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  • feedwordpress 15:41:09 on 2018/07/13 Permalink  

    Unfollowing Everybody 

    Unfollowing Everybody

    At this point, there's nothing novel about noticing that social media is often toxic and stressful. But even aside from those concerns, our social networks are not things we generally think of as requiring maintenance or upkeep, even though we routinely do regular updates on all the other aspects of our digital lives.

    Keeping in mind that spirit of doing necessary maintenance, I recently did something I'd thought about doing for years: I unfollowed everyone on Twitter. Now, these kinds of decisions are oddly fraught; a lot of people see their following relationships on social media as a form of status, not merely an indication of where information is flowing between people. But I decided to assume that the people I'm connected to know that me unfollowing everyone isn't personal, but really just a response to the overwhelming noise of having more than 5000 accounts sharing info with me on a single network.


    How I did it

    Okay, this part is gonna get slightly geeky, if you're not a coder, but I thought I'd explain the process in case anyone wants to repeat it.

    Years ago, Twitter used to have a command-line interface for performing bulk or automated actions on an account. They abandoned it after a while, so Erik Berlin created a new command-line tool for power users of Twitter, simply called "t". It's written in Ruby (a language I basically can read but not really write) so it's easy enough to get running if you follow the few simple setup steps.

    As Erik mentions in that documentation, you'll then need to set up a new Twitter app on your account, and get the credentials that will let the t tool perform actions on your Twitter account. (Note: I got some errors while updating and authenticating; making these edits to one of the ruby libraries that t depends on fixed the issue immediately.)

    The Plan

    At that point, I wanted to follow a few simple steps. These took a little longer for me because I was following over 5,000 people on Twitter, but if you're following a more reasonable number, none of these steps should take more than a few minutes to complete. This was my plan:

    1. Copy all the people I was following to a Twitter list, so I could still access them in my Twitter apps on all my devices, and I could still see my old timeline at any point if I wanted to.
    2. Archive all of the people I was following into a spreadsheet, so I could sort through them and filter for geography or how many followers they have or whether they were verified or not — basically any criteria that might be interesting when deciding who to follow (or not follow).
    3. Actually unfollow everybody and start over.

    As it turns out, each of these steps is pretty easy.

    Copying all your followers to a List

    If you want to back up all of your followers, you only need to make a list and then populate it. You can make lists in most regular Twitter apps, but to do it at the command line it's simple: type in t list create following-date "+%Y-%m-%d" to make a list named after the current date, so you can easily remember this was a list of who you were following as of today. You can pretty easily understand the t syntax here — commands like list create are pretty self-explanatory.

    Next, we have a slightly more elaborate command to copy all of your followers to the new list; you'll dump out a list of everyone you follow, and then pipe that into another t command to add them to your new list. It works like so: t followings | xargs t list add following-date "+%Y-%m-%d". (If you're like me, you'll be doing all this stuff around midnight, and the date will change in the middle of it, and you should just type in the current date instead of using date variables.)

    That's it! Now you've got a list of all your followers, and if you browse that list in your Twitter client app, you should see the exact same thing as your regular timeline. Do note, though, that Twitter lists don't function well with more than a few thousand followers. It took hours for all 5,000+ of my followers to show up on the list, and in the interim the counts of how many people belonged to the list were often incorrect.

    Archiving your followers into a spreadsheet

    This one is just a fun thing to do in general, if you like to slice and dice data about your social network. t supports exporting a pretty broad set of data about your followers, not just their names and Twitter handles, by allowing for a "long format" export with complete data. You get stuff like how many favorites (likes) they have on Twitter, when their account was created, and how many people they follow or are followed by. Frustratingly, Twitter no longer makes it easy for this data export to include whether that person follows you or not; that requires an additional query.

    You'll use CSV (comma-separated values) as the format for exporting your data into a spreadsheet. And good news! t supports that natively. So your command will look like this: t followings -l --csv > followings.csv which basically says "Export my followings, in long format, to a CSV file named 'followings.csv'." Once you do that, you can open it up in Excel or Google Sheets in a few clicks, and you're all set.

    Unfollowing Everybody

    After all the people I followed were in a spreadsheet, I was able to sort by how many followers or followings they had, and also their last update, and I found friends who'd passed away whose accounts had been dormant for years, or joke accounts whose relevance had expired, or quiet voices with small networks that had been drowned out amongst the cacophany of the many other voices I was hearing each day. I found this part to be a really worthwhile exercise, and definitely decided to follow fewer people with huge networks and lots of reach.

    Actually unfollowing!

    Then, it was time for the main event: actually unfollowing everybody. I don't think this will be as much of a problem for other folks, but trying to run a single process of unfollowing everybody had me repeatedly running into Twitter's rate limits, where they try to keep any app from performing too many actions on your account in too short a period of time. I ended up writing a simple script to do the unfollowing in batches, then pausing for a few minutes, then starting up again.

    But with a more reasonable network, the command to unfollow everyone is extremely simple:

    t followings | xargs t unfollow

    It'll chug away for a few minutes, and then that's it! You're not following anybody anymore. Except it might still look like you are.

