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.

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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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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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Notes on Confabulations

I recently picked up a book by John Berger, Confabulations — a collection of short, informal essays (almost vignettes). It’s a quick read, and I enjoyed it — I’ve read Berger before, but nothing more recent than 1980 (About Looking), so it was interesting to see what he’s been thinking about lately. Several of the essays were effectively eulogies for friends, the uniqueness and color of which I appreciated:

What Sven was politically has not yet been named — maybe it will be in the next twenty years, when the world transformations taking place today are better understood. For want of a better term, he was content to be called an anarchist. Had he been labelled a terrorist, he would have shrugged his shoulders.

It wasn’t all eulogies, of course. In a different vein, I also appreciated this imagery:

All the town’s trades are connected with water, and the isolation which this implies perhaps explains the physique of its inhabitants. The women and men of Comacchio are recognizably different from their neighbours. Stocky, broad-shouldered, weather-tanned, big-handed, used to bending down, used to pulling on ropes and bailing out, accustomed to waiting, patient. Instead of calling them down-to-earth, we could invent the term: down-to-water.

I like this image, because it reminds me of people I know, and it fits well.

A recurring theme was the state of the world. A particular disdain for corporatist bullshit, which, again, I appreciate. His essay about Rosa Luxemburg had some great quotes, which I think are worth remembering today, when things are tense and shitty:

‘To be a human being’, you say, ‘is the main thing above all else. And that means to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life in the giant scales of fate if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud.’

That quote is from one of Rosa’s letters from prison — Berger intersperses the essay with quotes from her, while the structure is itself written as a letter to her. I think it’s a good message, and one worth repeating.

Extracting a Nested JSON Value in Python

First, some context: I’ve been working on some Python libraries at work that do things with sets of json data. This is generally pretty easy: Python has a nice library for reading json, so it can be worked on as a native dictionary object in Python. This is great for simple json objects, but there’s some pretty complex json data sources out there, whether it’s being returned as part of an API, or is stored in a file. Sometimes you need to access a specific value from a key buried a dozen layers deep, and maybe some of those layers are actually arrays of nested json objects inside them.

While both arrays and dictionaries are native to Python, so you can do this, it’s kind of a pain. Thankfully, many smart people have already been tackling things like this, which is how there are now handy libraries implementing a (pseudo-standard) approach for getting the value given a specific json path. (There’s even an online evaluator to help you craft a good jsonpath.) The one I’ve been using is called jsonpath-rw. When I looked at the docs for jsonpath-rw, I was a little frustrated, and I wanted to take a minute to write out my eventual understanding, in case there are other folks in a similar boat to me.

Note: I’m not primarily a programmer (currently I’m a Technical Writer, and prior to that I was a QA Engineer — mostly exploratory, not automation), so while my example works, there’s probably more robust and pythonic ways to do the same thing. Continue reading “Extracting a Nested JSON Value in Python”

My Take on the WWDC Keynote: Net Positive

First, if you’ve not watched the WWDC Keynote yet, you can watch it here: WWDC 2016 Keynote (You can also see a write-up over at Wired and a Liveblog of the event at Engadget.) There are a few things that came up that I think are pretty notable.

First, Continuity continues to be a big push: Apple wants as seamless an ecosystem as possible across all devices and platforms in their stable of products. We started seeing some elements of this in Yosemite and El Capitan, and it looks like they’re doubling down on it in Sierra. I have some reservations about this — mainly, lock-in and whether or not it will play well with third parties. The concept itself, though, makes a ton of sense. I’m curious to see what sort of response we’ll see from Microsoft and Google in this space (MS is starting to point this direction with their push towards a single core across platforms, but at the same time we’re seeing a de-emphasis of Windows Phone, so curious how this will play out).

Second, Machine Learning. All the big players are getting into it (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant), and Apple has clearly invested heavily in this area, with tight integration of Siri into iOS and macOS. One thing I think is notable about Apple’s choices with this, though, is keeping the AI on-device, rather than web-driven. I’m very curious to see how this evolves in future releases.

Third, Security, Privacy, and Encryption. Several times in the keynote, they made a point of calling out that they’re NOT building profiles of user, and are keeping PII on your device, not on their servers. This emphasis on privacy (and security) pervades a number of the choices they’re making, which I applaud them for committing to. While I disagree with some of their product decisions (single-port computers, charging ports on the bottom of the new magic mouse, etc), I genuinely appreciate that they’re sticking to their guns in the face of pressure from the government.

