Investing in the Open Web

It seems like every few days there’s a new post lamenting the death of the Open Web, and the corresponding rise in ad-driven social media machines and clickbait. Recent examples include this lament on the Cult of the Attention Web (prompted by Instagram moving to an algorithm presentation, away from a chronological timeline), and Brendan Eich’s response to online news publishers strongly objecting to the ad-blocking browser, Brave.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, we seem to have collectively struck a number of Faustian bargains: free services in exchange for our personal information; free articles, audio and video in exchange for advertising, more personal information and ugly, slow sites; walled gardens, in whose operation we have little say, in exchange for ease-of-use. And while I would love to pit advertisers and social media giants against brave independent bloggers and developers in a black-and-white contest, the reality is never quite so simple.

If we really want an vibrant, independent, open web, we need to invest in it with our time, money, effort and technical know-how. But I don’t know if that investment exists, or if the people complaining about the state of the open web are ready to make it. Examples abound: the above piece about Instagram is posted on Medium, which might join said Cult of the Attention Web any day. WordPress, which powers a significant fraction of the open web (and on which this site is built), would rather pretend that it’s a feed-reader and encourage me to “follow” other blogs, than make it simple and quick to write or edit posts (it takes me four clicks from the WordPress.com page to start editing a draft). And I myself would rather rant about investing in the open web than build a CMS that I actually want to, and enjoy using.

If we seriously care about preserving an open web outside of walled gardens and free of ugly, privacy-destroying advertising, we need to be an active part of it. We need to publish to our own domains, backed by services that won’t turn into advertising machines tomorrow, maybe even pay for hosting. We need to vote with our wallets and actually subscribe to publications we want to read and support. We need to write code and build publication platforms that embody our ideals and values, and make it easier for others to do the same.

I do two of those three, though not as often as I would like to. I don’t exaggerate when I say I wouldn’t be where I am in my life without the open web. I would like to invest in it so that others can say the same in the future.

Karl Popper on Intolerance

Intolerance and discrimination seems to be all over the news lately. Two examples that readily come to mind are the LambdaConf fiasco and North Carolina’s LGBT discrimation law. One question that often comes up when talking about discrimination is: how much should we tolerate intolerance? For example, is it acceptable to ban people with known discriminatory views and actions from gatherings, irrespective of their other qualifications? Is it morally acceptable (or maybe even mandatory) to boycott gatherings and events and places that invite such people?

In that context, I wanted to share the following interesting excerpt from Karl Popper’s, “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, posted by one of my former coworkers. I wouldn’t say it answers once and for all questions of fighting intolerance, but it is a solid foundation from which to consider and answer such questions.

The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any restraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. This idea is, in a slightly different form, and with a different tendency, clearly expressed by Plato.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression should be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

To Compete with Medium

Dave Winer is encouraging bloggers (or really anyone with something to say) to post anywhere but Medium. He says that Medium is becoming a “consensus platform” for posting longform writing on the web, especially for people who don’t have a regular place to post. In doing that, Medium becomes a single point of failure, much like Twitter is for real-time short posts, or that Google Reader was for RSS. That means that Medium becomes increasingly capable of unilaterally changing how writing on the web works, for whatever purposes it desires. Medium could decide what you write, how it looks, who sees it, and whether or not you can take it elsewhere. And if Medium shuts down, you could lose everything you wrote.

Winer says that the reason people don’t just set up their own blog (even if they won’t write regularly) is because it feels wasteful to set up something and then not use it. This holds people back, even though a pure text blog takes up negligible space and bandwidth compared to videos or images. While he’s right about the minuscule size requirements of plain text, I think there’s more to users’ reluctance of setting up their own blog. There is a cognitive cost and mental overhead to setting up your own blog that Medium side-steps. To set up an blog on WordPress or Tumblr, you need to create a user account by providing a username, email address and password. Then you need to create the actual blog, by picking a domain name and title (and optionally, a theme). And then you can start to write.

