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$10,000 Fellowships for women working on open source programming projects, research, and art

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We’re accepting applications for $10,000 Fellowships for women, trans, and non-binary people who would like to work on a project or research at the Recurse Center this winter. The Fellowships will be funded directly by the Recurse Center. We will be reserving at least 50% of our funding for women, trans, and non-binary people of color.

Support to work on what you want to

Is there a project you’ve always wanted to start or contribute to, but you haven’t had the time or resources to do so? Now’s your chance: apply to RC this winter for a one, six, or 12-week retreat. We’ll provide up to $10,000 in funding (depending on batch length), 24/7 access to our space, and a supportive community of fellow programmers.

You can work on whatever programming-related project you want. The only hard constraints on what you can do here are that it must involve code, and the code must be open source so that others may freely use, learn from, and build upon it.

For example, you could make experimental games, or algorithmic art or music. You could build software for accessibility, like screen readers or automated transcription. You could make a better ad blocker, or other tools to protect people’s privacy and security. You could contribute to existing developer infrastructure, start a new programming language, or kickstart original long-term research.

At RC, you’ll have a space where you can focus on your work without the regular obligations of school or a job. You’ll also have the freedom to approach your work however you see fit, and will retain all rights to anything you do here. You don’t have to “finish” your project during your time here, and you won’t be reporting to an advisor or a boss. If you realize that it’s not the best thing to continue doing, you can set it aside and choose something else to work on.

Our new space in Brooklyn has two floors, a wellness and lactation room, pairing stations, and lots of natural light. One of our floors is set up for pairing, giving presentations, and group work, while our other floor has a library of books and is kept quiet for focused individual programming.

In addition to attending the retreat, you’ll join a community of over 1,300 kind, sharp, and intellectually curious programmers who have experience in a wide variety of programming topics. They have done academic research, given scores of conference talks, started companies, and created art, games, and music. You’ll be connected with folks who can pair with you, discuss what you’re working on, answer questions, and contribute to generative conversations about programming.

Why we’re doing this

Nearly seven years ago, we set out to create a gender-balanced environment at RC. In early 2012, we partnered with Etsy and offered our first need-based grants for women who were admitted to RC but couldn’t afford to pay for living expenses during their time here. Over the years we’ve made numerous efforts to make RC a more diverse and inclusive place, from establishing healthy social rules, to expanding our grants to support people from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, to introducing one-week mini retreats and revising our policies to be more family-friendly. In total, we have given more than $1.5 million in grants to people from traditionally underrepresented groups in technology since launching our grants program.

Ensuring a supportive and diverse environment is crucial to our mission of building the best place to grow as a programmer because RC is community-driven. While our community has grown in size and diversity along many dimensions, it has been increasingly challenging for us to maintain a gender-balanced environment. We are still very far from our goal of consistently having RC batches be comprised of at least 50% women, trans, and non-binary people. Despite regular outreach efforts, our applicant pool has skewed increasingly male, and thus RC has as well.1 Because our batches are relatively small, our gender balance can fluctuate significantly; at points this year RC has been about 40% women, trans, and non-binary people, but in recent months and looking ahead to our upcoming batches, we are doing significantly worse, which is why we’re trying this now.

We hope that our Fellowships will help diversify our applicant pool and encourage more people, especially women, trans, and non-binary people of color, to apply to RC.


The amount of money you’re eligible to receive for a Fellowship depends on how long you come to RC for. We’re offering $10,000 for a 12-week batch, $5,000 for a six-week batch, and $1,500 for a one-week mini batch.

To qualify for a Fellowship, you must:

  • Identify as a woman, as trans, and/or as non-binary.
  • Be able to attend RC for one, six, or 12 weeks starting on January 7, 2019.
  • Work on code or research that’s open source, whether it’s your own project or a contribution to someone else’s, and share your work publicly however you think makes the most sense (as a blog post, paper, website, or something else).

Current members of the RC community who meet the above criteria are welcome to apply for a Fellowship.

