Posts tagged web

The Joys of Deletion

It’s been twenty-one years since I followed a Microsoft Frontpage Express tutorial in some British computer magazine and built a personal website. I practiced my high school English writing about my city, about the music and the films I liked, and, as I was turning eighteen, some bad poetry. I also followed instructions on using a FTP client and uploaded the site to the meagre megabyte of space my ISP offered, marvelling at the fact that the site — my stuff — continued accessible even when my computer was turned off. I would check my website at my friends’ computers, at libraries, at cyber-cafés, just to confirm it was indeed an independent entity, and no further action was needed from me for my site to be available to everyone, always.

Over the next few years I would iterate my site obsessively, experimenting with form, structure, content, while building spin-off sites at the same time — photo manipulation exercises hosted over at Geocities, Sensible Soccer at Tripod, tracker music playlists at some other short-lived free webhosting company. Later I would start to blog, in both solo and group form. Early enough that I became one of those “blogging before it was cool” curmodgeons while enduring the Blogger age. Later still, I enthusiastically took up Tumblr, and eleven years later I keep using its still open API as a jury-rigged blogging backend. In this age of Medium, I can’t but feel that having your own personal blog became an eccentric hobby like model railroads or birdwatching.

During these years I migrated everything over domains and platforms. If you’re at the right place, this particular blog you’re reading was started April 21st, 2001. Even though I took stuff offline as I went along, deleting what I found embarrassing or no longer interesting from my online sites (always keeping offline copies, though), between the Wayback Machine and Google’s caches, I never trully know what is still accessible and what isn’t.

You can see where I’m getting at. I’ve consciously and willingly put a lot of stuff online on the web, as my professional path took me from amateur to pro and back to amateur, and then possibly to eccentric hobbyist. I formed an habit of not considering my preferences and opinions as private, so I possibly drew the privacy line further back than most people my age. Although I am careful not to give my exact whereabouts to prying eyes via Instagram or other networks, always posting stuff well after the fact, nearly all of my posts on Facebook are public and automated — from Instagram, from Twitter, itself a public repository of my public Pocket favourites. In fact, most things I ever posted on Facebook exists in some way in this website, and vice-versa. My threat model has been parochial: I might have felt a small amount of concern about a prospective client, employer, or date ending up reading something they find disagreeable, but… open book and all that. I’ve always took ‘online’ to mean 'public’.

So, Facebook. I won’t say that Cambridge Analytica business is okay. But an unexpected breach of trust? No: fully expected. Or further still: what trust? Did you expect that when you give information to a private entity they wouldn’t use that information as they privately see fit? Do you imagine your ISP, which you actually pay for, to behave any differently from the postal service of a totalitatian state, peering inside every envelope and package? Or for that matter, your paid VPN provider, which you use for 'security’? 

Let’s not forget the net is war technology, and computers were invented because spies — indeed, codebreakers — needed them. Digital technology is spyware at its core, and for all of Facebook’s abuses, I don’t think the problem lies with a few companies, or even with a Silicon Valley ‘culture’. The problem is a deeper, way deeper, capital-P Political problem, of how we as a society look at information technology. Facebook harvesting an admittedly alarming amount of information about our preferences and opinions, and then selling it to the highest bidder, is not that different from YouTube being the house the unpaid labor of a large mass of video producers built, or AirBnB being a machine for subsidizing tourists, landlords, and housing developers with money stolen from the monthly paychecks of tenants and lenders.

Now, as with regarding Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal, I’ll happily argue for executive jailtime and some kind of 'death penalty’ for unethical companies (say, forced nationalization or redistribution of institutional shareholders’ stock to the workers, which would be something nasty and also leftist enough to get shareholders’ skin deep in the game). But again, that’s Political. As much as I watch Facebook’s stock plummet with some glee, and as much as I imagine that, as I mass delete old posts and likes, sirens are going off in Zuck’s volcano lair control room, henchmen screaming “our assets! are being deleted!”, and the Falcon Heavy fails its launch to Mars and explodes the whole island… will I delete my account?

