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Matrix, Synapse, and Element – Secure, Decentralized communication

Privacy and censorship are essential items in the minds of spiritual people. We like to be empowered and not give away our freedom to this company or the other. 

We have found alternative email providers that promise to take care of our data, but what can we do about the instant chat applications? 

The privacy-oriented alternatives to Messenger and WhatsApp that most people know about are Signal and Telegram. Those apps are now experiencing a surge of new users. 

But there is still an inherent problem with both Signal and Telegram. We need to rely on their promise that they will not sell out to the highest bidder and that conversations are kept private. On top of that, since each one has a central server, they are super easy to ban and block. Their terms of use may prohibit users from talking about certain topics deemed “fake news” or “misinformation.”

[Matrix] – The Open Standard 

One solution is to use an open standard called [Matrix] for our instant communication. 

Being an open standard is very important. It means anyone can implement it, but more importantly, anyone can inspect it to make sure it keeps its promise of decentralization and data privacy. 

The best way to understand how the [Matrix] standard works is to think of how we use emails. We each have our own email providers that may be different, and we each have our email applications that can also be different. And yet, we can all email each other with no problem. Isn’t that beautiful? 

What if we can bring the same ideas to instant chat? The idea that you can use different servers and various apps and still talk to one another. [Matrix] does that. 

Because it is open and designed to be collaborative, anyone can start their own servers that will connect to each other, and anyone with the skills can create a chat application or improve the existing ones. This openness encourages innovation, collaboration, and transparency. 

Since you can start your own chat server, you don’t need to send your communication data to a company like Facebook or even Signal. It can all stay on your server where you decide what happens to it. 

So why isn’t everyone on Matrix yet?

In one word: convenience!

A centralized server, a unique application, and a big company financing the system are incredibly convenient for the user. Why? Because everything is polished and streamlined to cause as little friction as possible because the company needs your attention and your data. So it is convenient, but you pay with your privacy. 

A decentralized architecture is much more challenging to create, maintain, and understand. It is not easy to grasp the idea that you can reach your friends on a different server and in a separate app. It is also more difficult to create an account because of all these micro-decisions that you have to make: what server will I use, what application is best for me, what kind of data am I willing to share on this server, whom can I trust in this eco-system? Oh, it’s is so much easier to “just use WhatsApp!”

And when you bring in encryption, things get even more complicated! 

What are public and private keys? Why should I care? Why do I need a passphrase? How will I remember all this stuff? What do I do if I get locked out? 

To understand this challenge, let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture. 

Here is what Facebook promises: “just give us your fingerprints, and use our app and we will take care of your security for you. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Everything will work at the touch of your finger. Let us be your BIG BROTHER.” 

Here is what [Matrix] promises: “we want to guarantee your privacy, and therefore we don’t want to know anything about you! So all the passwords, the keys, the personal identifiable data, it is yours to care about and store as securely as you know-how!”

Which one would you choose? Do you know how to store the password securely? Are you tech-aware enough to be confident in your decision? 

These are hard questions that you need to grapple with if you value your privacy and your ability to connect with your friends without a middle man.

The Open Standard – A blessing and a curse

Remember the talk about “email” from before? Do you know what made email so great? 

It was TRUST! 

When email was invented, the people that would use it would know each other and trust each other. This inherent trust allowed them to create something so open, so interoperable that it seems naive by today’s standards! 

The assumption was that every email user is a good person, and they will not abuse the system because abuse will make things worse for everyone.

Of course, we all know what happened soon after: spam, identity theft, and hacking. 

It really breaks my heart that an open standard based on trust is a honey pot for bad actors willing to abuse the system. It takes everything that makes the system beautiful and efficient and turns it against itself. Instead of focusing on innovation, you need to focus on security and locking things away.

The blessing of “anyone is welcome to use it” turns into a “someone will likely abuse it” curse.

We now live in an era where trust is at an all-time low. Especially on the Internet! All the open systems that we create today assume the exact opposite from the age of email: nobody can be trusted anymore

As sad as this may be, it is the reality we need to work with right now. And it is why tools focused on privacy are anything but easy, and flowing, and convenient. They can never achieve that goal because you will need to carry around, securely, your private key chains, your passwords, your passphrases. 

There are two takeaways here:

1) don’t even hope that a truly private app will ever be as easy to use as Telegram or Signal. That is not possible. It is you who needs to be responsible for your own data, not big-brother. 

2) in an open system, there will be bad people. What this means is that not all [Matrix] servers are good ones. Not all users on the [Matrix] servers are good ones. And not all chat apps that work over the [Matrix] network will keep your data private and secure. [Matrix] empowers you by not “taking care of you.”

