June 2, 2012

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Markets are conversations, they say. So yesterday I had one with MRoth, head of product for , the company whose service changes the other day caused a roar of negative buzz, including some from me, here.

Users were baffled by complexities where simplicities used to be. Roger Ebert lamented an “incomprehensible and catastrophic redesign” and explained in his next tweet, “I want to shorten a link, tweet it, and see how many hits and retweets it got. That’s it. Bit.ly now makes it an ordeal.”

That was my complaint as well. And it was heard. A friend with Bitly connections made one between  and me, and good conversation followed for an hour.

We spent much of that time going over work flows. Turns out Roger’s and mine are not the only kind Bitly enables, or cares about, and that’s a challenge for the company. Compiling, curating and sharing bookmarks (which they now call “bitmarks”) is as important for some users as simply shortening URLs is for others. Bitly combined the two in this re-design, and obviously ran into problems. They are now working hard to solve those.

I won’t go into the particulars MRoth shared, because I didn’t take notes and don’t remember them well enough in any case. What matters is that it’s clear to me that Bitly is reaching out, listening, and doing their best to follow up with changes. “Always make new mistakes,” Esthr says, and they’re making them as fast and well as they can.

I will share something I suggested, however, and that’s to look at the work flows around writing, and not just tweeting and other forms of “social” sharing.

We need more and better tools for writing linky text on the Web. Much as I like and appreciate what WordPress and Drupal do, I’m not fond of either as writing systems, mostly because “content management” isn’t writing, and those are content management systems first, and writing systems second.

As an art and a practice, writing is no less a product of its instruments than are music and painting. We not only need pianos, drums and brushes, but Steinways, Ludwigs and Langnickels. Microsoft doesn’t cut it. (Word produces horrible html.) Adobe had a good early Web writing tool with GoLive, but killed it in favor of Dreamweaver, which is awful. There are plenty of fine text editors, including old standbys (e.g. vi and emacs) that work in command shells. Geeky wizards can do wonders with them, but there should be many other instruments for many other kinds of artists.

Far as I know, the only writer and programmer working on a portfolio of writing and publishing instruments today is , and he’s been on the case for thirty years or more. (I believe I first met Dave at the booth at Comdex in Atlanta in 1982, when the program was available only on the Apple II). One of these days, months or years, writers and publishers are going to appreciate Dave’s pioneering work with outlining, sharing linksflowing news and other arts. I’m sure they do to some extent today (where would we all be without RSS?), but what they see is exceeded by what they don’t. Yet.

The older I get, the earlier it seems. For artist-grade writing and publishing tools, it’s clear to me that we’re at the low narrow left end of the adoption curve: not far past the beginning. That spells opportunity for lots of new development projects and companies, including Bitly.

I think the main thing standing in everybody’s way right now is the belief that writing and publishing need to be “social,” as defined by Facebook and Twitter, rather than by society as a whole, which was plenty social before those companies came along. Also plenty personal. Remember personal computing? We hardly talk about that any more, because it’s a redundancy, like personal phoning, or personal texting. But personal, as an adjective, has taken a back seat while social drives.

Here’s a distinction that might help us get back in the driver’s seat: Publishing is social, but writing is personal. The latter is no less a greenfield today than it was in 1982. The difference is that it’s now as big as the Net.