Here, I want to lay out some of my thoughts on this issue, but also try and articulate something else that has been bothering me, as someone with Indian heritage. 

Even as many in India raise their voices in support of Black Lives Matter, there is warranted criticism for not supporting the causes that need a lot more attention in their own backyard. (With regard to the kind of discrimination that Black people see in America, I’m talking specifically about caste discrimination – of Dalits particularly, and religious discrimination – particularly of Muslims). 

There are two components to this: one, a large number of people who are getting the media attention for speaking up about Black Lives Matter in India at the moment are film celebrities, some of whom are very simply out of touch with reality (all the usual tone-deaf language about how ‘All Lives Matter’). These celebrities argue against racism in America, while endorsing fairness creams in India, and belonging to an industry which engages in ‘brownface’. You see the problem. 

The second is the legitimacy of talking about issues in other parts of the world when there are issues to tackle at home: from a long hard look at the casteism that contributed to Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s death in 2016 to more recent instances of police overreach similar to that being witnessed in the US at the moment. As an illustration, here’s one Instagram image I’ve seen shared a lot recently:

My niece Ragini Menon recently wrote a piece worth reading, about the pathetic record Indians have with regard to the treatment of Black people, and how South Asian Americans particularly owe a lot to the work of Black communities in the US (for more on the latter, follow SouthAsians4BlackLives on Instagram). Acknowledging that many of us stand on the shoulders of Black communities is important, as is the importance of dispelling the myth of Asian-Americans as the ‘model minority’. As this NPR piece notes:

Asians have been barred from entering the U.S. and gaining citizenship and have been sent to incarceration camps, Kim pointed out, but all that is different than the segregation, police brutality and discrimination that African-Americans have endured. 

Which brings me back to what made me want to explore all these things I’ve been reading, listening to and watching over the last few weeks: examining the ‘legitimacy’ of speaking up about one atrocity when there are others to acknowledge. The truth is there is no ‘convenient’ time to speak up. This is an ongoing battle; racism has been endemic for centuries. In countries like the US and UK, Black people have been facing hardships and violence for so long that many have unfortunately come to accept it as a way of life (yes, it saddens me to write that). It’s a mother’s fear of watching her son leave the house and not knowing if he’ll come back alive. It’s the fear experienced by a grown, educated Professor reduced to a shadow of his former self by the police, who stopped him in the road because of his colour. In India, Dalits and Muslims have faced this bias as well, for equally as long (a housekeeping note to anyone who wants to bring up white people or upper-caste Hindus – this is not the time or place. Please go somewhere else.)

I want to end by pointing to something that has helped me get some resolution to all these turbulent thoughts: this piece by Tamara Cofman Wittes, a  Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, who examines this alleged hypocrisy, of ‘promoting human rights when they are being trampled at home’, with reference to the US criticizing human rights abuses around the world when they are also not dealing with systemic racism at home. She concludes – and this has given me some succour – that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can fight for one and the other at the same time. In fact, we must. As she says:

By contrast, to insist that we must first “get our house in order” before speaking to others’ oppression, to be so ashamed by our own shortcomings that we refrain from calling out abuses abroad, and thus to withhold our solidarity from the abused, would itself be an act of moral abdication. As my friend Adham Sahloul wrote this weekend: “The people in the Hong Kong’s and Idlib’s of the world don’t have time for our spiritual reclamation sessions.” Sahloul calls for a “Yes, and” approach to American rights advocacy abroad, something that American diplomats of color, like Ambassador Nichols in Harare, already practice. Yes, we have important work to do at home. So do we all. Let’s continue reaching our hands across our borders in solidarity, and get to work.


As part of my research writing this piece, I learnt of many organisations working to eradicate discrimination in the US, UK and India, listed below for reference:


International Dalit Solidarity Network


Velivada: a media platform for stories about Dalits/Bahujans 

Dalit Queer Project on Instagram

Ambedkarite Students Association at TISS on Facebook

National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations 

National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights

Safai Karmachari Andolan, the movement against manual scavenging 

Khabar Lahariya, which I personally subscribe to, a platform for rural journalism with stories told by women from Dalit, tribal, Muslim and backward castes. You can subscribe here

US (taken from this Google Doc)

Black Visions Collective

Reclaim the Block

NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Black Lives Matter

National Bail Out Fund

George Floyd Memorial Fund

Showing Up for Racial Justice

Campaign Zero

The Loveland Foundation

The Marshall Project

Color of Change

Bail Out Funds – Google Doc


A list of Black racial justice organisations (public Google Doc)

Practical ways to support Black Lives Matter from the UK (public Google doc)

Kwanda, which I support financially, ‘a modern collection pot for black communities’. 

Thank you to Siddharth Sreenivas for sharing the organisations working on the issue of caste discrimination in India, Ragini Menon for conversations and her thoughts, and the amazing people compiling resources for everyone to learn from and support. 

10 Things I Learned In 2016

1) NARP: Nonathletic Regular Person. From this conversation between Jason Kottke and his niece about her usage of Snapchat.

2) Nae-nae: ‘a hip-hop dance that involves planting one’s feet, swaying with shoulder movement, placing one hand in the air and one hand down, and incorporating personal creativity’ (Wikipedia). From Sophia DeJesus’ college gymnast routine, as described by Time.

3) LIGO: Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. From this New Yorker story about how scientists finally found gravitational waves. Also, the ‘interferometer’. What a brilliant word!

4) Zero-day exploits: ‘an undisclosed computer-software vulnerability that hackers can exploit to adversely affect computer programs, data, additional computers or a network. It is known as a “zero-day” because it is not publicly reported or announced before becoming active, leaving the software’s author with zero days in which to create patches or advise workarounds to mitigate its actions’ (Wikipedia). From this blog post by Ben Thompson discussing the dispute between Apple and the FBI over hacking an iPhone earlier this year.

