Byline plugin: lessons learned thus far

In the nine months and 1,000 downloads since I released Byline, I have learned a few things. Mostly I’ve learned that the more I learn about WordPress, the more there is to learn about WordPress.

Theme and plugin writers have created a massive ecosystem of tools for WordPress. This offers the power of flexibility but creates challenges across the map. Just a simple thing like displaying an author’s name is handled a hundred different ways across different WordPress themes. This creates a problem for Byline, because I rely on there being only one or two ways to display this. With my current knowledge and skillset, I do not see a strategy for adapting my approach to meet the needs of the wider WP community, unfortunately.

One of the problems with the user community of WordPress is that, while I know I have had 1,000 downloads, I do not know who most of my users are unless they have contacted me. Because of the issue I already described, I know a lot about what kinds of problems exist, but I’m also unaware of who is using it effectively without problems. That information would be good as well.

For some of the themes that my plugin has not worked with, I have been able to troubleshoot and offer custom code to get full functionality. But at this level of customization, you might as well be using Co-Authors Plus, which requires all users to modify the theme and offers a more complete author management tool.



Who I am: Crazy

I’m trying to summarize who I am right now professionally in 300-500 words for a class project. I ended up explaining my job the best way I know how. What do you think? 

Student media is for crazies.

Think about it. The media is a challenging business to begin with, but then throw in the profound disruption experienced in print, video and audio media, and you have a beast of an industry to manage.

Then, throw in there the challenge of funding, staying solvent and investing in new initiatives that promote growth amid all that chaos.

Then throw in the fact that your primary work force is a bunch of 18 to 24-year-olds, who want to be journalists/DJs/filmmakers this week, but might change their minds next week, and are also taking 15 credit hours, and working or interning somewhere else, or have just been named president of some other organization. And for piling on 20-30-hour work weeks, you pay them a meager stipend (if at all).

Also, the good ones graduate and move on, much more quickly than you’d like to admit.

Then, try to get your student-run media platforms to attain a level of excellence that earns national recognition, year in and year out. And oh yeah, forgot to mention: you have no control over content and no direct say in the major decisions that get made, other than to provide advice and feedback, with the hope that you have credibility and influence.

To make it in this environment, you have to be crazy.

You have to be crazy dedicated to students and creating the best learning experience possible.

You have to be crazy about media production. You have to at least understand the work, if not be capable of doing it yourself, just as the head coach of a football team needs to understand all of the components of the sport on both sides of the ball.

You have to be crazy about students’ First Amendment rights, which often bring them in conflict with community norms and institutional policies.

You have to be crazy about communication, about getting the right ideas and information to the right people, at the right time, in the right manner.

You have to be crazy about business models, finding the right balance of revenue, risk and reward. You have to be crazy about advertising, marketing and PR, and how it can be used to expand your business.

You have to be a crazy good listener and adviser. Any day you might change hats from media manager to guidance counselor to adult role model. If you don’t forge a relationship in these situations, you may not have the influence later when you need it most.

You have to be crazy patient and crazy generous with your time.

My name is Matt Dulin, and I am that crazy. And then some.

I’m a solutions-oriented, people-friendly, data-driven and a quietly strong-willed leader. I attack problems head on, from every angle. I obsess over details, whether it’s a line of code in a web project or an errant comma in a sentence. I don’t stop learning, trying new things, and sharing what I know so far.

I draw on a wealth of knowledge — whether it’s AP Style or cascading styles, picas or pixels, grammar or syntax — and a quick, creative mind to solve problems, to challenge others and to create great work, wherever I am and whatever the obstacle.

No comment?

“The 90-9-1 principle convinced me that many, not all, comment sections are an exercise in faux democracy. This theory goes that 90 percent of us will read something online and move on. Nine percent—I’m in this group—occasionally take time to comment. That leaves roughly 1 percent who dominate the online conversation, and among this smaller number is found the digital equivalent of the loudest drunk in the bar….

“Encouraging a civil dialogue makes sense, so if I could, I’d get rid of anonymity when it comes to participating in the digital town common. I think people behave more civilly toward one another when their true identity is known.”

Alicia C. Shepard, Nieman Reports, 2011

I used this quote to introduce my first graduate-level literature review on studies about anonymous online communication and the effects on other participants. My hypothesis, never tested, was that communities where anonymity was allowed would end up a crowded space where viewpoints were silenced through sheer aggression. Further, requiring identification, as Huffington Post will now do as a matter of policy, will not actually prevent any legitimate minority viewpoints from being expressed.

By requiring its users to have verified identities, the Huffington Post is hoping that instead of censoring them directly, the hope is that users will self-censor. Or, in the words of Managing Editor Jimmy Soni: “We believe this change will offer the guarantee of a gut check.” In First Amendment battles, this is often called a “chilling effect.” So called because after a policy or punishment is handed down, speech is “chilled” or slowed down — prevented, not censored. Of course, the move comes when many are questioning just how private their online activities are, so naturally this all feels very disconcerting for some people.

Then take into account that Pew survey data shows that most people have taken steps to mask their identity or their trail online. In fact 1 in 4 adults said they have posted online comments anonymously. (There’s more interesting data in that report, check it out.) A solid  majority of people also recognize that it’s likely that no one on the internet is truly anonymous.

Before you post, ask:
‘Do I want my name on this?’

The more than 70 million comments that the Huffington Post received in 2012 were already subject to community standards that resulted in some comments being censored. The site has 30 full-time moderators who work literally around the clock. In six-hour shifts, they screen hundreds of comments each hour, like a postal worker sorting mail by hand. They also work with an artificial intelligence called Julia, which applies linguistic algorithms to pre-moderate and flag comments, according to the Poynter Institute article.

