Rebuilding the Web

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Brad Enseln has posted a nice call to action on rebuilding the Web. He argues, and I agree, that one way to reduce the dominance of social silos is to rebuild and reinforce the interconnections between independent blogs. (I also think some nice trustbusting on the part of the federal government w/r/t Facebook would excellent policy.)

We, the little people, need to rebuild the web.  It does not do to just complain about silos and then point out other corporate alternatives, first and foremost the web needs websites built by individual humans, not just corporations, SEO’s and people trying to get their hand in your pocket.  This is the foundation of everything. [emphasis in original]

As I have written before, the ways that large social media advertising companies manipulate us has a corrosive effect on society and ourselves. I’m excited by the work that some folks are doing to get back to blogging, like Brad and Kicks Condor, and others like Duncan Black at Eschaton, who never left. I’ve been working harder to post here on my own site and happy that I am not contributing to something malign. I’ve had good experiences on both Twitter and Facebook, finding new friends on the former and reconnecting with old ones on the latter. But these companies have not been good stewards of the free labor we have given them. Here, on my own site, I published my comic for the first time and was an early web comic artist, trying to hack together weekly pages in comicspress after the financial crisis scuttled a book deal. Even aside from any larger societal impact, I can’t say that anything I have done on social media has been nearly as worthwhile. The past year, since about March, I’ve committed to spending less time on social media, and my creative output is way up. I can see it not only in the posts I’m creating, but also in the artwork I’ve created, on both paper and iPad.

So. Back to blogging. Back to drawing.

World Wide Web Starter Pack

So if you’re looking to do a little less Facebook and Twitter and a little more RSS reading, here’s what I use:

Feedly: Since Google Reader went away, you need a way to organize your feeds that will sync across your various devices. I use Feedly. It’s free for basic use (there’s a pro option if you need to have multiple feed groups or want to follow more than 100 blogs, or want to use it for teams) so it’s a good place to start. I’ve also heard Feedbin recommended.

Reeder: Now, you can use the Feedly app to do your reading, but I use a third party reader, Reeder. NetNewsWire is another good option, it’s in the process of being rebuilt from the ground up, and it’s a bit of a beta right now, so Reeder is probably a better place to start.

WordPress.com: But what if you want to write? WordPress lets you create a blog for free with an account, and you can even use it as a one-stop shop for reading as well, perhaps obviating the need for a reader and a sync service. I haven’t ever used it this way, so I can’t vouch for it, but I do use WordPress as a CMS for this site, hosted on my own domain. For simplicity of use, I also highly recommend Tumblr. Tumblr is probably the simplest way to get up and running with a blog. Although it is a bit of a walled garden, the fact that a Tumblr blog creates RSS feeds and if fully interoperable with the open web. If it’s a walled garden, it’s a small wall, like a little stone border you can easily step over.

Monday Sketchbag

I’m testing out the excellent MarsEdit and seeing how it will handle an excerpt and an image-heavy post. Can it handle image resizing? Send different sizes to WordPress? Post my excerpt to Micro.blog? Let’s find out!

Here are some choice morsels torn from the sketchbook.

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Whisper of the Heart is the most underrated Ghibli movie. It’s quiet, intimate, and does an excellent job of telling a coming of age story filled with very well observed aspects of Tokyo daily life.

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The Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment in Boston, work in progress. I drew this one in Procreate in iPad (yes, yes, I know. I am completely sure that some CEO out there thinks this name is just the cleverest thing ever and no-one has the courage to sit him down for some real talk). I love the way the Memorial takes such time and care with the individual soldiers. Look how each person is sculpted as a unique individual. If you’re in Boston, stop by The Common and see the Memorial, which is right in front of the State House. It’s worth the visit.

I am starting to get the hang of drawing electronically, and am becoming more comfortable with it. Still, I feel that the work I’m most pleased with are those I have done on paper. Then again, that may be because I’m still not nearly as masterful on the iPad as I am with pencil, paper, and watercolor or ink. Perhaps there are satisfying electronic works in my future.

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A little decorative initial I created for The Cloud of Unknowing, a Medieval text of Christian Mysticism. This one is pencil on paper. Water soluble graphite to be more specific. By putting the monk in a Zazen sitting, I’m drawing some attention to the harmonies between the Cloud author’s eponymous cloud of unknowing and the Zen rejection of epistemology and ontology more generally. I’m looking to do some writing soon on Thomas Merton and mysticism (both Christian and Buddhist) more generally.

Apple’s Unsocial Network

Apple skepticism is de rigueur these days, as stumbles in hardware and software (particularly MacOS software) leave observers wondering if the company has lost a step, or lost the plot entirely. Yet quietly, in areas that tend to be overlooked by technology enthusiasts, Apple has put together a compelling suite of services that appeal to the non hobbyist end user. In this environment of growing suspicion and hostility to social media monopolists, Apple’s unsocial offerings make a compelling case for a connection in which the user is not being exploited. I wonder if Apple is not poised to capture some more attention from people disillusioned and embittered by social media.

