Erin Kissane

Erin is an editor, content strategist, and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She edited A List Apart for about ten years and worked as editorial director at Happy Cog Studios. Erin is the happy author of The Elements of Content Strategy, published by A Book Apart. When she's not editing Contents, a publication that brings together ideas and skills from publishing, content strategy, and journalism, Erin runs client projects and works on Source, a tech-in-journalism community project from Knight-Mozilla OpenNews.

Erin has a blog, too, and a Twitter account @kissane.

Published Thoughts

I never made a Christmas List when I was a child. My parents—probably correctly—thought it encouraged materialism and detracted from the meaning of the holiday, and so I was never allowed to ask for anything specific. I guess their approach worked, because the idea of making a wish list still makes me uncomfortable, but I want to make an exception this year.

Dear internet:

I want an open web and I want it for everyone. I want net neutrality codified in modern communications law. (I want modern communications law.)

I want services that respect our data. I want networks that lets us act with confidence and without constantly glancing over our shoulders at our privacy settings. I want systems that reveal power structures and allow us to question them instead of obscuring their workings and reflexively strengthening their positions.

I want better crypto.

I want a culture that nourishes the quiet and subtle as well as the frantic and exuberant. I want safety for the vulnerable and in-between spaces for the unexpected.

I want tools made to fit more hands.

I want us to learn how to take better care of each other, in our actions and in the things we build. I want us to learn how to take better care of the things we make.

I want more play and less game.

(It’s more complicated than that. I love you. Good night.)

Erin

Nothing quite underscores accessibility and usability knowledge like direct experience.

I'm just now creeping back onto the big-screen internet after spending the first six weeks of my daughter's life using only a smartphone to connect, with one free hand at most. Combine that with a slightly bumpy recovery from surgery and all the sleep deprivation you can expect from life with a newborn, and I've had plenty of very recent experience using the web while bleary, impatient, and on a device smaller than my hand. The highlights (and lowlights):

  • If someone in an emergency situation might need to contact you via your website, you need to have your main phone number and physical address (if applicable) in large type near the top of your homepage. Anything else is hostile and irresponsible.

  • Trimming content because you assume mobile users won't need it remains a terrible idea, as Karen McGrane's been telling us for years. Wikipedia, I'm looking at you.

  • Slow load times make me hate you. If I've been staring at my phone for 30 seconds while your site loads bushels of unnecessary files, not only am I going to back out of the site, I'm going to mentally put it on my Google results blacklist. Likewise, if you override my ability to pinch-zoom, use a mobilizer that makes me swipe instead of scrolling, or adds pagination, I will go out of my way to never use your site again.

  • If you sell things online and don't offer Amazon Payments or PayPal as an option, you're losing all the people using small screens who are never going to enter all their shipping and billing info in your tiny form fields with their thumbs.

This is miles away from a comprehensive list of mobile usability problems, but I noticed these again and again, often on the sites of organizations smart enough to know better. Mobile-only internet use is only expanding, and this group of users is much too large to ignore. And don't forget—if you're sufficiently unkind to a multi-device user stuck on a small screen, you may find they avoid you on the desktop as well.

Let’s say you want to work in tech but you also want a civil, respectful working environment. You want to transcend professional mediocrity, but you also want family-friendly policies or sane working hours. And let’s say you yourself aren’t generally treated like an inferior simply because of who you are, but that you’d really rather not work with people who treat others that way.

But let’s be honest. Can you have all that and work at a buzzy startup or a giant agency, all the while immersing yourself in the squabbles of celebrity-style tech media? Maybe not. If you pay attention to the tech world’s steady stream of personal horror stories, public executive flameouts, and never-ending sexist stunts by startups, finding a balance may seem dishearteningly unlikely.

So, you know, you might have to choose a backwater instead: one of those boring places, like the newsrooms that break international stories with teams of hybrid journalist-developers, or the hospitals where technical decision-making saves actual lives, or the school systems that shape our children’s futures. Or you might just have to find a slower-paced startup or a smaller agency full of people who value their craft and care about each other.

Ultimately, you might have to make a terrible sacrifice to avoid the excesses of bubbly tech culture: You might have to prefer work with lasting meaning over work that confers instant prestige and a lavish starting salary. You might have to invite conference speakers—and hire leaders—who work outside the usual spotlights and slowly accomplish amazing things. You might have to choose ethically stalwart colleagues over big brand names.

You might have to have a really good life. It might be fucking amazing.

