Web Misc

How to Learn Twice as Much from Blog Posts

The trick is to read posts that are doubly-useful.

Let’s look at a few examples:

I’m a big fan of JD Roth’s Get Rich Slowly, a finance-tips-for-the-layman sort of blog. While I do appreciate the best practices and money hacks (I feel they help me develop and maintain good financial habits), I could get those anywhere. A huge part of why I read GRS is because JD is a fan-freaking-tastic blogger. He writes diverse content on a near-daily basis, his posts always come off as sincere and never condescending, and the totally-committed community he has built up around GRS is nothing short of incredible. When I read posts at GRS, I’m not just learning about personal finance, I’m learning about how to write for and manage an extremely successful blog. Two things.

Another blogger I really like is Lisa Barone over at Outspoken Media. She writes mostly about search engine optimization and branding, which is often useful information for small-time bloggers like myself, but it’s not what she says that I’m paying the most attention to — it’s how she says it. Lisa has voice. Her writing is playful but clear, concise but with flair. I’m confident that if someone gave me ten posts about SEO and told me that one of them was written by Lisa, I could find it hands down. She’s identifiable and unique in an industry that is crowded and largely bland. Her content is useful, but it’s her style that I learn the most from. Again, two things.

And doubly-useful content doesn’t always have to be about honing pairs of skills; it works just as well for entertainment. Take, for example, Penny Arcade. There are at least two things I find entertaining on this website. The obvious one is the content they produce; their comics, podcasts, and PATV episodes are inspired and wildly popular, but I’m also a huge fan of Tycho’s writing! There have been days when I’ve loaded up PA to see the latest comic, and after reading Tycho’s post, completely forgotten that they even do comics and moved on to something else. Tycho’s posts are so captivating on their own that I would visit the site even if they didn’t make hilarious content. You guessed it: two things.

This doesn’t just apply to blogging either. I’ve tried several times to find a few francophones to follow on Twitter, because in addition to enjoying their opinions (I like to cover a wide variety of demographics on Twitter) it will also help me practice my french. It’s surprising where phenomenons like this can crop up.

So next time you’re about to drop half an hour on FAIL Blog or that popular social-media site that you only follow because everyone else does, consider spending that time on something with more depth. Something you can gain two insights from instead of one. Something doubly-useful.

Software Development Web Misc

Motivation Overflow

Let’s talk about motivation.

I recently joined Stack Overflow (here’s my profile) and one of the things I noticed right away is how easy it is to spend time there. I think I’ve checked in every day since I joined, and in ten days I’ve already answered fifteen questions. Now, before we discuss whether or not I’m developing an unhealthy addiction to social networks, I’m sure some of you are wondering what Stack Overflow is — let’s sort that out first:

Stack Overflow is a place where people can ask highly technical questions about computer programming and related topics, and get answers from a community of well-qualified geeks such as myself. When I log on, for example, I scan over a few dozen questions and answer any that I feel qualified to weigh in on. It’s free, self-organized, and completely voluntary.

Now, back to the issue at hand: why would I choose to volunteer my valuable free time answering other people’s questions? Or more specifically:

How does Stack Overflow motivate its community of users?

We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but before we do I’d like to take a moment to mention that I recently read Dan Pink’s Drive, a fantastic book about modern theories of motivation. I highly recommend this book. It’s an easy read that’s full of all kinds of useful information, and I’ll borrow a lot of its concepts and jargon in the remainder of this post.

Stack Overflow implements a wide variety of motivational techniques. For starters, all users have a “reputation” score which is basically a fuzzy measure of how well the Stack Overflow community trusts you. You earn reputation by asking and answering questions, so users that participate more actively in the community will get more reputation. Already that’s a form of motivation right there; the more you do for the community, the more reputation you build up.

Specifically, you gain reputation when you do positive work for the community. Users can vote on each others’ posts, so a good answer that gets a lot of votes will grant more reputation than a mediocre or weak answer (and likewise for questions). It’s very encouraging to see your answers get a lot of votes, and this sort of now-that reward (now that you’ve provided a good answer, we’ll boost your reputation) has been proven to be a repeatable tactic to motivate good behavior.

Similarly, good behavior is occasionally rewarded with badges. For example, if you answer a question and your answer is up-voted by ten different users, you earn the “Nice Answer” badge. This is known as an if-then reward (if your answer is accepted by many of your peers, then you get this badge added to your profile) and is historically a very effective technique for short-term motivation. Stack Overflow does a couple of things to keep badges relevant in the long term:

  • Some badges are extremely hard to earn — I’ve seen a few that have only ever been awarded a few dozen times.
  • Some badges can be awarded multiple times.

