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.

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.

A comment on The YouTube Conundrum

The following is a comment I was writing on the above post. It became long enough that I’d rather just throw it on here for posterity. A couple of loosely knit thoughts on YouTube –

YouTube seems different.

Source: Is YouTube Fundamental or Trivial? – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

YouTube is different.

Instagram, twitter etc have a feed. YouTube doesn’t have a feed like that. YouTube does have an autoplay option, but in my experience most people prefer to keep it turned off. It’s a fundamentally different browsing model than these other social networks.

The author wishes people use YouTube as a sort of backend to embed videos into their websites. I’d say that a lot of people did initially experiment with video embeds as a means of ‘indiewebifying’ YouTube and Vimeo. Many still continue to do so. So many methods of embeds exist, from WordPress shortcodes to YouTube itself giving you easy to copy iframe and html5 snippets. But that’s not how YouTube is truly consumed. Just like those other social networks, YouTube is consumed mainly within their app. There’s true continuity there, even though most people don’t actually use it.

The other point is that content is king. When you’re chasing silly cat videos, whatever YouTube suggests seems fine. Similarly, when my wife has to do some housework, she puts on one fashion blogger or the other and the algorithm takes her on a journey of background noise that’s more than adequate.

However, when we get home and want to either watch some news/latenight commentary/random funny videos from specific content creators, we specifically select a video, play it, and exit after it’s done.

My main method of consuming YouTube is on the Apple TV. With the new version of their app, YouTube has effectively shot themselves in the foot. The app doesn’t do a very good job of good, engaging, never-ending recommendations. We’re a little more discerning than letting complete random videos play when we’re actively looking at the screen, so after a few refreshes, the content of the day dries up and we can actually get out and watch something else we’ve been paying for – Netflix or Amazon.

So what’s the right way to think about YouTube: is it fundamental to the internet revolution, or just another source of social media distraction?

YouTube is both, true. But it’s both because people have recognized the value of uploading serious content on there. Now, serious content isn’t only suited to video format. It can be made in photos (see brainpickings Instagram) and in tweets (the reuters twitter feed). But can it be consumed in those formats easily? No, and that’s why YouTube stands out.

YouTube is a conundrum because people actively upload cat videos on it.

A note about people taking the time on the Internet

I read a very interesting post through one of the linkblogs I follow. This link, through the blog kateva.org talks about how Facebook is experimenting with linking Groups and Pages, the two ‘community’ offerings by Facebook with the use of Saas affiliate marketing software. I’m part of a few groups and a few pages (I’ve cut down on the latter a lot in recent years because it’s mostly noise) and I see real value in merging the two and creating a single entity that simplifies group interactions on FB.

But what was interesting to me was John Gordon’s comment on the link – “I miss blogs that used to explain things like this.” Of course, he’s not talking about the change FB is bringing but the blog he’s linked to. The comment resonated with me because there’s something along those lines that I’ve been thinking about since some time now.

When the Internet began, people started filling out blogs and sites talking about the most mundane of things – small changes in their favorite newspapers, versions of textbooks and differences between them, software and the differences between versions, events of their days, to name a few. These discussions were then swept up by sites who collected these minutae, stripped out all ownership information, and presented the collected works as their own. This has been acceptable practice and what certain sites are borne out of (cough cough). This practice both helps grow the Internet at an exponential rate and harms the original authors as their work and name gets lost along the way.

So people on the Internet slowed down. Content creation moved from everywhere on the Internet to either large syndications or small blogs or forums. The large swathe of users on the Internet became consumers. This is part of the problem for most social networks – when a majority of people are consumers, only a choice few are creating value. Thus is born the consumer’s content creation – likes and shares and retweets and reposts. These became the content of today. I don’t have a problem with this.

My problem is with the loss of the minutae. That value that was once created on blogs and static pages is now created on reddit and stackoverflow and obscure forums, if at all. That often means that the type of value creation that I (and Gordon) am looking for has just about disappeared. If no one asks the question on Quora or Stackoverflow, no one answers what the changes FB is making look like.

What I’m looking for is even more specific. I am often faced with a very difficult choice – whether or not to update a particular software. With apps, it’s much more difficult because we notice those changes quickly and it is almost a split second decision whether to update or not (click that button!). Further, there are so many apps that we use and so many updates that get pushed through that it would be draining to discuss what each update brings to the table and whether it is destructive in any way for any specific scenario. For updates on a computer, there’s still some open discussion one can find. People take these a little more seriously and often it’s easy to find information about version changes and impact on systems similar to one’s own.

Let’s take a few examples –

I recently updated to the latest version of the WordPress app on iOS. It was on a whim and I paid dearly for that. The new update brings the ability to manage plugins on your WP blog. But the update is borked. One of my blogs has well over fifty installed updates (not all are enabled) and when I go into that blog, the app crashes and then keeps crashing. I’ve seen no update for this issue in the last two days and haven’t bothered to write up a report to WP for it. I learnt after a few tries that if I don’t open that blog’s admin page from my app, the app doesn’t crash (letting me use the app for other blogs). Presumably this has something to do with not loading the plugins list from that site. I wouldn’t know, I’ve not explored the issue further. Funny thing is, if I’d have waited a little and read a few reviews, I still wouldn’t have come across this issue because people usually don’t blog about specific versions of an app and I’d have to trawl through a bunch of issues pages on GitHub to find some mention of the issue.

