Some loose thoughts on free speech, platforms, Big Tech, and okay a little sedition

One problem Social Media Companies created for themselves is the use of proprietary algorithms to surface content and suggest accounts to follow rather than allow people to find others organically.

A new user signs up for Twitter and they’re presented with a list of recommend accounts to follow. If Twitter doesn’t do this, then that person may not have a good experience trying to figure out how Twitter works. If there’s no engagement, there’s no advertising. If there’s no advertising, there’s no Twitter.

This is how the President of the United States came to have 88.7 million followers on Twitter. This is how it happens for most accounts with an outsized number of followers.

People with outsized followings start to believe they deserve them. They have outsized reactions to any change in follower count or any change in their ability to publicize their message.

Almost everyone has been force fed and force fed into something that nobody actually understands.

When a sitting President—one who can reach over 88 million people on a single medium within seconds of a fleeting thought, no matter how acerbic or hateful or just plain false—starts using that platform to incite violence, what do you do? Wait weeks or months for the law to run its course or take action and kick them off?

Two opinions of mine thus far:

  • No single person should be able to share something so quickly with that many people.
  • Big Tech—here defined as Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon—should not be the arbiter of free speech. Unfortunately, for now, they are.

In Social Media’s current form, everything is setup for failure.

Big Tech doesn’t moderate until too late. They don’t want to moderate in the first place! So they wait and wait and wait while the problem gets larger and larger. At some point public opinion forces their hand, Big Tech takes action, frothing and celebrating commence.

Instead. A framework should exist to help Big Tech understand how to handle specific situations.

In the United States, the Constitution should provide this framework—free speech is good, yeah?—but it doesn’t actually address reality. When someone with 88 million followers goes rogue, what do you do? Accounts with outsized followings must be treated differently. No one person should have all that power. Freedom of speech is not freedom of amplification.

I really don’t know how this works in practice, or what a best case solution is. Maybe their account is suspended for a predefined amount of time while cases are made through some sort of arbitration process. Maybe the announcement to permanently ban is not made until more than a few people at one company suspect sedition or the incitement of violence.

To be clear: It seems obvious to me Trump was inciting violence; I hope it would seem obvious to others.

And I’m not sure any of those maybes really fix it. People will still have outsized followings and outsized power and there will still be frothing and celebrating whenever a decision is made.

More importantly, Big Tech shouldn’t be organized this way. Twitter, Facebook, and at least the parts of Google that power YouTube should be broken into pieces. Something like:

  • Platform provides the technology for publishing content. This has an API that allows for integration with other 3rd party technologies.
  • Algorithm provides content manipulation and discovery for those consumers who choose.
  • Advertising provides advertising for those consumers or algorithm providers who choose.

In this scenario, the Platform is easier to define as something that can remain relatively exempt from liability. This is a pipe that information flows through.

Algorithm is a separate financial and structural entity. It helps people discover things. Or it curates things like a more traditional media outlet. It is here where some type of liability should be assumed.

Advertising is also a separate entity. We can’t seem to move ourselves away from this funding model, so of course the algorithms will want to inject advertising. It should be as far away from the Platform as possible.

Budding hatemongers may have a harder time finding algorithms to promote their content and may need to settle for the smaller groups they’re able to attract on the bare platform. People in general may need to get used to broadcasting their message to hundreds of thousands of people rather than tens of millions.

Of course the hardest part—I dunno, it might also be a red herring—about all of this is that the President of the United States caused the uproar. However things are structured, stuff is just not going to make sense when you’ve allowed such a horrible person into such an outsized position of power.

“freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness”

– Viktor E. Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning

From the mouths of those in power: silly simple axioms

One thing my brain likes to do is grumble about the misuse of language and/or ideas by people, usually by large organizations or those who are in positions of power.

It’s near the part of my brain that calls teenagers hooligans, but maybe a bit smarter? More annoying? Whatever.

Here’s my first draft of silly simple axioms that I frequently mull over.

1. We’re the most Transparent

The more loudly an organization or person in power claims to be transparent, the more likely they are to be intentionally hiding something.

