this space intentionally left blank

October 8, 2014

Filed under: culture»internet

Serious (Pony) Business

There's nothing I'm going to write this week that's as moving, as horrifying, or as important as Kathy Sierra's take on trolls and being trolled. Sierra, who was seriously harassed and abused by Andrew "weev" Auernheimer, writes about how awful this harassment was, how common it is, and devastating it was to see Auernheimer's history of sociopathic trolling dismissed after his (admittedly flawed) prosecution for "hacking" AT&T.

But you all know what happened next. Something something something horrifically unfair government case against him and just like that, he becomes tech's "hacktivist hero." He now had A Platform not just in the hacker/troll world but in the broader tech community I was part of. And we're not just talking stories and interviews in Tech Crunch and HuffPo (and everywhere else), but his own essays in those publications. A tech industry award. His status was elevated, his reach was broadened. And for reasons I will never understand, he suddenly had gained not just status and Important Friends, but also "credibility".

Did not see that coming.

But hard as I tried to find a ray of hope that the case against him was, somehow, justified and that he deserved, somehow, to be in prison for this, oh god I could not find it. I could not escape my own realization that the cast against him was wrong. So wrong. And not just wrong, but wrong in a way that puts us all at risk. I wasn't just angry about the injustice of his case, I had even begun to feel sorry for him. Him. The guy who hates me for lulz. Guy who nearly ruined my life. But somehow, even I had started to buy into his PR. That's just how good the spin was. Even I mistook the sociopath for a misunderstood outcast. Which, I mean, I actually knew better.

And of course I said nothing until his case was prosecuted and he’d been convicted, and there was no longer anything I could possibly do to hurt his case. A small group of people — including several of his other personal victims (who I cannot name, obviously) asked me to write to the judge before his sentencing, to throw my weight/story into the "more reasons why weev should be sent to prison". I did not. Last time, for the record, I did NOTHING but support weev’s case, and did not speak out until after he’d been convicted.

But the side-effect of so many good people supporting his case was that more and more people in tech came to also... like him. And they all seemed to think that it was All Good as long as they punctuated each article with the obligatory "sure, he’s an ass" or "and yes, he's a troll" or "he's known for offending people" (which are, for most men, compliments). In other words, they took the Worst Possible Person, as one headline read, and still managed to reposition him as merely a prankster, a trickster, a rascal. And who doesn’t like a "lovable scoundrel"?

The whole post is well worth reading before Sierra possibly takes it offline. And who could blame her? Even as she was writing this, the #gamergate movement on Twitter has literally harassed women out of their homes, and yet (in an echo of weev's "hacktivism") still insists that they're all about "ethics in journalism."

For most, that's an obvious smokescreen — a way to cloak their behavior in respectability while planning their next attack. For those who claim to actually believe it, that's a declaration that writing about videogames is more important than hurting women in the worst possible ways. And there's the problem: you don't get to claim the moral high ground when you got there through the pain and suffering of other people.

July 9, 2014

Filed under: culture»internet

Outward Facing

Hey, remember that huge Facebook controversy? No, not when they tried to emotionally manipulate thousands of people for a study of dubious worth. Also not when they leaked random purchases to all your friends, thus exposing your secret SexyKiltsAndHikingBoots.com purchases to the world (what? It's a Seattle thing, all right?). Probably not when they complained about the news culture that they themselves had created. Maybe it was when Facebook removed privacy options (or just changed them around in one of the site's near-constant redesigns).

Actually, I'm not really sure what I'm talking about either. To put it in the Upworthy headline-speak that clogs your news feed until you sigh and grudgingly switch it back to "most recent" mode again, "This social network has a bad habit of treating its users like lab rats. You won't believe how little they care!"

At some point, I resigned myself to the fact that I'm not going to quit Facebook anytime soon, no matter how bad their behavior is. Most people won't. In my case, even if I don't use it often, it's the only place where local dance events get publicized — without it, my ability to participate gets curtailed sharply. For other friends of mine, Facebook messages are a primary means of communication, over e-mail or even SMS. It's how we keep in touch with each other, even just in an ephemeral, transitory sense.