Medium, on the other hand, lets you sign in via Twitter, automatically selecting your username and other account details (which you can change). After that you can just start writing. To be  fair, you are asked to follow other users and tags, but you can just click a button and move on. That’s exactly what I did before writing this post. There are options to use Facebook and email to sign up as well, but I’m assuming they’re equally streamlined. To break free from Medium’s hold on casual writing on the web, a competing service would have to be just as streamlined and painless.

So how would one go about competing with Medium? First you need to reuse identity from some existing social network or identity provider. Second, writing and publishing a post would have to be super-simple. Finally, to address Winer’s concerns, the competing service should come from an entity whose main business isn’t written content, but somehow naturally falls out of (or can be built atop) the core service. Luckily, there is already a service that can do this: GitHub.

GitHub is a popular code-sharing and hosting service that is very popular with programmers (and increasingly, with non-programmers). By default, GitHub hosts repositories of code, but they have an adjacent service called GitHub Pages that hosts simple websites. As a GitHub user, you can create a specially named repository and any HTML pages in that repository are served as username.github.io. Anyone with a GitHub account (which these days, is pretty much anyone who writes code) can post writing to their own repository and have it be served as a webpage from GitHub. Now, this only completes one part of the puzzle, since there’s no Medium-like interface to actually write your posts. You would have to write your posts using a text editor and push them to your GitHub pages repo. However, such an interface could be created by anyone, not necessarily by GitHub. They would just need your GitHub credentials, temporarily, to post your writing from the editor to the repository.

In conclusion: part of Medium’s attractiveness comes from having a streamlined path to posting irregular writing on the Web, helping to make it a large and powerful platform for web publishing. GitHub Pages provides part of the puzzle to create a neutral competitor that offers many of the same benefits. All that is needed is a writing interface that uses GitHub pages as a backend.

I haven’t talked about the social media and promotional features of Medium. I’m not sure how to replicate them in the same fashion. My goal with this post was to propose an alternative to the publish-and-forget style that Medium allows, and I think GitHub Pages is a step in that direction. Since Winer published his post, Medium has posted a response that addresses many of his concerns. The takeaway from the response seems to be that if you’re afraid of Medium having too much control over your content, post to both your own blog and to Medium.

Sunday Selection 2015-08-16

Around the Web

Mad as Hell: How a Generation Came of Age While Listening to John Stewart

Last week marked John Stewart’s last week on The Daily Show. I enjoyed his last few episodes, but part of me was really wishing that his last show would include a takedown of the Republican debate. This isn’t the most in-depth post about his years at The Daily Show, but I think it captures effectively how many people of my age feel about John Stewart and the show.

Meditation vs medication: A Comic Essay on Faciing Depression

I’ve meditating more regularly in recent months as well as reading more about meditation, mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy in general. At the same time, depression is a growing concern, especially among people involved in technology and for me personally as well. I’ve also come to realize that there is a certain taboo surrounding anti-depressants: a latent fear that medication will fundamentally change who we are. I don’t think any one article can completely tackle this complicated bundle of issues, but this is a good place to start.

Programming Sucks

If you’ve ever wondered what the day-to-day life of a programmer is like, or the state of our technology is, this post gives a only half-joking look at behind the digital scenes. If you lived in the trenches yourself, you will find yourself nodding along, and maybe shedding a tear or two. There should probably be a trigger warning associated with this article.

From the Bookshelf

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

Talking of meditation, my most recent foray into that world came in the form of this book. It’s not about meditation per se, but rather involves using meditation as a tool to become more comfortable with our lives, face our inner demons, and accept the way things are as a focal point for living a better life. The book is replete with personal stories from the author’s life (and those of her patients) and includes helpful guided meditations to get you started.

Video

Forging the Hattori Hanzo Katana

I’ve always had a fascination with Japanese culture and martial arts, and Hattori Hanzo’s monologue is probably my favorite part of the Kill BIll movie. The movie doesn’t actually show you how the sword is forged, so here is a video that does. The narration could have been better, but it’s still a very entertaining (and educational) video.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz was a programmer, entrepreneur and Internet activist who left his mark on both the Internet and the world at large. He was involved in the development of the RSS and Markdown formats as well as the Creative Commons. He was also the founder of Demand Progress which was involved in the effort to stop SOPA/PIPA.

