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Signal vs. Noise: Writing

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Looking into The Distance

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 8 comments

Let’s take a break from the business news cycle. I love the news and I’ve covered it for a decade: what new startup is launching, why a stock price just moved, who’s being hired or fired. But there’s a whole universe of fascinating stories waiting to be covered about what’s old in business.

That’s why we’re launching The Distance, a new online magazine featuring original journalism about bootstrapped businesses that are at least 25 years old. If you’ve ever been curious about your favorite family-owned restaurant or that little shop on the corner, this is the publication for you. These businesses might not make headlines, but their owners have compelling stories about how they started, what they’ve learned, and why they keep doing it.

This is a heady time for people interested in great stories, whether it’s telling them or reading them. From newer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight and to legacy media outlets that keep producing indispensable work (I still subscribe to two print newspapers), today’s readers have a lot of choices competing for their limited time. The Distance offers its own kind of storytelling – enjoyable reads about long-lasting businesses and the people behind them.

We’ll be publishing one story a month starting in May. We hope you find the companies of The Distance as interesting as we do and come back each month for more. (And while Basecamp is sponsoring the magazine, The Distance is editorially independent and we will not write about Basecamp customers.)

We’d also love to hear from you. If you know of any companies that would make good profile subjects, please let me know!

REMOTE: Office Not Required is now available

David wrote this on 25 comments

Our new book REMOTE: Office Not Required is now available in stores. Like REWORK, this is a book that’s been more than a decade in the making.

I started working remotely with Jason from Copenhagen, Denmark way back in 2001, by responding to a post on this very blog about programming. Since then we’ve grown our company to 41 people with 30 of them living and working from outside of Chicago. (I’m writing this from Malibu, California). We’ve built Basecamp, Ruby on Rails, and many other products and projects together as a remote company. This book contains all that we’ve learned and the reasons why this new way of working is ready for prime time.

It’s not just about making work better, though. It’s as much about making life better. As our employees will tell you, the flexibility and the freedom that comes from remote work is liberating and a real boost to quality of life. The world has made such great leaps in terms of productivity, and it’s time we spent some of those spoils making our work-life balance better.

So please enjoy this book. It’s been an absolute pleasure to write it. We can’t wait to hear what you think about it. Thank you for reading.

Comments ≠ Engagement

Emily Wilder
Emily Wilder wrote this on 24 comments

When we redesigned Signal vs. Noise last year, we tried to make commenting a bit more of a conscious process by placing the link to the comment form at the top of the post rather than the bottom, hiding existing comments by default, and removing the URL field to cut back on spamming. We continued to require an email address, as well as warn commenters that “We’d rather not moderate, but off-topic, blatantly inflammatory, inappropriate or vapid comments may be removed. Repeat offenders will be banned. Let’s add value. Thank you.”

“We want readers to focus on the article, spend some time thinking about it, and reflect,” says 37signals designer Mig Reyes, who championed the redesign. “… the way books and magazines let you do that, because there’s no comments section that allows you to spit knee-jerk reactions publicly. If you really, really want to share something, you’ll put in the effort to dig for our comments form.”

Comments on SvN are generally more civil compared to those on other blogs in its peer group, and certainly elsewhere on the Internet. But the vitriol about the redesign itself was so extreme we very nearly pulled them — but most of it boiled down to good old-fashioned fear of change, so we waited. Eventually most of the haters moved on.

Still, it remains a problem. We’ve talked about the possibility of preemptively disabling comments for specific posts, but it’s tricky to anticipate which posts are going to incite trolling, and we don’t want to punish the readers who would otherwise add insight. Some of us have (only half-jokingly) proposed making would-be commenters click an “agree” button promising their intention to add value, or forcing them to wait five minutes before being allowed to post — you’d arrive on the page and a timer would start, and you earn the right to comment by waiting it out.

Other forums have begun addressing the breakdown in civil discourse by making it more cumbersome to join the conversation. The Huffington Post announced it would no longer allow anonymous comments, and requires commenters to have a Facebook account to add a comment on certain sections of the site. To combat the trolliest of the trolls, YouTube is rolling out a new system that forces commenters to use their Google+ profiles, and also moves more relevant comments (i.e., those from the original poster, people you know and “popular personalities”) to the top. And Popular Science has shut down the conversation altogether, arguing that trolls are “bad for science.”

We ultimately retained comments because there’s no denying the value of a true dialogue. There’s a lot to be said for a post serving as the starting point of a fruitful discussion, and for connecting authors and readers. Plus, you told us you want them: We polled SvN readers in 2012, and learned folks appreciate having comments in general (although some complained, understandably, about their quality).

