Never At Peace

“At first it seemed that they had come by chance, as if driven by the wind, and as if they were coming for a short stay to live more or less the same life as had always been lived here, as though the civil authorities were to prolong for a short time the occupation begun by the army.

But with every month that passed the number of newcomers increased.

However, what astonished the people of the town and filled them with wonder and distrust was not so much their numbers as their immense and incomprehensible plans, their untiring industry and the perseverance with which they proceeded to the realization of those plans.  The newcomers were never at peace; and they allowed no one else to live in peace.  It seemed that they were resolved with their impalpable yet ever more noticeable web of laws, regulations and orders to embrace all forms of life, men, beasts and things, and to change and alter everything, both the outward appearance of the town and the customs and habits of men from the cradle to the grave.

All this they did quietly without many words, without force or provocation, so that a man had nothing to protest about.  If they encountered resistance or lack of understanding, they at once stopped, discussed the matter somewhere out of sight and then changed only the manner and direction of their work, still carrying out whatever was in their minds.”

Ivo Andrić, “The Bridge over the Drina”, 1945

We were chatting with some friends recently about busy-ness; I think, in our age, it’s a topic on the lips of many people, and that must be a good thing because at least we’ve named our addiction, even if we haven’t fully faced it yet.

Our friend John, who recently retired after a career in business and HR coaching, sent me over the text above, which he had in turn received from a colleague in Bosnia after a similar conversation. This colleague lamented the Westernisation of the Balkans in his own lifetime; not because of the economic and technological advances, but because of the huge cultural shift that came with them.

What’s perhaps more startling is that in the text, Ivo Andrić is actually writing of the arrival of the Austrian empire to Bosnia Herzegovina during the occupation at the start of the 20th century – yet it also rings true today.

In missionary-speak, we talked about hot- and cold-cultures. Developing world cultures tend historically to be hot-cultures, where people tend towards communal life, with a gentle pace. When walking around our old stomping ground in West Africa, I would see people sitting in the shade, having a drink and chatting, often for hours.

When I joined in, I often found myself getting bored pretty quickly: but then, coming from a cold-culture, I get fidgety at the dinner table, let alone when intentionally taking a break.

Interestingly, some sociologists consider the island of Ireland a bit of a blip in the hot/cold axis; we’re literally cooler than our friends to the South who have Mediterranean borders, but have tended to lean more hot-culture than others on our longitude (our privacy-loving English neighbours, for instance).

But if much of globalisation really means some kind of colonial spread of Western culture and values, then in come our cold-culture ways where they have not previously existed. And in comes the busy-ness.

John remarked to me that we used to call it ‘Protestant Work Ethic’. I actually don’t agree; I think we’re actually more victims of ‘shadow work’, as described by bloggers Brett & Kate McKay in the fascinating article, ‘Shadow Work and the Rise of Middle-Class Serfdom‘.

And while we were formerly forced to largely work during regular work hours and shop during regular business hours, technology allows us to produce and consume 24/7. We never fully clock out from our “real” jobs, nor do we ever fully take a break from the marketplace. Even when we’re not actively engaging in shadow work, in the back of our mind there’s that ever present niggling: Is there something I need to buy? Is there something going on I should know about? Should I check my phone? We’re always “on” and constantly mentally switching between roles.

Brett & Kate McKay

Social Media Versus Productivity

A dedication to cultivating your social media brand is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement. It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter. The latter activity is seductive, especially for many members of my generation who were raised on this message, but it can be disastrously counterproductive.

Most social media is best described as a collection of somewhat trivial entertainment services that are currently having a good run. These networks are fun, but you’re deluding yourself if you think that Twitter messages, posts and likes are a productive use of your time.

Cal Newport

Ironically, I saw this on Facebook today.

‘Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It.’

A Digital Dark Age

In the earlier days of the web, we always published to our own web site. If you weren’t happy with your web host, or they went out of business, you could move your files and your domain name, and nothing would break.

Today, most writing instead goes into a small number of centralized social networking sites, where you can’t move your content, advertisements and fake news are everywhere, and if one of these sites fails, your content disappears from the internet. Too many sites have gone away and taken our posts and photos with them.

