Matt

Current occupations.

I'm Matt Baer, and I built Write.as. I've been playing with computers ever since I can remember, making things for the web and learning as I went. I've taken on a few big projects, like a site for my Flash games and movies, and another for bringing groups together to chat. But in 2015 Write.as became the first one that really took off, and it's made up of everything I've learned over the years. It also brings together many of my interests: writing, programming, intimate conversation, and personal privacy.

why?

As I left school and entered the working world, making enough money to afford rent and food, I started to care less about becoming a millionaire and think more about problems in our world — especially when it comes to technology. I see companies like Facebook exploit our basic desire to communicate, and think there should be better options. I see Apple and Google encourage everyone to fondle glass slabs and think we're maybe losing something, even as we've gained “connectivity.”

I'm old enough to remember dialing up over AOL, but not old enough to have ever seen the pre-web internet. Sometimes I pine for the “wild west” days of the web where I grew up, when there was Geocities and AngelFire and Xanga, and it was nothing but weird, funky sites everywhere. The commercialization of the web has certainly emphasized the contrast between our current world of walled gardens versus that time of distributed creativity and exploration.

But I don't think all is lost. I think we merely need to remember, codify, and implement our values in software now. I think we need to see again the importance of morals behind the software we use everyday, that shapes our lives and behaviors. We need ethical standards that make surveillance an unfruitful business model. We need everyday software that enables privacy, security, transparency, freedom, and democracy.

how?

Write.as is, underneath everything, a proof of concept for this ideal software and web service. It makes money, but is driven by principles before profit. It makes strong privacy promises to users. Its only investor is me.

To get there, beyond its subscription model I'll be building more simple, useful products. They'll share the same ideals, focus, and care for the humans on the other end of the screen (you). Here's what's in development now:

  • Snap.aspublish your photos and photo essays. Expected launch: end of 2017.
  • HTMLhousequickly publish HTML. Next: adding support for accounts, syncing, and inexpensive websites.

Building more directly on Write.as, I'll launch these products too:

  • Draft.aspainless text collaboration, powered by Write.as.
  • Jot.asprivate, synced note-taking.

The goal is to eventually have a suite of products that all work well together, and form a sustainable business that can last. If you like these ideas, I'd encourage you to sign up for Write.as and subscribe for as little as $10/year — it's the best way to help us get there.

so what's your blog about?

Oh, yeah. I'll generally write about the problems I'm trying to solve (especially with regard to Write.as), how I solve them, and just general things I write that I end up liking.

can we chat?

Absolutely. Get in touch through the contact page; generally when you're “talking to Write.as” you're talking to me. If you have ideas, questions, or the desire to help out, I'd love to hear from you.

Today, people like me write commands into documents that gets put through a program that translates them into things that the little electronic sprinkles in your computer can understand and use to make it light up and do things.

Computers, which is what I guess people born in the 20th century used to call our expensive Lite Brites, and a term I'll now use to include iPhones and TVs and internet-connected ovens, do what humans tell them. When people like me write software, we have to decide what to tell the computers; Should the screen turn red, or green, when someone presses a button? Today the whole tell them what to do process is so complex you might need hundreds of people just to figure it all out. It's like making a movie, really. And all throughout the process, people you don't know in some office somewhere are making little decisions that come together to make what you see on Facebook and Snapchat and that little screen on your Keurig machine.

I find it interesting to think of software as a person — a robotic third party watching over and facilitating your interactions with other humans. Facebook's news feed and Google's search results are each like doting parents, never wanting you to leave home and always telling you what's best for you. Snapchat is the crazy, artsy friend who you can never quite decipher, except that it loves parroting tabloid headlines. More literally, each piece of software / “app” treats you a certain way.

Thinking about things this way helps us understand our relationship with software. Which “friends” do we spend our time with? Do they treat us like they're our only friend we'll ever have and we will be missing out on so much if we left them (Facebook)? That we'll never get a job without their help (LinkedIn)? Do they tell us what they're thinking inside (open source), or do they purposely obscure and stay tight-lipped about their intentions?

This also applies to the humans making the software, and this is what sparked this thought today. I thought about how I could add a warning on Write.as that prevented people from accidentally moving posts between blogs, to help protect people from potentially revealing their alter egos. For example, if I have a pseudonymous blog called Jimmy's Life and accidentally move this post there (and leave it there), you'd know I was “Jimmy.”

