The (Indie)Web we weave

I am making a note here, so when we take for granted how awesome our information streams are, we can look back at this snapshot and see how we did it in the ol’ days. Bonus humor, if you catch how meta the topic is.

  1. Mike makes a post about, among other things, blogging and the IndieWeb.
  2. Matthew leaves a considerate and detailed comment on Mike’s post.
  3. Matthew decides to document the sentiment on eir own site (correctly, I think).
  4. Mike employs a snarky editorial method and posts an excerpt on identi.ca.
  5. That gets me thinking, and I reply, both to that particular line and the observation of how RSS is used on the web.
  6. To ensure that my reply is part of a conversation, I post a link in reply to Mike’s identi.ca post.
  7. Mike points out my reply in further commentary, on the original blog post.
  8. Since I am not participating in the conversation on the original post, and other reasons, Mike then replies with the link to this new comment in the identi.ca thread.

The hosted software involved in this conversation includes one or more email stacks, WordPress, Drupal and pump.io, and content was published on no less than five websites (not including the federation in pump.io for non-participants).

Not our DRYest moment. ^_^

The important lesson here is that Mike, Matthew and I are obviously comfortable with all the software involved, and the additional cognitive expense in posting in multiple places is mitigated by other factors that include dopamine and connectedness. The same things that bring people back to Facebook and Twitter. It isn’t fair, but fighting to stop the exploitation of human nature was never going to be a fair fight.

Web empathy

I was thinking about something Mike posted, and because my default reaction is to defend classes of people insulted, I had a realization: nearly everyone would have started Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, etc.

My thinking goes like this: the reason every site doesn’t have RSS is because most people don’t care. If they are using RSS to collect information, it isn’t apparent to them. I know this, because over the last year every single one of my clients paid me money to set up posting their content to their social media accounts and mailing lists, and none of them know what a feed reader is (these are two separate questions, I suggest that folks follow their industry/passion/cause with tools that make it easy, but they are content with Twitter lists…).

This makes sense, the UI of modern operating systems are made so a person can use them without understanding what works underneath, and when a person doesn’t know how something works, they describe it in terms of features they want. I deal with this all the time, and I have people who I think shouldn’t be building websites, but they have ideas and they go for it. The web is dope, because it means they can. And this world discourages folks enough, I say go for it!

Some of the features a website can have are tracking, control and obfuscation. These seem like dumb ideas to me, but despite that, I get requests for this all the time. Folks are compulsive in tracking every little detail, despite most not being qualified to deduce what their stats mean. Equal is an obsession with controlling the behaviour of strangers, which is what a website is, just a bunch of people you don’t know, looking for something.

I don’t agree with the sentiment, “that the vast majority of web developers are ignorant, talentless hacks”. I actually think most people are unconsciously acting on loss aversion, and don’t know how to balance the power of an open publishing platform (the web). Most sites are not built by web developers, they are built by crews of people directing web developers, and most of those folks may not even particularly like the web. But if they had the choice, they would rather build Facebook than a free, open and standards-based site, because free, open and standards-based are hard to understand and means giving up power. Also, Facebook seems to makes people super rich.

We need more empathy, well, in general, but also in digital literacy. The first reason is because we need to understand where our most vulnerable people are coming from. And just as importantly, we need to instill that as a foundation in problem-solving and approaching technology. I am researching orgs and people that are working in digital literacy, and almost everyone wants to pump out a new generation of founders to build the next wave of proprietary platforms that do not respect the dignity of strangers (remember from earlier, that is what the web is). If we want RSS on every site and to stop all the tracking and to have a better experience overall on the web, we need to include some humanities along side our tech workshops.

Capturing knowledge

I like some buzz terms and phrases. Some just resonate with me, even if they turn out to be hyperbole. In fact, I think it is important to hold on to them even when the implementation isn’t what I thought it could be. Federated social network. Information worker. Knowledge capturing.

