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April 23, 2014, 10:52 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Q&A: Craig Mod on making writing more mobile-friendly and where digital publishing is headed

“It feels like it’s a really nourishing and optimistic time to have conversations with publishers and to rethink how media should look online.”

Craig Mod spends a lot of time in motion. He’s also spends no small amount of time thinking — and writing — about the future of publishing and the ways technology is transforming how we write and what we read. Given that he often finds himself shuttling between New York, Tokyo, and San Francisco, it makes sense that he would be working on a project that blends writing with a sense of place.

craigmodHi is a publishing system that asks writers to build stories in pieces over time, using a framework that pushes you from notebook-style sketches to fully-formed stories. The site was built specifically with smartphones in mind, pushing users to take advantage of the functionality in their hands — camera, GPS, maps — to jumpstart the writing process. As a site, Hi also blends elements of community through other users and outside readers, giving writers access to an eager and encouraging audience.

Mod, who previously worked for Flipboard and launched his own publishing startups, cofounded Hi with Chris Palmieri. The site’s been in beta for over eight months, but is now open to anyone. Mod coined the phrase “subcompact publishing” as a way to get at the smaller, stripped down, mobile-friendly online publications that are flowering in the media. Hi is one way of putting that idea into practice.

While he never planned on being a Johnny Appleseed for digital publishing, Mod said the environment now for experimenting with writing and technology is better than it has ever been: “It feels like for the first time in years there’s such a good energy out there around publishing startups and media startups.”

Mod and I talked about how Hi was developed, how to build tools to encourage a regular writing routine, and where online publishing is heading next. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: Explain to me where the idea for Hi came from. It sounds like it came out of a desire to find a better way of writing, and perhaps writing connected to place.
Craig Mod: It’s sort of been a slow-burning project for a while. For years, really. I built the first prototype for it about four years ago, I think. And that was using Twitter. Twitter released the geo-API at the end of 2009, and the iPhone was a thing back then. We had the 3GS, and the camera was pretty good and it took pretty good photos. It just seemed like there was this confluence of technologies, really all spiraling around Twitter. And back then, Twitter was still a platform on which you could think about building things. Twitter still hadn’t quite gone into that space of no more third-party apps.

I started thinking in the fall of 2009 that this was really interesting. You could place these markers, using a tweet, a piece of geo, and a photo if you want. Chris Palmieri and I had been working on this for years — Chris runs this design agency called AQ in Tokyo. So we sort of sat down and did a two-month, off-the-cuff knockout of a prototype. And it was pretty neat. You could sort of tweet out to our robot, and if it had geo data and a photo, the robot would suck it up, create an account for you, and start mapping out all the little moments you had as you thought they were good enough to capture and put into the system. It was really focused on maps.

Then I got pulled into Silicon Valley and I just sort of disappeared for a few years working on stuff at Flipboard and then doing some other investments and advising and consulting work out there. But a little over a year ago, I had expected someone to have built something similar by that point. At the end of 2012 I was thinking: Why hasn’t someone built this?

hilogoThere’s a bunch of geo-storytelling things. There’s a lot. A lot of people have worked on this problem. But as a writer — and as someone who understands technology, but mainly as a writer — I didn’t feel compelled, or didn’t feel any of the tools matched how I thought about travel and telling stories. Certainly it didn’t match what I felt was a natural writing flow. App after app was coming out and nothing.

So we resurrected the project and hired a couple of developers and started iterating on it.

So, really, Hi is, if nothing else — it’s getting away from theory. Because I think it’s easy to be a “thinkfluencer” or whatever and just sit in your chair and type some things out, right? But I think it’s really important to get in the muck and build tools too. Hi is just that. It’s us getting our hands dirty and playing with the clay.

It’s hard to explain these things. You kinda go: Well, what is it? Well, it’s sort of a thinking man’s Instagram, or WordPress and Twitter had a lovechild, but kinda like Medium but not really like Medium. For us, we use it very differently than any of these other tools. To me there isn’t really any overlap. But being able to explain that using the pancakes, and this idea of the full stack, I think finally helped us understand it too, what we were working on, what we had built.

We have these smartphones, but are we really building with them in mind? Or are we saying, instead of looking at the processes of publishing and asking, “What part of that process can have an indigenous home on a smartphone?” rather than looking at the smartphone and saying “Oh, we can do all these neat things now, what kind of publishing tools should we build?” For me, it feels like a less nourishing way to approach the problem.

Ellis: Tell me a little bit more about the creation of Hi, specifically about using it on mobile and making it seamless for the user by utilizing the tech we have in our devices. There had to be some challenges in doing that.
Mod: One of the great benefits of the web is everything can have a unique address that is accessible as a net connection, effectively. There’s something incredible powerful about that. So, to build an iOS app-only, Android app-only ecosystem feels like, to me, you’re leaving on the floor 80 percent of the magic of what the Internet brings to publishing.

So one of the core precepts of this project was certainly to be very open on the web — accessible anywhere, from any device. When you start from that place, it just makes sense to first and foremost optimize for the web experience and then kind of work your way back.

One of the reasons I think Safari on the iPhone, the Chrome browser, any of these things, aren’t as good as they could be for running applications is because five years ago, or whenever the App Store opened, we sort of abandoned the web in a way.

Originally, Steve Jobs got up on stage and said anyone can write an app for this, it’s called a web page. And we didn’t really embrace that. Partially because Apple didn’t really help us embrace it either.

For the first time, we have in our pocket a camera and a GPS, with great net access. And this current crop of affordable (and increasingly more affordable) Android phones that are sort of trickling their way around the world. That points directly back to that same moment to me.