5) Mario and Luigi: the names of the two robots created by the MIT Senseable City Lab to crawl underground sewers in Cambridge, MA and collect virus samples. From this Forbes article explaining the project.

6) This Noah Chomsky quote, which can be applied to 2016 in general, from this Medium post by Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab on why she left the University of Wisconsin-Madison for Temple University.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

7) The cellphone reception area between DC and Baltimore was called the ‘dogbone’ because it represents the shape of the area served by the same tower. From Sarah Koenig’s day 3 update to Serial Season 1. 

8) The longest artist name recorded on Songkick is The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die (61 characters). From this Songkick post on designing with data. 

9) Prosopagnosia: Face blindness (Wikipedia). From this TED talk by Nancy Kanwisher, ‘A Neural Portrait of the Human Mind.

10) Qualia: The way things seem to us. Read this PDF for more. First spotted in this Aeon article about how AI can shed new light on literary texts.

Thoughts on the importance of the vote in light of #drumpf & #brexit

Yesterday I was angry, and very disappointed in the world. It’s exactly what I felt on 23rd June, when the UK voted to leave the EU. The dust has settled a bit in the last 24 hours and I have been thinking a few things I wanted to write down.

As a liberal and someone who wants positive change in this world (go Ada’s List), those feelings of depression, anger and frustration are unsurprising. The vast majority of people I know felt just as I did on both occasions.

The thing is, that’s the problem. This election has woken me up to the fact that it is not OK that the people I know are largely, like me, educated, comfortable in their surroundings, privileged and middle class. And that some of them do not feel strongly enough about things that affect all of us.

Of Trump’s victory, the reasons put forth are varied and complex. Maybe the media is to blame, but so are we – they feed off clicks, so if stories about Trump’s sexual misdemeanours make them more money than his views on education (hardly covered) then that’s where they’ll go. Maybe technology is to blame – Facebook has admitted they have a problem, and during this election they probably have been a ‘sewer of misinformation’. Perhaps the American electoral system, in yesterday’s case, is also to blame – Trump won the Electoral College but he did not win the popular vote. The incredibly negative campaigns run by both parties probably contributed to voter apathy, resulting in many people not turning up at all. And we cannot ignore race and gender as reasons for Clinton not making it – white men voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and so did most 45+ white women, especially Conservatives – the CNN’s Jill Filipovic explains this phenomenon.

But all that makes it easy to place the blame on others, not on myself, or, as is being theorised now, the neoliberals (not that I am part of the Davos set – far from it, but hopefully you get what I mean).

There are many complicated reasons why Clinton lost, but the one that I want to dwell on is voter turnout, which is currently reported to be 56.5%, lower than the turnout at the last election (remarkably, in the case of Brexit, voter turnout was actually much higher than expected – 72.2%, though of course with a much smaller population than the US overall).

Very simply, not enough people turned up to vote in America, and not enough Remain supporters turned up for the Brexit vote, despite the better-than-average turnout in the latter.

Voter turnout is not the whole reason Clinton lost (see above, and yes, I truly do believe that many American people were just not ready for a female President, even though countries in Africa and Asia have had them for ages), but it’s ‘an important subplot’ as Vox says:

Clinton garnered 129,000 fewer votes in heavily Democratic Detroit than Obama did four years ago — and lost the state by around 61,000 total votes.

She also got 95,000 fewer votes in heavily Democratic Milwaukee than Obama did — and lost the state by 73,000 total votes.

This is why I’ve been bothered. With Brexit, I actually know people who simply did not turn up to vote – laziness or sheer apathy is all I can attribute it to. And I’m ashamed that I did not stand up and shout. I did not make my opinion known and chastise them. When everyone sat down at the pub to discuss politics, I did not make my thoughts on the importance of the vote clear, especially when, as a woman, we did not have it till a few decades ago. And that’s what results in an ‘extinction-level event’ that puts women and ethnic minorities at risk.  

I will be quiet no longer.

If you do not vote, you do not have a voice. You, by default, are then leaving it to those who can be bothered, because they are angry or frustrated enough by the lack of economic opportunity and what they see as ‘outsiders’ taking what they think should be theirs – and what resonates with them sometimes, as we have now seen, is racist, sexist rhetoric.

The penalty will need to be paid by the minorities.

The people I know who do not vote, some of whom, as I said earlier, are comfortable, undeterred by high taxes because they can afford it, are part of the problem. I will treat them as such going forward.

At least I will have a clearer conscience.

Random thoughts on media

We’re at an interesting crossroads in media right now, in terms of the multiplicity of formats and platforms available to publish stories on. That much I think everybody will agree with. Chat bots, virtual reality, augmented reality, live 360 degree streaming, podcast binging – you’d almost be forgiven for thinking text and video were done. OK, I jest. Text certainly isn’t done – it’s why this print ad above by Tate Britain seemed so engaging to me yesterday when I saw it in the local newspaper.


They’ve *described* a painting. It’s rather evocative. There are lots of Instagrammers whose best posts are actually text too, despite the fact that Instagram is, prima facie, a visual medium. People will hack things to do what they want it to, as long as it isn’t too complicated.

But before we get to users of a platform, we need to address the creators of the content (why Instagram isn’t tweaking features to incorporate some of these hacks is beyond me – no wait, it’s because their main focus now is making money; thanks Facebook). This is where what Jessica Brillhart, principal VR filmmaker at Google, said in this Motherboard piece makes a lot of sense:

If a VR film is trying to get people to look where they’re supposed to, it’s already asking the wrong question.

“It’s more, how do we craft an entirety of a world to be able to harness the agency of the viewer being able to look wherever they want to look,” Brillhart said. “To see it as world-building, instead of trying to put things in a box.”

And so we’re talking about the immense power that content creators now have (they have always had power; it is why publishing houses are so powerful) but technology makes this anyone’s game, and there is a real need for more diverse stories to be told at this emerging stage of this technology. It’s part of why Minecraft is so brilliant, and why No Man’s Sky is so anticipated – the power to create and explore is distributed, not concentrated.