    In my case, my follower count was wrong for days, and kept showing wildly inaccurate information like insisting that I was following one of Mike Pence's official accounts. (Needless to say, that was never the case.) All of this is due to a architectural decision called eventual consistency, which helps enable Twitter to scale to its massive size, but doesn't do as good a job of handling unusual circumstances like being able to immediately see the correct list of followers for someone who has just unfollowed thousands of accounts.

    Nevertheless, the deed was done. I refollowed a few essential accounts (my family, @Glitch and @Prince, and was ready to start anew.

    Lessons learned

    It's been about a week and a half, and, well... Twitter is a lot more pleasant. I've chosen a handful of accounts to follow each day (most ones that I followed before, some entirely new to me) and it's made a big difference. On the flip side, about 100 people seem to have unfollowed me after I unfollowed everybody, and I hope they hadn't felt obligated just to reciprocate if I was following them before. (That might also just be how many people unfollow me in a given week, I dunno.)

    One of the most immediate benefits is that, when something terrible happens in the news, I don't see an endless, repetitive stream of dozens of people reacting to it in succession. It turns out, I don't mind knowing about current events, but it hurts to see lots of people I care about going through anguish or pain when bad news happens. I want to optimize for being aware, but not emotionally overwhelmed.

    To that point, I've also basically not refollowed any news accounts or "official" corporate accounts. Anything I need to know about major headlines gets surfaced through other channels, or even just other parts of Twitter, so I don't need to see social media updates from media companies whose entire economic model is predicated on causing me enough stress to click through to their sites.

    Similarly, I've focused a lot more on artists and activists and people who write about the stuff I'm obsessed with in general — Prince or mangoes or urban transit or the like. That brings a lot more joy into my life, and people writing about these other topics offer alot more inspiration for the things I want to be focused on. Oddly, given that my job is being the CEO of a tech company, I follow far fewer people in tech, and almost no tech company accounts except for my own. Despite that, I've missed almost nothing significant in the industry since making this change.

    The algorithm is learning

    Most interesting to me is how the suggested content and accounts on Twitter have changed since I changed my network. Before, much of the suggested headlines or featured Tweets in my Twitter apps would be from categories like "Technology VC"; now they're much more likely to be about "Climate Change" or "Comedians" than about inside-baseball tech talk.

    On the less positive side, Twitter still suggests that I follow accounts that are almost entirely men, and overwhelmingly white American men with verified Twitter accounts. This is bizarre to me as I'm now following nearly 100 accounts, and they're basically the same mix of races and genders and geographies that I've always been interested in hearing from. I would have expected Twitter's follow-suggestion algorithm to be at least as adaptive as its content-suggestion one, and hope that it'll get updated to feature accounts that don't fit the usual privileged patterns. (I do still follow a lot of verified accounts, but some of that is due to an oddity I've just realized, which is that a lot of my friends have verified accounts. Look, ma — I'm a big-city elite!)

    What Follows

    I don't have some grand takeaway about what all this means; obviously, I've been thinking about the design and impacts and best use of social networks on the web for basically as long as they've existed. I strongly believe we should be intentional in how we use our networks, and even spent years building tools to encourage that, though the corporate interest of the major social networks precludes building a business around encouraging healthier use of their platforms.

    But I'm happy for making a conscious decision about managing my network, and I lament that it takes a pretty extreme level of technical knowledge to be able to do so. I first wrote about Twitter when it was only a few months old, talking about its promise and predicting that Twitter would adopt @messaging and adapt to other ways its community was inventing new behaviors. Some of that happened, but of course most of what power users (and vulnerable users) wanted was never created.

    I've also written a good bit about the peculiarities of having a large network in social media, like Twitter's early practice of suggesting which accounts to follow (including mine!) and what it's like to have the social network of a famous person without actually being famous. I think a lot about why I "favorite" (or like) so many things on various networks. And I also hope people can think more broadly about the ways the design of social networks intersects with how we see ourselves, and how we see social status, as best exemplified by the huge social anxieties around what it's like being verified on Twitter.

    And ultimately, I come back to what I wrote a few years ago when I first decided to stop retweeting men (a practice I've followed for about half a decade now):

    If you’re inclined, try being mindful of whose voices you share, amplify, validate and promote to others.

    It's still a really important point, and to this list I would only add: Also be mindful about who you follow. And don't be afraid sometimes to reset and start over.

     
  • feedwordpress 02:09:01 on 2018/05/11 Permalink
    Tags: cartoons   

    The Cartoon Kit 

    The Cartoon Kit

    Anything worth doing is worth doing meta. And Tom and Jerry is no exception.

    I've been trying to learn a bit more about the various eras of the Tom and Jerry cartoon, from the mega-racist Hanna-Barbera originals to the extremely stylized Chuck Jones episodes.

    Somewhere in the middle are the truly odd Gene Deitch-directed Tom and Jerry cartoons, where Deitch criticized the violence and monotony of the cartoons using the cartoons themselves.

