Self portraitsComments

I’ve been listening to a podcast conversation between James Shelley and Patrick Rhone in which they discuss Patrick’s decision to go ”nonline” - defined as:

”No longer found on, made available to, or primarily accessed or contacted through the Internet.”

It doesn’t equate to offline, which implies someone has disconnected completely, just that they won’t be leaving physical traces, such as tweets or blog posts, or engaging in online conversations. A “read only mode” is the great way it’s described.

Patrick explains how he misses the early days of social when status updates meant status updates, they were about what you were doing, where you were - even the clichéd “what you had for lunch” posts.

The argument is that these, as boring or banal as they might seem, are an insight into you as a person and what’s going on in your life. Not retweets of what someone else is doing or saying.

Interestingly, journalling has taken over for him - the analog equivalent of these old status updates - and I can see the obvious extension from one to the other.

Patrick talks of the importance of looking back in order to reflect and remember, something we don’t do on social networks and rarely do, in any proper sense, on blogs.

I always refer to my blog as an ongoing conversation with myself so am often referencing old posts but usually as evidence to back up what I’m currently thinking.

Is that always the most constructive thing?

What I have been doing, however, is going back through the write365 project posts 1 on a regular basis to see what I was saying as they were often intensely personal and reflected my state of mind at the time.

And I think it all ties in with my struggle over pen and paper - not just what I’m writing but how.

While flicking through some of those old posts (they were all written offline and saved to Dropbox) I came across one called “Self portraits” in which I wrote that we...

”are telling our stories day by day here on social networks. The difference is most don't actually realise what we are doing or understand the potential significance of it...”

”We paint a self portrait over the course of months, years...”

and that...

”Our self portraits can only be judged on the paint we have used, the brush strokes and techniques employed, the settings we have placed ourselves in and, ultimately, whether we have signed our work. So, what story do we want to tell? What impression do we want to give?”

Listening to James and Patrick immediately connected, reaffirming the idea that a big problem online is that we are frequently telling the wrong stories.

We can tell the stories we think other people want to hear. We can tell skewed stories as we are often not truly honest with ourselves. We tell other people’s stories rather than our own, without comment, without opinion.

What use are the wrong stories and are we doing ourselves a disservice by telling them?

It’s something I’ve been conscious of for some time but only recently decided to really take proper action on.

I’m tired of telling the wrong story.


  1. The write365 project was my take on writing something, anything, every day for a year. I aimed for an average of 300 words but with no restrictions on what it was about. This was conducted on Google Plus so is no longer available online as I deleted my account. 
Self portraits

On leavingComments

Jeff Mueller wrote some thoughts about the trouble with Twitter in which he explains how he's on hiatus (again) but can't bring himself to leave the network completely.

"I usually return because I miss my friends’ voices. They don’t congregate anywhere else. Leaving Twitter means leaving them. It means isolation. I’ve not even been away a week, and I already miss my friends."

He says he's met some good friends and clients there so what will he miss out on if he leaves completely, who won't he meet in future?

I get his point but liken it to leaving school when you're a kid because your family moves to a different area, or changing job.

Sometimes you've just got to move on.

You make new friends and explore new opportunities wherever you end up and can't live life on what ifs.

We say "stay in touch" but never do. Maybe we'll send a couple of emails back and forth but they soon dry up. Occasionally there will be those with whom the bond is strong and you stay connected no matter what but out of sight is, all too often, out of mind.

There have been people I've only spoken to on Twitter, Google Plus, Medium, some of whom I would have called good friends. But I don't talk to them any more since leaving each of the services.

A few emails and DMs were sent but soon stopped and I couldn't help but realise that the relationships only existed in the context of the services themselves.

But, just like the kid who melodramatically thinks their life is over if they have to move away from their friends, I've forgotten the heartbreak of leaving and dived into new environments and experiences.

The thought of leaving is much worse that the reality.

On leaving

Shrinking the circles

When I wrote about Dunbar's Number a few years ago I was approaching it from the perspective of someone who was firmly ensconced in the social world.

I argued that, while Dunbar's Number was repeatedly touted as evidence that we should focus on the quality of connections not quantity, our "friendships" on social networks did not reflect the type that Dunbar was talking about.

As such, his number did not directly relate to social networks.

More recently, however, I wrote:

”It's ironic that the more we are supposedly connected the more distant we become. Perhaps we are widening the circles of acquaintanceship too far.”

I didn't expand on this at the time, it was a bit of a throwaway comment, however I thought I needed to come back to it.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the circles of acquaintanceship are the social layers within which the degree of our relationships decreases with distance.

The first circle only five people: your spouse and other closest family member and, perhaps, your best friend or two. They form your inner circle, those who you know most about.