You may remember, however, that when Facebook first started along the path of "we know what you should see better than you do," there was a scrappy crowdfunding effort in response, for a decentralized social network run by users, for users. Diaspora took in a huge amount of money, showed no progress for a couple years, shut down, open sourced itself, and is now puttering along with roughly 15 thousand users. Which is, to be honest, what most reasonable probably saw happening anyway, but we live in a world where people collectively donate $30,000 for potato salad, so maybe a little perspective is in order.

Even though this is all fairly predictable, as someone with some interest in self-hosted versions of cloud services, I'm intrigued by the question of why we don't have a popular, decentralized, open-source alternative to Facebook. I don't think it's a difficult question to answer — rather, it's interesting because there are actually multiple reasons that it doesn't happen, and they point out bigger problems with cloud-based computing for everyday people. Facebook is a great case study for this, because many programmers have a habit (particularly when a little tipsy) of pointing out that they could write a simple Facebook clone in a weekend. This is both true, and entirely missing the point.

To see why, we have to look at a seemingly unrelated incident: Facebook's $1 billion purchase of Instagram. Why so much? It's not because it was an equal competitor: filtered photos don't compete with the Facebook news feed directly. But it had a hook that would pull users — easy sharing using your phone camera instead of a keyboard — and once the audience is there, upgrading to a Facebook-like feature set is easier. In other words, Instagram wasn't valuable because it was like Facebook. It was valuable because it was different enough to get users' attention, but close enough to serve the same social needs.

Every existing competitor to Facebook has a compelling hook. If Instagram has sharing, Snapchat has its (supposed) privacy features, and LinkedIn has a ton of annoying recruiters sending e-mails to random users. Unfortunately, open source is not good at figuring out product hooks — it tends to excel at imitation and evolution. An open-source social network would probably be better written than Facebook, but without that showcase feature, nobody will join. And a social network with no people in it is worthless. Lesson one: find a hook that's not "is open source." I suspect gaming is a possible contender, but it's proven elusive so far (both for small players like OpenFeint and the big vendors).

Assume we have our hook: how do users join up? Other social networks are free, they have nice onboarding procedures, and they don't require you to do any deep thinking about anything other than your relationship status. By contrast, when you join Diaspora, you need to choose a "pod" based on its physical location, size, and software version before you're allowed to sign up. I am shocked — shocked — that this has not taken off.

Home-built social networks tend to be decentralized, and they're often proud of that fact: letting users choose where to put their data, and how it's used, is a huge win for privacy. But decentralized services are more complicated, and require more work from their users. It's even worse if people are expected to actually self-host: the most successful self-hosted web app on the Internet today is Wordpress, and yet being forced to install Wordpress on a cheap, randomly chosen hosting provider is punishment for shoplifting in some countries. Lesson two: web app installation shouldn't be a trial.

There's a lot of thought going into this problem — Docker, for example, is a system for baking web apps into "containers" that can be installed and uninstalled almost like mobile apps. These containers travel with all their dependencies, and configuration, so there's no need to worry about what your host does or doesn't support, or what their particular weird setup is. But until then, the answer for most people tends to be "use a hosted solution a la Wordpress.com," which tends to the defeat the purpose of decentralized software.

Without learning these lessons, cloud computing stays out of the hands of regular people, and the hope of a personal Facebook with it. Of course, they're hardly a panacea, and they're certainly not a solution for social networking anway. At this point, it almost doesn't make a difference what Facebook does, or how badly it abuses people. I think this is part of why people get so angry about it: that feeling of helplessness. We can't code our way out of this problem, or leave our friends and family behind. All we can do is hold our noses and soldier on.

