Lessons from Ten Years of TidBITS
With this issue of TidBITS, we’re marking our 10th anniversary of continuous Internet publication. We’ve watched as Apple’s fortunes have waxed and waned and waxed again, as software products have come and gone, and as Macs have become faster, smaller, and more colorful. We like to think we played a small role in the ever-increasing popularity of the Internet and the rise of the Web while continuing to promote tried-and-true methods of email distribution. We’ve shepherded TidBITS through transitions from a simple HyperCard stack to a universally readable structure-enhanced text format to a multi-faceted publishing model that tightly integrates our original content with information polled from readers and moderated discussions among our most interested subscribers.
We’ve kept TidBITS free the entire time, initially through sheer perseverance, then through careful implementation of one of the very first sponsorship programs to appear on the then-non-commercial Internet. We’re able to keep producing TidBITS through the continued support of our corporate sponsors, and most recently with the assistance of the nearly 500 readers who support TidBITS directly through our reader-instigated voluntary contribution program. Our approach to reporting the news, issues, and products that interest us (and hopefully you) has evolved over the years, but we’ve retained our basic philosophy of attempting to provide solid, accurate information that’s relevant to most Macintosh users.
To give you an idea of the scope of what we’ve done, as of this writing we’ve published 527 issues containing over 4,500 articles written by more than 250 authors. These include 209 reviews, 212 news articles, 198 how-to and informational articles, 138 analyses and commentaries, and 140 technology overviews. Plus, in its two years of existence, TidBITS Talk has carried almost 6,700 messages in over 1,000 threads. Each issue of TidBITS is translated into five languages by teams of volunteers translators – you can now read TidBITS in Dutch, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish.
All this is by way of saying that we think we’ve accumulated some small amount of experience during the last ten years. Although we can by no means claim any unique wisdom, we have learned a bit about the world in publishing TidBITS and working with the Macintosh community. This week we’d like to share ten of those lessons with you. We try to conduct our personal and professional lives by these rules; perhaps you’ll find them interesting, useful, or even applicable to your own life.
Maintain Lines of Communication — As a general rule, we try to reply to every piece of email we receive, and although that’s become less possible over the years as the volume of mail has increased, it remains a major goal to reply in a prompt fashion. Similarly, though we attempt to avoid spending too much time on inefficient telephone conversations, we always answer our own phones and return messages. We feel that these approaches to remaining accessible are important for both staying in touch with the community and remaining part of the community.
Live by Your Word — This lesson boils down to "do what you say you’ll do." We’ve stuck with our regular weekly publication schedule for ten years (excepting announced breaks), and it continues to amaze us that reliability in meeting deadlines is apparently considered an unusual trait. When attempting to assess reliability, we’ve asked people how many papers they turned in late or failed to do in college, since the answer often reveals basic information about how motivated the person is to complete projects on time. That said, as much as we believe a verbal agreement is binding, we’ve also become fans of brief written contracts that outline an agreement since they tend to eliminate confusion later on. In a few cases, we’ve been paid by sponsors only because of our insertion order contracts, and we’ve been quite saddened by the few sponsors who have failed to pay even then.
Make Friends, Not Enemies — Though it’s impossible to get along with absolutely everyone, we feel strongly that it’s worth giving an extra effort to make friends with people. That’s one reason we try to respond to all of our email, and time and again that effort has paid off. In the early days, distribution of TidBITS was significantly aided by people who had nothing to gain by helping, and today, our translations exist purely from the goodwill of the volunteers who do the work each week. Simply put, if you help people, they’re much more likely to help you later on, potentially in significant ways. It turns out some of those fairy tales we read as kids were right.
The corollary to this lesson is that although we would quibble with the first part of the cliche "It’s not what you know, it’s who you know," we can’t argue with the second part. Personal networking is what drives much of the computer industry, and the more people you know, the more valuable you are in almost any position.
Care about Your Community — Personal relationships are incredibly important, but you must also keep the community in mind. People are social animals by nature, and we both form and find ourselves included in communities all the time. We’ve found tremendous good in giving back to the Macintosh community. After all, the community is where we live (physically or virtually), and ignoring your community is always self-defeating. One of the best examples of this kind of work is FreePPP, which was created by a group of programmers who provide the results of their labors for free, but who ask companies using it for commercial ends to pay a licensing fee of a $1,000 charitable donation. I’ve coordinated licensing of FreePPP for the last few years, and in that time it has raised about $20,000 for various charities.
