The Burned-Out Blogger’s Guide to PR

bob-paperback-cover

I pub­lished my first book this week.

The seeds for the book were planted years ago, while I was still knee-deep in blog­ging at TechCrunch, and it feels good to finally get it out of my head (I launched it on stage at TechCrunch Dis­rupt which was a lot of fun).

I’ll be writ­ing more on it soon, but for the time being, here’s an excerpt from my for­mer boss, Michael Arrington’s, review on TechCrunch.

More than any­thing else, Jason Kincaid’s new book The Burned-Out Blogger’s Guide To PR is about the star­tup jour­ney. It has some­thing for every­one, and it’s smart. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny…

It’s indis­pens­able for star­tup founders, and they’ll love it. Blog­gers and reporters will cry over how per­fectly it describes their frus­trat­ing lives. And PR peo­ple will groan and say it’s all non­sense.”

I’m thrilled he liked it so much. If it sounds up your alley, you can find the Kindle ver­sion here, and the paper­back ver­sion here.

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Silicon Valley

I had the incred­i­ble expe­ri­ence of play­ing myself in HBO’s Sil­i­con Val­ley. I wasn’t sure what to write about it, but TechCrunch made things easy on me by ask­ing for a brief descrip­tion, repeated below.

It was totally sur­real, like some kind of drug trip that gave me déjà vu every five min­utes. They had the real Dis­rupt signs, the name tags — even the stage itself felt right.

Of course there were dif­fer­ences. More cam­eras and hair­spray than I’m used to, and there’s a lot of rep­e­ti­tion in the pro­duc­tion process, with the same scene being shot from mul­ti­ple angles. Also, “Erlich Bach­man” is eas­ier to pro­nounce than many of the real founders’ names.

I remem­ber ask­ing Mike Judge how I should sit in my chair, and he said to sit how I usu­ally sit, and I had a minor exis­ten­tial cri­sis. I decided to try to keep my back straight, this being TV and all.

Just nuts, right?

You can find me in Sea­son 1, Episodes 7 and 8, and don’t miss TechCrunch Bat­tle­field Edi­tor Sam O’Keefe’s report on all the work that went into build­ing the set.

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Evernote responds

Wow. Two days ago I pub­lished Ever­note, the bug-rid­den ele­phant, recount­ing the ongo­ing issues I’ve had with the ser­vice (and, more recently, seri­ous inci­dents of data loss). The response has been stag­ger­ing: over a hun­dred com­ments on my post, hun­dreds more on Hacker News, and many flur­ries of con­cern and agree­ment on Twit­ter. Sen­ti­ment has been remark­ably con­sis­tent, with nearly every com­menter shar­ing my frus­tra­tions — some of them with hor­ror sto­ries of their own.

Ever­note CEO Phil Libin reached out to me shortly after I pub­lished the post and expressed his apolo­gies, assur­ing me (and, in turn, the many Ever­note users who wound up here) that the ser­vice will be refo­cus­ing its efforts to rem­edy its qual­ity issues. Now he has writ­ten a lengthy response on the Ever­note blog that goes into more detail, dis­cussing the company’s recent re-empha­sis on sta­bil­ity, its hir­ing strat­egy, and planned improve­ments for the app’s design.

Libin’s post is steeped in dam­age con­trol, but it is can­did and encour­ag­ing all the same. Ever­note has the poten­tial to be a great pro­duct (I use it con­stantly, even when it is only mediocre), and I hope the changes Libin out­li­nes help it reach its poten­tial.

You can find Libin’s full post here, below are the open­ing para­graphs.

On Soft­ware Qual­ity and Build­ing a Bet­ter Ever­note in 2014

I got the wrong sort of birth­day present yes­ter­day: a sin­cerely-writ­ten post by Jason Kin­caid lament­ing a per­ceived decline in the qual­ity of Ever­note soft­ware over the past few months. I could quib­ble with the specifics, but read­ing Jason’s arti­cle was a painful and frus­trat­ing expe­ri­ence because, in the big pic­ture, he’s right. We’re going to fix this.

The past cou­ple of years have been an amaz­ing time for Ever­note. We’ve grown mas­sively as a com­pany, a com­mu­nity and a pro­duct. And we’re still grow­ing quickly. How­ever, there comes a time in a boom­ing startup’s life when it’s impor­tant to pause for a bit and look in rather than up. When it’s more impor­tant to improve exist­ing fea­tures than to add new ones. More impor­tant to make our exist­ing users hap­pier than to just add more new users. More impor­tant to focus on our direc­tion than on our speed. This is just com­mon sense, but star­tups breathe growth and inten­tion­ally slow­ing down to focus on details and qual­ity doesn’t come nat­u­rally to many of us. Despite this, the best pro­duct com­pa­nies in the world have fig­ured out how to make con­stant qual­ity improve­ments part of their essen­tial DNA. Apple and Google and Ama­zon and Face­book and Twit­ter and Tesla know how to do this. So will we. This is our cen­tral theme for 2014: con­stant improve­ment of the core promise of Ever­note.