The next circle contains fifteen people: maybe some of your wider family and more friends but who aren’t in your immediate circle of trust.

Next come circles of 50 and 150 with the intimacy of the relationships reducing as the circles expand.

And so on, as I wrote before:

”This logic extends beyond the limits of Dunbar’s number and it has been suggested that circles of acquaintanceship continue to 500, 1500 and beyond. Coincidentally, 1500 is apparently the number of faces we can easily recognise.”

But Dunbar’s Number was originally designed to apply to communities, villages, tribes. The online environment, however, is radically different hence the argument that Dunbar’s Number doesn’t apply here because the relationships we have are usually much more distant those offline.

Facebook limits users to 5000 friends and arguments exist over whether this is just an arbitrary number.

I’ve remarked in the past that Facebook, more than any other social media property, is firmly based in network science so maybe it’s no coincidence that 5000 would be the next circle of acquaintanceship after 1500.

So, whether you believe that it was a deliberate figure or necessitated by scaling issues, it was an interesting decision. One much to the annoyance of some popular folks who easily hit that limit, necessitating that Facebook had to add unilateral following alongside reciprocal friending.

For once, here, I find myself commending Facebook on a decision.

Perhaps the problems with social networks are due to playing the numbers game: more friends, more likes, more everything. Because of this we lose focus, lose the connections with others amongst the flow of data.

Dunbar may not apply directly but we should be taking the same approach with how many connections we have.

We are trying to cast the net too wide.

Shrinking the circles

Making the darkness conscious

I read this article arguing that Facebook should be regulated in the same way AIM was when the ill-fated AOL & Time Warner merger happened.

AOL was forced to open up the relationship data between individuals in AIM to allow third parties to interop. You could finally use your social graph in other apps.

This was all years before the major social networks we know today were even considered, let alone became the force they are now. The term 'social graph' wasn't even in anyone's vocabulary.

This was and is a big thing for the open web - it's not just the data that should be your own, transferable between different systems, but also your relationships. How two people converse on the web should not be solely controlled by a single company.

It instantly reminded me of a post I wrote back in August 2010 when I asked "are social platforms the next Microsoft?"

Microsoft was criticised and, eventually, censured for abusing its monopolistic position and forced to allow other browsers the same access to Windows as Internet Explorer while offering users an immediate choice of which one they used.

I wrote that Facebook and Twitter were acting like Microsoft of old, abusing their position and (effectively and literally) stealing the ideas of smaller startups who were unable to compete.

As such I wondered if this could put them at risk of censure themselves.

Fast forward seven years and they are still at it, especially Facebook which has made a not so subtle point of copying everything that Snapchat pioneered while amassing over 2 billion monthly users.

It's as though the reach and impact of social networks has been grossly underestimated; surely, those silly online services are nothing more than time sinks?

Wrong!

But it's only now that those pesky Russians are implicated that the need for some kind of regulation is being taken seriously. Maybe the Cold War never really end - it just moved online.

We've seen time and again that social networks can be dangerous places with equally dangerous degrees of influence.

Facebook has a de facto monopoly with a wider reach than any media company, no, any company in history. Connecting the world is theoretically a good thing but divisions will always exist - trying to force a utopian ideal upon everyone ignores those divisions and only causes resentment and an eventual explosive backlash when that resentment can no longer be contained.

As Carl Gustav Jung wrote:

"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."

We have to recognise and experience both sides in order to rationalise the whole.

Facebook and Twitter have been too reactionary: only acknowledging a problem after having it repeatedly pointed out to them. Then, of course, the issue becomes a priority with the promise of more hires to police it and the best minds to come up with a solution.

But then something else becomes a problem - subsequently a priority - and, before you know it, this "crack task force" is allegedly working on three, four, five issues with little evidence that any are actually being resolved to any degree of satisfaction.

To not realise, or blatantly ignore, that these systems which can be incredible forces for good can also be remarkably destructive is irresponsible, if not negligent, especially so as the warning signs have been obvious, and repeatedly pointed out, for years.

But Jung's quote above concludes with:

"The later procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular."

With this in mind, perhaps it's unsurprising that regulation has not yet occurred.

Making the darkness conscious

Why we need short form content on our blogsComments

Chris Lovie-Tyler makes an interesting observation:

"When I first started blogging, it felt like the expectation was that blog posts should be about 500 words"

I went back through some posts and found when he started. He's right.

I've been recently thinking about how the web and such expectations have changed and how this affected the way I've blogged over the years.

When I first started properly in 2003 I wasn't really sure what I was doing or what I should be writing about. I just knew I wanted to be one of the "cool kids" and have a presence on the web.

