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Socratic blogging

I like Substack’s emphasis on letters between publications: a way to have an in-depth conversation between two bloggers who have a different point of view on a different topic. It reminds me a little of CJR’s Galley site, which hosted some interesting conversations.

But of course, you don’t need Substack or to be in CJR’s circle to create a conversation in this way. All you need is to have a counterpart writer, a blog or a newsletter each, and a willingness to correspond over thoughtful, long-form posts on a single topic for around three posts each.

If you want to get technical, you can even use microformats u-in-reply-to syntax and webmentions to conversationally glue the blog posts together. But the most important thing is to write and explore an idea.

It’s a lovely way to dive deep into a contentious topic, and I’d love to see more of it.

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Moderation on Mastodon: there's a lot of work to do

I’ve realized that I need to temper my enthusiasm for Mastodon. I worked on open source social networking platforms for a full decade of my life, and I’m very emotionally attached to this moment. I really want the fediverse to work.

I come by it honestly: I do think that a collectively-owned platform based on open protocols and an ecosystem of compatible tools - a social commons - is both more ethical and more resilient than a platform that is owned and run by a giant corporation with thousands of employees, shareholder obligations, and valuation requirements.

But my emotional involvement has led to me finding myself wanting to be reflexively defensive about its shortcomings, and this serves nobody. I’m enthusiastic about it, but many of the problems that people are bringing up are legitimate worries - and some of them may be showstoppers if they aren’t dealt with quickly.

I’m particularly concerned with moderation. In the fediverse, every server has a different set of content policies and a different team of moderators. Theoretically, this is good: people with specific needs or from vulnerable communities can find themselves posting from a more supportive context than they might find on monolithic social media. Field-specific instances, for example in genetics, can establish content policies relating to scientific accuracy that couldn’t possibly be enforceable on a monolithic site. But at the same time, this patchwork of content policies mean that moderation can be arbitrary and hard to understand.

Journalist Erica Ifill woke up this morning to find that she’d been banned from her Mastodon instance for no obvious reason. Block Party founder Tracy Chou’s content was removed from the largest instance on the grounds that criticizing patriarchy was sexism. In both cases, the action was reversed with an apology, but harm was done. An understanding of power imbalances is an important part of being a content moderator, but while software is provided to technically moderate, there are very few ecosystem resources to explain how to approach this from a human perspective. Open source software can sometimes fall into the trap of confusing code for policy, and Mastodon is no exception.

And then there’s the harassment. As caroline sinders wrote:

The blocking feature is like horror house anxiety game- I block when I see their new account, hoping I’ve now blocked all of them but knowing I probably never will. Because it’s a federated system, and you can have accounts on multiple servers, it means there’s multiple accounts I have to block to create some digital safety and distance.

All this turns the selection of an instance when you join the network into a high-stakes choice. Does the instance have the technical resources to stay online? Does it have the social resources and insight to moderate effectively? By what rules? What are the spoken and unspoken beliefs of its owners that might affect how you post and who you can reach?

Which isn’t to say that commercial services don’t have the same problem. Clearly, they do, as can clearly be illustrated by the change in content policies at Twitter under Elon Musk compared to its previous management. Not only are content policies on commercial services notoriously imperfect, but moderation there is often undertaken by low-paid workers who frequently experience PTSD.

With a commercial service, though, you’re dealing with one service provider, rather than a patchwork, and the choice is more binary: you can take it or leave it. The fediverse gives its participants more choice, and there’s correspondingly more nuance to the decisions a user must make.

It’s unwise to dismiss these issues. They disproportionately affect people from more vulnerable communities who are more likely to experience harassment, both from admins and from other users. At their worst, they can represent real threats to physical safety; at best, they make the platform hard to trust for someone trying to use it as a basis for sharing and discussion. Mastodon has been the home for some queer communities for some time, but it’s notable that women and people of color have often had a bad experience.

I think the fediverse needs some real investment in online safety beyond what’s been done so far. Incremental approaches are probably the most feasible, rather than trying to get to the perfect thing more quickly.

Here are some suggestions as a subset of what might be useful:

A free course for moderators, with certification. Take the course - which should stress inclusion and power dynamics - in your own time. Then get a verified certification that admins can place on their Mastodon profiles. New Mastodon users could search for instances that have trained admins. Mastodon instances could actively solicit participation from potential moderators who have passed the course. (Perhaps there could be levels: for example, basic, intermediate, and advanced.)

Search that highlights moderators. The identities and beliefs of an instance’s moderators are so important that they should be placed front and center when selecting a new instance. In one recent example, I’m aware of a journalist picking an instance only to discover that its owner was notoriously transphobic. Some users might prefer instances run by women or people of color.

Standardized content policies. Content policies that can be built using pre-defined blocks, in the same way that Creative Commons licenses can be chosen based on your needs. These could be advertised in a machine-readable way, so that new users can more easily search for instances that meet their needs. Better user interfaces could be built around selection, like a wizard that asks the new user about themselves and what they care about.

Instance ratings. Right now an instance is often defederated by other instances for bad behavior, but there’s no equivalent for new users. Reviews on instances could help users pick the right one.

Shared, themed blocklists. Shared blocklists for both users and instances would make the process of removing harmful content far easier for admins. Here, if my instance blocked another instance for hosting racist content, every other instance subscribed to my racism blocklist would also block that instance.) Similarly, if I blocked a user for racism, every other user subscribed to my racism blocklist would block them too. The reverse would be true if they blocked an instance or a user, too.

These are some ideas, but experts who have worked in harassment and user security would likely have others. These are skills that are badly in demand.

Please don’t mistake this post: I’m very bullish on the fediverse. I’d love for you to follow me at https://werd.social/@ben. But particularly for those of us who have been waiting for this moment for a very long time, it’s important that we temper our excitement with an understanding of the work that still needs to happen, and that there’s much to do if we’re to create a network that is welcoming to everyone.

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Tweet you again someday

I’ve locked down my Twitter account and removed syndication to the platform. I won’t be posting there regularly. A lot would need to change for me to meaningfully return.

You can still find me in plenty of places, which are listed on my homepage. I’m actively posting to Mastodon quite a bit these days, so that might be your best bet, but I’ll also be sharing on LinkedIn.

Let’s stay in touch.

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What is a globalist?

A word I’ve seen used frequently by people across the political spectrum, particularly since Trump’s election in 2016, is globalism. At first, I understood it to be a kind of alternative to nationalism: thinking on a global scale rather than prioritizing your own nation first. But the more I saw it used - to encompass exploitation of the global south, for example - the more I realized I didn’t fully understand it.

It turns out to be an overloaded term: there are a few different kinds and definitions of globalism. Understanding the distinctions helped me, and I hope they help you, too.

It’s worth saying: I program computers for a living. I’m not an economist or a sociologist. I welcome corrections and comments from more informed readers.

Imperialist globalism

America was very concerned about Soviet expansion after WWII. At the time, the diplomat George Kennan, who heavily influenced the Truman doctrine of involving the US in containing the Soviet Union, said:

[W]e have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. […] Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.

So read through this lens, American globalism was originally a project to maintain American wealth, potentially at the expense of other nations. This is often called visionary globalism, but I hope you’ll agree that imperialist globalism is a more apt name.

Vincent Bevins’s brilliant book The Jakarta Method describes some of the methods the US employed (and employs) to try and maintain this power. It’s easily the best non-fiction book I read this year.

Market globalism

Market globalism is interested in establishing relationships between nations to create a consumerist world rooted in free markets. In market globalism, nations’ economies are integrated and interdependent, with consumer-oriented trade as the goal.

It’s a neoliberal vision of the world: one where market solutions are better than socially-oriented, community-based ones. Here, capitalism and small government are the order of the day and actively promoted in the structure of (for example) aid packages and treaties. The vision does not consider equality or quality of life, except within the ideological (and highly debatable) claim that free markets naturally lead to these things.

Justice globalism

In contrast, justice globalism prioritizes establishing fundamental human rights around the world, rooted in democracy, principles of equality and dignity, and international law.

Justice globalists claim universal principles applicable to all societies irrespective of religion or ideology. This view privileges human rights, democracy, and the rule of law as incontrovertible global goods. In bringing all persons under the rule of international laws enforced through national or international courts, the cause of global justice is advanced. Conversely, exceptions to the rule of law weaken justice and undermine global order.”

This is highly related to the global justice movement, which seeks to establish a more equal distribution of resources worldwide. The global justice movement is less concerned with international law, so the two things can’t be considered entirely equivalent.

(If you’re wondering: of all the ideologies on the list, this is the only one that resonates with me. I identify as a justice globalist.)

Religious globalism

From Oxford University Press: “Religious globalisms strive for a global religious community with superiority over secular structures.”

New World Order globalism

There’s a reason the term has become more common post-2016. In right-wing movements lies the idea that there’s a “global cabal of elites” who seek to control the world.

It’s a dog-whistle:

[It] recalls one of the most widespread anti-Semitic stereotypes: that a Jewish cabal secretly controls the world from behind the scenes. It’s a smear popularized by “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a turn-of-the-20th-century anti-Semitic Russian forgery purporting to detail how Jews will use socialism, international institutions and control of the media to take over the world.

