Daily notes for 2023-03-02

· 2219 words · 11 minute read

CNET and the PE people 🔗

Reporting from The Verge on layoffs at CNET:

“Under Red Ventures, former CNET employees say the venerated publication’s focus increasingly became winning Google searches by prioritizing SEO. On these highly trafficked articles, the company crams in lucrative affiliate marketing ads for things like loans or credit cards, cashing in every time a reader signs up.”

I worked for a company similar to this after they acquired the more traditional online news play I started at. They weren’t so much a heavily operationalized affiliate marketing company as they were into something euphemistically referred to as “performance marketing” and more recognizably called “lead generation.”

Basically, they came in did a good thing (dropped all the display advertising), and then filled the resulting holes in the page with widgets and internal ads for whitepapers, ebooks, and insurance cost estimators. They had a set of verticals including:

  • home construction
  • home health care
  • auto insurance
  • for-profit education
  • home finance
  • IT (the vertical I landed in)

The basic model was:

  • They buy up actual content plays that had tried to make a go of monetizing regular editorial content, or popular blogs in a given space, that have good SEO and good placement.
  • You, the consumer, search for “enterprise routers” or whatever topic
  • You find a piece of straight editorial content (e.g. a review, an howto article, whatever)
  • You see an ad for a free ebook about enterprise networking you can download in exchange for your email
  • The progressive data gathering kicks in: You see an offer to get access to the “complete library of ebooks” in exchange for information about your company, its size, and your purchasing authority
  • A Cisco, Juniper, or Ubiquiti orders up a list of verified leads, which is sold to them for some amount of money per lead.

These same people lost a massive lawsuit from 16 state attorneys general over their deceptive use of the gibill.com domain, which used little “what kind of degree would you like to get with your benefits” widgets to steer veterans to for-profit educational outfits and their notoriously bad outcomes.

It wasn’t the best 18 months of my career.

Affiliate marketing is a little more direct, but both models are obsessed with SEO for obvious reasons. I did pay a visit to CNET to see if I could spot what the article is talking about and it looked more on the “affiliate” end than the “lead-gen” end.

This part from the Verge’s coverage elicited a bitter laugh:

“Former staff recounted multiple instances in which CNET employees were pressured to change their coverage of companies that advertised with Red Ventures — a flagrant violation of journalistic ethics that put CNET’s editorial independence at serious risk.”

Yeah, no. Let’s rewrite for accuracy:

“Former staff recounted multiple instances in which CNET employees were pressured to change their coverage of companies that advertised with Red Ventures — a flagrant violation of journalistic ethics that put destroyed CNET’s editorial independence at serious risk.”

Playdate cometh-ish 🔗

I pre-ordered a Playdate July of ‘21, putting me early in Group 4. It looks like I might get it a few months shy of the second anniversary of that order.

It’s funny, because over the past few years I’ve gone through this evolution:

  1. I love video games.
  2. I love the idea of loving video games but I don’t seem to play much lately.
  3. I like some video games, but not many and it seems like there are fewer of them all the time.
  4. It’s possible I actually don’t like video games and won’t admit this to myself.
  5. It’s not me that changed, it’s the games.
  6. No, I just don’t like video games.
  7. I miss loving video games, but I still don’t like them.
  8. I miss playing video games, but what’s the point: Even games on the Switch are overdone.
  9. I would like to try video games again, especially the big, overdone ones.
  10. I like video games quite a bit.

I ordered the Playdate as my thoughts darted around between stages 4 and 7, and the lingering thinking around stage “7” caused me to think a few times over the past two years “maybe I should just cancel my order.”

But I remember seeing that Group 3 was shipping in the past several months and forgetting what group I was even in and feeling briefly excited, then really let down that I am in Group 4. Where the Playdate is concerned, I am at stage 10, and am very excited that I might have the thing around my birthday.

Oh, looks like they’re having some sort of media event next week, too, to announce an online store?

Tech industry resentment 🔗

Nieman again today with a dyspeptic take on tech industry hype and blame-shifting. I have my share of gripes about tech hucksters, and there is nothing more fun than going back to turn-of-the-millennium WIRED to jeer, but the example of “push” as an over-hyped nothing-burger is weird to me. The ad-driven, surveillance capitalism model WIRED argued was inevitable most definitely did find us. Is “the web” dead? No, but there’s a reason people like JWZ are constantly reminding us that apps are not the web.

Generally on board with the idea that the tech people anti-regulation mantra is not great, though. It would have served the thesis better to steer clear of the WIRED-bashing this time, or just stuck to the odiousness of the Californian Ideology generally.

Language scuffles 🔗

Two things this week from George Packer and Katha Pollitt:

Packer’s piece is more … reactionary? … and sort of late to the “grousing about inclusive language” party. I read it, but it’s an exhausting discussion with examples on the usual spectrum from “yes, George, ‘urban’ is in fact a bad euphemism we’d do well to not use the way these guides recommend we not use it” to “yes, their reasons for not using ‘field work’ are not great, but ‘practicum’ has been in common use for a long while.”