    This self-critique reached its apotheosis with The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit from 1962. In it, Deitch spells out the formula for a rote cartoon while deconstructing it. I'd only ever seen this once as a kid, on TV at a friend's house, but it left an impression as if I'd seen it in a full-size theater during its original presetnation.

    Here, see it for yourself. It's less than 7 minutes of your time, and has aged surprisingly well.

     
  • feedwordpress 14:21:48 on 2018/05/02 Permalink
    Tags: ,   

    It’s like Shazam — for your face! 

    It's like Shazam — for your face!

    Today's most fun new Glitch app is Record Player, which lets you upload a photo, then uses Google Cloud's Vision API to recognize the image and play it on Spotify.

    It works really well, but the real fun starts when you upload a selfie or a picture of yourself.


    I especially love that this was made by Patrick Weaver on the Mouse.org team, because it makes me think that kids learning computer science from Mouse curriculum here in NYC are going to start by seeing tech as enabling fun apps like this one! And you can, of course, View Source for the app and remix it to make your own variations.

     
  • feedwordpress 00:19:34 on 2018/04/08 Permalink
    Tags: ,   

    12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech 

    12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech

    Tech is more important than ever, deeply affecting culture, politics and society. Given all the time we spend with our gadgets and apps, it’s essential to understand the principles that determine how tech affects our lives.

    Understanding technology today

    Technology isn’t an industry, it’s a method of transforming the culture and economics of existing systems and institutions. That can be a little bit hard to understand if we only judge tech as a set of consumer products that we purchase. But tech goes a lot deeper than the phones in our hands, and we must understand some fundamental shifts in society if we’re going to make good decisions about the way tech companies shape our lives—and especially if we want to influence the people who actually make technology.

    Even those of us who have been deeply immersed in the tech world for a long time can miss the driving forces that shape its impact. So here, we’ll identify some key principles that can help us understand technology’s place in culture.

    What you need to know:

    1. Tech is not neutral.

    One of the most important things everybody should know about the apps and services they use is that the values of technology creators are deeply ingrained in every button, every link, and every glowing icon that we see. Choices that software developers make about design, technical architecture or business model can have profound impacts on our privacy, security and even civil rights as users. When software encourages us to take photos that are square instead of rectangular, or to put an always-on microphone in our living rooms, or to be reachable by our bosses at any moment, it changes our behaviors, and it changes our lives.

    All of the changes in our lives that happen when we use new technologies do so according to the priorities and preferences of those who create those technologies.

    2. Tech is not inevitable.

    Popular culture presents consumer technology as a never-ending upward progression that continuously makes things better for everybody. In reality, new tech products usually involve a set of tradeoffs where improvements in areas like usability or design come along with weaknesses in areas like privacy & security. Sometimes new tech is better for one community while making things worse for others. Most importantly, just because a particular technology is “better” in some way doesn’t guarantee it will be widely adopted, or that it will cause other, more popular technologies to improve.
    In reality, technological advances are a lot like evolution in the biological world: there are all kinds of dead-ends or regressions or uneven tradeoffs along the way, even if we see broad progress over time.

    3. Most people in tech sincerely want to do good.

    We can be thoughtfully skeptical and critical of modern tech products and companies without having to believe that most people who create tech are “bad”. Having met tens of thousands of people around the world who create hardware and software, I can attest that the cliché that they want to change the world for the better is a sincere one. Tech creators are very earnest about wanting to have a positive impact. At the same time, it’s important for those who make tech to understand that good intentions don’t absolve them from being responsible for the negative consequences of their work, no matter how well-intentioned.

    It’s useful to acknowledge the good intentions of most people in tech because it lets us follow through on those intentions and reduce the influence of those who don’t have good intentions, and to make sure the stereotype of the thoughtless tech bro doesn’t overshadow the impact that the majority of thoughtful, conscientious people can have. It’s also essential to believe that there is good intention underlying most tech efforts if we’re going to effectively hold everyone accountable for the tech they create.

    12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech

    4. Tech history is poorly documented and poorly understood.

    People who learn to create tech can usually find out every intimate detail of how their favorite programming language or device was created, but it’s often near impossible to know why certain technologies flourished, or what happened to the ones that didn’t. While we’re still early enough in the computing revolution that many of its pioneers are still alive and working to create technology today, it’s common to find that tech history as recent as a few years ago has already been erased. Why did your favorite app succeed when others didn’t? What failed attempts were made to create such apps before? What problems did those apps encounter — or what problems did they cause? Which creators or innovators got erased from the stories when we created the myths around today’s biggest tech titans?

    All of those questions get glossed over, silenced, or sometimes deliberately answered incorrectly, in favor of building a story of sleek, seamless, inevitable progress in the tech world. Now, that’s hardly unique to technology — nearly every industry can point to similar issues. But that ahistorical view of the tech world can have serious consequences when today’s tech creators are unable to learn from those who came before them, even if they want to.