So I wondered, do I as the user want a “friend” that constantly has to warn me to not do that? Do I want to have to rely on “someone” to keep things straight for me? Do I want someone telling me “what's best”? Or do I want the freedom to use my brain and move things around exactly how I see fit?

The software-writer can literally choose either and rationalize it any way they want. And for this I decided no, it's not a good feature. If Write.as is anyone's “friend,” it should default to trust, and afford users the space to do what they want. That's why it doesn't guilt-trip you for unsubscribing, for example, and makes it easy to export your data. Like any human relationship that comes to an end, all we can hope is that we both grew in some way from having met.

As we anthropomorphize computers more with voice-recognizing assistants and chat bots, the disbelief in us actually interacting with humans every time we touch a screen or click a mouse will fade. We as users should push for software-friends with wisdom and empathy. And we as developers should encode some wisdom with every command we commit to silicon.

Privacy means many things. It's not so much a constant state as a fluid, moving process. It grows and shrinks depending on environment, people around you, and how you wrangle it. But ultimately, privacy is about power.

Privacy, on a personal level, means the power to choose what you reveal about yourself. When you post a photo of the food you ate for dinner on Instagram, you reveal a small piece of what your whole night might've entailed: the friends you saw, the conversations you had, the thoughts you were thinking. The information you don't reveal is information you get to retain for yourself, in a place no one can touch. By keeping the full story to yourself, others can't later laugh at any mistakes or criticize any thoughts you don't want them to. Instead of someone, for example, laughing at you for dropping pasta sauce on your shirt, you can keep the power in your hands by not revealing that moment.

Your environment also plays a role. In the physical world, we can get privacy fairly easily: we can leave a room full of coworkers to answer a phone call, we can close the bathroom door to pee, we can stay in our house to get away from the pedestrians and traffic outside. In the physical world, we can easily separate ourselves from the people we don't want invading our privacy by generally moving our legs in the right direction.

The internet, on the other hand, doesn't have this intuitive ease. I remember as a kid “wandering” the internet, talking to strangers on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) chat rooms, diving into any weird site I found, and doing whatever the equivalent of “Googling” was in the late 90's. Though I hadn't seen many cities, in retrospect it was like I was wandering some big city as another anonymous inhabitant out of millions. No one was following me around; I felt free to explore.

Today, with some light reading of current events, it's easy to feel restricted — the NSA is on Google, or Facebook is mining your data, or ads are tracking you all over the place, like some creepy guy that keeps following you as you wander the web's streets. It feels like living in a city where they've installed cameras on every street, corner, alleyway, store, church, and house. Where are the private spaces anymore? Where are the bathrooms where you can pee in peace? Your power, and ultimately autonomy, is weakened when anyone seeks to invade your privacy.

The solution for the web isn't quite like “walk away” in the physical world, but takes many forms. For one, after sharing a few Facebook posts we start to learn how to share certain things and not others — that control of what you reveal that I mentioned before. But there's another low-tech way to preserve your privacy online that was obvious when I started using the internet, but has since faded with the rise of “real name” social networks and “building your online brand” (or whatever current advice is). You create a fake name, i.e. a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms give you power in a new way. Instead of using software to keep your posts, messages, and photos “public” or “private,” everything is public, or rather, who cares if it's public. It doesn't matter because when done right, your posts or messages are missing information that ties that data to your real identity. When you pick a pseudonym, like monwetuf (generated from a calendar I was just looking at), Googling for that pseudonym doesn't bring up public records, your résumé, or your Facebook profile. You choose which environments to use it in and how to separate your online activity. Maybe my friends from school call me monwetuf, so I use that name on social media profiles. Maybe my ham radio friends know me by yadatu so I host my hobbyist site at yadatu.com. You're not dependent on a platform's benevolence and it having good privacy controls when you can control the power yourself.

Many of us have been living parts of our lives on the web for a while. It's the world's best communication platform that, for better or worse, doesn't work exactly like meatspace. But we can adapt. We can build services around pseudonyms—like reddit, Hacker News, and Write.as—and even wrangle back our power from the large indoor malls that are Facebook and Twitter, all with very analog tactics. Privacy is not dead, dying, or even wounded. Its waters are only flowing differently, and it's up to us to adjust to the current.