That last one is what keeps me reading on when I browse the feature list of proprietary wikae products. They are these monstrosities that include a wiki, code repo, mailing list, blah blah blah. But they claim that it will help your group/tribe/community/company capture knowledge.

For me, it conjures up ideas of AI learning how people write, and creating well-formatted documents that are linked in a sane way. But it really means search boxes or copy/paste buttons.

I don’t have an AI, or a lab to make one. But I do have the passion of an editor, someone who sees communication and often thinks it could be presented better. My analytics for the year is a testament to that: most traffic was generated from folks trying to set the hostname in Fedora 18, find Rackspace’s DNS nameservers, configure the folders in k9mail, and anything about ownCloud. I write to be helpful, and for my reference, but also because I like answering questions that are asked over and over again.

One of the missing features in those knowledge management systems is an incentive for people to use them. Sure, if your only channel for offering support is through your ticketing/forum/live chat thing, they you may think people like using it. They don’t. I hate you for it. So what would that feature be? Facebook. Or Twitter, maybe.

There was hope that StatusNet (the company) would figure out how to navigate the corporate communications waters, but that seems like a mess that we should just let die (it runs in the face of radical transparency, anyhow).

Obviously I don’t endorse those social networks. They are crap. But if I wanted to compete with those other corporate services, I would build a Facebook app that could turn a wall message (or whatever they are called) into a group/public editable page.

And that is what I am going to try as an experiment, in a smaller capacity that Facebook, but still large enough to be interesting and valuable to me.

The government has been working with private corporations to spy on citizens

A list of companies involved in the PRISM program, along a timeline.

As Wired and others are reporting, the NSA has a program where it is somehow accessing the servers of those major companies. People are in general shocked and outraged.

I am not. Perhaps I have been naïve, but I thought we all knew this was always happening. I can’t say much more about it than that. We don’t trust corporations, because they are not trustworthy.

Pros and cons: Social Networks

I should say, mainstream and/or popular social networks. I don’t use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. I use a self-hosted StatusNet instance, and of course I have this site.

Let’s start with what I am missing:

  • Connection with people I’ve met – I haven’t stayed in touch with people from my time in public education, nor do I follow up with most people I meet at meetups or conferences.
  • Timely updates – I don’t use social networks to keep up to date with anything, from major life changes in friends to memes or movements they find important.
  • Ease of using platform-specific technologies – I can’t see half the events people send me, since they are hidden in Facebook. There are games I can’t play, and people I can’t contact when they decide to leave an @handle instead of an email address.

I listed the cons first, because those are real things I miss out on, but they are also all reasons I don’t use those sites; hence, my pros:

  • I email, text or call the people I am interested in, and I have a very strong core group of people that I can rely on for various things. A strong tribe that isn’t diluted by casual connections.
  • I advocate the slow web. I don’t seek out information that is peripheral to the task at hand, and my tribe curates my news.
  • I don’t turn over my information, reputation and network integrity to companies that merely promise to be good.

I don’t think that social networks are bad, but we have a strong historical record demonstrating that companies lack the flexibility and power to be good stewards of cultural dialog. I believe that the internet has to be paid for, and since the consumer web was introduced it has been marred with an increasingly abstract funding scheme, where ads and private data are the currency. I would take it even further though, and say that humans don’t collectively understand how we’ve adapted to our computer-mediated communications, and that digital illiteracy has to be mitigated before capitalist principals loose grip of the popular web.

I am documenting this here mostly so I can refer to it later. I want to be on the public record saying that I don’t think social networks, or really social anything, is bad. But we can do better, and it is fairly straightforward.

How do you internet?

People talk to me all the time. Sometimes they say dumb things about Facebook and Twitter.

The other night I was hanging out with some folks, and despite my best attempts at not talking about them, someone wanted to know what I thought about Twitter and Facebook. Meh.