Apple’s iCloud services are social adjacent; they’re social, but not in the same avaricious and toxic way that characterizes social media today. iMessage is obviously social, in that it’s a messaging service, and probably the tip of the spear that could pry people away form other messaging services. But it is a private mail system, one in which Apple plays the simple role of courier. This is in marked contrast to Facebook and Twitter, who are mining and parsing your communications looking for angles and hooks their advertisers can use to sell things to you.

iCloud Photo Library, particularly iCloud photo sharing, represent a really excellent replacement for Facebook. The walled garden approach to shared media, which once seemed a drawback to Photos, now seems like a value proposition. “No one outside your circle can see these photos” seemed like a criticism in 2015, but sounds like a marketing tag line today. Additionally, features like comments and likes allow Photos to behave like a mini Facebook, but one without news, people you barely know fighting in your comments, or a malevolent corporation selling your data to foreign adversaries looking to break your political system. Instead, it’s made up of your friends and family only, it’s just pictures, and it’s nice. I really encourage anyone who uses Apple Photos to try using it in place of Facebook. It’s a lot better.

Apple News is not bad, either. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times, “Just about every problem we battle in understanding the news today — and every one we will battle tomorrow — is exacerbated by plugging into the social-media herd. The built-in incentives on Twitter and Facebook reward speed over depth, hot takes over facts and seasoned propagandists over well-meaning analyzers of news.”1

It’s interesting, as Apple’s unwillingness to mine every scrap of data they have on their users has been portrayed by tech commentators as a weakness. We may now be seeing, as we re-evaluate of the costs of social media, to be an argument in Apple’s favor.

1 Admittedly, the NYT, home of “but her emails” coverage and promoter of the neo-fascist “intellectual dark web” is a bit rich, but Manjoo has diagnosed the problems with social media news correctly. Would that the NYT would apply the same amount of analytical rigor to themselves.

Don’t Feed the Trolls, and Other Hideous Lies

The pseudonymous Film Crit Hulk writes in the Verge today about the ways we have accepted troll behavior as kind of a given on the Internet, and the way that social media companies in particular have abdicated any responsibility for policing themselves: “the large-scale internet needs the figure out the way to guarantee the same protections as smaller communities by moderating with a sense of decency and displaying the same basic sense of judgment as a damn open mic night.”

“Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are now so large that they are considered “unmoderatable” communities. We like to pretend this was a pure facet of their size, but it is inescapably a part of their ethos. They are platforms forged in the fires of troll culture, founded and operated by techno-libertarians who didn’t understand why they had to care about any of this. They set out with no intention to moderate at all. Zuckerberg just wanted to rate hot girls, after all. But in 2018, the staggering effects of non-moderation are just starting to hit them, and they have little idea how to address or even intellectually engage with the idea.”

“It’s no accident that the corners of the internet that subscribe most deeply to this idea are also the most openly miserable. While some clearly use “joking” as a justification for abuse or even violent threats, there’s little larger comprehension or interest among huge swathes of internet culture about how satire, irony, or intent actually function, much less in the distinction between what they consider “trolling” and actual abuse. Drawing such lines would be against both the protocol and intent behind the creation of internet culture at large — a culture that was designed to escape the responsibilities of the social order. In that pursuit, internet culture subconsciously turned itself into a calloused nub, a place where so many “jokes” are the equivalent of running and shouting “fire!” in a movie theater, and a place where the biggest joke of all is the idea of caring about anything in the first place.”

As they say, read the whole thing.

“Celebrating” Steve Ditko

Kim O’Connor is the author of one of my favorite comics blogs on the internet, and she is on fire with her latest post. She writes “Since his death was announced on Friday there’s been an outpouring of intensely sociopathic stories from the people men who stalked him, pestered him, or asked him for favors, presented as though they’re some sort of celebration of his life and work.” I have to admit I hadn’t really considered it in this way, even though I had read a couple of these stories, but once she points it out, it’s pretty obvious and I feel a bit embarrassed for not figuring it out on my own. Still, that’s the sign of a good writer.

This is also extremely relatable: “To feel compelled to participate in comics, yet want to keep its culture at arm’s length…well, I guess you’re either the kind of person who finds that incomprehensible, or someone who thinks that sounds relatively normal and sane.”

Her blog, The Shallow Brigade, is an awesome throwback to the pre-social media blogosphere, with the kind of bomb-throwing and holding forth that most people fritter away in Twitter these days; go forth and put it in your RSS reader.

I’m really excited about this planned new design for Boston City Hall Plaza. The problem with the plaza as it is today is that its scale is too huge; it’s a vast and forbidding desert of brick. These trees, while providing a nice contrast to City hall itself, break the space into much more congenial human-scale spaces. They also nicely complement the daring Brutalist architecture of the building. It’s a nice effect.

On Chernow’s Grant

I recently read Chernow’s Grant. It is magnificent, and continues the important work of refuting the denigration of Grant and Reconstruction by racist Twentieth Century historians of the Dunning School and politicians like Woodrow Wilson who catered and truckled to white supremacy.

Grant was right on the big issues of his day: Reconstruction, the 14th and 15th Amendments, and white supremacy. He crushed the original Klan and opposed the first stirrings of segregation and anti-black terrorism. Not to mention having won the Civil War, destroying a would-be slave state bent on expansion. His errors came in staffing his administration poorly, and he was an easy mark for confidence men in public and private life.

Racist revisionists of the 20th Century would view his presidential achievements in Reconstruction as at best misguided or failed, and the pursuit of equality not even an accomplishment at all, leaving only his cabinet’s corruption scandals of his second term to judge him by.