Is your head spinning yet?

I understand. I am a tech person, and it took me days to digest this information and try to present it in a way that most people would understand and use. It is normal if this feels “hard”. Press on! 🙂 

My idea of helping is to shoulder some of the responsibility with you. If you trust me enough, you can use my recommendations below to get into the [Matrix] network easier. 

As an app I recommend Element

For a server, it is best if you can start your own, but if that’s not your thing, you can request an account on mine

I would avoid creating an account on Matrix.org. As they also point out, it would make them a sort of “central point,” which is counter to their philosophy. (If you need a hand setting up your own server, let me know.)

I will end by giving thanks to my friend Tim for making me aware of this information and to all the people behind Matrix and Element that put a ton of effort into imagining and bringing this forward. 

New Paradigm Tools – Slack

What is Slack for?

You may be old enough to remember mIRC. If so, Slack is like that but for business.

If you have no clue what mIRC is, then Slack is a way to text chat with your team over the Internet, grouping the discussion into multiple channels. 

 

What is Slack NOT for?

Slack is not a project management tool. Instead is a remote communication tool. While you could use it to manage simple, short projects, you will miss the ability to create tasks, track progress, and reach your goals for more complex ones. 

 

Why use Slack? 

I have been working remotely for over ten years now. And I would communicate with my clients over email. This approach was generally OK if only two people were involved: the client and me. As soon as someone else wanted to join the conversation, it would get complicated very fast! Here is why:

  •  How could they read the context of the previous discussions – that are now buried in an old email that they don’t have access to?
  •  How could they filter the information if it is not organized into topics? 
  •  There is no guarantee of an email being delivered. When an email gets lost, a lot of awkward “didn’t you get the memo?!” situations ensue.

 

The Power of Slack

Slack does more than getting the information out of your email and into a team-accessible-space. 

It has a robust notification and ignore system. Taking the time to learn about and properly configure the notifications can make or break your Slack using experience. Suppose you choose to get notified about everything. In that case, your phone will constantly buzz at you, driving you crazy, which inevitably leads to shutting down notifications altogether, which means you’re shutting down slack and choose not to communicate. Not good!

The key is to fine-tune what you get notified about and create distraction-free time for you to do productive work. 

It’s tempting to think that everybody on the team is just a text chat away, but unless your purpose is to chat, you won’t be terribly productive. 

Some jobs may require you to monitor and respond to Slack constantly. Some brainstorming or research phase of a project may require that you keep your eye on Slack. But for the rest of the time, turn everything off except private messages from your boss and any emergency or announcement channels. When you’re done for the day, make sure you set slack on “Do Not Disturb” (you can automate this if you have fixed work-hours).

Slack Workspaces are another powerful concept, although super confusing when you first start. 

To clarify this for you, think of it this way: You don’t have a Slack account. What you have instead is an account inside a Slack Workspace. Why is this important and confusing? Because each workspace has its own password, even if you use the same email to access all of them. 

It’s like working for three companies, each has an access key card with the same picture of you but a different code on it, so you cannot use the same key everywhere. Similarly, each Slack Workspace has its own password and email. Why is this important? Because it enables you to use the same tool for multiple teams and projects and still keep everything separate within the same program. Pretty neat! 

Finally, because the conversations are grouped into channels, it is easier to focus only on what you care about and mute (or leave) the other channels. This feature is essential in long projects with large teams. 

 

The downsides of Slack

When I stumbled into Slack one year ago, I thought it was the answer to all of my professional and personal problems! I would use the SlackBot to remind me of important things; I would use channels to organize personal notes; I would use emojis to simulate a project management environment. Oh, the nerdiness!  

It was fun for a month until it because evident that Slack is is to be used for effective communication, and that’s it :).

 

Some misuse of Slack by not understanding its purpose:

  •  project management – use Trello or Asana, or BaseCamp for this
  •  collaborative documents – use Google Drive, Or DropPox Paper (Yes, I know about Slack posts, but they are a far cry from a truly collaborative document platform)
  •  file-sharing – again, use DropBox, Google Drive, or OneDrive – yes, you can share files on Slack, but I think they added this feature just so to make it easier to fill up your free quota :). Sharing images, small spec files, and generally whatever is small enough to be an “email attachment” could be OK. But for anything larger, use a proper file sharing tool.

 

Misuse of Slack by not understanding team communication.

