Just signed up for the Literal waiting list. I’m down for a minimalist book-tracking site that runs on recommendations from trusted people rather than algorithms, and that intends to support local bookstores.. Found it via this Micro.blog thread. You can browse a founder’s profile to get a sense of its current state. It looks like you can import your Goodreads data and pick up where you left off, too.

Medium is testing themes, and Andy Baio quips that “they’re slowly turning into Blogspot”. It does seem to look like a sort of Blogspot/Tumblr hybrid without the reblogs. What caught my attention, though, was the bit about “fictionless reading”.

Most digital media experiences are full of friction: you are presented with an array of headlines and have to constantly decide, “Do I care enough to click?”

As a result, we spend much of our time online skimming, evaluating, and browsing, often ending up more overwhelmed than enlightened. In comparison, experiences like magazines, blogs, or feed-based social apps draw you into content immediately.

This gets the friction problem almost entirely wrong.

Reading and writing on the web is in need of more friction, not less. Experiences should encourage you to linger, or re-read, or ponder; or, perhaps, comment. Experiences should not encourage you just to speed right on ahead to the next thing.

I’ve debated back and forth on whether or not to include the next and previous links on my blog posts because I genuinely can’t decide if even they are too little friction.

Matthew Bogart touches on differences in getting to know people on bulletin boards versus doing the same on Twitter, and I think that part of the obstacle is that “a community like Twitter” is a phrase that makes no sense. Twitter isn’t a community, although it likely manages to contain various communities which form despite the platform’s actual disinterest in community. The more I think about it, I believe that social media platforms exist at a scale that’s perhaps inherently hostile to hosting community. One of the things that happened in the earlier era of social networking is that communities formed in groups or chats, virtual places you had to reach out to, or for; in the current era of social media it’s all about that single, solitary jumble of a feed. Fundamentally, I don’t think the feed as an organizing principle is compatible with community.

Were I to ask for one thing from Flickr, it would be the ability to post photos grouped together, but not by making a set. Rather, some fashion of gallery post; sometimes you deliberately want people to view a given photo specifically in the context of other photos.

After aborting one attempt months back, I’m again exploring making a return to using Flickr. (My old, original account still exists; they don’t allow URL changes, so I’ve no interest simply in resurrecting it.) What’s irritating me, though, is the feature inconsistencies between the iOS app and the website. For instance, the iOS app uses Foursquare for its location search, but then that mapping data appears nowhere on the website, whose location and mapping search does not use Foursquare and is missing many locations as prominent as the Oregon Zoo. Meanwhile, in the app I can only add a title to a photo, but not a description; on the website I can add either, both, or neither. I feel like Flickr is treated by whomever owns it like it’s some sort of bastard stepchild they’ve been saddled with and for whom they don’t want to have to put in too much effort despite having spent money to obtain it in the first place. Which always sort of prompts me to wonder: why should the rest of us?

Newsletters Aren’t New, But They Are Still Newsletters

It never will not be weird to me that people feel the need to make up new names for old things. Newsletters are not blogletters just because services like Substack have come along; they are newsletters with a fancy archive. It’s also not true that “what most newsletters of this type have inherited from blogs is tone of voice”. Newsletters with a personality and a perspective have existed for a very long time and pre-date blogs. Back in the early days of blogging and even before, I can think of two just off the top of my head that I subscribed to: Red Rock Eater News Service (mentioned here before) and Entropy Gradient Reversals. Most such newsletters had an online archive of one sort or another, although in the early days it might have been accessed via FTP or gopher. EGR ran off of Topica, and so had an easily-used web archive. What something like Substack does is model its lists’ archive pages on blogging’s traditional reverse-chronological format; that doesn’t magically create a new thing, per se. Nor is sending out your blog via email once a day a new thing; blogs as a form often have incorporated “daily digest” emails for quite a long time. Arguably the sort of thing Dave Winer has been doing lately has more claim to some fancy newish term, as what he does arguably could be described as writing his daily newsletter in public, viewing each day as a discrete entity that relates to itself as it goes. My admittedly-biased gut feels like this is what happens when content marketers discover a thing that already existed: they need to rebrand it in order to claim it, because their job and their mentality is to generate hype. It’s just newsletters. They literally pre-date the web, so you can’t hardly suddenly call them weblogs.

Somewhere in Gretchen McCulloch’s recent posts or newsletters was this Wired piece from last year I’d never seen about how at Archive of Our Own they’ve found a middle-ground between free-form and top-down tagging that’s actually much more functional and much more usable.

On AO3, users can put in whatever tags they want. (Autocomplete is there to help, but they don’t have to use it.) Then behind the scenes, human volunteers look up any new tags that no one else has used before and match them with any applicable existing tags, a process known as tag wrangling. Wrangling means that you don’t need to know whether the most popular tag for your new fanfic featuring Sherlock Holmes and John Watson is Johnlock or Sherwatson or John/Sherlock or Sherlock/John or Holmes/Watson or anything else. And you definitely don’t need to tag your fic with all of them just in case. Instead, you pick whichever one you like, the tag wranglers do their work behind the scenes, and readers looking for any of these synonyms will still be able to find you.