The truest of transparent organizations just show their work.

2. It’s Orwellian!

The more loudly a person in power claims something is Orwellian, the more likely they have been working to rewrite the truth or oppress a people for their own gain.

We’ve always been at war with Eurasia!

3. Occam’s razor

The more quickly someone invokes Occam’s razor, the more likely they have chosen one of the least simple explanations.

They’ll probably also make sure you know what “Occam’s razor” means too…

4. I’m an Originalist

The more a person claims to be an Originalist—without also having access to time travel, the more likely they are to inject their own personal belief system into the interpretation of a law.

Note to self: try invoking “Orwellian” more, but in the context of Burmese Days or A Clergyman’s DaughterI’m an Orwellian Originalist! 🤔

A year of crosswords

I think it was right before the flight from Seattle to St. Louis took off last year when I decided I would like to try regularly doing the NY Times crossword puzzle. I opened the app on my phone, downloaded a few puzzles before we took off, and didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I completed a ton of minis first, because they’re quick and generally simple. They also come with a leaderboard, which provides for competition, which provides for more fun.

Over the next month or so I poked around a bit and tried to figure my way around. I had a chat with Boone around that time and he gave me some great advice along the lines of “being good at crosswords doesn’t mean you’re smart, it just means you’re good at doing crosswords.” This helped frame things for me in a way that made me just start doing crosswords. Over December and some of January I went back and did every Monday puzzle from 2019 as practice, while also attempting many of the daily puzzles.

The NY Times crossword app provides a fun archive view that shows which puzzles you didn’t start, which you did, which puzzles you finished, and which you finished on the day they were published. The general target, if you’re slightly obsessed, is to maintain a streak of puzzles that you finish on the day they were published.

Here’s what December of 2019 looked like:

A screenshot showing the status of various crosswords published in December 2019.

I was doing pretty good on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wednesdays were still difficult. The rest of the week was still terrifying. I don’t know why I didn’t even start a Thursday. Of course now I don’t know why I do.

Things continued to get better. By March I was attempting most puzzles. I completed my first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday puzzles—some of them even on the same day. And look at that nice 4 day streak to close the month!

Doing the crossword every day became a nice break from the pandemic and a way to zone out with words for a small chunk of time. It was around March and April where it probably became somewhat of an addiction.

April, May, and June were each progressively better, but I’ll skip ahead to July, where things really clicked.

A screenshot of my crossword progress from July 2020.

For the first time, I finished every puzzle of the month on the day it was published! This was part of a 53 day streak and I was starting to feel like I had made it. If I could do the puzzle 53 days in a row, I could do it for thousands!

But at the same time, I was kind of stalling out. I could complete Monday and Tuesday just fine, but would look up a few things on Wednesdays and then lean on Google, Wikipedia, and the NYT Wordplay blog to fill in several leftover blanks on Thursday through Sunday. In general, I would get tired of doing the puzzle if it started reaching that 45 minute mark, but also didn’t want to end any streak I had going.

I had two incompletes in August, one in September, and finished with a perfect October. Then everything fell apart.

A screenshot of my crossword progress in November 2020.

Things got really busy in November. At the same time there was a Wednesday puzzle (I don’t remember which) that kicked my ass in a way that made doing puzzles not fun all of a sudden. I kind of gave up on the harder puzzles for a few weeks and focused on the more relaxing Monday through Wednesdays.

I also decided that if I wanted to pass this plateau, I needed to stop looking things up as often. So I ditched the streaks and got bad at puzzles again.

A screenshot of my crossword progress from December 2020.

This turned out to be a liberating process! I was no longer stressed about finishing a puzzle by the end of the day and no longer stressed about whether they were complete. For a bit of November and for all of December, I started treating each puzzle as ongoing. I’ve gone back to each unfinished puzzle in December several times now, trying to work out those annoying little sections as if they were part of a puzzle rather than an answer to lookup.

The progress has come fairly quickly. Each completed puzzle in December was done without lookups during the initial fill. My general rule has become: fill the entire puzzle and only then try to complete it with a glance at the Wordplay blog and comments.