The Post is taking reasonable steps to protect its community. Every newspaper of good reputation has a policy regarding anonymous letters to the editor: they aren’t printed. They might be read and considered, but not printed. It’s reasonable to expect that if someone wants to speak up and say something to the community, they ought to do so publicly, with their name and reputation on the line. And we, as a civil society, ought to be able to tolerate that person’s views. A community of anonymous speakers can never truly be civil in the same sense. But, you could argue that we don’t have a completely civil society out here in the “real world” to begin with. And I’d say: Fair point.

Of course, if being anonymous serves your needs or is truly the only way to make your case known (like the Federalist Papers), you can always start your own website or forum, or print your own newsletter for that matter.

The move (and the predictable backlash by some of its users) remind me that this issue is still unresolved, and I don’t think it ever will be. Most of us will continue to “lurk” and not engage in online discussions. Those who do will increasingly have to ask themselves, “Do I want my name on this?”

Differentiating authors and users in WordPress

I wrote a plugin called Byline that lets a WordPress content manager assign multiple authors to a post without having to give them a username/password and modifying the theme to allow for an advanced co-author function.

Ideally, WordPress would have native co-author and guest-contributor functionality built-in, especially if it is intended to be a platform for community and collaboration.

For now, what my plugin proposes is that the User who creates a post entry and ensures it appears on the site is a distinct taxonomy from who wrote or contributed to the content. The notion of “author” in the WordPress admin is suited for blogs, but not a CMS that might handle a 1,000 different one-time contributors, like a community newspaper or student-run publication.

Life’s a tricky business

Nobody sets out on a strategy to fail. But they make many, many small decisions along the way for short-term gain that end up in overall failure. It’s true in business and in life. We’ve known this for generations, haven’t we? And yet we all succumb to it at one point or another.

Clayton Christensen struck a nerve with me in this BBC interview. The man behind the “innovator’s dilemma” — explaining why big companies like GM fail when disrupted by a newcomer or why newspapers struggle to survive in the digital age — makes the case for how people drastically underestimate the effect that day-to-day decisions have on a fulfilling life. His full argument is laid out in “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

It’s also an argument about integrity — sticking to your guns, avoiding compromises.

It also churns up thoughts about faith.

I suppose the argument is there that religion exists to reinforce a message of long-term thinking throughout our lives — saving your soul is as long-term as it gets. I’m not super religious, but I have to acknowledge its utility. What other institutions are compelling us to do this, to willingly sacrifice for potential reward later on? I suppose educational systems and fitness centers do this for different aspects of our health.

Anyway, the book is on my reading list, and it’s only $4 for the Kindle. Check out the interview; it’s worth pondering.

Should Facebook users expect more ads? You betcha.

With Facebook stock continuing to underwhelm ($31 at the time of this writing), one of the key worries among investors is whether the social media giant has a viable advertising revenue model to make it a longstanding company. According to its S-1 filing, ads made up 85 percent of its revenue in 2011.

Here are a few ways Facebook is pivoting (or could) to get more revenue their way.

  1. Moving to a single stream. Whereas the desktop browser version of Facebook gives you a news feed and a sidebar with ads, a better approach would be to consolidate these into a single feed. This is already happening with “Sponsored Stories.” That has proved effective, and it’s likely that more ads will be offered in this way. Done in a gradual way with a focus on the user experience will ensure most users don’t jump ship. Twitter users are already getting accustomed to “Promoted Tweets.”  Adopting a “single stream” from a design standpoint could also eliminate a lot of the clutter that has overtaken the desktop version of the Facebook site.
  2. Monetize business pages. According to Mark Zuckerberg’s letter in the S-1 filing, Facebook hosts pages for more than 4 million businesses. And yet not a single one of them is monetized (unless they buy ads to promote them). While offering free business pages is a smart open-door strategy, there is an opportunity to add on premium services. This could mean more location-based services, such as push notifications to people within the vicinity of a store, especially if you can get users to accept this kind of intrusion. Perhaps the Gowalla acquisition will help here.
  3. Create an ecosystem of services. While Zynga has definitely helped Facebook become the #1 provider of distractions, other application services could be deployed to make it a more helpful platform. Say Facebook partners with Evernote, putting all of your notes and collections in a single spot and allowing you to scrape Facebook posts into a virtual, private scrapbook. There’s also a huge opportunity for collaborative tools to compete with Google Docs. These could be developed by third parties but tightly integrated into the FB experience.
  4. Create an advertising network. Take Facebook ads out of Facebook. With revenue sharing, Facebook could compete with AdSense and leverage its existing network of sites that already use FB integration for in-page “Likes,” comments and recommendations. Instead of contextual ads, data-driven ads could follow you as you browse the web. The same demographic targeting features that allow marketers to pinpoint Facebook users could be deployed on the network, provided that users are persistently logged-in (or some other cookie mechanism is used).

I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest or imagine these things. It just seems that now that Facebook has to make revenue to keep investors happy, you’re going to see them get more aggressive about doing just that.


Poetry is code

WordPress’ tagline preaches, “Code is poetry.” Therefore, poetry is code.

Writers need to take written language as seriously as a programmer takes code. English (and any other language, written or otherwise) is a programming language. It encodes meaning. Language has rules of syntax, grammar and logic; then there are matters of style. All are features of programming as well.

A poorly formed expression won’t function, whether it’s PHP or English. An errant comma or misspelled word can destroy a well intentioned sentence. Trouble is, most readers already know how to debug on the fly: we can instantly turn “their” into “there” if the conditions are right. A proofreader must turn off this feature and compile meaning word by word, clause by clause.

Learning to code, and observing good code, has deepened my appreciation for writing well and reading good writing.

Write on.