The admissions process for Fellowships is very similar to our standard admissions process:

  • Apply for the Winter 2, 2019 (six- or 12-weeks) or Mini 1, 2019 (one week) batch.
  • Mark that you’re applying for a Fellowship in the “Winter 2019 Fellowships” section, and let us know if you’d like to be considered both for a Fellowship and a regular batch (if you’re not selected for a Fellowship), or just a Fellowship.
  • Write a clear description of the project you’d like to work on under, “What do you want to work on at RC?”
  • If you’re invited to interview, you’ll do a 45-minute conversational interview with a faculty member, where we’ll discuss your plan for RC. If that goes well, you’ll be invited to a 30-minute pair programming interview with one of our alumni interviewers.

Our admissions criteria for Fellowships is identical to our normal admissions criteria, with one exception. For a regular batch, we look for people who want to become dramatically better programmers, and we expect people doing a batch of RC to prioritize that, even above making progress on a project. But for Fellowships, the focus is making progress on a project or research, even if it doesn’t make you a dramatically better programmer (though we hope it does!). And so we’ll be evaluating applicants in part on what they hope to do at RC, and not whether and how they want to improve as programmers.

We review applications on a rolling basis. However, given the tight timeline before the session begins on January 7th, you should apply as soon as possible to ensure you have time to complete the admission process. We plan to do the majority of interviews for Fellowships between December 18th and 20th. Because of the holiday break, we cannot guarantee interview availability during the week of December 24th.

If you think this a Fellowship could be a good fit for you, we hope to see you apply. And if not, we hope you’ll share this opportunity with a friend or colleague who may benefit from it.

If you have any questions, email us at

  1. We do not take demographics into account when making admissions decisions: we hold everyone who applies to RC to the same bar. To reduce unconscious biases, we use pseudonyms and hide names and demographic information during our initial application review.

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2 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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Enthusiasts vs. Pragmatists: two types of programmers and how they fail


Do you love programming for its own sake, or do you do for the outcomes it allows? Depending on which describes you best you will face different problems in your career as a software developer.

Enthusiasts code out of love. If you’re an enthusiast you’d write software just for fun, but one day you discovered your hobby could also be your career, and now you get paid to do what you love.

Pragmatists may enjoy coding, but they do it for the outcomes. If you’re a pragmatist, you write software because it’s a good career, or for what it enables you to do and build.

There’s nothing inherently good or bad about either, and this is just a simplification. But understanding your own starting point can help you understand and avoid some of the problems you might encounter in your career.

In this post I will cover:

  1. Why many companies prefer to hire enthusiasts.
  2. The career problems facing enthusiasts, and how they can solve them.
  3. The career problems facing pragmatists, and how they can solve them.

Why companies prefer hiring enthusiasts

Before we move on to specific career problems you might face, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture: the hiring and work environment.

Many companies prefer to hire enthusiast programmers: from the way they screen candidates to the way they advertise jobs, they try to hire people who care about the technology for its own sake. From an employer’s point of view, enthusiasts have a number of advantages:

  1. In a rapidly changing environment, they’re more likely to keep up with the latest technologies. Even better, they’re more likely to do so in their free time, which means the company can spend less on training.
  2. Since they’d write software for free, it’s easier to pay enthusiasts less money.
  3. It’s also easier to get enthusiasts to work long hours.
  4. Finally, since enthusiasts care more about the technical challenge than the goals of the product, they’re less likely to choose their work based on ethical or moral judgments.

But while many companies prefer enthusiasts, this isn’t always in the best interest of either side, as we’ll see next.

The career problems facing enthusiasts

So let’s say you’re an enthusiast. Here are some of the career problems you might face; not everyone will have all these problems, but it’s worth paying attention to see if you’re suffering from one or more of them.

1. Exploitation

As I alluded to above, companies like enthusiasts because they’re worse negotiators.

If you love what you do you’ll accept less money, you’ll work long hours, and you’ll ask less questions. This can cause you problems in the long run:

So even if you code for fun, you should still learn how to negotiate, if only out of self-defense.

