Medium is Bringing Back Custom Domains

Ev Williams, writing in Medium:

Speaking of portability, it’s always been possible to get an export of all your posts and other data in Medium. And by default, all Medium publications and profiles have RSS feeds (e.g., blog.medium.com/feed) – full text, except for metered/paywall stories.

We are now bringing back another option for portability – and brandability – namely, custom domains. Not that they ever went away entirely. Medium hosts tens of thousands of publications under their own domains. However, we paused setting up new ones a couple of years ago. Among other reasons, we needed to fix some cross-domain bugs and revamp our system for registering SSL certificates. We have now prioritized that work so that we can scalably offer custom domains again.

So soon you’ll be able to take advantage of Medium’s new publishing tools and tap into the Medium network – assuring deliver of your content to your followers – while showing up under your own brand/domain and confident in the knowledge that if you ever want to move off Medium, that’s fully in your control.

The web removes many of the barriers that keep us from becoming publishers. If you have something to share with the world, it’s easier than ever to publish your writing. It’s also easier than ever to own your own platform. If you take publishing seriously (as you should,) you should aim to have some degree of control over where your content shows up. This doesn’t mean that you need to hand-craft web pages from scratch or manage your own web server. But at a minimum, you should aim to publish in a domain name you control.

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Re-thinking Digital Note-taking

Note-taking is central to my work. Every day I sketch ideas, capture meeting minutes, annotate bookmarks, draft new posts, etc. I’ve done this for a long time using both digital and analog notebooks. However, over the last couple of years, I’ve started feeling constrained by some of my tools. In particular, I’ve realized that I can create the most value when I can quickly spot patterns to generate insights, but the way I’ve been taking notes doesn’t lend itself to sparking new connections.

My primary note-taking tool over the last eight years has been OneNote. I started using OneNote because I wanted to hand-write my notes digitally, and Windows tablets were the only viable way to do so before the Apple Pencil came along. When the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil appeared, I left Windows tablets behind (one less OS to maintain!) but kept using OneNote. While the iPad app doesn’t have as many features as the Windows version, it’s close enough for my purposes.

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The Architecture of Information

Yesterday I launched a new website, The Architecture of Information. I describe it as a collection of “intriguing information structures from the web and beyond.” In other words, the site showcases examples of information architectures spotted in the wild.

While the site is new, much of its content isn’t. I’ve posted examples of good/bad/intriguing information architecture on my personal blog over the past three years, using the tag TAOI (the architecture of information.) I’ve copied those posts to the new website, where they can have a life of their own.

Why am I doing this? There are lots of sites that feature examples of user interface design, but few (none?) that focus on information architecture. People are drawn to snazzy screenshots and clever animations. Good navigation systems and clear conceptual models aren’t as obvious or immediately appealing.

Yet good IA is essential. As I’ve said so many times before, the structural layer of websites/apps/digital things changes more slowly than look-and-feel. Information structures have a critical influence on the effectiveness of digital products over time. So, we need to pay more heed to what’s happening beneath the surface of these things.

I hope The Architecture of Information helps shed some light. If you have ideas for interesting information structures you’d like me to feature, please get in touch. And also check out the new site — I’d love your feedback.

A Year of Podcasting: What’s Next

I’ve been publishing my podcast, The Informed Life, since January of 2019. To celebrate the show’s anniversary, I’ve been writing about my set up: how I started, my recording gear, how I edit episodes, and how I publish the show so you can listen to it. In this final post of the series, I’ll reflect on what has worked well, what hasn’t, and what I expect next for the show.

Let’s start by discussing what has worked well. A few early decisions have paid off. The first is show length. Keeping episodes to around 30 minutes has made for a more focused show; I’ve received positive feedback from listeners on the high ratio of content to chit chat they hear. This focus is in part due to an editorial decision to keep episodes relatively short.

Another decision that’s paid off is having a loose arc for interviews. Episodes have a beginning, middle, and end. This arc isn’t accidental; I discuss it with guests before we record. We aren’t strict about it, but know our aim.

One final good decision I’ll call out is the every-other-week publishing schedule. Producing a podcast takes a lot of work. The two-week span is enough for me to put in the require time without disrupting the other responsibilities in my life. A longer gap between episodes (a month, say) would risk having listeners lose interest. Every other week seems to be the sweet spot.

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A Year of Podcasting: Publishing

I’ve been publishing my podcast, The Informed Life, for over a year. During that time, I’ve had lots of folks ask me about how I do it. To celebrate the milestone (and to avoid repeating myself,) I’ve been writing about my set up: how I started, my recording gear, and how I edit episodes. This post is about how I publish the podcast.

Publishing is a key component of podcasting. You can record and edit an excellent show, but only a few people will listen if it’s not available for folks to find and download. These two things – finding and downloading — are related but not the same. They’re both crucial.

