Often spontaneous, always meandering

The door to my favorite coffee shop had a note on it the other day about unusual hours during the upcoming holiday. It was playfully written with markers and even included a few doodles.

Once I stepped inside, I had a funny thought. What if the sign on the door had been: “Welcome! Please sign up for our newsletter for information about lattes, scones, and special deals.”? Before you could enter, before you could see a menu or smell the coffee beans, you had to either sign up or press a small x on the corner of the sign.

What if when you opened the door, a person stepped in front of you and asked, “Would you like to install our mobile app?”

A friendly store that loves its customers (and wants more), is unlikely to do that in real life. How strange is that we encounter similar things on the web over and over again? Would an actual person do that to another actual person in person?

In a different realm, imagine if we walked around carrying scorecards showing how many friends we have and how many enjoyed our last comment?

Technology and automation distance us from the actual experience of what we create. That a technique is successful periodically justifies its use.

Brad once called Uncommon a “human place for Internet people.” I’ve always loved that phrase and the emphasis on human.

Uncommon memberships have been available for more than a year, so it’s time for our first group of subscription renewals (thanks, everyone!). As is often the case, this raised a few questions.

There are well-established ways to handle recurring memberships, particularly cases where the charge fails (credit cards are fickle things). Warnings are slowly escalated and then access is blocked. The color red is displayed along with an exclamation point.

None of that felt right, though. We kept asking ourselves, “How would you handle this in person? Would you stop someone at the door?” Of course not. Members would be welcome anytime and when there was a friendly opportunity, reminded to renew. We decided that it was much better to welcome people back and remind them at an opportune time until they specifically asked to cancel their membership.

It’s also important to know something will renew before it happens, so we should send a reminder in advance. At a small scale, things that would normally be automated can be done by hand. In other words, I’ve been sending these messages one by one. It’s an eye-opening experience.

Uncommon is a community, not a website, app, or product, so I’ve had the chance to get to know our members (and what a privilege that is!). I have some idea who started a new job recently or  welcomed a new addition to the family. And sometimes, a member has talked about a difficult season or uncertainties they are facing.

So, when I start to send a “Your membership is about to renew” email, there’s quite a bit of ambient knowledge. An email that makes perfect sense when it’s automated is strange when sent to someone personally. Despite our best intentions, we do things differently when we’re indirectly involved instead of sitting across the table from someone.

It’s hard to prattle on about successes, milestones, and features when you know the receiver is going through significant  events (wonderful, challenging, often both).

This knowledge shifts how I look at things. If an email is too long for how busy this person is, it’s probably too long for a lot of other people. If I hesitate because a friend might take something wrong, who am I not thinking about?

I struggle with these choices like everyone, obviously. And in my work life, I’ve had a hand in some of the very things that seem so incongruous within Uncommon.

It’s worth figuring out, though. How do we treat people with empathy, respect, and kindness in a wide variety of situations and circumstances? How do we behave as if we're sitting across from someone even though we're separated by bits and pixels? How do we create things at human scale?

See also Caring at Scale by Laura Savino.


The last dispatch asked, Which talks are your favorites?

Steve wrote:

Not a talk, but this recent piece is really packed with things to think about regarding change and how we think about it. I keep coming back to it. Related to the talk you linked, is it possible that we're more comfortable with things we believe that we can't change then we are with the ambiguity that goes with things we think we can?

Susan wrote:

I’m almost certain I won’t be the only one who sends Amit Gupta’s XOXO talk. It will make you cry, in a good way. As we close in on the end of the year, we’re all probably thinking about what’s next. It’s important to remind ourselves to view "what’s next" through the lens of "what’s most important."

Marina wrote:

My favorite talks are the late night ones I have with my SO. Lying in bed, discussing our day, opining on current events, hashing out decisions, sharing anecdotes, exchanging stories from our respective pasts. These often spontaneous, always meandering tête-à-têtes have us veering from laughter to tears to introspection - but always with the knowledge, and a feeling of gratitude, that we are with the one person we most want to spend our time talking to.

Carie wrote:

Oddly enough, I've JUST started listening to podcasts. I always knew I would love them, but I have trouble focusing on audio things unless I have something to occupy my hands and eyes while listening. (Yes, I'm one of those people who doodled during college lectures but really was paying attention.) I listen to audio books in my car, but those are on CD. Both my car and my phone are too old to be conducive to podcast technology, so I didn't know when/how to listen to stories. But then I got some coloring books for my birthday-- some of those cool new ones for adults, like Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford-- and suddenly everything clicked. Now I can wind down from my day by coloring and listening to podcasts. It's a perfect combination. My favorite podcast so far is Lore. The 20-minute episodes by Aaron Mahnke are about the facts behind some of our favorite mythology: vampires, werewolves, etc. If you're a fan of such things, you should check it out.

Kyle wrote:

Reality Is Plenty, Thanks by the game designer / MIT professor Kevin Slavin. It's ostensibly about new technologies like augmented reality but it turns out to be a brilliant, centuries-long history of how we humans have learned to perceive reality in the first place. It's a lesson in how to see, the way an artist sees.

Joel wrote:

Cool talks that each inform, influence, and inspire me and The Regulars: Jason Roberts, Clay Shirky, Michael Lewis, Smokey Robinson, Wendell Berry, Elinor Ostrom, Jerry Seinfeld, and Richard Feynman.

Ryan wrote:

I rarely re-watch or re-listen to a talk or podcast, so I don’t have what I would call a favorite single talk. But I do love many of my regular podcasts, and I most appreciate those that take the form of creative people talking in an informal setting about their work, their habits, or just their approach to life. Since I have very few friends who define themselves by their creative work, listening to semi-famous people discuss their struggles or ruminate on the inner workings of their own thoughts comforts me and encourages me in my own creative struggle. In particular, Back to Work (with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin) and Roderick on the Line (with John Roderick and Merlin Mann) stand out as two I would never even consider skipping, and Scriptnotes (with John August and Craig Maizin) speaks particularly to the craft of writing—and even more specifically, screenwriting.

Brad wrote:

Bret Victor's talk Inventing on Principle remains one of my favorites. Not because it's flawless, but because it represents such a pivotal shift in thinking, along with Bret's further work to date. Some people are thinking about what could be possible if we stretch the bounds of technology toward better human thinking and Bret is one of them.

Josh shared his reply on his blog.

Table for Six

The third round of Table for Six is here! Join us for telephone conversations with six uncommon neighbors from around the world. This month, we’re talking about Wishes and Wonders.

The conversations will take place between December 10-13. If you’d like to be part of these “unusual”, “fulfilling”, “joyful”, and “inspiring” gatherings, just reply.

If you’re not a member yet, what a fine reason to join the front porch. That and the membership price will increase December 1st :)

Thank you!

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the U.S. and looking back at the past year, I’m enormously grateful for this truly uncommon community. Each of you contribute in untold ways. Through your time and attention, honest, thought-provoking, and sometimes hilarious replies, memberships, and perfectly-timed kind words, our story adds new chapters and characters. You are Uncommon.

Also, to the team who pours so many hours into designing and building our online home, we can’t thank you enough. To do what you do for no other reason than your love of and belief in this community is inspiring. The work itself is, quite simply, amazing. It's an honor to create alongside you.

Your turn

What are you giving thanks for this year?