After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union last year, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke called it a victory over the “Jewish globalist agenda.” “Jewish globalists” are likewise a favored topic of The Daily Stormer, an anti-Semitic site.

From Donald Trump to Viktor Orban, this rhetoric has been used as a thinly-veiled reference to Jews in an attempt to rile up a racist base. It’s notable that the examples of individuals who are a part of this supposed cabal - for example, the hedge fund manager George Soros - are Jewish.

A note about globalization vs globalism

Globalization can be defined as the rate of expansion of globalism. So whereas globalism is the thing, globalization is the process of getting to the thing.

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Join us at our free Future of the Workforce event in Austin tomorrow

I’m in Austin for The 19th’s Future of the Workforce event at the South Congress Hotel tomorrow. It’s free to attend in person, and I’d love to see you there! And if you’re further afield, you can still register to watch online.

From the event page:

Are the shifting norms of the last few years here to stay — or will large businesses continue to push for a return to pre-pandemic “normal?” How can business leaders balance economic growth and emerging technologies with the rights and needs of workers? The 19th is gathering business and policy leaders who think deeply about labor to discuss the future of the workforce.

It’s going to be a great event. Please join us.

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En route to Austin

I’m on an early flight to Austin for a really interesting work week: meeting The 19th’s board, attending and supporting our Future of the Workforce event, working on strategy with the leadership team, and building process with the product team. I’m hopeful that I’ll get to eat some tacos and spend some time walking around in between, but it’s a pretty full-on agenda.

It’s the first time I’ve left my son, and I’m not feeling great about that. I know he’s doing fine and will be well looked-after, but I can’t help but miss and worry about him.

I don’t like flying, and this is a really uncomfortable flight. I wish we had high speed rail. There are people who brag about being in the air all the time and that they have status; I think we’re long past the point where this is something to be proud of. I feel a bit ashamed whenever I board a plane, and honestly, I kind of think I should.

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The fediverse is happening. Here's how to take part

As Evan says, this is happening. The fediverse is growing much faster than any centralized social network, and you’re going to want to be involved.

I’ve been trying to explain what the fediverse actually is in a few different contexts. One thing that’s revealed to me is that there’s a whole generation of internet users whose entire model of how things work is based on the centralized, VC-funded service model. For them, a service is tied to a domain name and run by a company, and that’s it - even though they likely use email every day. It’s a surprising (to me) way that the prevailing business models for the web have changed the conversation.

So, here’s my attempt to explain it - and why you need to take part.

TLDR version

Everyone’s joining a new social network that is run as a commons instead of as a private company. Nobody can buy it or own it. And it’s growing very quickly.

Sign up using any server that fits with your own location and values and you can talk to anyone across the network, regardless of which server they use.

If you want, grab an app for your mobile device, and you’re good to go.

What is the fediverse?

Like Twitter or Facebook, the fediverse is a way to connect with people and have conversations with them on the web. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, nobody owns it, and it doesn’t have any central point. It’s like the web itself: anyone can run a website using any hosting provider, and then anyone with a web browser can access it. But instead of being a collection of pages, it’s conversations. Anyone can have a conversation using any fediverse provider, and anyone with fediverse software can access it and take part.

That also means there’s no business model; no ads; and no billionaire acquirer who can ruin it. It’s communally owned and maintained as a commons, like the web. (Technically it works using an open protocol called ActivityPub, but unless you’re a developer you don’t need to worry about that.)

Lots of different software can access the fediverse. The most popular right now is something called Mastodon.

How can I take part?

To be a part of the fediverse, you need to make an account and a profile on any fediverse-compatible service.

Lots of people run Mastodon instances. You can converse with anyone on the fediverse using them, but each one has its own rules and policies about what you can post if you create a fediverse account using it. For example, newsie.social is for people in journalism; mastodon.lol describes itself as “a community friendly towards anti-fascists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, hackers, and the like.” You’re likely to be booted off if you have conversations that go against the ethos of the server.

Anyone can install their own - either with their own technical server knowledge or using a hosting provider like masto.host. I maintain werd.social just for me. A lot of news organizations - and even the German government - run their own closed sites. When an account is hosted on a closed site for an organization, you can be sure that the user really is a member of that organization; it’s like verification on Twitter, back when verification meant something, but any organization can do it.

It’s all free, but it’s always a good idea to contribute to the instance’s server costs if you can. After all, there aren’t any venture capitalists with deep pockets, people buying ads, or surveillance capitalism business models paying for it all.

How can I find my friends?

If you’re moving from Twitter, it’s a good idea to stick your fediverse username in your profile. Mine is @ben@werd.social. Then there are a few different tools that let you find your Twitter friends’ new Mastodon accounts:

Fedifinder will scrape your followed users, your followers, and your lists for fediverse handles, and then export them in a format that you can import straight into Mastodon. Debirdify also does the same thing. Twitodon needs both parties to actually be registered with Twitodon itself to work.

What about finding interesting conversations?

The fediverse doesn’t have universal search. At some point, this will probably change: this is one place where someone is likely to find an opening for a VC-funded service, for better or worse. For now, you can find topics you’re interested in through hashtags.

Mastodon also has the concept of the content warning (“CW”), which you can think of as a wrapper around posts. If you’re posting something that you think others might not want to read, you can wrap it in a CW. So when you search for conversations attached to a hashtag, you might see a lot of CWs. There’s an easy setting in Mastodon to automatically open content wrapped in these warnings - if you don’t have triggers for certain topics, it’s a no-brainer to turn this on.

So is this just like Twitter?

No. It’s its own space with its own norms and forms. It’s far more flexible than Twitter, but also more welcoming in some important ways: communities tend to be more inclusive and considerate around things like alternative text on images for the visually impaired. It certainly also has its problems.

It’s undeniably true that it’s got rougher edges. This is an open source, decentralized space, with software that’s largely been written by volunteers. That’s how the web and email both got started; the software, and community norms on the fediverse itself, will both evolve over time. The exciting thing is that we all get to get involved and help it grow and change.

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On Twitter DMs

In my Twitter security post I mentioned that you should delete DMs. Ted Han pointed out to me that you can only delete them from your own inbox: the other party can still see them, and they’re consequently still available on Twitter’s infrastructure. It may still be worth deleting them, but only to prevent someone from finding them if they break into your account.

A good idea going forward, though, is not to use DMs and go to another platform. For example, Signal is a great solution for encrypted messaging.

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Security on Twitter

Yesterday I sent a memo to all staff advising them on the situation at Twitter and how it pertains to their own security. I thought it might be useful to share a version of this information with you, too.

Twitter’s Chief Information Security Officer, Chief Privacy Officer, and Chief Compliance Officer all quit on Wednesday night. One can reasonably infer that the team at Twitter is being asked to do things that these people were not comfortable with, and given their roles, it’s reasonable to consider Twitter to be insecure going forward.

At the same time, it’s still where a lot of people find community and reach. You might not want to leave it right now. Here, then, are some suggestions about how to stay safe while remaining on the platform.

Enable non-phone two-factor authentication. Twitter allows you to log in with two-factor auth. Using your phone number leaves you open to having that number leaked - or used for other purposes by the company - in the future. I always recommend using an authentication app. Authy is a good stand-alone app, but this functionality is also built into password managers like 1Password.

Remove your credit card number. If you’ve bought ads, remove your payment details from the system. We know that credit card numbers are stored insecurely on the platform.

Remove sensitive DMs. DMs on Twitter are not encrypted. They could be leaked or mined by the company for other purposes.

Use a password manager to generate your password. Don't try and use a password you've invented yourself. And don't share this password with any other system: it’s just for Twitter.

Use a canary email address, if you can. All Google-powered email addresses can have arbitrary labels added to them using a +. For example, the address ben+twitter@werd.io will still get to me - but if I use that label on my email address in my Twitter account, I'll know my account has been compromised when other entities start using it.

Post via the web or using a third-party app. We know that Twitter tracks very detailed location information from its app users. Web browsers keep you safe, so posting via the web does not carry the same risk.

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Publishing for the privileged

Two service updates I’m interested in:

Substack has introduced a “bestseller” badge for its top-selling newsletters, as a sign of quality. Newsletters on Substack don’t need to have paid tiers, but this badge is only given out to newsletters that have a lot of paid subscribers. The implication is that non-paid newsletters will experience FOMO - and potentially a drop in new subscribers because they don’t have the badge - and try to climb the ladder. It’s the first time that Substack, to my knowledge, has tied quality visibly to revenue.

Twitter has started selling its blue “verified” badge for $8 a month, replacing the previous system that gave badges to notable individuals in order to protect them from impersonation and abuse. Twitter will also demote tweets from non-verified users, treating them like “email spam”, effectively meaning that you’ll need to pay a minimum of $96 a year to get reach on the platform. Again, this ties revenue to quality: the only people worth being heard, according to Twitter’s new leadership, are people with money. Notably, the feature is only available on iOS in the “US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK”, which fundamentally limits the global inclusivity, and therefore the value, of the platform. It’s an odd choice. Based on precedent from Musk, I expect it to be partially rolled-back on a whim, but it’s here for now.