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Evernote, the bug-ridden elephant

evernotelogoTo say this post pains me would be an under­state­ment. More than any other tech­nol­ogy, Ever­note is part of me, hav­ing evolved from habit to instinct over sev­eral years and nearly seven thou­sand notes. Every day ideas flit through my head, ideas for essays, for char­ac­ters, for jokes. Just now I catch a glimpse of one, with­out think­ing I am talk­ing into my phone like a Star Trek Com­mu­ni­ca­tor, telling myself that maybe I should title this post Leaky Sync. Maybe not.

Because I use it so often, I am unusu­ally famil­iar with the service’s warts. Evernote’s appli­ca­tions are glitchy to the extreme; they often feel as if they’re held together by the engi­neer­ing equiv­a­lent of duct tape. Browser exten­sions crash, text cur­sors leap hap­haz­ardly across the screen — my copy of Evernote’s image edi­tor Skitch silently failed to sync for months because I hadn’t updated to the new ver­sion. Most issues are benign enough, but the apps are so laden with quirks that I’ve long held a deep-seated fear that per­haps some of my data has not been saved, that through a sync­ing error, an acci­den­tal over­write — some of these ideas have been for­got­ten.

As of last month, I am all but sure of it.

I’ve been learn­ing how to write songs. It’s ter­ri­fy­ing because I stink, so I trick myself, did­dling around with­out actu­ally intend­ing to record any­thing. With any luck I reach a fugue state, vaguely lis­ten­ing for my fin­gers to do some­thing inter­est­ing; some­times instinct steers me toward the green elephant’s ‘record’ but­ton and I play for a while.

And so I find myself on Decem­ber 5, when a mean­der­ing ses­sion results in an 18 min­ute Ever­note audio record­ing on my iPhone labeled “not bad halfway through” — high praise, for me. Some of the chord changes are sheer luck, no idea what I did but they sounded good the first time.

I decide to give it another lis­ten with more dis­cern­ing ears, self-loathing eagerly wait­ing in the wings.

And — noth­ing. Zero sec­onds out of zero sec­onds. It’s a blank file.

Alarmed, I tap record again, make another note. It won’t play, either.

Another. This one works.

One more. Zero out of zero.

I check the Wifi sig­nal (fine). I let the phone sit for a while to sync, just in case. I head to the web app, which — thank­fully — shows the note intact, with its attach­ment as an 8.7 megabyte .m4a file.

I try to open it in iTunes — it shrugs. Quick­time spits an error. Time to bust out the big guns. VLC.

Nada.

Teeth grind­ing, I con­tact Ever­note sup­port. The process is slow and bum­bling, but I’d like to think this has more to do with Evernote’s overly-struc­tured ticket sys­tem than the peo­ple work­ing there. Unfor­tu­nately, in the process of try­ing to learn what hap­pened to my audio file, I dis­cover another flaw in Evernote’s sys­tem.

As an appar­ently stan­dard part of Evernote’s sup­port process, it requests that users send over an Activ­ity Log. This is a file gen­er­ated by each Ever­note appli­ca­tion that records the myr­iad house­keep­ing events going on behind the sce­nes — “Send­ing pref­er­ence changes…”, and so on.

For most ser­vices this log wouldn’t make me bat an eye, but in many ways my Ever­note archive is more sen­si­tive than my Gmail account. With email, there’s always the pos­si­bil­ity that the guy on the other end will for­ward the mes­sage along, so I tend to behave accord­ingly. With Ever­note it’s just me. I try not to fil­ter myself because that’s how cre­ativ­ity dies.

I ask the sup­port per­son to ver­ify that he will not have access to my data. No, he assures me. Just the meta data, like note titles (why Ever­note doesn’t believe note titles are poten­tially sen­si­tive is beyond me, but in my case they’re usu­ally blank any­way).

Still, out of habit­ual para­noia, I skim through the log before send­ing. Thou­sands of lines of gib­ber­ish, dates and upload counts and [ENSyn­cEngine] INFO: Send­ing search changes.

