Capturing the learning process with the Under Cloud

Learning is a fluid process — sometimes difficult, sometimes not so much.

When it’s difficult, we often plan ahead and build up our resources, which might include required documentation, such as a good book. Once done, we have the evidence to support the continued learning process.

However, when the learning process is more ad hoc and on-the-go, this reactive learning process means we often don’t have the time to document what we’re learning.

I wrote the Under Cloud for a number of reasons, but the core underlying principle was that of documenting the data and information I was gathering and transforming them into knowledge.

Now, some of you might be wondering: Hold on, what’s the difference between data, information, and knowledge? A lot — data is to DNA what information is to human, what knowledge is to culture. Once you understand the hierarchical nature of these three structures, it makes learning a bit more layered.

As an example, a spreadsheet contains numbers (data), which are — in and of themselves — not much use until someone transforms those numbers into a useful chart (information), based upon which decisions are made which then contribute to a greater whole (knowledge).

But I digress…

Still, there is the challenge of capturing that fast-paced learning process. If you’re using Microsoft OneNote or Evernote, you have access to their neat ‘clipper’ extensions and plugins for the various web browsers. While these tools are excellent — and often indispensable to some — they’re not solving the fundamental problem.

Take, for example, of the office junior who is watching the senior members of the team work on the aforementioned spreadsheet. Peter adds the numbers. Sarah creates the chart. Anne, John, Catherine, and Gina begin a discussion as to how to implement the information contained in several charts supplied by their team.

Here is a flow of events, one connected to another, as a narrative. You could either ‘clip’ each stage of the process, or write one long rambling note. But how flexible are either of these approaches? Sometimes, one part of that process is relevant elsewhere, but if it’s hidden in one long rambling note, how do reference that? If it’s one distinct note — which is ideal — you’re then hoping that you used some sensible organisational pattern for those notes.

What the Under Cloud does is to allow you to build your own narrative, one that doesn’t care which folder you put your notes in. You link one note to the next, annotating that link. So, as an example, if you had a bookmark for apples and a note for oranges, the link annotation would be fruit, since this would be the vital context connecting the two.

As of writing, the Under Cloud has its own extension for Google Chrome, which allows you to capture part of or an entire web page. However, there is no equivalent option to add comments or links to that bookmark, which is the next logical step.

Once this is in place, capturing that learning process would be low friction and robust.

Thinking further ahead, perhaps something that allows screen capturing that records audio, so that the video becomes your own screencast.


On being bold, and risking everything on an idea

I have an idea. I believe it’s an excellent idea. But belief doesn’t write code. People do.

I’m 4 years into a project — Under Cloud — which is a web application focused on the creation, curation, and management of research. It’s about capturing that moment of serendipity; when you realise you have something that fits with something else you did, or read, or wrote, and then linking them together with similar items, to create a narrative, and a stream of thought.

At present, the project is at an usable stage of development — I’m using it on a regular basis to manage my own personal and professional needs. However, much remains to be done. So, I had another idea.

The power of 3

By the end of the week, Octane will have gone from 1 employee (me), to 3. In the end, I had no choice, because to move the gain line forward, I needed to do something so different that it would mean transforming Octane and risking just about everything on a belief in an idea. I’d be running the risk of losing control, and — once more — staring into that darkness, not knowing where things were going.

Yes, I have a plan. Of course I do. But I’m charting a different course, and heading for unknown waters. It’s amazing.

I was asked: “Why not do [x] yourself?” which was an option, but it would have meant missing the chance to recruit two people who — if their delivery is commensurate with their obvious talents — could propel the Under Cloud forward at a pace and in a direction I couldn’t hope to do alone. Or worse, I do the work myself, and then 6 weeks later those same two people are no longer available to take things further.

I’m not just spending £x per hour on two people, I’m investing in a possible future for 3 people.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So this is it, the biggest and most expensive gamble I’ve ever undertaken.


Be bold, hire “A” list people

Guy Kawasaki — ex-evangalist for Apple Inc. — once said that when you’re in the market for hiring people, hire people smarter than yourself, and don’t hire people like yourself.