    5. Most tech education doesn’t include ethical training.

    In mature disciplines like law or medicine, we often see centuries of learning incorporated into the professional curriculum, with explicit requirements for ethical education. Now, that hardly stops ethical transgressions from happening—we can see deeply unethical people in positions of power today who went to top business schools that proudly tout their vaunted ethics programs. But that basic level of familiarity with ethical concerns gives those fields a broad fluency in the concepts of ethics so they can have informed conversations. And more importantly, it ensures that those who want to do the right thing and do their jobs in an ethical way have a firm foundation to build on.

    But until the very recent backlash against some of the worst excesses of the tech world, there had been little progress in increasing the expectation of ethical education being incorporated into technical training. There are still very few programs aimed at upgrading the ethical knowledge of those who are already in the workforce; continuing education is largely focused on acquiring new technical skills rather than social ones. There’s no silver-bullet solution to this issue; it’s overly simplistic to think that simply bringing computer scientists into closer collaboration with liberal arts majors will significantly address these ethics concerns. But it is clear that technologists will have to rapidly become fluent in ethical concerns if they want to continue to have the widespread public support that they currently enjoy.

    6. Tech is often built with surprising ignorance about its users.

    Over the last few decades, society has greatly increased in its respect for the tech industry, but this has often resulted in treating the people who create tech as infallible. Tech creators now regularly get treated as authorities in a wide range of fields like media, labor, transportation, infrastructure and political policy — even if they have no background in those areas. But knowing how to make an iPhone app doesn’t mean you understand an industry you’ve never worked in!

    The best, most thoughtful tech creators engage deeply and sincerely with the communities that they want to help, to ensure they address actual needs rather than indiscriminately “disrupting” the way established systems work. But sometimes, new technologies run roughshod over these communities, and the people making those technologies have enough financial and social resources that the shortcomings of their approaches don’t keep them from disrupting the balance of an ecosystem. Often times, tech creators have enough money funding them that they don’t even notice the negative effects of the flaws in their designs, especially if they’re isolated from the people affected by those flaws. Making all of this worse are the problems with inclusion in the tech industry, which mean that many of the most vulnerable communities will have little or no representation amongst the teams that create new tech, preventing those teams from being aware of concerns that might be of particular importance to those on the margins.

    12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech

    7. There is never just one single genius creator of technology.

    One of the most popular representations of technology innovation in popular culture is the genius in a dorm room or garage, coming up with a breakthrough innovation as a “Eureka!” moment. It feeds the common myth-making around people like Steve Jobs, where one individual gets credit for “inventing the iPhone” when it was the work of thousands of people. In reality, tech is always informed by the insights and values of the community where its creators are based, and nearly every breakthrough moment is preceded by years or decades of others trying to create similar products.

    The “lone creator” myth is particularly destructive because it exacerbates the exclusion problems which plague the tech industry overall; those lone geniuses that are portrayed in media are seldom from backgrounds as diverse as people in real communities. While media outlets may benefit from being able to give awards or recognition to individuals, or educational institutions may be motivated to build up the mythology of individuals in order to bask in their reflected glory, the real creation stories are complicated and involve many people. We should be powerfully skeptical of any narratives that indicate otherwise.

    8. Most tech isn’t from startups or by startups.

    Only about 15% of programmers work at startups, and in many big tech companies, most of the staff aren’t even programmers anyway. So the focus on defining tech by the habits or culture of programmers that work at big-name startups deeply distorts the way that tech is seen in society. Instead, we should consider that the majority of people who create technology work in organizations or institutions that we don’t think of as “tech” at all.
    What’s more, there are lots of independent tech companies — little indie shops or mom-and-pop businesses that make websites, apps, or custom software, and a lot of the most talented programmers prefer the culture or challenges of those organizations over the more famous tech titans. We shouldn’t erase the fact that startups are only a tiny part of tech, and we shouldn’t let the extreme culture of many startups distort the way we think about technology overall.

    9. Most big tech companies make money in just one of three ways.

    It’s important to understand how tech companies make money if you want to understand why tech works the way that it does.

    • Advertising: Google and Facebook make nearly all of their money from selling information about you to advertisers. Almost every product they create is designed to extract as much information from you as possible, so that it can be used to create a more detailed profile of your behaviors and preferences, and the search results and social feeds made by advertising companies are strongly incentivized to push you toward sites or apps that show you more ads from these platforms. It’s a business model built around surveillance, which is particularly striking since it’s the one that most consumer internet businesses rely upon.
    • Big Business: Some of the larger (generally more boring) tech companies like Microsoft and Oracle and Salesforce exist to get money from other big companies that need business software but will pay a premium if it’s easy to manage and easy to lock down the ways that employees use it. Very little of this technology is a delight to use, especially because the customers for it are obsessed with controlling and monitoring their workers, but these are some of the most profitable companies in tech.
    • Individuals: Companies like Apple and Amazon want you to pay them directly for their products, or for the products that others sell in their store. (Although Amazon’s Web Services exist to serve that Big Business market, above.) This is one of the most straightforward business models—you know exactly what you’re getting when you buy an iPhone or a Kindle, or when you subscribe to Spotify, and because it doesn’t rely on advertising or cede purchasing control to your employer, companies with this model tend to be the ones where individual people have the most power.

