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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 does: information about what a page talks about is inserted into the HTML tags using a specified vocabulary. The great advantage of is that the major search engines recognize and understand its markup, which means the search engines would be in a position to constructdiscover the initial blog networks.

In fact, 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

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 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; 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.


August 7, 2011

The point of Web 2.0 is its problem

I liked this post by in the Guardian by John Naughton about the future of Web 2.0, and I’m always delighted to be mention in the same paragraph as Paul Graham, but I want to keep insisting that Web 2.0 was not the moment when the Web moved from publishing platform to social platform. One of the main points of Cluetrain (1999) was in fact that the Web from its beginning was thrilling us because it was a social place, a set of conversations, a party.

Now, it is certainly true that with Web 2.0, the Web became more social, easier to socialize in, undeniably social. That’s why Web 2.0 is a useful concept.

My problem is really with the “point” in Web 2 Point Oh, since it can imply a point in time when the Web became social, as if before that the Web was merely a publishing platform. Nah. It’s been social since the moment browsers started appearing.


July 16, 2011

The social and the public

It seems to me that what’s new about Circles (and Twitter’s “Follows” structure) is the weird way they mix the social and the public.

Google Circles are unlike a bunch of people sitting around in a circle talking about stuff, because G Circles are asymmetric: That I’m in your Circle does not mean that you’re in mine. So, when I post to my Circle, it has elements of the social (symmetric communication, the possibility of back-and-forth conversation, and the implication of a continuing relationship) but it also has elements of the public (asymmetric communication, more difficulty engaging in a back-and-forth because of scaling issues, and no implication of a continuing relation).

What are prior analogues of this weird intermingling of the social and the public? We could always be social, and we could always be public (to one degree or another). The casual and often unnoticed mingling of the two seems to me to be genuinely new.

(This expands on my comment to Robert Paterson’s post at Google Plus.)


October 11, 2010

Why it’s good to be boring on the Web

Casually and randomly click your way through the Web, and it’s as if you were to knock on the doors of random people around the world and were to see a startling set of stupidities, insults, and depravities.

Of course, if you actually were to knock on random doors and get to listen in on what’s going on in living rooms and bedrooms, you probably would be depressed. It’s even worse online because extremism — and not just in politics — drives up traffic.

That’s one reason why, despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.


August 3, 2010

[berkman] Kate Crawford on mobiles and noise

Kate Crawford of the University of New South Wales i giving a talk called “Art of Noise: Mobile Social Media and Attention,” which she calls a work in progress.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She begins in 1741 with a Hogarth engraving called “The Enraged Musician.” It shows a musician furious about the street noise outside his window. These days, we are concerned about noise that comes at us from our social mobile media. There are limits to our listening, she says.

She talks about a study she’s conducting under an Australian research grant, on the use of mobile media by 18-30 year olds. We are in a critical period in which mobiles are becoming a portal for connecting to other kinds of mobile media. The first question the study asks is “youth culture and its imaginaries: how is youth culture represented in the media? What are the panics and the lived realities? How are mobiles a critical element of friendships? Is it an “emotional container” and a conduit for reaching emotional spaces?

In 2009, they did 339 interviews of men and women in much of Australia, across town sizes. The results were in line with other studies. The mobile is seen as critical infrastructure, integral to how you stay in touch and coordinate. Also, the phone is a “constant network presence, always on.” That was true across the entire sample. In one case, a woman recounted her surprise at being asked to turn off her mobile while on a flight; she did not know how to do that. Telephoning is the least popular way of communicating via a mobile.

This puts pressure on their attention.

[I missed a few minutes. Check Ethan’s blog, which you should be reading anyway]

We are quite conside3r about “info overload,” abn idea that has been around for a while. We have a myth of an earlier time when there wasn’t overload. “Ther4e’s hno such thing as info overload, just filter failure,” s Clay Shirky says. We are evolving new ways of being efficient. The founder of 42 folders talks about “productivity porn” — people wasting time going to productivity sites.

But the myth of the golden age of attention is false. We’ve been overloaded since the library at alexandria and before. In fact, Kate says, it’s not desirable to be in total control. She talks about 1906’s “The Society for the Suppression of unnecessary Noise,” which advocated for quiet “productive circles” around schools and hospitals to keep the brain from “jerking around.”

Today two thinkers have similar ideas: Adam Greenfield (‘zones of amnesty’) and Genevieve Bell (‘spaces of reusal”). Greenfield jokes he wants to create cafes with Farraday zones where there’s no electromagnetic reception.

In the arts, there’s much positive we can say about noise. In 1919 there was the “antisymphony concert,” introducing noise into music. Noise can be intrusive or a catalyst of growth.

So, how do we think about this in regard to mobiles? First, since the 17thC,. we have tried to engage with noise in creative ways, especially when noise is seen as a “shared problem with collective solutions.” Second, we should recognize how quickly mobiles and social spaces have emerged, making it difficult to develop complex social norms. This is not so much a difficult moment as an evolutionary movement.

Her study showed we are adapting to high levels of info while changing our definitions of focus, attention and productivity. This is not a technological problem to which there is a technological solution. Tech is only a means to an end And the tools and social norms are developing together.

Q: b[me] Does thefact that we are now aware of all that’s filtered out change our ideas about noise?
A: The filters are often social, through yoru friends. There are also filter elites — people who really know how to use these tools. Some of them are obsessed with productivity, and they are personal, individualistic.

