About Max Johns

Content strategist and web writer.

Tools vs expertise: A conversation about writing, processing words, and setting type

A couple of years ago, this tweet was pinned to the top of my timeline for a few months. I still quite like it:

Last night my good friend Brandel Zachernuk picked up on this and no, I have no idea why he was sitting around pondering things he’d seen on Twitter 23 months ago. Whyever that was, we had a good chat and came up with a few things that are worth keeping, so here’s a transcript (edited for grammar and to remove chat about children, radio, SpaceX, and macroeconomic psychology). (The two of us aren’t very good at staying on track.)

BRANDEL: I just had a neat thought, related to your Keanu moment about ‘word processors’
Microsoft Word and its ilk never started as being tools for writing.
They were tools for typesetting
That’s a different task you do at a totally different time.

MAX: I suppose the typewriter had already combined composition (i.e. authoring – choosing the words that you use to express your ideas) and typesetting, but by incident of their mechanics they had limited almost every possible design decision to choice of 1 option.
You buy a typewriter and it comes with a single font. You choose a paper width and the margins are built in, etc.

B: That’s true, typewriters fit in there too as an uneasy middle ground. I guess there was such a ‘bright line’ between publishing and everything else for a long time.

M: Typewriters took away typesetting decisions which word processors then gave back, but they handed those decisions to authors rather than designers.

B: It’d be great to talk to people who did information work in earnest before computers made all the phases and distinct disciplines so muddy.
Get the tangible sense of what proofs and drafts were, etc.

M: Yes! It’s funny to think that disciplines or sets of skills were mixed up with control of machinery – e.g. you must be the visual designer if you have access to all the little metal letters
…and if you don’t have any little metal letters, you’ll never get to set type in your lifetime.

B: But then the task of setting those letters into a line of type was so arduous that you couldn’t really be expected to manage any editorial decisions too.

M: And now that we’ve built machines that reduce the labour and take away the physical objects, we stress about the wrong people making bad decisions. People are never happy!

B: People misidentified what’s hard about a lot of stuff. [They] mistook the physical things as the hard parts [when the hard parts are actually the seemingly] incidental things also done by people doing the physical work.

M: I reckon that designers have done a much better job of reclaiming their expertise, and redefining it for modern tools, than wordsmiths.

[…We get distracted and end up making jokes about what Karl Marx would make of modern-day space exploration, before Brandel drags us some of the way back to our original track…]

B: Yeah people in liberal arts and humanities haven’t done a great job of seizing the systems of digital production for their own ends.

M: Do you mind if I blog this conversation? There are some useful things in there that I want to have written down somewhere, and a transcript on a blog is as good as anything else for now.

B: Fine by me! It’s really interesting to be surfacing what computers aren’t doing, or haven’t been set up to be doing properly. It’s so easy to lose sight of the way into the present moment and which values were prioritized.

==

That’s as far as we got. Interesting? I hope so. I think so, too. But I think that of pretty much anything Brandel comes up with. (Seriously, have a look at what he’s done on Codepen.)

Inter-city content strategy meetup love is quite possibly the world’s purest, and greatest, form of love

At CS Forum last year the three of us who organise Auckland Content Strategy Meetups met a lot of out counterparts from other cities. Briefly, we even shared a stage with them all. They were, and are, all lovely and brilliant people. And since that conference, a lot of inter-meetup activity has followed.

Meetup organisers don’t have superpowers. All we have is a group of people that we want to keep bringing together for some sort of combination of fun, community, and learning. That there’s enough content nerds around the world for dozens of cities to have meetups (Hilary Marsh keeps a list) is just a wonderful thing. And CS Forum, of course, is a globe-trotting manifestation of the same thing.

Since Melbourne’s conference, we’ve kept the cooperation between meetups going. It’s one of the most visible, ongoing things that the content community in this part of the world has gotten out of CSF16.

Michelle Anderson headed down to Wellington and presented at their reanimated meetup (which had taken a bit of a break in 2016). Sally Bagshaw, who runs Brisbane’s group, was our second-ever international guest star last November. This month Jonathon Colman, one of the CSF keynotes, took time out of his Webstock-related trip to NZ to spend a night with us in Auckland (and another with the Wellington group). And this week, thanks to Elle Geraghty working within a very tight travel schedule, I’m turning what was meant to be a work-only trip to Sydney into the chance to give a talk to her meetup over there.