With only a couple hours of sunshine

the things you do with your day become more important. Morning comes slowly, without a specific beginning or end; sometimes playing canvas for cosmic radiation from some far away exploded star; and you know you have to do all you can in less time than you're used to at home, 30° south of here.

cosmic radiation

“Growing up” is one of those societal constructs advertised to us from an early age. We saw it in the cartoons we watched, toys we played with, and the adult humans around us — all “grown up” themselves.

But growing up is a very abstract concept. If I look at my own life, I can point to some aspect and say I grew up at some point in time. I could look at another and say I'm still growing up there. (Am I doing it right?) But for most, this idea is grounded in the expectations others set upon you.

In the US, the doctor recommends you get a job, buy a house, find a spouse, have some kids, and retire. Our culture reinforces this through our TV shows, our ads, our news, our magazines. And each accomplishment along the way continues this reinforcement with a celebration. Bought your first house? Congratulations! Get engaged? Great! Each milestone makes you feel good, and is one step closer to realizing your full “grown up” self.

Of course, none of this inherently bad. Self-sustainability is always good, as in getting a paying job. But once you can cover your basic needs (food, water, shelter), I think it's safe to declare you've “grown up.” Because part of being grown up means getting to decide what being grown up means. Want a family? Go make it happen! Rather not? Cool! You're a grown up! Do what you want! The important thing about growing up isn't “growing up,” but forming your own expectations for yourself so you can personally gauge how well you're doing in life.

Some people (like me) romantically dream of throwing out all the unnecessary things we've accumulated over the years and going off to live in the woods, or live off the land; to have a peaceful environment, or even to toil a bit.

It's a nice dream. But many people don't do it. We've already adapted; we're busy reveling in modern life. We like our houses and our things; our conveniences and our connections to one another. Because through all our invention, mankind's greatest is that of complete and utter comfort. We don't have to hunt or gather. We get to enjoy a cool room on a scorching hot day. We get to travel long distances with little physical effort. And we have really comfortable seats. We rarely end up leaving because our desire for comfort outweighs our desire to discover new uncomfortable things.

And it's an important realization. Thoughts of going off to live in the woods, or to work on a farm somewhere across the ocean, can take up a lot of your time. You think about what it might be like, and how wonderful it would be — almost as if you're looking for that last reason you need to go do it. But you're never really committed to it, and you usually realize there's actually something else causing the thought in the first place. The sooner you realize what that something is, the sooner you can focus that longing on improving your current place in the world, instead.

It was a warm night in late 2014. My day job hadn't provided me with any value outside of paper money in several months, and I was getting the itch to build a completely new thing. In recent months I'd heard my boss talk about Go (golang for you search engines) and how nice it was. I knew PHP, but had recently found Node.js in my last product, LunchTable, unrewarding. So a new backend language to learn appealed to me.

I've also loved writing for a long time. I never planned to make Yet Another Text Editor, but around this time I'd noticed how many people were using pastebin.com to essentially blog. Medium was also the hotness du jour, so I thought, what if I made pastebin look good?

Read more...

I went camping the other weekend with a couple friends and a few acquaintances. As we got through the day setting up camp, cracking open beers, and gathering things to burn, we all talked. We talked about the manatees we saw while paddling out to our campsite, and if it would rain, and where the bug spray was. We talked about future plans and past travel and current life.

By the end of the night we'd all gotten to know each other better. We learned about the places we'd all gone. We learned that two of us were from the same big city suburbs some 600 miles away. We talked about deeper things.

Interaction online is funny, especially in the “social” space. You get to tell people about yourself without caring if they want to hear it in the first place. Facebook is meant for dumping every detail about you into a permanent profile for anyone to read. You dump a list of friends and family on there. You dump your daily thoughts and your opinions on others' thoughts. You dump your taste in music and movies and books. You dump your political affiliations on there.

Once you've done that, anyone can stop by and read what you've dumped. They can quickly determine your character without you saying a word or ever looking at them. And you'd think that's the goal of software like that. Facebook is really a self-profile with commenting and “connecting” added on. Which brings me to my next point.