Q: Noise is context-sensitive. A weed is a flower to some. Your filters can wall you in.
A: The weed operates in a wider ecology. We should be thinking about wider information ecologies.
Q: Privacy vs. disclosure?
A: It’s important to know when and what you’re disclosing.

Q: We negotiate noise collectively. In the Quiet Car on the train, there was a norm not even to type. But it was completely different on the way home in rush hour: you were simply not allowed to talk.
A: Beautiful example of collective engagement.
Q: I had the same experience in a library bathroom. Someone had her cell phone out, her laptop…
A: Yes, compare this to smoking. We’ve had decades to figure out the norms around smoking, but we’re only just beginning with noise.

Q: Is noise reduction is an inherent property of this sort of network interaction? People in the real world don’t come with labels, but they do at social networking sites. That reduces the noise, while increasing the information.
A: In the real world, there are cues. But, look at Twitter. People complain it’s all noise. So, then you use a noise reduction device, negotiating a filter.
Q: People use cues to pigeonhole people.

Q: [from the Web] Is it different in Australia? And the balance between social regulation and norms.
A: Yes, there are real cultural differences. I’ve been working with scholars in China and India. It’s about geography: Urban users have more in common with other urban users in other cultures than with rural users in the same culture.

A: There is a fashion currently that favors multitasking. Now the fashion is shifting to single tasks and high focus. There is brain research that suggests that that’s best, although I question the romanticism of the idea that we can focus on one task.

Q: The technology seems to be giving this generation a way to back away from more verbal communication and resolution of conflict.

Q: Would you join the society for the suppression of noise? Do you find value in noise?
A: No, I wouldn’t join. Signals are noise depending on context. My interest is in how you navigate noise.
Q: Signal is in opposition to noise. Favoring noise is rather Dada.
Q: How do class issues define noise? The musician is annoyed by the riffraff outside the window, we worry about the quiet car…
A: The info overload debate is coming from the educated classes. There are political issues around workspaces and noise…

Q: Is noise the right metaphor? E.g., Benjamin Walken’s Too Much Info podcast recently was on noise as violence —e.g., in the 1970s kids of color with boomboxes intruding on your space. But it may be different with the noise you’re talking about, which is more like danah over-tweeting me.
Q: Over-sharing is so gendered — feminine chattering, etc. The media over-genders it.
A: And yet boomboxes became the start of a new musical signal…

A: These questions are intensely interdisciplinary. Computer scientists and cognitive scientists can’t resolve them by themselves.

Q: Don’t we have to worry about over-filtering?
A: Yes, we need to be open to noise from different fields in order to get innovation.

Q: Maybe we should look at mobiles as part of us, and ask what we want from them?
A: McLuhan agrees that media are extensions of our bodies. Mobiles are already part of our affective environments.

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July 6, 2010

Sir Mark: How the Founder of Facebook Can Be Knighted, Win a Nobel Peace Prize, and Be Cheered by His Grateful Subjects

The founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, has been knighted, has been plausibly suggested for a Nobel Peace Prize, and is revered by his peers. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, inspires a worldwide nervousness: “What will the kid do next?” Yet, Facebook does something as important as the World Wide Web: While the Web knows how pages are connected, FB knows how people are connected. So, how can MZ get some of the love the world shows to TBL?

There is a way.

First, let’s make sure MZ is comfortable. Let him take, say, $100 million out of FB as winnings. His co-founders and managers deserve to do very, very well too. In fact, all 1,000 or so employees should make out like freaking bandits. They took a risk, they built a business, they have succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. They should make more money than they’ll ever need. If $100 million isn’t enough, make it $250 million. Whatever.

No, I’m not going to suggest that FB go away or become a non-profit. But it would have to make a big change. It would have to separate itself as a company from the social data it’s gathered so far.

To do that, FB could create the FB Foundation, or the Social Data Provisioners Consortium, or the World Wide Graph, or whatever. It would be in charge of the social information FB has gathered — who knows whom, who likes what, who isn’t speaking to whom ever again. From now on, that’s where the data FB users generate would go. MZ, in his role as the chair of the Facebook Foundation (FBF) would put together a stellar board, composed of the smartest and most trusted people from around the world to guide its decisions about privacy and other policies.

The FBF would be structurally and legally separated from Facebook. Facebook would continue as the world’s leading supplier of client software and services for people who want to do online social networking. It would continue to sell people to advertisers and make as much money as it can. But it would draw from and contribute to the FBF’s data servers just as would any other group that wanted to create a social networking client, or make other (permitted) use of the FBF data. All those using FBF’s data for commercial purposes would be required to chip in a little cash to keep its server farms well fertilized. (If these servers could be distributed and federated, the cost might be born by the hosts.)

Why would MZ do this? Because it’s the right thing to do. Or, some version of it is. And maybe if FB doesn’t, there will eventually be enough anxiety worldwide to create and populate an open, federated social networking data system that starts from scratch. But it’d be better for us all if it started from the staggering investment in time and information FB’s users have already made in it.

Besides, is there any contributor to the Web more admirable and more admired than Tim Berners Lee? MZ, that could be you! Do what TBL would have done! The MZ legacy FTW!

[And then I woke up…]