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.

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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.

What is this Twitter thing anyway?

I spent most of my winter break in India and for the most part had a really relazing vacation. More than once something popped up on the local news channels about how some politician had said something embarassing on Twitter. Now while I don’t really pay much attention to politics, what struck me as interesting was that the news channel kept referring to Twitter as a “social networking site” and everytime I heard them I thought to myself “hmm… that doesn’t sound quite right”.

Twitter is certainly a social network, but it’s much more than a “social networking site”. In fact, the “site” aspect is probably the least significant part of the whole matter. Even though the website seems to be the most popular client, it still accounts for less than 30% of Twitter usage. Not only are there dozens (maybe hundreds) of Twitter apps, but perhaps more importantly there are lots of other services that plug into Twitter. Most recently WordPress and Tumblr implemented the Twitter API meaning than you can use Twitter applications and other services that post to Twitter and have them redirect to WordPress or Tumblr.

Twitter may have started out as a website, but now it’s become much more than that. It’s a platform and a service and in many ways, it is becoming an integral part of the modern Web. It probably wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say that it’s even becoming something of a public utility. Almost everything is on Twitter nowadays, including government, emergency response and notification and even revolutions. What started out as a way for people to send out 140 character messages to others has quickly become a better way for people to share just about everything they care to share.

While Twitter the service might be dead simple (though it has added features recently) there has been an enormous amount that has been added on top of Twitter by users and other services. Hashtags and retweets are probably the most common example. There has also been a recent request for a programmable Twitter client – some kind of simple Twitter shell script so that users can use Twitter just the way that they want to, without depending on the company to provide for it.

So what exactly is Twitter? I would be surprised if anyone could some up with a definite answer that accounted for all use cases. I think one way to describe it is as a platform for short message dispersal. In thinking of Twitter as a platform, instead of a service in and of itself, programmers are thinking of Twitter as a set of “dump pipes”. It becomes merely the medium for transport, relatively unimportant in comparison to the actual content. In some ways, it’s similar to a phone company — a company provides the service and facilities to make a phone call, but what’s more important is the actual data being exchanged. Even if there was no phone service, people would find other ways to make the same communications (VoIP for examples). Similarly, if there was no Twitter, people would just be using other media like they did before. And if Twitter someday goes away (or changes beyond recognition), we’ll find other ways to get our message across.

Writing, thinking and why you should use Twitter

I recently came across an article on writing ambitiously titled “The secret about writing that no one has the balls to tell you“. It’s a pretty decent article and I suggest you go read it, but the main point can be summarized as below:

If you’ve never written anything thoughtful, then you’ve never had any difficult, important, or interesting thoughts. That’s the secret: people who don’t write, are people who don’t think.

It seems like a pretty ballsy statement to make and like all such statements that don’t necessarily agree with your mental model of the world, they can be rather hard to accept. Though I agreed with the writer’s general train of thought, it took me a few seconds to decide whether or not I agreed with this particular piece of insight. And the answer turned out to be yes, with reservations. I agree that if you’ve never written something deep and meaningful then the chances are pretty good that your thinking hasn’t been really deep or meaningful either. But at the same time, just because you haven’t written anything powerful doesn’t mean that you haven’t written anything at all. After all there are millions of college papers being turned out every year, most of which are probably pretty bad. It’s very possible to write pages of complete and utter drivel. And thus we get to Twitter.

If your writing is a good reflection of your thoughts, then Twittering is like applying a chisel to a block of marble. Twitter, and more specifically the 140-character limit, forces you to condense your writing to it’s bare minimal essence. It forces you edit your thoughts until you get to the very core, mercilessly cutting away all the flab. A friend of mine remarked a few days that he really liked my Facebook status updates because I managed to pack so many interesting trains of thought into so small a space. At the time I didn’t mention that it was mainly because my Facebook status is a reflection of my tweets and Twitter’s limit forces brevity. It’s only now that I realize that the limit has actually helped me make my thinking sharper and cleaner.

It’s easy to think that there’s something inherent about Twitter and its limit that will make you a better writer. We’re all looking for silver bullets in one way or another. But from what I’ve seen from Twitter, especially from a number of writers on Twitter, it’s very easy to miss the point completely. One mistake that I see a lot of people making is splitting their message across multiple tweets, in essence ignoring the limit. That is completely self-defeating. You can only practice brevity and clarity if you follow the rules that enforce them. Readers also see the Tweets in reverse chronological order meaning that they will have to read your message backward, not a very good way to make a point. If slightly longer messages (200-500 characters) are your thing, then get a Tumblelog.

