Category Archives: Computers/Internet

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.

My Rule of Thumb for Preventing Notification Overload

To keep myself from getting distracted by too many notifications on my phone, I ask myself the following questions whenever a new category pops up:

  • Will I need to act on it? (Likes/favorites are nice, but I don’t need to respond.)
  • How time-sensitive is it? (“Your ride is here” is more time sensitive than planning a get together for next weekend.)
  • How important? (“Server down” is more important than a project update. A conversation is more important than a newsletter.)
  • Is it actually for me, or is it an ad for the app service?

Then I turn off what I don’t need, turn off sound on the less urgent ones, and customize sounds for the most important ones.

So I hear when a text or instant message comes in, but not email or social media. When I pick up my phone I see emails, mentions & replies, but not favorites or boosts, etc.

It helps me a lot with alert overload. YMMV.

Verizon is Already Trying to Sell Tumblr

Wow, that shoe dropped sooner than I expected. Verizon is already shopping around to sell Tumblr. I figured it would be toward the end of the year, not the middle.

After Tumblr’s ham-handed ban on adult content last fall purged a bunch of accounts, sparked a lack of confidence, and triggered an wave of users leaving in digust, it became clear that Verizon had no idea what to do with Tumblr (not that Yahoo! had much more). If they hadn’t already started the death spiral, they’d at least knocked it out of orbit.

I’ve never been super-active on Tumblr, but I interact with a few people, and I used to occasionally post things there that weren’t reposts from my blog, or Flickr, or Instagram, or wherever. So, just in case, I backed up a full archive, imported some of the original posts, and pared down all the old duplicates and outdated signal boosts so that when Verizon inevitably gave up monetizing the site, it would be easier to find the pieces I wanted to keep.

Honestly, I’d rather Verizon sell it than shutter it and sell off the data (you think Verizon wouldn’t?). But it depends on who buys it. If anyone wants it.

Here’s hoping Tumblr finds a suitable buyer who understands what they’re getting and is willing to invest in the community, not someone who just wants to squeeze out the last few drops of cash before sending it to join GeoCities in the great Internet Archive in the Sky.