    That’s it. Pretty much every company in tech is trying to do one of those three things, and you can understand why they make their choices by seeing how it connects to these three business models

    12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech

    10. The economic model of big companies skews all of tech.

    Today’s biggest tech companies follow a simple formula:

    • Make an interesting or useful product that transforms a big market
    • Get lots of money from venture capital investors
    • Try to quickly grow a huge audience of users even if that means losing a lot of money for a while
    • Figure out how to turn that huge audience into a business worth enough to give investors an enormous return
    • Start ferociously fighting (or buying off) other competitive companies in the market

    This model looks very different than how we think of traditional growth companies, which start off as small businesses and primarily grow through attracting customers who directly pay for goods or services. Companies that follow this new model can grow much larger, much more quickly, than older companies that had to rely on revenue growth from paying customers. But these new companies also have much lower accountability to the markets they’re entering because they’re serving their investors’ short-term interests ahead of their users’ or community’s long-term interests.

    The pervasiveness of this kind of business plan can make competition almost impossible for companies without venture capital investment. Regular companies that grow based on earning money from customers can’t afford to lose that much money for that long a time. It’s not a level playing field, which often means that companies are stuck being either little indie efforts or giant monstrous behemoths, with very little in between. The end result looks a lot like the movie industry, where there are tiny indie arthouse films and big superhero blockbusters, and not very much else.

    And the biggest cost for these big new tech companies? Hiring coders. They pump the vast majority of their investment money into hiring and retaining the programmers who’ll build their new tech platforms. Precious little of these enormous piles of money are put into things that will serve a community or build equity for anyone other than the founders or investors in the company. There is no aspiration that making a hugely valuable company should also imply creating lots of jobs for lots of different kinds of people.

    11. Tech is as much about fashion as function.

    To outsiders, creating apps or devices is presented as a hyper-rational process where engineers choose technologies based on which are the most advanced and appropriate to the task. In reality, the choice of things like programming languages or toolkits can be subject to the whims of particular coders or managers, or to whatever’s simply in fashion. Just as often, the process or methodology by which tech is created can follow fads or trends that are in fashion, affecting everything from how meetings are run to how products are developed.

    Sometimes the people creating technology seek novelty, sometimes they want to go back to the staples of their technological wardrobe, but these choices are swayed by social factors in addition to an objective assessment of technical merit. And a more complex technology doesn’t always equal a more valuable end product, so while many companies like to tout how ambitious or cutting-edge their new technologies are, that’s no guarantee that they provide more value for regular users, especially when new technologies inevitably come with new bugs and unexpected side-effects.

    12. No institution has the power to rein in tech’s abuses.

    In most industries, if companies start doing something wrong or exploiting consumers, they’ll be reined in by journalists who will investigate and criticize their actions. Then, if the abuses continue and become serious enough, the companies can be sanctioned by lawmakers at the local, state, governmental or international level.

    Today, though, much of the tech trade press focuses on covering the launch of new products or new versions of existing products, and the tech reporters who do cover the important social impacts of tech are often relegated to being published alongside reviews of new phones, instead of being prominently featured in business or culture coverage. Though this has started to change as tech companies have become absurdly wealthy and powerful, coverage is also still constrained by the culture within media companies. Traditional business reporters often have seniority in major media outlets, but are commonly illiterate in basic tech concepts in a way that would be unthinkable for journalists who cover finance or law. Meanwhile, dedicated tech reporters who may have a better understanding of tech’s impact on culture are often assigned to (or inclined to) cover product announcements instead of broader civic or social concerns.

    The problem is far more serious when we consider regulators and elected officials, who often brag about their illiteracy about tech. Having political leaders who can’t even install an app on their smartphones makes it impossible to understand technology well enough to regulate it appropriately, or to assign legal accountability when tech‘s creators violate the law. Even as technology opens up new challenges for society, lawmakers lag tremendously behind the state of the art when creating appropriate laws.

    Without the corrective force of journalistic and legislative accountability, tech companies often run as if they’re completely unregulated, and the consequences of that reality usually fall on those outside of tech. Worse, traditional activists who rely on conventional methods such as boycotts or protests often find themselves ineffective due to the indirect business model of giant tech companies, which can rely on advertising or surveillance (“gathering user data”) or venture capital investment to continue operations even if activists are effective in identifying problems.

    This lack of systems of accountability is one of the biggest challenges facing tech today.


    If we understand these things, we can change tech for the better.

    If everything is so complicated, and so many important points about tech aren’t obvious, should we just give up hope? No.

    Once we know the forces that shape technology, we can start to drive change. If we know that the biggest cost for the tech giants is attracting and hiring programmers, we can encourage programmers to collectively advocate for ethical and social advances from their employers. If we know that the investors who power big companies respond to potential risks in the market, we can emphasize that their investment risk increases if they bet on companies that act in ways that are bad for society.