(PS: It’s not all that simple. Of course not. But if I’ve learned anything in this decade and a half in the field, it’s that nothing is more important than colleagues you can trust. Your people are out there. Believe.)

I introduce a new process into my work routine, and my next project goes much more smoothly. I restructure a client’s website and their conversions soar. I adopt a new management style and my company has a particularly excellent year.

I’m doing a good job, right?

Maybe. But without more data, collected over a longer period of time, I can’t really tell. I might be doing a great job, and my actions might be the main reason for your success. Or I might be doing a mediocre job and succeeding merely because of other factors like great colleagues or external market forces. I might even be doing a terrible job, and succeeding out of sheer good luck—for awhile, at least.

When we behave in a particular way, and afterward receive professional rewards, it’s very tempting to believe that our actions are causative—that they produced those rewards, and that we should therefore a.) benefit personally from our effective actions, and b.) carry on as we have been, confident in our wisdom.

When things go wrong, on the other hand, it’s very easy to assume a lack of causation: A project failed not because of my bad communication, but because the client was just too incompetent. My team fell apart because of random events in the individual members’ lives—certainly not because I practiced poor leadership. My company had a terrible year because the market was weird and unpredictable.

Of course, we still have to make decisions or face paralysis. When things go well, it’s often a sign that we’re acting effectively; when they go poorly, it’s often not our fault. But if we always interpret the positive outcomes as a sign that we’re right, and rarely interpret the negatives as a sign that we’re wrong, we make a useless hash of our data and bar the door to useful self-doubt. (Doing it the other way around is also a problem—too much self-doubt can drown us.)

In the last few years, I’ve watched closely as many talented people in our field become increasingly effective leaders—and as a few get trapped in echo chambers that reinforce their every choice, no matter its effect on their clients, coworkers, and end-users. So I think about these questions a lot: How can we grow without getting stuck? How can we lead teams without losing empathy? How can we maintain the confidence to act without losing our capacity for self doubt? How can we mature professionally in ways that keep our eyes open and our critical faculties fully engaged?

I don’t have answers, but I have a small suspicion that the first step is to keep asking these questions.

Every few weeks, I see someone tweet a link to a blog post or an essay with a comment like “Old but still good!” The linked texts are occasionally up to a year or two old—more often only a few months. There are a few kinds of knowledge that age this rapidly: technical advice regarding software, specifications, or gadgets that are constantly updated; the fast-cycle froth of “breaking news”; event notices. Nearly everything else is—should be—as relevant in a month or a year as it was when written. But online, as in bookshops and at the movies, the new gets a halo.

Why the extra shine? Maybe it’s the conversation that blooms around a new thing, more visibly now that it happens in part on public networks, and then fades. Maybe the new gains special value by becoming a fresh node in that network. Maybe it’s because the new presents no guilt: we can’t possibly have read it, so we’re not behind. (All that “old” stuff? Too much to think about. Declare bankruptcy and move on.)

Maybe we just want to give each other fresh stimuli.

Alan Jacobs, one of my favorite thinkers on the internet, writes about the loss of wisdom on a (slightly) longer scale—a single human life:

The commemorations have been vigorous—He invented the mouse! He gave the mother of all demos! — but what most of them ignore is the uncomfortable fact that nobody paid attention to Doug Engelbart for the last thirty years or more of his life, and in a Silicon Valley culture awash with money he could get no one to fund his ideas.

Jacobs writes incisively about what that loss means in this one scenario—we’ve made our move into the cloud’s Great Mainframe in the Sky without one of the keenest minds from the mainframe-terminal era of computing—but his post is ultimately about larger losses. His lament is a familiar one, but maybe that underlines his point: “I’m disconcerted to see how utterly uninterested those young people are in learning what previous generations thought or why they thought it.”

I’m not sure how much of the lack Jacobs points to is a genuine lack of interest and how much is that there aren’t many popular frames for understanding connections between earlier conversations and our own. As we move more fully onto networks, a lot of our major cultural arguments are stuck on bookshelves in dark rooms—but have a look at conversations that combine the bookish and networked worlds and it’s like stepping into a surprise deep end: the “future of the book” world zips so easily between screens and scrolls and between McLuhan and monasteries that it’s easy to get jaded about yet another dive into the Gutenbergian past intended to somehow illuminate our near future. But I think they’re onto something, and that their counterparts in every other facet of our online lives are worth seeking out and celebrating. We have better things to do than inventing shinier wheels.