And then I come across some­thing more leg­i­ble. It’s a text note I left a few evenings ago, a stray thought about sex, if I’m being hon­est. Fur­ther down, another note, the entire con­tents of the text, bro­ken up by some HTML tags. And another.

Turns out there’s a bug, this time com­pli­ments of Ever­note for Mac’s ‘helper’ — an offi­cial mini app that’s meant for jot­ting down notes with­out hav­ing to switch to the hulk­ing beast that is the desk­top appli­ca­tion. On my Mac­book Pro, run­ning the lat­est ver­sion of Ever­note for Mac, this ‘helper’ app records the entirety of any text it saves into the log file.

Alarmed and not a lit­tle bit furi­ous that I nearly sent him some deeply embar­rass­ing mus­ings, I tell the sup­port per­son about the issue, not­ing that it is a seri­ous breach of pri­vacy (and an obvi­ous one, given that I noticed it in all of ten sec­onds).

They say to file another ticket.

As for the audio file: even more bad news.

It’s been nearly a month and the most sub­stan­tive thing Ever­note has said is that it is “see­ing mul­ti­ple users who have cre­ated audio notes of all sizes where they will not play on any plat­form.” The com­pany has given me no infor­ma­tion on what’s wrong with the cor­rupted file, and no indi­ca­tion that they might find a way to get it work­ing in the future.

Adding fur­ther insult, the up-to-date iOS appli­ca­tion con­tin­ues to cre­ate cor­rupted audio notes, despite receiv­ing an update on Decem­ber 17, twelve days after I reported the issue. The sup­port team actu­ally couldn’t tell me whether that update addressed the audio prob­lem — they said I should check the App Store release notes, which rou­tinely includes the ambigu­ous line “bug fixes”, so I had to fig­ure it out for myself. Two more cor­rupted notes later, I can say with some author­ity that it’s still there (I’ve also encoun­tered a new issue, where some audio files sim­ply van­ish).

Through it all, the sup­port team has dis­played a marked lack of urgency that has bor­dered on non­cha­lance. Maybe they’re trained that way, or maybe data loss on Ever­note isn’t as rare as I’d hope.


None of this has been life shat­ter­ing, but given how reliant I am on Ever­note it is deeply unnerv­ing — now each note I instinc­tively leave myself is tinged with anx­i­ety. I’m con­cerned that as I dig through my Ever­note archive I’ll encoun­ter more cor­rupted audio notes, and, worse, my para­noia is increas­ingly con­vinced that there may have been notes that never were saved to the archive at all.

More than that, I am alarmed that Ever­note seems to be play­ing fast and loose with the data entrusted to it. Instead of build­ing a pro­duct that is secure, reli­able, and fast, it has spread itself too thin, try­ing to build out its install base across as many plat­forms as pos­si­ble in an attempt to fend off its inevitable com­pe­ti­tion.

This strat­egy is tol­er­a­ble for a social net­work or mes­sag­ing app (Face­book got away with atro­ciously buggy apps for years). But Ever­note is lit­er­ally aim­ing to be an exten­sion of your brain, the place to store your most impor­tant ideas. Its slo­gan is “Remem­ber Every­thing”. Pre­sum­ably the integrity of its data should be of the utmost impor­tance.

What’s worse, it isn’t con­sis­tently improv­ing. When iOS7 launched, Ever­note was one of the first appli­ca­tions to over­haul with a new, ‘flat’ design, and as a result ben­e­fit­ted from being fea­tured promi­nently within the App Store. But func­tion­ally, it was clearly a down­grade from the old app, with extra dol­lops of slug­gish­ness, crashes, and glitches — it may well have intro­duced the audio record­ing bug I fell prey to (I believe it dates back to at least Octo­ber, when I encoun­tered a sim­i­lar audio issue that I chalked up to user error).

Evernote’s secu­rity track record has been sim­i­larly frus­trat­ing. Asked in Octo­ber 2012 why the ser­vice had not imple­mented the increas­ingly-com­mon two-fac­tor authen­ti­ca­tion option already offered by com­pa­nies like Google, Evernote’s CEO, Phil Libin, wrote “Find­ing an approach that gives you increased secu­rity with­out mak­ing Ever­note harder to use is not just a mat­ter of adding two-fac­tor authen­ti­ca­tion…”, imply­ing that some­thing bet­ter was on the way.

Five months later the promised secu­rity upgrade was still MIA — until Ever­note was hacked, its data­base of user pass­words was com­pro­mised, and the ser­vice rushed to imple­ment a two-fac­tor sys­tem that didn’t look much dif­fer­ent from the sort Libin was appar­ently aim­ing to leapfrog.