These conditions mean longtime users still have something tangible to strive for, so the motivational boost generated by badges doesn’t dwindle over time.

But rewards aren’t the only things that motivate us.

So far we’ve looked at the measurable ways that Stack Overflow motivates its users, but there are a number of non-measurable motivators as well. For example, the higher purpose of helping others and contributing to a database of valuable knowledge is a strong intrinsic motivator, and studies have shown this type of motivation to be the most powerful. On a basic, human level, we like to help each other out and do good work. Stack Overflow is an outlet for these tendencies.

Likewise, we enjoy pushing ourselves to master various skills. Like the carpenter who perfects his craft over years of experience, it’s rewarding for geeks like myself to hone the technical and communicative skills required to answer challenging technical questions. Not only do I learn something new every time I log on to Stack Overflow, I teach something new as well — this knowledge-transfer cycle is something I simply crave.

Let’s discuss this a little more.

If you’ve spent any time on Stack Overflow, I’d love to hear your take on this. Do you find yourself motivated by the factors above? Did I miss an important motivator that really drives you to contribute to the community?

Better yet, did you stop visiting Stack Overflow because you found it boring or uninteresting? What motivated you to leave?

Web Misc Web Technology

The Content-Sharing Problem

The rise of ubiquitous social networks has lead to a choice I often have to make: When I find something cool online, where do I share that content?

In the pre-MySpace days, when social networks weren’t really a “thing”, the decision was easy because there were only a small handful of choices: you instant messaged or emailed it to a few close friends, or if you were “that guy”, you forwarded it to everyone you knew. Fast-forward to today. If I find a cool link, I have all kinds of options:

  • Tweet it.
  • Share it in Google Reader.
  • Share it on Facebook.
  • Link to it on Yammer.
  • Post it on LinkedIn.
  • Send someone a private message through any of the above services.
  • Blog about it.
  • etc.

Which do I choose? If I only post the link in one place, I’m only reaching a subset of my total audience. But if I post the link in several places, I’m guaranteed to spam a few users multiple times. This dilemma is what I call the content-sharing problem.

My solution so far kind of sucks.

What I do right now is painstakingly case-by-case. If it’s particularly techie, it goes to one of the more techie networks: generally for something short and easy to digest, that’s Twitter, and for something longer, Google Reader. The idea here is that I want to match the content I’m sharing with other pieces in my friends’ feeds that are about the same length.

If it’s not techie at all, I’ll usually involve Facebook. Facebook is the venue that has the least overlap with any other network, and since I can post it on a specific friend’s wall, I can target that audience even more deftly. Since there’s unlikely to be much overlap, I’ll often share this again on Twitter or Google Reader, especially since they’re public and more persistent.

If it’s something work-oriented, that’s where LinkedIn and Yammer become more attractive. Unfortunately, these areas tend to have a huge divide in that many of my Twitter/Google Reader followers are also connections on LinkedIn/Yammer, and many are not. This is the most problematic situation, because I either don’t reach several people I care about or show a similar subset of people the same link twice.

I could go on, but you get the idea — it’s a mess. It’s case-by-case, and it’s probably NP-complete. It’s killing me.

Is there a better way?

So far, I can’t think of one. Even convincing everyone I know to follow me on one monolithic feed isn’t ideal, because with so many diverse people in one venue, my signal-to-noise would be different and probably pretty weak for each individual contact.

I’m grasping at straws here. Is there a technological solution to this that I could be using? Are there content-sharing etiquette rules that I should be aware of? Am I simply trying to be in too many places at once?

What do you do? I’m dying to know.

Customer Experience Web Misc

How to Promote a Mall in the Year 2010

There’s a mall near my apartment called Billings Bridge. It’s a pretty nice place with a nice variety of stores, and up until about six months ago that’s all I would have had to say about it. But six months ago I started following their marketing director on Twitter, and since then I’ve come to the conclusion that Billings Bridge is a great case study for how to promote a mall in the year 2010. Here’s a look at some of the awesome things they’ve done since I started noticing them in December 2009:

Give-aways just in time for Christmas.