It’s a bold move, and not without its dangers, but it’s something I’m having to contemplate in an attempt to move Under Cloud forward to the next phase.

The fact is — and it’s simple when you think about it — if you want to move the gain line forward, you don’t just need a different perspective, but also an alternate mental attitude, and a different set of strengths which compliment your own weaknesses and deficiencies. I know what my weaknesses and deficiencies, and that pre-qualifies the kind of person I’m looking for.


Creating an author platform

If running a business, or being a self-published author, is analogous to spinning plates (which, incidentally, it is), then marketing is like catching rain drops.

If you’re a self-publisher, then you just have to accept that you’re also a business person and a marketeer. Once you make that mental leap, you’ll be in a better and stronger position to promote your novels not as something merely personal — important as that distinction may be to you — but as a product, one that you package and deliver to the correct demographic profile of people, which is to say your ideal reader.

Now, I’m not here to prescribe what I have done as the definitive approach to building an author platform for your novels. No, because I just can’t be so sure what I’ve done is the correct thing to do. The fact is, these things are fluid, and it may be that in time, I need to change things around. What I can say is, what I’ve created is — to the best of my knowledge and abilities — what I believe to be the best approach for me.

I say this as someone who’s been designing and developing websites since 1999. I’ve also been an aspiring writing for much longer, but only a published author for little over a year.

In this article, I’m only going to discuss what I did, with what tools, and with which services. Yes, alternatives exist. But since I’m not using them, I don’t think it would be appropriate to recommend something I have no personal experience in using.

A website as a foundation

Whatever you choose to build — physical or otherwise — you need to begin with the correct foundations. When considering an author platform, you begin with a website.

WordPress

I specifically chose WordPress, so that I could manage things myself. WordPress is an excellent content management system (or CMS), that is simple to install, configure, manage, and extend via Plugins. Plugins are — as their name suggests — things your plug into WordPress, which offer capabilities above and beyond what the default software is capable of achieving.

WordPress gives you two options: you either host your website with them, or; you host it yourself. In principle, if you’re not technically literate, it’s easier to allow WordPress to host your website. But that simplicity comes at a price; if you want to use your own designs for your website, you’ll need to pay extra for that.

Because of my background, I host my own version of WordPress, which allows me maximum flexibility. But it also means I have to do everything myself, with zero assistance from WordPress.

As you’ll no doubt notice, the Wayne Smallman website has a very distinctive style. You’ll also notice I have a list of my Novels & Novellas at the top of the home page. You won’t find any option in WordPress to allow you to do that. I wrote the necessary code to permit that.

I wanted to create a style that had the appearance of being busy, but in reality be quite bare and stark. I think that’s worked.

Creating stickiness

I know, stickiness conjures up some odd connotations. But the fact is, your author platform should aspire to be an exercise in creating a man-size fly trap; once a person is lured in, you want to ensnare them with your charms, talents and charisma. Or at least that’s the plan. But, crucially, you don’t want your intentions to be obvious, annoying, or [HEY, I’VE JUST PUBLISHED MY LATEST NOVEL!] .. distracting.

For instance, on the left of my website, you’ll see a search option, positioned just above buttons which allude to myself on Twitter and Facebook. If someone performs a search, they’re usually looking for something quite specific (obviously), which is typically indicative of a repeat visitor searching for something they read previously. Always a good sign.

At the top is another button, alluding to my Newsletter. Why at the top? While it’s great to have people follow you on Twitter or Facebook, a newsletter is something more personal, because the visitor has given you something very valuable; their name and email address, and their permission for you to send them messages. Once people begin to subscribe to something like a newsletter, you have a captive audience, ready to absorb your knowledge, whit, whims, and experiences. Again, a good sign.

Another major benefit of WordPress is the ability to make comments on articles — or Posts, in WordPress parlance. Firstly, you need to understand that you are going to receive a truly glacial slab of crappy and stupid “spam” comments. No escape. So just manage the best you can. WordPress offers some tools to deal with it, but ultimately, you’ll have to trudge through gazilions of moronic comments riddled with links to porn, fake watches, illegal drugs, and no end of other appallingly written offers.

