Intent

One of the bloggers I follow on the net, Chris Lovie-Tyler, recently moved from WordPress on his personal blog to a TinyLetter based newsletter on a new domain. Most of what he posts are poems and perhaps these poems are better suited on this new domain. As much as I hate newsletters (and podcasts), I followed him.

But that got me thinking – why do we follow people around?

Well, not physically. That’d be creepy. We follow a lot of people around online. Whenever you join a new social network (Facebook, twitter, Instagram), you follow a bunch of people. Slowly, you realize who posts good content and who doesn’t and you tweak that list based on your interests (in the case of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg personally edits your news feed to make it more boring).

Ok snarky, let’s stick to non-Facebook more-public social networks.

When you’re on Instagram, you see an interesting post, you open the person’s profile, you like some of their photos and then you follow them.

When you’re on twitter, you see an interesting tweet and, though you may or may not go check out the person’s older tweets, you follow them around.

But there’s a very small disconnect between these two activities – liking someone’s current content, and expecting their future content to be the same, or better, or interesting enough. You take on a risk when you follow someone online. They could be no more funny/interesting than you are, and then you’re stuck following someone who doesn’t inspire or interest you. They could be posting pics of their recent vacation, after which they’ll get back to posting pics of their lunches and their not-so-cute dog. They could have made an epic joke tweet, and use that spurt of popularity to start pushing a different agenda which you wholly disagree with (as is usually the case for meme accounts)!

All of that is possible. After all, most people lead ordinary lives. They aren’t constantly discovering new places or going on impromptu adventures. They work, eat, sleep, pretty much at the same places.

So why do we follow these people around? What is our intent in hitting that follow button?

Mind you, I’m excluding Facebook (and WhatsApp and if we were ten years ago, Orkut) because there, you know most of the people you follow. Even if you know them as acquantances, it’s still you following someone who you already know something about.

But why do we follow absolutely random strangers on the Internet? That too, based on one tweet, one post, one photo they’ve posted? We’ve often joked about it, but these social networks have indeed turned us into stalkers of the highest order. We peek into the lives of absolute strangers with no easy way to communicate with them meaningfully (likes and hearts are not communication, they’re a distraction). So it’s comfortable, easy, accepted to see something interesting and just hit follow. We’ll worry about the content later. Not following someone is kind of like not bookmarking an interesting article to read later. We never read it later, but we do get FOMO if we don’t bookmark it.

Coming back to it, I read Chris’ blog post about his move from the personal blog to the new domain. An hour later, I saw an email from him, inviting me to follow his journey on to the newsletter. Now, as I said, I don’t like newsletters. Gmail is not an ideal space for reading. Email is not geared towards enjoying good writing. It’s work. I thank Google for creating the concept of Promotions, Social, Updates and Forums sections. It tells me the things I need to care for and the things I do not need to care for. But as has been pointed out before, Gmail is killing blogs. There are so many ways outside of Gmail where one can follow people, so why do it inside it?

Yet, newsletters remain popular and one of the popular services to send newsletters – TinyLetter – doesn’t have RSS feed support. So I can’t follow Chris’ new adventure through my beloved RSS feed reader. But I want to follow Chris. I discovered Chris’ writing pretty much the same way we discover people on twitter or Instagram – one interesting post.

But then I went ahead and did something which we do not do on other social networks (remember, the open web is also a massive social network) – I went back in time and read every single one of Chris’ posts. Wait, no no, I worded that wrong. I went back to the beginning of Chris’ blog and read every single one of his posts. Lucky for me, it extended only to February 2018.

That’s when I decided that this person was worth following around. There is a massive difference between me and him – I’m not a poet, not a Christian, never been to NZ. But his words are beautiful and always strike a note in my mind. Here’s one of my favorite poems –

Sunday birds
————
My ears ring with the silence
of Sunday morning

Only the birds are up,
gently stirring the neighbourhood
to consciousness

This is the reason why I followed Chris’ blog – I liked all or most of his previous posts. That volume of past work assured me that I will like what this person puts out in the future too. This sort of freedom – to explore a person’s past work in its entirety without being pushed to follow them and move on – can only come from the Internet at large. After all, if I forget or close the tab or move on and want to come back later, my browser remembers every page I’ve looked at forever. This is not true for any of the silos we use – twitter doesn’t remind us which tweets we’ve looked at, Instagram doesn’t tell us the name of that one person who had that one vacation photo in Barcelona which we liked but never double tapped on.

