Virtual Spaces Roundup

I’ve bumped into a few different takes on virtual spaces in the past few months, thought I’d share a few:

Sprout (https://sprout.place): Sort of a scrapbook-meets-chat room vibe. What I think is interesting about this is that it recognizes that modern communication is often messy, with a variety of mixed media and different attention spans.

Skittish (https://skittish.com): This one is made by Andy Baio (who also runs Waxy, founded Upcoming, and is one of the organizers behind XOXO), and takes the idea of a virtual space quite literally. One of the neat things about this one (aside from the cute event spaces and avatars) is that it uses spatial audio, so if you need to have a quiet conversation with one or two people, you can literally move your avatars away from others and do so, without actually leaving the space or switching to another room.

WFH.FM (https://wfh.fm): This is less about communication and more about shared vibes. It lets you create a space you can then share with others (with or without the edit code to let others also add to it), where you can add various bits of media, gifs, videos, music. Like Sprout, it has a sort of scrapbook thing going on.

Hopin (https://hopin.com): This is a bit more of a traditional approach to virtual spaces, so more like a series of chat rooms that have video integration (both streaming talks, and also for group video). The most recent Write the Docs event used it, and I think it was pretty effective overall (no real hiccups that I could tell, though I wasn’t privy to the behind the scenes).

Crows Developer Conference (and again in 2021): Okay, SO. This feels more like Old Internet™ than anything I’ve seen in ages. The development team at Crows Crows Crows made an “alternative to GDC” during the pandemic, complete with talks and art installations and people roaming around a weird, weird 3d virtual space. I haven’t checked to see if it’s still running, but you can at least go read the promo emails and get a sense of what it was all about. The other spaces I listed are, y’know, usable/useful for y’all, but I had to include this one as well.

Anyway, just wanted to share a few services for folks to check out. There are plenty more out there if you bother to look – these are just a few I’ve personally bumped into lately. Virtual spaces: they’re not just chatrooms! They’re not just games! They’re not just commercialized saccharine sanitized corpo-shit!

The Soul of the Web

Over at The Atlantic, Kaitlyn Tiffany has an article on The Battle for the Soul of the Web – a headline that may sound a little dramatic, but is touching on some important topics. The article touches on a few different topics, but a central one is about the decentralized web (DWeb), and where that both intersects and contrasts with the Web3 space. It’s an interesting topic that is worth a deeper dive if you care about online spaces at all.

Decades removed from the gonzo highs of blinging GIFs and wacky blogs, the web is now a place where many people feel exploited, manipulated, and tracked; where freedom of speech is being tugged around in a strange culture war; and where the rich get richer.

Among this set, one solution seems to be the consensus favorite. If these problems are intrinsically linked to consolidated tech giants like Meta, Google, and Amazon, why not embrace technologies that decentralize power? 

Kaitlyn Tiffany

I’ve been railing against and ranting about information silos for years, so I suppose it’s no surprise that this line of thought might be a little appealing to me. I’ve had a passing interest in the potential of technologies like IPFS for years, for instance, though it remains to be seen how things pan out, and what adoption looks like – how much broad adoption is necessary for a technology or philosophy on technology to sustain itself and become independently viable?

That said, I think they’re at least asking the questions, and that’s a good start:

Nathan Schneider, a media-studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a frequent writer on collectivism and tech, told me. “DWeb asks more,” he said, and dwells on two key questions: “What do we actually want socially, and how do we center those values in our technical designs, so the technical becomes a means to an end, rather than an end in itself?”

There’s obviously some overlap between some decentralized web efforts, and decentralized finance efforts. I hope that the former doesn’t get dragged down because of the latter (or, more specifically, the scam-filled gold-rush that congealed around DeFi in recent times). There’s lots of questions I don’t have answers to about this (perhaps others do?), like how do we make the technology useful, approachable, ubiquitous… without also making it a target for those who want to exert power and control, and exploit it? User congregation around particularly useful or interesting tools or information is inevitable, and with that, how do you prevent just making silos all over again? (Another topic that gives me a headache is how to shepherd information accuracy, and curb disinformation in a world where oversight is virtually impossible?)

Moonlight

When I was younger, I’d often sleep with my head at the foot of the bed. This was for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest was that it put me at the right vantage to watch the stars and the moon rise over the trees outside my window. It wasn’t every night, but certainly often, that I’d look up and mentally map out the patterns on the moon.

Sometimes that would be accompanied with thought exercises, daydreaming of being on the moon and staring back at the Earth, or thinking about if my soulmate was out there, right at that moment, also looking up at the sky, our thoughts reflecting off the lunar surface and connecting us.

Other times were more pragmatic, trying to remember the names of the different maria and which were which, or squinting and trying to see the “man in the moon” – something that never quite connected for me, alas.