October 15, 2013

Filed under: culture»internet»excession

Hacker No

A few years ago, I started blacklisting web sites that I didn't think were healthy: gadget sites, some of the more strident political sites, game blogs that just churned crappy content all day long. If it didn't leave me better informed, or I felt like my traffic there was supporting bad content, or if the only reason I visited was for the rush of outrage, I tried to cut it out (or at least cut it down). All in all, I think it was a good decision. I felt better about myself, at least.

This week, I added Hacker News to the list of sites I don't visit. HN is the current hotspot for tech community news--kind of a modern-day Slashdot. Unfortunately (possibly by virtue of being run by venture capital firm Y Combinator), it's also equally targeted at A) terrible startup company brogrammers and B) libertarian bitcoin enthusiasts. Browsing the links submitted by the community there is kind of like eating at dive restaurants in a new city: you'll find some winners, but the price is a fair amount of food poisoning.

For a while, I've been running a Greasemonkey script that tries to filter out the worst of the listings (sample search terms: lisp, techcrunch, hustle). This is not as easy as it sounds, because HN is written using the cutting-edge technologies of 1995: a bunch of nested tables with inline styles, served via Lisp variant that causes constant timeouts on anything other than the front page. But even though I had a workable filter from a technical perspective, at some point, it's time to hang up the scripts and admit that the HN community is toxic. There's only so long you can not read the comments, especially on any thread involving sexism, racism, and other real problems that Silicon Valley would like to pretend don't exist.

For example, here's some of the things I've been trying to ignore:

  • Women don't want to be in tech, just like they didn't want to be doctors or lawyers just don't want to be in tech, any more than they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, or astronauts.
  • Literally blaming women for being sexually assaulted at tech conferences
  • It's great to be homeless, and by "homeless" we mean rich.
  • My favorite: Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, admits that he won't fund people with an accent. Here's the fun part: Graham is one of the "major contributors" to FWD.us, Mark Zuckerberg's self-serving immigration reform lobby group. In other words, foreign labor is welcomed, unless they want to start a company.

The tech bubble isn't just financial: these are signs of a community that's isolated from difference — of gender, of opinion, and of class. The venture capital system even protects them from consequences: how much money will Twitter lose this year? The fog of arrested development that hangs over Hacker News is its own argument for increased diversity in the tech industry. And it affects more than just a few comment threads, unless you also think the best use of smart people's time is the development of a $130 smoke detector that talks to your iPad.

Leaving a well-known watering hole like this is a little scary — HN is how I've stayed current on a lot of new developments in the field. It's frustrating, feeling like good information is being held hostage by a bunch of creeps. But given a choice between reading an article a couple of days after everyone else or feeling like I constantly need a shower, I'm happy to work on my patience.

April 25, 2013

Filed under: culture»internet

Network Affect

A couple of years ago, I spent the money for a subscription to Ars Technica, because I really liked their Anonymous/HBGary reporting, and wanted the full RSS feeds. Along with that, every now and then they'll send out a message about a coupon or special offer, which is how I ended up with a free account on App.net, the for-pay Twitter clone. Then I forgot about it, because the last thing I need is a way to find more people that annoy me.

And then someone linked me to this blog post, which made my week. It's a pitch for App.net in the most overwrought, let-them-eat-cake way. I'm going to excerpt a bit, but you should click through: it's better when you can just soak up the majesty of the whole thing:

The difference between a public and a private golf course is so profound that it's hard to play a public course after being a member of a private course. It's like flying coach your entire life, and then getting a first class seat on Asiana — it's damned hard to go back.

That's the difference between Twitter and App.net to me. Twitter is the public golf course, the coach seat. It's where everyone is, and that's exactly the problem. App.net is where a few people that are invested in the product, its direction, and the overall health of the service, go to socialize online.

[paragraph of awkward self-promotion removed]

Welcome to the first-class Twitter experience.

I actually don't know if I could write a parody of upper-class snobbery that good. If you hold your hand up the screen, you can almost feel the warmth of his self-regard--but not too close! They don't let just anyone into this country club, you know.

