WordPress, Tumblr, and the Web

Over at The Verge, Nilay Patel has a good interview with Matt Mullenweg called How WordPress and Tumblr are Keeping the Internet Weird. (Matt is the CEO of Automattic, which owns WordPress and recently acquired Tumblr.) The interview covers a lot of ground, but there were a few highlights for me. For instance, I thought this was a good take on the state of open source and the tragedy of the commons:

Tragedy of the commons is from economics actually. It’s a story. There’s a common field that belongs to this town, but it doesn’t belong to any one person. If all the farmers brought their sheep and cattle to graze in that field, but none of them were investing in maintaining it — maybe not having their particular sheep or cattle lay off it so things can regrow. The field gets overgrazed and dies. No more grass. Everyone loses.

In open-source, it’s very easy for companies to use open-source without contributing anything back, but that’s kind of one of the features of it. We can’t complain about it really, because that is what the license says you can and should do. But I think that companies who think more long-term say, “Okay, I’m getting a ton of value for this. I’m not paying a penny. How do I make sure that this is around five or 10 years from now?” We’ve seen examples of libraries that the whole internet depends on.

Matt Mullenweg

Also, I really love the idea of this open, transparent approach to decision making and discussion for a company:

What’s interesting at Automattic is there’s no internal email. I get a handful of emails a year from my colleagues. Everything happens on these internal blogs. What that means is we have essentially an organizational blockchain where every single decision going back to 2007 is on one of these internal blogs. You can find how every piece of code works, or every business decision, or every logo. Everything is in there somewhere.

Even if you and I decided something in a meeting, we need to write it up afterwards. It’s on this P2, so people can participate in it asynchronously. Future generations or future versions of ourselves who’ve forgotten why we made a decision can tell why we did that.

Finally, we try to say, “Reversible decisions quickly, and irreversible decisions deliberately, or slowly.” We put pretty much every decision into two categories. Most — 99% of what you do — is very reversible. Some things are really big. Who you take funding from, acquisitions — these things are hard to unwind, so you need to make those decisions very deliberately.

Matt Mullenweg

I don’t think it’d be the right choice for every company, because frankly not everyone is wired that way, but if you can cultivate that sort of culture, it’s really appealing to me.

It was also interesting to get some insights into his plan for Tumblr, which gives me a bit of hope:

It used to be every post we did on Tumblr, people would say, “Oh, you launched this new feature. Why haven’t you gone rid of the porn bots and Nazis?” So we had to do that. There were porn bots and bad people publishing on Tumblr, and we’ve done our best and still today are doing our best, to keep it a healthy, positive place on the web. If I have to say what I would love for Tumblr to be — besides just an alternative, another place you can go that’s different from the other social networks — is a place for art and artists.

Art is necessary for society. It feeds the soul. It’s naturally transgressive. Art pushes boundaries. We need to evolve how Tumblr moderation works to encompass that. It needs to be the best place on the web for art and artists — a place where they can have a direct relationship to their audience and people can follow things, not an algorithm that’s trying to enrage you.

And then further down, this continues:

If we can create a third place on the internet that doesn’t have an advertising model — you might have seen that we just launched an ad-free upgrade for Tumblr. Twitter and Facebook never do that because their business models don’t allow them to. But, luckily, since Tumblr isn’t making very much money right now, we can afford to do that and make it the model. I think that’s pretty cool. We have a really decent chance to bootstrap a non-surveillance-capitalism-based social network, which I think is impossible for the incumbents right now. They just have the golden handcuffs.

Definitely some food for thought.

The SEO Arms Race

Anil Dash has a solid post called Underscores, Optimization & Arms Races, discussing the early days of search engine optimization, and Google’s role in our tuning content and even how the internet functions to appease it. He’s coming from a background of helping create some of the early CMS and blogging tools of the time, so it’s definitely an “in the trenches” sort of perspective, which I appreciate.

Eventually, people wanted to have the whole title of their article show up in the web address. Part of this was just because it looked cool, but some folks had started to suspect that having those words in the address might help a blog post rank higher on Google. (Google was still a smaller player in the overall web search market at the time, but it was already by far the most popular search engine amongst internet geeks.)

They weren’t wrong – it improved how parseable an article was for readers, and also seemed to help with page ranking on Google. But you have to break up those words somehow, so were you going to do it with dashes, underscores, or some other character?

