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August 1, 2015

Restoring the Network of Bloggers

It’s good to have Hoder — Hossein Derakhshan— back. After spending six years in an Iranian jail, his voice is stronger than ever. The changes he sees in the Web he loves are distressingly real.

Hoder was in the cohort of early bloggers who believed that blogs were how people were going to find their voices and themselves on the Web. (I tried to capture some of that feeling in a post a year and a half ago.) Instead, in his great piece in Medium he describes what the Web looks like to someone extremely off-line for six years: endless streams of commercial content.

Some of the decline of blogging was inevitable. This was made apparent by Clay Shirky’s seminal post that showed that the scaling of blogs was causing them to follow a power law distribution: a small head followed by a very long tail.

Blogs could never do what I, and others, hoped they would. When the Web started to become a thing, it was generally assumed that everyone would have a home page that would be their virtual presence on the Internet. But home pages were hard to create back then: you had to know HTML, you had to find a host, you had to be so comfortable with FTP that you’d use it as a verb. Blogs, on the other hand, were incredibly easy. You went to one of the blogging platforms, got yourself a free blog site, and typed into a box. In fact, blogging was so easy that you were expected to do it every day.

And there’s the rub. The early blogging enthusiasts were people who had the time, skill, and desire to write every day. For most people, that hurdle is higher than learning how to FTP. So, blogging did not become everyone’s virtual presence on the Web. Facebook did. Facebook isn’t for writers. Facebook is for people who have friends. That was a better idea.

But bloggers still exist. Some of the early cohort have stopped, or blog infrequently, or have moved to other platforms. Many blogs now exist as part of broader sites. The term itself is frequently applied to professionals writing what we used to call “columns,” which is a shame since part of the importance of blogging was that it was a way for amateurs to have a voice.

That last value is worth preserving. It’d be good to boost the presence of local, individual, independent bloggers.

So, support your local independent blogger! Read what she writes! Link to it! Blog in response to it!

But, I wonder if a little social tech might also help. . What follows is a half-baked idea. I think of it as BOAB: Blogger of a Blogger.

Yeah, it’s a dumb name, and I’m not seriously proposing it. It’s an homage to Libby Miller [twitter:LibbyMiller] and Dan Brickley‘s [twitter:danbri ] FOAF — Friend of a Friend — idea, which was both brilliant and well-named. While social networking sites like Facebook maintain a centralized, closed network of people, FOAF enables open, decentralized social networks to emerge. Anyone who wants to participate creates a FOAF file and hosts it on her site. Your FOAF file lists who you consider to be in your social network — your friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. It can also contain other information, such as your interests. Because FOAF files are typically open, they can be read by any application that wants to provide social networking services. For example, an app could see that Libby ‘s FOAF file lists Dan as a friend, and that Dan’s lists Libby, Carla and Pete. And now we’re off and running in building a social network in which each person owns her own information in a literal and straightforward sense. (I know I haven’t done justice to FOAF, but I hope I haven’t been inaccurate in describing it.)

BOAB would do the same, except it would declare which bloggers I read and recommend, just as the old “blogrolls” did. This would make it easier for blogging aggregators to gather and present networks of bloggers. Add in some tags and now we can browse networks based on topics.

In the modern age, we’d probably want to embed BOAB information in the HTML of a blog rather than in a separate file hidden from human view, although I don’t know what the best practice would be. Maybe both. Anyway, I presume that the information embedded in HTML would be similar to what Schema.org does: information about what a page talks about is inserted into the HTML tags using a specified vocabulary. The great advantage of Schema.org is that the major search engines recognize and understand its markup, which means the search engines would be in a position to construct the initial blog networks.

In fact, Schema.org has a blog specification already. I don’t see anything like markup for a blogroll, but I’m not very good a reading specifications. In any case, how hard could it be to extend that specification? Mark a link as being to a blogroll pal, and optionally supply some topics? (Dan Brickley works on Schema.org.)

So, imagine a BOAB widget that any blogger can easily populate with links to her favorite blog sites. The widget can then be easily inserted into her blog. Hidden from the users in this widget is the appropriate Schema.org markup. Not only could the search engines then see the blogger network, so could anyone who wanted to write an app or a service.

