The Social Web

Intimately Sharing With The Whole Internet (A Contemplation)

I miss blogging. But I’m not sure I can continue doing it as openly as I did through high school and college.

I’ve been writing as a means for self-reflection and public expression for around 12 years. At first, it was in a private diary, but then one of my parents read it without my permission. For a teenager who wrote as a way to find perspective in the crazy, unbalanced world that is adolescence, that was a violation of a most intimate level of privacy.

So, from then on, I figured I might as well do this writing publicly, where I had no expectation of, or need for, privacy. I had a few flings with various blogging services before running my own blog on WordPress, which directly led to my career today as a WordPress and Drupal professional.

Blogging all the way through high school and college was an immensely rewarding experience. My blog was where I stopped to reflect during periods of self-discovery when I lived in Spain and spent a couple of mornings meditating atop Saharan sand dunes. I used it to cover the mundane parts of school (griping about classes) and the significant (reconciling huge cultural and thematic gaps between my Business Administration courses and those in Information Systems).

All the while, as I continued in my blogging habitpractice, social web applications went through rapid evolutions and adoptions: MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and Google [Buzz, Wave, Plus] all introduced more highly social variations of the blogging theme. These all encouraged a much more terse, knee-jerk reaction kind of sharing, and preferred the memetic over the long and well-thought-out. But as a lifelong lover of online relationships, I embraced them anyway and felt all the better for it.

Now, I find myself in the body of a man who is older, wiser, fatter, more confident, and less naïve than the Zeke who exists in my old blog posts. I’d like to think that I don’t have more responsibilities, but the second email inbox labeled “Work” and the bills in my snail mail box (my own!) refute that fantasy.

But who I am now is just a new part of life’s journey. My blog was a great way to openly explore and share about earlier times in my life. So, why is it so hard to do now? I find two big things have changed:

  1. More responsibility increases the need for discretion. This does _not_ mean a reversal towards a closed and private lifestyle, but rather a more discerning approach when it comes to expressing my most extreme, spontaneous, or just irrelevant thoughts. In other words, I still am “being myself” with my world, but I try not to overload new acquaintances with an attempt to express to them the entirety of my identity before we’ve even talked about anything of substance.
  2. I’ve strongly favored more shallow, talkative, low signal-to-noise communications over proprietary social networks. These networks are great at building and maintaining lots of social connections, but they also lack a lot of bandwidth for deeper, more conscientious communications.

For the last six months, it’s been one big change after the next in my life. I want to return to this blog and use it like I used to. But can I be as open about my personal quandaries and endeavors? If I’m writing about romantic relationships, or wanting to move or make a career change, or considering a move to another city, or a stint in the Peace Corps, I feel more hesitant to discuss it openly.

This forces me to confront a struggle inherent to online publishing today: writing a public blog makes it accessible to everyone. To share more privately – say, among a smaller group of people – I have to tie it into some cumbersome digital wall which keeps others out. This just isn’t worth it to me. I admire extremely open and public Internet personalities like Leo Laporte and Robert Scoble: their lifestyles are based around the embrace of digital expression. But even they have boundaries when it comes to family and other important personal topics – some of which I want to write about freely!

Digital communications media started from scratch about 70 years ago, and have since rapidly evolved in their amplitude and capacity for expressiveness. Culture is doing its best to keep up, but technology is rapidly exposing us to new connections and new audiences which force us to consider the context of our speech in new ways. Does this mean I should embrace the changes and try to live as openly as possible? Does it mean I need to seek new tools to better differentiate between my communications between acquaintances, friends, family, coworkers, and lovers?

I find myself wishing for an easy answer. But my growing years of experience suggest to me that instead, the answer lies in using my awareness of all these trends to derive some path through the gray area in between the extremes of openness and privacy. Maybe I’ll write each post before deciding whether to keep it to myself or make it public.

I’m sure teenager Zeke would think I’m a total sellout.

