Would you give up email?

A little over a week ago personal development blogger Leo Babauta of Zen Habits announced that he was basically giving out email. While he certainly had his reasons and alternative communication tools to use, it seems to me that giving up email is one of the more drastic ways to cut down on information overload. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly in todays world and I think that it’s a choice that could be hard to stick by.

Personally I think it would be almost impossible for me to give up email. I would much rather give up other communication tools like Facebook or Twitter before even considering ditching email. The main reason why I would be really reluctant to give up on email is that its such a flexible medium and I’m a sucker for flexible tools. Email works just as well for short, quick “how are you” messages to longer detailed conversations (especially if you have a good client like Gmail). Sending attachments may not be the best way to collaborate online, but it’s possible and for simply sharing a file (without editing) it’s generally much easier to add an attachment than it is to upload to FTP or something similar.

The second most wonderful thing about email is that it has become a completely open medium. There are dozens of free email services and if need be you can even run your own email server on you own domain and be completely independent. This is far from the case with popular email replacements like Twitter or Facebook. However, there is an open source microblogging platform called Laconi.ca which you can run on your own server. It powers the free indenti.ca service.  I feel really uncomfortable about tying my major communication arteries to closed proprietary services which could go down (with or without the intent of the developers). Incidentally, as I write this, I can’t get to twitter or connect via Twitterfox.

Edit: Shortly after I wrote the above it turned out that Twitter had been down for several hours due to a DDoS attack. While it’s true that this could happen to any service (including webmail), I think this shows that Twitter at least isn’t quite ready to be the primary communications channel

The more I think about it, the more it seems that the reasons behind using or ditching email are less technological and more psychological and social. A lot depends on your own communication preferences. An important question is: do you want a small volume of in-depth conversations or do you want a high volume of short-length communications? For someone like Leo Babauta who has thousands of leaders and needs to keep in touch with a large community it makes sense to choose something that will encourage lots of short, to-the-point comments (ie. 140 characters on Twitter). For longer communications he says he wants to use either IM or Skype. This seems to mean that he wants to focus on realtime, direct communication. Again that’s fine for him.

My communication preferences are different. I don’t need to keep up a multi-thousand-way conversation and I get less than a dozen emails a day. It’s more important for me to have in-depth detailed communications with a few people whose ideas are important to me at this time. I also like the asynchronous nature of email since I like to be able to think things through before giving a reaction. I dislike real-time communication like IM and especially phones unless I’ve consciously signed up for a fast paced, brainstorming style discussion with a friend. I also value the ability to be explain my ideas in depth if I need to. Twitter’s 140 character limit is good for posting updates and trading short replies, but I feel it’s really limiting for any sort of detailed discussion (and splitting across multiple tweets just makes things ugly). Leo claims that he checks his Twitter inbox fewer times a day and spends less time on it. He doesn’t keep it always on. For me, I keep Twitter always on and glance at it about once an hour just to see if anything interesting has come. It takes up little of my mental RAM whereas my email is something I consciously spend more time and energy on.

Now this isn’t to say that email doesn’t have its share of problems. Spam is certainly a problem, but I think you’d get that on any communication medium. Email certainly does not work if you want your communications to scale to more than a few people. Sending out an email to lots of people about something they aren’t specifically interested in is often a good way of making sure they don’t read it. If you need to write something that gets read by a lot of people, then a blog, wiki or some other more open platform is definitely the best way to go. Or maybe twitter if what you have to say is short enough.

If you’re currently having problems handing your email, what you need to understand most is that no single tool is good for all people or all tasks. The question of whether or not you should ditch email depends almost entirely on how you as a person work. It depends on whether you need to have public conversations with many or private conversations with not so many. It depends on whether you want to have your replies done as soon as you can or do you prefer to mull over things before putting finger to key. It’s important to keep in mind that no matter what tool or system you use, you’re going to have an inbox and a message queue that you need to manage and respond to. Email is currently the best way for me to maintain a persistent, workable message queue, but it may very well be different for you. To each his or her own.

Announcing the Cyborg Institute

No, no, you can relax, we’re not building the Borg and assimilating the galaxy. Not yet at least. The Cyborg Institute is a brand new collaborative project started by a an online friend of mine — tycho garen (no capitalization). The purpose of the Cyborg Institute is to foster thinking about the relationships between humans and computer technology and build a community around this purpose. Quoting from the release announcement:

The project of the Cyborg Institute is thus, to serve as a virtual “think tank” on issues related to the cyborg moment, to provide resources to people doing important work in this area, to aggregate and curate existing work and content as a way of highlighting existing work, and finally to provide the tools for a community to collaborate on projects of shared interest.