Artists are often especially good at making these connections in vital, non-didactic ways. This Janelle Monáe video’s had me spellbound for days. The audio production pulls from all over the 70s, 80s, and 90s and the visuals refract a cartoon 60s through the future-clean Apple-Store-meets-cyborg-Nation-of-Islam aesthetic we know from Monáe’s other work. The video isn’t brand new, though—it came out in May, and I missed it, buried in work. Old but still good.

It’s college graduation season, so there’s been a lot of advice circulating for young designers/coders etc. on how to get a first job and how to succeed at it. A lot of this advice is really good. I want to add a few things from a perspective that doesn’t get much direct attention: what it means to come to a professional world from outside, and how that outsiderness can be both difficult and helpful.

“Outside” can mean a lot of things, and many, many of us who work on the web grew up poor or very far away or without a formal design education or one of a million different outsides. The early web attracted weirdos and misfits like you wouldn’t believe, and many now run successful companies. This is a malleable field, and if you’re interested enough, there’s probably a place for you—but it won’t necessarily be easy to find it. But you don’t have to do it alone.

Culture barriers

If you are coming from outside the usual pool of people who work in Field X, you’re going to hit culture barriers. Some of those barriers need to be rattled and eventually demolished, but some are just about a lack of shared context. Open secrets are the hardest ones to crack when you’re coming in from outside, because no one will take you aside and whisper them in your ear. They’re the air everyone else is breathing. If you’re feeling out of place or you don’t know where to begin, don’t freak out. There are ways to pick up the context you need to thrive.

For starters, figure out who your role models are, even if they’re not doing exactly what you want to be doing. Use your role models’ processes and tools in your own experiments, and credit them when you do. Find out what work-related blogs and books they read, what conferences they go to, and how they talk about their work. Read all the things. Watch all the videos. Develop opinions about what you’re reading and hearing—and try to balance negative criticism with generosity, because there are always complexities that are easy to miss. If the stuff you find this way makes you excited to wake up in the morning, you’re heading in the right direction. If it makes you want to barf on your shoes, maybe try a different part of the industry.

You don’t have to try to sound sophisticated or jaded to fit in. People who are paying attention can tell, and it’s better to just be honest and work at gaining the knowledge you need. When stuff comes up that you don’t know, cop to it and then go look it up or ask questions about it during downtime.

And while you’re at it? Build hard skills other people don’t have. There’s a difference between being literate and having a decent editorial eye and knowing how to professionally copyedit and offer kind, helpful, effective editorial feedback to writers. There’s a difference between knowing the basics of a lot of web stuff and being really really good at writing fast, stable applications. Being a generalist is awesome, but you need to work toward clear specializations as well. It’s not either/or.

Do what you say you’ll do. Make yourself as indispensable as possible by actively tying up loose ends and helping with others’ work. Help the people you work with be awesome. Don’t wait for things to come to you—but you probably already know that, or you wouldn’t be here to begin with.

When good jobs go bad

Some companies are amazing places to work. Some are soul-destroying hellmouths. Most are in the middle, but it’s the second I want you to watch out for. At these companies, you will hear that it’s important to be “a team player without an ego,” which is often code for “you will work late nights, weekends, and holidays because that’s how we do it.” You will find that project and product managers don’t have the power to negotiate reasonable deadlines, that contracts go unsigned, and that executive whims regularly derail projects. And sometimes a company is reasonably healthy, but you’ll wind up working with—or for—someone whose workplace behavior would make perfect sense if he or she were five years old.

The hard reality is that you will probably have at least one terrible job, if you haven’t already. And you probably won’t be able to quit immediately, especially if you don’t have financial support from your family, or if you’re reliant on a sponsored visa, or you have kids of your own, or a dozen other things. This is hugely stressful even for people who aren’t particularly vulnerable, and no easy advice helps.

But you won’t be stuck forever. Our industry includes boatloads of kind, generous human beings and plenty of organizations that will support you in having a healthy life. You just have to make a path to get to them. How? Learn all you can where you are. Be good to people. And above all, get outside your company (or regional) bubble, talk to people who are doing amazing things, and ask how you can help. Sometimes you can do it all at the same time. Sometimes you’ll have to take a deep breath and leave a bad situation to get to a better one.

The fact that you’re reading this website suggests that you’re working in one of the few professional sectors that’s actually booming right now, which makes you luckier than most people in the world. You don’t have to settle for misery. Which brings me to your secret advantage.