Seriously, though: while I've amused myself endlessly trying to come up with even-less-relatable metaphors for things ("Twitter is the black truffle, as opposed to the finer white truffles I eat at my summer home in Tuscany"), one random doofus with a blog is not cause for comment. Silly as it is, that post made me reconsider they way I look at internet advertising and ownership--if only to avoid agreeing with him.

In general, I'm not a big fan of advertising or ad-supported services. On Android, I usually buy apps instead of using the free versions, and I believe that people should own their content on the Internet. But let's be realistic: most people will not pay for their own server or software, and many people can't--whether because they don't have the money, or because they don't have access to the infrastructure (bank account, credit card, etc.) that's required. Owning your stuff on the internet is both a privilege and a visible signifier of that privilege.

This creates heirarchies between users, and even non-savvy people pick up on that. When Instagram finally decided to release an Android client, the moaning from a number of users about "those people" invading their clean, tasteful, iPhone-only service was a sight to behold. The irony of Instagram snobbery is that the company was only valuable because of its huge audience. It only got that userbase because it was free. Therein lies the catch-22 of these kinds of services: the scale that makes them useful and valuable also makes them profoundly expensive to run. Subscription-based or self-hosted business models are more sustainable, but they're never going to get as big.

Meanwhile, the technical people who think they could do something about these problems--"a few people that are invested in the product, its direction, and the overall health of the service"--are off building their own special first-class seating. Not that I think they'll make it, personally--it's a perpetual tragedy that the people threatening to Go Galt never do, since that would require them to stop bothering the rest of us.

I often see people expressing distaste for ad-supported sites with the oft-quoted line "you're not the customer, you're the product." That's nice when you have the option of paying for your own e-mail, and running your own blog, in the same way that minimalism looks awfully nice when you have the credit rating to afford it. People without money have to live with clutter. If we're interested in an internet that offers opportunity to everyone, we have to accept a more forgiving view of ad-supported business, and focus on how to make it safer for people who have no other option. Otherwise we're just congratulating each other on getting into the country club.

December 28, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

The Social Net Work

Moving all the way across the country, I'm finding social media invaluable for maintaining connections with my friends back in DC. It's no substitute for actually being there, but it's not supposed to be: instead, I get peeks into the life of my coworkers, the other members of Urban Artistry, and my other East Coast friends--just enough information that I still feel like I know how they're doing (and, hopefully, vice versa).

But which social media? I'm active on at least three, all of which I use (and compliment this blog) in different ways:

  • Twitter typically takes the place of a linkblog. It's where I post quick, hit-and-run content that I find interesting, but not enough that I want to comment on it at length. I follow more people who don't know me on Twitter than I do anywhere else.
  • Facebook is not my preferred social network, because they've shown again and again that given the option of maintaining my privacy or selling me out, they will reach for the check every single time, and they don't seem to understand why people get upset when they do. But all my friends are on Facebook, and therefore so am I.
  • Somewhere in the middle is Google+. They've made missteps (no pseudonyms) but the basic idea is good. I like the way G+ is built for short-to-medium length writing: I don't want to write blog posts there, but it gives me enough room to tell a decent joke. Unfortunately, most people still haven't moved over, and there aren't any desktop clients for posting.

Of course, this is not a battle to the death. I don't have a problem picking the right place to post something (in fact, I kind of welcome the audience segmentation). But it's such a hassle, switching between windows or re-opening old pages to check for updates. What I really want is a single method of subscribing to updates from all of these services (and more) and optionally posting to them from a single box--what Warren Ellis calls One Big Thing Everywhere.

But that isn't something that the people developing social networks seem to be interested in facilitating. You can't get a decent RSS feed from any of these services anymore. And even building such a thing myself would be prohibitively difficult: Twitter's API is increasingly dense, Facebook's is notoriously hostile, and the G+ API is practically non-existent.

This is not a coincidence, of course, just as it's not a coincidence that Facebook has removed RSS as an input option and that Google recently integrated Reader directly into G+. My personal opinion is that these companies are working hard, both directly and indirectly, to kill decentralized syndication standards like RSS in favor of gateways that they can control.