2. Being less effective as an employee

Matt Dupree has an excellent writeup about why being an enthusiast can make you a worse worker; I don’t want to repeat his well-stated points here. Here are some additional ways in which enthusiasm can make you worse at your job:

  • Shiny Object Syndrome: As an enthusiast it’s easy to choose a trendy technology or technique for your work because you want to play with it, not because it’s actually necessary in your situation. The most egregious example I’ve seen in recent years is microservices, where an organizational pattern designed for products with hundreds of programmers is being applied by teams with just a handful of developers.
  • Writing code instead of solving problems: If you enjoy writing code for its own sake, it’s tempting to write more code just because it’s fun. Productivity as a programmer, however, comes from solving problems with as little work as needed.

3. Work vs. art

Finally, as an enthusiast you might face a constant sense of frustration. As an enthusiast, you want to write software for fun: solve interesting problems, write quality code, fine-tune your work until it’s beautiful.

But a work environment is all about outcomes, not about craft. And that means a constant pressure to compromise your artistic standards, a constant need to work on things that aren’t fun, and a constant need to finish things on time, rather than when you’re ready.

So unless you want to become a pragmatist, you might want to get back more time for yourself, time where you can write code however you like. You could, for example, negotiate a 3-day weekend.

The career problems facing pragmatists

Pragmatists face the opposite set of problems; again, not all pragmatists will have all of these problems, but you should keep your eye out to see if they’re affecting you.

1. It’s harder to find a job

Since many companies actively seek out enthusiasts, finding a job as a pragmatist can be somewhat harder. Here are some things you can do to work around this:

  • Actively seek out companies that talk about work/life balance.
  • When interviewing, amplify your enthusiasm for technology beyond what it actually is. After all, you will learn what you need to to get the results you want, right?
  • Demonstrate the ways in which pragmatism actually makes you a more valuable employee.

2. You need to actively keep your skills up

Since you don’t care about technology for technology’s sake, it can be easy to let your skills get out of date, especially if you work for a company that doesn’t invest in training. To avoid this:

3. Pressure to work long hours

Finally, you will often encounter pressure both from management and—indirectly—from enthusiast peers to work long hours. Just remember that working long hours is bad for you and your boss (even if they don’t realize it).

Programmer, know thyself

So are you an enthusiast or a pragmatist?

These are not exclusive categories, nor will they stay frozen with time—these days I’m more of a pragmatist, but I used to be more of an enthusiast—but there is a difference in attitudes. And that difference will lead to different choices, and different problems.

Once you know who you are, you can figure out what you want—and avoid the inevitable obstacles along the way.

It’s Friday afternoon. You just can’t write another line of code—but you’re still stuck at the office...

What if every weekend could be a 3-day weekend?

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10 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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‘I Am So Bad at Making New Friends!’


Dear Polly,

I would like to be a joiner. I would like to be able to go to social gatherings — get-togethers, church groups, public classes — and meet people. I’ve never really admitted that out loud before, not even to myself.

It’s not that I don’t know how to...More »

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11 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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Sex, Drugs and Family Violence: Navigating Christmas Lunch

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And so this is Christmas. And what have we done?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ve had a massive year and you’re looking forward to a mixture of eating, drinking, sleeping, laughing, eating some more, drinking again and possibly getting into a fight with Uncle Kev[1].


Because it’s Christmas in Australia mate, and fights with conservative uncles are just part of the deal. Unless you don’t celebrate Christmas, in which case I hope you enjoy your fights during Hannukah, Eid or the re-release of Mash.

First things first: I say the Judo-Christian “honour thy family” dictum is bullshit. It should be amended to “honour those people who honour you”. I like to keep people close, but if you have family members who genuinely distress you and/or are abusive, you are under no obligation to see them.