I guess Packer annoys me: I’ve read some version of his essay at least once every five years my entire adult life, and have come to view it the way I came to view the William Proxmire Golden Fleece Award. There is something reductive and showy about the whole exercise. If you’re the type of reader to pause for even a second on one of his examples, you realize it’s not even a very good exercise in nut-picking.

How the sausage is made 🔗

My first little digest post practice was a way to keep up a blog during the work day: I’d just open up a BBEdit file and start dropping stuff in during little breaks. I created a sort of dead man’s switch situation, where a cron job would launch an AppleScript that grabbed the file at 17:30 and posted it for me.

I brought the practice with me, only over a week timeline, when I joined the Puppet marketing team. The content was always aimed at “practitioners who like Puppet,” but I had an informal rule about having only one item that promoted the company’s interests: My belief was that marketing teams should give more value – help, interesting stuff to read – than they take. The posts did really well: They usually led the week in page views and stickiness, and people clicked through on the promotional stuff.

Most recently I’ve brought the format back because I’m still trying to suss out how I want blogging to work for me generally.

I’ve got this blog, I’ve got my omg.lol weekly update blog, and I’ve got my micro.blog. I’m beginning to chafe with the latter: It has great cross-posting capabilities, but I don’t feel like a match for the culture on that service. If I’m going to have a hosted provider of some sort, I want them to be more of a common carrier than a boutique. I think micro.blog is great, but:

  • It feels opinionated in a way that doesn’t work for me.
  • It feels like the feature requests I see go by are often filtered through some opinions about What Went Wrong with Social Media that are reactive guesses.
  • It’s a little confusing in a needless way. There’s a muddiness in the language in the interface.

I guess it just feels suspended between the conflicting imperatives of making a mass tool – or at least wanting to build a mass tool – and preferring to remain in a very high-concept place where ideas don’t have to cohere into well articulated, concrete outcomes for users. I’m sure happy users of the service will disagree.

Anyhow, there is a standing todo on my writing topics list that’s “figure out your content strategy,” which maybe sounds cold-blooded and businessy for a sole proprietor blog, but I am not doing this entirely for the entertainment value. “Digest posts” are a good way to keep from swamping your feed, post output, and archives, and to prevent burying the stuff you’d like people to find without having to carve out a whole special hole to stick business stuff in.

But there’s also just a good unto its own in doing the thing. It’s daily writing, and it’s framed in a way that makes it low stakes. If some of these things were their own entries, I’d feel compelled to have a more concrete thesis, more detailed reasoning, citations, etc. That is not, in my experience, a good way to maintain the part of writing that is less about craft and more about motion.

So, the workflow to make these every day is:

  • I spend the first 30 minutes of the day over tea and my RSS reader. I bookmark anything of passing interest if something about it stirs a comment in me.
  • When I go upstairs to sit down and do day planning, I pop open a terminal and run my Hugo posting script. I added a switch that puts the right tags and title in place for me, and it opens a Sublime window if I just run hpost --daily.
  • I drop in any initial headings I’ve thought of and put those in the post summary just to remind me.

Then it’s just a question of pecking at it during the day. I try to do Pomodoros for my important stuff, so I’ll type in a few words here and there during the five-minute breaks, or if I’m caught up for the day I might give the thing a full Pomodoro of its own. I give myself an hour for lunch, and often spend a chunk of that time filling things in or expanding on stuff.

That’s about it. When I’m at a point in the day where I can’t see putting anything more into it, I ship it. I’m working with Hugo and a Git-based publishing pipeline, so if there are multiple WIP commits I squash them and push them up just to make it easier to eyeball non-content changes. I’m using Mastofeed to automate the posting process.

I’d like more descriptive Masto posts, so I’m considering cloning the RSS feed I use to make them: Mastofeed provides template tokens for title and link, so the description/summary goes missing. I might just do it by hand, for that matter.

Design notes 🔗

The past few days I’ve been making little improvements to the CSS of my theme here. The last time I did much with CSS was over ten years ago, and it was mostly in the context of using Bootstrap for personal projects. Responsive design practices – and the CSS features that support them – are new to me as something I’d code for myself vs. relying on a framework, but I like being able to do stuff like progressively hide the visual clutter that works fine on a laptop or big tablet but not great on a phone. I started by taking a lot away, and now I’m adding it back.

It’s beginning to weigh on me a little, though:

I’ve written a Hugo shortcode to make tags link to interesting things, and that’s portable. I’ve done some stuff to drive the front page “Picture of the Week” feature that is probably generalizable to another theme. I’ve done a few other things that are probably better done some other way.

But basically I’m layering stuff on top of a theme that was done more as a PoC for how to use SimpleCSS with Hugo out of the box and that plainly was not meant to carry some kinds of weight. So with all my little amendments and changes, my override directory is running about 25% of the total size of the original theme, for something where I started by thinking “I’ll just swap in my preferred palette.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a “well, many websites are CSS of Theseus propositions” sense, but I know my own limitations. I’ve also gotten better with Hugo over the past couple of months and would probably understand what some more complex themes are trying to do, rather than bouncing off of them and going primitivist.

Probably time to make a branch and see how badly stuff blows up when I lay on another theme.