The danger with both plans is that only people with money can be heard. A Substack newsletter by someone with no existing following is unlikely to make it into the bestsellers list; therefore, people who already have privilege and power will find it cemented by the platform. And while $96 might not seem like a lot of money from an upper middle class American perspective, for most people in the world it’s an unjustifiable cost. Without mitigations, we’re likely to find ourselves in a world where voices from vulnerable populations remain underheard or even suppressed.

That’s clearly a problem from an equity and inclusion standpoint - and therefore also in terms of reader experience. The narrower the context and demographics of the people who produce most visible content are, the more homogenous it becomes, and therefore the more boring. We all gain a lot by being exposed to people from contexts and backgrounds different to our own. Not only is building a platform that elevates diversity the right thing to do ethically, it builds a healthier community with more interesting conversations. It’s better all the way around.

I think we’ll see the two platforms diverge in their approaches. Substack will quickly figure out that it needs to elevate different voices to continue to grow: audience diversification is key to it. Twitter, meanwhile, will probably not figure this out in a way that it can act on, not because there isn’t a way for it to be acted on, but because it seems to have lost all semblance of acting on a coherent strategy or mindset under Musk. Substack has some real editorial ethics problems to contend with, but it seems to be adept at the fundamentals of community growth.

I also want to call out that Medium under Tony Stubblebine is figuring out these problems in a very thoughtful and transparent way. As Tony points out in the last link, the quality bar is not up for debate; the question is, who’s in consideration to find an audience to begin with.

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It's time to be heard

Alright, America. All eyes are on us.

There’s a lot of propaganda out there asking us not to vote. “It doesn’t make a difference,” they’ll say. Or: “the lines are really long.” Or they’ll talk down the whole process, as if democracy isn’t cool, or participating in it is some kind of affront to a higher cause. Or they’ll suggest - wrongly and maliciously - that the whole thing is rigged.

Bullshit. Vote. This is the bare minimum table stakes for living in a democracy. Picking our elected representatives matters. Voting on ballot initiatives matters. This is the way we get to have a say.

There are a lot of politicians who think not every eligible citizen should vote. Paul Weyrich, a conservative political activist, memorably said in a speech:

"I don't want everybody to vote. […] As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

More recently, poll workers have left their positions after threats and harrasment. And the Brennan Center for Justice reports that “at least seven states enacted 10 laws that make voting more difficult — of these, 5 laws in five states are in place for the midterms. […] Since the beginning of 2021, lawmakers have passed at least 42 restrictive voting laws in 21 states.”.

Meanwhile, the neoreactionary movement, which wants to replace American elected government with a CEO-like monarchy, has found deep pockets in billionaire former Facebook board-member Peter Thiel and at least two Senatorial candidates.

For better or worse, America has an outsized influence on the world. Our votes help shape not just our communities, but communities everywhere. The representatives we pick shape our local culture and global economies; they can be the difference between war and peace, collaboration and colonization, poverty and living well. It’s not an idea to take lightly.

Democracy is precious. Our voices matter. We’ve been given a Constitutional right, and we need to use it. As a citizen, you have the right to use it. Today is the day.

If you need help, here’s how.

 

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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Subscribing to news with a different lens

I’m the CTO for The 19th, a women-led newsroom reporting on politics and policy with a gender lens. I’m super-proud to be here: it’s the most empathetic team I’ve ever worked on, and the journalism it produces is vital in the current moment.

There are a few ways you can keep on top of it:

The daily newsletter is produced by Annelise McGough. It’s intelligent, concise, and will make you smarter.

There’s also a weekly newsletter, which contains a weekly column and a deeper dive. The two newsletters are complementary.

There’s an RSS feed, of course! The 19th produces a handful of high-quality stories every day that won’t overwhelm your feed.

I was a subscriber long before I worked here, and I applied because I love the journalism. I say this as a fan more than a staff member: you should check it out.

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What to blog

A while back I wrote a single-page site, Get Blogging, that’s designed to be a guide to which blogging platform to pick. It doesn’t actually tell you how to blog - and perhaps inevitably, I’ve started receiving lots of emails asking how to do just that.

There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but here’s how I’ve answered it in the past:

A blog post is not the same as an essay or article. It’s simply an update to the log of information you’re writing on your website. That stream of posts, together, makes up your blog. So a post can be as short or as long as you like. It’s your voice, so they can also be as formal or informal as you like. I use a pretty informal voice in my blogging because that’s what comes naturally to me. You don’t need to do the same thing as me, or as anyone else.

Some examples:

Eventually, it becomes second nature: jot down some thoughts and hit publish. Until then, think of it like starting a running habit. The first few days you run, it’s awful and you think it’ll never feel any better. But after a few weeks, you start getting antsy if you don’t run. If you’re not used to writing, it can feel like a slog, but it’s worth getting over that hump.

I once gave someone the advice to write something interesting to them on their blog every weekday for a month - and then to comment on someone else’s blog. Those comments are important: blogs are a community spread across thousands of sites, and it’s a good idea to join in and add value where you can. Don’t comment to self-promote; comment to share and uplift.

And then how do you gain an audience? First: don’t think of it as an audience. It’s a community, and you’re joining it, not gaining it.

There are plenty of sites out there that purport to tell you how to get 100,000 readers and a bunch of money really quickly. They’re all grifters, trying to (you’ve guessed it) gain a ton of readers and a bunch of money really quickly. You can try and hustle people out of cash, but I’d argue that this isn’t really blogging. Blogging is putting your earnest self on the page, one way or another, so that other people who feel or think the same way can find and connect with you.

To build an enduring community of readers you need to be authentically yourself, post about what you’re really interested in, share regularly, interact with other peoples’ blogs, and more than anything, keep it up. Good luck.

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A Mastodon introduction

Here’s what I wrote on my Mastodon profile to (re-)introduce myself to the fediverse:

Hi! I'm Ben Werdmuller. I've been a blogger since 1998. These days I post regularly at werd.io. Writing is my first love, and I'm working on a novel.

I founded two FOSS social platforms (Elgg and Known), worked at a mission-driven investor, worked at Medium, and was Geek in Residence at Edinburgh Festivals. Today I'm CTO at The 19th (19thnews.org), a women-led newsroom that reports on gender, politics and policy.

If you’re on Mastodon, or any other Fediverse-capable site, add me at @ben@werd.social.

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Voting on the indieweb

If you’re an American citizen, you should vote in next week’s election. Maybe you already have: I sent in my mail-in ballot, which is by far the easiest and most convenient way to do your democratic duty, as well as the best way to vote while researching your choices. (All of which is probably why so many people want to do away with it.)

I was asked a while back if there was an indieweb solution for adding a widget on your website to help people register to vote. I wish this was an easier problem to solve than it is: because every jurisdiction has different voting infrastructure that doesn’t adhere to any reliably shared principles or standards, there’s no open source way to make this work without staying on top of every single voting portal. There are proprietary embeds to make this work - notably from vote.org - but they offer very few customization options and essentially require a full-page takeover. To customize more fully, you need to pay: a way for the underlying nonprofit to pay its bills, but counter to the mission of getting more people to register.

It seems to me that it would be in the interests of political parties to create simple voter registration tools and make it as easy as possible to integrate them into your site or app. Let people register as easily as possible, and direct them to the voting option that’s best for them, all from the websites and apps they’re already using. (And then, perhaps, track their registration automatically so they know if it was rejected for some reason.) Democracy is strongest when every citizen can use their democratic right to vote.

I’m not a govtech guy, but I’m aware this is pie in the sky thinking. Still: the best way to make this happen would be to create a single standard for election registration. Provide a single interface standard and a set of APIs that all local election portals must implement, then make it incredibly easy for them to do so by providing libraries and open source software. The current, standards-less, highly-federated way government software works is ludicrous, and can only lead to a bad citizen experience. Not everyone needs to use the same software, but surely it should be possible to get states to agree to some base technical standards, in the same way they all now use HTTP and HTML.

This post is mostly brought to you by anxiety about the election. I feel powerless to stop what I think is almost inevitably going to happen. Please, please, please, please vote.

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Reading, watching, playing, using: October, 2022

This is my monthly roundup of the books, articles, and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for October, 2022.

Books

Fiction

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Smartly pointed satire loosely disguised as a thriller. Witty and dark as hell. I loved it.

Chivalry, by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran. A lovely little tale, rich with the best kind of British idiosyncrasy, and beautifully illustrated in watercolor.

Notable Articles

AI

Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights. “You should be protected from abusive data practices via built-in protections and you should have agency over how data about you is used.”

Business

Elon Musk Twitter deal closes, CEO fired. “CEO Parag Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal, and Vijaya Gadde, head of legal policy, trust, and safety, were all fired, according to the people. Sean Edgett, the company’s general counsel, was also pushed out, one of the people said. The top executives were hastily shuttled from the building.”

Little Rules About Big Things. “Tell people what they want to hear and you can be wrong indefinitely without penalty.”

When your salary requires you not understand the labor movement. “In most people’s interactions with a workplace, the company takes too much and gives too little. The only recourse for labor is to form structures of counter-power to try and balance the equation.”