The quote above comes from the Kickstarter blurb for, where developer Manton Reece has created a service that allows you to create microblog posts (i.e. like tweets) that are actually hosted on your own website, and are fed in to a centralised feed using RSS.

Reading about it (via Daring Fireball) immediately led me to the second Build reference in a week: Jeremy Keith’s All Our Yesterdays, which – for me personally – really hammered home the point that the Internet is a really unstable place.

Much teenage creativity, on my part, had been poured in to writing nonsense on a collection of Geocities sites – and then in October 2009, Yahoo pulled the plug and the lights went out on those and millions of other websites.

See also: Myspace; Bebo; Microsoft Live Spaces; Facebook Notes (ok, still there, but hard to find); and so on. Most of what I personally added to these platforms had no value whatsoever: but I still felt like it was mine. It followed that part of the motivation to returning to hosting my own blog was the determination to be in control: the readership may be greatly reduced (hi, Dad) but at least it shouldn’t disappear without my involvement.

As users, we make the false assumption that what we create is going to be around forever. In fact, the history of the Internet thus far says otherwise on many accounts (pun klaxon!) Hopefully, we might all get our heads around it in time.

When the term [Dark Ages] is used by historians today, therefore, it is intended to be neutral, expressing the idea that the events of the period seem ‘dark’ to us because of the paucity of historical record.


Social Media and Promotion

There are two main problems with a social media exclusive approach to promotion. Firstly, there is a lot of content vying for peoples’ attention on social media, and the news of your gig risks getting lost amidst that content. Secondly, when you’re promoting on social media, you’re broadcasting to whoever may follow you, rather than targeting those people that are the most likely to attend your show.

alecplowman, in ‘Gig Like a Pro, Part Two: Bring a Big Crowd‘ on Ultimate Guitar


I was chatting to a local musician recently who had just ‘launched’ their new EP. (Which broadly seemed to equate to announcing that it was available on social media.) I threw out what I was expecting to be an encouraging question: ‘So, how many copies have you shifted so far?’

The answer was not a high number.

When supporting another friend over the past few years, the broad question of, “What does it mean to release new music?” has come up a lot.

Back in the stone age, my own student band released a CD: that is, we got a few hundred made, and set about flogging them to friends, fellow students, family, and at gigs (sometimes including ones we weren’t actually playing at).

Though Myspace was at its peak, I would say that our fanbase was broadly people who actually came to see us play. And we sold quite a lot of them physical CDs to take home, often coming straight off stage and heading out in to the crowd, cardboard box in hand. The potential base was almost certainly a lot smaller, but I wonder if the conversion rate – i.e. people buying the product – would be considered fairly impressive by 2017’s standards.

I think, for a lot of folk, launching today is reduced to uploading it to Soundcloud or Spotify, and then sticking it on social media. After all, that’s what folk the next tier up seem to do.

However, I wonder if that activity actually hides something: the legwork carried out offline to promote gigs and music, to get out there, make the contacts, and find the human beings who stand as the gatekeepers in what remains of the local and national music scene.

The technology is indeed available now to make anyone an artist. However, that neither guarantees:

a) The product is any good;

b) The music will stand out;

c) Anyone will ever stop scrolling and listen to it.

But then the question is: what can anyone who is starting out do about it?

I’m not sure; but I reckon it probably involves even more hard work than before.

Social Media and Attention Spans

There are a thousand beautiful ways to start the day that don’t begin with looking at your phone. And yet so few of us choose to do so.

Craig Mod, ‘How I Got My Attention Back

I met Craig briefly when he came to speak at Build a few years ago – he was both incredibly accommodating, and absolutely the voice that could write this article, in this way, and not sound patronising. He’s a guy who takes the time to think things through.

(And therefore, like a few who comment underneath, I find the mental image of him being the guy who plays ten straight hours of Clash of the Clans is all the more weird.)

Anyway, the discussion in his article gets the heart of something really important – not just the desire to disconnect from the socially networked part of our society, but how fundamentally difficult it is becoming for so many of us to do so.

I dumped most of the core social media apps off my iPhone about six months ago. (At the time, I was probably felt the strongest desire to switch back to a ‘dumb phone’ I ever have, but ultimately three functions kept me clinging on: Camera, WhatsApp, and Google Calendar.) Social media is not really something I want to engage with whilst at home: I’ll occasionally flick through my Twitter and Instagram feeds on our communal iPad (which lives on top of the fridge), most often to see updates from a very select group of friends.