I haven’t quite distilled down the plethora of issues that surround those things, not into pub talk at least. Folks don’t want to bust out their devices to double-check references or read up on what are essentially assertions about privacy, community, people as products, federation, culture or ownership. So I just say I don’t use them, and that I have my own sites, and I like doing it the way I do.

A new pattern has come up lately, and I wonder if it is out of desperation, or if these networks are so ubiquitous that people are dumbing down. They ask me, “If you don’t use Facebook, then what do you do? How do you talk to people?”

My canned response is email, but I realize they won’t catch such a vague joke. I am kinda stumped, because at some point, folks have gotta go out and learn about the world, and I just don’t have enough energy to tutor every dopamine-addled social-update addict I meet in a pub.

What would you say? How do you internet? ^_^

Shareholder activism

Activist shareholders are a neat idea, but how effective are they?

The idea of an activist shareholder has crept into my vocabulary recently. I blame NPR and road trips. Recent notable examples of shareholder activism include the recent resignation of Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson, and the many motions put forth at JPMorgan Chase, brought to light due to their recent $2,000,000,000 loss.

Let me point out, in both cases there isn’t much romance: Yahoo! seems to be having a proxy battle with an investor firm, and JP Morgan has been able to largely ignore any change. Business as usual.

At any rate, the idea is still neat. I’ve thought about it in the past, but have always held back because I only want to buy into a company I actually support. When the iPod was released, I considered buying into Apple, just to see what was happening, but I resisted because I was concerned with software patents (MP3), and it seemed that Apple was about to make a whole lot of money. I couldn’t have bought much, of course, but I didn’t want to get sucked into that, either. I enjoy being able to criticize from a point of integrity.

Also, I am bad at capitalism.

Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about this, in the case of Facebook. Like it or not, Facebook is a pattern of behavior with some purchase, and unfortunately has a lot of sway in how folks are introduced to communication technology. And at $100,000,000,000, depending on how that pie is sliced, there could be a lot opportunities for shareholder activism.

Post scriptum: $2,000,000,000 and $100,000,000,000. Try typing those out. Then type how much money you make in a year. Rich people sure are different.

Sharing doesn’t have to be a popularity contest

Sharing is about caring. So why are you tracking shares on your blog?

High school was largely about popularity for me. I wasn’t popular, I was something like infamous. Most students didn’t like me, although nearly everyone knew of me. Faculty, for the most part, had a love-hate relationship with me, and it was mutual. I habitually called teachers by their first names, while also pointing out how moronic most students were. Basically, I had enough presence to be known, but lacked any social grace that would make me popular.

Not much has changed.

I think that is why I hold such contempt for “sharing” buttons. Digg, StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Reddit. They all have these widgets that can be embedded on pages, and allow people to quickly broadcast to a particular social network that they pushed a button there.

That isn’t to say that it’s not useful, I am sure many people find great value is crowd-sourcing the curation of their reading lists. But that isn’t the point of these widgets. They are badges, a status symbol to demonstrate how valuable something is. It is as useful as being popular is high school.

The only shared items I read are from StatusNet. I am sure a widget or bookmark could be created that would allow the network to be flooded by links, but as it is, most are considerate acts of sharing. People observe something, and want others to be informed by it. Due to the federated nature, we don’t have anything that can count the popularity is a centralized way. It is incredibly meaningful.

This affects my work, because inevitably clients will ask for “social media” to be added to their site. Buzz terms aside, this behavior ends up propagating the idea that we want stats instead of meaning. It makes sense, one can’t report on meaning, or explain to stakeholders how important a piece of content is. We defer to currency of analytics: unique visits, bounce rates, shared items, etc.

We’ve been building tools that make it easier to build superficial relationships, and human nature dictates that we justify why we would value something like that. We tell high school aged humans to focus on their studies, that there is more to life than the microcosm that is school grounds/activities. Consider this a warning in the same vein: you are not your analytics, and there is more to life than how many times your post was shared.

Don’t be popular. Be meaningful.