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Buffer's 2023 Annual Shareholder Letter

Buffer continues to lead by example: extraordinarily transparent and willing to share information about its ups and downs. I wish more startups (and founders) would think this way.

Not only is writing well thinking well, but there's nothing to be lost by sharing in this way. It's a way to get feedback, but also to very clearly share the way they think with prospective customers and future employees.

Buffer seems to have a renewed interest in communicating in this way, and I'm grateful for the example.

And also, there's this:

"Another important shift taking place is the advent of decentralized social networks, including the Fediverse. We believe the efforts being made towards open standards for social networking are important for the Internet and the world, and we were one of the fastest to move to support Mastodon in early 2023."

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A former Gizmodo writer changed his name to ‘Slackbot’ and stayed undetected for months

"When it was his time to leave, McKay swapped out his existing profile picture for one that resembled an angrier version of Slackbot’s actual icon. He also changed his name to “Slackbot.”" Genius.

Serious talk: this is actually a pretty common trick. You can't change your name to Slackbot in Slack, because the bot is already there, but you can use a unicode character that's visually indistinguishable from an "o". Malware and crypto scammers do something similar all the time. You'd think there would be better mitigations.

But whatever. This is hilarious. Nice work.

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Demoted, Deleted, and Denied: There’s More Than Just Shadowbanning on Instagram

The Markup found that Instagram is removing content about Israel and Palestine:

"Our investigation found that Instagram heavily demoted nongraphic images of war, deleted captions and hid comments without notification, erratically suppressed hashtags, and denied users the option to appeal when the company removed their comments, including ones about Israel and Palestine, as “spam.”"

"[...] As TechCrunch has detailed, the platform’s moderation system seems to disproportionately suppress Palestinian users. The Markup found a few accusations of supporters of Israel feeling suppressed, but did not identify more sweeping evidence through our reporting or testing."

When these platforms become large enough to be a de facto public square, as Instagram, Facebook, and X certainly are, their moderation policies disproportionately affect public perception. It's one reason why I prefer open protocols like the fediverse, with smaller communities that each can have different moderation policies, which in aggregate offer greater choice.

As reported here, people who want to shed light on the perspectives and lived experiences of people on one side of a conflict wind up using euphemisms instead of the names of a people in order to avoid getting their content banned or deleted. That's not the kind of information source that sits at the heart of a healthy, democratic culture.

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What Happens to Your Sensitive Data When a Data Broker Goes Bankrupt?

"The prospect of this data, including Near’s collection of location data from sensitive locations such as abortion clinics, being sold off in bankruptcy has raised alarms in Congress." As it should - although, of course, fire sales are not the only way this data gets sold and transferred.

When a business goes under, its assets are usually put on the market, either to a sole acquirer or piecemeal. For a data broker, those assets include personal information for potentially millions of people.

The only real way to stop this is to prevent it from having been gathered in the first place. Putting controls on data transfers in a fire sale is good, but preventing it from being aggregated and centralized is better. Otherwise, inevitably, it will be misused at some point during its life.

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European human rights court says no to weakened encryption

"The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that laws requiring crippled encryption and extensive data retention violate the European Convention on Human Rights."

This renders some of the EU's own proposed legislation illegal. More importantly, client-side scanning and backdoors become illegal in themselves, making it harder for vendors from anywhere to include those features, lest they fall foul of the law with EU users.

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Updating GOV.UK’s crown

A glimpse into a surprising design problem created by constitutional monarchy: the need to update the crown in your logo when a new King has taken the throne.

"On each accession, the monarch will choose a Royal Cypher, or symbol to represent their personal authority. You can see the Royal Cypher in many places, for example post boxes, on police and military uniforms or on the side of official buildings."

The longer I've been away from the UK, the more surreal this kind of thing has become. I will say, though, that the new crown looks a little less like a loaf of bread that's collapsed in the oven, so there's something a bit pleasing about that.

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Paying people to work on open source is good actually

"My fundamental position is that paying people to work on open source is good, full stop, no exceptions. We need to stop criticizing maintainers getting paid, and start celebrating. Yes, all of the mechanisms are flawed in some way, but that’s because the world is flawed, and it’s not the fault of the people taking money. Yelling at maintainers who’ve found a way to make a living is wrong."

Strongly co-signed. Sure, I have a bias: around a decade of my career in total has been spent working directly on open source projects. But throughout doing that work, I encountered people who felt that because I was releasing my work in the open, I didn't have a right to earn a living. I reject that entirely.

I agree with every part of the argument presented in this post. If people can't be paid to work on open source, only people with disposable time and income will get to do so. The result is software that skews to people from wealthier demographics who don't have families, or that can't be sustainably maintained - and I don't think that's what we want at all.

