Instagram “Flops”

Just to get this out of the way: when I say “flops,” I’m not talking about posting a picture that gets no likes or anything like that. I’m talking about a new type of account/method of communication that’s been popping up. The Atlantic has an excellent article talking about this: Teens Are Debating the News on Instagram.

It’s interesting. On one hand, I’m fascinated by just how much each generation strives to find a place of their own, to discuss and grow among their peers. It’s like weeds — life will find a way, and will make use of whatever environment they have available to them. Couldn’t they use forums, or Facebook groups, or blogs, or tumblr, or any of the other tools that have already come up that are arguably better suited for discourse and sharing thoughts? Maybe, maybe not. Many kids have very limited spaces for a sense of autonomy and privacy. Their web browsing is monitored by schools and parents, their phones have parental controls on what can and can’t be installed. So they make do with the tools they have available. There’s a critical mass of their peers on Instagram, and it’s generally accepted by parents and schools to have on your phone. So you use the tools you have. A big part of me says “fuck yeah, good job kiddos.”

But then there’s the other hand. The approach leaves a lot to be desired, and the limitations of the tool they chose to use create some inherent flaws in what’s happening. You are effectively signal boosting hateful things by posting them as flops, and only those who bother to read the comment beneath the image will even know that you are posting it to call out the behavior rather than to endorse it. It requires inside knowledge of what a flop even is in order to understand the context, in a medium that is far more broadly shared (it’s not like the images are segregated, they’re woven right in with the rest of your feed or in discovery). There’s also the factor of the psychological impact of immersing yourself in the negative – it has a toll.

A lot to mull over, here.

Certbot Gotchas

As a project this week, I’ve been doing some backend maintenance for my web hosting, which includes getting everything set up with SSL certs through Let’s Encrypt. (The writing is on the wall: most sites that can switch to HTTPS should switch to HTTPS. Not just for the added security for you and your viewers, but also because browsers and search engines and similar are starting to give warnings if it’s NOT secure.)

Thankfully, the days of having to pay an arm and a leg for a cert have passed. Let’s Encrypt is a free non-profit service (in partnership with other orgs including EFF, Mozilla, and Akamai, to name a few), which generates free, short term SSL certificates for your site. (For larger organizations, you may want to still throw down on a longer term set of certs, but for personal use this is great.)

Using the certs is pretty straightforward: they’ve created a tool that can run on your web server called certbot which streamlines the process and also monitors and automatically renews the certificates when they’re close to expiration. Installing certbot is pretty straightforward: it’s available via various package managers (apt and similar), so chances are good that whatever OS your server is running can install it pretty easily.

That said, there are still a few gotchas that I felt like got glossed over in the docs I was reading/following when using the tool, so here’s a few notes:

  • Be explicit about your domains: certbot doesn’t currently support wildcards (i.e. being able to say *.nadreck.me and have that handle any subdomains like images.nadreck.me). Instead, list them all out if you want them to share a certificate, and that includes both with and without www. So, for example, you might want to do something like sudo certbot --apache -d nadreck.me -d www.nadreck.me. If you don’t include both, someone going to your site using the address that wasn’t specified may end up getting the site blocked and the user warned of something potentially fraudulent.
  • If you already generated a certificate for a domain and need to update it (maybe you added a subdomain, or forgot to add www), the command you’re looking for is --expand. (I would have thought “update”, but no.) Note that when expanding a certificate, you need to re-list all domains you want included (you don’t just list the one you’re adding). So, using nadreck.me as an example again, if I wanted to add “images.nadreck.me” to the existing cert, I’d do sudo certbot --expand -d nadreck.me -d www.nadreck.me -d images.nadreck.me.
  • Keep it separated: the certs are free, there’s no need to overload the cert with a ton of domains. While it makes a certain amount of sense to bundle a domain and subdomains together, there’s no need to make one cert for all your sites. criticalgames.com shares a cert with nadreck.criticalgames.com, but not with nabilmaynard.com, if that makes any sense.
  • You can’t preemptively add sites to a cert. Certbot/letsencrypt performs a challenge response as part of the process to make sure you actually own the site you’re trying to set up, so if you haven’t actually set up that site or subdomain, the challenge will fail and the cert won’t be generated correctly. If you wanted to add, say, files.nadreck.me to your certificate, you’d need to set up that subdomain first, then expand your certificate. (The site can be empty, but the URL needs to resolve and land somewhere real.)