Fourth, Opening up new APIs. A big concern I’ve had in recent releases from Apple is continued lockdown of services, where it felt like if you weren’t Apple, you couldn’t play on the playground. This release sees several integrated services get opened up to third parties (Messages, Maps, Siri being the big three to me), which gives me some hope that Apple isn’t entirely forgetting what made OS X so great.

Fifth, Swift Playground. It’s worth noting that this closed out the keynote, and for good reason. Apple is committing to bringing programming into education in a big way, by making what appears to be a robust learning app that targets youth where they are (mobile devices like iPads), teaching them a language they can directly use for real, complex applications. This is a big win for both Apple and STEM: For Apple, it gets a new generation of developers started using their tools, environment, and language, which you can bet will make an impact on what they choose to use in the future. For STEM, they’re providing free tools, free resources (entire books, including guides on how to teach it and incorporate into your curriculum), already targeted to youth. That’s awesome. You can read more about the whole initiative at their Everyone Can Code page.

It wasn’t covered in the keynote, but has been brought up elsewhere: they’re also releasing a new Apple File System, replacing the old and creaky HFS+. This is significant: Apple’s been using HFS (and then an expanded HFS+) for basically the entire time Mac OS has existed. From reports, it sounds like a robust, next-generation file system that brings some brilliant and essential features. While we likely won’t see the OS truly make the most of these new features until the version after Sierra, this is still quite interesting, and I’m excited to see what gets done with it.

Overall, it felt like a productive developer-centric keynote. It leaves me feeling cautiously hopeful about the future of the ecosystem, and that they’re placing their bets in the right places.

Loving Language

I was talking with a friend the other day about what I call “intellectual fappery.” This is in reference to the sort of academic papers (in particular in art criticism or art theory) that are so wrapped up with jargon and linguistic flourishes that it’s unreadable to a lot of people. It never made much sense to me that they’d do this (why make it harder to win people over to your point of view), and I sort of presumed that it was some sort of smug self-aggrandizement, speaking opaquely to keep out the riff-raff. (Another alternative is that they’re simply too inept at communicating their ideas, and so hide it behind linguistic flourishes.)

I had a minor epiphany, though: while some may be putting on airs, a lot may simply be in love with language. Not in terms of communication, but as expression. Flowery turns of phrase, using ornate, overly complex language not because they want to obscure their message, but simply because they think ornate, overly complex language is pretty. In short, an entire body of writing (looking at you, art theory and art critics) that prioritized form over function.

This doesn’t really make it any more fun to read (especially since you’re usually subjected to it as part of studies, rather than reading it by choice), but it does at least seem like a kinder way to look at things.

Wading into the Brambles

I’ve been debating doing NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve participated on and off for years, though I’ve never finished. At this point, it’s been a long time since I’ve written fiction (or told any sort of story, fictional or not), and I miss it. It’s a little weird to say that, since a) there’s technically nothing stopping me from doing it now, and b) I was never all that amazing at it. (I’m trying really hard not to just completely bag on my writing ability, since people seemed to generally respond favorably to what they read, and bear in mind Ira Glass’s quote on creative work, but it’s hard. Even with the stories I was moderately pleased with, there was SO MUCH room for improvement.)

I do miss it, though. It’s weird — I’ve felt blocked to the point of frustration for years now, and unable to bring myself to get past it, even though I know the answer is simply to keep it up until I get through the brambles. I’ve been thinking about it a lot for a while now — the dearth of creative outlets and making in my life, and it really struck home a little while ago. I was having a conversation with someone who is a maker and doer (and just generally awesome person), and we were talking about hanging out sometime, and they said they looked forward to hearing/seeing what I make. I was instantly filled with embarrassment, because I felt like I had nothing to offer to that conversation. I love creative people — it’s what I’m attracted to, both in friends and otherwise — and when given this opportunity to make a more solid connection with someone I already liked and wanted to get to know better, I felt like I had nothing to contribute.

Note, it wasn’t anxiety, it was embarrassment. I was embarrassed — I felt like I was a poser who’d been called out on their facade. I realize that isn’t really fair to myself or entirely accurate — there’s room for people who celebrate art and creativity, who are supportive and the first to cheer others on, and that doesn’t somehow make them a sham. But feelings aren’t rational, and it doesn’t feel like enough to validate the role creativity has on my personal identity.

So, it’s time to wade into the brambles again. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember what telling a story feels like on my tongue, the heft and shape of a narrative in my fingers. It’s time to correct that. I’m debating doing NaNoWriMo this year, and it almost doesn’t matter if I finish, as long as I actually begin.