No.

Will I keep using it as before? Well, almost. Yes, I did delete a lot of stuff I had on Facebook and other platforms belonging to private corporations. Digital spring cleaning: deleting content, unliking and unsubscribing pages no longer active or interesting, unfollowing and unfriending followees and ‘friends’ no longer known or trusted. I deleted chats from long ago, chats no longer going, chats with ghosters, thus also sparing myself the cognitive grief of illusory availability and trust. And yet, Facebook has become, alongside Google, an essential communication utility. Facebook group chats have became, at least for me — a single, middle-aging person who works from home —, an essential tool for socializing with a loosely-knit group of friends. #deletefacebook is great if your socializing doesn’t require it. But unless I can convert a large group of very different friends and acquaintances into cypherpunks using Mastodon and Signal (and surely I don’t want to be that kind of guy), I just can’t.

Multiply this by the troubles of 2 billion persons: Facebook is an utility, like your electrical company, like your water and sewage company, like your ISP or the postal service — the German Democratic Republic’s, in this case. Furthermore, Facebook is a monopolistic utility (just think that Instagram and Whatsapp are theirs) to be dealt with in the realm of Politics. Dealing with it perhaps requires a whole other model of society, as I don’t think Facebook should be a private company, but I don’t think it should belong to a government either.

I don’t really have any ideas about what to do with Facebook or Google. Political intervention seems a fever dream, and the same for 2 billion people simultaneously changing habits. It may be that something actually better comes along and disrupts the disruptors — who knows if the blockchain is actually good for more than growing tomatos? Or we may find ourselves in a VR Facegoolazon hellhole, reminiscing about the present day as we reminisce of the 1990s.

A pledge of autonomy

I recently read Parimal Satyal's essay Against an Increasingly User-Hostile Web, and realized how I could be doing much better. Indeed, Parimal's advice towards the end of the article is very important to web users and creators alike, and I here am I taking some of that advice.

For all of my sporadic talk about the Indie Web and nostalgia for the simpler days of Geocities, Web rings, and then Blogger and blogrolls, the fact remains that, like the proverbial frog, it's true one finds himself more and more dependent on the whims and formats imposed by a handful of media brands themselves under the control of no more than a couple of companies — Google and Facebook. It's a fact I've maintained this very website since I started it (at some other domain) in 1998, and always tried to make sure anything I posted in a, for the lack of better word, regulated platform was always backed up here or some other place under my control. (Besides, having nearly all of the posts, photos, etc. I share on the internet made public is a good way of not kidding myself about those platforms 'privacy' settings. Private stuff just doesn't go online.)

I want to offer a number of apologies to my readers here. I apologize for having had Facebook and Twitter share buttons, a naïve way of encouraging you to share whatever you found interesting here and to hopefully get more visitors to this website — in simpler words, for my egotism. And I also apologize for having run Google Analytics out of curiosity. I apologize for foolishly letting these companies spy on your visits to this website.

2nd International Conference on Micronations, photographed by Leo de Lafontaine

Therefore, I henceforth pledge to try to create and maintain my websites in autonomy, and to avoid having them making connections to companies that will use them as part of an advertising-surveillance apparatus.

So far, I've got my websites rid of connections to Facebook, Twitter and Google Analytics. Links to original sources remain, but should be harmless unless you enable prefetching (which I believe you shouldn't). I still maintain the use of Google Web Fonts because, well, I am incredibly anal about typography, but that's next on the list to go. I must also disclose that I have got a few domains managed through CloudFlare, including this site's HTTPS, which is something I have mixed feelings about, but still can live with. The share buttons at the end of each of article have also been replaced with a single permalink er... link, so you are, of course, free to copy and paste the URL and share my posts wherever you please. I sure share them on Facebook! :-)

As a web user, I also followed a few recommendations that did't require more than five minutes and don't disrupt my habits the least: I added HTTPS Everywhere to my browser extensions, alongside uBlock Origin, which I've used for quite a while. I also set my search engine to Start Page, which is basically a track-blocking condom around Google Search (which, I have to concede, I am quite used to). I am already a big Pinboard user and can't recommend it enough (besides, Maciej Ceglowski really seems to be one of the Web's Good Guys).

