Thoughts on Chris Hughes’ call to break up Facebook

I took my own sweet time to read this story, collecting some of my ideas and publishing them here. I’ve already had a lot of online and offline conversations around the topic, but posting these thoughts here for posterity and discussion makes sense to me.

Opinion | It’s Time to Break Up Facebook

Jefferson and Madison were voracious readers of Adam Smith, who believed that monopolies prevent the competition that spurs innovation and leads to economic growth.

The F.T.C.’s biggest mistake was to allow Facebook to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. In 2012, the newer platforms were nipping at Facebook’s heels because they had been built for the smartphone, where Facebook was still struggling to gain traction. Mark responded by buying them, and the F.T.C. approved.

Facebook’s version of Snapchat’s stories and disappearing messages proved wildly successful, at Snapchat’s expense. At an all-hands meeting in 2016, Mark told Facebook employees not to let their pride get in the way of giving users what they want. According to Wired magazine, “Zuckerberg’s message became an informal slogan at Facebook: ‘Don’t be too proud to copy.’”

They create immense amounts of data — not just likes and dislikes, but how many seconds they watch a particular video — that Facebook uses to refine its targeted advertising

One big question is, of course, who owns this data? The data would not exist on a platform which doesn’t have the technology to track your time in seconds. The data is also not really relevant to you in a meaningful way. So unless there’s a way to make it meaningful, there is no point in us users claiming ownership of it. Even if we did, in most aspects, the data is owned by Facebook and that is the basis for them not deleting it even after you’ve asked for ‘all’ of your data to be deleted. In that context, ‘all’ is all of the data you’ve given to Facebook, not the data they’ve generated on you.

he went even further than before, calling for more government regulation — not just on speech, but also on privacy and interoperability, the ability of consumers to seamlessly leave one network and transfer their profiles, friend connections, photos and other data to another.

Chris Hughes says in the next line that these proposals were not made in bad faith, but from where I am seeing, these are nothing but bad faith. One can only say these things from a position of privilege, of power. Where were these ideas when twitter launched periscope with Facebook friend-finder integration?

The fact is that what Zuck is proposing here is nothing different from what Microsoft did for Apple all those years ago to head off anti-trust investigations. Why not head off an investigation by propping up a few lame-duck competitors who Facebook can kill off in the name of API changes whenever it feels threatened?

Zuckerberg’s words may seem like music to your ears, but they are nothing more than an empty promise. Already, you can export your Facebook data, and there are services built around importing it and doing stuff with it. So how is his proposal any different?

Will Facebook provide an API to easily move all your data and conversations, and photos off? Will Facebook provide precious server time required to sync out every last bit of data through a legit API? I don’t think so.

Even if they do, the point remains that he’s doing this just to save his own hide. Paying lip service to the open web and interoperability is the easiest thing he can do as CEO.

Besides, Facebook’s value isn’t in the data you provide it with. It’s in the data they generate about you. Today, your uploaded data might be in the couple hundred MBs. But I can assure you, the data they’ve generated about you, and the data you don’t know you’ve uploaded (including stealthy location tracking, cookies, and third party browsing data they’ve bought about you), probably stands in the GBs.

That vast difference is something Facebook will never give you access to, since they can legally claim that it is data they have created and they own. You taking charge of that data is the real threat to Facebook.

Zuck knows this only too well and is trying to ward it off.

Imagine a competitive market in which they could choose among one network that offered higher privacy standards, another that cost a fee to join but had little advertising and another that would allow users to customize and tweak their feeds as they saw fit. No one knows exactly what Facebook’s competitors would offer to differentiate themselves. That’s exactly the point.

Another example of hypocrisy from Chris. We know there are social networks out there today that do all of these things. There are exceptional services built by dedicated people who believe in the ideal of an open web. Just recently an instagram replacement was kickstarted. It took a long while to get it to the bare minimum it needed to fund successfully.

Why? Why did Chris Hughes not put his money where his mouth is? Why not fund all these competitions as an outsider? He’s arguably for the money for it.

App.net was kickstarted by the people, but along the way they took funding from a VC firm. Some people saw that as a betrayal of the idea with which it began, and ADN ended up shuttering under a year later.