As I’ve gotten older, I don’t spend as much time staring up at the night sky, but I still do think about it. Especially when it’s bright and full, large on the horizon. It feels like it’s calling to me, and I feel a surge of energy as the world is painted in moonlight, like I should be racing over hills and dales and through forest glades bathed in that pale shadowlight. It doesn’t happen as often now, as I’m older, wearier, more shackled to the world, but it does still happen. I hope it never stops.

Someday, I’d like to go the moon.

The Metaverse is Bullshit

I haven’t really added much to the discourse about Meta’s attempt to create the “Metaverse” – a term pulled from a cyberpunk novel (Snow Crash) – largely because there’s frankly already plenty of folks saying what I’d want to say. But hey, they once again made “big advancements” today with the addition of lower bodies for their virtual avatars, and just… for fuck’s sake.

I don’t entirely blame the development team working on this. I’m sure there’s some very smart people involved, and some of them may even have prior experience with virtual worlds and game development – though that might be optimistic, based on the results so far. I say I don’t entirely blame them, because it’s a very high profile, expensive project, with a lot of direct pressure and visibility from the head of the company. That’s bound to fuck up a roadmap or two.

More Ranting INcoming

Why Canadian Thanksgiving

I often wish people a happy Canadian Thanksgiving (which is today!), which prompts a fair number of responses of “Oh, are you Canadian?” And then puzzled looks when I say that no, I’m not. SO, here’s a brief explanation:

  1. My family has a summer house on the lake in New England (I’ve mentioned it frequently on here, so this should surprise no one). That house is not winterized, so while it’d be great to host American Thanksgiving there, that’s too late in the year, far too cold out, and the house needs to be closed up and the water turned off well before then. Canadian Thanksgiving, however, is in early-mid October, which is a lovely time to be at the lake, and a reasonable time to have one last shindig before shutting down for the winter. That’s basically why my family started celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving (we also do the American one, because why not have two turkey days). When I moved to the west coast, however, I couldn’t afford to fly back for the big family gathering. So we started hosting our own, inviting friends and cooking up some tasty food.
  2. I may not be Canadian, but I do have friends and family who are, so why not celebrate with them?
  3. There is the added benefit of doing a little harvest-festival gathering, too, instead of Columbus Day (because seriously, fuck that guy). It’s a nice well-wishing event, and much more neighborly. (There’s also Indigenous People’s Day today, which is also a worthwhile replacement.)

So, yeah. I highly encourage others to also get in on the action — any excuse to get people together to break bread and be sociable is a good one in my book.

Ambient Friends

Found via Lucy Bellwood, Bobbie Johnson has a great insight on “ambient friendships“:

Social media is built on ambient relationships. You post, you tweet, you share; I read, I listen, I see. Maybe we interact briefly. But I can feel closeness to you without actually having it. 

To make things even more complicated, we can exist on both sides—creators and consumers of other people’s thoughts, and each other’s. But so often I see what you’re doing, you see me, but we’re never quite talking to each other. 

Ambient friendship.

Bobbie Johnson

Modern internet socialization in a nutshell, right there. There’s some thoughts churning connecting it to thoughts about some of Sherry Turkle’s work, but I’ll save that for another time.

The Old Days are Gone

Over on Matt on Tumblr, the head of both WordPress and Tumblr shared his thoughts on how the old, porn-y days of the internet are likely not coming back (for better or for worse).

That said, no modern internet service in 2022 can have the rules that Tumblr did in 2007. I am personally extremely libertarian in terms of what consenting adults should be able to share, and I agree with “go nuts, show nuts” in principle, but the casually porn-friendly era of the early internet is currently impossible.

Matt Mullenweg

He goes on to list some reasonably well thought out arguments as to why he feels that way. Something I appreciate is that none of the argument is a moralistic one, it comes down to practicalities. Allowing sexual expression on a platform is challenging when the financial and regulatory Powers That Be™ are definitively anti-porn. Which is pretty maddening – there’s nothing wrong with consenting adults having fun on camera, nor is there anything wrong with those consenting adults getting paid for their work (and it is work). Yet because some senior executive at Visa feels squicked by it, the entire industry is left scrambling to find ways to let people give them money.

Anyway, it’s a quick read and some decent food for thought, so go take a gander.

Go Blog More

I obviously agree, seeing as I’ve been blogging for ~20 years now. But it did get me thinking about what I’d like to see out of a modern blogging system. (More specifically, self-hosted blogging systems.) There’s nothing wrong with WordPress, per se, but just as a thought exercise, what would I want to do differently if I were going to write blogging software?