There’s one more thing. I instantly felt this when I saw the email and actually asked Chris about this – his push to ask people to move to his newsletter was not some templated email blast to 500 followers. He had about 50 followers on WordPress.com Reader (which, I’ve come to learn recently, is an excellent RSS reader on its own, so if you never wanted to pay for RSS reading, just create a free account on WordPress.com folks) but knew that most of them are following him the same way people follow others on silo medias. No, that email went to a fraction of those and that fraction did the smart thing and subscribed to the newsletter.

I’ve meandered enough through this post. I just wanted to say that when you’re in a silo network, the push, the intent of following people is two-fold – as a user, you don’t want to miss out on future posts, and as a company, they want to show growth. But when you’re out on the open web – the intent in following someone is better – it’s about your personal connection with the person and their work. If you like it, you’ll follow them to the ends of the Earth. Otherwise, there’s that unsubscribe button. That’s why the open web is better.

Finding my space

A large portion of the Internet is just about discovering interesting things. A part of that is just generally interesting things. But the other part is things that interest us. These two are different.

For most of my lifetime on the Internet, I’ve sought, and found, interesting things. My media diet has varied a lot over the years, flicking from one service and form of information to another. I’ve frequented twitter, Facebook, reddit, news sites, Instagram, blogspot, imgur, tumblr, self hosted blogs, forums, and a whole lot of the Internet I’d rather not talk about. I’ve seen memes (I hate memes), I’ve been caustic (I’ve learnt that’s just not useful to anyone), I’ve read entire books on Gutenberg.

But of late, I’ve noticed that I’ve finally found my space. Some people find it on tumblr or twitter because that’s where the people are. I’ve found it on RSS. I follow, unfollow, cull, clean, unsubscribe and resubscribe to blogs a lot. Whenever I think about moving away from my current self-hosted RSS feed solution, I look at the 700 odd blogs I follow and think that I’ve got better things to do than to reduce this list to an acceptable-by-the-service-I-want-to-move-to number. I used to follow well over twelve hundred sites,  but I realized that I don’t follow the news the way I used to (now I seek it out myself, when I want to, via Reuters or Apple News), so I unsubscribed every single news-site RSS feed and this is where I am today.

For a short, shining time, I was a part of the App.net story. I wasn’t particularly involved, but I did pay for the API and I did learn a few things along the way. I also made some friends and found more people to follow (overwhelmingly, these are old white guys. Just the demographic frequenting that service, I guess). When ADN went away, I still followed these people’s stories, through other social networks that sprung up (pnut, 10C, micro.blog) but also partly, through their blogs. On these social networks, I found more people to follow their blogs of.

What prompted me to write all of the above? I saw the following post by Colin Walker on his ridiculously well-built blog today –

“It’s not about being perfect, just about being.”

He’d written it in his notebook at some point and took the time to remind readers like me of it.

This idea resounds with me. This is something I’ve struggled a lot with. I’ve tried daily blogging, daily journaling, daily private blogging, scribbling notes on a throwaway page on the net, all in an effort to just put words on the screen, to just ‘be’. It doesn’t matter that those words are perfect. Or, well, it shouldn’t. I still fret over it. I still write something, save the draft, and push it out of my memory, because I worry that it’s not up to the mark. I still feel that a lot of my writing is either too laborious, or too much of a rant, or that I drone on.

Meanwhile, there are people like Colin out there, reassuring us that no one is perfect, that there is nothing more important than putting those words, and oneself, out there. I’m glad I follow his blog, and so, follow him.

I’ve found my space in this one field of interest – writing. There are others I’d like to sate, but I believe I can find blogs for those too. If not, I’ll write about that too, right here, asking for your help, dear reader.

Photo by Blue Trail Photography

Changing my relationship with Facebook

I’ve come across two posts today that are of high interest to me (and probably to you, dear reader).