There are people who say "we need universal basic income!" or "the solution is to get rid of money entirely!" and that's lovely, in a way, but people need to eat today, not just in some future post-capitalist version of the world.

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The text file that runs the internet

It's hard to read this without feeling like the social contract of the web is falling apart.

And when social agreements fall apart, that's when we start having to talk about more rigid, enforced contracts instead. As the piece notes:

"There are people on both sides who believe we need better, stronger, more rigid tools for managing crawlers. They argue that there’s too much money at stake, and too many new and unregulated use cases, to rely on everyone just agreeing to do the right thing."

I think it's inevitable that we'll see more regulation and a more locked-down web. Probably, past a certain point, this was always going to happen. But I'll miss the days of rough consensus and working code.

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Building Slack: Day 1

Catnip for me: the first post in a new blog that tells the story of building Slack from the ground up, by two of its former employees.

This was surprising to me, although I guess I don't really know why: "We used the tried and true LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP). We were all deeply familiar with these conventional tools, and Cal and the Flickr team had defined a framework for building out and scaling web applications using them (called flamework for Flickr framework)."

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Caribou High School to use fingerprinting to track student attendance

"[The ACLU] publicly challenged the school district in a statement to media outlets stating that it has filed a public records request seeking more information about the district’s decision to [a firm] to track student attendance and tardiness by having students place their fingers on a biometric scanner."

So many questions: how anyone thought this was a good idea to begin with; how the data is stored and processed; whether this is legal; what the software company providing this platform could possibly be thinking. Nipping this in the bud feels like a good idea.

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Extending our Mastodon social media trial

The BBC extends its Mastodon experiment for another six months: "We are also planning to start some technical work into investigating ways to publish BBC content more widely using ActivityPub, the underlying protocol of Mastodon and the Fediverse."

The BBC's approach has been great: transparent, realistic, and well-scoped. I suspect we'll see more media entities exploring ActivityPub as the year progresses - not only because of Threads, but as activity as a whole on the social web heats up.

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Meta won't recommend political content on Threads

"Threads users will be allowed to follow accounts that post political content, but the algorithm that suggests content from users you don't follow will not recommend accounts that post about politics."

It's not clear to me what the definition of "politics" encompasses here. Is it just literal party / election politics? Does it include discussions about equal rights, which would disproportionately hit users from underrepresented groups?

Adam Mosseri says that he wants to create a "less angry place", but what about the topics where people are right to be angry?

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Review: Chris Dixon's Read Write Own

A characteristically great review from Molly White of Chris Dixon's disclosure-free shilling of blockchains as a way to save the web. Read, written, owned.

I do think there are some areas where blockchain is unfairly maligned: it introduced the idea of decentralization to a much wider audience, and it's the only community that has made widespread use of identity in the browser.

But this kind of shilling - particularly without disclosures - is out of date and unnecessary. What would serve the conversation is an open, good faith discussion of the possible options that doesn't go out of its way to dismiss technologies in active use as being dead. Otherwise what you're left with is the impression that rather than serving a higher calling to save the web, the author is looking for technologies he can make a lot of money from.

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Over the Edge: The Use of Design Tactics to Undermine Browser Choice

"In order to be able to choose their own browser, people must be free to download it, easily set it to default and to continue using it – all without interference from the operating system. Windows users do not currently enjoy this freedom of choice."

What's interesting to me is that this is very similar to the tactics that got Microsoft into hot anti-trust water a few decades ago. And here it is again: research that shows Microsoft is prioritizing its Edge browser in Windows. New browser, same dark pattern.

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NYT Flash-based visualizations work again

"NYT is using the open source Ruffle as their Flash emulator. I hope other news outlets follow. It’s great to see my favorite visualizations working again."

A lovely way to keep interactive archives alive.

A little-known, but perhaps obvious, fact about newsrooms is that a lot of the interactive features you see embedded in articles and on news websites are just static webpages. Upgrading these can be painful if they've used out of date JS libraries and so on, to the extent that sometimes they just aren't ever changed.

I like the idea of using web components with a central newsroom-specific library to get around this. In this case, a newsroom could update individual components and have all static interactive pages that use them update at the same time, without necessarily having to rebuild the page itself.

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The Quiet Death of Ello's Big Dreams

"Despite their idealist manifesto and their Bill of Rights, I don’t believe they could ever truly be in partnership with their community once they were taking large amounts of venture funding."

This is a key challenge with social networks that try and work with a different model: unless they're forced to be open (which, eg, Mastodon is), it's always possible for an acquirer to roll back their good intentions and do something else if it's profitable. It's also often possible for investors to remove the CEO in order to better serve a return to their fund.