Ok, you’ve decided to go to the family lunch and you, like me, are the family member who is known for having “firm views”. This is hilarious considering that Uncle Kev’s views are the ones that are always raised first, spoken most loudly and most often, but whatevs; if you’re the firecracker in your family, you will be baited eventually. Some of my extended family go so far as to literally mime casting a fishing line as they say something offensive, just to see what I’ll do. Let’s reel her in and watch her try and get off the hook.

How do I respond?

Depends on the person, how I’m feeling and who else is there.

My main strategy these days is to smile and let them talk.

I find that within a 45 second period Uncle Kev has dismantled his own argument. He’s a bit like Pauline Hanson – give him long enough and he’ll go from Asians to Aborigines to Muslims and somehow end up at vaccination causing Autism. By the time he’s diagnosing everyone on the spectrum, the whole family has left him in his recliner.

Another approach is to answer honestly, but without emotion.

Say, for example, Uncle Kev says, “Nelly was probably down that Bourke St Mall protesting for refugees…” I smile and say, “Yes I was” … and wait for the dead air to cause a collective panic attack. Invariably one of my cousins will diffuse the tension and chime in with, “Well, you’d know Kev, given you were there at the TAB!”  Gambling addiction, so funny.

Another tack is to ask questions.

I learned this one while working on ABC radio and taking talk-back calls (good practice).

Uncle Kev says, “I don’t know why those women just don’t leave!” Obviously, those women are victim-survivors of family violence, and instead of quoting the evidence or the research (facts can’t counter emotion) I might ask one or all of the following:

“Why do you think they don’t leave?”
“Where do you think they’d go?”
“Why didn’t Nanna leave?”

Uncle Kev’s answers will vary but generally I find asking him to account for his own views is far more effective that me telling him what to think or worse, telling him that his question is stupid. It’s funny, but people don’t like to be told they’re stupid – especially when you’ve had far more educational and other opportunities than they ever had.

Questions work in more light-hearted situations too.

Let’s say Uncle Kev cracks a “joke” about my youngest daughter (she’s 6 years old and has a pixie cut):

“Hey Nelly, why does she look like a boy?!”

 “What do you mean?”

“Her hair! Look at her hair! It’s so short!”

“Yes it is. Looks good, doesn’t it.”

Sharp intake of breath.

“You know my hair is short, right? So is Christine’s. So is Aunty Flo’s. So was Princess Di’s.”

“Yeah, but… yeah.”

“Are we done?”


(Or you could ask how his Ashleigh and Martin is going)

Speaking of, there’s always humour.

That is, using a joke to mock, undermine or otherwise show Uncle Kev for the fewl that he is being.

Weirdly, I avoid this if I can.

My friend Jackie Kashian (American comic, look her up) talks about her Dad hurling an insult at her at Christmas lunch about her weight (endless LOLs). She looked at him and said, “Careful dad, just remember that I do this for a living.” I have honed my comedic comebacks over 16 years on stage and I am conscious of the power imbalance of a war of words/jokes with Uncle Kevs. If the insult is outrageously offensive or deliberately mean, the gloves come off, but I hold my arsenal pretty tight – make love, not war – and, in fact, I find the absolute best retort to any insult or heckle about weight, your job, your life, your kids – or whatever – is just to say, “You really hurt my feelings then.”


Watch Uncle Kev discombobulate! If he doubles down and insults you again, you’re almost guaranteed that someone else will come to your defence. Kicking someone while they’re down is about as Un-Australian as ball-tampering in back-yard cricket (although Uncle Kev no-doubt does both). If your family does collectively like to see someone kicked when they’re down, then LEAVE. See point one.

Finally, I fight. If I really have to, I will throw a conceptual elbow. Nice girls don’t always win and sometimes you have to make a fuss.

If, for example, Uncle Kev repeated any of the following real-life pearlers from the Thomas Christmas family archive, I would fight:

“Aboriginal people would be happier if they all went back to the desert”

“Some of those rape victims just make it up for attention”

“Muslims want Sharia Law here”

“Australia is being swamped by Asians”

“Sometimes those women ask for it”

(you get the gist)

There are two sides to every story and sometimes, one of them is wrong. I would tell Uncle Kev – or anyone else – who said these or similar things, that they are wrong. No equivocation, no placation. YOU. ARE. WRONG.