Since the core mission of the Cyborg Institute is to encourage sharing of information and discussion, we are looking to build around the wiki. It’s a wiki in the style of the c2 and Emacs wikis. These are different from the more popular Wikipedia style by making discussion of the content a core part of the wiki. The purpose is to display not only the most relevant and accurate information but also to showcase the discussion that led to the creation of the current article being viewed.

The Cyborg Institute is very much a community centered endeavor and we’re hoping that the site will grow and change to accommodate what the people using it need. If you have an interest in using technology to make your life better and easier, I strongly suggest you go take a look and maybe contribute something to the wiki. The wiki is running off Ikiwiki in the background, but can be edited with a simple, plain text web interface using the Markdown formatting language. The wiki and the blog are also available as Git repositories so that you can keep a local copy if you like. To get access you can sign up for an account or use OpenID like I do.

I look forward to seeing you around the Wiki and sharing some thoughts about the shared future of humanity and computers.

How to blog like a hacker

NB This was supposed to have been published last week, but WordPress ate the original draft I wrote and it took me a while to get the motivation to write it again. But it’s done now. Enjoy

Self-published content on the web has exploded and many of the millions of blogs out there are run on content management systems like WordPress, Blogger, MoveableType and LiveJournal. These are all robust software products that have survived years of rigorous field testing and offer a wide variety of features and customization options. They are good tools which offer a wide variety of customization options and other features. However, to those of us with a more do-it-yourself bend, it can sometimes seem that these systems do a bit too much.

Most of these systems provide dynamically generated content (MoveableType has a static option). The actual content (like posts and comments) is stored in a database and the actual HTML pages are generated on the fly. This makes things like templates and themes simple to use (as you don’t need to regenerate thousands of pages for each change), but it also means that you need to use considerable CPU for every page load. This can be problematic if you have a busy site or traffic spikes. CMS’s also offer a wide variety of features besides just running a blog or website. They allow RSS, comments and a variety of media features. While some people certainly use all these features, it can be overkill for others. Sometimes all you really want is to be able to write some text with an image or two and put it online in a quick simple way.

There are other, perhaps more esoteric reasons for wanting to run your blog without a modern CMS. You might want to have complete local access to your data and web interfaces for writing blogs might not be to your liking. Some people swear by flat files and their favorite text editors and they both have their own advantages. Flat files are simpler to browse about that depending on an interface to a database and certainly easier to move around. Advanced editors like Vim or Emacs can make the job of writing more efficient, especially if you’re already used to them. Popular version control systems like Git can make sure that your data is kept backed up and safe and can be used to keep things synced between a local machine and a server.

A combination of all the above factors has led to the creation of a number of ‘static site generators’: tools that take simple local files (generally plain text with some simple markup) and turn them into full HTML pages after applying some sort of template. You can keep the original source anywhere you want and just transfer the generated, static HTML to a server for the world to see. The original “Blogging like a hacker” post was written as the announcement of a popular static site generator called Jekyll. Jekyll is written in Ruby and is used to power the GitHub Pages online publishing system (it was written by one of the GitHub team). There is a Python clone of it called Hyde (fittingly enough) and a Perl program called Ikiwiki does a similar but integrates a version control system and is meant to be deployed on a server.

I’m not going to pretend that static site generators are the best fit for all or even most bloggers and web writers. In fact, I would suggest that static site generators are you’ most useful for those people who value simplicity and control more than anything else. Using a static site generator well requires at least working knowledge of HTML and CSS and a good text editor. Using a version control isn’t a necessity, but it seems to be that being able to use a VCS is one of the big attractions of static site generators: you don’t have to rely on whatever draft system your CMS provide, but rather you can use industry standard version control tools to keep your work safe.

I’m a fan of practicing what I preach, so I’ve been using a static site generator as well. I’ve personally be using Jekyll to manage a personal site for the last week or so. I think it’s the simplest such tool to set up and has sufficient features to create some pretty good looking websites. That being said, I don’ t think I’ll be moving this blog off WordPress any time soon. WordPress suits my needs well enough and converting almost 250 posts from WordPress to plain text is not something I want to spend my time on at the moment. I export the blog weekly and keep the resulting XML file under version control to be safe. I think of it as a sort of middle ground between having everything hosted in a remote server database and having a locally secure version of everything.

As I continue writing and using software, I’m coming to realize that the best tools are the ones that can be molded to your needs. Static site generators attract users who aren’t afraid (and might even be eager) to get under the hood. It’s the same sort of mentality that attracts people to open source software and systems like Linux: the ability to tinker to your heart’s content until you have something that is just right for you. If you are someone who gets can spend hours setting up your computing environment to be just the way you like it, then you’ll probably like working with static site generators. On the other hand if you couldn’t care less about what goes on when you hit the ‘Publish’ button, thats fine too. Use WordPress or something similar and just focus on writing great content.