From a creator’s perspective, one can either get bogged down by this, or we can focus on the future. As Joshua Topolsky says,

….if you want to make something really great, you can’t think about making it great for everyone. You have to make it great for someone.

So as with VR and the potential to forge a new world, content creators today can choose to get sucked in by the need for distribution (I’m not taking this lightly, but I tend towards leaving it to the professionals like Medium who seem to be on fire lately, or if you have tens of thousands or a few millions to spare, then the sky is your limit) or focus on telling stories that matter to people who want to listen.

Ice Cream for Everyone – with Willem VDH and me

It’s been a busy few weeks, but I just wanted to emerge to post this podcast by strategist Willem van der Horst, who interviewed me a few weeks ago for his new podcast series. It was a very wide-ranging chat and covered my interests, work, side projects, life philosophy and more. If that sounds interesting to you, give it a whirl. A list of the varied things we touched upon are here.

Thanks, Willem!

No place for old thinking: technology is a resource unto itself

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 17.34.59

Yesterday I was at a Royal Academy of Engineering unconference, organized by Source Institute. Other participants included a number of academic engineers from Turkey, Egypt and South Africa. The unconference itself was part of a 2-week programme designed to introduce these engineers to the world of commercialization, technology entrepreneurship, and design, so that they might be able to implement some of the startup thinking that we are so familiar with here in London on their return back home.

It was a fascinating afternoon – some of the sessions focussed on basic startup issues: hiring, team management, funding. But I thought one particular session on technology opportunities in developing markets, and whether people there ‘had a responsibility’ to their countries, was very interesting indeed.

The situation discussed was that of a GMO technology at the University of Cape Town, where a multi-national company once offered the team that came up with it half a million dollars. The actual valuation of the technology was $12 million. The local team were understandably miffed at the disparity, and obtained the advice of an independent research professor at a US university, who validated their desire not to take the offer, saying that multi-national companies do this to technology companies from the so-called emerging markets very often. This, of course, is basic hoodwinking 101, in the guise of ‘business’.

Unsurprisingly, as I was thinking about how the situation smacked of colonialism, the participants themselves brought up the issue. In particular, they argued that technology is a relatively new resource. It is one thing to think of a situation centuries ago, when the Empire traded in precious stones and resources with the colonies at terms that were entirely favourable to them, something else altogether to assume that that sort of transaction can have a place in the modern age.

Colonial thinking has no place in a world where business, powered by technology, is meant to be transparent, and the playing field fair. If someone values a business for an amount that seems unjustified, it needs to be qualified. The assumption that questions won’t be asked and answers not deemed necessary is laughable, which is what happened in this case. The emerging markets have some of the best minds working on the some of the most interesting problems the world faces today. To not give them that credit when it comes to the brass tacks of signing a contract, never mind the posturing, is to the disadvantage of everyone.

As people working in technology, it’s high time we all commit to respecting talent over an invisible social hierarchy. Going back to the original question posed in the session: do technologists from developing countries ‘have a responsibility’ to their countries to stay away from being hoodwinked, from selling their work for a below-market-value price? Let me put it this way: how about we agree that we are all part of the same stage? The onus isn’t and shouldn’t be on them – the responsibility is all of ours to engage in good business practices for the benefit of all.

Thank you to Salim Virani and Bart Doorneweert for having me there.


Increase Your Options: A talk at Digibury Weekender 2015

Last month, I was invited by Deeson to speak at the Digibury Weekender in Canterbury, Kent. I thought it was an interesting premise – the theme for the talk was ‘technology for good’ – and I really enjoyed the day – thanks to the organisers. I’ve been meaning to upload my talk here for a while, so here it finally is.

I spoke about the contrast between my role at a media agency, working with startups focussed on making advertising money, to what I do with the Other Valleys and Ada’s List.

By and large, I believe that technology can be absolutely a force for good, depending on the people who put it to use. By itself, technology isn’t good or bad – it is the people who use it who make it so. Let’s say Facebook is good, because it helps families and friends connect across geographies, it helps build relationships – social capital, in essence, which for anyone who has Robert Putnam’s seminal work in the 70’s ‘Bowling Alone’, is crucial to maintaining a society. So let’s say Facebook is good. But Facebook, as a result of being heavily invested in its business model, which relates to advertising money, has its dark patches. The research project they conducted last year, that manipulated people’s feeds to test how negative status updates affect people’s tendency to use Facebook was a case in point. 

“Ultimately, we’re just providing a layer of technology that helps people get what they want,” Chris Cox, chief product officer of Facebook, said during an interview in February about changes made to the news feed to show more news articles and fewer viral videos. “That’s the master we serve at the end of the day.”

…which to me sounds a lot, and I’m pretty sure Chris Cox said this completely unwittingly – it sounds a lot like what Kevin Kelly says in his book ‘What Technology Wants’:

As a practical matter I’ve learned to seek the minimum amount of technology for myself that will create the maximum amount of choices for myself and others. The cybernetician Heinz von Foerster called this approach the Ethical Imperative, and he put it this way: “Always act to increase the number of choices.” The way we can use technologies to increase choices for others is by encouraging science, innovation, education, literacies, and pluralism. In my own experience this principle has never failed: In any game, increase your options.”

(Emphasis in both quotes above is mine).

Except for one key problem: the Facebook tweaks were not done to increase the number of choices for Facebook users. It was out of a concern that ‘that exposure to friends’ negativity might lead people to avoid visiting Facebook’.

Every single decision that a person makes while creating technology has to be a considered one, because of the impact that it could have on thousands, even millions of people. Even design decisions.

So, then, how is technology actually being a force for good in parts of the world that perhaps many of us are not familiar with? Some of my favourites include Project Mudra, Gravity Light, Literacy Bridge and Nextdrop.