The result is that these networks are hard to pay for. Decentralized networks have some advantage because they don't have to pay for infrastructure, but there's still a question about how the development team can be compensated (and therefore how to make development sustainable).

Lots to learn from in this case study.

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Search engine results are getting worse, research confirms

"We can conclude that higher-ranked pages are on average more optimized, more monetized with affiliate marketing, and they show signs of lower text quality."

SEO as an industry has made search engines much worse to use. People are essentially spamming the web, which undermines the signals search engines are supposed to use to determine relevancy and quality. The result is junk - which, in turn, inspires more junk in order for pages to rank higher than the junk that already exists. And so and so on until you get a junky race to the junky bottom.

And generative AI will make it all even worse.

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Each Facebook User is Monitored by Thousands of Companies

"Consumer Reports found that a total of 186,892 companies sent data about them to [Facebook]. On average, each participant in the study had their data sent to Facebook by 2,230 companies. That number varied significantly, with some panelists’ data listing over 7,000 companies providing their data."

In other words, there's a whole industry that makes a ton of revenue on providing information to Facebook. It's likely that each of these providers has many other downstream customers. The result is an extensive privately-run surveillance network.

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The Taliban’s curious love of SIM cards

"Global trade now means that even a pariah government like the Taliban can invest in and operate sophisticated surveillance systems, while imposing regressive policies that keep its population poor, hungry, and isolated. It’s a profound signal of how all governments will approach digital control in our era."

This last point is the most important, and illustrates why privacy and technology independence are vital. Our phones present a trade-off between convenience for us and surveillance opportunities for both networks and governments.

In Aghanistan the trade-off is between providing communications and information for refugees, and handing control over the source of information to the Taliban.

But, of course, there isn't much of an alternative - yet. It's worth considering what a truly independent network that is truly free from centralized control might look like.

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Where is all of the fediverse?

A nice investigation into who actually hosts fediverse instances.

I've been in a few situations where I've had to fend off a DDoS originating from Hetzner servers, and it's just now dawning on me: what if those weren't malicious attacks but were actually a post going viral on the fediverse?

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How Threads will integrate with the Fediverse

An in-depth writeup of Meta's fediverse meetup last year by Tom Coates, who was one of the roughly 20 people in attendance.

Most of these details have been discussed and speculated on at this point, but it's good to read them in one place, and I think Tom's perspective is (as always) very good.

The legal issues Tom discusses here are important: I think a lot of fediverse administrators and service operators tend to hand-wave them away, but they really are big issues. I encountered some of them when I was running Known, too: people were angry their content was showing up on some other service that they hadn't opted into.

Meta does seem to be heading into this endeavor in good faith. There's still a lot to figure out, but I think Threads will be a full, participative fediverse participant. I'm curious to see which other large network operators join them.

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Make the indie web easier

This was why I started Known, and I wonder if I should try again.

"If we want the future web we’re all clamouring for, we need to give people more options for self-hosted independence. If we seriously, truly want the independent, non-enshittified personal web to flourish, we need to make it easier for people to join in."

Everything here. I love the indieweb, but it needs to be accessible to people who are much less technical.

The one flaw here is that there's discussion of hosting as the shared, FTP-centric kind. I think that kind of hosting needs to die; I'd like to see web hosting look much more like installing an app on an iPhone.

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RIP: Software design pioneer Niklaus Wirth

Pascal was my first real programming language. I'd learned BASIC first, but I never built a full software application in it. Pascal allowed me to build and release software for the first time. It was magical.

What I didn't know: Niklaus Wirth was from Winterthur, Switzerland, which is right next door to Elgg.

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Ban Facial Recognition in Stores

Among other things, this campaign site has a useful list of US retail stores that use facial recognition right now (for example, Home Depot) as well as some that are thinking about it - and some that definitely won't (thank you, Costco).

"Your face should not be scanned, stored, or sold just because you walk into or work at a store. Retailers justify using facial recognition to protect and predict their profits, but this technology puts workers in danger, exacerbates bias, and amasses personal data. Retailers across the country that are exploring this invasive technology should know that prioritizing profit over privacy is wrong."


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Ambient Co-presence

I really like this exploration of what it might mean to build a sense of ambient togetherness on the web.

"We currently have no visual, audible, tactile, spatial, or embodied awareness of one another. We also have no awareness of the other people reading this post, even if they're doing it at the exact same moment."

Some of these demos are distracting or not quite right, but they're experiments - and experimentation is exactly what we need. Relatedly, I'm excited about PartyKit as a way to easily build these kinds of experiences.

Maybe I should build something into my own website?

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