Anyway, hope that helps! The process really is pretty straightforward, and I recommend getting things set up to anyone maintaining a website these days.

Orbital Operations and other thoughts

So, if you’re not already subscribed to Orbital Operations yet, you really should sign up. Warren Ellis finds some pretty interesting stuff to share on a pretty regular basis, and it gives you something to read in your inbox that isn’t just more marketing spam.

In this past week’s edition, someone asked about his daily routine (and how he manages to keep up with current affairs while still making deadlines). The advice is pretty solid, but I particularly liked this:

You can see my considerable advantages here. I spend a lot of time on my own, and mostly in my office. You can emulate these obvious role-model traits by excavating yourself a cave in your back garden or taking over a room in your apartment, fitting it with uncomfortably bright lights and way too many screens, filling all the spaces with books and skulls, playing nothing but music that sounds like it’s emanating from a dead moon, and waiting for everyone to leave you alone forever, and then dying in seclusion and being eaten by cats.

I hope that helped.

Living the dream, sir.

In a similar vein, in the same missive, there’s something I think is worth calling out:

You don’t have to live in public on the internet if you don’t want to. Even if you’re a public figure, or micro-famous like me. I don’t follow anyone on my public Instagram account. No shade on those who follow me there, I’m glad you give me your time – but I need to be in my own space to get my shit done. You want a “hack” for handling the internet? Create private social media accounts, follow who you want and sit back and let your bespoke media channels flow to you.

These are tools, not requirements. Don’t let them make you miserable. Tune them until they bring you pleasure.

I think that’s something we often miss: we’re so stuck into the “social media” groove, where everything is performative and virtue signaling and signal boosting and broadcasting to your readers, that we forget that it’s still a choice. We can opt out, or use the services how we want to use them (and discard them when that is no longer viable). Even if presence feels mandatory nowadays, participation is not.

I don’t think I personally need a series of private accounts — I’m not even “micro-famous” (though I’m still tickled when something I say or do pops up in a larger space). It does give some food for thought about how I have and use the accounts I do have, though. It’s sort of where I’ve already been heading — giving less of a shit about building a readership and more about sharing brief thoughts and things I think are interesting. Paring down or tuning out the rage machine (that’s not to say ignoring current affairs, but I really don’t need 57 hot takes on the same situation), and filling my time with stuff that feeds me in some way. Something to work towards, I’d say.

Tracy Ullman’s Woke Support Group

It’s true. It’s super easy to start overthinking everything. Being “woke” is a good thing, but like she says, it’s a slippery slope. (To be clear, intersectional awareness is valuable, as is being aware of the consequences of your actions. But you can take it too far, where you’re actually causing more harm than the thing you’re calling out. Don’t @-me.) It also reminds me of a CollegeHumor bit:

What Watson Thinks of My Personality

Via Kottke, the Watson group at IBM has created a Personality Insights service analyzing social media (tweets) to determine your personality. This is what it had to say about me:

You are inner-directed and shrewd.

You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. You are adventurous: you are eager to experience new things. And you are solemn: you are generally serious and do not joke much.

Your choices are driven by a desire for discovery.

You are relatively unconcerned with tradition: you care more about making your own path than following what others have done. You don’t find taking pleasure in life to be particularly motivating for you: you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.