So if you build something on the open web that takes advantage of HTML5, and all these Android phones are shipping with Chrome browsers that are HTML5 capable. Then you sort of for free get this incredible benefit of capturing an audience, or having the potential to capture an audience that’s so much — to me — more interesting.

But it’s just really: Why not? We have enough photos of coffee in Brooklyn, right? You make an iOS app and you’re going to get a lot of photos of coffee in Brooklyn.  So why not open it in a way that it is literally accessible to anyone with even the thinnest of 3G connections and a $100-or-less and increasingly cheaper smartphone?

hiscreenshot

Ellis: One of the most interesting things to me in Hi is the iterative writing structure to encourage more writing. Why was that important to build in?
Mod: When we started, it was far more focused on the mapping piece. I remember one of the stakes in the ground that we had a year ago was “every page must have a map.” You quickly realize that maps are not that interesting. It’s this fallacy, that maps are inherently interesting objects.

I love maps. I love old maps, I love printed maps, I love navigating cities with strange maps. I love all of that. But I think we tend to conflate maps as context vs. content. And a lot of products that use maps and feature maps treat it as content, and most of the time a map is not a very interesting thing. We just need it quickly, for a little bit of context, and then have it go away.

The stages of the writing process were built into it, but over the last eight months, really the thing that’s taking us by surprise is the engagement of the community. That pancake essay is all about community. That’s curious, because that’s the greatest benefit, I think, of having that is that you can be pulled along or pushed along. One of the hardest things online is developing an audience, or building an audience, or feeling like you are part of something.

What we found on Hi is that people — and maybe we were just lucky with the crowd who were early adopters of it — they were just hunting sketches that people had posted, really saying “tell me more about this,” and really encouraging things. Over the last eight months, seeing these sort of friendships blossom on top of this platform, and on top of the writing process, has been kind of the subtext to that, those relationships.

You can look at a tool like Hi and go, “Well, why am I putting my writing into this other space that I don’t own?” Whereas with WordPress you can download it, can host your own WordPress site, and yada, yada, yada. But one of the advantages of placing it into this pre-existing space is you get the community. So that’s been fun.

But the iterative component of the writing process, and also the flow of using the smartphone, that was really just coming from “how do we treat this, and what part of writing feels indigenous to a smartphone?” Obviously, the longform part doesn’t feel super-indigenous to a smartphone. But looking at the capabilities of a smartphone, you’re out — especially as a traveller — exploring a new city, and you notice things. I use little notepads. I use Simplenote to take a lot of notes.

In a way, Hi is meant to be a networked, community-facing version of that. That first step of the writing process is taking place on the smartphone. And then you’re able to go back on the desktop and draft as much as you want. I have drafts that have been sitting in my unpublished folder here for three, four months.

Ellis: What about the community — is it important to find these smaller communities in publishing versus finding the mass audience?
Mod: I think it depends on the kind of writing that you’re doing and what your goals as a writer are. As isolated as writers tend to be, there are so many workshopping groups. And I think there is a natural tendency as a writer to need to get out of your isolation chamber and get some feedback and have human contact and discuss things out in the open. So I think there’s a tremendous benefit to that.

But obviously not all kinds of writing should be done in this way, it goes without saying. But I think there are certain kinds that — why not do the experiment of trying them? And travel writing, I think, fits really naturally within this space. One of the things going on with Hi that we haven’t really talked a lot about is the topics. Anybody can add a moment, they can invent a topic, they can add to existing topics — they can do whatever they want. Topics are meant to be a response to undiscoverability and impossibility to navigate — the nature of hashtags.

Hashtags are a great idea that anybody can contribute to a shared space. But they have no hierarchy whatsoever, and they tend to not scale very well. And they tend to fall apart quickly. To get to the great stuff inside of a hashtag is almost impossible. Hashtags tend to be associated with shortform stuff. So Instagram is one of the canonical hashtag-owning services. Really quick, bite-sized nuggets of information.

But for me, one of the really interesting things about Hi — and I would love if people used Hi for this —is the idea of topics as a space around which an emerging news event can happen or can rally. A community can kind of coalesce.

So if you have something like the Trayvon Martin protest that happened around the trial announcement. You know the protests are going on, but you don’t have a sense of really what’s happening. You can go on Twitter, search for the hashtag, can go on Instagram and look on the hashtag. But it’s kind of a mess.

For example, when something like an earthquake happens, I would love to see Hi used as a place to have a Sendai quake 2011 topic. Anybody can contribute to it, anyone can add photos or text. So that sense-making, the sensing component that happens on Twitter, that happens on Instagram, can be captured there. And that topic becomes a longterm full archive of all that sensing, filtered by photos, viewing the raw moments.

To be able to come to that topic page and get, effectively, a New York Times homepage of citizen journalism, citizen meditation, on top of that event, I feel like that would be the greatest possible use for a tool like this. I feel like it would be a success if it was used in a way like that.

Ellis: What happens next for Hi? What are your expectations, what do you want to do next? Are you building out users, or looking for additional funding?
Mod: The feature list of stuff to add and update is pretty endless. But like any good, creative project, I think you need to do stages of execution, and, similar to the writing process, you take a step back and think about what have you made so far.

The thing I’m most excited about is taking a couple months to watch how things organically evolve. What we’ve built is fully-formed; all the loops in the system are closed in the sense of all the ways of having conversations. The ways of poking, the ways of following, of watching subscribers.

If you don’t have an account and you land on the site, anything you tap will allow you to easily create an account. So the full ecosystem is there. I’m just excited to see: Does the community stay as tight as it was over the last eight months? Does it get filled with spam? Is there another kind of writing that suddenly starts to flourish on here? Do we get picked up in a different country?

Really, it’s about entering a period of meditation — fixing things, cleaning things up, and just watching how the users play in the playground.

POSTED     April 23, 2014, 10:52 a.m.
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