The other example I have is of a BIOS update. I have the option of pulling in this update and I know that if I want to go exploring issues around it, I’ll find at least a few pages talking about people’s positive or negative experiences around it. Why the difference? Apps affect our lives just as much as BIOS updates do, because they take up more of our time now than computers do. The only thing is that BIOS updates are infrequent and cause system-wide failure. Plus, the BIOS update has been out there for a while and if it had been problematic, I would be able to find more information about it, and is a big problem since people love to use computers, for work, game or even listen to music using the 5.1 computer speakers 2017 that give the best audio quality to any computer.

There’s a hundred other things associated with these scenarios which I’ve ignored to simplify them – iOS is a closed garden, so the number of users who get affected by an individual app are much fewer than from any BIOS update; app updates are now automated so people don’t even have this dilemma that I have; there is a lot of software out there no one talks about and I’ve not included in my examples.

(By the way, I feel Apple should go the WordPress.org way. It should allow people to report back on app versions with respect to iOS versions, to say that, e.g. “2000 people report 100% compatiblity with iOS 11.2 for version 1.3 of this app”. This will give both us and them so much more information about how stables apps and updates are.)

People have stopped taking the time to talk on the open Internet about changes that affect us all. That’s because the return on investment of time and effort is all but enough to warrant this approach to life – documenting every small change.

That’s somewhat sad, frankly.

To: The Awl, Subject: Before you die

long live the awl

Hey Sylvia and Team,

I knew about The Awl only when Sylvia was heading it. I discovered it last year or so and bothered to send in a few typos along the way. I loved the writing, I loved the off-current-affairs topics, I loved the esoteric posts. I loved Fran Hoepfner’s writing as well as music recommendations, specially since they pointed squarely to playlists on Spotify. Here’s a list of five posts that I have bookmarked. (There were probably more, but I lost some data from my RSS reader one day and didn’t bother to go looking for that)

Now The Awl is dying. People are celebrating this amazing blog/site/publishing platform. They’re talking about what a grand experiment it was, they’re talking about how it began and how it seemed to forever be bootstrapped (this is one of my failings – I do not bother with initial intent, so I don’t know when something will turn on me. I should be more careful of this). They’re relishing in the long list of people who ‘graduated’ from The Awl and the platform it gave to the many who now work elsewhere. They’re toasting to the feeling of having a personal blog but with an editor and getting paid to write on it.

Well I’m a little pissed. I discovered The Awl too late. I supported it too late. I want to discover more writers (and I sure am not going to use Medium to do it) and read more content and send more letters to the Editor. But they’re going away. At the end of the month, no less! I may be an infrequent reader of the site, but I don’t remember seeing any discussion with the readers, or any indication that it’s going under. All I see now are articles written in other publications by people who moved on from The Awl and know its inner workings. They’re waxing poetic about how there were never any investors, how The Awl always had a blog-y feel instead of a publication, how the end was inevitable because 2008-2013 was the time when small ad networks supported small blogs, but we all knew this was going to end some day.

Well, it did and frankly, if you’re in the business of publishing online, you should know one thing – ads are dead. Everyone, when they get a new computer, follow this format –

  • Open default browser
  • Download Google Chrome
  • Install Adblock

That’s the way this works now. If you don’t know that, well, sorry. If The Awl thought that life in the Adworld was tough because the site wasn’t targeted enough, here’s a tip –

2012 may have been the age of small ad networks, but 2018 is the age of ASKING YOUR USERS FOR SUPPORT.

Seriously, if writing apps (like Ulysses and Bear) can move to a subscription model, if The New York Times can politely remind people to donate, if the Guardian can ask for as little as $1, the least you could have done was to mid-2017 start a darn Patreon page. If nothing else, you’d see who out of the thousands of people who visit your pages found your content worth supporting.

But I get it, you’ve thrown your hat in the ring. You’ve decided that the thing you knew – ads – is no longer going to keep the virtual doors open and so it’s time to move on. So be it. I’ve followed my favorites on twitter and Instagram and hopefully will find some meaningful voices on Medium (ugh) and indie blogs (have you heard? they’re making a come-back. ping me, anyone, who needs help setting up a WordPress blog for ~$3/mo). In the meanwhile, I’ll be looking for ways to start my own Awl, in memory of this interesting ‘experiment’.

The Awl is dead, but its marks remain.

 

 

Photo by maritimeantiques

How the Common Man will pay for the Internet soon

If there’s one buzz word that’s promised to solve all the monetary problems of every Internet-based startup in the past two years, its “Big Data”. Everyone’s collecting it, everyone’s recording it and everyone’s saving it for tomorrow. From Twitter’s Billions(of tweets) to your Netflix queue and even your Google Search history, everyone’s looking to figure out how to sell you more stuff based on your habits.