Hughes doesn’t need to singularly fund social networks and exert control as a VC or angel investor. He can fund them as an individual and just use his voice to amplify the message – that open web ideas do exist and have the potential to be disruptive.

The thing is, that Silicon Valley is about control. Right now, the definition of control is Facebook. It’s a behemoth that can eat up most of the things in its path, whether it’s WhatsApp and Instagram, which it acquires and turned into its pawns, or Snapchat, which it is trying to destroy by replicating it and using its networking effects against.

Look towards the (inter)networking world – everyone needs networking and so it’s not that sexy a field. But even though there’s a behemoth, Cisco, it can’t eat everything up. Every few years a company springs up that can cause serious competition to it based on new technology, or better production cycles, or just a fresh pair of eyes on the same ideas networking has been revolving around since the last decade.

So Facebook doesn’t need to be broken up in order to be made irrelevant, be it the right approach or not.

The F.T.C. should have blocked these mergers

Its first mandate should be to protect privacy.

It’s interesting to talk about privacy only in terms of Facebook, but it is infinitely more important to talk about privacy in a broader sense.

The US needs an agency that actively works with companies and individuals to thwart attacks on our data, to help secure information, and to educate the people about these topics. Right now, there’s a haphazard group of organizations doing this, led perhaps by the FBI, which steps into the case when hospitals and other organizations are attacked.

There needs to be an organization that ‘polices’ the use of data. Of course, there’s no reason to stifle new growth, but this org would work with, and actively target companies that are becoming big, and perhaps even white hat attack them to show weaknesses.

This latter role has been left to private entities till now, and that has worked out fine for most people. But formalizing it means making sure that the US has a pulse on cyber warfare in the civilian realm, which is where it is more active and deadly currently.

Imagine a CDC for cyber warfare and privacy issues.

But there is no constitutional right to harass others or live-stream violence

Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.

Can they, though? Can either Zuck or any government in the world ‘fix’ Facebook? As an industry, social media can be regulated. As a company, Facebook can be fined and controlled. But as an idea, as a part of the Internet, and as a trend, Facebook is more difficult to control. What needs to happen is that along with the threat of government sanctions, Facebook also needs internal pressure to restructure. That pressure will never come until golden boy is removed from the helm. It was only till Biz Stone and Jack were shown to be totally inept at handling twitter, that people understood that twitter needs some serious work. It’s a great feeling to follow an enigmatic or often just an esoteric leader and believe that they’re doing the right thing. But Facebook’s investors, specially those who care about the effects of the company on the world, should break through that spell and focus on forcing the company to rebuild.

Zuckerberg himself should realize that it is under his own helm that bad things have happened, and we’ve long given him a huge platform to grow and become a leader. But just like Rahul Gandhi, growing on the job is not possible for someone who controls the fate of a billion people. That just doesn’t work. He would be better off stepping away from the plate and letting someone else play while he rebuilds himself and finds out what he believes in beyond just the dominance of Facebook.

A comment about bringing quiet into your life

there is no benefit to delaying a bad feeling

A quiet environment is a sign of success | Penelope Trunk Careers

As said right in the next paragraph, our instinct is to delay a terrible thing that is about to happen. But is it worth it? No. It’s better to deal with it now and get it over with, so you can have peace of mind instead of worrying about it at the back of your mind.

Interesting, short read. Go check it out.

Comment on ‘I already pay for Apple News+’

$10 per month all-you-can-eat from 300-plus publishers

Source: The danger of ‘I already pay for Apple News+’ | TechCrunch

 

Apple News+ sounds a lot more like Netflix in its early years to me. Over time, when publishers realize that “yes, this is indeed a losing proposition for us, in favor of the customer”, they’ll either launch their own similar services, or threaten to pull out of News+, or throw tantrums, which will mean a slowly increasing cost of News+ over time.