The dangers of being valuable

There are a lot of open jobs in tech right now that pay a lot of money and offer a lot of perks for people with the right skills. If your background hasn’t prepared you to assume that you’re destined for a high salary job with a prestigious company, this may feel especially surreal. This is good! One of the hidden strengths of being from not-around-here is that some things that seem normal to most people in the field may seem weird to you. And sometimes, sensitivity to weirdness can save you.

You may, for instance, already realize that if you’ve been hired into a prestigious, high-paying job as a junior designer/programmer/whatever, this probably has as much to do with a fluctuating market as with your own skills. If the people you grew up around don’t have access to that kind of job, you probably already know that you can be extremely skilled and work very hard and still barely make a living.

So why is that awareness useful? Leaving aside minor things like empathy and wariness toward entitlement, you’ll be better prepared for inevitable changes in the market value of your own skills. More importantly, you’ll be significantly less vulnerable to one particular flavor of manipulation: When you internalize the idea that you’re precious and irreplaceable in a company or an industry, it’s easy to be wooed into life-altering decisions like handing over years of 80-hour weeks to companies whose work you don’t actually care about. The more you accept this flattery as your due, the easier it is to be hypnotized by interests that conflict with your own.

Keeping the rest of the world—including the part you came from—in your peripheral vision can keep you from getting bewitched.

“How are you?”

“Great! Busy. Really good, though.”
“Oh, you know. Tired.”
“Not so well.”
“Fine, fine, how are you?”

We ask each other how we are, how we’re doing, sometimes how we’re “holding up.” When someone asks it in a formal, professional context, it means little more than “hello.” When our friends ask, they usually want to know a bit more, if not every single detail of recent lives. Weirdly, I suspect most of us aren’t in the habit of asking it of ourselves. We question extreme emotions, maybe—“why did that garden-variety comment troll make me so angry?”—but we mostly don’t have a culture of monitoring our well-being in any disciplined way.

This despite the fact that we know, thanks to scads of well-designed and -documented behavioral studies, that the many little, boring ways in which we’re “good” or “great” or “tired” or “fine” affect everything else we do: our judgment, our situational intelligence, our creative ability to synthesize, our emotional resilience.

I developed habits of checking in—of trying to regularly, honestly assess how I am—as a way to deal with being naturally twitchy. My hunger signals don’t keep up with my metabolism, and if I don’t have set reminders to eat every few hours, I get spacier and spacier till I’m useless. Sometime in my 20s, I finally figured out that I could work around the problem by adding checkpoints to my day: Do I have a headache or feel dizzy? Am I having trouble concentrating? Am I writing overlong emails?

That simple idea has gradually evolved into something more central as I’ve observed the differences in my interactions with colleagues who were “inexplicably” cross after a night of insomnia or “mysteriously” unable to make decisions when they skipped lunch. It’s not just me, it turns out—we all have bodies and they mess with us constantly. And it’s not just the physical stuff. Everything we experience affects our ability to focus, do our work, and react reasonably, whether we’ve been arguing with a family member or just refreshing Twitter too much.

So before starting a work session or going into a meeting or making a complex decision, I’ve been trying to check in. What’s going on in there, physically and mentally and emotionally? Is any of it something I can improve by eating a banana, or spending ten minutes reading, or taking a walk? It’s basic stuff, but helps—and it forces me to admit that just as I’m sometimes irritable only because allergies are making my head feel like a bag of bees, the same thing is true of everyone else, too.

How are you?

Being Human

In the US, last week was pretty horrible—a bombing, a major industrial explosion, a serious flood, and a stack of bad legislation. On my slice of the internet, the sum of our reactions to a string of awful, nervewracking events was a deafening howl of anger, dramatic opinion, blame, defensiveness, and so on.

But there were also essential things. Friends in Boston sent reassuring messages while a manhunt went on in their neighborhoods. Verified reports from journalists in Massachusetts and Texas arrived to clarify confusions and replace speculation with fact. When things are rough, it’s certainly possible to turn the computer off and walk away, but with so many of my people online, it’s also where I go for comfort and connection.

So in the last week, I’ve thought a lot about what I might do as a listener and a speaker on the internet to try to preserve the good while saving my head and heart from the worst of the shouting.

This is a very sketchy first draft, but it’s what I’ve come up with so far.

Edit the outgoing channel


The only thing I can directly control is what I say. My instincts aren’t always trustworthy in moments of intense anxiety, so I’ve tried to make myself a little list of what to do: ampify emergency relief information, pass along ways to volunteer; send brief words of comfort; do very little else.

