Sunday Selection 2018-03-25

Around the Web

The Calculus of Grit

An interesting piece from a few years. The events of the last few decades seem to have plunged us into an age of anomie. A lot of the social and economic certainties that have held in the latter half of the twentieth century seems to have been washed away leaving many of us wondering just what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. This article is not antidote by any means, but it does provide a guideline for one part of the puzzle: how to develop a career and professional arc in this age.

The Classics Scholar Redefining what Twitter Can Do

Over the last few years, it seems like Twitter has degenerated into a cesspool of hate and people shouting past each other. In the midst of that, this is an interesting counter-point. Emily Wilson is a classicist and author of a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey. This article talks about how Prof. Wilson used Twitter to explain various choices she made during translation, interacting with both potential readers and other classicists.

Craig Mod’s Offscreen Magazine Interview

Craig Mod is one of my favorite bloggers who has written at length about books, meditation, photography and recovering our attention in an age of distraction (or rather, continual partial attention). I love reading all his writing (which is, thankfully, both sporadic and deep) and I loved reading this in-depth interview where he talks broadly about his work and experiences, as well as strategies for choosing what work is worth doing and then to go about doing it.

Video

Earth: Final Conflict

This an old, and I suspect mostly unknown, TV show from the late nineties “created” by Gene Roddenberry. I use the quotes because I’m unsure how much involvement he had in this, as opposed to this creation of Star Trek. Instead of dealing with themes of humanity exploring new life and civilization among the stars, this show deals with what happens when new life and civilization comes to earth. All five seasons are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

From the Bookshelf

The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca translated by Moses Hadas

Over the last few months I’ve become interested in Buddhism and Stoicism, which share a striking number of similarities. After reading some modern summaries and interpretations of Stoicism, I decided to go straight with to the source, starting with Seneca. It makes for interesting reading, though a lot of the references and particular examples used will not be applicable for most people. Still, it is a source of practical wisdom, and many of the lessons can be translated to modern life.

 

Advertisements

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.

Spam and user responsibility

Twitter, like any communication medium (physical or electronic) has a spam problem. They’ve been able to mostly keep it under control, but it surfaces every now and then. I was talking to a friend about this recently and he noted that certain kinds of spam are easier to detect than others. For example, a tweet full of suspicious URLs may very well be spam. But is an account that never tweets but follows lots of people a spam account? Part of this is an perception issue. I personally don’t care about being followed by (possibly) spam accounts. I get more annoyed if I get a tweet from one of them. However, I do know people who are really careful about who follows them. For Twitter, the question is how to tell spam tweets and spammers apart from legitimate traffic and users.

Getting users to report spammers is perhaps the first line of defense. If a large enough group of people report an account as a spammer, there’s a high probability that it actually is a spammer. But on the users side, what is my incentive to report an account as spam? Unfortunately, I feel that Twitter’s nature plays against it in this regard. In particular, a spam tweet is much less annoying than a spam email. Tweets and the Twitter stream are, by design, ephemeral and temporary. You see something and a few hours later it’s gone. You’re not expected to read each and every tweet and you’re certainly not expected to reply to everything and everyone (unless you’re  a self-styled social media guru, but that’s another matter altogether). Reporting a spammer is a pretty high overhead activity, especially with the current web interface. As far as I can tell, you can’t directly report a tweet, you have to click on the user image, click on the profile button and only then do you see the option to report spam. If I see a spam tweet, the easiest thing for me to do is shrug my shoulders and move on — it’ll be out of sight and out of mind in a while anyway.

Contrast this with email: I don’t reply to each and every email, but I do read most of it and I reply to a lot. Reading and answering emails (especially if they’re technical in nature) are fairly high load activities and my inbox definitely isn’t as ephemeral as my Twitter stream. Consequently, getting spam in my email inbox is correspondingly more annoying, especially if it’s more sophisticated spam (like a phishing attempt). It’s in my own best interests to report spam so that I have less to deal with in the future. Furthermore Gmail (and I would hope, most email interfaces) make it easy to report spam — generally just one click (two if you need to open a menu first, sometimes there’s a confirmation request).