The problem here, that Netflix must respect and Apple won’t, is that news is not a single source thing for the most part. If there’s an in-depth report that people want, but only Bloomberg provides, then Apple will either need Bloomberg (just like Netflix needs Friends), or will have to provide à la carte options the way Hulu does. But for most other news, if I can’t get it from publisher A, then I’ll just read Newspaper B’s report. Apple is making it easier for customers to ignore who the source is, just like Facebook did and Google AMP does. Good for consumers, bad for brand recognition.

Yes, this will open up a new avenue for some, and will be great for customers, and will break niche storytellers (of the LongReads types) and also big newsrooms. But you can’t blame Apple on capitalizing on a broken market. They’ve had a long time to fix this. So many business models have come and gone, from Better Ads, to services that allowed people to pay a monthly fee for ad-free experiences on a set of participating sites, to stupid stuff like Adblocker Blocker. The industry has fumbled through everything but collaborating and making their own version of News+ where they wouldn’t have had to pay Apple fifty cents on the dollar.

Just like Netflix broke an already dying business, and reinvented the way we consume TV, News+ is poised to do the same. Thing is, the innovation cycle has sped up this time and you’ll be seeing News+ competitors as early as next year. First, it’ll be half-assed attempts by Samsung, Microsoft, or Google, and then publishers themselves, who will shoot themselves in the foot by giving customers limited options (one reason I’m not subscribed to online services like CBS). What’s worth seeing is if they’re able to band together and learn something from this experience.

Apple acquired the magazine industry’s self-distribution app Texture a year ago

I was looking at solutions around this some time ago (just idle browsing, mind you) and realized that Apple had bought Texture and done nothing with it. The News app is not a natural extension of what Texture did, but News+ is. Good for them.

More than anything, it seems that Apple wanted to build a product around magazines for iPad consumers, and news media was an afterthought that just happened to be in need. When Apple announced News+, I thought it was the opposite, but the Texture explanation makes sense.

That means those magazines are likely to absorb a ton of taps and engagement time before users even make it to the WSJ, which will then only score few cents per reader.

I don’t know how Netflix pays their sources, but this is how Spotify pays theirs. As a consumer of Indian music, I have to push Spotify’s constant prattle of American artists aside to get to the music I want to listen to. But thems the chops. If publishers want more engagement, they need to now build a better relationship with Apple. This means the smaller ones will absolutely suffer. They should keep out of News+

 

Dat Rats

But if a YouTube channel disappears, it’s gone to us.

Source: Dat Rats

I worry about this too, sometimes, because it would seem that we’ve created and destroyed more content on the Internet than the entire Greek civilization produced for us.

But other times, I’m ambivalent to the idea. Some of the most important ideas survive and move on to the next level or the next civilization and there’s always progress.

So while yeah, it would suck if these cool/weird/fun sites disappear, and if YouTube one day loses all content from a period of time. But how much would it be a loss for civilization? The ideas would have been absorbed by the people of the time and the most important ones move on with artists and consumers in different ways.

Falling into Faith — Acko.net

The following is a critique of a post I recently came across in my RSS feeds-

 

This is augmented by the ease of concerted flagging and other public shaming campaigns, which create a guilty-until-proven innocent environment.

Source: Falling into Faith — Acko.net

This is a weird post, and it set off all kinds of alarms in my head. But I read through the author’s convoluted logic till the end. Some of it doesn’t make any sense, the rest of it makes sense, but is faulty logic. It’s clear that it’s a rambling, onerous post about somehow not protecting white privilege, but also not condemning it. It seems to want to put logic above everything else but the relationship between the example and the conclusion is tenuous.

This line above was the one that sprung out to me the most. The author seems to want to say that the constant vigilante justice meted out on social networks stifles free speech. But forgets a couple of things –