AO3’s trick is that it involves humans by design—around 350 volunteer tag wranglers in 2019, up from 160 people in 2012—who each spend a few hours a week deciding whether new tags should be treated as synonyms or subsets of existing tags, or simply left alone. AO3’s Tag Wrangling Chairs estimate that the group is on track to wrangle about 2.7 million never-before-used tags in 2019, up from 2.4 million in 2018.

Although this isn’t about content moderation as you’d think about it in the context, say, of social media, I do think there’s a lesson to be carried over and it’s the same damned lesson community managers teach over and over: programmatic rigidity from above doesn’t work, and free-for-all anarchy doesn’t work. You need actual people in the middle, wrangling.

Either my cognitive capacity just is too low today, or much of Venkatesh Rao’s piece on “the extended internet universe” is beyond my capacity outright, but I’m stuck on one snippet.

social media, dated to the invention of RSS, is 20 years old

I am trying to figure out how Rao gets to this idea, that we should date social media to the invention of RSS. Are we defining social media simply as “a feed of stuff from people you follow”?

That would seem weird to me, as there’s literally no social in that. What am I missing?

(For what it’s worth, I landed on the Rao piece because a Nadia Eghbal newsletter led me to a Maggie Appleton tweet.)

Longish-time readers will know that I’ve talked a lot about the differences between space and place online, and have wondered about what lessons can be learned from spaces and places offline. This is why I’m very much looking forward finally to having started Space and Place by Yi-Fu Tuan. It’s already dropping gold nuggets such as, “Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other.” Also this bit: “[I]f we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place.”

Colin Walker ponders the temporality of the modern web, and I think it’s right that the matter isn’t so much of how anyone writes but on the likelihood of any given person being read. Quasi-permanent sites rather than frequently-updated blogs isn’t a thing that answers that question. When the web was young there was only so much to find, and the individual webpage therefore had an inherent sort of cachet. Having recently done a re-read of The Weblog Handbook I’d say that if nothing else people should read Rebecca Blood’s afterword, “Another Look Back and a Look Forward”, especially if you weren’t around for the beginning of the web and/or the advent of weblogs. It wouldn’t hurt also to read the first bit of of chapter one, “Weblogs Are Native to the Web”. That kind of web is gone, and I don’t think it much matters how we write and publish today so much as it maybe matters that we bother to write and publish at all.

Will Oremus assembles a shortlist of suggestions to fix social media drawn from answers to a Charlie Warzel tweet, and I just want to address the final one a bit.

(I should note that as usual, I do not synonymize social media and social network, as I believe these are two different things. I see Friendster and MySpace as social networks; Instagram and Twitter as social media. Facebook somewhat sits astride the two forms.)

Oremus’ final shortlisted suggestion is, “Let a field of smaller social networks bloom.” My issue with his framing, however, is that it’s mired in current contexts.

In a world of many smaller sites, he says when listing the upsides of this idea, “Facebook wouldn’t be able to brush off boycotts so easily if users and advertisers had more viable alternatives.” Notice how he’s stuck thinking about social media as avenues for advertising, when that’s not at all inherently required for smaller communities and places on the web.

On the downside, however, Oremus argues that “intense competition might further fuel the battle for engagement and data harvesting” — again showing only that he’s letting himself get stuck in thinking only about smaller versions of what we have now instead of thinking about things we don’t have now. Or even of things we used to have.

Mostly when people talk about smaller sites, people are talking about places rather than platforms, communities rather than feeds. Oremus seems to be thinking only about sites which continue to be platforms of indication and excitation, just on a smaller scale; most people when they talk about smaller — or slower — sites are talking about places of interaction and expression.

Oremus somehow thinks that smaller sites still would be about users instead of about people, and until we stop trying to replicate our current circumstances just in some allegedly more manageable way, we’re never going to get anywhere worth being.

Some interesting little bits of technology in the latest Humane Ingenuity newsletter which Dan Cohen links to his idea of “ambient humanity”: Online Town and Gather.

Instead of a grid of video images like on Zoom, Online Town combines the Zoom line of video thumbnails with a cute lo-res 2-D video game environment that looks like it was plucked straight out of 1988. As you move through a map of a town or a campus or an office park, and you encounter other bitmapped avatars of people, you gradually come in and out of audio reach as you would in real life. Move close to someone and you can talk at full volume to them; move away and their voice fades away.

Siempre’s Gather is for larger groups, and is also an interesting combination of a very spatially aware, realistic audio environment married to an almost comical avatar map. I’ve created a Humane Ingenuity private park in Gather; maybe we can have a meet up there? It’s currently rather lonely.

Pair with the ongoing #MakeItDigital series appearing in the Civic Signals newsletter and on their Twitter feed, looking for “online analogies to our favorite urban features”.