Day 72
et cetera
Dear Diary #1

Today I feel stuck. There are too many things in my head like houseflies buzzing around in unpredictable arcs and impossible to catch. I'm overwhelmed and I don't yet know how to move forward.

I still don't feel like I've found a groove with my schedule. My wife has to be at work by 6:30am three days a week, which means I'm hanging out with the baby those mornings. She's an adorable little chaos machine and very nearly crawling. But there are stretches of days where my wife and I are merely living in parallel.

I haven't been able to get much signal from the two app directions I posted last week. I tweeted them on a Twitter poll and got a depressing three votes. Kind of meta really—social media is not a place for measured thoughtfulness. Sloane got me excited to do a IRL feedback happy hour, but I haven't been able to pull it together. I thought maybe I should just stand outside Adorama for a couple of hours and bug people for five minutes of their time. I might actually do it.

My cousin died last week. We weren't close and I hadn't seen him in years. That makes three people I knew who left the world unexpectedly in the last few months. Poof.

Tel Aviv Beach Sunset
Tel Aviv 2017 — Canon 5D mIV 50mm • View full size

I'm almost finished with Susan Sontag's On Photography and it has truly bummed me out. It's the most thoughtful thing on photography I've ever read, but she comes across like an impossibly cool hipster who is all-too-eager to dazzle with their knowledge of French New Wave or some other shibboleth that real people with real jobs are too busy and too dull to know anything about. When you dissect a thing so thoroughly it becomes ugly and unrecognizable from its original whole form. But such is professional criticism.

Kyle Bragger was nice enough to answer some questions I asked him over email about his experience building Forrst. Forrst was a feedback community for designers and developers. It was a great, helpful place for a while. But it unraveled over time. He was honest about the struggles—which is simultaneously helpful and discouraging.

When you work alone on a side project, you have to make every decision that moves the project forward yourself. This is one of the most unexpectedly crushing parts of undertaking such an endeavor. Making decisions—even small, seemingly insignificant ones—takes a toll, like flexing a muscle. On one hand it makes you strong, but on the other—it wears you down over time. It's easy to fall into a vicious cycle of in-action and self-loathing—a black hole that becomes increasingly more difficult to pull yourself out of. I've lost plenty of projects in that place, and I imagine many others have too.

In modern secular theory, there are three things that underly all human motivation: will to power (Nietzsche), will to pleasure (Freud) and will to meaning (Frankl). In one way of thinking, every successful product needs to be able to draw a line back to one of these. For people using Instagram in a more promotional way (like I was with my photography account), the will to power dominates. Every new follower and like is a little more power in that sad kingdom.

Do people even really want real feedback? Don't we just want validation? To be assured that we are perfect just as we are? Wouldn't we rather hold on to pleasant dreams about putting in the work to get better, rather than taking each painful step forward?

This Skillshare class on documentary photography has 16,000 students. Only 78 of them submitted the class project, which was to take two photos. That's less than 1%.

What can I make for the crazy ones? The ones who aren't satisfied to go to work, watch Netflix and die. For the real creators—not the ones with the most followers. For those brave enough to go after meaning.

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Day 62
Begin with the End in Mind
Exploring two different visions for the app.

Sloane recommended designing a couple different versions of a brochure page for the app that could be used as provocations—artifacts designed to tease out a signal that can be used to make decisions around.

It reminded me of a branding exercise Mike and Katie talked about. Mike said "we ask ourselves...what will the subway ads look like?" In the process of designing a vision for a subway ad, you're forced to imagine the tone of the brand. You have to make stabs towards the visual and written language you'll use speak to your customers.

Another version of this that I've used is the Headlines of the Future exercise. You write headlines you'd like to see in the news about you or your company.

All of these techniques force you to focus on a narrative, audience-centric outcome. You get to craft the end state before you worry about everything it's going to take to get you there. In other words: am I working on telling the right story? Building a product or a brand is hard work. A designer must live in the future. Climb the right mountain.

Let's look at the concepts.

Exploration #1 • View full size
Exploration #2 • View full size

Concept #1: Fun and useful feedback

The first concept is all about better feedback. The survey shows that a lot of people get "feedback" on Instagram, but this happens mostly via likes, which is about as useful as grunting approvingly in someone's general direction. Not to mention likes that come from bots and other kind of spammy, self-promotional behavior which are worse than worthless because they are random noise masquerading as signal.

There's a big gulf between a "like" and a comprehensive, written review by an expert, like the one that Leon talked about. Imagine posting a photo and being able to choose what type of feedback you're looking for. Maybe you're struggling with something more technical, maybe you can't decide on a winner between a set of several images, or maybe you're wondering what gets conjured up when someone sees your image.

By focusing on specific use cases you could have fun, engaging experiences around giving feedback, resulting in a higher quality of feedback received.

Concept #2: Small, authentic community

Matt made me realize that perhaps the more you know someone, the better feedback you are capable of giving. He talks about a beautiful experience he had in a senior seminar at NYU, where everyone left feeling like "they were the best class ever."

This idea that useful feedback requires knowledge of the person holds for a hypothetical situation where two photographers, at random, were to produce the same image. Useful feedback might look quite different for each photographer, because work doesn't exist in a vacuum. The same image can mean very different things given context.

This concept explores the idea of limiting the size of people you'd be interacting with for a period of time long enough to get more familiar with them and their work. Maybe this sounds novel in a social app, but it's exactly the way classes have worked since the beginning of time. In real life, a class is a fixed-size group that lasts for a pre-determined length of time, like a semester.

Layered onto this could be the concept of "projects", which are sometimes called challenges on other social photography platforms. A project could be anything, but is mostly useful as a creative constraint and to get the group focusing energy in certain direction.

What do you think? Anything that resonates with you? Hit me up if you've got thoughts.

Day 61
Matt Kime is Over Instagram
Matt shares his experience at an elite photography school.

I met Matt working at Meetup in 2013, which was around the time I started to explore photography more seriously. He's not one to brag, but I eventually found out he had a degree in photography from a prestigious art school. When I naively asked him how to get better he simply said "take more photos."

When Matt volunteered to talk to me I was jazzed because he has inside info on what goes down inside the walls of a world-class photography institution. I wondered if there was any way I could bring elements of what works inside a classroom to the app I'm building. I was also looking forward to hearing that laugh again—and I was not disappointed. Watch below (20min):