This is a com­pany with over $250 mil­lion in fund­ing and 80 mil­lion users. And unlike many web ser­vices that promise exhaus­tive secu­rity and reli­a­bil­ity, it’s one I actu­ally pay for.

Iron­i­cally, the same day I was told Ever­note didn’t have a fix for my cor­rupted music record­ing, the New York Times pub­lished an arti­cle about Ever­note titled, An App That Will Never For­get a File.


Update, 1/3: Ever­note CEO Phil Libin con­tacted me and we spoke about the issues described. He apol­o­gized, say­ing the post rings true and that there is a lot of work to be done both on the appli­ca­tion and ser­vice fronts. In the short-term the com­pany will be imple­ment­ing fixes for the issues above, with plans to focus on gen­eral qual­ity improve­ments in the months ahead.

Update, 1/5: Libin has pub­lished a lengthy response to this post (and the ensu­ing uproar) on the Ever­note Blog, out­lin­ing the company’s plans to rem­edy its qual­ity issues by refo­cus­ing on the core pro­duct and its design:
On Soft­ware Qual­ity and Build­ing a Bet­ter Ever­note in 2014

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NYT #IsKindaClueless

lululogoToday Lulu makes its New York Times debut, page E1.

Lulu lets women review guys. Specif­i­cally their date-wor­thi­ness, rated out of 10, with tags call­ing out attrib­utes like #Dude­Can­Cook and #Hygeni­cal­ly­Chal­lenged.

Sim­i­lar ideas have been tried before but fiz­zled. Maybe it’s because we instinc­tively reject them, sens­ing the poten­tial for dis­gust­ing acts of human­ity — or maybe it’s just that no one has fig­ured out the right way to do it yet.

Lulu may have cracked the nut. It claims to have a quar­ter of all col­lege women (!) on board — its growth aided by its nat­u­ral align­ment with the soror­ity com­mu­nity — and it’s done so using a for­mula more refined than past attempts. It’s for ladies only, it’s play­ful, and its tagli­nes pro­mote ‘dat­ing intel’, not spite­ful dish­ing.

To pre­vent an oth­er­wise inevitable flow of vit­riol, the app restricts reviews to numer­i­cal rat­ings (for things like attrac­tive­ness and humor) and an array of pre-writ­ten cheeky hash­tags, so there isn’t an oppor­tu­nity to type any­thing out your­self. Most of the hash­tags are amus­ing, but oth­ers have a decid­edly nas­tier bent, like #50ShadesOfF**kedUp, #F**kedMeAndChuckedMe, and #TotalF**kingDickhead.

The app has man­aged to raise $2.5 mil­lion, with investors includ­ing mega-rich Face­book investor Yuri Mil­ner, Jaw­bone founder Hosain Rah­man, and Path founder Dave Morin.

So. Where does this go?

Some guys rally their female friends to leave pos­i­tive reviews. Some women use it to exact revenge on guys who did them wrong. It proves gen­uinely help­ful for women anx­ious about dat­ing com­plete strangers, but they throw some out with the bath­wa­ter. Some guys clean up — oth­ers have their inad­e­qua­cies pre­sented to them in bar-graph form. It totally wrecks a few of them.

If it sticks, it fun­da­men­tally changes dat­ing. Early dates become even less authen­tic acts of per­for­mance art whose reviews last in per­pe­tu­ity (per­haps alongside a tag of #Man­Child, the sou­venir of a messy breakup). Guys can request that their pro­file be removed, but the arti­cle notes that, already, “appar­ently many [men] believe it’s bet­ter to have been badly reviewed than never to have been reviewed.”

And, to state the obvi­ous: now guys have an excuse to try using their own anal­o­gous app.

I’m not going to argue that Lulu is a bad idea, because it’s an idea we’re going to have to deal with. We’re so used to see­ing rat­ings next to every­thing — includ­ing pro­files on dat­ing sites — that it feels inevitable, even if such ser­vices launch and die in a phoenix-like life­cy­cle.

And it isn’t all bad. One of the women quoted in the arti­cle says, “dat­ing with­out a ref­er­ence is the scari­est thing you can do” —  the app helps ame­lio­rate that. Surely much of the appeal has noth­ing to do with safety, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t helped some women avoid get­ting tan­gled in a scary sit­u­a­tion.

Do the ben­e­fits out­weigh the down­sides? I don’t think so, not by a long shot, but I don’t hold much sway in the mat­ter. Peo­ple are start­ing to review each other, as peo­ple, and my hunch is we’ll be fig­ur­ing out how to deal with it for a long time.