How a Secret Rent Algorithm Pushes Rents Higher. “For tenants, the system upends the practice of negotiating with apartment building staff. RealPage discourages bargaining with renters and has even recommended that landlords in some cases accept a lower occupancy rate in order to raise rents and make more money.”

No one is “non-technical”. “Likewise, constraining the word “technical” to refer only to “people who write code” serves to uphold a system in which benefits like compensation and prestige are distributed inequitably—regardless of the actual value of the various techniques being deployed.”

An Investor That Agreed to Back Elon Musk's Twitter Bid Wants Out. ““We’re all trying to get out of it, to be honest,” said Andrea Walne, a general partner at Manhattan Venture Partners.”

How a New Anti-Woke Bank Stumbled. “The startup, called GloriFi, initially aimed to launch with bank accounts, credit cards, mortgages and insurance, while touting what it called pro-America values such as capitalism, family, law enforcement and the freedom to “celebrate your love of God and country.” Within months, the investors’ money was nearly gone, and GloriFi was on the verge of bankruptcy.”

‘Where Are the Women?’: Is Hybrid Work Widening Tech’s Gender Gap? “Polls and studies show that women have embraced flexible and remote work, and opt to work from home slightly more often than men. But they also are liable to spend those additional hours at home on chores and child care, even when a partner is also working at home.”

Notes on Roadtrips. “And because I’m still uncomfortable talking about company values, we’re going to do so by talking about something else entirely. We’re going to talk about Road Trips.” I appreciate this more human approach to values statements.

Climate

End frequent flyer programs. “Frequent flyer programs use words like “status”, “elite”, and “prestige” for passengers who make ridiculously high demands on the earth’s resources. With private club access, seat upgrades and priority boarding, they use the trappings of social mobility to encourage destructive behaviours.”

A NASA satellite launched to detect dust has discovered huge methane leaks. “In the three and a half months following EMIT’s launch, the tool has not only successfully mapped out massive dust plumes and their effect on the changing climate, but has also identified another key piece to the global warming puzzle: more than 50 methane “super-emitters,” some of which had previously gone unseen.”

Animal populations experience average decline of almost 70% since 1970, report reveals. “The total loss is akin to the human population of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Oceania and China disappearing, according to the report.”

Coding

The Perfect Commit. “The commit is our principle unit of work. It deserves to be treated thoughtfully and with care.” As always, a thoughtful approach to technical work from Simon.

The transitional web. “What I mean is that we’re at the start of another wave of change in our industry, where old trends and best practices give way to something new.”

GitHub Copilot investigation. “Copi­lot’s whizzy code-retrieval meth­ods are a smoke­screen intended to con­ceal a grubby truth: Copi­lot is merely a con­ve­nient alter­na­tive inter­face to a large cor­pus of open-source code. There­fore, Copi­lot users may incur licens­ing oblig­a­tions to the authors of the under­ly­ing code.”

The Proprietary Syndication Formats. “Guess which format is going to outlast all these proprietary syndication formats. I’d say RSS, which I believe to be true, but really, it’s HTML.”

Using the Free Pascal IDE for a week. “I’m not sure what the rationale is for maintaining the text mode FP IDE. It seems kinda quaint in 2022 to maintain a recreation of the old Turbo Pascal editor, but I’m so glad that it’s there.”

Software engineering practices. I really like Simon’s summary of recommended software engineering practices. I agree with everything here, and this might encourage me to write my own additional list.

Crypto

Blockchain’s real world problem. “Cryptocurrencies and smart contracts truly do reduce the need for trust and centralization! However, if you want to connect them with off chain data, you need to trust the source(s) of that data. Some oracle providers like Artory vet their data sources stringently, but many, like Chainlink, don’t”

The Only Crypto Story You Need, by Matt Levine. “Which is why we asked the finest finance writer around, Matt Levine of Bloomberg Opinion, to write a cover-to-cover issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, something a single author has done only one other time in the magazine’s 93-year history (“What Is Code?,” by Paul Ford). What follows is his brilliant explanation of what this maddening, often absurd, and always fascinating technology means, and where it might go.” Phenomenal.

Regulating DAOs. “It’s a mistake to defend DAOs on the grounds that code is free speech. Some code is speech, but not all code is speech. And code can also directly affect the world.”

Coin Center Says Biden Administration 'Criminalized' Open Source Code. ““The Biden Administration criminalized the use of Tornado Cash, an open source software tool that helps Americans maintain their privacy while using cryptocurrency and related assets,” states the 36-page lawsuit.” I don’t agree that this has merit, but we’ll see where it goes.

Kim Kardashian settles SEC charges over Instagram EthereumMax crypto promo. “The reality TV superstar and influencer has settled Securities and Exchange Commission charges that she failed to disclose a payment she received for touting a crypto asset on her Instagram feed, the agency announced Monday morning.”

Culture

How ‘A League of Their Own’ and Anne Rice Are Making the Internet Rethink the Rules of Fanfiction. An interesting piece about the evolution of fanfiction, the separation between fanfic and original creators, and how the two might dovetail back together.

The Hollow Core of Kevin Kelly's "Thousand True Fans" Theory. “On closer examination, it turns out there are many things wrong with it. Thousand True Fans is a hollow philosophy. It is Chicken Soup for the Digital Creator’s Soul, ultimately devoid of any real nutritional value. […] We can have a tiny rich patron-class whose tastes and whims are the only thing that reliably gets catered to, or we can tax that rich patron-class and use the funds to actually fund the arts again.”

BBC And Disney Branded Television Join Forces on Doctor Who. I don’t know what Doctor Who with a Disney budget even looks like, but I’m in. Obviously.

How the first female Time Lord changed Doctor Who forever. “So what does it mean when shows such as Doctor Who increase diversity in front of and behind the camera? Mort says increased on-screen diversity will improve the self-esteem of those represented, and having behind-the-camera talent from communities being portrayed on-screen will ensure the authenticity of these narratives. “This way, diverse narratives can be told, not just stereotyped,” says Mort.”

Bakery Creates ‘Pan Solo,’ a 6-Foot Replica of ‘Star Wars’ Hero Made of Bread. “Finally, after a month of work, he was ready: a lovingly wrought 6-foot recreation of Han Solo frozen in carbonite, made entirely of bread. The duo behind the creation, Hannalee Pervan and her mother, Catherine Pervan, called him “Pan Solo.””

How Chinese citizens use puns on Weibo to talk about MeToo and zero-Covid without being censored. “This particular approach to internet speak — substituting words that sound like or are spelled like others — has been an essential part of being online in China for decades, allowing netizens to use the humor and cleverness of spoken Mandarin to dodge censorship.”

Democracy

Women of color are leading the effort to connect voting rights and abortion access. “Issues of democracy and reproductive rights have long been tied together for women of color in America. But during this year’s midterms, women of color are in positions of power and influence in ways they haven’t been before. They framed the stakes of the election early and have made this the central argument in the final days of the campaign.”

Uline’s billions fund voter suppression . “The Uihleins are ideologues, but it’s a mistake to view their authoritarianism, antisemitism, racism, and homophobia as the main force of their ideology. First and foremost is their belief that they deserve to be rich, and that the rich should be in charge of everyone else.”

Who is Curtis Yarvin, the monarchist, anti-democracy blogger? “Yarvin argues that a creative and visionary leader — a “startup guy,” like, he says, Napoleon or Lenin was — should seize absolute power, dismantle the old regime, and build something new in its place.” Genuinely frightening stuff.

Could the Tory turmoil get even worse? “As her premiership fell apart, Truss tried to find new bogeymen who she insisted were derailing the post-Brexit revolution, blaming an “anti-growth coalition” that included people with podcasts, Scottish nationalists and north London liberals.” My people!

Don’t Count on White Women to Save Abortion Access. “White women as a voting bloc have proven, time and again, to prioritize racial privilege over gender solidarity.”

Introducing Democracy's Library. “Over the next decade, the Internet Archive is committing to work with libraries, universities, and agencies everywhere to bring the government’s historical information online. It is inviting citizens, libraries, colleges, companies, and the Wikipedians of the world to unlock good information and weave it back into the Internet.” Yay!

Voter ID laws are creating barriers for transgender people, women and others. “More than 200,000 voting-eligible transgender Americans may find it difficult to cast a ballot in the upcoming midterm elections because of voter ID laws.”

'Stop the steal' supporters train thousands of U.S. poll observers. “If these people show up to the polls with the intention of disrupting voting from taking place, then I can’t imagine a worse threat to democracy than that.”

Comedians sue over drug search program at Atlanta airport. “Those 402 [police] stops also yielded more than $1 million in cash and money orders from a total of 25 passengers” even though drugs were not found on them. Absolutely vile.

How California’s Bullet Train Went Off the Rails. “SNCF was very angry. They told the state they were leaving [California] for North Africa, which was less politically dysfunctional. They went to Morocco and helped them build a rail system.”

Chelsea Manning: ‘I’m Still Bound to Secrecy’. “I came to see that the classification system exists wholly in the interest of the U.S. government — in other words, it seems to exist not to to keep secrets safe but to control the narrative.”