Another possibility is moving the conversation elsewhere — tools like Branch exist for that very purpose. Mig purposefully built Twitter into SvN’s redesign to encourage offsite dialogue — if you read an article and have something to say to the author, tweet her. Mat Honan’s Wired piece highlights some of alternatives to hosting a conversation right under the post itself — a convention it’s past time we reevaluate.

When comment sections are deliberately downplayed, moved elsewhere or abolished, they’re no longer the most accurate measure of “engagement,” although that’s a popular misconception. One SvN reader recently commented:

“I find it interesting how few comments any of these blog posts get on the topic of company spotlight on remote working.

It must not interest anyone. Or at least, it doesn’t to me and frankly 37svn has jumped the shark long ago (as seen by the low engagement on all posts lately).”

(I tried to reach out to him to apologize for failing to meet his expectations and to ask what kind of posts he’d like to see more of, but he’d left a fake email address. I wrote to the next commenter, who’d agreed with him — no reply. So much for taking the conversation elsewhere.)

It’s true commenting is down since the makeover, but that’s by design — total comment volume has fallen by about 30 percent, while traffic has more or less held steady. Unique visitors to SvN have increased, as has the amount of time people spend on the site and the number of pages people visit. “Engagement” has less to do with the number of comments on a particular post, and more to do with page views, shares on Twitter and elsewhere, personal contact between authors and readers, and so on.

We’re not concerned about having jumped the shark, in other words — but we of course want to be conscious about the kinds of content readers want to see. That commenter was sort of right, in that we don’t get as many hits on profile posts like those in the “Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud” series — people like those stories, but they’re not as popular as the posts that highlight how 37signals works as a company, for instance, or posts that share our ideas on design and business.

For my part, I’m resolving to take those preferences more into account, and to do a better job engaging within the comments section, if that’s where people prefer to have a dialogue. The more present writers are post-publication, the more respectful the conversation tends to be, and the more value everyone gets out of the exchange.

I will say that writing more frequently for SvN has toughened my skin, and that’s not a bad thing. Trolling is never personal, for one. Rudeness says far more about the commenter’s character than about the author’s skill as a writer. Two, it helps to recognize that people are rarely inspired to leave a comment just to agree or say thanks. My coworker Jonas likes to think of comments as “The opposite of the thing you just read.” Since people generally only comment to disagree, “articles read like ‘Here’s a point.’ Comments -> ‘The opposite point.’” If you’re braced for it and accept that counterpoint as part of the anatomy of a blog post, it doesn’t sting — it’s expected behavior.

A very patient Frank Zappa defending freedom of speech on CNN Crossfire in 1986. A surreal moment in time. Part I and II.

Jason Fried on Aug 24 2013 9 comments

Embracing slow time

Jason Z.
Jason Z. wrote this on 23 comments

When you work in a traditional office and have a question, instant gratification is hard to resist. It’s so easy. Just stumble over to a co-worker’s desk, make sure they stop whatever it was they were doing, blather on until the lights of recognition come on in their eyes, then await the answer. Unless your query concerns inflammable materials currently engulfed in said flames you’ve likely wasted their time – in fact, you may have even wasted your own.

One of my favorite side-effects of working remotely is the way slow-time communication forces you to stop and think before you speak. When I have a question for one of our programmers, for example, here’s a bit of what goes through my head:
How should I ask this question? He’s online, I could just send a quick IM…
...but is this important enough to risk interrupting with an instant message? No. I’m not even sure I can even explain it one line at a time like that.
What about email? Nah. It’s about some specific code, maybe I should ask on Github.
It’s complicated. How can I explain this as directly as possible? I can post a comment right on the helper method…
...but is the problem really in the helper or is it because of the collection set in the controller? It’s definitely in the controller, let’s start there. Wait a second…!
It’s usually at this point that I either figure out the answer for myself or come up with a new way of considering the problem, never having to even ask the original question. I didn’t bother my co-worker, I didn’t look like an idiot trying to articulate the question on-the-fly, and most importantly I figured out the answer!

People who struggle to work remotely often bemoan the lack of in-person collaboration jumping from this tool to that tech in an effort to recreate the magic that only happens when we’re all in the same room. There are definitely advantages to face time, but too often it seems like facial expressions and waving arms are substituted for clear thought and courtesy.

The next time you have a question for a coworker, try writing it out as if they were 1000 miles and 3 time zones away – even if they’re sitting right next to you. You might surprise yourself with the answer.

What have you been reading lately?

