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.

The Tchotchke Internet

The Tchotchke Internet is a social media landscape of digital flair and knick-knacks, a direct evolution of the freemium user experience. It’s the small ways that users can spend money (or make money) to have a better experience on social media. It’s Reddit Gold, Discord Nitro, Twitter Super Follows, celebrity verified checkmarks, premium Zoom calls, NFT galleries, Ethereum domain names in your bio, Fortnite skins, Roblox Robux, personal Minecraft servers, custom Twitch emotes, Linktree URLs, cryptocoin giveaways, Clubhouse invites, and social media partner programs.

People are spending a lot of money to express themselves online and most of what they’re paying for is basically the digital equivalent of an emo kid’s backpack covered in Hot Topic pins, random little digital artifacts that bely some kind of personal identity.

Ryan Broderick

It’s a clever, and I think apt, name for how the internet has shifted recently, and continues a trend we’ve been seeing for a while around virality, monetization, and content creation. We’ve been talking about “influencer culture” for a while, and I think this is a (perhaps inevitable) continuation of that trend. I think that the “digital flair” is definitely an attempt at status signaling, but also an attempt for some to feel like they can still express themselves and be part of the larger dialogue. As the nature of discourse on the internet increasingly feels like broadcasts (one-to-many, and largely in one direction), having little ways to make your mark feel increasingly important.

Continue reading “The Tchotchke Internet”

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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Instagram Influenced Architecture

From the Guardian: Snapping point: how the world’s leading architects fell under the Instagram spell. We’ve always had architecture-as-spectacle – if anything, Instagram is just the latest in a series of driving forces. But it’s still worth thinking about. Something the author notes:

Configuring buildings and public spaces as selfie sets may well work for tourism promotion and the buzz of a launch, but once the novelty factor has worn off, the whimsy can grate and the flimsiness become all too apparent. The urge for quick, affordable spectacle often leads to stick-on, paper-thin cladding materials that look good in photographs, but weather terribly. The stained, peeling facades of the last decade stand as a grim testament to prioritising photographability over function.

Oliver Wainwright

Art is wonderful, and public art is essential. It enhances and enriches the spaces we inhabit. But when we insert an overtly capitalist motivation of cashing in on a craze, we sacrifice the care and consideration in how we craft this art.

Something this also gets me thinking about is replication. That is, our penchant for seeing an interesting photo, and striving to replicate it. This isn’t new, and in many cases is designed (consider things like Yosemite, where you round a corner and get a reveal of El Capitan or Half Dome. You stop, and say “Wow,” and take a picture. This experience was designed, over a century ago, and is part of why we have 400 million nearly identical shots of these locations). It just bums me out, for some vague reasoning I can’t quite put a finger on, that rather than being inspired by an interesting photo, there is this impetus to simply replicate it. I should probably chew on that a bit.

Media Layoffs Galore

My heart goes out to the journalists at the multiple organizations laid off this week (and more). Something like a thousand laid off in the space of a week. Fast Company has a solid (and scathing) article about the recent Buzzfeed layoffs: BuzzFeed’s layoffs and the false promise of “unions aren’t for us”. It paints a pretty bleak picture of where things are at, why, and what we can expect more of in the future.

But as an outlet largely dependent on social platforms like Facebook, BuzzFeed was forced to follow platform trends. When Facebook announced it was focusing on video content, BuzzFeed turned its resources just to that. Brands like Tasty were born, which force-fed ubiquitous birds’-eye view videos of generally unappetizing food to the masses. And for a while, this seemed to work. Videos were performing well, thanks to Facebook’s algorithmic push, and BuzzFeed once again looked like a digital trailblazer. But this bet was predicated on the whim of a social network known for pendulum strategy shifts at the expense of its clients; this pivot didn’t take into account what would happen if Facebook changed course. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Facebook did precisely that.

Human-Scale Online Games

Over at Lost Garden, Daniel Cook has a fantastic piece looking at how to create “human-scale” online games, and why that’s a better approach to MMOs. This is some really fantastic, well thought out stuff, and not just for games: what they’re really talking about is how to build community, thanks of the using online games like for exampleno deposit casino games you can learn everiything about those in glitchrunners.co.uk.

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One way of thinking about the constraints suggested by Dunbar’s Layers is to imagine you have a budget of cognitive resources that can be spent on relationships. The physical limits of your human brain mean that you only have enough mental budget for a total of roughly 150 relationships.

Humans have developed a few tools that have expanded our ability to organize into groups well past our primate cousins—most notably language—but also large-scale systems of government and economics. In the early 2000s, people assumed that new technologies like online social networks could help break past Dunbar’s Number; by offloading the cost of remembering our friendships to a computer, we could live richer, more social lives, with strong relationships to even more people.

We now have copious data that this is not the case. Studies suggest that there’s still a limited budget of cognitive resources at play and even in online platforms we see the exact same distribution of relationships.

If anything, social networks damage our relationships. By making it possible for us to cheaply form superficial relationships (and invest our limited energy in maintaining them), such systems divert cognitive resources from smaller, intimate groups out towards larger, less-intimate groups. The result is that key relationships with best friends and loved ones suffer. And, unfortunately, it is the strength of these high-trust relationships that are most predictive of mental health and overall happiness.

Daniel Cook

It’s a long read (which you might have guessed by the size of my pull quote), but well worth it.

More Social Media Diets

I mentioned John Green’s decision to take a year off (most) social media before. Well, he’s posted an update, a month in, and I think he sums up my own feelings pretty well:

In a similar vein, I also recently bumped into this video by the folks at Veritasium, and I think also touches on some really valid views of what’s so bad about social media as it stands:

Not going to bother adding a lot of meta-commentary, here. I think they make their points well enough on their own.

Hurdles to a New Social Web

My last post was discussing the state of social media (and frankly, the internet), and a possible future. I feel like I can say relatively objectively that things are pretty broken as they currently stand, in an actively harming society sort of way. But when you’re entrenched, it can be incredibly difficult to see a way out, even if you know you need to. I wanted to take a minute to talk about some of the hurdles to moving on from this mess. (Fair warning, this is a little long.)

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The New Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the internet will look like in the future. Right now, it’s dominated by social media in one form or another, with large, megacorp silos acting as our primary sources of information and discourse. This is a shift from the “DIY” homegrown state of the early internet — while there were absolutely megacorps that cornered entire niches of the internet (think about the likes of AOL, for instance), it didn’t feel like quite as much of a stranglehold. There was lots of room for growth and plucky startups and homegrown projects. A proliferation of open source projects to run your own websites in all sorts of wacky configurations (lots of weird mishmashes of CMSes, blog software, forums, galleries, with some shaky handcrafted glue between them all). Lots of platforms, lots of different standards and protocols popping up all the time, and nothing really talking to each other all that well. Early attempts at cohesion had mixed success (OAuth, yay! RSS, woo! Trackbacks… um).

Given that sort of morass, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of these homegrown solutions gave way to professionally run central services. Tired of fiddling with your tumble log? Go sign up for Tumblr. Microblogging micromanagement got you down? Check out this Twitter thing. Sick of managing 500 logins to different forums? Roll on over to Reddit. Gallery software galling you? Find your way to Flickr! They handle the backend, you provide the content, and your audience grows as their userbase does! Sounds great, right?

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