The Internet has made a lot of people very unhappy. One of the common complaints that I receive is that it has drastically reduced our attention spans. I’m not entirely convinced that this is true, especially since everyday I read a growing number of reasonably lengthy blog posts (700-1000 words) and many of them have pretty long comment chains attached to them. But even if it is true, I’m all for making an opportunity out of a disaster. It’s true that it will be a great disaster if we lose the ability to read, comprehend and argue long essays, but we can at least make the best of our situation by trying to cut our thoughts to the minimum that is necessary to express the thought without any actual conceptual loss. I like to think of it as a parallel to modern mathematical notion. It may seem strange and impossibly brief to the untrained, but for professional mathematicians the notation lets them express complex mathematical ideas and thoughts in a compact, communicable form. And life goes on.

This is not to say that all human knowledge and thought can or should be compressed to 140 character chunks. And perhaps more importantly, much of what needs to be said is in non-textual forms (the reason I also keep a media-centric Tumblelog). I don’t want Twitter to become the predominant method of communication and I think people who abandon longer forms to go all-Twitter are making a mistake. But I do want the core idea to be more broadly acknowledged and accepted. And the best phrasing of that core idea is to be found in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (fittingly enough):

Omit needless words.

And you should follow me on Twitter here.

I got a tumblelog

I got a tumblelog. Domain wise it’s part of my static site at Basu::shr. Behind the scenes it’s a basic Tumblr weblog with a nice looking theme and little else. I already have a proper weblog (this one) and a static website. I also have Twitter and Identi.ca accounts and I have a Friendfeed which pulls in updates from lots of different services that I use. So why yet another weblog?

The answer is that the web, especially the so-called Web 2.0 has been becoming more UNIX-like as time goes on. There are lots of different webapps out there, and the best ones focus on doing one thing and doing it well. It’s up to others to pull these webapps together via their APIs in a manner similar to the way UNIX shell scripts work. While this is in general a good thing, it can be a hassle for someone like me who would like to keep together all his/her online activity.

For a while I really wished there was One Great Webapp to Rule Them All. It would be this one great system into which I could put all my status updates, my pictures, videos, links, conversations and it would automatically send them out to whichever specific webapp they needed to go to. And much to my delight I found one just like that: Posterous. You send an email to Posterous containing whatever you want to post and Posterous can be setup to direct to a number of different webapps. This is a really cool thing, using email as a web equivalent of UNIX pipes. I tried it for a few days, and while I was happy for to start with, I came to realize some interesting things.

The first thing that I realized was email for all it’s flexibility and usefulness, it can be a bit tedious for some activities. If all you want to do is send out a 140 character update or post a video, it’s just a bit too much to switch to a mail client, copy/paste a link or type a message, select a recipient and then hit ‘Send’. Secondly, for conversation oriented media like Twitter, sending out your message is only half the problem and it makes no sense to use one tool to send out a message (email) and another to see incoming messages (another app or webapp). Add in the fact there are lots of small applications or browser extensions that do a really good job of putting on an easy-to-use layer on top of web services and email starts to lose its silver lining.

However, the greater realization I had was I that I didn’t necessarily wanted all my online activity pulled into one place. For example, this blog is about technology and my experiences with it and it’s not something that my liberal arts friends particularly care about. On the other hand, readers coming to this site to read about my adventures with programming languages probably don’t want to know all that much about what how the dining hall food is today or how tired I am after my creative writing class (things that go into my Twitter stream). I wouldn’t want to mix those two because the result would simply be a mess. I also don’t want to add things like cool videos, art or articles I find to either of these two unless I do want to blog about it (in which case I will write a post about it) or I really want my friends to know about it (in which case I’ll twitter it). By yesterday morning I decided that I still wanted to have an online, accessible record of stuff I found interesting (if anyone else really wanted to see) but I didn’t want to just dump it into the other streams.

Thus came about the tumblelog. I could have just stuck to my Posterous but I like Tumblr better, in part because of the gorgeous themes (which I hear can be used with Posterous, but I couldn’t find an easy way to do it) but also because it seems that Tumblr, especially the bookmarklet, processes excerpts from websites in a smarter way than Posterous. And I already had a Tumblr account that I started a few months ago, but I really didn’t use till now.

The way things stand now, here is how I currently use my multiple web services:

  • The ByteBaker for long-form tech-oriented articles
  • Twitter and Identi.ca for really short observations, ideas and messages
  • Basu::Shr::Weblog as a tumblelog for recording interesting things I find online, mostly videos and images
  • Diigo for interesting links that I want to keep a record of, but don’t care to actively share
  • Friendfeed to pull together everything about (plus a few others) for anyone who’s interested

Considering that this isn’t the first time that I’ve done this dance, I won’t be too surprised if I changed this setup again soon. At the current moment, the services and the tools around seem stable and useful and I’ve been able to use them with very little mental overhead (which is very important for me). Only time will tell if this works out, but I hope it does. On a related note, I’ve also started decoupling Facebook from my online presence because I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with their “Walled Garden” approach, but that’s a matter for another article.