Leaving ‘it’ altogether would, however, be extremely difficult. In work, Facebook and WhatsApp have become integral to how we function as an organisation. I can ignore the former in particular outside of the workplace, but I literally can’t leave. And as a result, I know I am constantly battling the distraction of being ‘always on’.

Craig references this analysis by Microsoft’s Danah Boyd, who points to memes as the origin of the terminal disease which has swept Western culture, robbing us of our attention spans.

InGravity and Grace,” Simone Weil writes, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” Then is the lack of attention the opposite? Does it presuppose fear and hate?

It had been a long time since my attention was mine.

He goes on to discuss some circumstances he found himself in, and reasonable rules he came up with, to help get his attention span back.

A highly recommended read.

Click To Tweet

You know, like in this article.

It’s been around for a while, but I feel like the proliferation of ‘Click To Tweet’ functionality is somehow symptomatic of a larger problem that I can’t quite put my finger on.

What I do know is that, if your article is peppered with tweetable quotes that you are pushing me to share, my natural reaction is somewhat adverse – and I don’t imagine I’m the only one.

Being Me

“I don’t like being in front of people. Being in a character, I could get on stage and talk for half an hour. Like, my biggest fear is being at a big dinner party, and someone be like, ‘Kristen – tell that story about…’

and then I just immediately go in to the sweats.”

Kristen Wiig

I’ve long held to the theory that we all play characters in our lives.  Perhaps, like me, you might feel like you play characters in many aspects of life: particularly in work and social situations, I feel like I improvise my way through most days.

I’m fortunate to have friends who make me laugh like crazy – but even with them, I wonder: how often am I truly me?

I was just watching this episode of the beloved Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and I completely identify with how Kristen Wiig feels.

I wonder if it is exacerbated by social media? Do we invest so much time in crafting our presented selves online, that we become more and more protected and insular of our true nature?

Or maybe Lucy’s right as usual.

Knowledge, Hard Work & Post-Truthism

Warren Buffett once told a class of Columbia University MBA students that if they wanted to become successful investors, they should read and read and read – a lot – each day:

“Read 500 pages like this every day,” said Buffett, or words to that effect. “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

Dan Kanivas

I love me a table quiz. I haven’t been able to get to one for a long time, but there were a few years years there where some of us used to go quizzing most weeks. It was mostly just an excuse for social activity, but we walked away with prizes more often than not.

I find my own mind to be a bit of a contradiction sometimes – maybe yours is like this too. I struggle to immediately recall what I did a few days ago. I also struggle to tell you what I’m supposed to be doing in a couple of days time. But want me to name all 50 US states in under three minutes*? No problem.

I’m not a psychologist, neurologist or sociologist, so I don’t understand how it works – but I carry a lot of inane knowledge around. Many people are like this. My dad explained it very well a while ago, saying that when I was younger, I had clear phases: I would take a deep, immersive interest in something like dinosaurs or astronomy for a year or two, devour knowledge, and then move on to another interest.

(He might also add that unfortunately, one of these was film making, which just happened to coincide with university applications.)

I wonder if a lot of people’s childhoods look like this?

But then, somewhere, there’s a line. We cross the line, and, to a certain extent, put away our childish things. Perhaps some of us hold on to this immersion in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, whilst the more practical folk are probably more inclined to think of it as diversionary and distracting.

What’s my point?

In the Quora discussion referenced at the top, Warren Buffet is quoted ruminating on what made successful investors – in his opinion, hard hours spent consuming information.

2016 has been a year when ‘post-truthism‘ has come to the fore. As a species, we seem extremely inclined to ‘borrow’ truth – it must be true because that person said this thing via this medium: not because I have seen evidence for myself.

Yet I think people I admire are often connected via a common trait that stands against this – probably what is thought of as being ‘well read’.

I wonder if people who are ‘well read’ are really just people who carry over that childish desire to consume, learn and discover into adulthood. People who don’t put away the need to find out more for themselves – not through a proxy on screen, but through evidence read for themselves.

I’ve been studying a design degree for a few years now, and I think one of the skills central to its teaching is really something that has to be re-learnt: a playful sense of discovery and exploration.