  1. Every example the author gives – James Damore, SubscribeStar – is one of extremism from the right. These are harmful rhetoric, and conspiracy theorists whose right to free speech is somehow being taken away by the people. Somehow, the ‘people’ having the right to decide who gets to live in the public sphere is not acceptable to the author. Instead, pure logic and pure freedom are the only things important to the author. This is, of course, the wrong approach, because there is no such thing as pure freedom. All of life is about the exceptions to the rule. The exception to the rule of free speech is one where someone means someone else harm.
  2. The author seems to want to criticize public movements on social media. But here’s the thing – it’s not like there’s a recourse. Elsewhere in the post, the author criticizes the left for controlling the institutions that mediate over ideas on social networks, namely the Trust and Safety Boards –

bootstrapping their own inquisition in the name of Trust and Safety

This means that the author doesn’t trust the devices created to remove negative influencers from social media, and doesn’t accept that people should be able to run their own campaigns to remove such people from there either. So what’s the recourse? What can people do to root out truly evil ideas from the public sphere? The author falls silent on that aspect. As it is, the tools that Facebook and Twitter (and WhatsApp) have created to combat misuse are woefully shortsighted and pathetic attempts at appeasement. That leaves the users to fend for themselves, so why would they not band together and attack the trolls and bad actors? Yes, they would get a few folks wrong and that’s where the author jumps in again to criticize, but not to give solutions –

Nuanceless policing bots and scripts make it trivial for innocent bystanders to get hurt.

All in all, a frustrating read to go through. Why did I? Well, for some reason, I’m subscribed to this person’s RSS feed and this was a recent article on there. Everything else by the author is purely about technology.

Also, it’s a good exercise in spotting every logical misconception that the author has made. Which ones did I miss?

 

No, climate change will not cause more boys to be born. It’s probably the opposite.

I don’t understand why mainstream media gets things so wrong.

A few weeks ago I heard something from a friend – climate change will mean more boys will be born. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought because we were having a conversation and I didn’t have any facts one way or the other.

Revisiting the idea, I realized that I’ve recently read a conflicting notion. I read a comic book by Aminder Dhaliwal called Woman World that talks about a world where men have disappeared and women have to form society again. It’s a Utopia –

No, I’m not claiming that a comic book is scientifically accurate, but it does seem to be telling more truth than Fox News. I searched for the idea online and tried to find its source. Here’s what a search for it looks like –

You’ll notice that most articles don’t give you a clear answer to the question and want you to read the article to come to a conclusion. Some of them, like IFLScience clearly state that a higher proportion of girls will be born due to Climate Change.

But then there’s Fox8.com – “Warmer temperatures bring sons”

Total lie. Well, not really. But mostly a lie, because the people living in Cleveland, which is where Fox8 belongs, do NOT live in preindustrial Finland.

There’s a research paper out of Japan, linked here, which all of these articles quote. If you open the link and read no more than the “Conclusion” line, it’ll be quite clear to you that the evidence says that less boys will be born over time because the male fetus is more susceptible to external factors. (I’ll come back to external factors)

Since this narrative doesn’t suit Fox 8 Cleveland they warped the headline to what they want to state. The article includes research by one Samuli Helle, from the University of Finland, that states that in the case of the Sami people of Finland, warmer temperatures will mean more male children for that community.

The way it’s worded in the article, it says –

Clearly, the person writing the article or their editor decided that single line should be the headline. I wanted to call out said person who wrote the Fox News article, but if you look for the author, it’s attributed to CNNWire.

What?

I opened a few more of the articles on the search page and they all attribute ‘CNN’ as the author of the article.

I searched for the keywords and CNN and found out that one Susan Scutti, who writes on medical topics for CNN, wrote the article here, and it was syndicated to all these other outlets, including Fox. Fox8, however, had the bad sense to change the headline to what suits them, because in this age of information overload, their readers will only read the headline and move on, sadly misinformed on the topic. From what I understand about wires, news organizations receiving the wire can’t change the text significantly, but can change the headline to suit their needs.

But, that doesn’t let CNN off the hook either. I don’t know what the interaction between Susan Scutti and Samuli Helle was (the article mentions emails), but the article words it to say that warmer temperatures will bring more male children everywhere.

The truth couldn’t be farther from that statement. The Japanese research, and Helle’s own research seems to state that in colder regions like Finland, warming up will bring more male children, but in the majority of the world, where ‘external factors’ such as forest fires, floods, and droughts are going to be the norm, more girls will be born. Helle even admits in the article itself that the effects of climate change on reproduction will not be uniform worldwide. Yet that’s exactly how the article seems to portray it.