First is this official Facebook blogpost here. It talks about how Facebook has discovered that those who use social media passively, just for browsing, end up sadder than those who use it actively, commenting and chatting with friends. I’ve seen people use Facebook for posting material which I sometimes thought was too long or too short or too general to be posted on what is supposed to be a rather private network. But if it brings joy to them, and helps me connect with them, then why not, right?

The second post is here. It’s a heartbreaking tale about how the algorithm destroys relationships and makes us devoid of important information. The algorithm is prioritizing information for us and in the process is making us less human. Please do read it.

I’ve been thinking about Facebook’s blogpost and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to game the system. What does that mean? It means to post frequently and interact with people. It means to force the algorithm to think that I’m some sort of high value poster. Till date, I’ve refrained from cross-posting my tweets to Facebook. I believed that Facebook is reserved for longer posts, meatier ones that mean something to the people to whom I’m posting. But the algorithm doesn’t think like that. The algorithm rewards those who post often instead of those who post things of value. So I guess that ends now. Thoughts are thoughts, no matter how small they are. I’ll post them on Facebook simply so that one day, when I want to post something of value to my friends on Facebook, the algorithm deems me of enough value to make sure they see my posts.

Some of you may object to this on the basis that you see my posts on twitter (and other places). Well if you do and do not interact with my posts on Facebook, the algorithm will downgrade me for your experience. In that way, what Facebook does to control our lives is highly personal and deeply disappointing. Hopefully, you’ll see that.

To all others, I hope you like my short gripes which I send out every once in a while. I’ll try this for the year of 2018 and share the results with you at the end of the year. I posit that inputting more to Facebook will mean I’ll also get more output from it. Let’s see if that turns out to be true.

Thoughts on a required reading page for blogs

I’ve been following Colin Walker’s thoughts on a ‘required reading’ page since Monday and have been thinking about it myself. His own thoughts were based on Dave Winer talking about the idea.

What is a required reading page to me?

Dave Winer seems to suggest a page which would link to articles that deeply affect the blogger, or explain their motivations and give context. Colin took the idea further and talked about old posts which the blogger would want to highlight. There could be external links which the blogger would want the reader to get acquainted with before weighing in on the subject the blogger talks about.

Why are we talking about it?

Two years ago, Derek Sivers and party introduced the idea of the /now page. It’s an easy way for bloggers to talk about what they’re doing right now. There was a marked effort to explain that this page would not be automated, so that the blogger frequently updates it and nurtures the page as a window into their lives. You can read my /now page here.

These ideas – a now page, and a required reading page, are extensions of a blog and a way to empower bloggers to build a blog as an extension of their lives. Sure, you can post what you’re working on on Instagram, and rant about it on twitter. But when it lives on your blog, you care about it more, and so does your reader.

When I was thinking about it, I felt that the required reading page is better implemented by the blogger simply choosing to write about the topic they care about. If you want people to notice a certain article, just blog about it, quote it, and explain your take on it. Ask the reader for their takeaway too. Perhaps, in that sense, a required reading page is every page on your blog. If you care about it enough to write about it, I’ll know that you recommend that I read it too. That is how it works right now, and that’s why I read Dave Winer’s post – because Colin Walker was talking about it.

But when you look at the way people blog now, a lot of bloggers have, since a long time, maintained a page of reading which they want to highlight. Famous bloggers often have a page which lists their most popular blog posts (a great example is this page by Leo Babauta) and others often point to external reading that they value. It’s time this too is formalized into a format and a ‘named’ page, so as to guide future bloggers (and current bloggers) and help leapfrog the blog from a stream of thoughts and articles to a centerpiece of activity and a deeper reflection of the blogger’s life.

p.s. Named pages are useful in both kickstarting a blog and maintaining it for your readers. Examples are the About page, the /now page, the Colophon page (which talks about your tools, your blog’s history; sort of an extended About page; here’s an example), and now, hopefully, the required reading page. As Colin says in his post about the Required Reading page –

I’m going to spend some time considering what I might have on mine.

unpublished, unwritten, unprocessed.

I think a lot, mostly about random things. There’s a few stories or articles always knocking around in my head at all times, such as this one which I’m writing right now.

Most of these ideas come in three out of four categories –

  1. unpublished
  2. unwritten and
  3. unprocessed.