After 187 years, the Cherokee Nation wants its seat in Congress . “The 1835 treaty included unequivocal language that a delegate “shall” be included in the House for the Cherokee, a provision that was essentially forgotten as they and other tribes tried to survive and rebuild after forced removal.”

The most terrifying case of all is about to be heard by the US supreme court. “Should the court endorse the ISL theory, Republican-controlled legislatures also will be able to gerrymander political districts to lock in permanent control of federal elections without judicial oversight.”

Proposed bill labels LGBTQ+ information as 'sexually-oriented' material. “Multiple LGBTQ+ researchers and policy experts told The 19th that they had never seen a bill like this one at the state level, introduced in the current Congress, or passed into law in recent memory. A bill that so overtly depicts LGBTQ+ people as sexually inappropriate, especially around children, is a significant escalation — even if it’s all part of the same rhetoric, advocates say.”

Health

Microplastics found in human breast milk for the first time. “We would like to advise pregnant women to pay greater attention to avoiding food and drink packaged in plastic, cosmetics and toothpastes containing microplastics, and clothes made of synthetic fabrics.”

Hair Straighteners May Pose a Small Risk for Uterine Cancer, Study Finds. “For women in the study who had never used hair straighteners, the risk of developing uterine cancer by the age of 70 was 1.64 percent, the research found, while the rate for frequent users of straighteners was more than doubled at 4.05 percent.”

Wildfire Smoke May Carry Deadly Fungi Long Distances. “For years now, researchers have understood that wildfire smoke, and the noxious gases and soot particles it carries, isn’t merely an unpleasant experience that forces people to shut windows and herd children indoors. It’s a significant health hazard that not only triggers asthma and breathing problems, but can harm immune systems for years.”

State abortion bans are preventing cancer patients from getting chemotherapy. ““I don’t know anybody that would feel comfortable treating a pregnant patient with cancer because I don’t feel like they’re nearly dead enough,” Zahedi-Spung said. “The threshold that I am holding in order to provide abortion care is basically almost dead to try to avoid being arrested and jailed.””

Media

James Bennet and the rewriting of 2020. “Desperate to undo the social movement that threatened their place atop the social hierarchy, the right and its handmaidens in the squeamish center have fought obsessively to recast the protest summer as the aborted dawn of a new, terrifying tyranny — of “cancel culture,” anti-racism, and the most feared of them all, “wokism” — in which revolutionary mobs working with the Hollywood elite and the mandarins of the Democratic Party (don’t think too hard about it) will … well, do something bad.”

Publishing Prejudice: The Oregonian's Racist Legacy. “The newspaper helped create the Oregon of today: A majority white state, with the West Coast’s smallest proportion of Black residents, anchored by Portland, America’s whitest big city. Despite Oregon’s progressive reputation and growing population of color, its major institutions — lawmakers, schools, police, housing systems and health care providers — have failed to erase deep-rooted inequities.”

News in America: Public Good or Private Enterprise? “Most Americans believe news organizations prioritize their own business needs – over serving the public interest: More than three in four say news organizations are first and foremost motivated by their own financial interests, while just 12% of Americans say news outlets act as civic institutions first.”

The BBC at one hundred. “Its relationship with the British state has been fraught, a function of its peculiar dual status as both a news organization and a nominally unifying cultural service, and of its funding status.”

Tucker Carlson’s strange rant about Fetterman shows how media fails. “Asking objective news reporters to be aware that a massive apparatus of disinformation is out there waiting to pounce on and exploit hazy reporting seems like the absolute minimum to expect.”

When spyware turns phones into weapons. “In the long-term, journalists who feel threatened by an invisible enemy that could expose their sources and their private lives to public scrutiny may start to shy away from controversial investigations, curtailing their publications’ coverage, and dealing a blow to press freedom.”

If Trump Runs Again, Do Not Cover Him the Same Way: A Journalist’s Manifesto. “We should be resolutely objective in the sense of seeking evidence and approaching subjects with an open mind. We should not, however, resort to taking everything down the middle, no matter what.”

What is Dovetail from PRX? “From a birds-eye view, Dovetail does three main things: podcast distribution, data collection, and ad inventory management.”

Most people on Twitter don’t live in political echo chambers — but mostly because they don’t care enough to bother building one. “Most people don’t follow a bunch of political “elites” on Twitter — a group that, for these authors’ purposes, also includes news organizations. But those who do typically follow many more people they agree with politically than people who they don’t.”

The Sun-Times’ new chapter: Our digital content is now free for everyone. “So today, we are dropping our paywall and making it possible for anyone to read our website for free by providing nothing more than an email address. Instead of a paywall, we are launching a donation-based digital membership program that will allow readers to pay what they can to help us deliver the news you rely on.”

In Grief and In Anger, Welcome to Peste Magazine. “Peste Magazine believes health is a human right. We believe in naming the names of the powerful who believe others do not deserve that right, because of who they are, where they live, what they do, how they fuck, or how much money they don’t have.”

Wikipedia has once again debated whether Fox News is a reliable source. “The final result: Li found consensus that Fox be deemed a “marginally reliable” source for information about politics and science. This means that its use as a reference in Wikipedia articles will not be permitted for “exceptional claims” that require heightened scrutiny, but that its reliability will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for other claims.”

Science

First-ever study shows bumble bees 'play'. “Bumble bees play, according to new research led by Queen Mary University of London published in Animal Behaviour. It is the first time that object play behavior has been shown in an insect, adding to mounting evidence that bees may experience positive “feelings.”” I can’t believe it’s taking this long to get to the obvious idea that all animals have feelings.

Society

Tuna. “It has a name, this uniquely vile game: it is called extinction speculation. It’s practised by those who collect Norwegian shark fin, rare bear bladders and rhino horn; men and women with hearts that sing along only to the song of money. There are collectors known to be building up huge piles of tiger pelts and vats of tiger bone wine.”

Airline hired for UK’s Rwanda deportations pulls out of scheme. “This is a victory for people power – for thousands who took action and for the torture survivors who stood up against the UK government’s cruel ‘cash for humans’ Rwanda scheme.“ Activism works.

Louisiana parents fight to keep their children out of violent Angola prison. “Parents and legal advocates in Louisiana — chief among them Black mothers — say a plan to temporarily transfer incarcerated youth to an adult facility once known as “America’s bloodiest prison” will traumatize the children and limit their access to education and rehabilitation opportunities.”

Afghan couple accuse US Marine of abducting their baby. “This is a story about how one U.S. Marine became fiercely determined to bring home an Afghan war orphan, and praised it as an act of Christian faith to save her. Letters, emails and documents submitted in federal filings show that he used his status in the U.S. Armed Forces, appealed to high-ranking Trump administration officials and turned to small-town courts to adopt the baby, unbeknownst to the Afghan couple raising her 7,000 miles away.”

Texas schools send parents DNA kits to identify their kids’ bodies in emergencies. ““You have to understand, I’m a former law enforcement officer,” Walder, who has lived in Texas for 14 years, said. “I worry every single day when I send my kid to school. Now we’re giving parents DNA kits so that when their child is killed with the same weapon of war I had when I was in Afghanistan, parents can use them to identify them?””

Monarch. “Not once at school was I told any of this stuff. I’d heard of the Raj before, although the British always spoke of it as if it was something to be proud of.” +1. And it is nothing to be proud of.

Tarana Burke on progress and reframing the future. “Ahead of next month’s midterms, she said she’s thinking more than ever about survivors as a key part of the electorate. They can be a powerful voting bloc that could help elect candidates focused on changing policy around sexual and gender-based violence.”

Women share stories in their own words, five years after movement. “These women, regularly denied the chance to show their full selves and tell their own stories, do so here in their own words, navigating what it means to find safety and self in the face of widespread public attention, and criticism.”

Longtermism, or How to Get-Out-Of-Caring While Feeling Moral and Smart. “MacAskill begs us to ask questions like: Do you care about the specter of climate catastrophe? Definitely. World War III complete with nuclear annihilation? Yikes, yeah. How about population stagnation and potential collapse because rich people stopped having enough babies? Wait, huh? What do you think about lowering the probability of complete human extinction by .0001% at the expense of allowing 100 million people to die in genocidal neglect?”

Why Do Rich People Love Quiet? “The people complaining clearly thought they were trying to enforce a sonic landscape that they deemed superior, but what they were really doing was using shame to exert control. Over the restaurant, the building, the borough. Us.”

Positano, the Instagram capital of the world, is a terrible place to be. “The problem of travel at this particular moment is not too many people traveling in general, it is too many people wanting to experience the exact same thing because they all went to the same websites and read the same reviews.”

Startups

Mark Zuckerberg Is Going To Kill His Company. “As funny as it is that Zuckerberg responded to “don’t spend as much money on the metaverse” with “I will now spend more on the metaverse,” anybody with half a brain can see that he is burning his company to the ground. Zuckerberg is experiencing peak founder-brain - that previous success begets future success and that has had several good ideas means that every idea you’ll ever have is perfect.”

Preventing the bait and switch by open core software companies. “The approach ensures that an open core company can’t switch to solely creating proprietary software. The charter also addresses other issues we have seen in open source projects like withholding security fixes and transparency issues.”