There was a feel of Kremlinology to the way his minor public utterances would be parsed for any hints that outsiders could glean about Google’s inner workings. But just as often, Cutts would make clear pronouncements of What To Do, and these were received by the SEO community almost as religious edicts.

Cutts recommended dashes (not for any particular technical reason as far as I can tell), and so that’s what was adopted en masse. There was never a reason underscores couldn’t have worked just as well. Now, it’s a pretty minor quibble, and realistically, one option tends to become a de facto standard eventually anyway. So why does it matter? Because the more we constrain ourselves to fit what large corporations want, the more we constrain and limit what might be possible with the internet.

Now, the challenge is to reform these systems so that we can hold the big platforms accountable for the impacts of their algorithms. We’ve got to encourage today’s newer creative communities in media and tech and culture to not constrain what they’re doing to conform to the dictates of an opaque, unknowable algorithm. We have to talk about the choices we made in those early days, even at risk of embarrassing ourselves by showing how naive we were about the influence these algorithms would have over culture.

Contra Chrome

Found via Kottke, Leah Elliott has an excellent comic up called Contra Chrome, which is an “update” on Scott McCloud’s comic that was done back in 2008 to introduce Chrome. It’s pretty well researched, and calls out a lot of the bad behavior around privacy and surveillance that Chrome does right now (and is planning to do in the future).

I’ve talked before about how Chrome’s market dominance is a bad thing, so consider this yet another reminder: use something else. If you’ve not tried Firefox in a few years, you’ll likely be quite surprised at how responsive it’s become.

Work and Pandemic Clarity

Sara Wachter-Boettcher has an article on how “Work needs to stay in its place.” Good read, and not a long one (by Medium’s estimate, you’ll be done in 9 minutes). It discusses how our relationship with work is shifting (or at least, many of us want it to shift), at least in some small part caused by the pandemic.

The loss of routines and norms caused tech and design workers to reflect on their lives — and many didn’t like what they saw: 11pm Slack messages. DEI lip service. Calls for “self-care” followed by reminders that even though the team was understaffed, the Q2 roadmap wouldn’t be changing.

People told us how their eyes felt open for the first time to how bad things really were — and it led many to reassess everything. They might not have the answers figured out yet, but one thing feels clear: they’re never going back to “business as usual.”

The post also links to a longer report, if you’re so inclined.

I’ve got a lot of feelings about work and careers and the “rat race.” To be clear, I like my job, I like my colleagues, I still put in the time and the effort when I’m working. But I still find myself looking forward to every Friday and if not dreading, at least feeling resigned to having to go to work on Monday. It’s not the work, it’s the structures of work that wear me the hell out. To paraphrase Fry Pan Jack, handing your brain over to others for 8 hours a day on the presumption that they’ll return it in an unmutilated condition feels like a sucker’s bet.

Social Media is Ruining Us

Over at the Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt has a piece on Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid. I don’t completely agree with his premise and feel like some of the examples are a bit of a reach, but the central premise – namely, that social media (and especially algorithmic social media) is rapidly eroding the social fabric and making us collectively dumber – feels pretty spot on, with some citations from research on the matter to back it up.

But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations. As I wrote in a 2019 Atlantic article with Tobias Rose-Stockwell, they became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will.

Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.

Further:

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.

This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”

As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.

And let’s not forget what current trends in AI end up allowing:

Now, however, artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation. The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become far more capable. In a 2020 essay titled “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained that spreading falsehoods—whether through text, images, or deep-fake videos—will quickly become inconceivably easy. (She co-wrote the essay with GPT-3.)

It’s a bit of a long read, and it’s okay if you don’t 100% agree with his points, but there’s a lot there worth considering. He does end the piece somewhat hopeful, by offering some suggestions on things that could be done to help the situation. I’m a bit less optimistic that we’ll be able to implement any of those reforms, and unfortunately have no other ideas of ways to come back from our current state.

Lost Touch

An article from The Guardian that’s been sitting in my backlog for a while (it was published back in January, 2021), Eleanor Morgan discusses “Lost touch: how a year without hugs affects our mental health“. It’s not a particularly long read, but does have some good links to research and other information about the impact not having enough human contact in your life can have.