I doubt that any of this crossover would have happened without CSF16. Thanks to the days all us organisers spent together there, we’ve strengthening the groups in each city by introducing new ideas, and starting some high-quality discussions amongst new audiences. For us in Auckland to have someone like Jon Colman answer our questions (and ask a few back), as well as share his take on problem solving, team building, and much else was one of those things that makes me blurt out cliches that start “if you’d told me, back when we first started this meetup…”. To bring my own talk (which I loved putting together for CSF and always hoped would live longer) back to Australia is a real thrill too.

And every time meetups connect across borders or around countries there’ll be a pile of positives that flow. Little things like new connections on Twitter or LinkedIn (I know, but admit it, you’re there too). Brain things, like a note that someone takes to work the next day and turns into action. Ideas that spark new projects, or blog posts. Maybe even bigger things, too.

These all build up in the hundreds of lives that intersect at CS meetups around the world. They make us better at what we do, and more connected as a group, and more likely to turn up again next month. Momentum like this keeps everyone motivated to keep building this thing, whatever it is. It makes meetups even more fun, and it’s got me keener than ever to keep finding my people here at home, and all around the world.

Wherever you are, meetup with your people

What Twitter thought of ‘Marketing people and content people: It’s complicated’ at CS Forum

I love presenting at conferences. Love it. I love picking a topic and spending hours thinking about it. I love having a reason to read up on stuff that interests me. I love that when you say to someone, “I’m working on a talk and I’d like to hear your thoughts on [topic x]”, they almost always give up time for a chat. At events, being a speaker is a great way to meet people. At CS Forum (which was great, by the way), someone found me during a coffee break and opened with, “Hi, you made me really angry,” but with a smile on her face. I love seeing and hearing reactions to what I present. I love it all.

Except the post-conference wrap up blog post. I don’t love that bit. It’s hard, and it takes longer than I want it to, and especially after the best conferences, it drags back the post-event blues that you get for a couple of days afterwards.

Last week I was at CS Forum with a presentation called ‘Marketing people and content people: It’s complicated’. It was a brilliant conference. My talk was fun. It seemed like people got something out of it, which is the result you want as a speaker. The slides are embedded at the bottom of this post. Continue reading

Bots will be bots

Chatbots! After floating around the edges of the useful web for a few years now, the right underlying technology is finally making it plausible for companies and organisations to build and run their own online bots. That’s cool, and it’s brought to mind a lesson that I first learned in 2009, when we launched an experimental (now dead) chatbot at NAB.

For writers, that lesson is:

Let your bot be a bot. Make it sound like a bot, let it behave like a bot and, most of all, tell people it’s a bot.

For strategists:

Your bot is here to help people learn stuff and complete tasks. You’re not here to beat the Turing Test.

For designers:

Over-humanised bots are just another version of skeuomorphism gone bad.

We didn’t get this right in 2009. We used a photo of a woman in a headset, I wrote in as chatty a voice as I could, and although we used the terms like “online assistant” (too vague) and later “virtual assistant”, we weren’t clear enough about who or what this thing actually was.
Continue reading

Calling all marketing people who work with content people, and all content people who work with marketing people

Update: I wrote this post and survey with last year’s CS Forum in mind, but this year I’m bringing this talk to Confab Central in June! Between now and then I’d love as many contributions as I can get.

If you work in marketing, or with content, you can tell me all about it and help me with a cool thing I’m doing. Please?

Awesome news: I’m speakingI spoke at CS Forum in Melbourne, this October! last year! I’m I was really stoked to be in the line-up again after four years, and only slightly intimidated by the company I‘mwas in.

Even awesomer, this June I’ll be at Confab Central with the latest version of the same talk, which is called Content people and marketing people: It’s complicated. The idea came from the way I’ve worked as a content guy in three companies, each with very different ways of structuring their marketing and content/digital functions, but none of which seem ideal.1 Is this relationship destined to be painful, or are there ways to make it work? I want to ask around, find out, and tell a big roomful of people all about it.

Continue reading