#
 I keep going back to the thought that "the most focus you'll ever have" on something is when it first grabs you.

I've had a number of items left as unread in Reader, a number of notes left unfinished, a number of tabs left open, all just waiting for me to return to them and write something.

Two years ago, Drew Coffman wrote that notes can be a graveyard for your thoughts, written down then lost. I remarked that it felt my blog could be like this: "that I'm not doing enough with what I've got, making do instead of making strides."

If that is the case, if it is a graveyard, then I want to speak to the dead, build on their ideas. (And by 'the dead' I mean past instances of me who thought something was worth linking to or writing about.) That's why I've made all the recent changes to the site. Reader, Start, it's all about extending blogging, getting more from it, hopefully doing more with it by creating pathways through my thoughts over time.

Tom Critchlow wrote about increasing the surface area of blogging; he was talking about blogging as a whole but it can equally apply to a single blog. Creating a larger surface area allows for more scope, more references, more links, more connections – with some work and a bit of luck that leads to more ideas. Critchlow wrote:

"I think there’s something quietly radical about making your feed reader open by default. It increases the surface area of RSS so others can discover content more easily. It makes blogging more visible."

That's true but, in a setup like mine, it also allows for easier consumption and reuse.


The desire to turn the blog into a database, rather than just be held in one, has been long standing, five years at least. My interest was, therefore, piqued when CJ Eller quoted Justin Murphy's post Personal Knowledge Management is Bullshit. Murphy argues that having an ever expanding dataset is "oppressive not impressive. It’s not useful, and it’s not illuminating."

"Individuals blessed with high degrees of industriousness and orderliness will build sophisticated media diets, note-taking systems, and automated archiving pipelines much more effectively than those less blessed with these traits."

Then they try to sell these systems to the rest of us.

I am definitely more of the latter, the 'less blessed' and always have been; organisation has never been a strength. To that end, I've always been a bad curator. Start is an attempt at improving things, taking them out of my hands to a degree, with a minimum of effort.

It seems a waste to have years of material, of my personal history, sat there for its own sake rather than be able to take advantage of the potential held within. But Eller likens PKM to a garbage heap, "a perpetually expanding web of hyperlinked notes" asking how we can prevent one from developing and save ourselves from such a fate.

Maybe the answer is simply to be selective.

For various reasons, I have been very bad at feeding the machine, very few posts have been marked with labels that would place them within my system. Maybe that's a good thing. By being slow to add items I am preventing an unwieldy build up. I originally intended to throw all sorts in but find that something really has to resonate before it gets labelled.

I also feel that integration is key. Having tried a wiki-like system in the Garden I decided it was better to have any form of PKM as integral to the blog, directly fed by it rather than as a separate repository. Thoughts and ideas are posted once to the blog, why duplicate the effort? I don't want it to be what most would consider a traditional PKM system. Yes, there are bi-directional links in some cases and, between posts, I have the ability to indicate these links, but there are few. Instead, I mainly rely on internal webmentions to indicate related posts. Start deals more with mini-hierarchies originating from individual starting points, threads rather than a web.

Perhaps the blog is finally ready to be the "digital public commonplace book" or thought space alluded to by Chris Aldrich almost two and a half years ago.

Past, present and future me are in a far better position to communicate across the years than ever without having to shoulder too heavy a burden, or continually sort through (and possibly dispose of) a garbage heap. The blog exists in its own right, and will continue to do so for years to come. Everything needed is held within and I now have a way to unlock it.

What could be easier than that?

#

My indie, integrated feed reader

 For a few years now, it has been a goal (or more of a dream) to build my own feed reader which integrates directly with the blog making it easy to perform indieweb actions such as likes and replies.

I started building a WordPress plugin back in 2018 but quickly abandoned it as I didn't have the coding skills necessary at the time.

Today I am officially unveiling /reader, my new indie, integrated feed reader.

Reader

Before getting to the details I wanted to say that this has been made possible thanks to this RSS & Atom parser by David Grudl, it took a lot of the grunt work out of the equation meaning I could focus on the important bits.

Down to business

Reader adopts the visual style from the blog and my notes page displaying items as 'cards' in a river of news — oldest first. It can show all items, per feed or the last 24 hours.

New feeds can be added individually or imported from an (uploaded) OPML file. When added, the posts for that feed will be automatically pulled in. A cron job polls for new items every 30 minutes checking the last time the feed was updated to see if it needs to grab new items. That date is then written to the database for the next time it checks.

I'm currently storing a rolling three months of items but may reduce this to keep the table size down. When polling for posts it compares the timestamp (e.g. pubDate or updated) against 'now minus three months' and ignores anything older. New items are pulled into the database and those older than three months are deleted.

I can trigger a manual update at any time via a 'refresh' icon which triggers an async action to poll feeds in the background. The feed list (which slides out from the left) shows which feeds have unread items.

Indie and Integrated

So, why go to all the trouble of building my own feed reader? The main reason is integration with the blog. It's also another aspect of my online life that I can bring into my own control.

Cards

In addition to 'mark as read' each 'card' has actions which allow me to post directly to the blog and send webmentions. I can like, reply to or bookmark a post and the relevant Webmention will be sent.

Tapping each of these actions brings up a form populated with the post URL and the 'content filter' to add the required markup. I can then add some comments or my reply and post that straight to the blog.

I can 'mark all as read' which does as it suggests unless viewing a single feed when only items for that feed are marked.

