Continuing yesterday’s theme of reducing consumption and information hygiene, today I thought about browsers and tabs. I’ve been pretty disappointed with how much webapps have taken over day-to-day computing. But the one silver lining is that I can isolate all of my communication (email, various messengers, Slack, social media) in the Chrome browser. When I need to focus, or just don’t want to be available, I simply close Chrome. I use Safari for all of my actual browsing. I suppose I could do this within different instances or windows of the same browser, but there is probably an important psychological signal I send myself by having different applications for different purposes (even if the two look substantially the same).

Another piece of the puzzle is that I aggressively close tabs. If I come across a long article that I want to read, but not at that moment, I send it to Instapaper (and will often actually read on my iPad). PDFs get downloaded, and also are often read on my iPad. For things that I will need to refer back to later I use bookmarks. I’ll use local bookmarks for things I need periodically (like API docs, or the list of LaTeX symbols). For other things that I might need later, I’ve been using a happy Pinboard user for years.

Personally if I have a browser window or too many tabs open I feel like that’s something I should be paying attention to, especially if it’s something like email or Slack. But most of the time, what I should be paying attention to is something completely different. Actually closing out unnecessary windows and tabs helps me to mentally clear out false expectations and distractions.

Over the last few months (years?) I’ve been noticing the increasingly deleterious effect of excessive information consumption of my state-of-mind in general and my ability to concentrate for long periods of time in particular.

With that in mind (get it? I’m sorry) I’m trying to be more careful about my information consumption.  Part of that is trying to consume higher quality things in smaller quantities, and spending more time and effort enjoying and appreciating what I’m experiencing. But part of it is also revisiting things that I really enjoyed once.

Over the last few years I’ve been largely listening to music via Spotify. While it’s been great for discovering new artists and music without spending tons of money, it’s also led to some bad habits. I often get lazy and listen the same playlist of Spotify-curated tracks on repeat. I also neglect my fairly large personal collection of music that’s sitting around on my computer.

So I’m going to try to listen to more music from my personal, local collection, including a bunch of the aforementioned things I used to really enjoy.  Since I’m near my MacBook most of time, I’ll be listening to MP3s via iTunes. Some of my collection is messy, so I’ll be using the excellent Beets tool to clean up and organize my collection as I go. Today I’m listening to Blind Guardian, starting with The Forgotten Tales album. I’ll also be keeping a Twitter thread of things I’m listening to as I go along (if I can remember to update it).

Web interfaces for source control

I came across two articles about web-based interfaces for source control. The first is a critique of GitHub’s UI. The second is an explanation of some of the design choices for Sourcehut, a new 100% free and open source software forge.

If you’re interested in interfaces, or software engineering tools, I highly recommend reading both. They are short, will only take a few minutes of your time, and maybe make you think about functionality you take for granted, or issues you’ve learned to ignore and live with.

Personally, I like GitHub’s general prettiness, but I agree that there’s a lot of unnecessary UI elements, and not enough of (what I would consider) key features for effectively browsing source. The above-linked article mentions the difficulty of switching between individual files, history and branches, while links to Enterprise pricing, or starring repos are on every page. Part of that can be chalked up to GitHub’s position in between a software forge and a social network (because  we’re still in the phase where we think everything needs to be a social network).

To be fair, Sourcehut is a bit too spartan for my tastes. If nothing else, I like good use of whitespace and nice fonts. (Aside: consider using Fira Code or Triplicate for displaying source code.) And I can’t tell how to easily move between code and history views on Sourcehut either. But at least its motivations are more clear, the appearance issues can probably be solved using user style sheets, and if you’re really peeved about its choices, you can fork it (though it’s almost certainly not worth the effort).

I haven’t really used similar tools (except for a pretty barebones code diff and review tool at a company I worked at briefly), so I wonder if there are other examples that can provide interesting lessons.

We Need Hyperlink Literacy

A couple weeks ago, I was in a student discussion with James Grimmelmann, law professor at Cornell Tech who studies how laws regarding technology affect freedom, wealth and power. A large part of our discussion centered around search engines and media platforms, specifically how personalization and algorithmic filters may affect what users see, even when they don’t understand or know that they’re getting filtered content. One way to tackle this issue (in addition to regulation, or some form of opt-out) would be media literacy: teach people that what they see is not some kind of perfect, impartial truth, but might be tailored to their preference and past histories (and biased in other ways).

Fostering that kind of media literacy among the populace at large is at once sorely needed and immensely difficult. Given how much our society depends on the Internet, the World Wide Web, search engines, social media platforms and the (often inscrutable) algorithms behind them, it is crucial that people understand how they get their information, and what are the biases, agendas, and influences shaping what they see (and don’t see). This is clearly a massive challenge, and likely one that we don’t yet know how to overcome. Personally, I would settle for solving one much smaller piece of the puzzle first: a more general understanding and respect for hyperlinks.

The humble hyperlink is the foundation of the web as we know it. It takes the web from being just a digital version of a library or filing cabinet to something truly new: a system where direct access to a piece of information is as easy as naming it. Unfortunately, along with the rise of digital walled gardens such as Facebook (and to a lesser degree, Twitter) the hyperlink seems to be losing prominence. That’s ironic given that the hyperlink is a sharing mechanism, and Facebook would like to bill itself as a platform for sharing and connecting. On a normal web page, one can use snippets of text as anchors for a hyperlink, instead of using the raw link itself. Facebook doesn’t let you turn pieces of text in a status update into links. Furthermore, pasting more than one link at a time breaks the user interface. I suppose Facebook wants to give the link more prominence than what you have to say about it. People like Dave Winer and John Gruber have commented at length on how Facebook breaks the web. Poignantly, that last sentence (with two hyperlinks) would be impossible to write properly in Facebook.

And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter is approximately the same as Facebook. Slack supports links poorly in the same way: there’s no obvious way to use pieces of text as anchors for links. Adding more than one link is slightly better: giving previews for both links (though they are bigger and more prominent than the message containing the links). These systems are silos: they prefer you share and interact with posts within their own boundaries, rather than with content on the web as a whole.

By reducing the prominence of hyperlinks and truncating their utility, we create online cultures focused on sharing information, rather than ones that encourage combining and synthesizing multiple sources and viewpoints into coherent narratives. I would argue that in doing so we are giving up a large part of the power of the Web, to our detriment, and for no clear benefit.

So how do we fix this? Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reducing our dependence on platforms where we cannot sufficiently control our own writing. But beyond that, I would like to see hyperlinks become a more ingrained part of writing on a computer. I would love to see a world where whenever you write some text on a computer that references external sources, you link copiously to them, rather than just inserting references that readers have to look up manually. School and college writing classes would be the prime places to teach this. In the same way that we teach students to include citations to external sources, I would like to see students treat hyperlinks with the same importance and fluency.

In a deeply connected technological society such as ours, using the core technologies of the web should be a central part of any kind of digital or media literacy.