I found Billings Bridge on Twitter after reading the tenth or eleventh tweet about how they were giving away extra products they had lying around to their Facebook fans and Twitter followers. I know first-hand how awesome it was for them to do this, because I won an iPod Touch. On December 23rd. (That’s two days before Christmas.) So for the next three weeks, whenever anyone asked my girlfriend (now fiancée) what I got her for Christmas, she’d have this great story about how because Billings Bridge is super-generous and using modern communication channels that are easy to follow, they gave this to me so that I could give it to her.

There are probably about fifty other stories like this, plus all those tweets, and now at least one blog post. Word of mouth sells.

$50 for every 50 fans.

I don’t know when they started doing this or when they’re planning to stop, but every time Billings Bridge gets fifty new fans “likes” on Facebook, they give a $50 gift-certificate to one of their.. likers? (What do you call people that like things now? I miss fans.) This is brilliant because the sooner they get another fifty “likes”, the sooner they’ll give away another gift-certificate. This means that they have a steady stream of excited new mall-enthusiasts, in a very powerful social networking environment, constantly trying to get their friends and acquaintances to pay attention to that mall that gives stuff away. Motivate people to say something nice in a conduit for viral messages, and you’re going to get a lot of attention for your brand. Textbook smart marketing.

Sex and the City month.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of tweets about various fun things Billings Bridge is doing related to that new Sex and the City movie that’s coming out soon — things like that trip-for-four to NYC that they’re raffling off at the end of May. This is a fantastic topic to promote around, because it’s a movie that glorifies shopping. It allows them to catch interest through the popularity of a trendy, upcoming film, and convert on that interest because the film is about shopping. People that like to shop probably like the movie, so bringing them into the mall is obviously a good idea. Simple. Genius.

This is how every mall should run promotions. I’m sick of billboards and radio advertisements — I ignore them. If you want my interest, meet me halfway and spend time where I spend time. Give me incentives to pay attention to you, and better yet, incentives for me to get other people to pay attention as well. Try new things with new tools, and create a feedback loop so that I can tell you what works and what doesn’t. It’s working for Billings Bridge.


Oh, and did I mention that they’re giving away an iPad when they hit 2010 “likes” on Facebook? Because they’re about halfway there, and if you could “like” them too, and then tell a few friends, that would get us both a bit closer…

Web Misc

Why HTML5 Makes Sense for Mobile

These days there are more and more mobile devices that support rich software applications. Since the iPhone, we’ve seen the Blackberry, the Palm Pre and Android all start their own app stores, and surely Windows Phone 7 won’t be far behind. With all of these options, how do you decide which ones to develop software for? Porting the same native application to five different platforms is expensive, but only supporting a few adds the risk of alienating users with non-supported devices. Fortunately, thanks to HTML5, it’s now possible to develop one version of your application that works across all these platforms.

HTML5 is a new standard for developing web-based applications with rich interfaces similar to what can traditionally only be achieved in a desktop environment or by using browser plug-ins such as Adobe Flash. Support for HTML5 is being built right into all modern web browsers, with many features already available. While this is very good for the web community, it’s also very good for the mobile space; all modern smartphones come with a browser that is working to support HTML5. This means that instead of re-writing the same application for each mobile platform, one single version can be written in HTML5 that works across all of them.

The main motivation for choosing HTML5 is that the smartphone market is diverging, while support for HTML5 is converging. Each mobile platform in the expanding mobile space has its own API and distribution model, and any new platforms will likely follow suite. Contrast this with support for HTML5, where all these platforms are rushing to implement the same specification. How will this look in a few years? We will have even more platforms to develop separate clients for, but all of them will have increasingly better support for HTML5.

Another big reason for choosing HTM5 is that it has a strong, predictable future. In addition to picking up traction all over the web, the specification for HTML5 is mapped out to the year 2022, over ten years from now (but that doesn’t mean HTML5 is not ready to use right now). With the current smartphone market, it’s difficult to predict which clients will even be around in a few years, let alone which ones will still be popular. Using an HTML5 client removes much of the guesswork surrounding which platforms to support, and as it becomes the default standard for web browsers, any future platforms will support it as well.

There are other benefits to an HTML5 client, such as the control it grants you over your application. With the iPhone, for example, Apple must approve any change that is made to a native application, even after it is released. With an HTML5 application, there is no need for an approval process — in fact, it’s not even possible; device manufacturers and OS providers have no ability to regulate web content.

