Category Archives: Tech

Long-Form Twitter: WHY OH WHY?

Twitter is suited for short statements and back-and-forth conversation.

It’s terrible for anything long-form.

Long Twitter threads* and images filled with text remind me of the old tech support days when users would paste screen shots of error messages into Microsoft Word documents and email me the document. It was a terrible tool for the job, but it was the one they knew.

Once you get past two or three tweets (doesn’t matter whether they’re 140 characters or 280, it’s the structure that matters), your ideas will hang together better and be better understood if you write an actual article somewhere. Sadly, Twitter has trained people to stay in Twitter instead of going outside to read the %#$ article**, because you won’t be able to get back to where you were in your timeline, and besides, that’s just too long to read right now.

And that would require you to have, like a blog or something, and what sort of weirdo has one of those? 🙄

So people use what they know, and we get screenshots of long paragraphs that are awful for accessibility. And we get 40-tweet threads that people only see fragments of and take bits out of context. And they’ll reply to tweet #5 complaining about something that’s addressed in tweet #12, but they didn’t see it, because that was hidden behind the “read more” link, and how long does this thread go, anyway? (Scroll bars solved this problem decades ago.) And we get links to articles that people don’t read, but they reply to them anyway — or rather they reply to what they assume was in them.

Which I suppose is what we had in the old days, I mean “nobody reads the articles” was a joke on Slashdot 20 years ago. But it’s still frustrating.

Update: I realized I don’t see this so much on Mastodon. I wonder if that’s one of the ways the culture is different, or if I just happen to not be following anyone who writes/boosts long threads on a regular basis, or if 500-character posts give people enough room to breathe that they don’t feel like they’re already writing a long chain, so why worry about keeping the number of posts down, what’s the difference between 10 tweets and 15?

*To clarify, I’m talking about long threads that are effectively one piece of writing, not a series of “oh, and another thing” follow-ups, live-tweeting as things come up, actual conversations, etc.

**This part is true of Facebook as well.

GPS Navigation Options We Need

GPS navigation options we need:

  • I know how to get to the freeway from home.
  • I know how to get home from the freeway.
  • Don’t send me down someone else’s narrow residential streets just to save two minutes.

If I’m trying to get somewhere other than home after work, I’ll use GPS to get an idea of the time remaining and the fastest route. Since I’d rather avoid the freeway during rush hour, it keeps trying to send me on these zigzag paths through residential neighborhoods to avoid backed-up arteries or just avoid busy intersections. I used to follow those routes, but after a while I started noticing other cars ahead of me that were clearly doing the same thing. It’s not just one car being added to that lumpy narrow road with lots of driveways, stop signs, kids on bikes and people taking out the trash. It’s a lot of cars. And of course we’re following the same apps drawing from the same data, so we’re all taking the same side streets, not spread out among all of them.

If there’s a big difference, that’s one thing, but for two or three minutes? What’s the point?

Of course the avigation app seems so testy when I decline to be part of the problem, and it has to keep recalculating…

Treat Passwords Like Driving: Separate Your Hazards.

The last time I set up a new computer, I was surprised to find that installing a password manager has become a critical part of getting the system ready to use.

It used to be that you could pick a few unique passwords for critical services like your primary email and banking sites, and reuse some passwords for less important sites, and maybe remember them all. But when so much of what we do happens online in so many places with so many different levels of security (and visibility), the attack surface is huge. Add in how many criminals and others are trying to break into those sites, and it’s no longer safe to reuse passwords.

Why?

If one site gets hacked, and you use the same password at another site, someone will try it just to see if it works.

The only way to protect against that is to use a different password on every site. And unless your online activity is very narrow, chances are you can only memorize a few of them. You can stretch it out with mnemonics like XKCD’s passphrase scheme, but eventually you’re going to have to record them somewhere. Putting it in a text file or spreadsheet is bad, because anything that gets onto your system can read it, but password managers are designed to encrypt them.

You still have to protect the master password on that file, but now you don’t need to worry that when someone finds your old MySpace password, they’ll start buying stuff on one of your shopping accounts, or hijack your Twitter as part of a harassment campaign, or use your email account to send malware to all your friends.

LastPass is a popular one. It’s cloud-based, which makes it convenient to use on multiple devices, but you do have to trust them. If you’d rather not trust your passwords to someone else’s computer, you can go with an offline manager like KeePass, which stores everything locally on your system in an encrypted file.

Goodbye, Xmarks! (again)

I got an email from LastPass that they’re dropping Xmarks on May 1. Xmarks is a cross-browser bookmark sync service that I’ve used for a long time to keep Chrome, Firefox, IE, and Safari on multiple computers using the same set of bookmarks.

Once it’s gone I can still sync Firefox across devices, Chrome across devices, etc., but that doesn’t help with syncing Firefox, Chrome, etc. with each other.

That said, it’s been a bit flaky for a while:

  • Anytime I came back to a system without using it for a while, it would have trouble syncing and have to re-download everything.
  • Sometimes it gets confused by the different folder layouts.
  • Since Firefox dropped their old extension API, the new extension hasn’t worked well with my scheme that drops all cookies when I close the browser except those on sites I want to stay logged into.

Maybe someone will pick them up again, like when they planned to close down in 2010 but LastPass bought them and took it freemium. On the other hand, I’m not sure I would trust someone who wanted to buy them now. Maybe I should pull my data early.

Whatever the case: If you sync bookmarks across different browsers, what do you use? Would you recommend it?

Alternate Sharing Buttons (Now with Less Tracking!)

I’ve been trying out some alternate sharing buttons that don’t talk to Facebook, Twitter, etc. — or to a third-party button provider like ShareThis — until you actually click on the button. Facebook can track you across the internet when sites include the standard “Like” button hosted on their services. Same with Google and the +1. Even WordPress’ Jetpack buttons will call out to Facebook and Pinterest to display the share count. I want to reduce my contribution to ubiquitous tracking.*

Sharingbuttons.io is totally self-contained and doesn’t even use any JavaScript. You use their site to generate a set of buttons for a particular page, then copy the HTML and CSS to your site. Downsides: The HTML includes embedded SVG that has to be repeated on every page, and your page title and URL are repeated in each button within the page. I used this set on the old Alternative Browser Alliance site, replacing ShareThis. It’s only around five pages, so it was faster to repeat the generator five times than write a tool to template it.

Share42 uses locally-hosted JavaScript to avoid repeating the title and URL on every button, and a single image sprite generated from the set of buttons that you choose. You copy both files to your own site, so that it doesn’t contact a third-party server just by appearing. This also made it simpler to add to WordPress, because I only need to add an easily-templateable stub and enqueue a local script. So I put it on Speed Force, replacing Jetpack’s sharing module. I may put it on the old Flash reference site (which used to have ShareThis on it) if it seems like it’s worth it.

These are both topic-based projects. For my personal blog here, I’ve decided to just drop the share buttons entirely. I’m not sure how useful they are these days, anyway, especially on mobile, where sharing to an app is built into the system.

*Yes, I said reduce, not eliminate. I’m still using WordPress stats, for instance, though I’m phasing out Google Analytics on my personal sites, and of course anywhere you actually embed content from another site, the remote site can potentially track your visitors.