All of which is the kind of thing that I shouldn't have to care about. But these days, as Lawrence Lessig observed in Code, we're writing our social and legal values into software. In this case, it's the software that helps me keep in touch with my friends and family back on the East coast. That's more than just inconvenient--it's a disturbing amount of power over our personal connections. Ironically, it's only when I use social networks the most that I seriously consider giving them up.

July 13, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

N'est pas un blog

There's one quirk in the CQ.com publishing process that has always driven me crazy (what, just one?). When we add stories to the main news section of the site, our CMS requires a separate entry for the teaser, headline, and any related links or images. Inside the building, they call these entries--each individual one, mind you--"blogs." Every time I hear it ("I'm going to write a blog for the new debt story." "Can you update the blog to add that link?" "Let's blog a new photo in the top blog BLOG BLOG BLOG.") I want to grind my teeth into little featureless nubs. Which I will call "blogs," because why not? It's not like words mean something!

Breathe. Calm. Find my happy place: Puppies. Sandwiches. Empty spreadsheets. Anyway...

After Google+ launched, something similar happened. People looked at the service, which combines Twitter's asymmetric-follow model with Facebook's rich content stream, and apparently thought to themselves "hey, this thing could be my new blog." Either they redirected their entire domain to their G+ profile (most notably Digg founder Kevin Rose) or (more commonly) they use G+ to write the kind of long-form posts that have traditionally been the province of blogs, whether home-grown or hosted on a platform like Wordpress or Blogger (similar long-form content creation has been attempted on Facebook, but it never really took off). I'm not a fan of this, obviously. It seems to be a real misconception of what blogging is, how it has developed, and where its strengths lie.

In 2011, it is past time that we understand blog culture. The practice of blogging is at least a decade old now. I realized the other day that I've been doing it here for more than 7 years, and I was relatively late to the party. So while I typically hate people who draw large categorical distinctions between, say, "bloggers" and "journalists" almost as much as I hate calling our ledes "blogs," it's not wrong to say that there is a different flavor to the way I publish here, compared to either standalone pieces or social network status updates. I think a lot of it comes down to the surrounding context.

A blog post is not an independent document in the way that (for example) newspaper stories on the same page would be. It's part of a larger dialog with the writer's surroundings, be those people or events. Most of the innovations in blogging--permalinks, comments, blogrolls, trackbacks, and organization-by-tagging, to name a few--revolve around exploring that dialog, implicitly or explicitly. When I write a post, it's informed by many of the posts that came before, by the audience that I expect to read it, and the direction I'm trying to take the blog as a cohesive work-in-progress.

Social networks have some of these aspects: they create dialog, obviously, and they allow sharing and permalinks. But social networks like Facebook and Google+ are not persistent or cohesive the way that a blog is. When you add a status update or whatever they're calling it these days, it's an ephemeral part of your lifestream (to use a now-unfashionable term), alongside all kinds of other activity from across your connections. Unlike a blog, those status updates are not a purposeful body of work. They're a rolling description of you, accreted from the detritus of what you do and what you like. Which is a useful thing to have, but a distinctly different experience from writing a blog.

My blog exists separately from me, while my social media profile is a view of me. That doesn't mean that they're not both valuable ways of interacting with the world. Social networks are great for retaining a kind of "situational awareness" of what my friends are doing, and to maintain a basic connection with them. It's like small talk: it doesn't replace real interaction, but it keeps us from becoming strangers between visits. Blogging, on the other hand, is where I feel like I can dig in and engage mentally. I don't have to worry about being rude by taking over someone's stream, or getting hidden behind a filter. It's a space that's all mine to use, controlled by me, and expressly used for my own purposes. A blog is a place to be a little selfish.