Best of the Web Week

I had totally overlooked this, but for a full week in April Kottke.org guestblogger Tim Carmody made a serious of posts that, seriously, should be in a museum; or at least on everyone’s bookmark bar: An unrelentless positive account of Web goodness, against all the darkness the net seems to have unleashed in later years. Carmody’s posts include a fitting praise of Flickr, the best tweets (including, of course, @horse_ebooks which ‘wrote’ the bestest), a very useful list of very useful tools and websites, another list of funny stories, and another of hidden gems, and yet another of life-changing websites, and, to top it all off, a great tribute to Prince.

Carmody also proposes the notion of Digital Humanism as an expression of digital archivism, which I think might be a bit too narrow, despite the unarguably Great Works listed. I’d say that much in the same way the Renaissance humanists fought (often unconsciously) against theocentrism, digital humanists too bring the human to the fore while fighting that god of our age, Finance/corporatism. Archivism is a sure expression, but I’d say the Indie Web is the Greatest Work of digital humanists.

The Secret Lives of Tumblr Teens

Even though I’m a long-standing Tumblr user, starting in the paleolithic age of early 2007, back when Tumblr was a small beta website in the age of Friendster and Hi5, I have to admit I’ve always had minimal interaction with Tumblr as a community, and such interactions have over the years mostly consisted of sparse likes and discarding private messages asking me to give up my beloved found username in exchange for a number of followers (how does such an exchange even work?) or more faves or whatever I can well do without.

Therefore it was fascinating to read this long article on Tumblr teens, which are mostly of the alienated variety that thrives under perceived anonymity, therefore the kind of kids that would have been building Geocities websites were they born 15 years earlier; but also, in a turbocapitalist twist, the kind of kids that fall for the Get Rich Quick schemes standing for contemporary Web Marketing (eg. affiliated links, clickbaiting, clickfraud, & etc.) and thus find themselves locked out of their own websites for infringing Tumblr or Google Advertising’s less-than-transparent ‘rules’ (or perhaps arbitrary and somewhat fraudulent on their own, even). It must be noted I find such measures equally deserved and nauseating: on one hand some kind of retribution from On High being served upon the brats that tricked other kids into buying sketchy diet pills in exchange of too much money and a temporary taste of Los Angeles’ glamour; on the other hand the crime of deleting a kid’s website, perhaps the very activity that brings meaning to the kid’s life, perhaps a meaning most of us won’t ever find in an activity, therefore a small (in the unfortunate context of world affairs) but certain violation of human rights.

All over these nine years Tumblr has mostly been for me a very convenient way to blog on my own website, as I’ve been using its API in order to sync posts to my own web host almost from day one. It’d be sad if found were to be deleted someday (or Tumblr ended API support), but my stuff would always still exist somewhere, both online and in regular offline backups. And herein lies the lesson: online, Big is Bad. Big users with big followers will suddently cash in and serve diet pill advertisements (or maybe ads loaded will malware). Big services with big users will suddently pull the plug, either because they don’t feel like sending that paycheck, or because a picture post once contained a nipple, or because that big service turns out to be insolvent and abruptly disappears one day. Big goes against the grain of what makes the web great.

Stay small.

Tilde.club

As the creator, Paul Ford (also), defines it, "a cool place where people can just hang out and make web pages on the web".

The Tilde Club no longer accepts new members, which is unfortunate but understandable since this is not supposed to be Ello but rather something like an doomed-utopian Geocities, webrings included. And I do think there’s something wonderful about randomly clicking through the webpages Tilde members have been “making on the web” (eg. this page that pulls you beyond the 1990s cyberspace event horizon). As Ford tweeted, it’s refreshing to see people doing things rather than just saying things — which, coming to think of it, would be the core difference between the Early Web and the Centralized & Appified Web of nowadays. 

A triumph for the Indie Web!