Just over two years ago Aaron killed himself in the middle of a federal prosecution. If he had lived, Aaron would probably have become one of the leading technologists or political figures of our generation. Unfortunately, two years after his death, there is too much pain and suffering in the world today for the media (or the Internet in general) to remember his suicide. The only article about his death that caught my eye was a Boing Boing piece entitled “How to honor Aaron Swartz’s life”. The piece is written by one of Aaron’s friends and is best summarized as a short guide to honoring Aaron life by living your own better.

To summarize the summary:

  1. Stay curious
  2. Don’t accept things as they are, or assume they’re that way for a good reason
  3. Become good at something. And then use it to make a difference.
  4. Ask yourself what you could do to make the biggest difference in the world.
  5. Stay alive.

For me, one of the best lessons from the article was the ending paragraph:

Don’t be surprised if at some point in your life, maybe at many points, you find yourself submerged in a darkness that seems infinite and eternal. It might seem to you like it’s always been that way, it will be always be that way and there’s only one way out. You’re wrong. It will get better. But it will only get better if you find some way to survive.

Aaron might be gone, but much of his work is still with us, in terms of code, organizations, and words. His website is still online (hopefully it will stay that way indefinitely) and so is his writing. I remember reading much of his writing around the time of his death and found it both interesting and a joy to read. His series on thinking and living better — Raw Nerve — is a good place to start.

Sunday Selection 2014-11-09

Around the Internet

Molly Crabapple’s 14 rules for creative success in the Internet age

I don’t identify as a “creative” (I far prefer “engineer”), but I firmly believe that artistic and creative endeavors need to be balanced by economic utility. Molly Crabapple is quickly becoming one of my favorite people on the Internet and her no-bullshit take on selling art is one of the best things I read this week.

I had a couple drinks and woke up with 1000 nerds

“Alternative” social networks seem to be all the rage nowadays (I’m looking at you, Ello). Tilde.club is just about as alternative as they come, though the author insists it’s not a social network. If you long for the days when men were men and wrote their own device drivers, then this might brighten your day a little.

Old Masters at the Top of Their Game

Retirement is so 20th Century. I’m going to make the completely unsubstantiated claim that changing economic situations are making retirement a thing of the past, but that doesn’t have to a bad thing. For some people, “work/life balance” simply doesn’t apply.

Books

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works

I’ve already praised the merits of this book at length. I tore through it in a day and it made me much more serious about my meditation practice.

Video

Nope, no video, just this neat GIF. It’s called Coffee O’Clock. You’re welcome.

Coffee O'Clock by RADIO
Coffee O’Clock by RADIO

Sunday Selection 2014-08-17

Around the Internet

Speaking Polish is no different from speaking “Male”

I had the pleasure of meeting MIT graduate student Jean Yang when she came to visit Cornell a few weeks ago. This post is an account of her internship experience at Facebook and is an interesting look at the different cultures that make up the technology industry (and the clashes between them).

Anthony Bourdain’s Theory on the Foodie Revolution

I’m not a big watcher of documentaries, but I’ve always enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s shows. I’ve always found him an interesting personality with surprisingly deep (if quirky) observations of the world around him. If you enjoy his shows, you’ll enjoy his views on American food culture and it’s changing face.

Making remote teams work

One of the best things about being a “knowledge worker” is the ability to work from anywhere, assuming there’s a strong Internet connection (which actually narrows things down quite a lot). Mandy Brown’s rules of thumb for making remote teams work is based on her experience at Editorially and covers both things to do (and not do) and tools to use.

Video

Humans Need Not Apply

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, chances are you’ve already seen this video. It’s about how technology is making obsolete large classes of skills that we often think require human intelligence and involvement. This includes things like customer service, education and medicine. As automation steadily increases and economic progress remains one of the key forces in modern society, chances are likely that large numbers of otherwise skilled, hard-working people might soon be out of work through no fault of their own. Though we may not see massive unemployment tomorrow (or even within this decade), there is definitely reason to be worried and seriously consider what your skills and corresponding job prospects are in the coming decades.