From a technical perspective, a blog is the more curated experience. When someone writes a blog entry, it gets published in a standard, exportable format via RSS. It lives in a database (or in my case, a filesystem) that can be edited and moved. Writing on a blog is property that you can own and control, and it starts from a position of ownership. Writing on a social network, although possible to extract through various APIs or Google's Data Liberation Front, is not under your control in the same way. That may not matter to you now, but one day, if you decide that you want to preserve those words--if you think your writing could become a book, or you want to give your favorite entries to a loved one, or if you just want to preserve them for your own satisfaction--a blog is probably a better option.

There are places of overlap, I think. By relaxing the character constraints, Google+ makes it possible to at least present more complex thoughts than Twitter, and it's a better writing experience than Facebook is. But when people say that they're planning on using Google+ as a blog, I can't help but think that what they really mean is "I didn't really want to blog anyway." I'm glad they've found a solution that works for them: not everyone is cut out to be a blogger. Some days I don't feel like it myself. But when I look back on writing here, on how I feel like I could develop a voice and indulge my obsessions, I wouldn't give this up for all the fancy circles in the world.

March 30, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

Tone Matters

Last week Gina Trapani wrote an insightful post on Smarterware about designers, women, and hostility in open source, including how she has applied that to her social-networking scraper application ThinkUp, in terms of welcoming non-coders and contributors from a diverse range of backgrounds. And Trapani's been working around those kinds of problems for a while now: as the founding editor of the Lifehacker blog, she created a space for tech-minded people that was a breath of fresh air. From the post:

At Lifehacker, my original vision was to create a new kind of tech blog, one that wasn't yet another "boys worshipping tech toys" site, one that was helpful, friendly, and welcoming versus snarky, sensational, and cutting. (That was no small task in the Gawker-verse, and I learned much in the process.) ...

I learned something important about creating a productive online community: leaders set the tone by example. It's simple, really. When someone you don't know shows up on the mailing list or in IRC, you break out the welcome wagon, let them know you're happy they're here, show them around the place, help them with their question or problem, and let them know how they can give back to the community. Once you and your community leaders do that a few times, something magical happens: the newbie who you welcomed just a few weeks ago starts welcoming new folks, and the virtuous cycle continues.
One of the things that has struck me, as I've paid more attention to the tech news ecosystem online, is how rare that attitude really is. Trapani alludes to the general tone of the Gawker properties, which start at "snark" and work down, but (thanks to imitation and diffusion of former Gawker writers) most of the other big tech blogs sound pretty much the same, which is one of the major reasons that I dropped them from my usual reading habits and blocked them in my browser.

The typical industry blogger persona is aggressive, awestruck (both as irony and as an expression of genuine, uncritical neophilia), and uncompromising to other viewpoints. When they break their pose of cynicism, they usually rave in extreme superlatives, as though it simply wouldn't do to be quietly amused by something. The tone is, in other words, exactly what you'd expect from a group of young men who arrested their development at a precocious seventeen years old--and I say this as someone who is not entirely innocent of similar sins, as a trip through the archives here would show.

For as long as I can remember, Lifehacker did something different. Along with Make and Hackaday, their writers were less interested in tossing off snarky burns at the expense of the day's news, and more focused on appreciating the efforts of their communities. Even though Trapani has moved on, it remains an easy-going, welcoming read. I think they deserve kudos for that. It's certainly a style I'm trying to imitate more--to highlight the positive as much as I call out the negative.

When it comes down to it, I think each of us has to ask ourselves whose future we'd prefer to realize. If I were forced to live in a world represented by TechCrunch, or one built by Lady Ada, I know which one would feel more welcoming. The latter values knowledge, in my opinion, while the former values commerical product--like the difference between learning to cook and reviewing frozen dinners, the result is probably less polished, but ultimately more nutritious.

Tone has consequences beyond self-realization: Lifehacker and Make, in particular, have really encouraged me to take a closer look at open-source hardware and software in a positive way, just because their bloggers are relentlessly cheerful, low-key advocates for those communities. As Trapani noted, that kind of appeal can be a virtuous cycle. A diverse, positive tech community should be more likely to apply its energy to projects that reflect its membership, instead of an endless supply of hipster social networks and expensive new hardware. I'm glad there are writers like her out there, trying to make that a reality.