I have 0.02 confidence that I’m getting the tech right here. But enhancing blogrolls so that they are programmatically accessible seems to me to be a good idea. So good that I have 0.98 confidence that it’s already been done, probably 10+ years ago, and probably by Dave Winer :)


Ironically, I cannot find Hoder’s personal site; www.hoder.com is down, at least at the moment.

More shamefully than ironically, I haven’t updated this blog’s blogroll in many years.


My recent piece in The Atlantic about whether the Web has been irremediably paved touches on some of the same issues as Hoder’s piece.

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July 29, 2015

Reddit is not a community. But there’s a little more to say.

Dennis Tenen has an excellent post reminding people that calling Reddit a community is at best sloppy. I have committed this sloppiness, although at times I do try to be more careful, because I fundamentally agree with Dennis on this. In fact, I resist calling anything on the Net a community because it’s a word worth preserving, although I’m afraid it has already slipped its moorings and has floated away from its original meaning.

I think of communities in their traditional sense as being people who care about each other more than they have to. Even so, Adrienne Debigare [twitter:adbigare] and I recently wrote about Reddit at HBR.org, and we use the word “community” 32 times. We do, however, try to clarify our sloppiness toward the beginning:

[Reddit] is often talked about as a community, but its scale—169M unique visitors a month—stretches that term. Rather, it’s helpful to think of it not just as a community but as a culture that springs from a set of values and a form of discourse.

Adrienne and I also did a Radio Berkman podcast on this topic, and may have been much sloppier.

Dennis does a more precise job. He notes that a community typically: [1] is a social entity, [2] that occupies some contiguous stretch of real or virtual space, and [3] will usually “share a value system, which in turn manifests itself in specific customs, norms, and modes of governance.”

The pedant in me wants to fiddle with that, but Dennis isn’t arguing about the application of a term. He’s pointing out that it’s a mistake to think that Reddit is a single community, a single culture, a single set of people who share the same values, or whatever terms we want to use. Reddit “can be better described as a platform that facilitates a range of activities: some communal in nature, some commercial, and other simply private.”

Dennis is right.

But I think there are some weak ways in which it make sense to talk about a Reddit culture, even while recognizing that there is nothing one can say about values, discourse, or content that would be true of each of Reddit’s tens of thousands of subreddits. But there are at least four reasons to talk about the “Reddit culture” in the singular.

First, Reddit the Company makes a decision about what the default subreddits are on the front page, and I imagine that some very high percentage of users don’t customize that page. The company therefore has made a decision about what topics, values, and forms of discourse will stand for Reddit.

Second, contributors to those default subreddits, and to others, sometimes express a sense of identity, as Dennis notes. You can be a redditor. You can be a good redditor or a bad one. Of course this identity is fluid and not uniformly shared. But it exists. It has something to do with participating generously, accepting some norms of behavior (will the OP deliver?), and appreciating particular values that are assumed to be Reddit’s. These values include things like: valuing what is perceived as free and open speech, responding to challenges with some type of reasoned answer rather than mere assertions or hostility, etc. I’m not saying that Reddit lives up to these; there are deeply troubling gender issues, for example. But to say that someone is a true Redditor is to say something.

Third, the company has expressed political opinions, and has engaged with the “community” directly, responsively, and as equals-in-culture. (Clearly, that’s not been the case in the recent brouhaha.) That is, the company has expressed itself as a culture.

Fourth, the software itself enacts a set of values. Of course it can be used in ways contrary to those values, but it tends toward certain values. For example, it promotes unfiltered speech or speech filtered by the community and its mods; it gives every user equal upvotes or downvotes; it enables digressions from a thread without cost; it encourages linking out to the Web rather than assuming everything interesting is within its boundaries; it generally respects the user by not plastering itself with ads; it encourages pseudonymous speech; it assumes that the “community” will decide for itself which topics are interesting enough to merit creating a new subreddit; it is open source code.

None of these warrant us calling Reddit a single culture, much less a community. I agree with Dennis. I just want to leave room for also talking about Reddit as a culture, or at least as having something like a dominant culture, even as we always append Dennis’ caveats. As he writes, since “Reddit is not a community, then there is no reason for us to expect a uniform set of responses or behaviors from it as a whole. ” That is definitely a mistake we would be wise not to commit.