I would do this for three reasons: they are wrong; the standard you walk past is the one you accept, and, my kids are watching. If standing up against these beliefs results in a fight that ruins Christmas, so be it.

My default position is always to be respectful and nice, but I won’t let hate go unchallenged – I’m a woman over 40, I’m over that shit and I won’t be silenced by fear. (As an aside, I’m pleased to say that while I have required sedation, the Thomas Christmas never has resulted in a walk-out).

I’ll leave you with this story:

Last year we went to Bali for a family holiday. I was walking along in Kuta with my 10 year old daughter and her friend when a shop-keeper yelled across the road, “Hey sexy Mum, you come over here Rhonda….” (that bloody ad). I considered just laughing it off or, at most, giving him the bird, but I was conscious of the two young women watching me. Instead, I walked over to him and said, “Don’t speak to me like that and don’t ever speak like that in front of my girls.” He backed off and made some remark while the other shop-keepers fell about laughing. I looked down and saw two girls looking back at me like I was some sort of super-hero. A year later, they still talk about it.

So, as many of us gather this December to celebrate the birth of baby bon-bons, remember that you may not win with Uncle Kev, but you may convince Uncle Doug. Even better, you may let Aunty Cheryl know that you don’t think she’s stupid for not leaving or cousin Jamie that you don’t think he made it up. Resistance is worth it, just for that.

May peace be with you.

[1] I love my Uncle Kev. This Uncle Kev bears no resemblance to mine, for real.

Nelly Thomas is a comedian and author. If you’re looking for excellent Christmas presents for an irritating family member, buy their kids a copy of each of Nelly’s kids’ books – SOME GIRLS and SOME BOYS – both of which challenge gender roles and stereotypes. Available at Book Shops or here.

The post Sex, Drugs and Family Violence: Navigating Christmas Lunch appeared first on Victorian Women's Trust.

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11 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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I hate manager READMEs


I got feisty on twitter this week and wrote up some tweets on manager READMEs, a recent hot trend in management. Let’s break them down:
Dropping f-bombs is one of my "quirks"

Well, what can I say, I’m sick of this trend. I’ve been a skeptic from day one, but what pushed me over the edge was watching one of my senior engineer friends react to this article on the concept. It mirrored the loathing I’ve heard from several senior engineers as well as the general negative reaction most managers in my trusted circle have about the concept. But we’ve got a lot of people trying to popularize the idea, so enough’s enough, and today I’m willing to be the critic to this well-intended exercise.
I will always tell it to you straight whether you like it or not, except when doing so will open me up to excessive criticism or otherwise rock the boat too much, and then I’ll probably just roll my eyes behind your back

Look, fellow managers: there is no way to write these and not be self-serving. You are writing them presumably to shortcut problems that arise when people misunderstand your behavior or when they act in a way you don’t like or otherwise violate some expectations that you believe are within your rights to set. And hey, I’m a boss too, I get it. You want people to respond to your emails within a certain timeframe, fine, that’s (maybe) a reasonable expectation. If most of the manager READMEs were essentially descriptions of what behaviors you expect from your direct reports in the performance of their job, I might not mind so much. It’s a bit crass (sounds more appropriate for a manager of a factory floor than a manager of “knowledge workers”), but could be effective.
But then there’s this idea that you can build trust with this exercise, and you do that by being brutally honest about your own flaws, your values, and the behaviors they should expect from you. That is where I really take issue with this process.

First of all, be real: you probably do not know yourself as well as you think you know yourself. It’s the Dunning-Kruger of self-awareness. If you’ve gone through any deep coaching, self-awareness practice, or therapy, what you learn over time is how hard it is to be 100% honest about yourself and your motivations. If you’ve gone through very little of that, well, you are almost certainly in deep denial about your behaviors and how well they actually reflect your conscious beliefs. I know myself well enough to know that I might usually behave in alignment with certain personal values and expectations, but I will break that alignment at the worst possible times (you’re most likely to break with your best intentions in times of high stress).