These are all examples of technology being used in a very considered manner, to ‘increase the number of choices for people’ as Kevin Kelly says.

Technology also connects people in ways that I find it very difficult to put a value on. Ada’s List started 2 years ago as an online space for women to ask questions, hire other women, get advice – things that many of us in an industry dominated by men don’t always have access to. And it is making a difference. To many of our members, it helps them stay connected to a larger community they didn’t have access to before. 

I’m particularly glad that this conference is examining technology as a force for good because we’re doing so in an environment where billions of dollars in venture capital investment is being poured into startups every single day, many of them not really acting as a force for good – or positive action in any way. Instead it’s become all about the money. A couple of months ago, a VC called Maciej Ceglowski wrote an excellent thesis on why this might be, and these words in particular are really relevant to this conference. He said:

Investing has become the genteel occupation of our gentry, like having a country estate used to be in England. It’s a class marker and a socially acceptable way for rich techies to pass their time.

Gentlemen investors decide what ideas are worth pursuing, and the people pitching to them tailor their proposals accordingly.

The companies that come out of this are no longer pursuing profit, or even revenue. Instead, the measure of their success is valuation—how much money they’ve convinced people to tell them they’re worth.

There’s an element of fantasy to the whole enterprise that even the tech elite is starting to find unsettling.

That’s pretty worrisome. And it means that all of us sitting here today, as men and women working in technology, need to think about this seriously. If it is so easy to make unmindful things, we need to commit – strongly – to using technology as a force for good. To ask for this from the people around us, the people we work for and with. And ultimately, to help create a society that works better for us, and for our future generations.

Thank you.

On structural innovation in medicine

Recently I was asked if I thought there was a shift in thinking towards more long-term, structural innovation over the short-term variety. It was an interesting conversation and one that I have many thoughts on which I might explore later, but in short I believe that long-term structural innovation is much more crucial, if less shiny, than that of the short-term kind (which anyone working in advertising will be familiar with), and that it has always been there, just not up front because it’s less sexy as a marketing tool.

In relation to this, I wanted to show this video on how HP has integrated its devices and software into Cambridge University Hospitals in the UK, and is reducing the time needed for treatment and consequently the outcome for a lot of patients, simultaneously making the hospital staff more productive and efficient. I have had the opportunity recently to spend some time in hospitals here in the UK, and the digital capabilities showcased in this video stand out significantly compared to the manual processes most hospitals still use. It may be because I am conditioned to think digitally given what I do, but technology adds a layer of confidence for me when it comes to recording of my data. Humans are prone to error, and while there can and will be no replacement for doctors it simply makes sense for data to be recorded and analysed automatically, to enable doctors and hospitals to focus on diagnosis instead of administration.

In the latest RSA Journal, there is a piece on the relationship between technology and patients by Roger Taylor, founder of healthcare data company Dr. Foster. It talks about a documentary by Mount Sinai Hospital which is worth a watch if you’re interested in medicine, and a white paper by Vinod Khosla [PDF] that has his view, as a technology optimist, of technology in the medical field (likewise). The core thesis of the RSA Journal piece is that it is important to make information available to patients because it engenders trust, and that regulatory institutions need to trust people to do the right thing with their information, even saying that ‘trusting people is not so very risky as it might seem, since, in the main, people trust doctors.’ Of technology in the medical field, it says:

“Technology may be able to do 20, 40, or perhaps even 80% of a doctor’s work, but it will never do the bit that people value most. That puts doctors in a very privileged position. But if that position is used to try and halt access to knowledge, it will ultimately undermine that trust.”

That’s why I think digitisation of information in medicine is important. It creates trust. And ultimately, better patients, better doctors and quicker solutions to illnesses. We all need that.

Throbs and thinking

This concept of a ‘throb’ by Nabokov, used by Martin Amis, is excellent. It describes what I feel very often these days when I read interesting things. I have a comment or a thought on that! Even if it’s a small one! But how on EARTH do I describe it eloquently enough for it to make sense, and contribute something useful to culture, to the world, to the vast body of writing and reading that already exists?

And so very often, a throb stays a throb, lost in the mire of one-day-becoming-the-next. Sigh.

The common conception of how novels get written seems to me to be an exact description of writer’s block. In the common view, the writer is at this stage so desperate that he’s sitting around with a list of characters, a list of themes, and a framework for his plot, and ostensibly trying to mesh the three elements. In fact, it’s never like that. What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about. In the absence of that recognition I don’t know what one would do. It may be that nothing about this idea—or glimmer, or throb—appeals to you other than the fact that it’s your destiny, that it’s your next book. You may even be secretly appalled or awed or turned off by the idea, but it goes beyond that. You’re just reassured that there is another novel for you to write. The idea can be incredibly thin—a situation, a character in a certain place at a certain time. With Money, for example, I had an idea of a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film. That was all. Sometimes a novel can come pretty consecutively and it’s rather like a journey in that you get going and the plot, such as it is, unfolds and you follow your nose. You have to decide between identical-seeming dirt roads, both of which look completely hopeless, but you nevertheless have to choose which one to follow.

The Paris Review: An interview with Martin Amis


The rebirth of the newsletter, chat w @neilperkin @rosieyakob @faris @chrbutler @huey @ianfitzpatrick @inakiescudero

Over the last week and a bit, I was invited to be a part of an online discussion on the rebirth of the newsletter, how they compare to blogs and microblogging, and their future. The conversation was far-reaching and thought-provoking, and I’m glad I was part of it; here’s the full text of our conversation. It’s well worth checking out the newsletters of all the people who participated if you’re into design, writing, media, technology and related subjects. The contributors, apart from myself, were:

Neil Perkin, ringmaster for this project, who sends out Fish Food
Chris Butler, who writes Don’t Fear the Future
Rosie and Faris Yakob, authors of Strands of (Stolen) Genius
Inaki Escudero, who writes The One Thing
Hugh Garry, who is an important part of Storythings and is a curator of their newsletter
Ian Fitzpatrick, who contributes to the Dark Matter newsletter

Here’s the full text of our conversation:

NP: So email newsletters have become quite the thing. A growing number of smart individuals seem to be compiling their own weekly curations and it seems that the old fashioned mailer is undergoing something of a renaissance. I’ve been doing my own newsletter for five years now, and I know that compiling one can require a not insubstantial amount of time and (brain) energy to produce week after week. So why did you start yours? Why have they become so popular? And are email newsletters the new blogging?