I reached out to Susan Scutti and Samuli Helle a few days ago to get clarification on the topic. While I didn’t hear back from Scutti, Helle responded back. I’m going to put his response in full below, instead of the hit job that Susan has done on Helle’s work and responses.

Yes that study considered only Sami people who lived some two hundred years ago in northern Finland. We aimed not to generalize that result to other populations, at least not to modern humans. I am not quite sure how strong is the evidence for such an association in modern or western populations, since haven’t been following that literature too closely for years now. We did however publish another article in 2009 showing that in whole Finland during 1865-2003, high temperature was associated with proportionally more male births. Please see:

https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2656.2009.01598.x

Samuli Helle via email

So, there’s research that during a large period of time, higher male births did happen in Finland during ‘warm years’. However, by the author’s own admission, this does not apply to other modern or western populations. Further, even if you accept the results of the 2009 paper, do the same apply to the US, where the weather profile varies wildly from Finland? I don’t think so.

Media outlets can often be seen doing one of two things – terrible oversimplification, and muddying the waters. Clearly, Fox oversimplified the results explained in the article, all while others who syndicated the article left it untouched for the nuance the headline provides. On the other hand, it seems that CNN found this piece of evidence from the Japanese study and decided that they can’t write a one-sided article, so they went out and found conflicting information, however misguided, and published it alongside.

Had Susan Scutti referenced the 2009 paper, it still would have made some sense, as the results actually do seem to be in favor of the argument. However, referencing the Sami people study clearly shows a misguided attempt at ‘balancing’ the reporting.

I don’t know whether it was the author of the article, or her editor, who decided that the reporting needed to have two sides, but this sort of silly mistake is what erodes trust in the fourth estate. Anyone skimming these articles will be swayed to think one way or another, but anyone who takes a breath and reads the content will see the aimless wandering that media outlets call the news nowadays. This is how cynics are created.

In the end, take the whole thing with a grain of salt – in some countries, more boys will be born, while in most, it seems, more girls will be born. Wait for the research to talk about your country, your demographic, and your time. Everything else is noise.

How are stories kept a mystery in your mind? – A Whole Lotta Nothing

How are dreams ever unknown to us?

How are stories kept a mystery in your mind? – A Whole Lotta Nothing

I’d like to ask the opposite – how are dreams ever known to us?

I get fairly vivid dreams every once in a while. Sometimes, I can correlate them to events happening around me – some tension I’m focused on, some happy occasion that’s around the corner, etc. But most of the time, my vivid dreams are out of the blue. I meet acquaintances I’ve not seen in forever, I go to places I’ve never been, and once in a while, my wife stars as a detective in a story-line I have no way to make head or tail of.

But to me, these are not because our brains are trying to hide something from us, as Matt alludes to in his post. Dream narratives are when, according to me, our subconscious is able to surface ahead of our conscious mind. Our subconscious is always there, ticking away, firing off a million connections that make no sense whatsoever. Every once in a while, we have a eureka moment, because some connection is triggered that makes perfect sense to the conscious, and needs to be surfaced.

See, I think that our bodies do somewhat act as “a bundle of parts of competing systems”, but not knowingly. When we’re focusing on something, or going about our daily lives, the primary objective that’s driving our thoughts is survival. This can be of any order – from the most basic physical and ‘where will our next meal come from’ to a much higher level, such as thoughts about the future and metaphysics. But all this while, our body is going at its functions. Just as we don’t forget to breathe, we don’t forget to think in the background. It’s constantly happening. When we have a sudden urge to pee, it’s because our body realizes that we’ve been ignoring this function since some time and an alarm needs to sound. Just like that, when a great idea comes to us, it’s an alarm that some section of our brain sounds to let us know that the connections it recently created make some sense.

But when we sleep, our survival is in the background. If our minds were still preoccupied with urgency, we wouldn’t be able to sleep. So it is either that we’ve resolved the day’s urgencies, or our mind is overwhelmed with them and needs a break. For either reason, we sleep, and when we do, our subconscious’ plays come to the front.