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July 26, 2015

Angry Birds Pansies

Pansies are supposed to look like thoughtful faces, right? That’s where the word comes from. But something seems to have pissed them off.

Or maybe their DNA somehow got mingled with Ed Asner’s.

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July 20, 2015

How far wrong has the Net gone? A podcast with Mitch Joel

My friend Mitch Joel and I talk for about an hour (sorry) about whether our hopes for the Net have proven to be forlorn. You can listen here.

The spur for this conversation was my recent article in The Atlantic, “The Net that Was (and Still Could Be).”

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July 19, 2015

Wikipedia is too hard: A suggestion

Frequently we consult encyclopedias because a concept came up in conversation or in something we’re reading, and we need to know just enough about it to be able to move on. But it seems to me that more and more frequently Wikipedia’s explanations are too hard and too detailed for this.

For example, if Planck’s Constant came up in something I was reading and I needed to know just enough to make sense of it, here’s how Wikipedia begins its explanation:

Wikipedia first paragraph about Planck's Constant

That may be fine for a physics student, but I need something more like this:

Simple Wikipedia's Planck Constant explanation

Much better.

That happens to come from the Simple Wikipedia. If the article you’re looking at has the address https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_constant, replace the “en” with “simple” (https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_constant) and often you’ll get a far more intelligible answer. Well, “often” means 113,937 articles in English so far.

One of the reasons Simple Wikipedia’s opening paragraphs are clearer than Regular Old Wikipedia’s is that Regular’s explanations often think that links replace explanations: you don’t have to explain “proportionality constant” if you link it to its Wikipedia article. That’s great for browsing on a quiet Sunday afternoon, but not great if you’re looking up something in service of understanding something else. Linking instead of explaining seems to me to be lazy.

So here’s a request for someone to write a browser extension that, when you hover over a link in a WP page, pops up the first paragraph of the linked article. If there’s a Simple WP version, it should pop up that first paragraph. Getting an explanation without leaving the page is not just a convenience. It would help preserve the reading experience and improve comprehension.

If this also encouraged writing first paragraphs that are clear enough that they let us get a quick hit of understanding and then move on, so much the better.

In fact, if I were King of Wikipedia, I’d take the first paragraphs of all 113,937 Simple Wikipedia articles and make them the first paragraph of the articles of which they are the simplifications. And then I would retire to my Wiki Castle and drink some wiki mead.


As i was poking around for a bad example of a first paragraph, I came across many good examples. Here’s just one:

In the late 19th century, luminiferous aether, æther or ether, meaning light-bearing aether, was the postulated medium for the propagation of light. It was invoked to explain the ability of the apparently wave-based light to propagate through empty space, something that waves should not be able to do.

Got it! Thank you, Wikipedia!

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July 13, 2015

What open APIs could do for the news

In 2008-9, NPR, the NY Times, and The Guardian opened up public APIs, hoping that it would spur developers around the world to create wonderful and weird apps that would make use of their metadata and spread the availability of news.

Very few little happened. By any normal measure, the experiment would have to be deemed a failure.

These three news organizations are nevertheless fervid evangelists for the same APIs—for internal use. They provide an abstraction layer that makes the news media’s back ends far easier to maintain without disrupting their availability to users, they enable these organizations to adapt to new devices and workflows insanely quickly, they facilitate strategic partnerships, they lower the risk of experimentation, and more.

This was the topic of the paper I wrote during my fellowship at The Shorenstein Center. The paper then looks at ways we might still get to the open ecosystem for news that was first envisioned.

The full paper is available freely at the Shorenstein site.

There’s an op-ed length version at Nieman Reports.

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July 10, 2015

A solution to the Greek crisis

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July 8, 2015

Fewer bubbles

Yes, this site looks a little different. I took the posts out of their bubbles, changed the font to a serif version, and increased the font’s size. I also fiddled with many of the other elements, albeit in less noticeable ways.

Why? If you’re really asking that, then your design sense is as bad as mine.

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July 7, 2015

Friends reviewing friends

Amazon is refusing to post reviews when its algorithms sense a personal relationship between the author and the reviewer. Amazon says, “We are removing your reviews because you know the author personally,” according to Chris Morran at The Consumerist.