Newsletters

A newsletter is an invaluable resource for any type of business, and authors (aspiring or otherwise) are no different in that respect. I chose MailChimp and their Forever Free plan. Initially, I’d built my own newsletter with freely available software. Why do this? Because I didn’t like the idea of paying. However, when I thought about it, the Forever Free plan is hugely accommodating, and should I exceed their 2,000 subscriber limit, I’d most likely be an established author by that stage anyway, and paying a monthly fee wouldn’t be so onerous a thing.

I cannot stress the importance of consistency. By that, I’m referring not just to design but also your message and self image. As you’d expect, I eschewed the free Templates for MailChimp’s various Campaigns and I designed my own so that they match the design of the website. Also, because I’m a programmer, I was able to build a Page within WordPress (akin to a Post, but with subtly different options) and embed the MailChimp sign-up form, accompanied by my very own blurb.

What goes into your newsletter is up to you, but I’d think carefully. Don’t just re-use what is already available on your website. Consider giving your subscribers something they might find valuable. As an example, my “Continuum” approach to writing means I have a vast and sprawling universe within which characters, places, technologies, and events exist. I can’t explore or explain everything I write about in detail; some things need to remain vague for the purposes of what is yet to come. But in some instances, I can elaborate, and it’s these excursions into the Continuum that I’ll be offering to my subscribers, giving them access to things money literally cannot buy.

Creating social media satellites

Facebook and Twitter are your friends. Firstly, grab yourself a Facebook Page, and choose your type wisely. “Artist, Band or Public Figure” is probably the way to go on that one. Secondly, sign up with Twitter and choose a username that’s your name, assuming the name faeries haven’t already swooped in and taken that one. If so, consider using first name initial and surname, or something similar.

Please, give some serious thought to the names you chose for both your Facebook Page, and your Twitter username. If you’re serious about becoming a successful author, people are going to search for you by your name. So calling your Facebook Page something philosophical / pretentious, like: “The Journey”, or using something spurious / sad, such as: “ilikecats” as a Twitter username are both beyond the realms of unbelievable uselessness and adrift in an ocean of irredeemable irrelevance. Incidentally, “ilikecats” is gone, so you’re out of luck on that one. Sorry.

Collectively, you may have heard people refer to Twitter and Facebook as social media, and / or social networking. While broadly interchangeable, they’re slightly different in purpose. But for the sake of this article, I’m not going to delve into the minutia, because you just won’t feel the difference at this stage. If you’re still curious, give me a shout and I’ll talk specifics.

Of course, there are other places you could join, but the trick is to not spread yourself so thinly that your presence is so gossamer thin and tenuous, reaching out to you is as burdensome an exercise as it is akin to hosting a seance. Be realistic.

Facebook Page

Because I’m just starting out as an author, my personal Facebook Page isn’t exactly the bustling epicentre of modern literature. But popularity aside, you need to build something with the expectation of tens of thousands, rather than ten. Or 9. So think Manhattan tower block, not two-birth tent.

First, choose a photograph of yourself, or a logo and use that for the Profile Picture that appears in the square on the left. Second, choose an appropriate and specific picture for the Cover. Ideally, the cover of your most recent novel and not a picture of your favourite pet cat, or your children.

Depending on the type of Page you’ve chosen, if you have the “Event, Milestone” option, choose Event and include your previous works with their corresponding publication dates. Why do this? You’re building a new Page that has history to it. That sense of provenance gives gravitas and reassurance to any would-be reader who might otherwise think you just came down with the last shower of rain.

If you’re not on Goodreads, you’re some kind of insane masochistic author who wants to feel the pain of continually struggling to gain exposure. Oh, you are signed up with Goodreads? Excellent. Now while you’re in Facebook:

  1. first, connect your Facebook account to Goodreads;
  2. then navigate to the Goodreads App Page;
  3. now, click the “Add to my Page” link in the menu on the left below the Goodreads photo and confirm;
  4. and finally, click the “Setup your Goodreads tab.” link.

Assuming everything went according to plan, you should now see the Goodreads Tab on you Facebook Page.