HTML5 is a great choice for mobile development in the current market. If you find yourself struggling to decide which platform(s) to develop for, or concerned about the future landscape of the mobile space, or unsure about having to seek approval from a manufacturer before your application can be deployed, consider the possible advantages of HTML5; it won’t be right for every scenario, but creating a native app isn’t either.

Note: This post is also available at

Web Misc

When not to Write a Post

This is the fourth (!) post I’ve written for today. The reason you aren’t seeing the first three is because the past couple of days have taught me a few valuable lessons about when you shouldn’t follow through on a post idea (even if it’s a really good idea), and I thought I’d share that knowledge with all of you.

<tangent>This post was probably inspired in part by a recent similar post on Outspoken Media.</tangent>

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

My first idea for this week’s post was massively ambitious. A popular site I follow posted an article last week about something I know a lot about, and didn’t do a very good job of it — and it was one of those dreaded list-posts where you can tell some of the items were just filler to boost the count up to a nice, rounded number. I was sure I could write a better post about the topic, so I got started! I was picking apart all the things the other article did wrong, doling out advice for how it could have been improved, coming up with my own, significantly better advice and conclusions, it was epic!

And then I read over what I had so far.

It was atrocious. My bold calling-out of a not-so-great post with examples of how to do it right was reading like a vicious tirade about why I’m better than they are. It was awful! Then I looked up the post’s author; he’s been blogging since I was in high school, has guest posts on some of my favourite blogs, and has made a hugely positive impact in his niche. What was I doing? This guy was a role model. So he had an off-post. It wasn’t all that bad, and even if I could find a few things wrong with it, that doesn’t translate to a better post — especially if I’m being a jerk about it.

So I trashed it. It was probably the longest post I’ve written for this blog to date, and I wholly regret wasting so much time on it before pulling the plug. On the plus side, I’ll think twice about it next time, and hopefully one of you will too.

Posts about current events can backfire.

My back-up idea for this week was based on a gem of a rant I went on over Skype when I found out that YouTube pulled the original RickRoll’d video for a Terms of Service violation. This was a solid post with some legitimately good content that I was all set to write — until I found out that YouTube restored the video.

This is the problem with such ephemeral topics. How long would that post have been relevant for? A few days? Then what? I update it to say “rejoice! the video is restored!” and the rest of my post is moot? Ridiculous. Next time I’ll remember to wait until the news is more official before assuming I’m set for next week’s post.

Are you really a good candidate to write this post?

My third idea was to write a post based on some story I found via Slashdot; one of those trendy posts about an ongoing saga of human rights dilution in a far-away land. This was obviously a good idea, because it was something I cared about! Not so.

What kind of insight would I have on such an issue? Sure I’m passionate about it, but so are millions of other people. Do I know more than the majority of them do? Probably not. Am I going to have some wacky angle that no one else has covered yet? I doubt it. Is there anything significant I can contribute in this space? Not really. So, no post. It was my fault for choosing a topic I was under-qualified to write about.

Please learn from my mistakes.

It’s been a long couple of days. It wasn’t easy throwing out idea after idea, especially after I’d invested time and energy into each one. But in the end I’m glad I did it; I didn’t publish something stupid that I’d probably regret later (or worse: completely forget about), and the silver lining turned out to be a handful of valuable lessons, ready for their own post.

Web Misc

We Live in a Communication Age

Suppose the year is 1990, and you have some big news to share with those close to you and the world in general. How can you do it? There are a few ways:

  • In person
  • Over the phone
  • In a mailed letter
  • Through a printed announcement (say, in a newspaper)

Fast forward to today, a mere 20 years later. How much has changed? In addition to the ways mentioned above, look at all the new tools we have:

  • Voice chat (Skype, Google Voice)
  • Video conference (Skype, iChat)
  • Instant message (from any number of clients)
  • Text message (or MMS)
  • Email
  • Facebook (status update, wall post, private message)
  • Twitter (tweet, @someone, DM)
  • Blog post

And this is just what I used on Monday; there are many others. We’re more connected than ever before. We can reach more people, faster, through whatever means is convenient for them, and the list of applicable technologies just keeps growing. It’s incredible!

A brief take-away

Monday reminded me how many tools there are for spreading messages that I don’t normally use, and made me realize that sometimes I have to look outside of my usual channels to reach people in a way that is most effective to them. I’m sure there are other things I will think of over the next little while that I can communicate more efficiently using tools other than my defaults; perhaps the same is true for you?