My favorite take away from the last couple months has been finally being able to treat the puzzle as designed—a puzzle—rather than a series of words I need to memorize. The memorization and repetition helps, which is why doing all the Mondays from 2019 was a good idea and completing all of those Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be good practice next. But now that my brain has entered puzzle mode when approaching a crossword, I’m looking forward to the progress I’ll see next year.

Some stats that I may care to compare at the end of 2021:

  • Total puzzles solved: 426
  • Total puzzles started: 504
  • Solve rate: 84.5%
  • Longest streak: 53

And the current best times/average times by day:

  • Monday: 5:50/12:54
  • Tuesday: 9:24/19:16
  • Wednesday: 11:59/25:31
  • Thursday: 10:35/33:53
  • Friday: 19:30/32:50
  • Saturday: 21:26/37:02
  • Sunday: 40:49/59:08

I’m hoping that by the end of next year my current best times will have become my regular times for those days. Puzzles are fun, but spending less than 20 minutes on them is much more fun than 45.

Hacking on microformats and Gutenberg at IndieWebCamp East Online 2020, day 2

Today is day 2 of IndieWebCamp East Online 2020, a general hack/create day.

I’m hacking on microformats and implementing them in Gutenberg, which means I’m thinking in blocks.

Main personal inspirations for this include:

  • I write a frequent week’s end series that is composed mostly of individual thoughts or notes. I can imagine a future where someone (me) could link or reply directly to a thought rather than the entire thing. Doing this means that each unique thought likely deserves to be its own h-entry.
  • I want to reply to others’ posts via webmentions. Having a block or pattern dedicated to this would be nice.
  • Yesterday’s conversation during the IndieWebCamp session gave me some initial sparks into how this may all work in the future.

As I somewhat mentioned in yesterday’s wrap-up post, a default pattern for WordPress themes has been to do something like this:

<article <?php post_class(); ?>>
    // header info

    <div class="entry-content">
        <?php the_content(); ?>
    </div>
</article>

The post_class() function outputs a handful of classes for the article wrapper. WordPress includes hentry with this by default, a property of the first microformats version that indicates a general container for the content of an entry.

The block editor allows for a much greater level of content flexibility, which makes specific markup like this less likely to be appropriate.

I decided my initial workaround would generally be this:

if ( has_block( 'mfblocks/h-entry' ) ) {
	$has_h_entry = true;
} else {
	$has_h_entry = false;
}
?>

<?php if ( $has_entry ) : ?>
    <div class="entries-content-wrapper">
<?php else: ?>
    <article <?php post_class(); ?>>
<?php endif; ?>

If my h-entry block is detected, I can assume that the post content itself will take care of describing entries with microformats. If not, then markup the page as normal. I’ll of course screw something up with my CSS here, but I’ll get to it at some point. I’m going to use the same logic to determine if an entry header should be output in a single template.

And! In reality, I’ll create a content-has-h-entry.php or something that I’ll use for this markup rather than having a bunch of if clauses making it all annoying to work with. 🙂

Okay, my theme is now wired up to handle what I want to do. Now, for some blocks!

My initial impression as I’m starting to plan this out is that WYSIWG is fun in theory, but it’s also nice to have an awareness of the structure of the document.

Gutenberg has a list view that shows you the outline of the current document. I’d kind of like this in a static place so that I don’t lose track of my nested nested group blocks. I imagine this will become an experience problem that is more and more obvious as we get closer to full site editing.

Having some contextual awareness during editing—which group is this block a part of?—will become more important in the future.

I started off the day with a couple custom blocks that implemented h-entry and e-content as wrapping containers of Gutenberg’s <InnerBlocks> component. I figured I could create block patterns that started with those groups and allowed someone to fill in the blanks.

Two problems:

  • Discoverability. Adding one of my patterns means taking the mouse up to the + icon, clicking, clicking, clicking to find the right category and pattern that I want to use. It would be so great if I could insert a block pattern with the / command like I do with blocks.
  • I could spend so much time trying to setup placeholder content that has the right microformat class names, but there’s nothing built into the pattern to keep that structure strict. An accidental keystroke removes the e-content section and then I have to start over.