David wrote this on 46 comments

About once a month we start an internal discussion on Basecamp about what people have been reading lately. It’s a great way to get suggestions for good books. So why not try to see how it’d work on this blog. Here are five of the best books I’ve read in the last few months:

  • The Intelligent Investor: Benjamin Graham’s immortal tome on value investing cuts right through the bullshit of the short-term stock market swings and valuation bubbles. He draws on examples from the stock market from the late 1800s until 1970s. The latest edition then contains chapter commentary with examples from the 2000s. It’s amazing how little has changed. As Graham says, “in the short term, the stock market behaves like a voting machine, but in the long term it acts like a weighing machine”. If you read just one book on the market or investing, make it this one.
  • The New Jim Crow: Heart-breaking account of how the American justice system has been perverted through the War on Drugs to lock up utterly disproportionate number of blacks and other minorities. It then details the hopeless life that awaits those who are branded felons for the rest of their life by excluding them from public assistance, jobs, and housing. The book is full of real-life case stories that should make even the most ardent drug warrior’s stomach in disgust. Quick read too and great writing.
  • Riding Man: Ad man decides to quit his job to follow his dream of racing the Isle of Man TT. Great story telling, great example of how it’s never too late to follow your dreams.
  • Why Nations Fail: A thorough look through history describing why some nations rise to prosperity and others linger in poverty. It’s a little slow to get going, but once you get rolling it’s hard to put it down.
  • Insanely Simple: Yes, there’s enough Steve Jobs hero worship tomes to last anyone a lifetime, but this one is full of specific examples that you can use in your own business. Written by an ad man who worked with Jobs on a number of projects.

What have you been reading lately?

Writing tip: say the opposite

Jason Z.
Jason Z. wrote this on 10 comments

Here’s a great bit of advice from Jakob Nielsen’s 2001 post about writing company taglines:

…look at how you present the company in the main copy on the home page. Rewrite the text to say exactly the opposite . Would any company ever say that? If not, you’re not saying much with your copy, either.

Great copy doesn’t remind people what they already know and expect about your product, it tells them why they should care.

Zingerman's simple email survey

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 22 comments

Last week I wrote about Audi’s customer satisfaction survey. The numbers and words just didn’t mesh. And there were dozens of questions – many of which were difficult to rate according to their given scale. I didn’t end up filling it out and deleted it from my inbox.

This week I got another survey from another company. This one was from Zingerman’s – the famous Ann Arbor-based deli. I’d recently purchased some olive oil, vinegar, and mustard from their site.

Here’s the email they sent:

That’s a fantastic email. Short, friendly, clearly written by someone who understands tone, brand, and how to get feedback that’s useful. No tricks. Yes, it’s automated, and signed by a team, but that’s fine. It was originally written by someone who cares. It’s consistent with Zingerman’s casual catalog voice, too.

They have a 0-10 scale just like Audi. Except they only have one question. “How likely are you to recommend Zingermans?” That question sums up just about everything. They consider 0 “not a chance” and 10 “in a heartbeat”. The rest is up to you.

And they don’t ask you to click over to a web-based survey somewhere. They just say, hey, reply to this email with a number and, if you have time, let us know why you gave us this rating. Your reply is your answer, that’s it. There’s nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. Easy.

Then they say: “We are a small crew in the service center, we read every word and we try to do better all the time.” That alone makes me want to give them feedback. I know I’ll be heard. I believe I’ll be heard. The Audi survey? It feels like it’s going straight into a database. I’m an aggregate stat, not a person, not a customer.

It would be easy to say that Audi’s survey will give Audi more detailed feedback. More data points attached to specific experiences. And it would be easy to say that Zingerman’s question is too broad, too difficult to act on a “7” with no other information.

But I’d wager that Zingerman’s gets more useful feedback than Audi gets. That one question – answered simply with a reply to an email – probably leads to more valuable, subtle feedback than the dozen-question, extremely detailed , slippery Audi survey.

The Zingerman’s survey feels like it’s written by someone who’s curious about the answer. The Audi survey feels like it’s written by someone who’s collecting statistics. Which company do you think really cares more?

When numbers and words don't add up

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 30 comments

I recently purchased a new car. A few days later I got an email from Audi asking me to rate my experience. I clicked the link to the survey and ended up seeing this:

Ok, this should be easy.

“Ease of looking at dealer’s inventory” – great, no problems there. A 10, right? Well… was it OUTSTANDING? How about TRULY EXCEPTIONAL? No, it wasn’t those… I can’t say someone’s inventory was truly exceptional. I can’t put my name on that sort of endorsement. So…?

Comfort in the office where we cut the deal? It was fine – I couldn’t imagine it to be better, but was it TRULY EXCEPTIONAL? No. That doesn’t fit. So does that make it a 6 or 7? No, it was better than that… But… So…?

I see this sort of thing in surveys all the time. A simple 1-10 scale (or 1-5, it doesn’t matter), but the labeling of the numbers is so sensationalized that it turns me off. As far as the number goes, I’m happy to give something the highest rating, but the language overshoots the number and then I don’t know how to respond.

I find these sorts of things great reminders of how important it is to choose the right words. Don’t overshoot, don’t sensationalize. Be modest with language. Find the right fit and leave it alone.