I’m excited about NewsBlur. It’s an RSS/Atom reader that’s web-based, open source, and integrates with Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and a handful more popular social networks.

I find the interface kind of ugly and clunky and not intuitive. I found my way around quickly enough, but I think a non-computer-geek would be at a loss, thinking, what is this thing and what am I supposed to do with it?? The three-pane design makes it look like a desktop application, which I think people would find confusing. And the fact that every time you click on anything there’s a JQuery fadeIn() – why????? Aaargh. It basically simulates a slow Internet connection.

But those are quibbles, and easily fixed. I’m excited about this thing, and looking forward to playing with it more.


How do you edit Wikipedia?

I intended to start editing Wikipedia for a couple of years before I started actually doing it. I was put off not so much by the wiki code, but by the endless lists of rules, tutorials, style guides, best practice guides, etc. I’m the kind of person who reads the fucking manual, who makes an effort to learn the community’s established ways of doing things first instead of crashing straight in, but with Wikipedia there seems to be an infinite amount of information that you “should” read before getting started.

Eventually I did a reality check: I’m an Internet-savvy hobbyist web developer, I’ve participated in lots of online communities, and if I can’t learn everything I need to get started on Wikipedia in 15 or 20 minutes that’s Wikipedia’s problem, not mine.

Since then I’ve developed a nice comfortable rhythm with it. I’m not one of the core Wikipedians who’ve edited tens of thousands of articles. I never go out of my way to edit Wikipedia. But if I’m reading an article and come across a typo, or a mistake that I know how to fix, I’ll fix it. If I can’t find the information I need on Wikipedia and end up finding it elsewhere, I’ll add the research I’ve already done to Wikipedia, essentially creating the article of article section I was looking for in the first place. It feels good that I’m contributing to a shared project that benefits people around the world, and it also feels good to have a way of contributing that’s a sustainable and efficient use of my time.

Wikipedia is seen as having a particular culture: valuing openness, cooperation and transparency, commited to the idea of “neutrality”, often adversarial and prone to edit wars and aggressive behaviour. I see myself as only partly fitting into this culture. I put the word “neutrality” in scare-quotes because I don’t believe it exists: what English-language Wikipedia calls “A neutral point of view”, I would call “Representing as closely as possible the range of views currently expressed in English-language publications that fit Wikipedia’s definition of ‘reputable'”. To show my problem with the concept of “neutrality” as starkly as possible: if there had been a German-language Wikipedia in the 1930s there would have been an article on “The Jewish Question” which would have contained two points of view: a hardline view that Jews were the cause of all Germany’s problems, and a more moderate view that Jews were mostly harmless as long as they were prevented from having certain jobs and had their rights curtailed in various other ways. The (correct) view that Jews should have equal human rights to everyone else would not even have appeared on the page, because it wasn’t part of mainstream discourse at the time.

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jscolor widget position:fixed

This is a quick note for anyone who ends up googling this problem (and also for Future Me who will probably forget how I solved it):

If you want your jscolor widget to have the CSS property position:fixed (i.e. you want the color widget to always stay in the same place even if the user scrolls down the webpage): go into your jscolor.js and replace this line: = 'absolute';

with this: = 'fixed';

That’s it. Easy peasy.

Initial musings on the Global Village Construction Set

I recently discovered a cool project I hadn’t heard of before, got excited, and compulsively read all the blog posts and the Wikipedia entry and watched many of the videos all in one go (as you do). The project is the Global Village Construction Set, and its goal is to create and make freely available a set of modular, open-source designs for “the 50 machines needed to create a small civilization with modern comforts”.

50 machines

The machines include everything you’d need to grow food (tractor, etc.) generate power (wind turbine) and build houses (compressed earth brick maker, etc.)

I’m very impressed by the fact that the business side of it is open source alongside the design schematics: they publish detailed breakdowns of what materiels were used, at what cost, how long it took to make the machine, with how many people working. This stands in contrast to many Free Software projects that are Free as in Freedom – but only for folks with the cash for a private server, and the spare time and know-how to set it up and maintain it. The financial, time or knowledge requirements are often completely ignored.

The vision behind the GVCS isn’t the sort of extreme self-sufficiency where one person or one family produces everything they need, but it’s not the mainstream idea of massive corporations carrying out extremely specialized tasks either. It’s somewhere in between; not every person does every task, but a smallish community (a village? A small town?) would be able to provide their own food, electricity, and housing.

This isn’t complete self-sufficiency. Things like modern medicine and computers are outside the scope of the Global Village Construction Set.

I love the fact that Marcin Jakubowski, the main person behind the project, keeps talking about efficiency. Open source, cooperative development, with interchangeable, modular parts, he emphasises, is efficient. In contrast, secretive, proprietary, patent-based development is grossly wasteful.

Marcin Jakubowski is an interesting character. He’s a Polish guy living in the US. In the TED talk he tells a moving anecdote about his childhood: he remembers happy times playing, like all children, but he also remembers waiting in line for food (in Communist Poland before the end of the Cold War) and the terrible effects that hunger and poverty had on people. Jakubowski grew up, went to the US to get a physics Ph.D, then realized that his knowledge of plasma physics had little to do with the lives of ordinary people, so he dropped his physics career and began work on the Global Village Construction Set.

He comes across as the boyscout to end all boyscouts: eager to make the world a better place, modest about his own impressive achievements, speaking overly-precise English in a charming Polish accent. He does not show any sign of having a sense of humour. So I love the fact that he goes on about efficiency, straight-faced – I think he knows very well that “efficiency” is the justification given over and over and over to justify proprietary, corporate, secret, patent-driven technological development, and neoliberalism in general. I think that underneath his straight-man facade he knows that he’s giving a two-finger salute to current political and economic status quo, and laughing about it.