January 25, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

Blink and You'll Miss It

I tell everyone they should have Firebug or its equivalent installed, and know how to use it. I believe that people will find it invaluable if they're designing a page and want to test something. They might want to do some in-page scripting. They can examine the source for ideas, or to discover hidden items. But most importantly, they can use it to fix your stupid, unreadable, over-styled web page.

The development of HTML5 means that browsers have gotten more powerful, more elaborate, and more interactive. It also means that they can be annoying in new and subtle ways. Back in the day, page authors used <blink> and <marquee> to create eye-catching elements on their flat gray canvas. Nowadays, thanks to pre-made CMS templates, the web superficially looks better, but it's not necessarily easier to read. Take three examples:

  • Text shadow: There's nothing wrong with a little text shadow. It's a classy effect for giving headlines a little pop. But I've noticed a lot of people lately using text-shadow everywhere, which makes my eyes cross trying to focus on mysteriously blurry text. Why is my browser anti-aliasing broken? Oh, it's not, you just hate your audience.

    Even worse are the people who have realized you can give the shadow an offset of zero pixels. If the shadow is dark, this ends up looking like the page got wet and all the ink has run. If it's a lighter shadow, you've got a poor man's text glow. Remember how classy text glow was when you used it on everything in Photoshop? Nobody else does either.

  • Custom fonts: I sympathize with font nerds on the Internet. It must have been painful, being restricted to the built-in browser fonts. On the other hand, those were the defaults for a reason. Now every wannabe font nerd on the Internet can finally use their own Very Special Typeface, many of which are more "fancy" than "legible." But why stop there? Why not customize the letter-spacing and line-height while you're at it?

    I'm not an expert in typesetting or anything, but the effect of these changes--besides sometimes giving Comic Sans a run for its ugly font money--is to throw me out of my browsing groove, and force me to re-acquire a grip on the text with every link to a custom page. If I'm not expecting it, and the font is almost the same as a system font, it looks like a display error. Either way, it's jarring, and it breaks the feeling that the Internet is a common space. Eventually, we'll all get used to it, but for now I hate your custom fonts.

  • "Pixel-perfect" layouts: Once upon a time, we had no real positioning tools in HTML. Oh, there was <table>, but building a layout using tables is like trying to design a travel brochure in Excel. And then someone invented CSS, and between "float" and "position: absolute" they ushered in a whole new era of web design. A new, fragile era, one that was vulnerable to a whole host of CSS sins. If I had a dime for every page I've visited where content overflowed the elaborate layout and got hidden behind an ad or a sidebar, I'd be making money in a very strange way. Setting "display: none" on offending elements has become an unfortunately common part of my browsing experience. It's enough to make me wish for the days when every page was a simple, boring, single black-on-grey column of text.
  • Rebinding key events: Seriously, IGN? Taking away the spacebar and the page-up/down keys for no apparent reason so I can't scroll the page on the rare occasions that I'm linked to your increasingly-awful content farm? You're why we can't have nice things.

It's no wonder, in an environment like this, that style-stripping bookmarklets like Readability caused such a sensation. There's a fine line between interactive design and overdesign, and designers are crossing it as fast as they can. All I ask, people, is that you think before getting clever with your CSS and your scripts. Ask yourself: "if someone else simulated this effect using, say, a static image, would I still think it looked good? Or would I ask them what Geocities neighborhood they're from?" Take a deep breath. And then put down the stylesheet, and let us read in peace.

January 11, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

Good Grief

Tim Ferriss was a real-world griefer before real-world griefing was cool. Before Anonymous was putting epileptic kids into seizures, DDOSing the Church of Scientology, and harrassing teenage girls for no good reason whatsoever, Ferriss (through sheer force of narcissism) had already begun gaming whatever system he could get his hands on. And now he writes books about it. The question you should be asking yourself, as you read this tongue-in-cheek New York Times review of Ferriss's "four-hour workout" book is, did he write this to actually teach people his idiosyncratic health plan? Or (more likely) is it just the newest way Ferriss has decided to grief the world, via the NYT bestseller list?