FY: Emails are definitely the new old blogs – which is funny since I met pretty much all of you because of my and your blogs, I think. Back last decade, blogs felt like a little community, we all commented and chatted with each other, but ultimately the meat of them was, for me at least, here is something interesting AND here is what I think about it. I was inspired way back when by things like the now defunct Haddock.org link blogs.

[years later I was invited to join the Haddock community which I was super geekcited about but I couldn’t keep up with the volume of email on the lists. I’m not great at email, which is possibly ironic]

Rosie started her Tuesday Ten and did it solo for a year  – she can speak to that – and then kindly let me get involved when we launched Genius Steals as a company, so we rebranded the Ten as Strands [because it’s pieces of the web gettit]. But we still send it on Tuesdays.

Someone actually asked us today how do you find time – as you said Neil it is a significant commitment – but the value in it for me is similar to my old blog. We’re forced to keep finding new interesting things and then putting down a thought about them. It helps us be inspired, it helps inspire others [hopefully] – because all ideas are new combinations and you need more strands to weave into new ideas.

RY: You know, I would say that the reason I got a job was from newslettering, if you will. When I was an intern at Jay-Z’s entertainment branding company, Translation, they asked me to think of an intern project. I came up with the idea of a newsletter called the Daily Download, which was essentially a trend report around the verticals that were relevant to our client. I had followed Daily Candy (remember them?!) throughout college, and thought mine would be more like Daily Candy meets Trendhunting or PSFK.

When I finished my internship, I was offered a job – except that I hadn’t graduated from college yet, and my parents said that I’d have to pay them back for tuition if I didn’t graduate. So I managed to convince Translation to keep paying me as an intern, and from my final year at the University of Georgia I continued to send it to the agency.

From there, I was always that person sending all agency emails – and when I left one job a colleague said to me, “You know I’m going to miss you. But I’m really going to miss your emails.” So “going public” was a natural transition to something I was already doing as part of my job.

I tend to have poor reading comprehension because I read so quickly. So writing all-agency emails was my way of holding myself accountable: I never just sent links, I had to add value or else the emails were obnoxious, which forced me to really read what I had opened in my tabs instead of skimming through.

IF: We started putting out an agency newsletter as a client service, really. We knew that other agencies were sending off quasi-briefings on ‘what you should know about NFC’ and ‘why Quora is the next great thing’ and the like, and were quite conscious of the idea that there was an opportunity to demonstrate some thought leadership to clients without hitting them over the head with PDFs.

Intriguingly, we learned two things pretty quickly:

  1. That the thought leadership came not from explaining ideas or trends, but rather identifying new connections between them — giving people a new lens through which to view things in combination.

  2. That the bulk of our readership was going to be people outside of, not inside, our client networks.

NP: I like that thought about making new connections between things, Ian, I find that the process of compiling the email each week helps me do this in much the same way as my blog does.

AR: I started my newsletter a year or so ago because it was about this subject (interesting ideas happening beyond the West) that I kept feeling was lacking on coverage in the more mainstream blogs or media. I finally decided to get up and do something about it myself instead of waiting for other people to do it. It’s funny that way more blogs/publications covering emerging markets have actually sprung up in the last year, but I think that’s a good thing.

I think my newsletter has struck a chord because it’s clearly about something that a lot of people feel they’d like to know more about as well – it’s all too easy to NOT hunt for information because of the usual excuses: lack of time for one, but in this case also because people often don’t know where to start looking as it’s an unusual subject for many.

Are email newsletters the new blogging? Good question. The easy answer to that would be yes, but in a way it’s also not. I did think about just blogging instead of creating a newsletter, but the audience is very different in my case, and the subject matter as well. Back in the day, blogging did use to feel like what email newsletters are now, I definitely feel that. There was a proper community when it came to commenting and the like. But as Twitter (and I blame mostly Twitter!) took off, that became less and less. Blogs started to feel more public, less intimate – and so newsletters stepped in.

CB: My firm (Newfangled) had been doing monthly newsletters since about 2001. The idea was to “go on the record” on some subject that was critical to a better understanding of interaction design, so that our prospects (future clients) would make better partnering and working decisions. That made a huge difference to us, and the quality of our work. It was our content marketing strategy before anyone really talked about that. It’s what put us on the map.

In the last few years, though, we moved away from that particular platform on the firm side — the monthly long-form article and email — and I was doing less and less of the writing while others from the team took on that responsibility. I had written a monthly, very long-form article (anywhere from 2,500 to 6,000 words) for seven years without a break — I took it over from the previous owner of the firm — and it was feeling less and less about the relevance of the message and more like an institution that existed just because it always had. We just felt like it was time to change things up and explore other platforms. Meanwhile, plenty of other people on the Newfangled team were regularly contributing to the company blog. So we felt covered as far as written content was concerned.

But it wasn’t too long before I missed the regular writing. So I started my own newsletter as a way to keep that “muscle” exercised. I immediately discovered a few things. First, the exercise is critical to how I work through ideas and process them. I can do it on my own, or talk it out with colleagues and friends, but having to put it in writing takes it further. It refines my thinking. So, in that regard, the newsletter is as much for me as anyone else. But I also realized just how hungry I’d been to widen the scope of subject matter in my own writing. I’m pushing it a bit beyond just design-related material, sometimes talking about technology, economics, and just figuring out how to live a better life. I’m also trying to push something that I feel is a bit lacking in the design/tech space, which is a humanistic *and* critical voice. One that says, hey, that new thing is neat, but what is it for? Is it the best thing for us? What are we doing with ourselves, our resources, and our time? Where is this all going? And the intimacy of the platform — the email part — makes that scope-widening possible. It’s a personal medium, and we’re all much more complicated than just our narrow areas of expertise. But here is a place where I can express myself fully without feeling like it’s either beside the point or a narcissistic indulgence 😉 And so far, people seem to like that.

