Category Archives: Tech

Online Permanence: Host Your Own or Use a Service?

Yahoo Groups is shutting down, taking years’ worth of users’ writing and discussions with it. It’s the latest reminder that if you don’t host it yourself, your stuff is at the mercy of someone else’s business decisions. Or whims.

And yet…

My old blog posts are full of dead links to sites where people were hosting their own stuff, but it’s gone now. I’m sure some was taken down deliberately, but I’m sure there’s also a lot that was lost because they couldn’t maintain it.

Self-hosting isn’t just a matter of knowledge. It’s a matter of time. It’s a matter of being able to update things that need to be changed (like TLS certs or software). And there are ongoing costs: Domain name registration. Hosting service, if you’re using a hosting provider. Bandwidth if you’re using your own server.

And if for some reason you can’t keep those ongoing costs going, guess what? Your stuff goes offline. But you’re still on Facebook!

There’s a character in Les Misérables, Pere Mabeuf, who gets left out of most adaptations. He’s an old man who, for a time, eked out a living from a book he’d published years earlier. Eventually he’s so strapped for cash that he has to sell the printing plates, so even if someone wanted to buy a print run, he couldn’t do it. Essentially, he was self-hosting his work until he couldn’t afford to anymore.

Imagine one of these scenarios:

  • You’ve got some nice photo gallery or CMS, and you can afford the storage and bandwidth…and then financial trouble hits.
  • You have a site for a hobby that you don’t keep up with anymore. You don’t mind leaving it online, but it gets to be a pain to keep going, and starts feeling like it’s not worth the effort.
  • You die, and your family has to decide how long to leave the FreedomBox plugged into the network.

On one hand, a social network site might close down like Google+, purge accounts like Tumblr, change pricing drastically like Flickr, lock down access like Instagram or Photobucket, change their algorithms for what people see like Facebook… On the other, you can keep using a service like Mastodon or Twitter or Facebook even if you lose the resources to maintain your software, your VPS, your internet connection that allows incoming HTTPS, etc.

The trade-off is not just convenience vs. control. It’s host your own stuff to protect it from the whims and misfortune of (and exploitation by) third-party services. Or use the cheap/free third-party services to protect your stuff from your own misfortune.

I still think, on balance, it’s better to host your own online presence if you can, at least the parts you want to be long-term. Have your conversations where other people are, and put your art or work somewhere you control. But as a backup, I think every CMS should incorporate an “Export to static site” feature*. That way, you (or your next of kin) can quickly produce a fully-functional static site to toss on cheap shared hosting as an archive.

*You can use wget -m in a pinch, but you probably also want to remove things like comment forms in the process.

Instagram Getting Even More Hostile to the Web

Instagram is now requiring you to sign in to view public profiles. You can still look at (for example), my Instagram profile, but once you scroll down a few pages, it pops up a login form and you’re stuck.

A spokesperson said, “This is to help people see photos on Instagram and then understand how to get the best Instagram experience by being part of the community, connecting and interacting with the people and things they love”

Oh, please.

This isn’t to help people.

This is to help Instagram.

This is to force people to sign up for Instagram just so they can see users’ photos that they have posted publicly.

Admittedly, Instagram has always kept the web at a bit of a distance. When it launched, they only had an app. Later you could follow a link to a photo on the web, but it was a dead end. Eventually you could actually browse your timeline, search, and look at people’s photo collections on the web.

And now they’re moving to close themselves off again.

I wrote a few months ago about how I’ve been weighing alternatives. As Facebook exerts more and more control, it becomes less appealing to use. And that’s not even getting into the train wreck of “influencer” culture.

Since then I’ve mostly stopped visiting Instagram, either to view photos or to post them. When I do, it’s frustrating. I’ve been posting more at Pixelfed (lead dev @dansup shared a link to the article at the top) and Mastodon, or just bypassing social networks entirely and going straight to Flickr. You can look at my complete archives on all of those sites, incidentally.

I’m not at the point of deleting my account yet, but I’m thinking it might be time to pull back more actively. Pare down the list of people I’m following, at least, in hopes that it will be a little more welcoming and useful when I do visit. Though I did that with Tumblr and haven’t been back much anyway.

And maybe I should start clearing out my archive. If people are only going to see a dozen or two of my photos, I should at least make sure they’re good ones, right?

Free Software and Failed Ideals

Once upon a time, the idea that “only the code mattered” was sold as a way to be inclusive. No one would be shut out if their code was good.

But building software is more than code. It’s design. Planning. Discussion. It’s figuring out use cases, misuse cases, and failure modes. It’s interacting with people.

And if you allow some people to treat others like crap because only the code matters, you end up causing harm and driving people away.

Which obviously isn’t inclusive.

If you mistreat people or violate ethics to make your “technically perfect” software, those people have still been mistreated. Those ethics have still been violated. People have created marvels of engineering and fantastic art by abusing or exploiting others. People have done the same while abusing or exploiting people on the side. And people have created wonders while trying very hard not to abuse or exploit others.

The accomplishment doesn’t erase the exploitation or abuse. And if you can accomplish something incredible without mistreating others, it obviously doesn’t justify the mistreatment.

But the culture of “only the code matters” turned into a culture of tolerating assholes because they were good at their job. The ends justify the means. From trying to enhance freedom, to embracing Machiavelli.