(Aside: Note that Twitter associates “spam-ness” with the user, while email conventions associate it with the email itself. Objectively the two are isomorphic: the sender of spam message is very likely a spammer and a spammer account very likely sends out mostly spam. I find the difference is interface and convention interesting from an HCI point of view.)

An argument could be made that reporting spam is the users’ best interest, irrespective of quality of interface and immediate overhead. But I wonder if even this argument doesn’t quite work in Twitter’s case. Twitter is, and has always been, a largely public medium. Private accounts exist and you can block followers, but by and large you use Twitter to share everything with everyone. Email by contrast has always been more personal and private. But this means that reporting spam on Twitter is a lot like picking up litter off the street — it is bothersome, and you know that at some level you should do it, but is it really your problem? What’s really in it for you, and if you don’t do it someone else surely will, right? By contrast, spam email is pretty much exactly  like getting junk mail delivered right to your home.

While Twitter’s image as a public space has probably been key to its success, I do believe that it’s hard to get people interested in taking care of something they don’t have any ownership over (as far as I can tell the only way to pay for Twitter is to buy ads and it’s becoming increasingly harder to hook up non-official clients). To its credit, I haven’t found spam to be much of a problem — most days I don’t see (or at least don’t notice) any spam at all. Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working. I don’t have any suggestions, just the above ruminations. But if you’re in the process of creating (or interacting with) any sort of user platform, it’s worth spending some time thinking about how to deal with spam.

You need a web presence

Every now and then I feel like I need to go stand on top of a mountain and shout to the world: “You need a web presence!” It can be anything; a blog, a static website, a single webpage, a twitter stream, anything at all, but it needs to exist. And this is true for everyone, not just tech savvy teenagers and so-called “social media experts”. Unless you’re someone who never meets people at all, you need a web presence.

Here’s the thing. One day some enterprising young college student with a blog will see what you’re doing, or hear about you or somehow stumble upon your work. Said student will then will then want to write a blog post praising your work because he thinks it’s cool and wants everyone to know about it. The college student will then go to Google, type in your name and expect to find to find a reasonably detailed website or blog so that he can learn more about you and put a link to it in his post. However if there is nothing to find except some random third-party accounts of who you are and what you’ve done (or worse yet, a Facebook page) this enterprising college student will simply go away. And a few dozen (or hundred) people who could have known about your work, won’t.

This isn’t the 1990’s anymore. Having a stable web presence doesn’t mean having to craft HTML by hand or being your own sysadmin. It just means knowing how to sign up for a WordPress account and having reasonably decent writing skills. Yet people who really should know better and would benefit greatly from a web presence are completely oblivious to how the Internet can help them.

Weak ties are important. It’s great to have a close group of personal friends and associates whom you meet everyday and with whom you have a lot in common. But having a large network of weak links — people who you are connected to, but who are not in your “clique” is also important. These weak ties are people who you meet at random at a friend’s barbeque, the person sitting in the seat next to you at a concert, the person who hears about you, thinks you’re interesting and joins your Twitter conversations. According to a classic paper published in the 70s people are three times as likely to have found their current job via a weak link than through formal methods (headhunters or classifieds). Weak ties also help spread trust and support and could be a factor in the success of social movements.

Luckily for us, the Internet and the web make forming and leveraging weak links easier than ever. Ask and thou shalt receive, all you have to do is reach out and you have a world of connections waiting for you. So please put yourself out on the web for people to find you. Make it easy for these weak ties to be formed, for people to come out and help you with what you’re doing. You don’t have to be looking for a job or starting a social movement to get benefit out of weak ties, the best part of the story is that you can get benefits and opportunities when you least expect them. You’re not limited to the people in your office or neighborhood and you don’t have to be rich and famous to have a worldwide loose network.

The game has changed, the rules are a bit different, but in many ways it’s a lot more fun. Go get yourself a web presence and come join us on the field. There’s always room for one more.

