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TidBITS Nets Ninth Anniversary

This issue marks our ninth year of publication, and if anything, I remain all the more amazed that we’re still publishing TidBITS. Flux runs rampant in the computer industry, and many Mac publications have come and gone. TidBITS has participated in the rise of the Internet, changing to match the latest technologies and trends while remaining true to our roots. I’d like to take this opportunity to explain some of the motivations that have driven weekly publication of TidBITS since 1990 and the philosophies that influence what and how we publish.

Motivations — A common question about TidBITS is: "How do you make money?" The short answer is "via sponsorships," of course, but a question we hear less frequently is "Why do you publish TidBITS?" It’s all due to motivation, and although our motivations have evolved, they remain similar to those we had in the beginning.

Back in 1990, Tonya and I created TidBITS because we wanted to update her coworkers at Cornell University with the latest developments in the computer industry. Tonya also wanted to hone her PageMaker skills, and I immediately abstracted the idea to electronic publishing via HyperCard and the Internet. Our overall goal was to spread interesting information and opinions to other people. In my opinion, that desire to tell the stories must be the primary goal of most writing.

We didn’t consider money as a goal for quite a while. I can’t recall when we came up with the idea of sponsorships in TidBITS, but reality touched down in 1992, when we attracted our first sponsorships. At that time, the Web was still over the horizon, graphical banner ads were unimaginable, and advertising was distinctly not kosher on the Internet. We worked hard to ensure that our sponsorships were more than just advertisements, offering information via email that was hard to get in those pre-Web days.

Over the years, we’ve had to consider business realities when making decisions, and, particularly now that TidBITS supports a small staff, maintaining an income flow is an important goal. That said, no one will ever get rich from TidBITS, so despite the need to bring in money, our original motivation of sharing information remains ascendant.

We’ve also stayed true to another of our original motivations – to create a constantly expanding archive of quality information that people could use as a research tool, both for current projects and historical looks back. That’s why the original TidBITS HyperCard stacks knew how to combine themselves into an archive, why we worked with Akif Eyler on his Easy View program for browsing text, and why we now put so much effort into our online database to expose older content that’s still relevant (see Geoff Duncan’s article below).

This desire to create an archive of related information was also one of the reasons I created TidBITS Talk last year. TidBITS is too small of an organization to produce all the content we want or to have expertise in every field. By opening up TidBITS Talk to knowledge from many of our readers, we expand the amount of knowledge we can provide to others.

TidBITS Talk is also the embodiment of something we’ve enjoyed about TidBITS since the beginning – an online community. To paraphrase U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment about defining obscenity, online communities are difficult to describe, but you know them when you see them. Before TidBITS Talk, we felt a sense of community around TidBITS, but we weren’t sure to what extent our readers felt they were participating. Since its creation, TidBITS Talk has coalesced into a true online community that keeps members coming back both for the information and the sense of belonging.

Philosophies — Due in part to our limited journalistic experience when we started TidBITS in 1990, we’ve formed an unusual set of philosophies surrounding what we publish in TidBITS.

First and most important, we select the information that appears in TidBITS carefully. We hope that by focusing on topics of particular interest to us, our enthusiasm will show through. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that our interests don’t precisely overlap the interests of our entire readership, but there are plenty of other sources of information for topics we don’t cover. Also, we don’t wish to compete in the "all the news, updated constantly," field of Web journalism because, frankly, we can neither handle the immense workload required to do that work right, nor force ourselves to write about topics that we don’t find compelling.

Although we’re serious about being editors and creating a professional publication on a regular schedule, we’re also firm believers in the statement, "If it’s not fun, it’s not Macintosh." For us to continue publishing TidBITS, we have to enjoy what we’re doing. Having fun was hard during the end of 1997 and beginning of 1998, when Apple seemed caught in a death spiral, but now we’re glad we stuck with it.

Another of our major philosophies is that our information should be as accurate as we can make it. We usually avoid writing about software that isn’t available; we shy away from reporting all but the most universal bugs or conflicts, and we publish essentially no rumors – all in the name of hard information. We’re well aware that this attitude means that people read other publications for the rumors, pre-release news, and troubleshooting information, but we can’t do everything. Long ago, when our weekly electronic publishing schedule meant that we could scoop MacWEEK’s print edition, we were more likely to publish a rumor, news of a new product, or a conflict between popular extensions. Today we avoid publishing this sort of information unless we can confirm the rumor absolutely, test the pre-release software, or both reproduce the conflict and confirm it with the developers. It’s a trade-off between the rush of the scoop and the satisfaction of publishing something you’re positive is correct.

