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TidBITS Turns 13: Setting Goals

Being a teenager means living in an awkward time when you no longer quite wish to behave like a child, but you boomerang between rebelling against adult society and revelling in the fascinating world of adulthood. That confusing age springs to mind because this week TidBITS becomes a teenager and starts its 13th year. Publication years may not equate to dog years, but it certainly feels as though TidBITS has been around for one heck of a long time. Tonya and I were only 22 years old when we started publishing TidBITS in April of 1990, so TidBITS has occupied nearly our entire adult lives. For a quick trip through TidBITS history, check out other anniversary articles we’ve written over the years.


Perhaps it’s natural, as we age and TidBITS ages, for us to spend more time thinking about the bigger picture – what do we want TidBITS to look like when it turns 18 or even 21? And, as Tristan would have asked a year ago: why, why, why? As annoying as the incessant questions of a small child can be, the answers can sometimes be revealing. Why do we want to share information with others? What compels us to review certain types of products? What accounts for the topics that interest us? What do we hope to accomplish with TidBITS?

These deeper questions have occupied many recent late night conversations. Our original motivations for creating TidBITS and TidBITS Talk, such as the desire to share information with others, to establish an archive of quality information, and to create an online community, remain in place, but they are now informed by four goals that we hope will help us evaluate future project ideas and directions. Only time will tell if we can free up the time to implement a number of the ideas we have for new projects, but we hope both our improved focus and our forthcoming content management system will help.

Increase Understanding — Long ago, we decided to concentrate on providing in-depth content, whether in the form of a detailed review, an informed and considered analysis, or a comparison of multiple products. Although we also cover news events and product releases in brief, the point of doing so is not to be comprehensive, but to continue to build on the foundations of previous articles. Most product releases we cover are for products or genres we’ve written about in the past, and the news events either continue previous coverage or set the stage for future analysis. There are many other publication models, but this is the one we’ve chosen, and it will always distinguish us from other media outlets, much as a weekly magazine like The New Yorker will never be mistaken for a daily newspaper like The New York Times.



But why do we publish articles that are longer than would appear even in some monthly magazines? In trying to answer that question, we realized that our goal is to increase our readers’ (and our own) understanding of technology. That means not only covering an event or product, or providing a piece of advice or an opinion, but also explaining the reasoning that informs the entire article. To torture an aphorism, we don’t want to hand you the fish of a fact, we want to help you learn how to determine where the fish facts are biting and land your own.

This goal runs counter to the way many people merely want answers to questions or can’t make time for anything longer than a sound bite. To be fair, sometimes a simple fact is all that’s needed; understanding what lies behind that fact is overkill. But in most cases, we feel that saving time by learning only the fact is a false economy, since there are an infinite number of facts, but a far smaller number of systems explaining those facts. Read TidBITS and you’ll learn along with us.

Independent Information Source — We in the media aren’t always a creative bunch – we republish thinly recast press releases, read each other’s articles, and frequently offer yet another article on the same topic. Add to that the ever-increasing corporatization of the media, and you can perhaps see why our second goal for TidBITS is to act as an independent source of news and information.

This goal is more subtle than it might seem initially, since the Macintosh and Internet worlds do not suffer from too-few independent voices. The problem is filtering the wheat from the chaff and being able to present it to a sufficiently large number of people. This was one of the huge promises of the Internet, in that it would provide an answer to A. J. Liebling’s famous quote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Today, Liebling might be more concerned with how freedom of the press to publish alternative or unpopular ideas is limited by its ability to attract attention in a world where so many people have printing presses.

Providing an example of a high-quality independent publication is also important from the standpoint of showing that publications don’t need to be beholden to large corporate masters, as is true of so many mainstream media outlets. We have no specific plans to create new publications that venture outside our primary topic areas, but we have heard time and again from people who have been inspired by TidBITS to create their own small newsletters on a wide variety of subjects. That’s a good feeling.

Promote Innovation — As much as it can be difficult for independent voices to be heard on the Internet, it’s even harder for a programmer with innovative ideas to introduce a product to large numbers of users. That task is certainly easier than it was in the days before the Internet, when mass distribution required a boxed product publicized by paying the large mail-order catalogs for advertising. But once again, so much is available on the Internet that it’s difficult for anyone to tease out the most interesting pieces of software and make sure people know about those packages.

That’s where our third goal comes in – we want to promote innovation in the computer industry by supporting small developers with big ideas. As many developers can attest, for us that doesn’t mean simply writing solid reviews of worthy but little-known programs. We often provide direct feedback and advice to developers on a wide variety of topics ranging from interface to marketing, and we’ll also try to make sure that the right people know each other to encourage any available synergies. It’s also why I speak every year at the MacHack developers conference about the best ways to work with the press and to present products to users. (As I did last year, this year I’ll conduct a hands-on workshop to evaluate documents necessary for a successful product release, including release notes, press releases, and Web product pages.)

Digital Content Experimentation — Our final goal aims deep at the heart of what we do each week – create content in a digital world. It’s navel gazing, to be sure, but we’re fascinated by the currents and eddies surrounding the creation and consumption of digital content. How is digital content different from content delivered in a more analog format? Should one be worth more than another? Is the content truly separate from the medium in which it’s consumed? Are sustainable business models for digital content possible?

These are all questions we continually ask ourselves, and they lead to our fourth and final goal. We want to examine, explain, and promote sustainable models for the creation and consumption of digital content. We’ve done a lot of this work in the past, with our coverage of the copyright wars, our ongoing PayBITS experiment, and the ways I’ve made electronic versions of my books available.

Keeping It Personal — None of the above goal setting suggests to us that we’re going to change anything major with TidBITS. The point of discussing and articulating these goals is to give TidBITS as an organization more focus, or, to look at it another way, a more concrete awareness of why we do what we do. In particular, we think it’s important that TidBITS remain personal, that we try to answer all the email we receive, and that we all think of one another as individuals.

Along with our efforts to treat you as individuals, we’ve been on the receiving end numerous times as well. Along with all the kind words you’ve sent us in email, the generous voluntary contributions you’ve made to TidBITS, and the support you’ve shown both us and other authors via PayBITS, many unique interactions with readers stand out, far too many to share here. For instance, a while back, the folks at Power On Software took me up on a joke I’d included as the last line in the bio on my book covers: "He has yet to be turned into an action figure." Showing extreme creativity and a wicked sense of humor, they modified an action figure to look like me and outfitted it with tiny copies of my books. It was truly hilarious and an excellent example of hacking the press, and I’ve changed my bio appropriately. More recently, Paul Durrant sent Tonya a book on helping children sleep better after she made a comment about motherhood-related sleep deprivation, and just a few weeks ago, a mysterious plastic box with no return address arrived from Berkeley, California containing some "Tidbit" caramel candies. Yum!


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You’re a good lot, and it’s a pleasure and an honor to write for you each week. Here’s hoping we’re all still going strong and enjoying what we do in another 13 years.

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