Now, does it always happen that when we need to pee, or need to get up for an important meeting, our mind triggers a bad dream sequence to jolt us into waking up? I don’t think so. However, when those events happen, our mind does use vivid imagery, or fantastical scenes to inform us in its own way that we’re dreaming and need to get up.

As for the last question that Matt asks –

How could you even begin to design an experiment to figure out how stories unfold in our dreams?

I think the way to do this is to give yourself some tension. One time, drink a jug of water before going to sleep. Another time, worry a lot about some upcoming event and see how your dreams are different than when you had water.

I’d like to close by one of my most interesting dreams (there are a few I don’t think I’ll ever forget). As a child, I used to read Tell Me Why before going to sleep. On this particular occasion, I asked myself the question – “what’s the last topic covered in this book?” The answer was a three paragraph explanation of termites. I read it, went to sleep, and woke up in a dream where we had returned home to find termites infesting everything, from the large Eucalyptus tree outside, to every cabinet and drawer inside. It was not a scary dream – I saw it all matter-of-factly. Despite having read a single explanation about termites, and seen just one image about their handiwork, the vividness with which my mind recreated a termite invasion was amazing to me. It wasn’t out of any malice or urgency either. It was just the last thing my mind processed.

Good luck competing with Goodreads

Every once in a while, I come across a book management and listing tool. This is a broad category – it covers lists of the books you’ve read/want to read, your book notes, a social network inbuilt, and perhaps even the ability to buy books through them. Sometimes this is in the format of an app, and sometimes it’s a web service. Never mind that I actively seek these out (hey, everyone should have a past time), I always come out exasperated.

Why? Well, do you really want to build your entire book library all over again? I’m on the low-end of a prolific reader spectrum, and I’ve got about 260 books in my lists; that’s over a hundred books I’ve marked as read, and over one fifty that I want to. Most people have a lot more books than that in their lists, and almost all of them just hope in the back of their heads that Amazon doesn’t ever decide to kill Goodreads. Amazon has already been cozying up Kindle and Goodreads – you can post your Kindle reads, reviews, and notes directly to Goodreads through the Kindle apps. What’s to say that in a few years time they don’t decide that they’re done collecting our data through Goodreads and can shut the service down?

Oh, but don’t worry, you can export all your Goodreads data!

Really? Thanks! What do I do with it once I’ve exported it?

Uhhhhh…

See, this is the problem. This is why I keep looking for alternatives. But every time I come across one, I immediately realize the blind spot they aren’t addressing. If you’re an app/service, what you need to jump-start your platform is data. The ‘elegant’ way of doing this is to ‘ask’ the user for it. I put that in quotes because it’s more mandatory than just a small ‘ask’. If I come to a service, spend some time poking around, and realize I need to input all of my books all over again, that’s an immediate turn off. Services like Goodreads aren’t like conferences, where you can slap on a name tag and wander around till you find someone interesting to talk to. They’re more like parties, where if you don’t know anyone, you’ll just end up bored and.

So, this is what I ask of you if you’re making a service to compete with Goodreads – ask the user to export their data in an ugly .csv format and import the entire file to your service. Then you’ve got the entire library the user has curated on your rival service since the dawn of time without lifting a finger. You don’t even have to have this as the front and center of your UX. Get your user onboarded, get them talking, and then somewhere along the way, gently tell them you’ve got this amazing import feature that’ll help them quickly ramp up. If they care about books, they’ll do it. Those are the serious users of your platform anyways.

But nowhere have I seen this happen. I’ve recently come across a few apps – Litsy (by LibraryThing), Reading List (which seems to allow CSV imports, but needs them to be in its own format, instead of the Goodreads format; you’re this close folks!), BookBuddy (again, imports only its own data, god knows why) and some web services which I’ve already forgotten about, none of which seem to understand this basic concept of stealing from the enemy.

But what am I saying? I wrote all the way back in 2012 about how useless exporting data from Internet behemoths is. Nothing has changed in the last seven years. Till today, companies and apps come and go, without realizing that using prior data is a jump-start, not poisoned fruit.

