An Implosion

Twitter is imploding currently, for a multitude of reasons. It’s been a while coming (I’ve talked about this several times before, for what it’s worth). I have a lot of mixed feeling about this: some schadenfreude, some grief at the disintegration of a service I’ve spent nearly 15 years on, some anger and disgust at how Muskrat has handled the entire situation. It’s a train wreck I’ve had a lot of trouble looking away from.

I suppose it’s worth clarifying: I realize the service itself is still technically functioning (there’s been some degradation in some areas, but the core service is marching along). But it feels… well:

That’s the vibe. In some ways the chaos is actually fun, but in a “last days of summer” sort of way.

SO, I’ve dusted off my Mastodon account, and have been using FediFinder to pull in as many people from my Twitter lists as I can. (It’s pretty straightforward: link your twitter account and your mastodon account, and then it searches your follows for mentions of their mastodon account, and builds a CSV file that Mastodon can then import automagically.)

Next steps is figuring out how to get everything hooked up so I can cross-post effectively, in a non-shitty way. I’m sure there are already plugins to do it, but figuring out which one to go with I suspect will be a little trial and error. Also: if you’ve got a mastodon account and I haven’t found you yet, please let me know! I’d be happy to follow and keep in touch.

Engagement is Not Engagement

John Green’s latest vlogbrothers video touches on something worth thinking about:

He’s talking about the low-calorie social media debates that drive what we call “engagement” – namely, more comments and likes or dislikes – which leads to increased view counts, and higher priority in algorithms (whether on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere). I’m calling it low-calorie social media because these sorts of debates are easy to have an opinion on, but they’re not substantive (and I’d argue, often not nutritious either).

Actual engagement – something more lasting and impactful than just a like or a passing comment – is hard. It’s hard to build, it’s hard to sustain, it’s often messy. But it’s more fulfilling. Even when it leads to challenging questions or work to be done, you can at least feel like you’re making some sort of progress on something that is meaningful, whether that’s some form of volunteering, philanthropy, or do-gooding, or if it’s just deepening connections with either individuals or a community.

I think John is right that there is a place for those “instantly debatable” questions and topics. But I think it’s a lot like junk food: it’s fine as a snack, but if that’s all you’re eating, it’s just going to make you sick.

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 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

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.

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.

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.