This morning I read a travel story about cruising the Mississippi via steamboat. It’s the kind of piece I often flip through in the Sunday Times, reading just the first paragraph or two so that I know what the story is roughly about, and then moving on. But in this case, I caught myself eight paragraphs in, fully engrossed, and absolutely delighted with the way the story was written. Who was behind this fab piece?
The answer, of course, was Neil Genzlinger. Genzlinger is a long-time New York Times critic who covers everything from movies to board games. But his byline first entered my consciousness last October, while reading his review of the kids’ TV show Pajaminals:
Ignore for the moment the somewhat disturbing fact that four puppets whose DNA clearly comes from four different animals are calling the same entity “Mom.” Focus instead on Apollo’s words: “Blankie will be safe with Mom.”
Let me here address the toddlers in the readership directly. Children, I can tell you from personal experience that this is a cruel, soul-destroying lie. Blankie will not necessarily be safe with Mom. Sometimes Mom will unilaterally decide that blankie has become too ratty and stained — how can she not understand that the rattiness and the stains are what make it a good blankie? — and will throw it out while you are asleep or at school. Or, worse, she will cut it up and turn the pieces into rags. Just pause and picture that for a minute: your most precious possession, now being used to scrub bathroom mold or clean out the cat’s litter box. Sweet dreams, kid.
Your attempts to complain about this and demand justice will be swatted aside with callous adult indifference. It will be your first realization that life is full of pain and utterly beyond your control. You will grow up cynical and devoid of hope, unable to love or be loved. On your deathbed, you will utter a single dying word: “blankie.” But on the bright side, the movie later made about your life by a precocious young director will be considered the greatest film of all time.
I was so startled to find this charming digression hidden inside a TV review that Genzlinger lodged in my mind. Sure enough, there have been at least half a dozen more occasions where I’ve gotten deep into a Times piece, hit a delightful passage, and realized it’s another of his.
But that’s just the problem: my encounters with Genzlinger’s writing are the product of serendipity rather than devotion. Oh sure, if I spot his byline, I read the story. The way I read the paper, however — working my way through whatever section springs to hand in the 14 minutes I have to read while eating breakfast — I miss far more of his stories than I read.
Anyone who is an author or content creator should consider setting up a dedicated Twitter feed that includes only the links to his or her latest post. (Arguably, this is something I should do myself). That way, fans can follow that “latest” feed to ensure they don’t miss any of your stories. If I were following a bunch of people who did that, I’d create a Twitter list called “Latest and Greatest” consisting of the latest posts by my favourite writers and bloggers, and run it as a separate column in HootSuite.
The obvious solution, which I’ve just implemented, is to add the RSS feed for his stories to my iGoogle home page. Since iGoogle loads as my browser’s default home page, I’ll see those story headlines throughout the day. But I’ve become so used to seeing iGoogle that its headlines frequently fail to register.
Workaround number 2 is to use If This Then That. It’s a service that lets you create “recipes” that trigger specific online actions based on online triggers. Since I reliably read any tweet that mentions me, I figure I will definitely see each of Genzlinger’s posts if I get IFTTT to tweet each post with a tweet that mentions my Twitter handle.
The trick is that this requires me to tweet from a different Twitter account, so that I can mention the Twitter account I actually monitor — @awsamuel — in those tweets, without filling up my own Twitter account with random tweets. Fortunately, I have about eight different Twitter accounts, so I can use @awsamuelgoogle, which is a Twitter account I originally set up as a way of auto-tweeting from Google Reader. (An approach that has since been deprecated by a different IFTTT recipe.) Unfortunately, you can only hook up an IFTTT to a single Twitter account, and since I’m already using IFTTT as @awsamuel, I had to set up a second IFTTT account as awsamuelgoogle so that I could hook it up to my @awsamuelgoogle account on Twitter.
Once I had the new account in place, I just created a simple IFTTT recipe that sucks in the RSS feed of Genzlinger’s latest New York Times posts, and set it to tweet out each story, appending @awsamuel and the hashtag #NGNYT to the end of each tweet:
That does the job, but it has a few major limitations. First of all, you have to be kind of crazy to do this — the kind of crazy that thinks nothing of creating multiple Twitter accounts and IFTTT accounts and brewing up your own recipes. Second, it’s kind of stalker-y. I deliberately used #NGNYT rather than @genzNYT because I don’t want to spam Genzlinger’s mentions stream, but even so, if I were him I’d probably be equal parts flattered and creeped out.
But the chief limitation is that this workflow doesn’t actually mirror how and when I’d like to read Genzlinger’s stories. I get daily delivery of the New York Times — no small financial commitment for a Canadian subscriber — because I love reading an actual physical newspaper. And since Genzlinger rarely writes the kind of tech stories I blog or tweet about, there is no particular value to me in reading his stuff online, (In fact, I have the opposite problem when reading the Times’ tech writers: I am constantly trying to remember to find the online version of the story I’m reading so that I can tweet about it, but almost never do remember.)
So here’s what I’d like: an IFTTT-style app that bridges from online to offline and back again. I want to set up a set of IFTTT-style rules for the publications I read in print, specifying the authors or topics that qualify as must-reads. When said publication appears at my door, I want to launch an iPhone app that tells me which pages to look at in this morning’s New York Times, this week’s New Yorker, or the latest Entertainment Weekly.
Then I want an easy way to take whatever I’m reading in print, and convert it to a set of links that are ready to share online. Ideally I’d just snap a picture of the article I’m reading, using the app in question, and it would recognize what story it is and add it to my online queue. (Dear God, please don’t use QR codes to achieve this.) The best-case scenario would be a service that lines up my already-read stories as a set of short links, bit.ly style, and gives me a one-click option for posting each link to Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr or Delicious (assuming I have authenticated with each of those services). In fact, given my penchant for reading MacWorld while on an airplane, I’d like this app to hook up directly to the iTunes and Amazon stores, so that any app review I’ve snapped is just one click away from purchase, and any device I’m drooling over can be ordered before I think twice.
All of this seems eminently monetizable: Surely the New York Times would like to serve me clickable ads along with that list of stories I want to read in today’s paper? Surely MacWorld would like to take a cut for pushing me to device purchases?
So let me officially christen this liberated idea: the Genzlingerizer, an app for identifying must-reads in your offline reading, and for getting the must-shares from your offline reading back online. If anyone cares to build it, I hope you will specify that any reviews of the app must include long and charming digressions.