Why have we shied away from such popular types of information? Two reasons. First, the longer you spend in the industry, the more you learn that there are multiple sides to any story. Whatever you publish will have an effect on a company, individuals at that company, and a wide range of Macintosh users. So, if we hear a rumor, we judge not just the reliability of the information but also the effect that publishing the rumor will have. After this many years, we’re privy to a great deal of information that we can never use in TidBITS or even mention to friends, but that is still extremely useful to our understanding of the ebb and flow of the industry. People talk to us because they know we’d never pass on even possibly privileged information.

Second, whenever we published rumors or bug reports in past we were immediately inundated with email from readers asking for more information. Since even now we try to respond to every message sent to us (with varying degrees of success), receiving a few hundred messages after publishing an article was overwhelming. We dislike being overwhelmed, so we avoid publishing incomplete information that seems likely to stimulate cries for more details.

Third, when we look back at what we’ve published, we’re happiest with the articles you’re unlikely to see in any other publication. News that a product has shipped is widespread and essentially public domain, so we prefer to devote our space to unusual subjects, in-depth reviews, or even multi-part overviews of a topic. We’re trying to reveal tiny bits of the universal truths about the world, and we’re happy to speak at enough length and in enough depth to do that, describing experiences, thoughts, research, or even historical background as necessary.

Individuals & the Macintosh Ecosystem — Related to all of this is our belief in the importance of the individual, "the person behind the personal computer," as we used to say. To us, the Macintosh industry is not a collection of faceless impersonal corporations out to make a buck, but a civilized ecosystem of individuals including developers, product managers, marketers, PR representatives, other members of the press, and – most important – users. Our utopian belief is that everyone within the ecosystem has a responsibility to other members of the ecosystem. The system relies on a capitalist structure, so competition can and should benefit the ecosystem. If two competing products continually leapfrog each other in a quest to offer the best solution to users, everyone benefits.

But everyone within the ecosystem must understand the effect of their actions, not just on the macro level of a company, but on the micro level of the specific people who are affected. Every ecosystem will have dominant life forms, but sustainable ecosystems have a balance between a diverse set of life forms. The Macintosh ecosystem is no different. Buying an expensive program rather than pirating it might help improve a company’s bottom line enough to allow one of its programmers to set up shop on her own; she, in turn, may produce a unique shareware product that enhances the user experience sufficiently that Apple decides to license the code for inclusion in the Mac OS. Similarly, a good idea from a single programmer distributed as freeware might catch on and change the whole industry’s expectations for how software should work.

To quote Ted Nelson, the father of hypertext, "Everything is intertwingled." It’s easy for us to focus on ourselves, but in fact looking outward and considering the impact of our actions on the ecosystem is more likely to improve life for all of us.

Thinking of others is what created the Macintosh community. That level of community doesn’t exist in most other industries, and it is directly responsible for the Macintosh’s success over the years, especially during the tough times. Craig Isaacs of Dantz Development told me recently that in a survey to find out how people learned about their backup program Retrospect, he was stunned to learn that 37 percent of the respondents heard about it via word of mouth. That tells me Macintosh users talk to each other, support each other, and create a self-sustainable network with users and companies – in short, an ecosystem.

We’re often asked if there is a PC equivalent of TidBITS. We’ve looked, but we’ve never found a publication that resembles what we do with TidBITS. In large part, we believe this is because the PC world lacks a sense of shared community, perhaps due to the sheer number and diversity of PC users, the lack of a single company to rally around, or the fact that using a PC is often more of a default action than a conscious choice.

In 1990, TidBITS started life as a gift to the Macintosh online community, and over the years, we feel it has become a significant part of the Macintosh ecosystem. In turn, though, we have many people to thank for our success, including our staff, our authors, our sponsors, our volunteer translators, and most important, our readers. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t bother, and you have our sincere appreciation for giving us a reason to do something we love.

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