IE: It’s been a while for me now that I’ve been looking forward to Fridays to receive Only Dead Fish, and to Tuesdays so I could get Genius Steals. No other “source of interestingness” form (Twitter, Medium, News feeds. Maybe the only exception and it’s a totally different medium would be Zite) got me so excited to engage with it. Mainly for the reason you guys have expressed already.

My decision to start “The One Thing” (just 12 weeks ago) was driven by the need to do something with all the content I was accumulating through the aggregation of interesting resources. Many of those news and links were being shared by you guys and others. But with so much content to cover, I thought it would interesting to write about some of the less covered but still attractive, odd and “good to know” things happening every week.

I also liked the personal tone of “Genius Steals”. FY and RS were using it almost as a journal for their adventures and I wanted to add that community quality to mine.

So far it’s been really rewarding, and also very different from writing a blog. Mainly the once per week delivery, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m missing on an opportunity to comment or share in “real time” interesting events.

HG: There are a few reasons why we started the Storythings Newsletter. I’d been getting my weekly dose of Neil’s fish food for a while and found it something that I started to look forward to receiving. Blogs and social media had broken the rhythm of content delivered to a schedule. You got the content (the blog post/the tweet etc) when the provider decided they were ready to publish. So all of a sudden there was this promise of stories delivered direct to you on a particular day. The appeal was a great case of ‘rethinking deadness’. At a point when everyone seemed to be reading the last rights to email and schedules it just really appealed as a new (old) way to to capture ‘attention’. We’re obsessed with formats and experimenting with content so it seemed like a no-brainer.

Also as a relatively new company it felt like it would be an ‘easy’ way to get the name and reputation of Storythings out there. I say ‘easy’, but as Neil mentioned earlier, if you’re thinking of doing your own don’t underestimate the size of the job. I generally dedicate a full day to finding the stories and regularly find myself up until the early hours of Friday trying to get it finished.

The final reason I started it was because I knew it would be a good discipline that would help me stay on top of how stories are being told, whilst really understanding what makes stories interesting to people. I’m constantly in the analytics, questioning the data and looking for insights. Knowing why people like certain stories and story formats is hugely important for us.

‘Why are they so popular?’ I guess their success points to the importance of good curators. As for the question ‘Are newsletters the new blogging?’ I’m not sure that I totally see them that way. I think of my subscriptions as being the front page of the internet I want to see.

NP: But they are different to blogs aren’t they? Not least in the sense that they are less open – so is there something in that?

IF: I think so. There’s a freedom to adopt a more strident point of view when someone’s subscribed that you might not lead with in a blog format (Messrs. Campbell and Weigel are obvious exceptions). There’s a degree of insularity that a newsletter affords someone like Chris, or Dan Hon, to go on a bit of a tear without having to know that they can stick the landing.

FY: Yes that’s true – people are opting in and it does feel more…intimate…because it’s not public. There’s something in that I think – the default now is public, broadcast, it feels like – the newsletter feels like a more private space. And it’s funny because email is so..overloaded now. I stopped using RSS and readers and no longer really “keep up” with individual blogs or things – I just consume the tweet stream and see where it takes. And I have some relationships still on Twitter but that’s also to much so it feels nice to see the weekly email and feel that connection to a regular.

AR: They are sort of a mid-point between blogging, which often feels like it needs to be a more structured thinking exercise (though Tumblr came in to disabuse exactly that sort of POV and has really succeeded), and Twitter, which is obviously way less structured but also very limited on space. Newsletters are less open, yes, but come with this sense of freedom that blogs just didn’t, and perhaps still don’t afford. Some people use their blogs with the kind of abandon that most newsletters do – Rob Campbell for one, but he’s a rare one. The psychology behind blogs vs. newsletters is all very interesting. I can’t wait to see what newsletters are going to be replaced by.

CB: I completely agree with Ian, Faris, and Anjali’s points. I’ve already mentioned the intimacy factor, but the point-of-view thing intrigues me. I love a conversation where people can take risks — risks of thought and expression — or where we can try out points of view. Ideas and opinions evolve and shift, and I like the idea that something like a newsletter can be a written record of that *as well as* a mechanism for change. I want to go on that “tear,” as Ian put it. To change through the act of writing, while also creating the record of that change. It’s a bit harder to do that when your written record sits under a corporate masthead. Beyond that, though, the format can vary widely. It could be a briefing format, like Ian’s, or something much more stream-of-consciousness, like what Dan Hon has been doing. I’ve been inspired by both. But I’m also so craft-oriented — I love writing, and words, and the art of language — that I’ve been more inclined to push mine a bit more toward formality. It’s something I kind of wrestle with. How raw should this be? How polished? I’m hoping to continue to explore the freedom of choice in that, where some go the polished essay route, where that makes sense, and others less so, to the degree that I can get over my own ego and let it be raw!

HG: Adding to the intimacy point I feel the ‘opt in’ factor changes the dynamic of the relationship. If someone is prepared to add to their email mountain because they value your opinion or taste then that adds a different kind of pressure – you’re writing for a different kind of attention. Writing a blog post feels like writing for the stream. Compiling a newsletter feels like an invitation for readers to ignore the stream.

RY: I totally agree. I’ve had people say “I get so much less stressed about reading things on the internet because I know if I should really read them, I’ll find them in your newsletter.” Having a trusted source means you don’t have to see how many people have tweeted about something to see if you really should be reading it.