But no one’s actually selling the data. The data in itself is useless, no matter how much of it you have. It’s the connections that are formed from it that are important and that’s what everyone is hankering to sell – information. However, all that these companies are trying to do is sell information to advertising sources and point of sales organizations like Amazon because that’s where they can easily get a large paycheck in exchange for a much larger database of customer information. Continue reading

Experimenting with a new way of microblogging

Today, someone pointed out to me that my live blog – live.nitinkhanna.com wasn’t truly a micro blog because there was no way for people to reply to me. This got me thinking. Following the tenets of what a micro blog is from my recent post, I believe that a post, reply model, with no character limit on the post other than the author’s discretion with the ability to include multimedia in the post and the ability to host it on their own server really defines a micro blog.

Towards that, here’s an experiment – Disqus, the famous commenting system, has all of the above features. Though I do not, in the end, control the database of the posts, I can host a disqus plugin just about anywhere. This is where I choose to do it. This is now, a micro blog. Anyone can come and comment here. This allows  for Guest replies, mentions, multimedia attachments, moderation and links in the comments. There is even a mobile theme which will work if you visit this page from your smart phones.

This is just an experiment. I will post here only if people start posting here. My primary personal micro blog will still be on live.nitinkhanna.com and if anyone wants to reply there, you can do so on the Disqus comments at the bottom of that page.

Save yourself from the Ephemeral

As users of the Internet, we change a lot. We move email IDs, we jump from one social networking fad to another, we change bookmarking and read-it-later sites and even crash, delete or just forget blogs that we write on.

Most of the stuff I’ve done in the past 10 years or so on the Internet has been pretty personal. Emails, Orkut or Facebook where privacy settings allowed me to block external users or bookmarking sites that were private by default. But recently, most of my contribution to the Internet has been public – twitter and App.net, my blogs and even my bookmarking has been public. So is true for most of us out there. With the shift in social networks’ view of what data should be totally private, there’s a lot of data that’s in the public domain. This also means that there’s equally that much data that can be lost or can stagnate when an eventuality occurs – a web service shuts down because of acquisition or drying up of funds, your blog crashes and you have to start from scratch, you leave a social network and even though you download all your data and invite all your connections to the new one, some don’t join or you can’t upload any of that data anywhere else (how many social networks out there are interchangeable? None.) or maybe you just stop using a site or service and that data just sits there, alone and forgotten (just ask my bookmarks on del.icio.us). Continue reading

Year of Social

The season is changing and here, in Boulder, Colorado, it means colder nights and shorter days. It’s time for animals to wrap up their food gathering operations and finish working on cozy homes for the all too familiar winter.

 

This hibernation is also coming to a very important aspect of my life. Last year, at about the same time, I dumped Facebook in favor of Twitter. I had been inactive on the micro blog since long and returned to it, only to discover so many new and amazing connections and services. I found people worth talking to and got help where I needed it. I also posted a lot on this blog here, taking it through many iterations, themes and (free) hosting providers. Now I’ve moved it to a paid provider – NearlyFreeSpeech in order to maintain a better uptime ratio.

Continue reading

Internet Addiction

I was sitting at dinner with a few friends of mine, most of them Masters students who have excellent communications skills. They were all talking about something. On closer inspection, I realized that most of what they were talking about was the topic of the single most important communication revolution of this generation – the Internet. To be specific, they were talking about two things, memes and Facebook. I pointed out a few lines ago that most of them had excellent communication skills. The importance of that is the vocabulary in use in the conversation. They were talking about “liking” things and getting the best pic so that it can be their next “profile pic”. They were talking about flying cats and Loki-bashing memes. It seemed that all of these people were talking more in terms of Facebook features and popular memes instead of that once popular language, English.

Who am I to talk about this? I’m as much a part of this meme culture as anyone else. But some times I worry about why simple English is being replaced by Internet lingo in dinner tables across the world. Or maybe that’s not the case? Maybe I’m looking at a group of highly educated individuals who wish to break free from the rigid language-sensitive world of academic papers and presentations and the best way to let off some steam is by using some bad language and talking in some silly and distorted lingo. I certainly hope that’s the case because otherwise the world is doomed to one day just talk in terms of “like”, “comment” and “forever alone”. This does not bode well for expression. Because drawing cartoons and using lingo to accommodate original thought is a good idea as long as the cartoons themselves are originals. A few building blocks can easily form millions of complex structures but they are, in fact, limited by the types of building blocks to begin with.

What’s worse is that the force of Facebook and memes is so strong that it is changing the way the whole Internet interacts. The original game changing communication medium is now being forced into careful coercion by a social network and a silly set of characters adapted from 4chan. I can only hope that another tide brings some other social network into the lime light and that one will not be forced to define a person’s image with a “cover photo” alone.