So, I switched strategies and started building out a custom h-entry block that dictated the structure. This ends up being more opinionated, but we do have a general spec to follow.

Fast-forward as I started hacking away and stopped keeping notes. 🙂

I now have a repository setup for Microformat Blocks, a plugin for WordPress that provides an h-entry block along with a structure that supports a handful of other microformat properties:

  • p-name
  • p-summary
  • e-content
  • dt-published

I’m really close on having author implemented, hopefully in the next few days. I’ll also find an initial way of handling in-reply-to. And I’ll also get it up on the WordPress plugin repo.

But! The day is over and I’m really hungry.

Gutenberg aside: I want to implement in-reply-to on specific anchor tags rather than create a whole custom input control for it. Another case where it would be nice to register custom inline blocks.

Some leftover notes:

  • Trying to think through the concept of authorship on a page of thoughts/notes. Will a microformat compatible reader infer authorship from a page level h-card or does u-author need to be included with each distinct entry?
  • I wonder if I can implement indie-auth comments in a way where someone can write a comment or annotation on my site and have it published back to their site?
  • How does the current WP webmention implementation handle my new block configuration?
  • Once I have dt-published actually setup for multiple entries on my site, it would be cool to sort h-entries in a thought post by date, ASC or DESC

That’s that. I had an excellent time this weekend geeking out on IndieWeb. Big thanks to Chris Aldrich and David Shanske for organizing!

Notes on IndieWebCamp East Online 2020, day 1

I woke up at 5am—on a Saturday—to participate in my first IndieWebCamp, IndieWebCamp 2020 East, which also happened to be my first online conference ever. As much as it’s fun to joke about getting up so early on a weekend, the schedule worked out really nice. I was able to eat a good breakfast, get the coffee going, and enjoy a full day of tech before the WSU game at 4pm.

Many of the notes here were written during sessions. I’ve now parsed through them a couple times to editorialize, likely mangle direct quotes I don’t remember, and build out some other thoughts I think I had at the time. I’ve allowed myself full editorial rights throughout, so there’s a chance some of it is my brain talking and not even what happened in the session.

Hopefully I haven’t mangled intent!

If you’d like to see the sessions, they’ll be posted on the IndieWebCamp site in the near future.

Intro and lightning keynotes

First up was an intro session and a couple of lightning keynotes. The conference as a whole is BarCamp style, so much of the agenda is created on the fly once everyone has had a chance to discuss what they want to talk about. Everyone who attends is also encouraged to propose a session.

During the intro, Chris mentioned that “getting something out of the camp means putting something into it”, a statement so undeniably accurate that it finally prodded me into proposing a session myself. I’ll expand on that further down.

I’m not sure what this is in reference to, or who said it, but I like the idea:

One objective of IndieWeb is to “bring the bar of connectability down to make it easier for people to own their own place on the web.”

That’s a mission I can get behind!

David Dylan Thomas

The first lightning keynote was from David Dylan Thomas, the author of Design for Cognitive Bias, which I happen to have on my desk right now. After watching the talk, I’m looking even more forward to reading his book.

I captured a handful of thoughts/quotes during his talk and in the discussion afterward:

  • If something gets easier to read, we generally think it’s true.
  • If something rhymes, we generally think it’s true.
  • “plain language, pictogram-based intervention” can help communicate a message (hello, could have been pandemic response!) more than dense material.
  • Our jobs (as designers, developers, etc…) are harder than we think. It’s not just “design cool shit”. The things we do have impact on others.
  • I want this Twitter/Facebook feature without knowing why they built it in the first place. Think: Why should you try to reproduce it? Why not do something entirely different.
  • When we assume that human beings are horrible and that if we were to gather them all in a room there will be fighting, “we discount how much design will inform discussion”. Design spaces for communication / conversation.
  • Medium says to “publish” rather than comment. What would it be like to replace “commenting” with a different word? Converse / conversation? I’ve chatted about this somewhere else recently, but I’m not recalling.
  • Gender equality by design” – talk by Iris Bohnet, also in book form.
  • “Curate a culture of curiosity and challenge your own assumptions”.
  • The (dangerous, flawed) concept of “Internalized capitalism” – if you’re not doing anything right now, then you’re not worth anything.
  • David has a proposed SXSW session titled “Content strategy hacks to save civil discourse“.