Unlinking your feeds and the impermanence of Twitter

About a week I stumbled on this interesting manifesto by Tim Maly on why we should unlink our feeds. I recommend you read the full article, but the heart of the matter is that you’re making a terrible mess of things by sending your feeds from one social network to all the others. You do a disservice to people who are following you on one network (by making them see everything else on all your other networks) and you spoil the mood and general atmosphere that you’re dumping into.

While I agree with the theory in general, I can’t bring myself to go the whole nine yards and completely disconnect everything. A related article by Alexis Madrigal argues that the unlinking doesn’t work with Twitter. Twitter has no memory and Twitter is most useful when you have other meatier services (like a blog, website or even just Facebook) that give people a better idea of who you are. The author argues that Twitter’s relative impermanence means that it’s worth piping your Twitter stream into something more permanent. For my part however, I see things the other: I want Twitter to be my catch-all because it is impermanent.

The New Old Deal

Here’s the deal: I accept that cross-linking feeds leads to some amount of pollution and that’s not something I should be subjecting my friends too. My friends on Last.fm don’t care about how many billions of floating point calculations I’m running at the moment and the readers of this blog probably don’t care about my thoughts on modern instrumental music. But as Madrigal puts it, Twitter is different. I feel uncomfortable calling Twitter a social network. To me it’s  more like a broadcast service. You send out little snippets and anyone connected can read it. Of course you could have a private feed and carefully control your followers, but I feel like that’s just a holdover from email (where spam is a clear and present danger). Also, Twitter is not email. It takes far less overhead to skip something that you don’t care about and personally at least, I don’t feel the same pressing urgency for my Twitter inbox as I do for my email.

When someone follows me on my Twitter account, I want people to understand that they’re getting the whole deal. They are getting my 140-character updates (which make up the bulk of my stream) but they are also getting my regular tech-related articles as well my discoveries online. Tim Maly notes that time is precious and accounts are cheap and it seems that he was talking primarily about other peoples time. While that is true, my time is also precious and so is my mental overhead. As an example, I take myself.

Account Overload?

I could, right now, split my Twitter stream into at least three separate accounts: one for updates only, one for my blog and tumblelog and one for my Last.fm feed. Thanks to Twitterfeed, I can set things up automatically to post to whichever account I want. That’s all fine and dandy and I’m really tempted to do it. But what happens when I have a thought about music that isn’t engendered by Last.fm? Does it go into statuses, music or both? Do I really want to tell my close friends that they now have to follow me on three different accounts to get everything (not to mention the overhead of @-reply conversations that could easily start crossing accounts)? Should I have a fourth account that pulls everything in for those who want it? I’ll be the first to admit that my example is somewhat contrived and probably a worst case scenario, but it deserves some thought. I would rather have Twitter collect everything with a disclaimer that people might be getting more than they bargained for.

As for pulling out of Twitter to somewhere else, I’ll agree that’s just a bad idea. Twitter has grown it’s own syntax with @replies and hashtags and the like which really make no sense elsewhere. The only place that you should even consider piping Twitter to is your Facebook status. As a friend of mine said when he dabbled in Twitter briefly: “It was like setting my Facebook status, except that’s all I could do”. Point taken. Even then, it’s a good idea to sanitize your stream to remove all the Twitter-speak. I use the Tweeter application which gives you some good filtering abilities.

In conclusion

  • Cross-linking your social networks is a bad idea.
  • Except for Twitter. It makes a certain amount of sense to pipe your feeds to Twitter.
  • Exporting Twitter to elsewhere is also a bad idea, because of Twitter-speak, except maybe for your Facebook status, if properly sanitized.

As an addendum, if you do decide to use Twitter as your catch-all, I suggest you standardize on a solution. Many services give you the option of piping to Twitter from within the service yourself. That may be fine if you have one or two services and want your posts to appear immediately, but the overhead grows as the number of services grow (and each service has the options in a different place). I recommend using RSS as your glue and piping things through Twitterfeed. There will be a short delay, but I don’t think that will much of an issue for most people.