In those days I just used to write a combination of what had been happening, some tech stuff (mainly Microsoft based) and a lot of meta posts as I tried to make SharePoint a viable blogging platform. Unfortunately, the first snapshots of that old blog are from 2004 but they serve as an indication of how things used to be.

After a while, the influence of the "Tech blogs" grew and it became more fashionable to write longer posts. Bloggers were no longer the stereotypical losers writing about their lunch and their pets - the line between blogging and journalism started to blur.

In my pre/early internet days I had written a number of letters and pieces which were published in few a different magazines; writing in a more journalistic style, therefore appealed to me but, as Chris says, the expectation became that blog posts should be 500 plus words.

Over the course of a few years blogging became less about being a representation of you on the web and more about think pieces and essays, everyone trying to one up each other with a hot take on even the smallest story.

Shorter posts disappeared from all but the most ardent of personal sites instead moving to the ever growing social networks and an era ended.

I was as guilty as anyone, a move I often regret.

Social networks were a brave new world, a movement that was going to change the world for the better but they needed money to survive and business models sadly replaced noble ideals despite all protestations to the opposite.

But that's an argument for a different day. It's just ironic that what helped destroy short form blogging became its replacement.

For most.

Constantly writing more than 500 words is hard, very hard. I had enough trouble writing 300 words a day for a year during my write365 project. I burnt out.

And this is also why many others no longer blog. Once shorter posts became almost taboo they lost much of their material. The effort required to blog on a regular basis became too great. It was far easier to throw out a tweet, a dozen, a hundred, and still feel productive with minimal effort.

But the return to indie blogging is growing in momentum. As Manton writes: "By taking microblogging back from Twitter, we create a natural place for traditional blogs to grow." While he states that "microblogging is the gateway drug for long-form content" we must not treat it as merely a stepping stone only to be discarded when the high is no longer enough.

We already made that mistake once. We need both!

Why we need short form content on our blogs

More thoughts on ownershipComments

Some folks like to own everything they do on the web, whether by POSSE or PESOS their own site becomes the absolute bible for their online existence.

And that's their prerogative.

But, as I've said before, I believe that some content belongs where it is posted and doesn't need to be aggregated back to the mothership.

The problem is context!

Yes, being able to feed replies, and even whole conversations, back to your own site can help but is most beneficial to the original poster.

It's good for me to have all replies from micro.blog fed back as comments on my post; each of those comments depends on the OP and belongs with it. But do they truly belong on the commentor's own site, isolated from the post they are a response to?

Hold up a second. You're probably thinking I'm being hypocritical as I post "replies" on the blog. So what's the deal?

There are degrees.

There are different types of reply and they should be treated accordingly.

Social replies like on Twitter or Facebook don't, in my opinion, need to be owned - they belong in the context of the social network and that particular conversation.

If they contain something meaningful, perhaps a specific point you want to share further, then they can be rewritten as a blog post which creates a new context for it.

Then you have the longer replies, posts in their own right, inspired by, riffing off, or in response to, the original. These have a shared context but are more standalone and deserve to be owned.

They are what blogging conversations used to be made of before the social networks stole the conversation but, thanks to things like webmentions, can also exist as comments on the original.

(Without the need to copy/paste.)

It's good to collect the important stuff but we should pay more attention to that context.

Just as not everything needs to be pulled back to your own site does it all need to be pushed out and cross-posted as well? This is something I've been wrestling with for a while, especially in the context of micro.blog.

Currently everything from the blog ends up there but does it really need to? And if the answer is no (which it probably is) how is that best managed without introducing a layer of complexity? A layer that detracts from the simplicity of posting.

Perhaps I'm overthinking it but I think we need to draw the lines somewhere.

More thoughts on ownership

Feedback loops

Communities are often accused of being feedback loops. We naturally gravitate towards things, ideas, people that support or confirm our opinions.

Filter bubbles are blamed for divisions in opinion and society, just look at what happened during the US election and the run up to Brexit.

Being a Google property, Google Plus has long been considered a hotbed of anti-Apple (or, at least, anti-iOS) rhetoric where Android can do no wrong.

It's only natural.

Highly engaged and devoted Google Plus users are far more likely to have Android phones and people get very passionate about their platform of choice.

For some reason I clicked on the link to see the all time most popular posts on my blog. The top three posts, and by some margin, all had something in common:

  • they were all about Google Plus, and
  • they were all shared on Google Plus

Communities just love reading and talking about themselves and the platforms they run on.

All social networks go through a "meta" stage when the biggest topic of conversation is the network itself. We expect this while everyone gets used to a new way of doing things and deciding, as a collective, if that way is adequate or can be improved.