And then! David shared a fantastic list of resources on designing with cognitive bias that I’ll have to parse through at another time.

One of David’s slides included a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that stood out as prescient enough to call out in more detail:

“We must rapidly begin—we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Martin Luther King Jr., in his Beyond Vietnam speech, April 4, 1967

Sarah Hibner

The second lightning keynote was from Sarah Hibner, who gave a great Intro to Variable Fonts. The slides from the presentation make for an excellent sheet to share with others and link off to a series of codepens that show variable fonts in actions. I took many fewer notes because I was busy playing with the codepens during the talk! I also like the outer-outer.space domain.

Lightning intros

Everybody says things! We went around the Zoom room doing introductions and showing off personal sites or projects. I forgot to show off my personal site, but that’s okay. 🙂

Creative Blocks in WordPress

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about elements of IndieWeb can be used at the block level rather than the full page view level and figured that this weekend would be a good time to explore that a bit more. I proposed a brainstorming session of sorts.

Overall the session was fun and there was a lot of good discussion. In hindsight, I might have proposed a slightly broader session topic as I still have a lot of catch-up to do in the current support for IndieWeb concepts in WordPress and the existing road blocks.

I will also admit in hindsight that I should not have chosen the first time slot as a first time facilitator. I was much more familiar with the ins and outs of a collaborative video chat discussion at the end of the day and would have probably been better prepared. Next time!

Proposal

The future of WordPress is built on the new block editor, Gutenberg, and an entirely different editing experience than the one we’ve used for years. The next several releases will continue to introduce changes, including some form of full site editing through blocks. What are some creative ways the block editor can be used to create an indie web presence?

My editorialized discussion notes and takeaways

Most of our time was spent talking about microformats and the general lack of support or mis-support in WordPress. Many legacy themes use microformat version 1 properties and it is difficult to find general support for microformats 2.

In general, a question seems to be: How do microformat properties work with how WordPress outputs markup?

This may be an easier problem to solve as time goes on in the block editor. Themes of the future (this is me editorializing) are ideally less likely to include as much markup as they are required to now. Instead, the majority of the markup will be managed by the block editor itself. Microformat friendly blocks can be created to control the output.

One major issue now is the way a theme must assume everything output with a post or page is “content” and must be wrapped in a content section. What do we expect, when it is literally output with the_content(). 😁

The block editor makes it much easier to add a bunch of non-traditionally-recognized-as-content data to a page or a post. One way to approach this is through the grouping of content in the block editor. Unfortunately, the UI for this is a bit clunky, but it is possible to group the majority of your post with a content group and then add additional data in another group below. This would semantically communicate the content to readers.

There is likely an opportunity to create a series of custom blocks that apply the proper microformat properties. It may be that block patterns can be used to post various types of content, something that is handled now through things like the Post Kinds plugin, which uses a custom taxonomy to separate types of content.

I have ideas to work on!

Personal Data Warehouse

Simon Willison gave a demo of Dogsheep, a tool to track and query basically everything about you that has been collected through a number of online services and stored in a SQLite database. Simon was inspired to build Dogsheep by a Stephen Wolfram essay.

  • How to democratize something like Dogsheep to make it more approachable for anyone to fire up their own instance.
  • A previous talk and write-up by Simon. I kind of like this as a nice way to import a bunch of data locally and may give a shot in the near term
  • Gyuri Lajos gave an overview of Fission, which is described as “Next-gen serverless apps with user controlled data & great DX”.
  • Some conversation around IPFS as a data store for something built with Fission and the possibilities around searching the IPFS. IPFS Search was mentioned, and I was surprised to see it in my browser history because this is all way above my head right now.
  • Topic 3 is about the “why” of personal data storage.
  • Simon – it’s a bit of a super power.
  • People don’t necessarily want to store everything they’ve done in their head. Having a log ensures that it’s out of their head and opens up what they can do. Via BBC research – Ian Forrester
  • Tantek Çelik mentioned memories that you may not be ready for. Eric Meyer’s (very excellent) book, Design for Real Life.
  • Angelo Gladding gave an example of a (Maybe Aaron’s?) site when sending a comment with a sad emoji, the profile changes to display an avatar with a more somber face rather than the happy avatar. Very interesting idea.