What happens when you put out this declaration of vulnerability and earnestness and self-awareness and then you behave in such a way as to completely contradict the thing you claimed to be? You damage your credibility, hard. You damage the trust you might otherwise have built with your team. And you make it harder for people to call you on your hypocrisy, because they know that you don’t actually see yourself this way. It is incredibly difficult to tell someone that the thing they believe about themselves enough to publicly declare is, in fact, not true. It’s hard to tell your partner that, it’s hard to tell your friends that, and it’s basically impossible to tell your boss.

Yes, of course, you said that you want feedback, that you respond well to feedback. That does not actually change the fact that you have a huge power differential to the person who reports to you. I like to think that I respond well to feedback, and I ask for it from people throughout my tree. I don’t actually expect them to believe me about that, because I’ve had too many managers who claimed they wanted feedback and then reacted to my honest feedback by shutting me down, blaming me or others, or otherwise making it clear that maybe they do want some feedback, sometimes, but not this feedback, not at this time, not in this way.

If you want to build trust, you do that by showing up, talking to your team both individually and as a team, and behaving in an ethical, reliable manner. Over, and over, and over again. You don’t get it from writing a doc about how you deserve their trust.

One of the worst parts of these docs is the airing of your own perceived personality faults. I suck at niceties. I get heated sometimes in discussions. I don’t give praise very much. If you know you have foibles/quirks that you in fact want to change about yourself, do the work. Don’t put them out there for your team to praise you for the intention to do the work, just do it. And while you get to decide which of your foibles/quirks/challenges you will or will not change about yourself, as the manager, it is on you to make your team effective and that may in fact mean changing some things about yourself that you don’t want to change. Writing them down feels good, like you’ve been honest and vulnerable and no one can be surprised when you behave badly, after all you warned them! But it does not excuse these bad behaviors, and it certainly does not take the sting away when someone feels shut down by your rudeness or unhappy from a lack of positive feedback. If you must write a README, please skip this section. Keep your bad behaviors to yourself, and hold yourself accountable for their impact.
I care about you and want you to feel seen but also I want to not come off as a total opinionated bitch when someone inevitably disagrees with me

I believe many people who are doing this are really trying to do the right thing. I see your good intentions. But good intentions don’t just magically make bad ideas turn good. Everyone writing one of these is trying to make it easier for their teams to work for them. But the unintended consequences of these docs given the power differential between you and the people on your team are real and serious. Recognizing that you are human and have flaws and preferences is great! But trying to codify them into a README is folly because for everything you know about yourself there’s another thing you don’t know, and your documentation is out of date the minute you write it down. You’re not a computer.

I've gotten a LOT of coaching

You know where these kinds of docs are useful? As a coaching, therapy, or personal introspection exercise! I love doing stuff like this for myself. It’s great to spend time writing down things that you believe about yourself. But the thing is, to make that process really useful, you then need someone who helps you dig into which of the things you believe about yourself are really true, and which are stories you’re telling yourself. You need a person who is in a position to hold you accountable when you stray from those stated values, or who can help you refine them better as you learn more about yourself. And that person is not someone who reports to you. That person may only be yourself, or maybe it’s a coach, or a therapist. I wouldn’t even really recommend trying to make your own manager do this job, because it’s probably not something they’re trained to do.

So maybe I’ve convinced you, and maybe I haven’t. If none of my arguments so far have convinced you not to write these for the purpose of sharing with your team, perhaps my final words will:

You’re probably just wasting your time, because no one reads the docs anyway!

If you’d rather read something funny, check out Tim’s parody, “A User Guide from My 5-year-old”

Enjoy this post (or hate it)? You (still) might like my book, The Manager’s Path, available on Amazon and Safari Online!
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16 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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A Tribute to YouTube Annotations

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On January 15, YouTube will delete every video annotation.