Indie services actually get this. If you install the Goodreads plugin on Calibre, it lets you quickly import your data so your library is complete. Similarly, if you use the WordPress Book List plugin, there’s a way to import your Goodreads data. Because people who care about data, understand reuse of data. That tells me that if you’re not reusing my data, you’re not building a platform for me.

So good luck competing with Goodreads. Unless you can get my data from them and reuse it, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

The deadline is always now

Any good personal blog is like an episode of Seinfeld – there’s a lot of navel-gazing, an excess of philosophizing, and not a lot of public good comes out of it. That’s fine, because the personal gains are humongous, if metered like the seasons of self-love and loathing.

Whenever I think of non-text forms of blogging – podcasts, and photostreams – I realize that neither of those are truly enough. You can express a lot in a photo, but it feels static, whereas the written word has largely proven that it should always be taken with a grain of salt based on the time from which the writing belongs. You can’t express a lot in podcasts because speech is such a thing that it derails the most cohesive of thought. I’ve rarely ever come across a podcast that was more than one person, off-script, and intelligible after about five minutes of listening.

But blogging, well, that’s something. Don’t take my word for it. Here are my favorite quotes about this art form –

A blog is sort of like an exhale.

– Nora Ephron, 2006, via Daniel Gray

For bloggers, the deadline is always now.

– Andrew Sullivan, 2008, via tedium, via The Atlantic

I used to think that if I critique something on my blog – a book, or an idea, or a movie – it should be well researched and well structured. The frivolous thoughts are for microblogging. I still think that about the other forms of blogging. But there’s vgr, holding a mirror, saying, “No, blogging is for everyone and everything. Dump your worst ideas and your stupidest thoughts on your webspace. Are you that curated in your offscreen life too?”

I’ve written a few book reviews and notes and movie reviews here on my blog. The only time I’ve received any form of feedback is when I criticized a highly timely and visible piece of tech, which was immediately picked up by the lead developer and I’m glad I was wrong and completely out of line and learnt that over time.

I love the concept of blogging, but, and I believe this to be true for a lot of bloggers out there, am held back by this wanton need for perfection. Screw the perfection. Just hit publish. The deadline for your thoughts is always now.

p.s. I’ve linked to a lot of posts from my own blog. Because once a blogger is done navel-gazing, it’s time to make others do the same!

Update. Perfect timing – after I wrote this post, I updated my Jetpack plugin and they’ve added a new Gutenberg feature to find and add GIFs to posts. What could be more frivolous than GIFs? So here’s one –

Update. More timely validation, this time from a more professional environment that uses blogging –

Perfection is the enemy of the good

Have No Fear – Learning to love your blog

Update. Austin Kleon on the importance of revisiting diaries (and his blog) –

[…] the live reading and revision, that’s what this blog is for. It’s the place where I take private thoughts and turn them public, see what the reaction is, if any, and then weave what I’ve learned back into the work.

The importance of revisiting notebooks

Don’t Moleskine your blog

Have you ever seen people using a Moleskine notebook in public? You can see them using a fancy pen or pencil, writing in beautiful cursive, making excellent sketches, drawing straight lines without scales, right into their beautiful overpriced notebooks. It’s a gorgeous and truly scary sight.

I’ve never been able to buy a Moleskine notebook. I’ve often come across them in shops and stores, but every time I flip through the well weighted, elegant pages, which can give you paper cuts all day, I realize that I’m not worthy of a Moleskine. My handwriting is terrible. My ability to sketch wouldn’t save my life! Besides, the most important thing I want out of any notebook is the ability to scribble random ideas, or write small notes into. I want to just dump chicken scratch and small paragraphs in, without having to worry about elongating, or writing perfectly. Do I furiously scratch out words as I’m writing? All the time.

Would I ever want to use a Moleskine for that? No.