Perhaps if we hadn’t put this away in adulthood, we wouldn’t be so quick to accept.

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

Oscar Wilde

Dropbox: Making a Video

One for the design process nerds: Dropbox’s Jason Mar penned this insightful interactive article on the making of a 1-minute promo.

Mind you – I’m not sure such a deeply-involved client approach would always be appreciated by a contractor!

Social Media Success

I don’t do any form of social media but I recognise some of its positive qualities. In an often solitary occupation it can forge links with other writers and make meaningful connections with readers. If it’s done in a sustained and interesting way I think it clearly has value but having friends and people who want to be friends, telling you that your work is wonderful shouldn’t be mistaken for a meaningful critical sounding board. Done badly the danger of course is that it runs the risk of being not much more than a series of coy selfies…

David Park

Back around the year 2000, my friend Dave and I started up a wrestling e-federation message board. It had its up and downs, but man, we sold the hell out of it. Before Web 2.0 even happened, we managed to spread the word and recruit players from across the globe – true online success. (Eventually, it was taking up too much time – 13 year old me was spending up to ten hours a week “writing” and coding content for the fictional wrassling match-ups involved – and I gave it away. Regrets, I’ve had a few.)

In a lovely Irish Times column, author David Park talks about some advice to younger writers, but in the quote above he plays towards something I’ve been mulling for a long-time: the illusion of certain level of online success.

About six years ago, I produced this video, which gained around 2,500,000 ‘loads’ (as Vimeo referred to them) in the first six months. In theory, that’s 2.5 million pairs of eyeballs passing over the content: a big hit. The speaker, Wilson Miner, delivered probably the greatest presentation I’ve ever witnessed in the flesh (here’s the rave review in Wired as testament to the hype.)

So in my mind, there’s one marker of success. But is that success a result of marketing (or more often, self-marketing)? Or is it because the content is of such outstanding quality?

Perhaps I’m not thinking at the level of big-name YouTubers or Twitter phenoms here. Let’s start again from a different angle.

In my past few jobs, successfully promoting events and content on social media has often been a focus. Hundreds of likes and clicks, thousands of impressions, each milestone celebrated with a certain degree of fervour.

I often feel like I pour cold water on the joy of others when I ask:

‘Ok – but what does this actually mean?’

A clear model of where I’m going here may be the local music industry. Back in the dark ages, success was easily measured in two ways: how many CDs you shifted, and how many people showed up to the gigs. (For the record: quite a few, but not enough.)

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed several musician friends struggling a little as to where social media fits in the business plan. It doesn’t cost much to get a couple of thousand followers, other than time and effort. But whilst, in popular terms, that might feel like success, followers don’t put food on the table.

In their recent, ‘We’re done with this’ announcement, Irish alt-rockers Fight Like Apes summed it up like this:

It’s a deadly time in so many ways to be in a band; you can have so much control over your work if you’re clever; you can release it how and when you like and in our opinion, right now, Ireland is the healthiest it’s ever been in terms of talent and diversity.

But, there are massive challenges for a lot of bands, mostly financial, that make this a tough job and sadly, those obstacles have become too big for us.

I think we all know that we’re going to hear announcements like this more often. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that we can’t keep producing records if you keep not paying for them. Bands are having to sell beautiful albums for €2.99, labels can’t give you as much support since they’re losing income too and our alternative radio stations are practically non existent now, meaning so many wonderful bands will not get a chance to get played on radio as they’ll be competing with huge pop acts.

Please buy your music in independent record stores or directly from the band.

Don’t fool yourself in to thinking that your £10 subscription to Deezer and Spotify helps us at all. It does not. Look how many bands are on there and do the maths.

Please go to gigs. Please buy merch.

FLA were a band I absolutely aspired to as a young musician – festivals, touring with big name acts, a sackful of awards, prominent in the alt rock scene. They accumulated millions of plays on YouTube, and millions of streams across the web.

They’re also a band who had to Kickstarter their last album just to raise the capital, and ultimately gave up because they couldn’t afford not to.

What is social media, really? Because I’ve quite literally had the job title ‘Social Media Assistant’, and I’m damned if I know.

Maybe David Park’s right:

I think under the radar is not always a bad place to be. You get to keep more of yourself.