Last year, YouTube announced they were phasing out the Annotations Editor in May 2017, preventing any new annotations from being made. But according to the announcement, legacy annotations would still be available. “Existing annotations will continue to show when using a desktop computer.”

That changed yesterday, when YouTube quietly added an update to their Help section. “We will stop showing existing annotations to viewers starting January 15, 2019. All existing annotations will be removed.”

The reasons why the annotations feature was removed are clear:

  • Annotations were never supported on mobile devices, and would have been awkward to implement on small screens.
  • It was difficult to support across devices, including TVs and other third-party hardware.
  • Most annotations were obnoxious, like popup banners and spammy notes hiding the video.

But YouTube annotations were supported for nearly a decade, and a significant number of creators used them to great effect — games, interactive art, education, footnotes, and corrections — and removing them fundamentally and irrevocably breaks a core part of YouTube history.

Here’s just a small piece of what we’ll lose in two months when annotations are gone. Watch them while you can.

Note: All the videos below must be viewed on a desktop browser with annotations enabled.

Interactive Adventures

From the moment that YouTube announced Annotations in June 2008, they were already proposing its use for the creation of games and interactive stories. The blog post links to this simple Shell Game video from May 14, 2008 as an example, quite likely the first YouTube game ever made.

Annotations were particularly well-suited for choice-based Choose Your Own Adventures, stringing together a collection of videos that let viewers decide the story.

The first I remember was Tube Adventures, a simple Spanish choose-your-own-adventure video. Terminator Interactive Game, a simple FPS by a 12-year-old boy, showing just how accessible these games were to create.

Stupid Mario Brothers took a live-action, and occasionally NSFW, approach to the Mario franchise, while Choose A Different Ending took a more gritty approach.

YouTube creators Chad, Matt & Rob pushed the genre further with a series of five interactive adventures: The Time Machine. The Treasure Hunt, The Teleporter, The Birthday Party, and The Murder.

Interactive Films

By 2014, filmmakers were using annotations to make interactive films with bigger production values and more attention to storytelling and screenwriting, winning nominations and awards for their innovation.

Love & Engineering let you use annotations to switch between characters and story world at any time, with four filmmakers, two characters, and one persistent chat conversation.

Sirens tells the story of a young man asked by his fugitive brother to retrieve a mysterious bag.

La Linea Interactive is a tribute to cartoonist Osvaldo Cavandoli’s animated series, using a series of buttons to determine the story.

One of the most beloved, and widely viewed, examples is an animated Guy Collins’ Kaizo Trap, which subtly used annotations to hide multiple endings, including a secret maze. (Spoilers here.)


Complex programming wasn’t an option, but many other genres of gaming — including adventure, shooters, and trivia — were all possible using simple hotspot/linking schemes, and particularly popular with brands for advertising. Here are some highlights.

Though they’re best known for the enormously popular React channels, The Fine Brothers made a series of 8-bit style interactive games based on Twilight, Mad Men, Freaks & Geeks, and Saved By The Bell, among others.

Starting days after the 2008 election, Barack Paper Scissors eventually sprawled into 15 levels with over 1,000 videos and 3,000 annotations.

YouTube Street Fighter is exactly what it sounds like.

Bboy Joker is like a memory game meets stop-motion dance battle.

Blend Your Own Adventure. Remember BlendTec? Pick any two items, and Corey Vidal will blend them up, and drink the results.

Here’s an odd one: someone recreated a non-interactive Tetris playthrough with tiny annotation blocks. Turning off annotations just shows a blank video.

Musical Experiments

Possibly my favorite annotated YouTube video of all time, Neil Cicierega’s Haircut is an interactive adventure song you won’t want to miss.

The band Moones recorded five music videos at various states of drunkenness from 20-80 beers, letting you use annotations to jump between their increasingly sloppy performances.

Make Me Play a Song lets you choose piano keys to string together a song played on guitar.