But that’s not my point.

My point is that the NYT arti­cle hardly tack­les any of this. Most other pub­li­ca­tions promi­nently dis­cuss the con­tro­versy around the app — but here, the tone is uncrit­i­cal (if not oddly pos­i­tive), we read that Lulu is “a sort of ‘Take Back the Inter­net’ moment for young women who have come of age in an era of revenge porn and anony­mous, pos­si­bly omi­nous suit­ors”. It quotes the cofounder’s boyfriend as say­ing, “It inspires guys to be good and treat girls the way they should be treated. Like angels.”

The coun­ter argu­ment is the fol­low­ing muted dis­cus­sion:

Not all men are so mag­nan­i­mous about their pres­ence on Lulu, of course. Last sum­mer, Neel Shah, a com­edy writer, was at a bar in Los Ange­les on a date with a woman who pulled up his pro­file. “She started read­ing me these neg­a­tive hash­tags and I was like, ‘Uh, this is awk­ward,’ ” said Mr. Shah, 30, whose pro­file has been viewed 448 times and “favorite” eight times for an aver­age score of 6.7. His hash­tags include #Tall­Dark­And­Hand­some and #Clean­sUp­Good, along with the less flat­ter­ing #Tem­per­Tantrums and #Wan­deringEye.

One of the com­ments was, ‘laugh­ing at his jokes may take some effort,’ which I cer­tainly thought was sub­jec­tive,” Mr. Shah said. “I feel like if you’re using an app like Lulu, you’re prob­a­bly not inter­ested in nuanced analy­sis.”

Now, that chunk of text might be enough to cover the poten­tial down­sides if the arti­cle were about, say, Yelp. We’re all used to review­ing busi­nesses, and even indi­vid­u­als, in a pro­fes­sional con­text. We’re also used to read­ing about how some of them get labeled with bad reviews that they don’t like and how it’s not fair.

But this is some­thing dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple get­ting reviewed for their per­son­al­ity and appear­ance when they’re vul­ner­a­ble — on dates, in rela­tion­ships, not while they’re wear­ing a stetho­scope or fix­ing the sink — by peo­ple they may have roman­tic feel­ings for.

I mean, hell — Mr. Shah sounds unfazed, but a woman he went on a date with left a review say­ing that he, a com­edy writer, has a bad sense of humor. This is the stuff night­mares are made of. Look­ing fur­ther out, it’s not hard to imag­ine lit­i­ga­tion and per­haps even attempts at leg­is­la­tion (par­tic­u­larly around the fact that men do not have to opt-in before they are reviewed).

Maybe this is all a moot point. The arti­cle appears on the front page of the NYT Fash­ion and Style sec­tion, where, per­haps, the bar is lower. Were this any aver­age app I would be chuck­ling about the fact that it includes a self-effac­ing quip from Mike Isaac, a top tech jour­nal­ist, with­out appear­ing to real­ize he is a tech jour­nal­ist. But this isn’t an aver­age app. And it’s my sense that the nation’s paper of record has a respon­si­bil­ity to flag it as the social quag­mire it is, regard­less of which page the arti­cle appears on.

This pas­sage appears toward the end of the arti­cle, with­out qual­i­fi­ca­tion:

But Ms. Chong has the grand hope that Lulu will accom­plish what gen­er­a­tions of women have not been able to do: change the oppo­site sex.

There’s an ele­ment of behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion that we’re hear­ing and see­ing,” she said. “When we do ses­sions at col­leges, we ask guys, ‘Have any of you changed since Lulu launched?’ Hands go up.”


Rel­e­vant links:

What’s He Really Like? Check the Lulu App – Deb­o­rah Schoen­e­man, The New York Times

Lulu

Rep­u­ta­tion is Dead – Michael Arring­ton, TechCrunch

I actu­ally found Mike’s post, pub­lished in 2010, after I’d writ­ten most of the above. He was writ­ing about a dif­fer­ent app (and ref­er­ences sev­eral even ear­lier attempts that dealt with rep­u­ta­tion) but the con­cerns are very sim­i­lar. His con­clu­sion: we’re going to review our­selves until we don’t care about reviews any more. Def­i­nitely worth read­ing.


Cor­rec­tion, 11/23: Lulu uses aster­isks in the word ‘Fuck’. Also, the tag is #F**kedMeAndChuckedMe, not #F**kItAndChuckIt, though the the­mat­i­cally-sim­i­lar ‘#HitI­tAndQuitIt’ is avail­able.

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