Domain of One’s Own LMS

  • Chris – we went from slowly putting educational resources online over 20 years to all of a sudden putting everything online.
  • Odd ethical things happening in education space
  • DS106
  • An LMS in the indie web may mean using your own website as a lifelong learner’s LMS

Chris walked through an open course he had been involved with that was able to use things like webmentions to mark things as read and to comment or annotate them. Question posed at the beginning of the class: what do you want to get out of this, what do you want to learn? Maybe use a unique hashtag to create a feed of public stuff from the class.

If Moodle had a webmention endpoint, it may be able to exist as a platform but with some IndieWeb building blocks it becomes a hub where everyone can read the conversation in one spot. It could send webmentions back.

Internal wondering by me: Could a “private” webmention be sent with WordPress? Less discoverable permalink to serve a private post from WordPress. Similar to Public Post Preview.

Start a class by outlining the syllabus or the chapters of the textbook. Professors who decide to write their text books as they go with the students. Publish the result as OER. It’d be fun to see some examples of that.

h0p3: peer to peer sharing – resiliosync, hyper, ipfs – students create objects of knowledge on their own devices and transferring to a teacher. Sits on their own hard drives from the beginning, not on a central server somewhere.

I shared Commons in a Box and my general perspective that faculty are often creatively finding ways around the centrally dictated LMS. Jake’s HYPER Lab is a good example of a show your work textbook in progress, but I forgot to bring it up.

Chris brings up a good point that even with centralized open source systems, there are ways where the university can remove content or otherwise censor it. Tenure works most ways, but maybe not all ways.

Drupal’s OpenScholar came up, which I hadn’t seen before.

Note: My notes are getting sparser as the day went on! 😂

Discovery: A Trek Through the Indieweb

Now that we have social readers, how can we discover new sites and feeds to subscriber to in our readers?

  • Bring back blogrolls? How do we give blogroll concept more life? – David
  • Angelo – one failure with blogrolls was that it wasn’t descriptive enough.
  • Example of formatted OPML: http://petermolnar.net/subscriptions.opml
  • Categorized following lists – A friend maintains a list, I follow that, so I follow everyone that is on the list. When they update the list, I now follow everyone on that list.
  • How do we create public parks on the web to gather?
  • There are probably some opportunities via aggregator or “temporarily centralized” area which accepts contributions from a certain group of people.
  • Micro.blog mini communities via emoji / discovery as an organic community.
  • How do you provide value signals within a discovery system? – Chris

“As soon as you try to make it global rather than local, it becomes an attack mechanism” – Kevin Marks, discussing starting with something that seems like a social network at first, but then introduces trending topics, algorithms to feed content to people. Good indicator that local (smaller) communities are better? Split at certain points?

What is “local”? Curated community. Local to a topic can work, but armies of people can take system over. Brigading rather than spam now. Physical proximity is another option for “local”.

Chris mentioned the term “tummeling”, which I hadn’t heard of: “the art of creating active social spaces“.

Whew. I can tell from my notes that my brain was getting a bit overloaded with fun ideas. I may come back and clean some of this up some more in the future.

Topics to explore

A general list of things that I need to look into, among others:

Things to work on for day 2 / hack day

I’m wrapping this post up as part of my hack/create day work on Sunday morning. These are the things I think I’m going to be working on:

  • Wrapping up a day 1 blog post
  • Thinking about having an actual home page instead of an archive of posts
  • Taking a look at some theme markup, how it aligns (or doesn’t) with block editor markup
  • Start poking at some ideas for block specific web mentions

Of course, now that I’ve finished the first item on the list, my brain is already wandering to other unfinished projects, so we’ll see. Time to dive in!