3 Reasons Why I Think 50% Coding 50% Marketing is the Best Framework for Solo Tech Founders. “Usually when a solo founder thinks they need to do more coding than marketing, it’s because they don’t want to do marketing, not because they genuinely think they need to spend more time on product.”

Co-Founding Considered Harmful. “I’ve come to view the idea that you absolutely need a co-founder as one of the most harmful memes in Silicon Valley. It’s probably killed more companies than any other misconceptions out there.” Really solid advice.

Technology

Biden admin investing $65 billion in broadband access. “The federal government is investing $65 billion in expanding broadband, and two-thirds of that money will be directed toward programs that encourage better hiring and retention practices for women and people of color, who have been severely underrepresented in the field.”

Twitter to start charging $20 per month for verification. “Employees working on the project were told on Sunday that they need to meet a deadline of November 7th to launch the feature or they will be fired.” Way to build a supportive culture!

Welcome to hell, Elon. “Also, everyone crying about “free speech” conveniently ignores that the biggest threat to free speech in America is the fucking government, which seems completely bored of the First Amendment. They’re out here banning books, Elon!” The best post about the Twitter acquisition.

Fake books. “With GPT-3, we now have an infinitely-scalable technology that is years away from being able to enrich our lives, but is already more than capable of drowning out all remnants of authentic content on the internet. And because you can leverage this to earn money or sway opinions, that outcome is probably hard to avoid.”

The Commodordion. “The Commodordion is an 8-bit accordion primarily made of C64s, floppy disks, and gaffer tape.” Into it.

TikTok Parent ByteDance Planned To Use TikTok To Monitor The Physical Location Of Specific American Citizens. “But the material reviewed by Forbes indicates that ByteDance’s Internal Audit team was planning to use this location information to surveil individual American citizens, not to target ads or any of these other purposes.”

Introducing the Overflow Offline project. “Many coders would say they rely on Stack Overflow to get work done, but Hicklin’s situation is different. She had no access to the internet while incarcerated.” Great initiative.

How We Uncovered Disparities in Internet Deals. “Recent research from activists and academics has pointed out a digital divide for high-speed internet between the parts of major American cities where ISPs have upgraded the infrastructure (often rich and predominantly White) and the frequently poorer, predominantly communities of color where they have not made upgrades.”

s13e10: Dying Slowly, and then All At Once; Scrollytelling. This is so sad. And honestly, given I post many links a day, kind of scary.

Microsoft Full Circle. “The entire reason why Windows faltered as a strategic linchpin is that it was tied to a device — the PC — that was disrupted by a paradigm shift in hardware. Microsoft 365, on the other hand, is attached to the customer.” I’m a much bigger fan of the new Microsoft than the old one.

The AT Protocol. “The world needs a diverse market of connected services to ensure healthy competition. Interoperation needs to feel like second nature to the Web.” I’m cautiously optimistic - and certainly curious.

Facebook owner Meta to sell Giphy after UK watchdog confirms ruling. “The only way this can be addressed is by the sale of Giphy. This will promote innovation in digital advertising, and also ensure UK social media users continue to benefit from access to Giphy.”

Kanye West plans to acquire conservative social media site Parler. “Parler was created in September 2018 as a free speech alternative to apps like Twitter and Facebook. The app was de-platformed from Google and Apple’s app stores in January 2021, following the January Capitol siege.”

This will be a thread discussing a real world breach involving a drone delivered exploit system that occurred this summer. An epic corporate security breach using drones. The stuff of movies.

Papa John's sued for 'wiretap' spying on website visitors. “Session replay tools have been a privacy concern due to their indiscriminate capturing of data, sometimes poor security, and failures to get user consent to track and store this data, not to mention having analysts going over your every move to see how they can optimize their webpages and boost sales.”

As pandemic measures are lifted, social media use has declined with the exception of TikTok. “Other studies have shown that young people are now using TikTok as one of the primary ways to get news and that some have even replaced Google Search with TikTok.”

Disrupting the Gospel of Tech Solutionism to Build Tech Justice. “Virtually every new technology tied into the massive, interconnected web of data and machine power undergirding the global internet has the potential for both social benefit and social harm. And communities that have been overpoliced and surveilled are more likely than others to experience the negative capabilities of new technology.”

The Battle for the Soul of the Web. “The decentralized web that Kahle and others have envisioned for years has yet to receive major mainstream attention for an obvious reason: It never promised to get anyone rich. But the Web3 movement certainly did.”

The High Cost of Living Your Life Online. “Studies have found that high levels of social media use are connected with an increased risk of symptoms of anxiety and depression. There appears to be substantial evidence connecting people’s mental health and their online habits. Furthermore, many psychologists believe people may be dealing with psychological effects that are pervasive but not always obvious.”

AI Data Laundering: How Academic and Nonprofit Researchers Shield Tech Companies from Accountability. “This academic-to-commercial pipeline abstracts away ownership of data models from their practical applications, a kind of data laundering where vast amounts of information are ingested, manipulated, and frequently relicensed under an open-source license for commercial use.”

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The myth of the good venture startup is dead

One thing that might be over is the conflation of venture-funded technology companies with organizations in the public interest. There was a time when companies like Twitter could be confused with public squares or other public works. Now, with the possible exception of Medium, I don’t think there’s a single example of venture funding being used in the public interest left. Any remaining names from that era (Flickr etc) have long since been bought back and taken fully-private.

On one hand, this is a real shame: a fundamental breakdown of what the promise of startups once was declared to be. I even was funded by, and then was part of, a fund that explicitly used the language of venture capital to be a positive force for change. Matter, too, is gone, and I’m still sad about it.

On the other hand, I think it’s a useful clarification. One could even consider it a moral correction. The commons that the web represents is an amazing collaboration of people sharing their voices from all over the world. It’s a force for good. But every venture-scale tech company exists to make money for its shareholders. It is unambiguously a force for profit. These are not the same thing, and when the going gets tough, finance and business show their true faces.

I’m in no way arguing that a force optimized for profit is in itself a good thing. But it’s at least an honest thing. We know what it is and can name it, and can make better decisions as a result of that clarity. We know that Facebook is a company that turns a blind eye to genocide because that’s the best thing for its bottom line. We know that Twitter’s culture is going to go the way of Tesla’s - “the worst place I’ve ever worked” is a common refrain - and that leadership will potentially support people who perpetuate fascism because it will be profitable. We know that when people show us who they are, we should believe them.

I’m also not arguing that all businesses are fundamentally anti-human. Clearly, there are small businesses, Public Benefit Corporations, and co-operatives that are ethical and kind. I’m just no longer convinced that an exponential business can also be humanist. There’s something of the Ayn Rand mercenary objectivist in all of them, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the internet at large to be reminded of that. If nothing else, it helps more people realize that they need to self-organize to create alternatives.

 

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

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Elon's debt

Lots has been written about whether Elon Musk can sustain Twitter based on the amount he’s saddled it with.

In the New York Times:

The $44 billion acquisition was the largest leveraged buyout of a technology company in history. To do the deal, Mr. Musk, the world’s richest man, loaded about $13 billion in debt on the company, which had not turned a profit for eight of the past 10 years.

[…] Last year, Twitter’s interest expense was about $50 million. With the new debt taken on in the deal, that will now balloon to about $1 billion a year. Yet the company’s operations last year generated about $630 million in cash flow to meet its financial obligations.

Assuming it’s not all some kind of ludicrous tax avoidance scheme, the most convincing argument I’ve seen about how he might overcome this was in Fortune:

If you want more evidence that Musk’s Twitter purchase is a payments play, look at some the people he has brought in to help him: Binance founder Changpeng Zhao; David Sacks, another PayPal Mafia member who is deeply involved in crypto; as well as Sriram Krishnan, who invests for a16z Crypto and who has an Ethereum address in his Twitter handle. Does this sound like the makings of a political and media operation—or one for payments?

If Twitter really is a way to bootstrap an international frictionless payments network - and it’s kind of an outside chance - I can see an argument for the numbers beginning to work. He’s already declared that he’ll quintuple revenue while reducing Twitter’s reliance on advertising. I don’t think charging $20/month for verification will bring that in. Payments might.

There’s a clue here in Twitter’s history, too: what if this had been Jack Dorsey’s plan, and he just couldn’t quite pull it off with the company’s board? That would explain his strategy to split CEO duties with the payments company formerly known as Square, his continued voting ownership in the newly-private Twitter, and the allyship between him and Musk.

There are still unanswered questions here: how does Bluesky fit in, for example? (I think it’s probably a red herring.)

Regardless of Twitter’s future as an actual community to participate in - it’s gone downhill, fast - I’m fascinated by what will happen next to the company. I’m not bullish, but there’s much more underlying strategy here than meets the eye.

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The blog is back

I’m really heartened to see old-school blogging have a mini-resurgence. I’ve got no idea if it’ll stick, but for now, my feed reader is aglow with posts that run the gamut from quick thoughts to long-form essays, often illustrated with personal photographs. More of this, please. Much more of this.