You are likely to:

  • be sensitive to ownership cost when buying automobiles
  • like historical movies
  • read non-fiction books

You are unlikely to:

  • like country music
  • be influenced by social media during product purchases
  • be influenced by family when making product purchases

It then goes on to graph out various traits and values, like openness, conscientiousness, introversion/extroversion, curiosity, etc. Nothing too surprising, seems to jive with my own sense of who I am (mostly – I do actually find taking pleasure in life to be pretty motivating, though I suppose I can see why it’d report what it did if that’s being treated as an either-or spectrum). This is both neat, and a little scary, because of the implication as to what an accurate personality read means as far as profiling and privacy are concerned.

Link: The Missing Building Blocks of the Web

Over on Medium, Anil Dash talks about The Missing Building Blocks of the Web, which is actually an article I’d meant to link to ages ago, then forgot until Kottke linked to it. There’s no magic-bullet for solving the internet-mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, but there’s a lot to be said for “back to first principles” thinking. Some of it is going to be more realistic than others — getting “View Source” back to something useful, given how complex web development has become, is a bit optimistic, though I do agree with the notion of finding ways to improve it, given our multi-component sites. A core through-line for a lot of this post is getting back to the idea of everyone having their own stake in the internet:

There’s no reason it has to be that way, though. There are no technical barriers for why we couldn’t share our photos to our own sites instead of to Instagram, or why we couldn’t post stupid memes to our own web address instead of on Facebook or Reddit. There are social barriers, of course — if we stubbornly used our own websites right now, none of our family or friends would see our stuff. Yet there’s been a dogged community of web nerds working on that problem for a decade or two, trying to see if they can get the ease or convenience of sharing on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram to work across a distributed network where everyone has their own websites.

Now, none of that stuff is simple enough yet. It’s for nerds, or sometimes, it’s for nobody at all. But the same was true of the web itself, for years, when it was young. This time, we know the stakes, and we can imagine the value of having a little piece of the internet that we own ourselves, and have some control over.

Link: Velcro City Tourist Board

In the vein of blogs seeing a revival, Paul Graham Raven over at Velcro City Tourist Board has a good post that’s worth a read about returning to blogging (I am hopeful that the revival proves true, but the rationale and reasons he calls out are valid regardless of whether he wanders off again):

Of course, that rolling discourse hasn’t vanished; it just migrated onto faster, more accessible and more populous platforms, and in doing so became far faster, far thinner, and far more clamorous. Sure, there’s still blogging going on, too, but it’s changed a lot, and in some places died back almost entirely: the Genre Fiction Blog Wars in which I was once a footsoldier appear to have gone full scorched-earth in the years since I went AWOL from the front lines, with many once-vital sites vanished, shuttered or abandoned; my RSS reader is full of URLs I still can’t quite bear to cull, in case they should suddenly start up again like a much-loved numbers station in the night. I’m looking for new sources more relevant to my current incarnation as an academic, but the process is slow, not least because the old tradition of cross-linking and inter-site commentary (and, yes, argument) has been replaced by something more decontextualised, more lone(ly)-voices-in-the-wilderness. I dunno, maybe it’s just me overinterpreting five years of change through a very personal lens, but it’s definitely not the same any more; you can make your own value-judgement on that qualitative shift.

I’ve felt it too — while I’ve certainly been noticing a return to the Isle of Blogging, the energy is different. Less optimistic, perhaps, but less drawn in by the desire for a crowd as well. We’re here because we want to be.

Link: AMP Thoughts

Oh, AMP. You (theoretically) mean well, but you’re an ethical swampland. In that vein, some links to share: First, Jeremy Keith has an article, Ends and Means, that is worth reading, and explores both the quagmire that is AMP, and also the well-meaning mess that Mozilla is currently planning regarding locking all new features (including unrelated things like CSS) to only work if you’re on HTTPS.

Second, Chris Coyler over at CSS Tricks wrote a follow-up, AMP News, which is also worth a read (and links to multiple other writers who are discussing this topic).

It’s pretty obvious where I land on this particular topic (I mean, I even co-signed the AMP Letter). I just don’t think paternalistic behavior jives well with a message of an open internet. A real question I think they (and others) should be asking is: is this technology a management-change away from being unethical? If so, maybe you should reconsider.