Let’s start with downloading. Mostly, podcasts are like blogs: content that’s published periodically on a web server where people can access it over the internet. The main difference, of course, is that blogs are primarily text-based, whereas podcasts are primarily audio-based. But still, the underlying technologies are very similar.

So-called podcatchers — the apps that we use to listen to podcasts — are RSS readers under the hood, much like blog readers such as NetNewsWire or the much-missed Google Reader. Besides rendering text, podcatchers provide specialized interfaces to listen to audio files. These audio files are referenced in the podcast’s (text-based) feeds, which are almost identical to the text feeds that power blogs.

I’m giving you this preamble to demystify the publishing process. A podcast is just a blog with audio.

That said, there are publishing platforms that provide specialized features for podcasts. For example, some aim to unify (and therefore simplify) the whole process by bundling recording, editing, and publishing features into one package. I didn’t consider such tools because I didn’t want to be locked into any one vertical platform.

My early research turned up one publishing tool that seemed to be preferred by many established podcasters: LibSyn. It’s been around for a long time, as evidenced by its rich feature set. This gave me confidence in the tool. (I’m always wary of relying on untested companies.) Alas, its longevity was also evident in its user interface, which I found clunky and complicated. My understanding of podcasting as “blogging with audio” was put to the test when I opened an account on LibSyn. Setting up the show and publishing a single episode required learning a new set of terms and filling in lots of information. It was more work than I expected or needed.

Hunting for a new publishing platform, I discovered that the one I use to host this site — WordPress.com — could also be used to host podcasts. I opened a new account on WordPress specifically for the show and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was. (Especially for someone like myself, who was already familiar with blogging in general and WordPress in particular.) Publishing a new podcast episode boils down to writing a blog post and including a single audio file in it. Simple.

Of course, there are tradeoffs. A more powerful tool like LibSyn gives you more features and the ability to control things more granularly. More importantly, WordPress also lags in one key area: statistics. The system provides a dashboard that shows how many people have visited, how many pages they’ve viewed, etc. It’s the same dashboard you get if you’re hosting a blog (note I said “pages viewed”), and it’s wholly inadequate for a podcast. I don’t yet have a good way of knowing what episodes are more popular than others.

Still, it’s convenient to use the same platform for my blog and my podcast. Which is to say, WordPress integrates well with my workflows. It’s simple, inexpensive, and reliable. I’m also confident that WordPress (the company) will be around for a while. It’s unlikely I’ll tinker with this aspect of my setup for a while.

So that’s the “web hosting” part of my publishing setup. But as I mentioned above, putting the show on the internet isn’t all that’s needed: folks also need to find the show so they can subscribe. That’s where podcasting directories come in.

There are several of these, but the most popular is Apple’s podcast directory. Apple embraced podcasting early, including it as a feature in iTunes in 2005. They’ve since maintained a structured index of shows that’s used by other podcasting systems as well.

It’s worth noting that this directory doesn’t host podcasting files; that’s why you need a publishing platform such as WordPress. Instead, the directory allows people to find your show, and to rate and review it. (If you enjoy The Informed Life, it helps if you rate and/or review it in Apple’s podcast directory.)

Google provides a similar service through Google Play, but as far as I know, it isn’t as influential as Apple’s. That said, I added the show to Google’s directory late last year to make it easier to find for Android phone users.

There are several other platforms with directories. I often get requests from folks to include the show on platforms like Spotify and Stitcher. I’ve been wary of these and other such systems. I sense that many are trying to build walled gardens around their podcast initiatives. Some break the decentralized model by re-publishing shows in their hosting infrastructure and inserting advertising into shows. The obvious tradeoff? Not being on these distribution platforms is costing me some listeners. That makes me sad. But some of these practices — especially injecting ads into shows — make me even sadder. As a result, you’re unlikely to find my show in these systems anytime soon.

So there you have it, my podcast publishing setup. Of all the components and systems that make The Informed Life possible, these are the ones I’m most satisfied with. The one exception, as I mentioned above, is statistics. I’d love to have better information about how individual episodes are doing. (Apple provides a tool that’s supposed to give me such information. I didn’t mention it above because it’s not very useful.)

So, better statistics is one aspect I’d like to change about my podcasting setup. In the final post in this series, I’ll tell you about some other things I’m considering for the future of The Informed Life. Hope you can join me then!

A Year of Podcasting: Editing

To celebrate the first anniversary of my podcast, The Informed Life, I’ve been writing about my podcasting setup. The first post was about the thinking that led up to the show. The second was about my recording setup. This post is about an important (and time-consuming) part of the process: editing each episode.