Google will shutdown Google Reader on July 1st.

This is terrible.

Not because I’m a heavy gReader user. I’ll have to move my subscriptions over to some alternative feed reader (like the appropriately-named The Old Reader) and import all my favourites to my Pinboard account, but that’s easy and not much of a problem.

This is terrible because this is the final nail in RSS’s coffin. Without a popular and efficient feed reader, those small personal blogs that made the Web great will struggle even more to find audiences. Blogging is dying, replaced by the efficient ‘sharing’ of Facebook and Twitter. RSS would have been the federated open alternative, but syndication is contrary to walled gardens.

It seems we came full circle. With the demise of Google Reader, it seems having a small online presence on the Web outside of Facebook or Tumblr or Twitter is again the province of hackers and nerds…

Singularities

This is my thousandth post on Tumblr, entry number 1945 on my stream. If I printed all these posts and entries, averaging one post per page, I’d have a pretty thick book by now — almost two thousand pages of randomness. However, considering I’ve been adding stuff to my blog since April 2001 that doesn’t seem all that impressive. In fact, considering that I have had my Tumblr since March 2007 the fact it took me five years to reach post one thousand actually characterizes me as a Tumblr dilettante: perhaps I should really give away my nice Tumblr username to one of those teens who routinely ask me for it (not that I would — if I bother replying my first answer is still ‘no’ and my second is still ‘fuck off’).

The fact that I’ve been a weblogger / tumblrer / twitterer / data entry hobbyist in modest quantities for such long periods of time without ever closing or restarting my web records from scratch allows me to appreciate change. Not surprisingly, my posting style changed dramatically through the influence of the tools I used to write and post. Whereas before I had a HTML text box as my interface, using Tumblr (with its predefined types of content) and its API as a content management system for my own weblog brought a profound shift (compare January 2007 to March 2007). A new style took years to crystalize, and is still ever crystalizing. The tools’ influence lies in the surface however — the kind of posts I make —, but obviously time is the factor in the greatest shifts in what goes in each post. A graph for my changing attitude could be traced, from naïve idiot to whatever I am now, which I hope is better.


A Web.

Back in 1999 you could learn almost everything you, the young web developer, needed from a book such as Webmaster in a Nutshell. Those simple times (the 1990s — simple!) are now long over. Much as days’ worth of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, now it seems as if college degrees’ worth of web technologies are invented every week. I feel as if the Technological Singularity arrived, and I (we?) lost the grip on History. However, instead of a single machine intelligence, some Cray-like box, simulating and running away with the Future, I feel there’s this distributed Singularity, part made of machine and part made of highly-focused individuals who are able to surf the technological zeitgeist for a brief amount of time until they wipeout — highly-skilled, motivated, caffeinated workers who are like the human cogs in Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: people programming machines that program people that program machines, the Singularity created of this runaway ressonance that also concentrates wealth and employement.

Perhaps the Web needs less builders, just enough architects and more planners.


The above illustration was made with this small Processing sketch.

For comparison, here’s a screenshot of my real Geocities-hosted homepage, made in late 1997. The downside to years of data-loss paranoia and redundant backups is that I keep all kinds of embarrassing stuff, readily available for me to share with you readers whenever I find myself on a Cory Archangel-esque, aesthetic-appreciation-of-crap mindset. (Perhaps the Internet equivalent of my not-totally-ironic conversations on the merits and demerits of individual episodes in the Rocky series.)

Anyway, as it has been years since I last looked at this, I have a few questions to my 18-year old self: What the hell is that typeface in the title and background? And how could you even include that handheld-scanned ID photo? And is that darker background color purple or blue? (At 32, I can’t tell them apart.)

For the record I’m pleased no Comic Sans was found anywhere on that page. And surprisingly enough, no hitcounters!

The Geocities-izer will theme any website like a Geocities-hosted crapfest, which is why I found it appropriate to present the above image of my GC-ized website as a 16-color GIF. I think the transformation lacks a centered text layout, as well as a few animated buttons and Java hitcounters. But the garish colors: perfect.