My favorite social network ever, by a long shot, is LiveJournal. Not only did Brad and co establish many of the norms that we now take for granted, but it was built around blogging: every post was a written piece. The comments were excellent, and everyone was contributing their own original work instead of reposting memes.

Blogs + readers approximates this, although the commenting situation is too fragmented. Commenting isn’t quite right in the indieweb, either: I’m hankering for long threaded discussions rather than Twitter-style replies. I think we’ll get there, though, and this is so much of a step forward from the social media morass.

More! More! More!

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Substack and Medium

If you receive my posts via email, you’re now getting them through Substack. Nothing should substantially change, but they’ll look a little different.

This is the fourth newsletter platform I’ve used for my writing: MailChimp, ConvertKit, and Buttondown all preceded it. This new change - which, let’s be clear, is an experiment - is already a little different. That’s because, unlike the others, Substack is more of a social network than a newsletter platform whose main competitor is very clearly Medium.

(Worth declaring: I worked at Medium from 2016-2017 and consider its current CEO Tony Stubblebine to be a friend. I’ve also been publicly critical of Substack’s laissez-faire editorial strategy.)

Substack’s main draws are very similar to Medium’s: you can make money from your writing; it will provide a beautiful, easy-to-use interface; it will find you readers. The mechanics of how it does that are different, though, and worth thinking about in the context of social network design.

First, the money.

This is the big carrot for new writers. (Content from my website will remain free, by the way.) Medium sets you up with the partner network: subscribers pay a flat $5 a month through its site. Funds are then allocated based on the fraction of each paying user’s attention you attract.

That means you can work on a big piece of writing that you think will attract a lot of attention and get paid for it without a lot of business preparation. Medium’s paywall is leaky, so non-members will be able to read and help to promote it.

While Medium’s financial model is content-centric, Substack’s is personality-based. Readers opt in to subscribe to a publisher, just as they would any newsletter. But publishers can opt to establish payment tiers that give subscribers access to premium posts if they pay more money. Attention doesn’t come into it: a subscriber either believes you’re worth paying a monthly fee for or they don’t.

The other trick is that, on Substack, publishers have to sign up separately to Stripe in order to gather payments. That means Stripe handles Know Your Customer requirements on behalf of Substack. Between Stripe fees and Substack’s 10% take, the publisher is left with a little over 85% of subscription fees - which is a significantly better deal than many places on the web.

Using revenue as a lens, then, whether you choose Medium or Substack depends on whether you have a following who might pay for your work. If you do great work, or are working on a single, amazing piece of writing, but don’t have a following, Medium is clearly the better choice. If you already have a community or want to put in the work of building a following, Substack might have the edge right now.

Second, the interface.

Medium’s writing interface is still the best, hands down. The attention to detail is superb, from font kerning through to embedding.

Substack’s is more utilitarian, but is still cleanly designed and distraction-free. Because of its email origins, there’s no way it can possibly do some of the fancy embedding tricks that Medium is able to.

I’ve long written using iA Writer no matter where it’s going, but Medium’s interface remains much more enticing to me. There’s also an API and - crucially, excitingly - a way to import posts from your personal blog and have the canonical link set to your blog’s URL. That feature feels specifically built for me, and I love it.

Finally, the community.

Both platforms will find you readers, albeit in different ways.

Again, Medium’s model is content-centric: it will show you posts it thinks you’ll find useful or interesting, no matter who they’re by. The algorithm automatically promotes content inside implicit communities of interest. It will also try and show you content by people you know, however, partially by connecting to your Twitter network.

Substack’s is very personality-focused. It does the same Twitter trick as Medium: your followers from elsewhere who are already on Substack will know about your Substack feed. But it also operates using a system of direct recommendations; every Substack publisher directly suggests other publishers to follow. It’s relationship-based rather than algorithmic: one can imagine asking a publisher if they’d consider recommending you. Medium’s algorithm is more of a black box (because it’s likely being tweaked every day).

Both services now offer a feed. Medium’s, as discussed, is algorithmically-ordered so as to optimize for serendipity: you’ll discover new content you didn’t know you wanted to read. Substack’s is much more like a traditional feed reader, in that you’ll read the latest content from people you’re subscribed to. (In fact, beautifully, it is a feed reader: you can bring your own RSS feeds from elsewhere.) Substack has traditional blog-style comments and hearts; Medium has claps to indicate attention and the concept of stories that follow stories rather than threaded comments. Both have merit, although Substack’s approach is considerably more straightforward.

Why choose?

I don’t: I’m a happy user of both, while also publishing on my own site first in the indieweb tradition. I am, if you’re interested, experimenting with a unique, native Substack about my work writing a book. And you can follow me on Medium.

Moving to a community-based newsletter is strategic for me. I want to continue to build a following so I can share the work I’m doing. Moving away from a straight newsletter platform is also financially beneficial: services like ConvertKit cost real money every month to operate. You can get started on both Medium and Substack for free.

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Another shitty day for democracy

I’m having trouble shaking today from my bones, so consider this post an attempted exorcism.

As I sit down to write, this was a day when a man broke into the Speaker of the House’s home in San Francisco, armed with a hammer, with the apparent intent of attacking her. When she turned out to be in the capital, he violently attacked her husband Paul, fracturing his skull.

This was also a day in which, following Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, use of white supremacist, misogynist, and homophobic language quintupled on the platform, while exiled white supremacists on alternative social networks bragged about having won.

Whatever you think about Nancy Pelosi’s politics, hopefully we can agree that breaking into her home and attacking her with a hammer is not the right way to go about challenging them. It’s obviously unhinged. But it is also reflective of a downgrading of democracy as a part of right-wing discourse. It sits on a spectrum with neoreactionaries like Peter Thiel who want to replace representative democracy with an authoritarian monarchy based on corporate plutocracy: something that sounds like an idea from a Philip K Dick novel but is increasingly, troublingly, mainstream.

Musk’s takeover of Twitter was welcomed by these communities because of his stated commitment to free speech. Of course, there’s a particular kind of speech that they care about: nobody was being banned from Twitter for calling for small government or lower taxes. Nobody was banned for arguing against marriage equality on a legal or social basis. It was hate speech and hate speech alone. The free speech that matters to these communities is the kind that allows them to demean people they see as lesser.

The thing about these ideas is that, although the people who wield this rhetoric are loud, they’re unpopular, and becoming more unpopular as time goes on. When polls claim that subsets of the population yearn for life as it was in the 1950s, they call these movements out for what they are: the dying gasps of the dregs of the 20th century, exhaled by wounded egos desperate for something that will make themselves feel more than they are. America’s demographics are becoming more diverse over time. For the pathetic, this is threatening.

It’s in this context of diminishing white supremacy that we see figures starting to argue against representative democracy. Of course they are: as their numbers dwindle, democracy is not a system they can win. The big lie of a thrown election is an ego-saving device that helps them believe they’re not shrinking away from prominence. But shrinking they are. So they need to find other ways of holding power: monarchy and insurrection.

And as their desperation rises, ugly old ideas rear their heads again. We hear again and again about “globalists” and “globalist conspiracies”. For the longest time, I didn’t understand what people meant by this term in the negative sense: considering peoples at a global level in a connected world seems like common sense. But, of course, with a heavy heart, I now understand that it refers to people who have an allegiance to some kind of world order that supersedes their allegiance to their country, which is an accusation that has long been levied at Jews. And correspondingly, there is the return of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory which posits that non-white immigrants are being brought into the country to replace white voters, often by you-know-who. And, yes, finally, the conspiracy theories about “groomers” are little more than reheated blood libel.

It’s not all anti-semitism. There’s an increasing number of people arguing against universal suffrage, as if women voting has somehow brought about their woes. Anti-Asian violence is on the rise. And of course, America has a rich seam of anti-Blackness that runs throughout.

Why, though? What’s the point of all this hate? In the end, it comes down to the maintenance of wealth and power. The bigotry always benefits someone. Just follow the money, whether it’s to fossil fuel companies that underwrite climate change denial, plutocrats who seek to cultivate their own political power, or companies that profit from modern day slavery through prison labor and worse. Hate is manipulation, same as it ever was.

“Cry liberal tears,” white supremacist edgelords yell from anonymous accounts. The anger is palpable, as if they’ve somehow been personally oppressed by policies that asked them not to practice outright bigotry. These people are not geniuses. There’s a sense of revenge behind their words: as if inclusive voices are personally responsible for their diminishing communities rather than the passage of time and their own actions. In choosing to deeply identify themselves with stagnation rather than change, they’ve doomed themselves. Change always wins. And the promoters of this hateful stagnation aren’t in it to help them at all.

It’s surreal to see ideas that bubbled to the surface and almost brought global civilization down a hundred years ago recycled on national TV and in the national discourse. What they’ll learn, though, is that they cannot win - not because they will face stiff opposition, although they will, but because their ideas don’t have legs to stand on. Alex Jones was ordered to pay almost $1 billion to the parents of Sandy Hook victims not because of any unfairness, but because he knowingly peddled bullshit that caused real harm. They will soon find, too, that Elon Musk is far from their savior: already, he has realized that he needs to capitulate to advertisers for his newly-acquired platform to survive. The dalliance with the disingenuous “free speech” crowd was in itself a ruse. Having saddled it with a billion dollars a year in interest payments alone, he is well aware that he needs to make it as mainstream as it comes. In turn, the people who find comfort in hate speech will find that they don’t have the allies they thought they did.

