A notch above a monkey

On Tumblr

Warning: this whole post is not much else than a series of speculations and amateur psychoanalysis. If you can’t find fun in that, well, then start reading something else.

I started using IRC almost two decades ago, soon after I came on Internet. I still do, but it’s now a very different experience mainly because today almost everyone is connected. When everyone is around, you tend to hang out largely with people you already know. Back then I chatted with faceless handles and what I found especially interesting were strong feelings and a sense of familiarity that developed between people who would never meet.

I thought of this recently again while discussing appeal of Tumblr and a neologism that I like — tumblrcrush. It wasn’t explained, but I understand it as having a crush like feeling provoked by a Tumblr blog.

I never heard of something like that related to WordPress although I am sure it happens. But I feel safe in hypothesizing that such visceral affection for a blog and by proxy for its creator happens more often on Tumblr.

Now, this is surprising on surface because so many Tumblr blogs look like nothing more than collages of other people’s stuff whereas old school blogs often have more what is disgustingly called original content and are more verbose — just like this one. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that writing at length about things that interest me would reveal more about who I am then things I collect. After all I am more likely to divulge facts about me through my own writing than through other people’s work.

However when I write, it’s not really me who does it. Writing, even when trying to avoid self-censorship (unsuccessfully), engages a different part of a brain than responding to an image or a passage of text. I write so I can think, but even when not, I don’t just type a Joyce-like stream of consciousness. I form sentences I would prefer to utter, but usually don’t.

The genius of Tumblr (even with some serious interface screw-ups) is that it makes it easy to republish found stuff and really inviting to do it. Those pieces shared and reshared are revealing exactly because they were created by others. They never had time to be distilled and redacted closer to our self-image because they weren’t selected to represent us. Instead they are mostly curated by finder’s emotional response and its those emotions, part of finder’s subconscious (soul), that sometimes touches us.

Because what does it really mean to know someone? We may admire intellect, but we relate to the person. We don’t know a person until we empathize with her and those small shared bits are conduits for feelings, not information.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t write long, elaborate posts on Tumblr. Many indeed do. Just like many use WordPress to post stuff they found in some web back-alley. But it is Tumblr’s whole fun (and) social experience — unlike a serious, CMS-like sterility of WordPress — that nudges you into a different behavior. In creating we are guided by our tools with what they suggest, not what they make possible.

Cookies, localStorage and shared state

I’ve been fiddling with my website again, changing theme switching from somewhat dumb class based system to a more proper one using alternate style sheets. I learned that picking a style sheet in browser applies those changes only to currently open page, so for style sheet selection to persevere it needs a bit of Javascript support from website owner. Personally I find this just stupid.

The easiest way to remember visitor’s preference is to store it in his browser. Cookies used to be popular before they were deemed evil, but they have other limitations as well. Hence popular switch to HTML5 in-browser storage technologies like localStorage.

I think there is one important difference between cookies and tools like localStorage that is often overlooked and it’s not the size of data that can be stored. Cookies are sent with each page request while data stored elsewhere isn’t. Changing them on any side will automatically share state with the other. I use localStorage in my theme switcher because I think server doesn’t need and should not know which theme is used. But for storing shared data, especially one that expires, cookies remain a reasonable if not best choice.

None of this is exactly new, but I think it is worth remembering. In other news I dislike interface limitations of Chrome more and more (exceptions are Developer Tools and extensions framework).

Reading sources

Google Reader was redesigned lately and I’ve been annoyed ever since. I had a dubious privilege of cutting and changing product features people loved in pursuit of higher different goals, so I try to be understanding when others do the same. I mostly found clumsy workarounds for removed features, but I do wish I could at least still trust that list of unread items actually has all of them. On a positive note I can save some electricity now because copious amounts of “helpfully” white whitespace illuminate this room brightly enough that you wouldn’t sit naked in-front of your computer even with lights turned off. That is if you are the sort of person who likes doing that but stops short of flashing your neighbors.

I still strongly dislike changes made, but I continue using Google Reader, because crack-heads don’t give up dope just because it was cut too thinly. I cherish my list of reading sources and like a gardener I have been cultivating it through years because I believe they make me better informed than I would be if I relied only on links shared by others. This may be elitist, but it is also true.

We are biased when choosing friends and communities we belong to. At the very least we enjoy our life more when surrounded with like minded people which is really a lighter shade of group think. We share to tell stories as much about what is shared as we do about who we are. Even when not self-censoring or trying to project an image we still are horribly bad at evaluating what influences us and how. Sharing everything, as this idiotic article suggests, doesn’t fix this [1]. It’s still content from same people only more of it.

Then there are social new sites, which are in essence news organizations with bigger editorial board. Their focus might not be the same and their world view less obvious (or not) as of traditional boards, but the end result really isn’t all that different. I don’t dread waking up in a world without Apple as I do in one without fish, but it is not articles about all things piscatorial that keep popping up on regular basis.

This doesn’t make socially filtered news useless, just limited and best suited for finding out what is popular at this moment. They should be a side dish not the whole diet. Getting some of your information diet from social sources may improve it, but relying only on them is just stupid. I wouldn’t fret so much if I didn’t worry about development trends — latest Reader changes being one example of them.

Reader had two methods of sharing. Obvious one was button Share which was adequately replaced with sharing to Google+ circles. The other one, which was the one I actually relied on, was to create public feeds for articles marked with certain tags. The most important difference is that in first case you grouped by intended audience and in second by actual content [2]. Instead of following me, you could just follow my selection on particular topic which in most cases would probably be closer to what you want.

By itself stripping a feature like that doesn’t mean much. However when I also judge other changes such as aforementioned abundance of whitespace, removal of “Note to reader” and  new reading unfriendly theme, it’s easy to come to conclusion that all roads now lead to Google+. Reader’s role is at best to feed its younger brother with stuff to socialize around.

It would be wrong to attribute these changes simply to competition with Facebook since they are a part of a larger trend to social curation. I find this trend just a normal consequence of a web ecosystem where most product innovation happens in VC funded startups. How companies were funded was always a part of their DNA and economics of today’s VC environment for companies that will probably be acquired at some point (and let’s be honest, who REALLY believes most news experiments won’t be?) almost demands a quick and high growth. It’s not impossible to achieve this with sources-based product, but it’s certainly harder and less obvious than creating another twist on social news.

If my first and main point was a personal appeal to seek insight also in your own, personally picked sources, then my second is to question if shaping web and world with it should really be left only to industry and academia. It really doesn’t have to be this way.

  1. Browser’s history is a great place to see just how much of what we visit is unimportant, unrepresentative and often unsharable. A small friction necessary for a deliberate act of sharing is actually a feature that gives at least a modicum of reflection on content’s share-worthiness.
  2. Feeds enable that and are one of crucial building blocks for what I started to call social software for introverts. It is software which is better when used by many, but is good even when you are its only user. Instapaper would be a perfect example of such an application and Facebook is a counter-example.