When people “like” a Page on Facebook, it is — in my opinion — one step away from (or closer to) them being a subscriber to your newsletter (in theory if not practice), in that those people are happy for you to bring things to their attention at your discretion. Don’t bore them with personal trivia and minutia. Do provide them with meaningful and worthy sources of knowledge and resources.

If you’re out and about, take relevant photographs and post them to your Page. If you have a book launch, make that an Event. If your hit the Amazon best sellers’ list, make that a Milestone. If someone wrote a glowing review, or you wrote an article or a guest post on another website, post that as a Status update:

  1. first, paste the link;
  2. after a while, Facebook should detect the link and grab the title, introduction, and — if present — a graphic or photograph;
  3. select the link and begin typing to replace the link with something more appropriate — don’t worry, your link is safe;
  4. and finally, click the “Post” button.

By all means, tease with suggestions, ideas, and anything else you think might entice and invite inquiry. Give them an insight into what you’re presently working on. Work to engage your followers and make them a part of your journey towards literary fame and success. If they like you, they might just help you along the way.

Twitter

Twitter is your uninterrupted stream of consciousness laid bare. But that isn’t an invitation to repeat any of the aforementioned nonsense, like boring the crap out of people. Most of what I mentioned previously for Facebook is transferable to Twitter — with the obvious exception of the technical specifics.

Twitter has a certain immediacy and reach that should allow you to make contact with other authors, your readers, and visa versa. Don’t continually push your novels, or you’re just going to annoy people and look like an over eager, egomaniacal fool. Not a good place to be.

When writing your Twitter profile, think about the consistency of your approach, be concise, and include a link to a specific Page or Post on your WordPress website (which I have yet to do for me personally, but have done for Octane). Why specific? Because we love measuring our success, don’t we? Of course we do. And one of the best ways to measure is to funnel people according to the various channels through which we present ourselves.

Similarly to Facebook, Twitter permits a certain level of customisation. You’ll notice that my author profile has both a background image (which is taken directly from my website) and a logo graphic behind my profile details.

You & I, fellow authors

So, Goodreads again. You are an author, correct? If so, make sure Goodreads knows about this and begin the process of including your books. And that’s as far as I’m going to go with Goodreads, because it’s an article unto itself. However, what I can do is point you to a template I’ve created for posting on Goodreads Groups.

Marketing

Like any marketing campaign, when you funnel people towards a particular goal, you’re essentially pointing them to a “Landing Page“, which is where your offer is to be found. I know this must sound dreadfully prosaic and clinical, but if you don’t approach writing with some kind of business mentality, you are — to paraphrase the Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca — a person who knows not which port they sail from, where no wind is favourable. Or you could just be spectacularly fortunate and hit self-publishing gold at the first attempt. However, to quote Forbes Bingley — a recurring character in many of my as-yet to be written novels — hope is for the unprepared.

Measuring success and failure

As an experience, failure is perhaps more valuable than success, assuming you’re able to learn anything from either. To derive value from failure you must firstly know where you went wrong and then formulate a methodical approach to avoiding any such repetition. To enjoy success, you must plot a course through the wreckage of previous failures and formulate a methodical approach to repeating the journey again and again and again.

I use Google Analytics to track people moving around a website. Google offer a massive and sprawling service, one that some might find intimidating. I also use Clicky, which is much more human scale and offers a simpler window to your website. I do recommend using both, and both offer a means of including their code within WordPress in a relatively pain-free way.

I use Clicky’s Spy tool, which allows me to see traffic to my website in real time, which is great for when people make comments. Clicky can determine the name of the person who made a comment and then recognise them on subsequent returns, which allows me to react in a timely manner and respond accordingly. Just to be clear, when people make any comment on WordPress, they must first provide a name and email address, so there’s so privacy chicanery at work here.

So, let’s say you write a Post, or do a guest writing spot somewhere that provides an author link to a Post about one of your books. Unless you’re tracking the visits to your website, you won’t have the first clue where the visits came from. More to the point, you won’t have clue one whether you had any visits in the first place. So that sudden spike in visitors you had a week ago? Yes, that one you have no idea about at the time. How unfortunate, and a mistake you’re doomed to repeat, unless you use Google Analytics, or Clicky. Or both.