Constantly strumming guitar chords, The YouTube Electric Guitar turns the players into an instrument. With changes to the embed, the chord annotations are now covered by the interface. Try the Theater Mode for best results.

Some people used annotations for lo-fi art. Here’s one with over 100 annotations to draw Sonic the Hedgehog. (Here’s a timelapse of how it was made.)

Adam Ben Ezra created YouTube Radio, an interactive radio letting you switch between genres of short songs and jingles he created.

Collaborative Annotations

What if YouTube comments were directly on top of the video instead of underneath it? If this sounds like the worst idea of all time, you’re not far off.

Likely inspired by the popularity of Nico Nico Douga in Japan, YouTube announced Collaborative Annotations only eight months after launching Annotations, allowing video creators to invite others to add collaborations, or just post it publicly and wreak havoc.

The results were about as chaotic and toxic as you’d expect. The 4chan and YouTube poop communities loved it, as you’d expect. Here are some typical examples. (CW: Racism/sexist slurs.)

But it wasn’t all bad.

This video claims to be the first collaborative art project, burying the underlying video in annotations created by anyone.

TVTropes documents the history of The Annotated Series, a channel devoted itself to heckling videogame-related animated series, uploading episodes with open annotations for the community to contribute. Several of their accounts were shut down for copyright strikes, but many are preserved with annotations baked into the videos for posterity, and others available on their new channel.

In “Let’s Jab” videos, contributors are encouraged to add their annotations to Let’s Play videos.

Nonetheless, the ability to creative annotations collaboratively was shut down a year later.

Context and Metadata

In the launch announcement, YouTube pointed to this skydiving video as an example of how annotations could be used to deepen videos, easily giving additional commentary without editing the video itself.

Shout Factory used annotations to provide context to full-length Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, explaining every obscure reference.

Videogame historian Frank Cifaldi used annotations to give detailed notes about the Japanese-only NES game Mr. Gimmick in a four-part longplay.

Annotations could be used for providing a handy table of contents to many other videos, or simply skipping around in the same video.

In this creative example, a guitarist uses annotations to show guitar tablature overlaid on top of his performance. (Another example with different formatting.)

By far, the most-viewed annotations ever have to be the ending of nearly every Movieclips video, which lets you select other scenes from the same movie, clips from movies by the same cast and crew, and related clips by genre, mood, or setting. With over 30,000 videos and 18B views, every annotation link in their pre-2017 videos will break in January.

Composer Austin Wintory used annotations to provide running commentary for the complete Journey soundtrack.

Here, a filmmaker uses annotations for director’s commentary. Not interested in the commentary? Turn off the annotations.

Annotations can be used for providing additional context on historical footage, as in this footage of the 1975 German Grand Prix.

Corrections and Footnotes

As viewership shifted to mobile, creators stopped using annotations for critical features or creative experimentation because there was no guarantee a viewer could enable them. But there was still one place creators used annotations: for providing corrections after a video’s release.

Because YouTube doesn’t provide a way to replace a video, making meaningful edits is impossible. So many creators continue to use annotations to correct mistakes or add additional context inline, at the appropriate part of the video.

Unfortunately, all of those footnotes, errata, and additional context will be permanently lost.

Saving Annotations

If you’re a YouTube creator who actively used annotations, there’s not much you can do. The youtube-dl utility offers a “–write-annotations” option to save annotations to XML, but I don’t think any other site supports it.

If there’s a video you loved that used annotations heavily, I encourage recording yourself playing through it just for posterity and uploading it to YouTube. It won’t be the same, but it’s better than nothing.

Did I miss your favorite use of YouTube Annotations? Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter.

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16 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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1 public comment
17 days ago
I like the idea of non-destructively adding optional stuff to a video, but Youtube's annotations in practice were worse than hell. Good riddance lmao
Victoria, BC
16 days ago
amen. if I had to guess the percentage of videos that had useful annotations, there would be a lot of leading zeroes.
14 days ago
The option to disable them always reset as well, eventually I just gave up on them. Can't say I am going to miss them.
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