Public/Private

The /reader page is publicly available but all admin and post actions are gated behind login checks. Anyone is welcome to come and have a look at what feeds are listed — the posts visible will reflect my read/unread status.

I am considering adding the ability for anyone to download an OPML export of the feeds list should they want. I might also add an option to 'suggest a feed' where visitors can let me know of a site they think I should be subscribed to.

v1.0

This is a version 1.0 feature that likely has bugs and needs tidying up or refining so it will likely change as I use it more and come up against issues or frustrations. I've already thought of one thing I want to add while typing this.

It doesn't support JSON feed but someone submitted a PR to include this in the library so I may look at implementing that in future.

Here's a short video of /reader in action.

#
 In his post What is a blogchain? Horst Gutmann posits that:

" ... making a post part of a chain is an explicit action ... But what would happen, if we don’t do that explicit step? This would also allow us to not only have a single parent-child path but one involving multiple parents, just as multiple thoughts can come together to form a new one."

He writes about creating a blog-graph rather than a blog-chain. It took me back to the idea of pathways and journeys through the blog.

Some kind of visual presentation of threads, especially in a social context, has been on my mind since the Google+ days — a means of depicting the spread of a conversation and the conversation itself in a graph-like manner. Horst's thinking translates this to the ongoing conversation with yourself AKA the blog.

It's someting I was already considering in some form so as to aid with those pathways and journeys, although not quite so elegantly.

The complexity a full map would require is currently beyond me but I can implement the first steps. I wondered, "what would it look like if my 'Start Here' page showed onward links from the posts it displays?" Now, the links are all available within the full post text but would if be useful to pull them out into a simple list for quick reference? So that's what I've been working on.

Graph links

It's not amazingly pretty (I'm iterating the design) but it helps to add a bit of structure to things. Is this the best place to do it? It's as good as any. Does it do what I set out to achieve? At a (very) basic level, it provides the beginnings of a path (two levels deep now) – somewhere to start exploring things in a couple of different ways.

#
 Good progress has been made on post labels, I can now add, remove and amend labels when writing a new post or editing an existing one.

These labels then link to the separate page which gathers all posts together from that label.

What I now need to do is work out how to best present the information on that page. Will it just be a stream of items or do I create some form of card-based look? To avoid clogging the page up with long posts do I have them present snippets if over a certain length which are then expendable?

Still, as I wrote yesterday, the structure and presentation is only part of the problem; a lot of where I want to get to relies on the mindset around posting, the willingness to be a lot more flexible with what is posted and in what condition.

All this means that the site will no longer be just a blog but also a repository for thoughts, ideas, notes, quotes, links - essentially anything that might be dumped into a PKM tool. 1

There are further implications, such as what gets put into the RSS feed. Do I leave it unfiltered or have an element of control over what is included? What about different versions of the feed with more or less items? I already have two versions of the main feed (and the daily feed on top of that.)


  1. Personal Knowledge Management 

#
 I mentioned that I wanted to make some major changes to the blog and how things operate, but what's triggered this?

Alan Jacobs wrote about architectural blogging:

"I have come to think that there is something architectural about writing a blog, or can be – but not in the sense of a typical architectural project, which is designed in advanced and built to specifications."

The idea is that building a personal site is very much like an open-ended architectural project, you add something here, redesign there and, eventually, "you get something big and with a discernible shape."

That shape cannot possibly be predetermined, this type of building and growth is totally organic, its direction unknowable in advance.

Tom Critchlow picked this up and ran with it saying "there’s something brewing here - something about building a digital homestead, building it in a way that reflects your soul."

The real lightbulb moment for me was Tom asking:

"How do you create pathways (and desire paths?) through your site? How do people start, journey, get lost and ultimately find their way through your site?"

It got me questioning how and why I do what I do here. To what end is it created and presented? Where are the pathways and journeys? Beyond going 'day-to-day' how does anyone find their way around? Do I leave a trail of breadcrumbs to follow? Why not?

There has to be more to blogging than just turning up each day and doing your thing.

I've been trying to build something like a fully functional home on the web but it is largely a piecemeal undertaking. Isolated thought worms may prepare the soil but they don't grow the garden. Speaking of which, the Garden is grossly underutilised (as I've said before) and, with the new Notes feature, often duplicitous.

So, what to do?

I've always sald I wanted to create something of meaning and thought the "It's Only Words" project was that thing. Now I realise that the larger body of work, the story of a life (or at least part of one) is what I really aspire to. But stories need narrative and flow, a sense of cohesion and coherence.

How do I go from here to there? How do I set out on a meaningful journey? How do I map out the lay of the land, rebuild and restructure?

I've had some ideas.

I'm thinking about scraping the Garden completely and folding it into the blog. Not so much organising things by pages but, perhaps, utilising a version of labels as currently employed by Notes.

I want things to be a lot more fluid, less structured and more "thinking in public." Snippets that would normally live in the Garden will become posts but not in a traditional sense — it will increase the emphasis on viewing the day as a conglomerate rather than a series of individual items.

Using labels in this context will not be in the traditional vein of tags or categories, more an indication of threads, collections of thoughts or blogchains.

This is part technology change part mindset shift, something that I want to achieve with as little clutter as possible — visually and mentally. I see it as the next logical evolution of what I'm trying to build. while the day-to-day blog will be largely unaffected, the possibility for creating pathways and journeys is introduced.

It's going to be a lot of work (although some of can luckily be ported from elsewhere) and things will get broken so bear with me. But I'm hoping it will be well worth it in the long run.

Colin Walker Colin Walker colin@colinwalker.blog