Also, you could be running a promotion on Smashwords or Goodreads, and that traffic is your measure of just what kind of success (or failure) your campaign is experiencing. Similarly, you could just be trying to figure out where the subscribers to your newsletter are coming from. Or, you’re just trying to determine which of your novel Posts or Pages is the most popular, and at what time of the day, or even which day of the week, or in which country! Yes, you have that much control it’s almost obscene.

More importantly, you’ll get to see where people are coming from, like your Twitter or Facebook Page, your Goodreads Author profile, or just about anywhere.

Your goals, channels, and funnels

Look, I’m not a professional marketeer, nor do I purport to be, either. Instead, I work in conjunction with professional marketeers within the organisations I provide web design and web application development services to. In an effort to keep things simple, your goals — in order of importance — are:

  1. books;
  2. newsletter;
  3. Goodreads Author profile;
  4. Twitter and / or Facebook Page.

Your channels are everywhere you’re to be found. Your goal funnels are the routes to those books you keep writing, and their efficacy relies entirely on how you build and manage them. Each time someone “likes”, follows, or elects to sign up with something you offer, they are one step closer to either buying and book and becoming a reader, or a worthy and known admirer of your literary works.

I’m hoping you’re kind of overwhelmed, but in a buzzing-tingling sort of way, where the empowerment you feel is likely to point you in directions you hadn’t previously considered. Feel free to include me in the acknowledgements of your next novel. No pressure, honest.


An overhaul to Under Cloud

Under Cloud is the summation of an idea I had about two years ago, which solves a couple of problems for me; cataloguing the web pages I find, and sorting those web pages in a meaningful way. After a day-long meeting yesterday, Under Cloud is ready for something of a re-invention.

So what is Under Cloud?

While the web is a deeply connected shared space, the relational structure of any web page lies in the hands of the authors and not the reader.

What I propose is a web application that allows the reader to create relationships between web pages that goes beyond the hyperlinks within the very web pages they discover and read.

By allowing the reader to create annotated relationships between those web pages they find, they then build a referential catalogue of interlinked web pages that builds towards a store of not just meta data, but meta information, organized chronologically.

Additionally, because this is a social web application, people can share their store of collated, curated and annotated web pages with friends, colleagues and family, or everyone else.

So that’s Under Cloud, in simple terms. However, having had the chance to share my ideas with Keith Evans of CIDA yesterday, Under Cloud clearly has potential, and that potential is clearly as an assistive aide to those performing research.

Under Cloud is a working web application, but it’s essentially just a fancy way of bookmarking web pages. Over the long term, the aim is to turn it into a substantial venue for aggregating and sharing research, either publicly or privately.

And to that end, I have a few choice questions to ask. First of all, a few disclaimers — Under Cloud will:

  1. allow you to bookmark web pages, add tags, as well as link to other related web pages.
  2. not assist in the actual process of finding research materials.

Dear researcher…

You, and what you do:

  • What kind of research do you do? Such as industry, for example.
  • Do you conduct pure (basic) or applied research?

Doing what you do:

  • What is your present workflow? In terms of process, procedures, software et cetera.
  • Do you collaborate in a team, and if so, how do you share things?
  • What (if any) mobile technologies do you use to assist in research? Such as a mobile phone, camera, dictaphone or dictation software, notes software, for example.

Sharing what you do:

  • What kind of documents do you use in your research? Either as an aide, or as actual reference, like web pages, PDFs, spreadsheets or photographs, for example.
  • Thinking about your research once complete, how do you present that body of research to the intended audience?

In an ideal world:

  • What would be your ideal workflow? Thinking about collating and storing your research materials, including notes, as well as the web pages you’re bookmarking and the documents you’re using.
  • Again, assuming things aren’t ideal, what would be your ideal way of presenting your research? As as example, perhaps in the form of an interactive discovery tool, sharing your findings via a web presentation, or within Microsoft Office.

Please reply to the above questions as a comment, and if you wish your opinions to be kept private, please say so in the actual comment.