I was never really into blogging like most of you lot. I had a Tumblr from its inception and was into life blogging, but once I was in the working world, I wanted to get off the computer more instead of spend more time writing. I know Faris feels he has a community from the blogging world, but I have a community from writing a newsletter – and it feels much more intimate. We’re very conscious that we’re walking a fine line of sharing too much from a personal perspective (as opposed to a work perspective), but so far, it’s worked for us. And it helps manufacture serendipity when you’re traveling 🙂

IF: Neil, you do both — perhaps more consistently than any of us. Are you conscious of that kind of distinction when you’re writing them?

NP: I still use my blog for the kind of proper thinking out loud that Chris describes, but may also use the newsletter to add a quick thought about a great link that I’m sharing. But the newsletter also lends itself well to being able to say ‘here’s the best thing I read all week’, or I can use it to announce the next Google Firestarters event

CB: I’ve also been wondering something else, about the nature of time and energy in all this. As I’ve settled into a pace with writing letters, I’ve found myself engaging on Twitter less. Previously, Twitter had been my most active “channel.” But I think I got fatigued by the pace of it (and, to Anjali’s point, the “space” of it). It was nearly impossible to keep up with the river of conversation happening there, and it was exhausting to find the signal in the noise. But the dopamine hit you get through interactions there can keep you engaging long after your energy reserves have been emptied, and certainly long past when Twitter’s value has maxed out. I still use it, but with these newsletters, I find I’m able to slow down and engage with ideas in a much more humanely-paced way. I have time to mull them over and consider a variety of angles without having to reply to anyone else or have my attention set in a different direction. And the people who read them have the same luxury. They can read them on their own time and reply when or if it’s convenient for them. The conversation can last for weeks, rather than just minutes. The whole thing is much slower, which reminds me of how that sort of engagement used to work before social media sped everything up. Does any of this resonate with you all?

AR: Chris, I agree with you about newsletters being slower than social media. I’m still very much on Twitter but sometimes I feel a bit detached from it, in the sense that it feels more like a platform to announce things than ruminate on them. Here’s a bizarre thought: we all know Twitter’s been in the spotlight lately about having to figure their whole business model out soon: do you think someone reading this conversation of ours will consider acquiring a newsletter platform to make Twitter what it currently isn’t, the way Branch and Medium got together? It can’t be Tinyletter though, so I wonder what it *could* be!

CB: That’s not a bad idea, Anjali! If I could manage all this stuff in one place, I’d definitely prefer that 🙂

NP: So what do we think makes for a great newsletter?

IF: I tend to see them through different lenses. With something like Strands of Genius, The One Thing, Fish Food, or Sean Bonner’s brilliant The Crowd, my response is always ‘where did they find that? what are they reading that I’m not?’. The magic lies in the capacity to pull together these disparate entities and pull them into something cohesive. The magic of Don’t Think About the Future or Extenuating Circumstances is watching this high-wire act that they may or may not pull off. There’s an immediacy to it, like live comedy, that’s really thrilling. With something like Other Valleys, the magic lies in the depth of knowledge and intimacy with something about which I know nothing.

What I think is most compelling is the way in which the form is fragmenting. You’ve got authors with pretty rigid list forms — often by design — like Rosie, Faris, Neil, Inaki and myself. You’ve got a missive form encapsulated in Chris and Dan’s emails, the capsule-like form of Anjali’s newsletter and then these structure-less, send-them-whenever-the-hell-I-feel-like-it streams like The Crowd. Barthes would have loved newsletters.

CB: Great point, Ian. There are various common forms emerging within the broader newsletter landscape. It’s been fascinating to watch them coalesce, especially in seeing how certain people gravitate toward certain forms. Ultimately, I like that they exist, because they offer a predictability that, as a subscriber, I really value. I love knowing that when Dark Matter arrives, it’s going to give me my weekly reading list. Or that when Dan Hon’s letter arrives, it’s going to feel like an email from his bunker late at night. I’m sure there will be new forms to come, and I can’t wait to see what they are. The only other form I’ve experimented with is the “mixletter,” which is a collection of short, mostly unrelated entries. I’ve only done two of those, but the feedback has been positive.

AR: For me, it’s the feeling of getting into someone else’s mind and being enlightened and – in a sense – empowered – by their thoughts. All the people who are here live very different lives from mine, grew up in different parts of the world, and are interested by different things (mostly). It’s about learning from the cumulative experience of their lives in a way I otherwise can’t without actually physically hanging out with them for hours the way we probably used to do as teenagers or at university! It’s like a virtual club for people who want to be smarter, if you get what I mean. I like that feeling.


RY: Anjali, I’m with you on this one. I subscribe not so much for the content, but for the curators. I want to know what they’re reading, and how they’re thinking.

IE: Indeed. The content is great, but the curator’s’ point of view is what makes me anticipate the arrival of the newsletter.

HG: For me it’s great taste and strong opinion. All the best ones seem to be written by people who you trust when they say ‘This is important and this this is why it’s important’. The added bonus is when you’re allowed into the life of the writer. Faris and Rosie are great at this and Dan Hon is exceptional. It’s not something I do. I really should try harder.

IF: That’s a real challenge, Hugh — particularly when one is publishing to some extent on behalf of an organization. The I/we line is tricky to navigate, and I’ve never done it particularly well. Chris, how cognizant are you of the line between Chris and Newfangled?