It certainly didn’t help that 90s hacker culture had a significant BOFH element to it, with its built-in disdain for those with less technical knowledge. The Free part tended to prioritize programmers and sysadmins over “lusers.” It was Animal Farm with computer users. Sure, we tried to throw off the corporate overlords who were dictating how people could use their computers. But some computer users were more equal than others.

So a lot of people who could have become part of the Free Software community found a hostile environment and left in disgust. Or fear. And even if you don’t care about the harm done to them, consider their potential contributions. Free Software has always had a problem with coverage: Programmers work on problems that they find interesting or useful. The boring parts, the use cases that they personally don’t use, tend to fall by the wayside.

Yeah, your code is good…but the spec’s incomplete because you pushed away the people who would have pointed out a common use case, or just how easy it would be for a feature to be misused. You didn’t think they were worth listening to because they weren’t rockstar coders. But they also had information you didn’t.

Not that throwing off the corporate shackles has worked out all that well. Every platform now has its own walled garden. Microsoft is less dominant than it once was, but we have new mega-corps who’ve managed to leverage an internet built on Free/libre and open-source software into their own positions of dominance. And trying to maintain services for people who’ve come to expect free/gratis has brought us to the point where adware is the norm, and surveillance is everywhere…to better target those ads. And the majority of computing devices out there are locked down, preventing ordinary users from tinkering with them and developing that technical competence that might bring them into the fold…

If we’ll even let them join.

Thoughts on Tumblr’s Escape from Verizon to WordPress

Wow. Automattic bought Tumblr from Verizon for less than $3 million. Considering Yahoo bought it for $1.1 billion back in the day…

Yahoo really squandered it. And Verizon, I think, just wanted to get rid of it.

At least it’s going to an actual social media company not to another conglomerate. And one that’s more responsible than the big two! I was half expecting Verizon to try to monetize it into the ground and close it once everyone but the die-hard users had given up on it. But they found a blogging company for Tumblr, just like they found a photography company for Flickr. That’s encouraging. And Matt Mullenweg (who turns out to be a long-term Tumblr user as well!) understands that Tumblr and WordPress are different types of experiences, so they’re unlikely to try to merge them into a single service.

Though apparently they’d like to move the back-end to WordPress, while keeping the front-end experience of the Tumblr site and apps. I can sort of see the appeal: they’ve got over a decade of experience making WordPress scale, and they have to migrate Tumblr off of Verizon’s servers anyway. If they can run Tumblr on top of the WordPress infrastructure, it’s just a matter of adding capacity.

But it kind of runs the risk of creating a frankenblog. I guess it depends on how seamless the conversion is. If Tumblr looks and works the same from the user-facing perspective, it shouldn’t drive anyone away. If they try to turn it into a subset of WordPress.com…I’d expect another exodus.

Speaking of which, I doubt they’ll get anyone returning who left directly due to the adult content ban. Especially since they don’t plan on reversing it. But they might get back at least some people who left because they saw the ban as a sign of a dying platform. And they might be able to bring in new users, who knows? Having corporate overlords who actually understand and appreciate the space could be a big help.

Though frankly, even if all they do is keep it running in maintenance mode for those who are still there, that’s still better it would have been staying at Verizon!

As for me, I haven’t been active on Tumblr for a while. I took a final archive after cleaning up a bunch of old stuff, imported some posts here, and I’ve checked in to read maybe…once a month? I’m still in wait-and-see mode. We’ll see how the data migration goes, what they end up doing with the terms of service, whether they change the way ads and promoted posts appear.

But I am more confident that Tumblr will still exist next year than I was a few months ago!

Dear Twitter: Please Ditch the Clutter

Have you ever been to a Las Vegas casino? The main floors tend toward sprawling layouts, with lots of shiny distractions to entice you to stay and spend more time and money on the slots instead of helping you get where you’re going. That’s what Twitter’s new layout feels like.

When Twitter started out, the home timeline would just show me posts from people I followed. Now it also shows me

  • Posts they liked, but didn’t like enough to retweet.
  • Posts from people they follow.
  • A “Who to follow” box that I can’t seem to get rid of, which is also on the sidebar.
  • Advertisements – I mean “Promoted” tweets.

I get that ads are the business model they’ve chosen, but what’s with the rest of it? It’s not like I’m going to get bored if I don’t have more suggestions shoveled in front of me.

And I am going to get frustrated if I can’t find the stuff I’m actually looking for. Let’s think back for a moment to the early 2000s, back when there were a lot of different competing search engines. Google won not just because it was fast and accurate, but because it had a simple, fast-loading, no-nonsense home page while everyone else was trying to cram everything imaginable onto a “web portal.”

With that in mind, let’s look at what happens when we look at a specific post. The logical thing to do would be to show you tweet itself and the context around it: If it’s part of a thread, show the rest of the thread. If it’s part of a discussion, show the discussion. And that’s how Twitter used to work. But now you have to click through another link to see that context, and instead it wants to show you “Tweets from people like so-and-so.” How is that a useful default?

It’s like going to a page in a book and finding not the previous and next pages, but ads for other books.

I actually do like the two-click retweet button functionality, where you click and get a menu asking if you want to retweet by itself or quote-tweet it. Normally a two-item pop-up menu is a terrible idea for usability, but this is a case where introducing some friction in the process might give people a chance to consider what they’re doing.

But the rest of it feels like they’re desperately throwing everything they can think of at me in hopes of broadening my engagement with the site. And that reaches a point of diminishing returns. When you can’t use the site for what you’re trying to do, it ends up making you much less interested in coming back.

I wish I could use TweetDeck on my phone.

It would be simpler.