Learn When to Stop Working — Any idiot can work all the time, and most do. We may spend much of our lives in our little virtual worlds, but there is a real world out there as well, and it’s populated with real friends and real family. We learned long ago that no matter how strongly we felt about our work, we had to force ourselves to get away from the computers and experience the rest of what life has to offer. Take a walk in the woods, enjoy a fine meal, lounge in bed occasionally – the details don’t matter, but isolating yourself from the real world only narrows your field of view.
Do Everything for the Right Reasons — Although TidBITS does have to continue to be a viable business, it will never make any of us rich. We publish TidBITS because we want to help people and because we want to try to shed a little light on how we understand things to work. Note that our "right" reasons don’t always necessarily correspond to everyone else’s. For instance, I wrote last week’s article on buying a PC to help Macintosh users who found themselves in that situation. A few people were compelled by their passion for the Macintosh to accuse us of being "subversive to the Macintosh cause." We can respond only that our record speaks for itself – we feel our readers are sufficiently intelligent to take the article in the helpful spirit in which it was clearly intended.
Work with the Best — Not everyone has the luxury of choosing their colleagues, but it’s worth trying, since the people around you are in many ways the most important aspect of any situation. We saw this first in college, where a good professor could make any topic, no matter how obscure or daunting (Greek Composition?), into an amazing learning experience, and a bad professor could ruin the most interesting class. The rule applies to business as well – we intentionally keep TidBITS small for a variety of reasons, but primarily because we’re not interested in becoming managers who run a business instead of doing the real work that interests us. The most important part of keeping a small organization successful is to work with only the best people, and I can say without hesitation that the folks who help with TidBITS – Tonya Engst, Geoff Duncan, Jeff Carlson, Matt Neuburg, and Mark Anbinder – are of that quality.
Everything Is More Difficult than It Appears — As we’ve become more deeply immersed in the industry, we’ve learned numerous stories behind the creation of products or technologies. In many cases, even when something isn’t rocket science, it’s not easy, even for the largest companies with the largest budgets. Even the basics of a product launch involve a vast number of details, and the execution is often performed under rushed and difficult circumstances. In short, it’s easy to criticize when a company screws up, but try to keep in mind that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Obviously, we’re not attempting to excuse mistakes, but merely to note that problems happen, and observers of the real world should understand that they’re inevitable.
Assume Innocence, Admit Mistakes — Learning the real stories behind the screw-ups has also driven home the lesson that lousy situations are for the most part just the result of a variety of mistakes and bad planning, and aren’t part of some larger conspiracy or aimed at you personally. It’s easy to moan about how some company is just out to screw users, but when one takes the time to understand the entire situation, screwing users is almost never on the agenda. Of course, the fact that many companies are accused of conspiracy is directly related to their refusal to admit their mistakes in a public fashion. In the worst cases, this refusal translates into a denial that the mistakes actually occurred. The spin doctors may disagree, but we feel that no one believes anyone else is perfect, and to admit mistakes makes people and companies seem more human. We’re always more sympathetic to a company that screws up a product release but quickly owns up and fixes the problem, than we are to a company that denies any problems exist.
Strive for Accuracy and Value — Sturgeon’s Law states that 90 percent of science fiction is crud, but that’s because 90 percent of everything is crud. Theodore Sturgeon may have been right, it’s all the more reason we should try to create works that fall into the remaining ten percent. When we think about writing something for TidBITS, the questions that we always ask ourselves are:
- Will this article provide useful information or perspective?
- Are we adding value beyond what others have already done?
Those questions are generally easy to answer for articles, but with basic news items, our added value often comes in selection of the most relevant news and creation of an overall archive of information for posterity. That’s one reason we focus on important products and events that related to previous coverage in TidBITS, as well as why we seldom cover pre-release software.
Looking Forward — What will the future bring? I honestly can’t say. We certainly have no plans to cease publication at any time, but nothing lasts forever. In an industry where the average job seems to last about 18 months, we’ve resisted the urges to move on so far, and as long as we continue to find the industry sufficiently interesting and can keep TidBITS viable as a business, I see no reason we’ll change things.
The most significant challenge we, and in fact many in the Macintosh community, face is maintaining enthusiasm for computing in general. It’s too easy to become hyper-critical out-of-touch old coots, in the words of Jeffrey McPheeters in TidBITS Talk. We live in exciting times, and although hype and promises constantly threaten to dull our appreciation of the industry, we must always keep an enthusiastic eye out for the product or the technology that’s going to change the way we think about computers and our lives.