On a camping trip with people you know or don't, no one draws lines between the groups and says, “we're friends, you're acquaintances, you two are married, we're dating.” The environment provides some kind of commonality — you're all in the same space to do the same thing together. Then over time you learn about the people surrounding you.

On supermassive all-purpose social networks like Facebook, there is a vapid culture and no implied commonality built-in — except that you're all on Facebook at different times, liking and throwing out your two cents on things. There, human relationships are sliced and mechanically separated into billions of one-to-one connections to make it easier to display with the rest of your self-dump. It's like a city where a billion people live but everyone is invisible except your few reciprocating friends.

What does a “friend” or “follow” or “connect” mean on the web, anyway? When I follow someone on Twitter or Instagram, I'm usually doing so because I like their tweets or photos. But following someone also tells them something — maybe that I like their tweets. Maybe that I'm attracted to them. Above all, now they know I exist, and if they're bored maybe they can figure out who I am by visiting my feed — and instantly we are silent acquaintances. But what happens when we unexpectedly see each other in real life? Do I say, “Hey, @ilikebeans! I like your tweets! Really sorry about your cat, but I liked your blog post. Oh and great tip about that band!”

Maybe it's the initial connection context that makes things weird. In school or other times of high sociality, adding a “friend” on Facebook made sense. The kids in my school made up almost everyone I knew outside of my family. I saw them every day. Even the ones I wasn't as close to I could call my friends because we saw each other so often and at that point you couldn't go wrong by having loads of “friends.”

But “friend request” doesn't make as much sense when you get out of that. Now I have friends and acquaintances in different parts of the world, known in various contexts for various lengths of time. I barely have time to keep up with most of them. So the “friend request” is really a mutual human bookmark so that I can just silently follow people I've met at least once.

But I'm an optimist. Personally I look forward to the next one-click solution to this awkwardness. Whether it's gentle creepiness of the one-way follow or the ceremony of generously calling everyone “friend,” it's clear we still haven't arrived at a good substitute for human interaction yet. So maybe we go the full bot route, where we cut the crap and let artificial intelligence chat, tweet, and Facebook for us, freeing us to go meet our friends for lunch or (really) just download the next ground-breaking freemium game. Or perhaps we bring these online norms into reality, asking people if they'll be our friends or if we can follow them down the road and listen to everything they say, real-life retweeting and “liking” things along the way. Whichever route we take, I know humanity will be better off, and especially more social than we've ever been.

A lot of products need to move quickly to stay ahead of bigger competitors. They have an advantage over the slow-moving behemoths. They can decide they need a feature and see it come to fruition in a week. They can consistently wow customers with each small iteration that actually gives them 100% more value out of the product.

But this doesn't always fit the smallest products. And when you're building one that isn't focused on hyper growth or is in its early days, an abundance of time can be a luxury. It can give you the necessary time to consider how everything fits together. There will always be a gentle pressure to push forward, but here it's just a gentle hum enough to keep you going.

#minorthoughts #sketches #software

One of my favorite things about Write.as is the way users create accounts. I've always seen account creation as a major barrier to entry for any product, and sought out reducing it from the very beginning in my own.

But unlike many products that eschew a Sign up page for a multi-step process, Write.as actually functions well with varying degrees of information about a user. The pipeline goes a bit like this:

  1. Anonymous user (default). No cohesive account stored on the service.
  2. Reserved username. Account is created with nothing more than a username. Only the device the account was created on can access it.
  3. Authenticated account. Account has a second piece of information that allows a user to log in to that account from anywhere.

Once a user is at step 2, they can do everything a user can do — though only from that device. But to prevent losing access to their data, we prompt them to add authentication information on many backend pages, as well as prevent them from logging out until they add something that'll let them get into their account — whether that's an email address, password, or both.

After three months of users being able to register, we have some interesting stats. Out of all the accounts with authentication information:

  • 74% have set a password
  • 83% have set an email address

This shows how most new users add both an email and password, but overall, users' favorite authentication method seems to be via email, where they simply receive a one-time link to log in to their Write.as account. Many other online services have caught on to this too, like Slack and Medium. But for some switching to an inbox can be inconvenient, and for them there's always the trusty password.

#tech #ux #products