Griefing, of course, is the process of exploiting the rules of an online community to make its members miserable. Griefers are the people who join your team in online games, and then do everything possible to sabotage your efforts. It's a malevolent version of the "munchkin" from old-school RPGs, where a player tries to find loopholes in the rules, except that griefers aren't playing to win--they're playing to get a reaction, which is much easier. The key is in the balance--a griefer or munchkin is looking to maximize impact while minimizing effort. That's basically what Ferriss is doing: he power-games various external achievements, like kickboxing or tango, not for their own sake, but to boost his own self-promotional profile.

The problem with writing about reputation griefers like this guy is, for them, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. They want you to hate them, as long as it boosts their search ranking. And there are an awful lot of people out there following similar career plans--maybe not as aggressively, almost certainly not as successfully, but they're certainly trying. They may not realize that they're griefing, but they are. Affiliate marketers? Griefing. Social networking 'gurus' who primarily seem to be networking themselves? Griefing. SEO consultants? Totally griefing.

Like a zen student being hit with a stick, I achieved enlightenment once I looked at the situation this way: it's the Internet equivalent of being a celebrity for celebrity's sake. Or, perhaps more accurately, griefing provides a useful framework for understanding and responding to pointless celebrities elsewhere. Maybe this is one way that the Internet, for all its frustrations and backwardness and self-inflicted suffering, can make us better people.

The one thing I've learned, from years of "Something Is Wrong On The Internet," is that the key to dealing with griefers--whether it's a game of Counterstrike, Tim Ferriss, or the vast array of pundits and shock jocks--is right there in the name. They benefit from getting under your skin, when you treat them as serious business instead of something to be laughed off. As Belle and I often say to each other, you can always recognize people who are new to the dark side of the Internet's ever-flowing river of commentary by the gravity they assign to J. Random Poster. We laugh a little, because we remember when we felt that way (sometimes we still do), before we learned: it takes two people to get trolled. Don't let them give you grief.

May 26, 2010

Filed under: culture»internet

The Classics

Most book-lovers, I think, have a shelf devoted to their favorite books. It's always half-empty, because those are also the books they lend out when someone asks for a recommendation--oh, you haven't read something by X? Here you go. I love that shelf, even if I rarely lend books: it's where the private activity of reading becomes a shared experience, either through borrowing or via representation: these are the books that have deeply affected me. Maybe they'll affect you, too.

Likewise, there is writing on the Internet that is classic: essays, articles, and fiction that get linked and re-linked over time, in defiance of the conventional wisdom that online writing is transient or short-lived. The Classics are a personal call: what goes on your mental shelf of great online writing won't be the same as mine, and that's okay. This post is a collection of the items that I consider must-reads, accumulated over years of surfing. As I dig stuff out of my memory, I'll keep adding more.

  • Flathead, by Matt Taibbi: the definitive critique of Thomas Friedman. Everything you need to know about one of the world's worst pundits.
  • Creating The Innocent Killer, by John Kessel: an evisceration of Orson Scott Card's manipulative, deceptive Ender novels.
  • Host, by David Foster Wallace. A lengthy profile of radio host John Ziegler, not to mention a brilliant example of hypertextual footnotes.
  • The Zompist Phrasebook, edited by Mark Rosenfelder: the last language phrasebook you'll ever need.
  • The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink, by Venkatesh Rao: essential reading for people going from print to online.
  • The Grim Meathook Future, by Josh Ellis: there are problems with this essay if it's taken straight, as Ellis found out when he presented it to an international hackers' conference. But as a short, punchy antidote to techno-utopian thinking--a way to puncture the silicon valley bubble--I think it's invaluable.

Future - Present - Past