But, I might be just reading too much into things.

With a project like this, the first thing that leaps to mind is that it could be useful in poorer countries. There is mention of plans to integrate parts of the GVCS into development projects, but the focus seems to be on developing greater self-sufficiency in wealthier nations such as the US, so that it will no longer be necessary to rob the rest of the world for the things we need.

That’s a pretty radical idea when you think about it.

The Global Village Construction Set doesn’t seem to be particularly well-publicised, compared to other cool, trendy or “disruptive” open source projects. Perhaps that’s another point in its favour? Perhaps it’s simply part of the nature of the universe that the best-promoted projects are not the best projects in substance, because the people involved in the latter are focussing on other things than self-promotion.

Instagram turns evil; people do care

I just wanted to throw down a quick rant on the Instagram fiasco, for the sake of emotional cleansing if nothing else. Apparently Instagram now owns all your pictures, and there’s no way to opt out. Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a backlash going on.

In a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading online about this, there’s a theme of ‘Maybe now people will FINALY care about having control of their online data’. There is also a more cynical flip-side to this theme: ‘Even though Instagram’s behaviour is shocking and preposterous they will probably get away with it because most people are too apathetic to complain’.

Danah Boyd, one of my personal heroes, tweeted:

I have to admit that I’m loving the #instagram backlash. Fingers crossed that it results in users better understanding their rights.

while an article called Instagram Turns Evil, And It’s All Our Fault is doing the rounds on social media sites.

Danah Boyd’s tweet is optimistic while the Dan Lyons article is cynical, but they both have the same core idea: that people don’t care about online privacy or about how their online data is used, and that Facebook and their ilk can basically do what they want to users because no-one cares. In this view, the apathy and laziness of most ordinary people is the reason why we can’t have nice things.

I think this idea is deeply wrong, counterproductive, and dangerous.

I’m arguably unusual in that I’m a techie with a mostly non-techie friends. My friends are smart, thoughtful, politically aware people. When I talk to them about issues like online privacy, walled gardens, and open data formats, they are not apathetic. On the contrary, they are very interested, very concerned, and hungry for information. They want me to tell them which social networking sites are good on issues like privacy, and which are bad.

They’re also utterly confused about the social web. They’re smart people (smarter than me in most cases), they use Ubuntu and know the difference between open source and closed source, they’re interested in these issues and they’ve made an effort to learn about them. But when it comes to social networking websites there is a huge amount of confusion – confusion which Facebook, Twitter, and others have gone to great lengths to create.

The list of dirty tricks is familiar to people who are interested in Internet freedom issues: Facebook started off in 2006 with quite a good set-up where you could fairly easily control who saw your posts, but continually changed the rules without telling people they were doing it. Twitter built an open API, got lots of third-party developers to build apps that made Twitter more popular, then shut that API down once they were big enough that it became more profitable to operate as a walled garden. Google advertised Google+ as a “social network”, and then did an about-face and said it was a real-names-only “identity service”. People signed up for Gmail and didn’t realise that their Gmail account was going to get automatically integrated with ten other services provided by Google. Etc. etc. etc.

All of these dirty tricks are announced as being ‘improvements’, if they are announced at all. Even as a computerally knowledgeable person I found it a hard to understand and keep up with all these shenanigans. Think how much harder it must be to understand this stuff for people who lack the technical vocabulary to describe it.

So people are confused. Not because they are stupid or apathetic, but because some of the most powerful companies on the planet have spent billions to create confusion.

Just to give a few examples what the social web might look like to people without a technical background, in my experience:

– When a website does something the user didn’t want or doesn’t understand, very often what the user thinks is not “They screwed me over, those bastards!”, but “I must be doing the wrong thing” or “maybe it’s supposed to do that”.

– A lot of people vaguely know that Facebook is bad on privacy, but they aren’t clear about why.

– Lots of people know that Facebook makes money from advertising, but don’t realise that the advertising is targeted, and that they can sell your information to third parties.

– People generally don’t know about Facebook’s bait-and-switch trick with promoted posts. When I describe it the response is usually: “Are you serious? They can do that!?”

– A lot of people know about cookies, but are shocked when I tell them that when you go to a website it can read all your cookies, not just the ones originating from that site.

– The concept “federation” is a really hard one to explain. When I tell people is open while Twitter isn’t, their eyes glaze over and I can tell what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense to them. Which is fair enough because at present’s federation is mostly theoretical – I mean, just how many StatusNet servers are out there that are open to members of the public? To most people looks like Twitter but with a crappier interface, and none of their friends are on it.

Not only do the big social media companies sow as much confusion as possible, but they keep changing the rules, throwing us off balance. People have been conditioned to feel helpless, and to think that the Internet is too complicated for them to understand.

The idea that people are not willing to pay for social networking is simply untrue, in fact lots of people would jump at the chance to pay £10 per 6 months for a free and open social network – but only if it was really free and open, and definitely not going to turn into the next Big Evil Internet Thing in a year’s time. And it would have to work. It would have to provide the social networking experience that people want to have.

There is an ugly tendency among techies to assume that everyone who isn’t a computery type is unintelligent. This is ridiculous. Of course my friends don’t understand what I mean when I say that exposing a public API isn’t as good as making the source code itself open source. Just like I don’t have a clue what my neuroscientist friend is talking about when she describes her research, and I don’t understand my friend the German Literature scholar when she talks about… whatever it is she does.

More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that the biggest barriers to a free and open social web are not technical, but social. Maybe instead of hacking on Buddycloud or Diaspora, we should be hacking on people, on the way we relate to each-other. What if, instead of jeering at non-technical people for being apathetic or stupid, we reached out to them, made a serious effort to explain these issues to them in their own language, and sincerely and humbly asked them what kind of web services they actually want to use would look like?