Filter the incoming channel


I don’t like what anger and fear—mine and others’—do to my brain and my body, so I filter like crazy:
  • Twitter muting: I use clients that allow keyword and user muting, ideally for set durations. I mute specific keywords, hashtags, and people, especially when something crazy happens in the world. It’s a private, non-judgy way for me to keep following people I like but whose responses to crisis events is too loud for my addled brain to handle. (I use TweetBot on iOS and YoruFukurou on the Mac, and I hear good things about Janetter for Windows and Android.)
  • Twitter blocking: I’m fine with opinion that sharply differs from mine, but only when it’s civil. I block strangers who appear in my stream yelling at me. I block people who regularly enjoy trolling, and I mute their usernames as keywords so I don’t see hate-retweets. (And I turn off retweets for people who do a lot of hate-retweeting.) I even block people who abuse my friends online. I block a lot. It helps.
  • Editorial trolling: On the web, I use host files to prevent blind links from directing me to sites that exist to troll us. If someone links to a piece on Gawker or Slate, my computer hits a nice blank page instead of the article, giving me a chance to realize that I’d really rather not. This is how I edit my Hosts file on the Mac. Windows users can do a version of the same thing, and there are also plug-ins for FireFox and Chrome that block sites, if you don’t feel like messing around with the command line.
  • Comments: It’s easy to say “don’t read the comments,” but it’s a lot of work for the brain to ignore words that appear at the bottom of an article. On news sites and magazines I read frequently, I use user styles and content-blocking plug-ins to remove comment sections, lurid “Elsewhere On the Web” sections at the bottom of articles, and even “Recommended for you” navigation that tries to lure me into reading more articles. I think of it as moving processor-intensive work from the client side (my brain) to the server side (my technology).
  • Facebook: I don’t use Facebook. That’s not the right choice for everyone, but the political extremes in my immediate family alone make it a source of high-volume quarreling and invective for me, so it’s an easy decision.

    By using rules to guide my participation and tech to block the interactions that stress me out the most, I open up time and energy for longer, better conversations with people I love and respect, and I preserve my focus for the projects I choose to spend my attention on.

    Most of all, I try to remember this: publishing my worries might let off a bit of emotional steam for me, but if it worsens the anxiety of those in my community, it’s a net loss. I get this wrong more than right, but it’s something I think about a lot.

    Related
    Breaking news pragmatically: Some reflections on silence and timing in networked journalism, Mike Annany
    Quaker Mode, Mike Monteiro

For the last couple of years, I’ve traveled too much. Granted, I was on the road much less than many of my colleagues, who live mostly in airports and hotels and on intercontinental flights. But for me? Too much. I got to too much by saying yes to a ton of interesting things—client work, conferences, unconferences—that made my work life richer and more interesting. But the cost was a sense of constant fragmentation: the feeling that I was always preparing for a trip, or on a trip, or scrambling to catch up after returning. I love exploration, but my ability to think clearly and stay healthy depends on long stretches at home, where I can browse my own bookcases and cook my own food and enjoy my cat and neighborhood and local friends.

Just because I can squash 20 work trips into a calendar year or work full-time plus three crunchy side-gigs doesn’t mean I can do it endlessly or without damaging my capacity for creative work, synthesis, and other things that require a rested, resilient brain. So when I can, I’m going to try to build a schedule that works less like a merry-go-round and more like a vivarium: something quieter and a bit more protective of my energy, my time, and the projects I’m already committed to. And that will mean saying no to even the most enticing new opportunities when I know they’ll send me off course in ways that take days or weeks to repair. It’s not an easy thing for me to do—I’ve been an overscheduler since grade school—but the rewards of doing a bit less are too important to ignore.

small terrarium

I was going to post something else here, about time and travel. But all I really want to say now is that our world is less bright without Aaron Swartz in it. He helped make RSS, Markdown, Creative Commons, OpenLibrary, and Reddit. He did critical work in the open access world. He was extraordinarily generous with his time, which turned out to be heartbreakingly short.

He was a maker and an activist. He helped stop SOPA and founded Demand Progress and illustrated so clearly that change in the world is about more than shouting on the internet.

Rick Perlstein explains a few of the ways in which Aaron strung together our web:

smart, dedicated people like him worked very hard, often with no thought of personal profit or gain, making ours a world of useful data, making data useful, making it possible to have a record of the world as it goes by, making the world more meaningful by making data more human and shapable and direction-ful

There’s so much more, but this isn’t a list. I have no personal remembrances; we never met. The world was better with him in it. There is so much left to be done.