    If we understand that most in tech mean well, but lack the historic or cultural context to ensure that their impact is as good as their intentions, we can ensure that they get the knowledge they need to prevent harm before it happens.

    So many of us who create technology, or who love the ways it empowers us and improves our lives, are struggling with the many negative effects that some of these same technologies are having on society. But perhaps if we start from a set of common principles that help us understand how tech truly works, we can start to tackle technology’s biggest problems.

    12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech

     
  • feedwordpress 17:00:00 on 2018/03/22 Permalink
    Tags: html, ,   

    The Missing Building Blocks of the Web 

    The Missing Building Blocks of the Web

    At a time when millions are losing trust in the the web’s biggest sites, it’s worth revisiting the idea that the web was supposed to be made out of countless little sites. Here’s a look at the neglected technologies that were supposed to make it possible.

    Though the world wide web has been around for more than a quarter century, people have been theorizing about hypertext and linked documents and a global network of apps for at least 75 years, and perhaps longer. And while some of those ideas are now obsolete, or were hopelessly academic as concepts, or seem incredibly obvious in a world where we’re all on the web every day, the time is perfect to revisit a few of the overlooked gems from past eras. Perhaps modern versions of these concepts could be what helps us rebuild the web into something that has the potential, excitement, and openness that got so many of us excited about it in the first place.

    [An aside: Our team at Glitch has been hard at work on delivering many of the core ideas discussed in this piece, including new approaches to View Source, Authoring, Embedding, and more. If these ideas resonate with you, we hope you’ll check out Glitch and see how we can bring these abilities back to the web.]

    View Source

    For the first few years of the web, the fundamental way that people learned to build web pages was by using the “View Source” feature in their web browser. You would point your mouse at a menu that said something like “View Source” (nobody was browsing the web on a touchscreen back then) and suddenly you’d see the HTML code that made up the page you were looking at. If you squinted, you could see the text you’d been reading, and wrapped around it was a fairly comprehensible set of tags — you know, that <p>paragraph</p> kind of stuff.

    It was one of the most effective technology teaching tools ever created. And no surprise, since the web was invented for the purpose of sharing knowledge.

    These days, View Source is in bad shape. Most mobile devices don’t support the feature at all. And even on the desktop, the feature gets buried away, or hidden unless you enable special developer settings. It’s especially egregious because the tools for working with HTML in a browser are better than ever. Developers have basically given ordinary desktop web browsers the potential to be smart, powerful tools for creating web pages.

    But that leads to the other problem. Most complicated web pages these days aren’t actually written by anyone. They’re assembled, by little programs that take the instructions made by a coder, and then translate those instructions into the actual HTML (and CSS, and JavaScript, and images, and everything else) that goes to your browser. If you’re an expert, maybe you can figure out what tools were being used to assemble the page, and go to GitHub and find some version of those tools to try out. But it’s the difference between learning to cook by looking over someone’s shoulder or being told where a restaurant bought its ingredients.

    Bringing View Source back could empower a new generation of creators to see the web as something they make, not just a place where big companies put up sites that we all dump our personal data into.

    The Missing Building Blocks of the Web

    Authoring

    When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, he assumed that, just like in earlier hypertext systems, every web browser would be able to write web pages just as easily as it read them. In fact, that early belief led many who pioneered the web to assume that the format of HTML itself didn’t matter that much, as many different browsing tools would be able to create it.

    In some ways, that’s true — billions of people make things on the web all the time. Only they don’t know they’re making HTML, because Facebook (or Instagram, or whatever other app they’re using) generates it for them.

    Interestingly, it’s one of Facebook’s board members that helped cause this schism between reading and writing on the web. Marc Andreessen pioneered the early Mosaic web browser, and then famously went on to spearhead Netscape, the first broadly-available commercial web browser. But Netscape wasn’t made as a publicly-funded research project at a state university — it was a hot startup company backed by a lot of venture capital investment.

    It’s no surprise, then, that the ability to create web pages was reserved for Netscape Gold, the paid version of that first broadly consumer-oriented web browser. Reading things on the web would be free, sure. But creating things on the web? We’d pay venture-backed startup tech companies for the ability to do that, and they’d mediate it for us.

    Notwithstanding Facebook’s current dominance, there are still a lot of ways to publish actual websites instead of just dumping little bits of content into the giant social network. There are all kinds of “site building” tools that let you pick a template and publish. Professionals have authoring tools or content management systems for maintaining big, serious websites. But these days, there are very few tools you could just use on your computer (or your tablet, or your phone) to create a web page or web site from scratch.

    All that could change quickly, though—the barriers are lower than ever to reclaiming the creative capability that the web was supposed to have right from its birth.

    The Missing Building Blocks of the Web

    Embedding (Transclusion!)

    Okay, this one’s nerdy. But I’m just gonna put it out there: You’re supposed to be able to include other websites (or parts of other websites) in your web pages. Sure, we can do some of that — you’ve seen plenty of YouTube videos embedded inside articles that you’ve read, and as media sites pivot to video, that’s only gotten more commonplace.