Web Misc

Opera vs Reality

2009 was an exciting year for the web browser crowd:

  • Google released Chrome.
  • Apple ported Safari to Windows.
  • Firefox picked up a lot of market share.
  • Microsoft actually produced a half-decent version of Internet Explorer.
  • The iPhone and Android finally made mobile browsing popular.
  • Support for HTML5 and CSS3 was way up across the board.

The term crowd is especially appropriate here because it really is starting to get very crowded. For a long time the browser war has been fought largely between two major players at a time (IE/Netscape, IE/Firefox) and all of a sudden we have four major companies with fantastic browsers available to the vast majority of users. Oh, and then there’s Opera.

Here’s the thing about Opera

Opera is in serious trouble because it doesn’t have a “thing”:

  • Internet Explorer’s thing is its existing market share. It has a lot more users than everyone else, so its going to be a major player for the foreseeable future.
  • Firefox’s thing is its community. Not just its core developers, but the people who create addons or personas or rally everyone they know to go download the latest version on launch day. It’s easily the most passionate user group of the bunch.
  • Chrome’s thing is its brand. When people think web, they think Google. Google has the best search, a fantastic email client, why not a great browser? Users rely on Google for a great online experience, and Google has a lot of high-traffic areas where it can push Chrome.
  • Apple’s thing is its loyalty. Apple fanboys are a loyal bunch — most of them will stick with Safari on their Mac and many will consider getting Safari for any Windows computers they’re forced to use. Apple also has the iPhone, which gives it a growing space where it has the only browser (not that any iPhone users mind — loyalty, remember?).

Opera has nothing. It used to be the most advanced browser for HTML5 support, then everyone else caught up. It used to be a major player in the mobile space, then Apple and Google obliterated it. It used to be a fun browser for geeks to talk about, but now the buzz is all Chrome. It’s not enough to be an alternative to IE anymore; users are demanding more from their browsing experience, and they’re flush with places to find it.

What’s even worse is that there isn’t really anything you or I can do to help. Opera’s engine isn’t open source like Gecko (Firefox) or Webkit (Chrome/Safari) and they don’t have the extensibility of Firefox or Chrome. It doesn’t have the de-facto standard advantage in Windows (IE), OSX (Safari) or linux (Firefox), and even if I wanted to rally some Opera enthusiasts together, where would I start? How many people do you know that have even heard of Opera?

I don’t have anything against Opera (it’s a fine browser), it’s just that it’s no longer relevant — there are too many better options around preventing Opera from picking up new users, and I can’t think of a single significant reason for its existing users to stick with it.

Any Opera fans out there?

Do you use Opera? Do you have any thoughts on Opera’s future? Be sure to leave a comment.

Web Misc

What Makes for a Good Domain Name?

A domain name is the unique, human-readable address of a website — the stuff in your browser’s address bar after “http://” but before any subsequent “/” characters. This blog actually has two domain names:

Both redirect to the same content, but each serves a different specific purpose (which we’ll get to in a moment). The idea behind a domain name is that it represents where your website “lives” on the internet, so you’ll be telling it to a lot of people and it plays a very important role. In particular, a domain name should be related to you and easy for people to remember. Each of these qualities is quantitative, and varies from domain to domain.

For this blog in particular, both domain names are easily related to me — they’re my name. Where they differ if in how easy they are for people to remember. There are essentially two high-level ways for someone to find out about a domain name; to hear the domain name spoken out-loud, and to see the domain name written down or on screen. These are different situations which have different requirements:

  • A domain name that is easy to hear out loud should sound very simple and clear. No weird characters, nothing too clever, no ridiculous abbreviations.
  • A domain name that is easy to read should “parse” well. This means that even a quick glance is long enough to comprehend what it says.

I chose to use two domain names for this blog because I couldn’t find one name that matched both those qualities. On the one hand, is very easy to hear out loud. “Dan Menard dot com” or “my name, dot com”. But I hate how it looks; it’s very hard to read, because the “nm” bit kind of obfuscates the whole thing. The other,, is the opposite. It’s easy to look at an instantly read, but it’s awkward to say out loud “Dan dash Menard dot com” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, and I’m sure people would confuse the dash for an underscore or a slash. By choosing two domain names, I have the best of both worlds:

  • If I’m talking to someone in person, I tell them my blog is at the pleasant-sounding
  • If I’m sharing my blog in writing (email, Twitter, etc), I write because it is easier to read.

What do you think? Do you have a blog? Would it benefit from a second domain name? Leave a comment and share some thoughts.