There is a reason Slack adds by default a “random” channel. It is the channel that allows that team member who always has something “fun” to say or share to be safely ignored while they can “express freely.” If you delete that channel or don’t clarify what it is for, expect your “announcement” or “emergency” channels to get spammed. 

Be mindful when sending a text and notifying everyone: will this boost the team’s productivity or just create a barrage of distractions. Nobody wants to wake up to 99+ slack notifications that have nothing to do with them doing their work that day. 

 

Misuse of Slack by not knowing the tool

This problem is probably the biggest and most annoying drawback, and it also prevents a team from adopting Slack. You need to learn the tool and follow the agreed protocols. 

It’s like driving on the streets: we need to trust that you know how to handle your car, and you understand that a red light means stop! Learning the tools and the rules is what makes for a smooth drive (or Slack experience).

Read an article or two about how to use Slack like a pro. It will take you 30 minutes, and you’ll ace it. It will make you feel super confident and become the Slack guru. But most of all, you will be able to create value for your team with clear and smooth communication.

 

Slack Video

I am adding this here because, so far, I have a poor experience with Slack video. The lag is so significant that it was impossible to have any meaningful conversations with my collaborators. I am sure this will improve in the future.

Slack Alternatives

A completely free alternative to Slack that works in the same way, is Discord. The name is unfortunate since discord is not what you want on your communication lines.

Is this the best way to accomplish our goals?

Have you ever tried to coach a team towards an end goal but failed? Either because you can’t get your point of view across or because the discussion gets sidetracked continuously into things that are not that important? 

I have tried to send documentation to be studied that points at the right solution. That did not work. 

I have tried to use my experience and authority to give them the best solution and move on to the implementation phase. That did not work either. 

I have tried allowing them to learn on their own and to figure it out eventually. That also did not work because of time constraints. 

And guess what the common denominator is to all the failed attempts? Me! 🙂

My thinking says: if they only had the right information, they would see things like I do. Unfortunately, that is not true. As I am discovering, each one of us sees the world through a different lens. Our views may be similar, but they will never be the same

Today I was studying Seth’s book “Stop Stealing Dreams.” And I was fascinated with how many ideas he can share, without giving any advice on what to do! And not only that, but almost every paragraph had me stop and ponder what was said. I could feel the cogs in my brain getting a good workout!

I had to digest the entire book to figure it out finally. And the answer is now simple and obvious. Seth asks a lot of questions, inviting the reader to think for herself!

And the most potent question was:

Is this the best way to accomplish (…insert goal here…)?

This question serves double duty:

1. It makes sure that we know and agree on what the goal is. If we don’t, we need to go way back in our discussion and check and decide on our goals again. 

2. Once we agree on the goal, asking “is this the best way” opens everybody’s mind to contribute in a focused way towards the goal. 

The key difference for me is that I no longer dish out my solutions but instead invite everyone to contribute. The best way that the group finds may be way better than what I had initially thought the correct answer was. We all learn, and we move forward together.

I will definitely give implement this one in my communication.

Meetings – as a display of power

Why yet another writing about meetings? Because it is an old habit that needs to change. And because it is so old, we need to challenge it strongly and repeatedly to defeat the inertia.

Most people go to meetings because they feel they have to, not because they want to or need to. 

When there is no engagement, the meeting becomes a waste of time and a show of status (“who’s who”).

If you are the meeting organizer, you may care a lot about your project or your idea or about getting feedback. But not everyone in the meeting cares about the same things that you do. And if all you can see around you are bored people who would rather be someplace else, what can you do differently? (assuming that you care)

You could change the meeting duration from one hour to 10 minutes! No more room for fluff, for checking the phone, or for being late. And above all, you show respect to the other participants forced to spend their time with you.

You could also simply cancel the meeting. Do you need to send an update? There is email; there is slack; there is the phone. Do you need feedback? You can use online surveys or schedule one-on-one interviews in cases where you need to go deeper. 

Above all, seek and measure engagement. If people around you are not engaged, everything moves in slow motion, and you are also missing on a ton of creativity that has no room to be expressed. 

If you are meeting participantwhat would happen if you didn’t go? Would the project miss a critical piece of insight, or would “people upstairs get upset”? If it’s just people getting upset for you being honest about not having anything of value to contribute, then maybe you need to bring this up. Challenge the reason you have been invited to the meeting and make sure you need to be there. If you know your input is valued and sought after, you will be more likely to be engaged. But if you feel like a replaceable cog in the system, then you won’t be missed. 

Another thing you can do is start a discussion about meetings around the office. Are they effective? And how do you measure that effectiveness? If there is little engagement, what can you change to have more of it? What would happen if you canceled the meeting? What is the difference between synchronous communication (phone and meetings) and asynchronous (Slack, email, voice messages)

With new technology, we can do better. Show respect and seek engagement, not a display of power.