    But you almost never see a little functional part of one website embedded in another. Old-timers might remember when Flash ruled the web, and people made simple games or interactive art pieces that would then get shared on blogs or other media sites. Except for the occasional SoundCloud song on someone’s Tumblr, it’s a grim landscape for anyone that can imagine a web where bits and pieces of different sites are combined together like Legos.

    Most of the time, we talk about this functionality as “embedding” a widget from one site into another. There was even a brief fad during the heyday of blogs more than a decade ago where people started entire companies around the idea of making “widgets” that would get shared on blogs or even on company websites. These days that capability is mostly used to put a Google Map onto a company’s site so you can find their nearest location.

    Those old hypertext theory people had broader ambitions, though. They thought we might someday be able to pull live, updated pieces of other sites into our own websites, mixing and matching data or even whole apps as needed. This ability to include part of one web page into another was called “transclusion”, and it’s remained a bit of a holy grail for decades.

    There’s no reason that this can’t be done today, especially since the way we build web pages in the modern era often involves generating just partial pages or only sending along the data that’s updated on a particular site. If we can address the security and performance concerns of sharing data this way, we could address one of the biggest unfulfilled promises of the web.

    The Missing Building Blocks of the Web

    Your own website at your own address

    This one is so obvious, but we seem to have forgotten all about it: The web was designed so that everybody was supposed to have their own website, at its own address. Of course, things got complicated early on — it was too hard to run your own website (let alone your own web server!) and the relative scarcity of domain names made them expensive and a pain for everybody to buy.
    If you just wanted to share some ideas, or talk to your friends, or do your work, managing all that hassle became too much trouble, and pretty soon a big, expensive industry of web consultants sprung up to handle the needs of anybody who still actually wanted their own website—and had the money to pay for it.

    But things have gotten much easier. There are plenty of tools for easily building a website now, and many of them are free. And while companies still usually have a website of their own, an individual having a substantial website (not just a one-page placeholder) is pretty unusual these days unless they’re a Social Media Expert or somebody with a book to sell.

    There’s no reason it has to be that way, though. There are no technical barriers for why we couldn’t share our photos to our own sites instead of to Instagram, or why we couldn’t post stupid memes to our own web address instead of on Facebook or Reddit. There are social barriers, of course — if we stubbornly used our own websites right now, none of our family or friends would see our stuff. Yet there’s been a dogged community of web nerds working on that problem for a decade or two, trying to see if they can get the ease or convenience of sharing on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram to work across a distributed network where everyone has their own websites.

    Now, none of that stuff is simple enough yet. It’s for nerds, or sometimes, it’s for nobody at all. But the same was true of the web itself, for years, when it was young. This time, we know the stakes, and we can imagine the value of having a little piece of the internet that we own ourselves, and have some control over.

    It’s not impossible that we could still complete the unfinished business that’s left over from the web’s earliest days. And I have to imagine it’ll be kind of fun and well worth the effort to at least give it a try.

    The Missing Building Blocks of the Web

    In a similar vein, you may also enjoy this look at the lost infrastructure of the early era of social media.

     
  • feedwordpress 07:09:53 on 2018/01/19 Permalink  

    Have the Hip Hop BBQ 

    I keep having to explain a principle I arrived at a few years ago when I realized the modern conservative movement is grounded almost entirely in a contrived sense of grievance, predicated on a false victimhood of its supporters. (That’s not to say some haven’t genuinely suffered some wrongs, but they consistently focus on imaginary ones instead.)

    The clarifying moment for me in realizing how to deal with this was the stupidity of when right-wig media claimed Barack Obama was having a “hip hop barbecue” at the White House. Obviously, this met all of the signature tropes of such efforts: it was a lie, was a transparently racist dogwhistle, and featured absurdities demonstrating a profound cultural illiteracy — in this case, asserting that Common is a gangster rapper. Forsooth.

    My conclusion then was simple: give them what they want. They’re going to accuse you of it anyway, at least do the right thing and give them a reason to pretend they’re victims. Eventually, Obama did have a Hip Hop BBQ of sorts, and it was glorious. What could the right wing media outlets do, except say “he’s at it again!” Who’s gonna pretend to get outraged twice?

    Now, of course, there are limits. No matter how desperately the right may have craved Death Panels back then, we can’t give them the true version of that lie they created. But for the most part, if the fact-free media and its credulous supporters want to pretend they’re being wronged, we should follow improv rules and say, “Yes, and…” and be sure to double down.

    If they said you had a Hip Hop BBQ, then you damn well ought to have one.

     
  • feedwordpress 02:09:53 on 2018/01/19 Permalink  

    Have the Hip Hop BBQ 

    Have the Hip Hop BBQ

    I keep having to explain a principle I arrived at a few years ago when I realized the modern conservative movement is grounded almost entirely in a contrived sense of grievance, predicated on a false victimhood of its supporters. (That’s not to say some haven’t genuinely suffered some wrongs, but they consistently focus on imaginary ones instead.)