CB: I think Hugh is on to something with bringing up “taste.” Taste is so personal, and so subjective. And yet, I’d agree that it is the defining characteristic of what, for me, makes a great newsletter. It reminds me a bit of the days when video rental stores still existed and there’d be a display toward the front with shelves devoted to so-and-so’s picks. There would always be a video store employee “for you” — someone whose taste you related to. (Seinfeld did a pretty good send-up of this, I think, where Elaine became infatuated with a video store employee she’d never met by way of his selections only to find out that he was some kid barely through puberty.) Even today, when the internet has largely “flattened” culture, there are still smaller, unique pockets of culture within it that are defined, I think, by taste. Now, exactly what taste is, I’m not sure I can define. I’d have to imagine it is the visible tip of an enormous biographical iceberg — who your parents are/were, what they do/did for a living, where you grew up, whether you were an indoor or outdoor kid, etc. And there are all kinds of contexts in which that tip of the iceberg will be visible and matter to someone else, especially cultural ones like music, film, and literature. So we find ourselves connected to other people by way of these threads of culture, and in an odd affinity-based causality, we go from recognizing that so-and-so also likes that band we like to trusting what they have to say about something else that we didn’t know about before. All of that is wrapped up in these letters.

As for Ian’s question about the connection between who we are as individuals and who or what we may represent, whether that be an organization or an idea, that’s equally tricky to nail down. For me, it’s something I think about all the time. For example, when I first joined Twitter, I didn’t think much about the handle I chose. I just went with what my Gmail address was for the sake of consistency. And I was stuck with “chrbutler” because at least two or three other Chris Butler’s had gotten to Gmail before I did. So @chrbutler it was. But it wasn’t long before I ran into that awkward feeling that maybe sometimes who I am as an individual doesn’t exactly fit with who I might be professionally. I also noticed that plenty of people got around that by creating additional social media profiles linked more directly to their professional identity. If I’d gone that route it would have been something like NewfangledChris. But I just couldn’t imagine managing two Twitter accounts, and I wanted to believe — still do — that I could be 100% me without that jeopardizing anything I valued professionally. And largely, I think that’s worked out. People who discover Newfangled quickly see that my personality — my opinions, ideas about design, technology, and that sort of thing — is just as present there as it might be in contexts that I’d consider more personal. In many cases, that actually makes a difference from a marketing and sales perspective. That there’s a person behind it all — and really, I should say people, because there are 25 of us at Newfangled and I’m hardly the only one representing us publicly — matters to the people who become our clients. In so many cases, our clients develop a strong relationship with us, built by trust and “taste,” long before they pay us for anything. I hope that continues to be true.

So, Ian, I guess I’m continually aware of the “line,” so much so that it rarely feels like much of a line at all. It’s more like a dance or an exercise or something. Where each movement is the result of an acute awareness of what’s around you, so complex and fluid that it sometimes feels unclear where you end and the rest of the world begins. Of course, that isn’t to say that you don’t often run up against real edges. To Hugh’s point, a strong opinion will ensure that. But I’ve also found that you can have a strong opinion about something while also not considering it essential. Just the other day, I read a great little post from Cap Watkins about figuring out how much you actually care about something. He describes how he and a colleague will often resolve debates by identifying where they are on a sliding scale. So, maybe they’re hashing something out and one of them says, “you know, I’m only like a 4 out of 10 on this one.” Which is to say, “you care about this more, so let’s do it your way.” I love that. I’ve been thinking about Cap’s post constantly since I read it last week, and am realizing more and more that there are very few things for which I’d rate my opinion — in so far as it’s in conflict with someone else’s — much higher than a four. While at the same time, if I were to rate how much I care about such and such a thing in a vacuum, I’d probably put it much higher on the scale. I think that sort of perspective helps the “dance” continue even when you bump into hard edges.

NP: It can be tricky but the personal touch definitely adds something – I do like newsletters where the personality of the curator shines through

RY: Besides Ian, it sounds like most of us started newsletters as a personal passion. But we’ve found that even with our vague & personal focus (and relatively small amount of subscribers compared to the Brainpickings of the world), it tends to be one of our strongest generators of new business. Have you found that your newsletters help your business? Do you think of it as content marketing? (And if so, does that change what you include?)

CB: Great question, Rosie. For me, I have seen some benefit, in that I know some clients were reading my newsletter before they became clients, and that the experience they had reading it contributed to their decision. And that’s great. But I am deliberately not thinking of my newsletter as content marketing. If I did, I’d guess it would change some of what I include, but mostly cause all kinds of second-guessing and punch-pulling that I feel pretty free of at the moment.

NP: I know that my newsletter has generated business for me and, speaking as someone who runs their own business, it is definitely a useful way to stay top of mind with clients and other interesting people. But for me it’s like blogging in the sense that that is not the primary reason why I do it. I think you have to enjoy the process of curation and compilation to stay with it and that enjoyment shows in the tone of the newsletter

IF: I think that freeing myself from the idea that it’s marketing has allowed it to become more of a personal passion, and to allow more of my own perspectives to bleed through. For us, it’s been better at connecting us with prospective employees who think in a particular way than it has with clients. Which is fine.

HG: I’m always super-conscious about getting the content balance right. I guess the newsletter is a generator of business because the people who chose to follow liked our taste and as a result trust us to know how to tell a good story. We have clients right across the board – from museums to make-up companies, musicians to TV and film companies – we don’t have a typical client or job. We’ve always tried to cover a broad range of stories from a huge range of fields in the newsletter. Once we start thinking too much about the newsletter as a business generator then we are in danger of messing with that winning formula, perhaps thinking too much about one industry in hope of generating more work. Rather than thinking ‘will this story generate more work’ I just stick to three questions: Is this story highly entertaining? Will the reader learn something from this story? Has this story taken a new or interesting approach to storytelling? If the stories answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions then there is a good chance that it would get in.

IE: Super relevant question Rosie. As you might know, I recently left my job and I started my own business: The Mutant Gene. And obviously one of the first questions I had to deal with was how do I let people know about the company, what’s my marketing campaign? And after a lot of thinking and lots of (bad) traditional ideas, I realized that I already had a channel and a content strategy that were working well (at a small scale), and I decided to focus my energy on the development of “The One Thing”. So far I’d say that it has had a positive impact. All my clients have commented about the newsletter during phone calls and they even single out articles they found useful for their business.

NP: Some great thoughts there, and a really interesting conversation. Thanks everyone for taking part.