Which leaves the kinds of people who attack politicians with hammers and bring automatic weapons to pizza parlors and force their way into the Capitol building with guns and banners where they always were: as marks for people who manipulate their powerlessness for their own ends.

I don’t feel sorry for them: it’s a pathetic group that falls back to hate rather than positive action. By falling for the scam, their lot in life can only possibly get worse. Through their gullibility and violent conclusions, they put us all at risk.

But my real ire is reserved for the manipulators: the people playing power games. And those people, the plutocrats that think nothing of promoting hate to cement and grow their own power, are where my real worry lies, too.

 

Photo: United States Capitol outside protesters with US flag, by Tyler Merbler

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Monthly sponsors

I get multiple emails a day asking to pay to place a post on my website.

As of today, here’s the message I’m replying with:

Thanks for reaching out.

I don't accept paid posts on my website as such. I'm considering adding a monthly sponsor, which would give you an ad in the sidebar and at the bottom of the newsletter for the duration of the month, as well as the ability to publish a post at the beginning of the month. At the end of the month I would also write a post to thank you. All posts also go to my newsletter subscribers.

The cost for this is currently $2000. To get started with this, let me know a little more about the product you want to promote.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not writing here to make money, but if people keep asking, I’ll make them a deal.

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I made a website that only works if you’re smiling at it

I made a website that only works if you’re smiling at it.

(Caveat: it doesn’t seem to work on iPhone very well, and I’m not sure about Android, but I’ve tested it across browsers on desktop and iPad.)

Behind the scenes it uses face-api.js to identify your emotion from your webcam, and then applies the result to a CSS opacity filter on an absolutely positioned div. It’s a simple use of a little JavaScript, but it feels freaky - particularly as you continue to read the page, your face forced into a false grin that feels more and more of a burden as time goes on.

I wanted to make two points: that our operating systems will almost certainly be able to adapt to our human context as time goes on at a native level, and that emotional tracking feels invasive.

Other versions might show different content depending on your emotion or on what it thinks your gender is (which, of course, is also a problematic idea).

I stuck it on a domain that I acquired to make a different, dumber joke - Web 8: The Ocho - but it felt like a good home. We’re not that far away from this kind of invasive technology. It may seem horrible to us now, but the Overton window will have been dragged in that direction little by little in the meantime, so when it arrives we’ll likely accept it without question.

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The magic behind the earth

Over the last week I’ve found myself, many times, wanting to phone my mother. “I should tell Ma,” I’ll think, and it’ll take me a beat to remember. I can’t tell Ma. Ma’s gone.

In the little library nook that sat in the corner of my primary school classroom, 35 years ago, there was a book about ghosts. I devoured it. There were tales of ghosts of actors who still haunted theaters, and of ladies in stately homes. One of the chapters was about a phenomenon where someone would have a wholly real interaction with a loved one, there in the room with them, only to find they’d died far away the same night. I was fascinated with that idea, and internalized it far more deeply than I thought I had, because I realized when Ma died that some part of me thought I’d get to speak to her one more time.

I speak to her every day, of course. But I’m speaking to a figment; a version of her in my memory, which in turn has to also be me. In a way, it’s a trick I’m playing on myself, perhaps to make it easier, although I’m not sure that it really does.

I go on long walks, often late at night, to get some exercise but also to order my thoughts. Sometime last year, I was walking through the hills near my parents’ house, and the wind picked up from nowhere and ran through my hair. I stood still for a moment, goosebumps running up my skin, and for a moment I could have sworn it was her.

I’m supposed to be a sensible adult, whatever that means, but I’m still the kid who got up to draw comic books an hour before school, I’m still the kid who feels a kind of magic beating behind the earthly mundane, and I’m certainly still the kid who hopes to catch a glimpse of a ghost so he can see his mother again.

I find that child, a version of whom lives inside all of us, to be more interesting, more endearing, and more alive than the middle aged skinsuits we wear that claim to care deeply about MAUs and ARR and our IRAs. That child - this private version of ourselves - is driven by curiosity and whimsy and the wonder of possibilities. That child knows that magic exists, in some form, if they can only find out how to use it. And they love, so much. The trick is to let them breathe.

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Thinking about leaving Twitter

Regardless of what happens after the Elon Musk acquisition (if it even still goes through!), I’ve been thinking a lot about the effect social media - and particular, Twitter - has had on me, and how to change my relationship to it.

Alongside the sentiments of a lot of power users, I think I need to either leave Twitter permanently or significantly downgrade my involvement. Here’s why:

I don’t think it’s healthy (for me) to be this connected.

It’s a newsfeed on steroids: a dopamine rush of everything that could possibly be happening. It’s not just a backchannel to life, it’s a backchannel to everybody’s life, including their ids. If something important has happened, it’s there, instantly. If something unimportant has happened, it’s there, instantly. It’s all there, all of the time.

It’s good to be informed. But when it turns into an addiction - as it has for me, partially because of my own personality traits and partially because of the platform’s design - being informed can turn into a cognitive load that clouds other tasks.

A timeboxed learning activity - reading a book, checking out my feeds, skimming a newspaper, listening to a podcast, etc - is unambiguously healthy. An activity you feel compelled to do hundreds of times a day, like a smoker, is not. I’m not necessarily saying that it’s like this for everyone; I’m certainly saying it’s like this for me.

The reality Twitter connects me to is heightened.

Social media’s tendency to amplify extremely emotive events and content is well-documented.

Twitter famously has a “main character”, the dunkee of the day, who can vary from a noxious politician to someone unaware of their relative wealth and privilege. I’m not railing against “cancel culture” here - typically, these people deserve some (or quite a bit of) scorn. But I’m not sure I need or want to see the pile-ons, and I worry that the energy devoted to the main character actually hides the activity some of the worst actors in society, who go about their toxic days virtually undetected.

I have no interest in tone policing the internet, and there’s a lot of excellent work that’s come out of Twitter organizing: I think MeToo and Black Lives Matter are two very clear forces for good that started as hashtags to gather like minds. I want to see those communities, know about their work, and see how I can help. These days, I feel like I can better do that by reading articles, joining communities, and taking a more analytical approach.

It’s not necessarily a better approach for everyone. But for me: if I don’t control my inputs, I feel overloaded and my ability to make sound judgments is impaired.

In a world where content moderation is scaled back and far-right-wing accounts are reinstated, I can’t imagine any of this will get better.

The FOMO of not being on Twitter is bullshit.

I’m afraid of leaving Twitter for two reasons: because I might miss something from someone, and because someone might miss something from me. In other words, I feel like I need to be on the platform to stay informed for the good of myself, and to let people know about the work I’m doing for the good of my career.

The most informative page on Twitter for me is Twitter Blue’s Top Articles, which is a lot like the Nuzzl service it bought a few years a go: a list of the top links people I’m following (and the people they’re following) have posted.

The most fun is, of course, the main stream. But I’m finding that I can connect with most people in other, calmer ways: notably through their blogs and newsletters. I love the people I follow on Twitter, and I have no qualms about adding them to my subscriptions. I want to read everyone’s long-form thoughts - and even their short-form thoughts, when they’ve been posted with just enough friction to prevent them from being a firehose of id.

Do I think people would miss me? Not as such, but I do think my website would have fewer readers to begin with. Twitter is easily my single biggest referrer today. This is another argument for downgrading my involvement rather than disappearing entirely, but I’m hopeful that this dynamic will change. I’d love for there to be a new way to discover people to read and interact with. But also, I suspect that if I focus on a different approach, I’ll find communities elsewhere.

Discourse on Twitter tends to follow a power law because its circles of influence follow a power law. So my suspicion is that smaller communities will also be more interesting: more radical, perhaps, and certainly more different from one another.

Social media platforms have done a lot of work to make themselves feel like (and maybe be?) the place to see and be seen. I have to wonder if that’s akin to cigarette companies associating their product with being cool. Cigarettes are a lucrative product; so are social media boosts that help you be seen by more people.

I want to concentrate again.

Maybe this is all this post had to say: I hate the feeling of being distracted. Social media pushes me to the right of the Yerkes-Dodson graph, impeding my cognitive performance and getting in the way of the things I want to do. It’s a genuine addiction: something to be kicked.

I’ve found it noticeable that when I take time away from social, my concentration span regrows. I also just have more time to spend thinking about other things. In a world where I have increasing commitments, finding ways to make the way I use my time more impactful feels important for me. I’m raising a child; I’m doing a job I love; I’m writing a book. I’m not sure that leaves much time for getting angry on the internet.

Which brings me to, finally:

Social media is not the internet.

There’s so much more out there. The web remains a sea of interconnected ideas, across a kaleidoscope of forms and sources. Spending most of my time on just a handful of billion dollar sites squanders the possibilities and runs contrary to my values. There’s so much to be said for diversifying inputs, but there are only so many hours. It makes sense to economize.

 

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

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Email: ben@werd.io

Twitter: @benwerd

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