I’ve got a drafts folder filled to the brim with written stuff that passed it’s time-frame without me hitting publish. I do that out of laziness and because I keep thinking that I want to edit, correct, rewrite. Bah. I hate that habit. It works fine for fiction, because that’s timeless. But anything else, mostly stuff I write for my blog, I should just hit publish and get it out in any form.

Then there are the unwritten ones. These are mostly stories, which I keep dreaming up ways to write. In my mind, I’ve got an open novel, a novella, a collection of short stories and some random stories just knocking around, trying to get out. I wonder when I’ll find the time/inclination to write them. Maybe I’ll use NaNoWriMo to get some of those on paper*.

Then there are the unprocessed things – fleeting thoughts I’ve had which came and went or ideas I remember today but are gone by the time tomorrow becomes current. I hate those ideas for slipping away, because I feel like a gold miner who let a huge chunk of gold wash away with the mud. Some of them come back and start troubling me again, but most of them are lost between my synapses, never to be thought of again.

Finally, there are those rare ones which are processed, written and published too. Those gems are the ones I’m most proud of you. I love having more and more of those, though I keep fooling myself that unwritten and unpublished are good enough too.

I wish upon you, oh reader, that you have the most of the fourth category of whatever your art is. I wish upon myself the same.

Cheers!

Nitin

Let’s talk about Tor

Teleread recently covered how the New Hampshire Public Library turned its Tor Relay back on, despite warnings from local law enforcement that although the router itself isn’t illegal, it will likely be used for illegal purposes. The article points out that Tor is an important service because, keeping aside the negatives that come from total anonymity, it provides political dissidents a way to bypass censorship. This is important for the growth of democracy in all countries around the world.

There is, of course, the other side – that Tor is used by a wide variety of undesirables who use it for nefarious purposes using the blanket cover of anonymity as a defense against possible government intervention. In that sense, Tor is kind of like torrents. You can download every open-source Linux distro ever created using torrents, but most people are probably just downloading pirated content off it. Continue reading

8 years of blogging

I missed a rather important anniversary over the weekend. I just noticed that WordPress wished me a few days ago for being with them since 8 years. Of course, I’ve been writing since long before that, but most of my writing was read only by my family and the greatest achievement of my writing then was when my parents published my writing in a small book which they presented to me on my birthday. With blogging, I was still being read mostly by my family, but online and I had a sense of achievement in that I was hitting publish every time I completed a blog post, thereby putting it out there for everyone to read, if they so chose to.

My earliest blog is on wordpress.com here. I have tried a variety of platforms over time but WordPress just seems to be the right one for me. Of course, I left that blog some years ago and came to nitinkhanna.com (by way of blog.nitinkhanna.com) and self-hosted WordPress. But all that matters is that on-and-off, here-and-there, I was writing and I was publishing. I seem to have been able to average a post per month or so, though please don’t hold me to that standard (my last post here was more than a month ago and I’ve not had much to write in that intermediate time). But I am proud that I have a cumulative 1,37,361 words published on my blog (with some 66 posts sitting in drafts) Continue reading

Balloons, or how tech companies need to stop and take stock

Balloons is, concurrently, a ‘fine WordPress theme’ and a ‘whimsical’ one. It is also a theme that caught my attention when I was browsing for WordPress themes recently. Let me be clear – I was not browsing for themes for my own site. I was browsing for themes for our nikhco.in domain, which looks to be in need of a refresh.

But Balloons caught my eye. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the large number of balloons that are front and center at the head of the theme. Maybe it was the oddly small typography, which could look great if it were a few font sizes bigger. But as soon as I saw it, it caught my attention. I started thinking about how I would modify it to suit my needs and change some things I’d definitely get irritated at. I hate when theme authors fixate on certain social network links but not others or add an unneeded sidebar to the theme. But then, I stopped and took a step back.

This planning and plotting I was up to, was it needed? Was it a useful change to my site? Was this theme better than my current theme? I have put many hours into editing my current theme, “Independent Publisher”, to make it look the way I wanted it to look. So should I be putting those same hours again, so soon, into a completely new theme with completely new issues I’d have to fix? I like the challenge, but is the effort valuable? Have I received negative feedback on my theme? Has someone told me that it’s not good the way it looks or maybe it fundamentally conflicts with the content? I write on a variety of subjects – code, fiction, politics, observations about the world, and movie reviews, among others. So it’s been hard to find a theme that fits all that content. Thus, over the years, I’ve experimented with many themes, many plugins and formats to elicit some kind of a reaction from my otherwise passive readership.

