Welcome to Digital Homesteading.

This collection of resources from 9 Clouds helps you build your business and community.


In Defense of Paper – How to Create Work that Lasts

Norwegian Book

There are two challenges to creating work that lasts.

  1. Systems are brittle and change quickly.
  2. Context changes.

Our work must adapt to changes in system and context. The best way to do so is integrating and opening our work and businesses to collaboration.

The Survival of Norwegian Paper

In the early 1900s, my great-great-grandmother was sent a Norwegian-English cookbook. On the left side of the page, recipes were written in her native Norwegian (in an old written form of Norwegian called landsmål). On the right side of the page, recipes were written in her new language of English.Norwegian BookNorwegian Paper

This maroon-covered book now has brittle, yellow pages, shaped by decades of use, spilled milk and flour-covered fingers. Amazingly, however, it can still be used and understood. After 110+ years, it still shares the information it was designed to provide.

The same cannot be said about my debut album.

In January 2002, my college roommate Paul Myklebust and I spent one month recording an album. We took all of our love soaked, angst-filled acoustic melodies and recorded them for potential freshman flings across the campus of Luther College. Thanks to some great design work and hours of burning CDs on my Gateway 2000, we had a piece of art that we could show our kids some day.

Or so we thought.

Less than 15 years later, it has taken herculean efforts to keep our music accessible. The website that hosted our music, mp3.com, at some point was sold and changed and deleted our music files. The CDs that we spent many nights burning now cannot be played on my computer. Even importing the music to iTunes requires going through each file to update the title and artist information.

Surviving System Change

In short, systems are brittle and change quickly.

Paper, which seems fragile as a storage system, has far outlasted compact discs. Our digital homes are just as prone to become obsolete as MySpace and Google Reader users can attest.

The technology we use to save, store and share our information and work are not as permanent as we think. When we share an idea, create marketing material or purchase software to help run our business, we risk losing that information over time.

Fortunately, we can mitigate the risk of losing our work. Use cheap, flexible systems with a large participation.

A cheap, flexible system is one that can be used in multiple ways over time. For hundreds of years, paper was a perfect example. From hieroglyphs to monks writing with quill and ink to the printing press and newspapers, paper was easy to use in a variety of formats.

What’s more, millions of people use paper, so even as some people now live paper-less lives, the majority of people around the world still have paper. Businesses know how to use it and can cheaply have copies made, books printed and fliers designed.

In the digital world, the HTML file format used to create websites is a perfect example of a cheap, flexible, popular system. From the days of Geocities to today’s most complex websites, HTML protocol is still used. Compare this to something like Adobe Flash, which was used for many websites but disappeared in a flash when iPads and smartphones stopped supporting Flash.

Too many businesses today are built on brittle systems. If you work with a CRM tool or website builder that is closed, meaning it doesn’t integrate with other tools, you are built on a brittle system. If the company that creates that software goes out of business or is acquired, you may be out of luck. If the competitors create a better product, your tool will not improve because you are chained to the pace of innovation of the single system you are working on.

Compare something like Flash or a closed automotive DMS tool like ADP or Reynolds and Reynolds to WordPress.

WordPress is a content management system (CMS) that now powers 25% of the websites in the world. It is a free and open source, meaning anyone can build on top of it and help improve it.

This is the definition of a cheap, flexible system with a large number of participants. As websites and design tastes change, the platform changes with it. The innovation of WordPress is not limited to the innovation that Automattic, the company that designed and helps maintain WordPress, pursues but rather the innovation of everyone using it.

If I wanted my debut album to survive, I shouldn’t have put my music on a closed website like mp3.com. I should have transferred it to an open and flexible system, like WordPress site or even YouTube. There it would be easier to find, easier to use and more likely to survive as technology changes.

If I want my family’s cookbook to survive another 110 years, I might want to think about moving the information from paper to an open system like a WordPress or Google Books. I would still be at risk of losing the information if I stop paying for hosting or if Google shuts down their website, but at least the information is easy to access and copy into the next format, so my great-great-grandchildren can see the same information I can hold in my hand.

The Constant Upgrade

The challenge with ever-changing systems is that you always have to upgrade.

You have to move your music from record to 8-track to tape to CD to .mp3 and now to a streaming music site. If you stop at any point, it becomes more difficult to fix it later. It’s not hard to upgrade from a CD to a .mp3 because it’s the most recent evolution. Changing music from a record or cassette to .mp3, however, is incredibly difficult.

For businesses, this means we continually need to upgrade our technologies. The way we share information and save information is in constant flux. Having a closed system means you, the user, and the specific company who built the software, are the only ones able to provide the upgrades. On a cheap, flexible system, others will figure out how to upgrade and may even do all of the upgrades for you. If you use WordPress for your website, for example, you will be automatically upgraded without even knowing it. Want to upgrade from CD to .mp3? Ask anyone under the age of 30.

We face a constant battle of change. The easiest way to stay relevant is to build using an open system.

Contextual Change

Beyond systems lies another challenge: contextual change.

The cookbook of my great-great-grandmother may have survived 110+ years, but if it was not written in Norwegian and English, it wouldn’t be understandable for my family. In other words, the context of sharing information changed. Norwegian died out in my family and English became standard.

The most famous example of “contextual backup,” as Clay Shirky calls it, is the Rosetta Stone. For millennia, no one knew how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Generations of information written in hieroglyphics were lost because the context, (in this case, language), changed so greatly. Then, the Rosetta Stone was found. Written in three different languages, including Ancient Greek, the Rosetta Stone translated hieroglyphics into a context, (language), that was understood.

Our businesses are constantly under assault from contextual change. Someone selling ads for the phone book faces a much harder task than they did ten years ago. The products and services we provide must continue to evolve with our customer’s context or risk becoming a cassette tape organizer.

Integrate in Your Customer’s Ecosystem

Fortunately, we can mitigate the risk of becoming contextually obsolete. Integrate into your customer’s ecosystem.

Often businesses focus on their product or service and figuring out how to make others want to buy what they create. A better approach is to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. What do they need to make their lives easier? What other businesses or products do they use to produce their work?

Knowing the context of your customer enables your business to integrate. If your business is integrated in the customer’s ecosystem, your business evolves with the context.

An integrated tool like MailChimp, an email marketing tool, is connected to CRMs, billing software, blog platforms, social media and more. Even if email becomes less popular, the fact that MailChimp is integrated means it is still contextually relevant. A business that doesn’t want to send email blasts might still use MailChimp to share blog posts with subscribers, manage customer lists or send invoices.

The Myth of Immortality

Sharing our work online feels like an act of permanence. It feels that our ideas will live forever, just a quick click away.

It’s not true. Your work is not immortal.

Today, more than ever, our ideas are subject to system and context changes. If we choose the wrong platform and fail to upgrade, or if we are blind to context changes, our ideas and businesses become obsolete or even disappear from existence.

Avoid irrelevance by integrating with the systems and contexts around you. Open, flexible systems that are aware of their context will survive like the maroon cookbook that still stands on my shelf.