As adults, we may not comprehend the importance of touch even when it disappears. “We might begin to realise that something is missing, but we won’t always know that it’s touch,” says Prof Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist based at Liverpool John Moores University and a leader in the field of affective touch. “But when we talk about the problem of loneliness, we often ignore the obvious: what lonely people aren’t getting is touch.”

Certainly strikes true to me.

“Touch is a modulator that can temper the effects of stress and pain, physical and emotional. We have seen in our research that a lack of touch is associated with greater anxiety,” says [Dr. Katerina] Fotopoulou. “In times of high stress – the loss of a job, or a bereavement, for example – having more touch from others helps us cope better, particularly in calming the effects of [the stress hormone] cortisol.” Even if we’re used to not being touched a lot, after a while the need can feel very physical – sometimes described as “skin hunger” or “touch hunger”.

I also thought it was interesting to hear about CTs – nerves we have that are keyed for gentle contact:

The two square metres of skin that contain us are teeming with nerve fibres that recognise temperature, texture and itch, etc. One set of fibres exists purely to register gentle, stroking touch: the C tactile afferents (CTs). [Professor Francis] McGlone has been studying this since 1995, when it was discovered in humans. “These neurons, in the skin of all social mammals, transmit slow electrical signals to the emotional processing parts of the brain. They play a critical role in developing the social brain and our ability to withstand stress.”

I’ve discussed loneliness and depression on here before, it’s a bit of a recurring topic. I’ve seen and read other articles discussing the topic of the need for physical contact (and could have sworn I’d linked to some on here, though they seem to be escaping my search at the moment), and it’s something I’ve definitely given a lot of thought to – I’ve gone through various periods in my life where I had very little physical contact, and know from experience what a difference it can make on my general health, happiness, and wellbeing.

Efficiency != Effectiveness

Over on fs.blog, an article discussing how Efficiency is the Enemy. It’s got some solid observations, mostly gleaned from a book on the subject by Tom DeMarco called Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency. For instance:

It’s possible to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack. It’s also possible to make an organization a little less efficient and improve it enormously. In order to do that, you need to reintroduce enough slack to allow the organization to breathe, reinvent itself, and make necessary change.

Tom DeMarco

There’s been some articles already that talk about the idea of leaving room for flexibility and inspiration in creative endeavors, but I do think it applies to other kinds of work as well. The urge for “efficiency” I feel like is driven by the same Puritan-work-ethic mentality that loads up children with hours of homework every night – namely, that idleness is inherently wasteful, rather than an essential part of healthy productivity and learning.

Digital Nomad Timeline

Found via Kottke, here’s an excellent timeline of the idea of remote work and digital nomadism. The idea has been around for a long time – the timeline starts in 1964, with Arthur C. Clarke predicting it (well before it was broadly feasible – it’s sort of remarkable how much some of those 50’s and 60’s futurists managed to nail it). It’s been a long time coming, and while it’s not for everyone, the pandemic certainly gave many more people the chance to try it out. (It’s an imperfect trial, since being in quarantine and many places in lockdown isn’t necessarily indicative of what it would be like if you didn’t have that restriction and background stress.)

It’s unsurprising but sad that many companies are already insisting people come back to the office, despite it: a) arguably being too early given vaccination rates, new infections, and variants; b) not being necessary, based on general productivity gains and losses compared to in-office; c) not being what their employees want, many of whom seem to prefer either remote or a hybrid of in-office and remote. (Personally, I’m quite happy working remotely 90% of the time, but recognize that it’s useful to get some real face time, too. Anecdotally, I seem to do best when I’m off remote most of the time, then go into the office maybe once or twice a week. I’d be interested in trying out something like being primarily remote and then coming to work from the office for a week or two maybe once a quarter or a few times a year.)

Anyway, definitely some food for thought, and interesting to see the sort of evolution and adoption of digital nomad lifestyles across the past few decades.

The Outrage Machine

Over at Garbage Day, Ryan Broderick discusses A Unified Theory of Online Anger, noting how algorithmic social media has effectively been weaponized (notably by the right, but let’s be honest, not just by them). They’re not wrong.

As these trending main characters go viral on Twitter, hundreds of online outlets race to turn this into content. And there’s a real financial incentive for covering these stories. As most people working at various content mines can tell you, the thing Facebook readers love the most is getting mad about stuff that’s happening on Twitter.

Ryan Broderick
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