I was talking to my brother recently and we were talking about how LinkedIn has the habit of trying new things with their site. I understand the impulse. It’s all about constantly evolving. You have a product, you want to make it better. There’s also the business case for it. For startups and fledgling companies alike, there’s a market to capture and industries to disrupt. Thus, the need for experimentation drives them to keep trying to do new things. If a company working on a professional social network can also act as a Rolodex and be the go-to resource for industry news, that’s better for their business.

But my brother’s point was valid too – you’ve got a product. You’ve released it to the general public. You’re working on minor improvements all the time. Let. it. sit.

There’s oftentimes no need to add that new feature to your current site. If you want to experiment, make a separate platform or a new app to try things. Put it under your label, call it “LinkedIn Connect” or “Facebook Paper”. But don’t try to shove new ideas down the throats of your current users. Let them get used to the current system. Let them complain and argue the merits and demerits of it. Let them give you real feedback and then act on it. At the end of the cycle, if the new idea is that popular, roll it into your current system. Integrate your changes. But don’t start out with the assumption that people will be OK with a constantly changing platform. Most of the time, there’s no need for that.

We talked about all the other companies out there too, including giants such as Google, Cisco and HP. Those who sit on their laurels get surprised by a leaner, smarter company coming along to steal their market share. But those who continually reinvent just to keep the rust off, lose their focus and their customers. If you’ve got a radical improvement to your product, go for it. But make sure you’ve got a second set of eyes telling you that the new is actually better than the old, not just newer than the old.

So, as I looked at Balloons, I silently sighed. There was no need for it. No one is telling me that my tech posts look bad in the new theme. My most popular post ever “Installing Fever on AppFog” still gets visited a few times a week even though it’s years old now. People still read through it on a theme that’s better suited to fiction than tech tutorials and no one seems to mind. Older posts about code are still visited and no one cares if the font is larger than needed.

I bookmarked the theme and closed the tab. One day perhaps, I’ll dust it off and show it to someone and ask if it would make for a better theme for my blog. Until then, my site looks good and I’ve decided what to do with it – Let. It. Sit.


Authors Note – I wrote and edited this post on Hemingwayapp. It’s an amazing editor. It points out sentences that are hard to read, phrases that can be simpler, and the use of adverbs and passive voice. It helped me get rid of all the instances of passive voice in this text. The makers, the Long brothers, have come up with a new Beta version that you should check out. The New Yorker has taken notice of the app too, among other news media. You can read about their coverage here. This article got a grade of 6 on the app, which is not at all bad!

Real people don’t fit them

I love Jessica Hagy‘s site Indexed. It’s funny, published weekdays and is almost always spot on.

But, I found a problem with today’s post –

Stereotypes. Yup.

Jessica’s “Real People don’t fit them”


I don’t think you can portray a groups vs individuals analysis on a graph. So, I fixed it in my own way. Hope you like it and hope you check out her website. It’s pretty cool!

My version –

IMG_0233.JPG

 

Of course, Hagy’s Indexed is for fun and not to be taken as seriously as I have. But hey, when you see something wrong on the Internet, you fix it, right?

Kill all the Uruks

I spent the weekend listening to my brother complain about how the story in the game he’s playing nowadays, “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor”, is not progressing fast enough. As it turns out, the problem was that he had to kill a lot of middle level orcs (uruks) in order to entice the next level of villains to come out of hiding. He proceeded to do that and voila, the story line moved quickly after that.

Life’s a lot like that. You start out green at any task and you have a lot of enthusiasm and beginner’s luck. That makes you happy and you expect the same level of progress to keep up. Turns out, there’s a lot of work between that first instance and getting to a decent level of expertise. All it takes is consistent hard work. It’s not the neat solution. It’s the only solution.

Since it’s NaNoWriMo, here’s a tip – when you’re doing something, anything actually, and you start out with a bang, don’t forget to put your head down and consistently kill the uruks.