    The clarifying moment for me in realizing how to deal with this was the stupidity of when right-wing media claimed Barack Obama was having a “hip hop barbecue” at the White House. Obviously, this met all of the signature tropes of such efforts: it was a lie, was a transparently racist dogwhistle, and featured absurdities demonstrating a profound cultural illiteracy — in this case, asserting that Common is a gangster rapper. Forsooth.

    My conclusion then was simple: give them what they want. They’re going to accuse you of it anyway, at least do the right thing and give them a reason to pretend they’re victims. Eventually, Obama did have a Hip Hop BBQ of sorts, and it was glorious. What could the right wing media outlets do, except say “he’s at it again!” Who’s gonna pretend to get outraged twice?
    Now, of course, there are limits. No matter how desperately the right may have craved Death Panels back then, we can’t give them the true version of that lie they created. But for the most part, if the fact-free media and its credulous supporters want to pretend they’re being wronged, we should follow improv rules and say, “Yes, and…” and be sure to double down.

    If they said you had a Hip Hop BBQ, then you damn well ought to have one.

     
  • feedwordpress 15:27:45 on 2017/12/28 Permalink
    Tags: barryritholtz, mastersinbusiness,   

    Masters in Business 

    A few months ago, I got the wonderful opportunity to talk to Barry Ritholtz, who's best known as a Bloomberg View columnist and for his excellent "Masters in Business" podcast, but whom I've known online for many years.

    We talked about a topic that's incredibly important to me, the ethical challenges facing all of us who create technology. It's a wide-ranging conversation that's over an hour long, but I hope you'll take the time to listen, as this is a discussion we all need to be engaging in.

    There's also a longer story in the BloombergView site covering a bit of what we discussed.

     
  • feedwordpress 10:27:45 on 2017/12/28 Permalink
    Tags:   

    Masters in Business 

    Masters in Business

    A few months ago, I got the wonderful opportunity to talk to Barry Ritholtz, who’s best known as a Bloomberg View columnist and for his excellent “Masters in Business” podcast, but whom I’ve known online for many years.

    We talked about a topic that’s incredibly important to me, the ethical challenges facing all of us who create technology. It’s a wide-ranging conversation that’s over an hour long, but I hope you’ll take the time to listen, as this is a discussion we all need to be engaging in.

    There’s also a longer story in the BloombergView site covering a bit of what we discussed.

     
  • feedwordpress 04:34:27 on 2017/12/16 Permalink
    Tags:   

    Every Last Jedi 

    This is a spoiler-filled first set of reactions to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

    The ultimate courage of what Rian Johnson has done here, is that he fully embraced what it is to be a director who obviously grew up as true fan of Star Wars, and retconned the whole universe into a new understanding of The Force. It’s the kind of revolutionary rethinking of the most successful pop culture franchise of all time that I would have thought would not be possible by anyone but George Lucas, and certainly not under the auspices of Disney. But here we are.

    Though it’s well-grounded in the first definitions of The Force that we were introduced to in the original trilogy, The Last Jedi presents a radically inclusive new view of the Force that is bigger and broader than the Jedi religion which has thus-far colored our view of the entire Star Wars universe. (This is also why lost-cause diehards will likely always hate this film.)

    On a personal level, it really makes me smile to know that in Carrie Fisher’s last film, in her most famous role, she’d get to know that the vision of what the franchise was about would be broadened to include everyone. Now, every kid who ever picked up a broomstick and pretended to be Luke Skywalker with a lightsaber is canonically one with the Force. It’s a wonderful summation of what Star Wars, at its best, represents in culture.

    It’s also a brave film for its willingness to subvert the expectations of the most hardcore fans. In many ways, The Last Jedi is anti-fan service. Tonally, it’s totally different than the other films in the series. Flashbacks and editing sequences like when Rey first sees the Force feature a wildly different direction style than Lucas ever would have tried. Jokes like the initial Poe-Hux call are completely out of character for the voice of the other films (especially the prequels). And the Jedi are no longer an infallible inherited priesthood, but a religion of self-absorbed, usually short-sighted monks who neglect the beauty of the Force in favor of exploiting it for their own power. Any one of these would antagonize those who were overly invested in the old order; all of them together is rank heresy.

    But for an open-minded viewer, there are wonderful touches throughout. Rey gets to be a whole person, who grounds the film and is brave and grows, without ever being reduced to a love interest or damsel in distress. Similarly, Rose gets to be not just the first Asian American woman to be featured in Star Wars, but the avatar of the theme of the entire film. The porgs porg it up. Lots of stuff is red. The sound design uses silence more effectively than any blockbuster film since Attack of the Clones. There’s not much Threepio. It’s all pretty great.

    Most of all, it sets us up for a third film where, for the first time in 37 years, we don’t know what’s going to happen next with Star Wars. Restoring our sense of wonder or mystery or surprise about the most culturally dominant franchise of all time is one of the toughest challenges any mainstream director could pull off. Succeeding in that challenge makes The Last Jedi a wonderful gift to every kid who ever swung a broomstick lightsaber.

     
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