I recently came across this post by Jeff Perry –

It got me thinking – do we sometimes treat out blogs as Moleskine notebooks? Do we worry that we must only present our best writing on them, instead of just putting our ideas out there, perfection be damned? Yes, we do. We write entire posts and then save them in drafts, only to forget them forever. Either we’re not proud of our writing, or we’re not sure if it’s the right time to publish them, or we’re unnecessarily being perfectionists. Whatever the reason, what happens when you open your blog the next time? You come to the homepage, or the admin dashboard, and what do you see? The drafts? No. That’s a hidden page somewhere, totally ignored. So we move on to the next idea, and then the next, until our creativity is stifled and our spirits dampened by the lack of publishing. Why do we do this? Because the home page of our blog, at least in our minds, is a public space, and on it, only our best work should be displayed. But this is not true. CMSes allow two states – logged in and logged out. When you’re logged in, your blog’s home page is, in fact, not a public space, but a private one. Most of us do not realize or understand this, let alone capitalize on this simple idea.

I learnt about this problem in 2017 and solved it for myself. I want to share the idea with you, dear reader, so you can also stop moleskinning your blog. I’ve alluded to me writing this post before, specifically mentioning a key aspect of my solution – that when you see my blog’s 2018 archive, you see 25 posts, while I see 59. Yes, that’s thirty four posts that are not sitting tucked away in a drafts folder, but active and alive on my blog, albeit only for me.

Here’s how – this plugin on WordPress can set the default visibility of every new post you create on the web to Private. If you’ve never done this before (and I had not, till I discovered this solution), go ahead and manually try it now. When you change the visibility of a post to Private, WordPress immediately changes the save prompt from “save as draft” to Publish. You can finally get it – you can hit that Publish button and get that sweet, sweet rush of publishing something, but you can also get the freedom to read your post after some time, catch a few errors, a sentence you don’t like and such, and finally, when you’re happy with it, you can publish it publicly, which, by then would be a much smaller cognitive step than publishing it for the first time.

Side note – I’ve long recognized that seeing your blog posts on the front page of your blog, with theme and all, is a much different experience than writing and editing inside a text area and then publishing it. The feel is different, your eyes move differently to that beautifully set font, but most importantly – your mind responds differently.

I’ve tried hard to capture this feeling. A few years ago, when I found out about front end editors, I tried every single one I could get my hands on. One of my favorite ones was Barley. It was very well built, and a charm to work with. But front end editors come and go. Besides, the mind’s response to an editor is still that it is just that – a workspace. Even in the look and feel of my blog’s theme, the words seemed to flow differently when they were in edit mode.

I’ve been excited about Gutenberg since it was announced. But when I installed it in beta, it was horrible. However, the first release was actually quite good for me. For some reason, when I turned on SSL on my blog, one of the Gutenberg JS files crapped out (probably something to do with bad caching) and I can’t use it any more for post creation. I’ve gone back to the Classic Editor for now.

Just as well, because I noticed that when I was using Gutenberg, my willingness to quickly pound out an idea to the blog actually went down. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Private Posts by Default plugin only works on the blog when using the Classic Editor. That’s because it uses JavaScript to change the visibility setting on the fly. It’s a little silly, but it’s a better solution than the other hacks I’ve found, including a database script that’s changes the visibility setting as soon as you actually publish a post to public <shudders>.

Coming back from that long winding side note, when you’ve published a post to private, go your blog’s front page and just read. Be a consumer. Be a reader. The first time I did that, I found two spelling mistakes I’d made towards the end of my post. It’s so much easier to do that when your mind is just casually glancing at words instead of trying hard to be creative and write. The second time I did it, I was able to find a few sentences I hated reading and edited. Immediately after I made the edits in both the cases, I changed the settings to set the visibility to Public and published my posts. I’ve even used this process to sit on a post for a few days, slowly edited it every day, till I was ready to hit publish. Of course, you need to be careful to set the time and date of publishing to the current time and date instead of the value it’ll actually be – the time when you first hit Publish.

You don’t have to use the plugin. Whenever I’m on the WordPress iOS apps, I just head to the Post Settings section and quickly set the visibility to Private.

As I said before, stop moleskinning your blog. It’s not a perfect, pristine place which must always reflect the best work you’ve ever done. It’s alive. It’s a creative space where your ideas should stare you in the face so you can always work on them, and when they’re presentable, you can show them to the world. If you don’t ever want to, that’s fine too.

p.s. I let this post marinate on my blog in private mode for one night. According to WordPress, I have edited it twelve times after the initial publish. ?