The intent is fine. A review is likely to be swayed by a personal friendship. That’s why some of us disclose friendships when posting reviews at Amazon.

But, it would help if Amazon clarified what “knowing an author personally” means. In a networked world, that is an incredibly vague description.

After that, here are some suggestions that I think would help matters while preserving the policy’s good intentions:

1. Flag reviews by people with personal relationships, but don’t remove them. They may in fact shed special light on the work being reviewed.

2. Allow reviewers to flag their own reviews, and to describe their relationships. E.g., “We are colleagues,” “She’s a lifelong friend,” “We were close friends until I moved 12 yrs ago,” “We’ve been on panels together,” “We were friends until the lying bastard done me wrong.”

3. Do not count the ratings by such people in the overall total.

4. Provide some avenue of appeal when the algorithm goes wrong.

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July 3, 2015

Joining Reddit

Reddit is in flames. I can only see one way out of it that preserves the site’s unique value.

I say this as an old man who loves Reddit despite being way outside its main demographic. Of course there are outrageously objectionable subreddits—topical discussion boards—but you don’t have to visit those. Reddit at its best is wonderful. Inspiring, even. It is a self-regulated set of communities that is capable of great collective insight, humor, and kindness. (At its worst, it is one of the nightmares of the Internet.)

Because Reddit is so large, with 169M unique visitors each month, it is impossible to generalize accurately about what went on yesterday and is continuing today. Nevertheless, the precipitating cause was the termination of the employment of Victoria Taylor for reasons Reddit and she have not disclosed. Victoria was not only the wildly popular enabler of Reddit’s wildly popular AMA‘s (“Ask Me Anything”), she was the only Reddit employee visible to most redditors (Reddit users).

Victoria’s sudden dismissal was taken by many as a sign of the increasing misalignment of Reddit’s business goals and the culture of its communities. Reddit, it is feared, is going commercial. The volunteer moderators (“mods”) of some of the large subreddits have also complained that their requests for support over the past months have gone unanswered.

In protest, many of the large subreddits and a long list of smaller ones have gone private and are thus dark to most of the world. This will have some financial effect on Reddit, but it is better understood as a political protest, applying the technique used successfully in 2012 when Reddit, Wikipedia, and other major sites went dark to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills that would have limited Internet freedom. It is an assertion-by-deprivation of the cultural value of these subreddits.

It is, I believe, a mistake to view this uproar primarily in terms of economics or business. This is an attempt by a community to stay a community despite perceived attempts by the business underneath it to commercialize it. Up until now, Reddit the Company has understood the importance of accepting and promoting its community’s values. Advertising is unobtrusive, some of which lets users comment on the ad itself. Reddit makes money also from its users buying “Reddit gold” to bestow upon comments they find particularly valuable. Reddit gold has no monetary value, so users are consciously paying Reddit money for the privilege of paying another user a visible compliment. And Reddit has sternly defended the free speech of its users even when that speech is, well, horrible—although the management did controversially shut down some shaming and hating sites a few weeks ago.

Reddit is in bad shape today. The meme-making forces of sarcasm it’s famous for have been turned inwards.The most loyal users are feeling betrayed. Some of the communities that have driven Reddit forward as a cultural force are feeling abused. It’s hard to come back from that.

A big part of the problem is that Victoria, the face of Reddit to its own community, was accepted as “One of us! One of us!” as redditors sometime self-mockingly invoke the movie Freaks. Indeed, she embodied many of the virtues of Reddit at its best: curious, accepting, welcoming, helpful, funny. Many redditors saw themselves reflected in her.

Victoria was thereby an important part of Reddit’s support of what I call “The Gettysburg Principles“: She helped Reddit seem to be by, for, and of us. Now the face of Reddit is Ellen Pao, the interim CEO who is largely derided and detested at Reddit because she seems to be “One of them! One of them!”— a Silicon Valley player.

If we view this first and foremost as a problem in maintaining a community rather than strictly as a revenue issue, then I can only see one way forward: Pao should get off her executive horse, engage with the community in public, and show that she’s a redditor too. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder, also should step forward with his best redditor face on. Alexis when free of corporate pressures is a redditor through and through.

There is still an opportunity for Reddit to show that it understands the source of all its value: communities trusted to run themselves, and a strong sense of shared cultures.

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