But my example above really brought home just how self-reinforcing these things can be. For these three posts to be the most "popular" purely because of a loop effect is... Worrying? Disappointing?

I'm not exactly sure of the emotion or the words I need to describe it, but I know that it's not the way things should be.

Feedback loops

I don't know if it's just because I've been paying more attention to the #indieweb recently but striking out on your own definitely seems to be more popular lately.

Perhaps it's just a bit of observation bias where you see (or at least pay attention to) more of what you're focused on.

Bias or not, an increasing number of people are closing their accounts and leaving social networks but not the social web.

So, what's the difference?

What is social? It is interacting with others, engaging with them in some way, being part of something bigger than just yourself.

Forget about content silos for a moment, but "social networks" are still concentrated in a particular place. We may be able to interact with them in multiple ways and even POSSE our content back to them from outside via gateways and APIs, but the actual network is self-contained.

A network is comprised of nodes and edges (the connections between those nodes) and the activity graph is everything that happens across it.

A social network contains those nodes so, while we may map out our graph, it exists solely within their domain and is therefore owned by the network.

You may be able to export your data but you can't export your graph because the nodes and edges aren't transferable. Well, not without getting everyone to move all at once.

You can still be social without a social network - and by that I mean a centralised one owned by a company.

Of course, you need a social network; even if you only have one friend you still have a network - it is only small with just two nodes but it's still a network in a purely "connected items" sense.

Now, if we choose to map that network then we hold that map. My blog contains posts that are likes or replies while other posts contain links to other people. My directory page lists incoming connections from people who have liked, mentioned or replied to my posts.

It's disorganised but it's still a map, a social graph.

And I hold it.

Just as I have mine other people hold theirs and so on, and they are all sections of a much larger, interdependent network.

The difference is, however, that each section exists in its own space and is not centrally controlled. I will always hold and own my graph, just as you will yours.

We don't need to export or transfer anything because, as long as you remain at the same domain, all the nodes are always available, not locked away behind the walls of someone else's network.

We don't necessarily have the convenience of a centralised network for establishing connections, patterns and friends of friends, but we also don't have a landlord trying to leverage those connections for financial gain while we rent our space within their property.

Discovery may be harder but we can temporarily borrow the graphs of others, following the connections from our own.

We become more discerning when making new connections, adding new nodes, due to the greater investment in finding them. Our graphs become more meaningful, more valuable and more rewarding.

I know which I'd rather pick.

Status

Valuing the right things

Chris Aldridge queried my current approach in making the blog an #Indieweb property but telling people to reply on Medium - it's anathema to the ethos of ownership.

My response was that the blog is in transition, moving from one phase to another.

And I think a lot of the confusion is down to value: what is the value associated with what we do on the web? It's not always obvious, not the same for everyone, and not even the same for the same person at different times.

Stats and reach vs ownership and control.

When I first started blogging properly in 2003 I had total control, total ownership, and a static IP address from my ISP meant it was easy to self host at home.

I had the blog on SharePoint running on a server sat in my dining room. All my email was handled by my own Exchange Server - again at home - the MX records pointing to my static IP.

Although I had total and full control I didn't really value it; I was doing it because it was the geeky thing to do. I valued the nerd-factor.

I learnt quite a lot though.

When SharePoint was no longer a viable blogging platform (was it really ever?) I moved to WordPress. My wife had been trying to get me to switch for a while but I had been so invested in my own setup and mistook the value in what I had done technically for what mattered.

At that point the value was actually in having a modern, purpose built blogging platform.

Blogging was (and largely still is) a numbers game and a few lucky people became six figure bloggers - they were there at the beginning and seized an opportunity to turn it into a meta business - making money blogging about making money from blogging.

Then the rise of social meant that numbers were more important than ever. Reach, influence, followers, all these things were purely about increasing the what and bypassing the why.

We got sucked in.

When social really started catching on around 2008 I became involved in a lot of very interesting conversations and my "online stock" was reasonably high in certain circles. But everything I wrote about and stood for was predicated on promoting the mainstream adoption of social.

Guess what? Social got adopted, and how! I became lost and didn't know where to take what I was doing.

People drifted away, moved on to the next thing, while the conversation moved from blogs to social networks.

Rather than realise the value of what I had I lamented what I had lost so the drive behind what I was doing changed. I placed more value on the audience than control, first with Google Plus and then (to a lesser degree) with Medium.

That's not to say there isn't value in those places but the relative value is so individual that we can't discount things completely.

In an attempt to recreate the audience I got away from what made blogging special and I'm not too proud to admit it. This realisation was key to understanding what I should be appreciating.

It's taken me a while to get here but I'm glad I've arrived.

Valuing the right things