As I mentioned in the first post, I had limited experience with audio production before I started podcasting. But I had enough experience with other media (video, writing) to know that I wouldn’t be able to release episodes precisely as recorded. They’d need to be edited before I posted them. When people talk, we ramble. We cough. We pause to think about what we want to say. As I mentioned previously, I was aiming for thirty-minute episodes. This time constraint would require that I cut material from the source audio files.

So I knew editing would be a part of producing each episode. I evaluated audio editing software before starting the show. There are several audio editing tools available, ranging from open source (and free) like Audacity, to professional (and expensive) like Logic Pro X. One of my guiding principles was not to spend too much money on the show, so I was wary of investing in high-end tools. My experience with cross-platform open source software made me think Audacity may be a powerful tool, but perhaps wouldn’t feel like a native macOS application. (Something I find very distracting.)

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A Year of Podcasting: Recording Gear

My podcast, The Informed Life, recently turned one. I had no experience running a podcast before I started, and have had to learn a lot over the last year. To mark this anniversary, I’m sharing what I’ve learned over a series of posts. The first one dealt with the big idea behind the show. In this one, I’ll tell you about how I go about recording episodes.

I didn’t know much about audio production before starting my own show. My primary experience with podcasts had been as a listener. I’d also been a guest in several shows following the release of my book, Living in Information. Both perspectives informed how I approached my recording setup.

I’ve been listening to podcasts for over a decade. One thing I noticed was that some shows sounded better than others. From an audio quality perspective, the obvious point of comparison for podcasts is talk radio, which is professionally produced. Podcasts, on the other hand, are primarily artisanal: most are produced by people working either on their own or with small teams. Many are produced in home studios. Results vary: some shows sound great, others sound awful.

I wanted my show to sound good. What constitutes “good”? For me, as a listener, it means I can focus on the content of a show as opposed to how it sounds. No matter how brilliant the people speaking, I find it distracting if their voices sound tinny, or have lots of reverb, or speak over each other.

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A Year of Podcasting: The Big Idea

Last Sunday’s episode of The Informed Life podcast marks the show’s first anniversary. I’ve consistently released a new episode every other Sunday over the previous twelve months. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about producing a podcast. I’ve also had many people say kind things about the show; I’m very thankful to the guests and to everyone who’s tuned in. It’s a privilege to be allowed in your ears a couple of times a month. Recently, several friends have asked me for details about my setup, etc., so I thought it worthwhile to write down what I’ve learned. I have a lot to share, do so over a series of posts.

First, a disclaimer: I’m still learning. When I first started podcasting, I committed to consistently try out new things. I expected to be inefficient and to produce sub-par work at first, but to also actively work at improving. (Hopefully, recent episodes sound tighter than earlier ones.) Which is to say, I’m still not satisfied with parts of my setup. What you read in these posts is likely to change.

With that out of the way, let’s begin by addressing the most basic question: Why podcast at all? There are several reasons. As an information architect, writer, and teacher, I’m always looking to learn from other people — especially people who are smarter and more experienced than me. A podcast would offer a good excuse for me to have such conversations, explicitly framed as learning opportunities. (I also thought there may be an opportunity to write about what I was learning, which I’ve been doing in this blog.)

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What Did I Learn?

Like many other people, I have a morning routine. Journaling is an important part of this routine. Every morning, at the start of my day, I set aside a few minutes to reflect on the previous day and what today holds.

I’ve written before about the structure of this journal. Recently, I’ve added a new section: What did I learn? Specifically, what did I learn the day before? (And by implication: How do I need to change my behavior?) I sit with it for a little while, replaying the previous day. These are some other questions that help with this exploration:

  • What did I try that didn’t play out as I expected?
  • What expectations did I have that weren’t met?
  • What expectations were exceeded?
  • What information would help reduce the gap between these expectations and actual outcomes in the future?
  • How can I procure this information?
  • What patterns have I noticed?
  • What happened unexpectedly/serendipitously?
  • What resonances/synchronicities did I notice?

This last question may seem weird; it requires unpacking. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about something and the next day (or sometimes, the same day), I’ll come across the same idea in a podcast, book, article, etc. An echo of sorts. Sometimes these resonances are very peculiar ideas, to the point where I’m startled by the coincidence.

I don’t think there’s anything supernatural at work. The fact that the concept stood out merely suggests that I’m paying attention to it on some deep level. It’s like when you’re thinking of buying a particular model of car and suddenly you see the same model everywhere. Those cars were always out there, but now your mind is primed to pay attention. These could be important signals.

Note these are questions about things that are under my control: my attitudes, expectations, plans, etc. I don’t bother to document things I learned due to events happening in the outside world, out of my control. (E.g., stuff in the news.) Rather, I’m trying to establish a feedback loop that allows me to become more effective over time. Growth calls for introspection; What did I learn? is a useful trigger.