  1. Built in subscription reader. One of the things that systems like Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook get “right” is that consuming and publishing happen in the same place. It’d be great to see an integrated RSS reader, with easy re-sharing functionality built in. Ideally, the RSS reader would be Open Reader compatible, so those who want their own RSS reader can integrate with it if desired.
  2. Customizable Editor(s). Make a nice rich text editor, sure, but also make it easy to swap out for markdown or other solutions, so users can choose what works for them.
  3. Strong Native APIs. That’s kinda broad, but I also mean it kind of broadly. WebSub, Webmentions, RSS, everything for both writing TO the blog and reading FROM it. This would allow for some interesting potential applications that could build from the blog backend, and leave room for custom frontends using any number of different frontend frameworks (React, Vue, and so on).
  4. Media is a First-Class Citizen. Photos and video should obviously be supported, and with a good organizational structure for files and attachments (I know they’ve put in a fair amount of work on it but I’m still pretty unhappy with how media is handled in WordPress). Further, support for multimedia embeds and unfurls from other services.
  5. Dead Simple POSSE. As a reminder, POSSE stands for Publish on Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. It’s the principle of posting everything you can on a site or service you control, and then letting integrations with other services share that content to other sites (such as automatically cross-posting images to your Instagram or announcing new articles on Twitter, et cetera). I realize this is somewhat limited by other services being willing to play ball (they want to capture your content, not share it, which is why you’ve seen many services get progressively more locked down).

It’s worth noting, a lot of these things you can already sorta do with WordPress. You don’t hear a lot about the WP API, but it does have one. Likewise, there are several alternative editors, including a “Classic” editor for those who don’t like the new Gutenberg editor, and ones that enable Markdown. It’s really about making it all feel built in, not tacked on, where the reading and writing flow feels natural.

What “killer feature” would you want to see that would help you start blogging?

Trying to Remove Anonymity is a Terrible Idea

Over at Garbage Day, Ryan Broderick discusses yet another recent pundit talking about how we should remove anonymity or pseudonymity from the internet, and start requiring everyone to use their real and verified name. It’s a fucking terrible idea for so many reasons, and I think Ryan put it quite well:

None of these questions seem to enter the equation when already-verified pundits write neoliberal fan fiction about how the internet could be redesigned to make them more comfortable. But, also, to even consider this argument while the country of Ukraine, anti-war protesters inside of Russia, and Iranian citizens all digitally organize and wage info wars against oppressive state actors and while Brazil navigates a deeply contentious election featuring a coup-loving WhatsApp-amplified would-be dictator incumbent is, frankly, absurd. It’s also a functionally impossible idea.

But let’s say it was possible. Magically, overnight, the internet became read-only for anyone who wasn’t verified by some kind of posting passport system. Not only would that absolutely knock dozens of countries and thousands of communities off the internet immediately, it would turn the social web into essentially the same kind of thing people see on broadcast media. Which sucks and is boring and exactly why the internet is so popular. I think it’s particularly funny that people who make this argument assume that anyone would even keep using the internet if the only thing they could do on it was read posts from verified users. In fact, I have never written anything more confidently in my life than what I am about to write right here: Verified users are without question the worst part of any mainstream platform and if you want to imagine a world without online anonymity, go tell me about the incredible original content trending on LinkedIn right now.

Ryan Broderick

Yup. There’s a laundry list of reasons removing anonymity/pseudonymity is both a bad idea and a technical impossibility (even systems that claim to require a real name like Facebook are filled with fake accounts). It also wouldn’t solve what they think it would solve – the internet didn’t invent gossips, mob mentalities, shunning, nor sociopaths. Even cynically, things are a just a bit more “writ large”, a bit easier to bump into or get embroiled in. And that wouldn’t change with some cockamamie “real id” system.

Simple Language is Better

I’ve ranted about this before, but here’s yet another article (this time in The New Yorker), “Why Simple Is Smart” about how using simple language is better, and using overly elaborate, verbose, or jargon-y language is a sign of insecurity, not knowledge.

Simple is smart. High school taught me big words. College rewarded me for using big words. Then I graduated and realized that intelligent readers outside the classroom don’t want big words. They want complex ideas made simple.  If you don’t believe it from a journalist, believe it from an academic: “When people feel insecure about their social standing in a group, they are more likely to use jargon in an attempt to be admired and respected,” the Columbia University psychologist Adam Galinsky told me. […] Why? It’s the complexity trap: Complicated language and jargon offer writers the illusion of sophistication, but jargon can send a signal to some readers that the writer is dense or overcompensating. 

Derek Thompson

Aside from that central talking point, the rest of the article is also a nice read, discussing some basic tips towards better writing (writing musically is an interesting note, for instance). It’s a quick read, so just go read the article yourself.