How do you think meetings should change in the new environment? Who are meetings for, and what are they for?

Talk to your audience effectively, using segmentation

If your audience is larger than 10k people, not all have likely purchased the same product or have the same interest in your offerings. 

So how do you communicate with them in a relevant way? 

Say you want to send follow up emails for a course they got. Or you want to market a related product. Or ask for feedback or testimonials. You don’t want to send the same message to everyone.

Splitting the audience into groups like these is called segmentation.

When you create these segments, you can have different conversations with each group. 

You can segment your list manually, but here we are big fans of automation.

The best way to automate segmentation and conversations with your customers is by using “tags.” 

When a prospect buys a product, you tag that action with a specific keyword. When they click a link, you can also tag that action. 

Adding or removing a tag can then be used inside your newsletter provider to trigger an automated campaign. 

For example, the “purchased_product_x” tag can trigger a newsletter series that will be a tutorial for that product. 

Or for the visitor tagged with “landing_page_offer_1,” you can trigger a series of emails that will market to them a specific offer.

Later, you can send a special discount to all the customers tagged with the “purchased_product_y” tag. 

I hope you can now see the power of segmentation and tagging when it comes to automatic your conversations with your leads and customers. 

For this process to work, your newsletter provider needs to support tags and automation around tags. You will need providers like MailChimp or AWeber.

Can you run a business and not talk to anybody?

At my core, I am a computer nerd. I am excellent at talking to computers. Not so much when it comes to other human beings.

For a long time, this was the only thing I would do. I was the happiest when I got the project specs on paper, so I could read them and implement them, by myself.

But when I decided to become a freelancer, I realized that I had to talk to other people. I had to talk to the people I wanted to serve about their goals and their vision, but also about money. There were times when I knew had to say “no,” but I couldn’t. There were times where there was a conflict that had to be resolved through better communication.

I wish I could say there is an easy “how-to guide” to learn to communicate better, but there isn’t. I just had to practice — one awkward conversation after the other.  

And it is still hard at times. Especially when I need to make a change in how I price things, or in the terms of the engagement. 

So why go through all this trouble and stress of learning to be a better communicator?

Although it seems obvious now, here is the lesson I resisted the most: to find clients and to keep finding better clients, you need to learn to communicate. There is no way around this. 

You need to know how to tell your story compellingly; how to communicate your pricing and how to negotiate in your favor. You need to be able to use your conversation skills to determine how you can best create value for your clients. And, in some cases, you need to know how to let some clients go. 

By avoiding communication, I would frequently make wrong assumptions about what was valuable for my client, and that would jeopardize the relationship and the project. 

If you don’t learn to communicate better, you will have to let someone else do the talking, write the copy on your site, create the video, and tell your story. And even if they do a good job, they are not you :). You will continue to depend on someone else. It will be comfortable, but you will be limited to your view from the “back seat.”

If you are still not convinced then maybe this will shake you up a bit (as it did me): 

“The better communicator will determine the price.” 

A business-savvy website should consider money, and therefore price. And you can spend a lot of time and money optimizing the technical bits, but if your communication is off, your success will be limited.  

I will end this post with a book recommendation. It is the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, but it’s worth every dollar: Pricing Creativity by Blair Enns. Don’t think that if you don’t work in the creative business that this book does not apply to you. It does! And it is all about communication.

The self-diagnosed client

The self-diagnosed client is the person who comes to you with a problem, a solution, and they only need you to implement that solution for them!

Does that seem right to you?

Consider the following scenario. A person goes to the doctor; this person knows the problem; knows the treatment and only asks the doctor for the medicine they want. In most places, it would be a case of mal praxis for the doctor to accept the self-diagnosis.

At the very least, the doctor would ask questions to confirm what the real problem is and confirm the diagnosis, right?

When it comes to online businesses, the issue is not that clear cut, and it depends on what you are selling.

If what you are offering is creative, custom made solutions, then a self-diagnosed client is a disaster waiting to happen. You cannot know if the two of you are a good fit if you have not followed your own diagnosis process that will enable to serve the client best. The client doesn’t know what they don’t know… they have a blind spot. If they knew everything, they would not come to you for a custom made solution. So it is your job to at least confirm the problem and what they think the best solution might be :).

In case of a more standardized offer, then it is indeed up to the client to make up their mind if your offer is a good fit for what they want to do. You can, of course, help make up their mind with excellent communication about your product or service.