Wikipedia SOPA/PIPA Blackout Tweets Reveal Humanity is Doomed

Watching the chaos unfold as an unwitting public awoke to many popular websites going on strike in protest of SOPA and PROTECT IP just made my day. Searching for tweets containing both the words “fuck” and “Wikipedia” was hilarious at first. I opened @whatthefuckwiki to curate the most hilarious results. But as the hours and hours of self-entitled teenage venting went on, my usually oh-so-optimistic faith in humanity started to wear thin.

What follows is an overview of the kind of reactions that sped through Twitter all day.

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I’m cheating on RSS.

I usually favor decentralized, open technologies, but I must confess: I almost never check my RSS subscriptions any more.

I used to use RSS as a one-stop way to cut down on my endless cycle of refreshing a million different blogs for news. Now, the opposite has happened: a couple of news sources are so much better in quality than the rest. I get my general news through the New York Times, and my tech news comes through The Verge or Ars Technica. These guys are beating everyone else at news depth and analysis, making most other blogs in their field redundant.

There’s a lot I risk missing online by doing this. But instead of drowning in an endless feed of RSS updates, I’ve curated a couple of social sharing tools to give me a pulse for the rest of the Web: Reddit (I unsubscribe from most of the default subreddits and subscribe to quality niche ones) and Twitter (again, being picky about quality sources.) I’d like to see Google+ take off in this role, but Google still needs to improve their API enough for killer apps to take advantage of it.

This new way of consuming content online is an unexpected one for me. I usually prefer more open, decentralized stuff, and RSS is the poster-child for such a thing. But as a constant news stream, it just doesn’t do enough to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. It’s still very useful and necessary, since it can syndicate a lot more useful information than just the news articles I’m talking about. Even though I sacrifice some openness, I find crowdsourced social aggregators far more useful, especially when I have some curation controls to personalize what I’m getting.

Sorry, RSS. You have a lot to offer as a technology, but my life is easier having left you.

Facebook Timeline first reactions

I just turned on the new Facebook Timeline as per this howto guide.

I don’t know how much people will use it, but wow, they’ve made memory lane a whole lot richer of an experience. There’s tons of stuff to look back on that I wouldn’t have had thought to document myself.

Also, I was worried that some of the new ways you can share with friends in realtime wouldn’t be implemented effectively. But as soon as I clicked a Spotify “play” action, I was presented with this simple menu:

I was cautious because of Facebook’s previous missteps when sharing data from other services, but it looks like they really understand that people want to make decisions about what to share with whom, and they especially don’t want that decision made for them.

Third party sites and apps that posted things to the Facebook news feed before now were usually limited to just links, or if you had some serious savvy, perhaps some slightly richer media. But there were always rumors and anecdotal experiments which implied that Facebook treated data from third parties like second class citizens, not to be shown as prominently as content posted through Facebook’s own apps. This will clearly change with the new Open Graph and timeline – developers have way more control over how to import their media into Facebook, and can publish third party content to Facebook in a much richer way as well.

It’s kind of hard to explain, but here’s an example that comes to mind: I have a presence on several social networks, but I don’t entrust any of them with the stuff that’s most important to me: my blog and photos. That stuff is so important to me that I host it myself, even when some other companies’ services might provide me a nicer experience or a bigger network of my friends. To compensate for the interaction I lose by putting this stuff on my domain, I use RSS-based tools to post content from to Twitter, Facebook, and hopefully Google+ soon. But it’s always just a dumb link, perhaps with a thumbnail and an excerpt, whereas my Facebook subscribers would see a rich photo gallery or video if I had decided to put it all in Facebook instead.

Well, no more. With Open Graph, I can choose to exist outside Facebook without sacrificing the rich sharing inside Facebook. I can’t wait to see individuals and groups start taking advantage of this in a way that opens new possibilities to them, instead of locking them into a proprietary platform.

That said, I have no idea how this stuff is going to play out in reality. There are tons of question marks about it still. And Facebook has a huge amount of existing users who may have a trouble with a paradigm shift on an existing network that they’ve already conceptualized in a fixed way.