Blogs, and many of my favorites

Monday, January 29, 2018 :: Tagged under: culture engineering blog-meta. ⏰ 4 minutes.

RSS, you hardy bastard.

🎵 The song for this post is Papa Was A Rolling Stone, by The Temptations. 🎵

One of the best of our field, Julia Evans, published a gist of her favorite tech blogs. I'll take the same opportunity to list a bunch of my favorites, with some history for why I think this practice is valuable. If you'd rather just see my list, scroll down!

The humble blogroll

I miss blogrolls. A blogroll was a list of links (usually blogs) that the author of the site you were viewing curated to let their readers know of other sites they appreciated.

You still see them every now and then,1 but on the whole they've disappeared, like personal sites themselves. Blogrolls are a close cousin of the webring, and both were ways site owners collaborated to serve both their readers (by showing them where the good stuff lived) and other site owners, by giving them more viewership. Both were a lot more important before web search got sophisticated, and people came to the web en masse.


Coming a bit later, and very popular, were RSS feeds.

Let me be clear: when I say "popular," I mean popular with regular Internet users of the time, which was a much smaller, odder group than who's on the Internet today. Smartphones hadn't been invented, laptops were cumbersome and expensive, Wireless Internet was a luxury you couldn't count on finding, computers and connections were slower, and we were a lot less good at making polished web experiences, we made shitty pages like this one. These were the kind of people who sat, deliberately, at giant boxy computers and humming monitors, to listen to a computer scream for 40 seconds before they got a shot at reading what other weirdos left out for them.

One of their favorite technologies had blogs broadcast their content so you could collect all your blogs in one place: the site would expose their content in a machine-readable way (mine is here) and anyone can tell their "readers" to pull down the articles to be read all in one place, at the user's convenience.

It's a bit like your Facebook or Instagram timeline, but without ads! And without an external agent hiding things from you, even though you expressed interest in seeing them 😛

Arms races, building the web for the machines

The big revolution Google brought to web search was to use hyperlinks to signal importance. It wasn't enough to say the word "dogs" 200 times on your website to get to the top of search results, if 5,000 other websites linked to yours with the word "dogs," your website is probably a reputable one about dogs.

This is the start of how the web got consumed by machines to serve us ads. Anil Dash wrote a fabulous article describing how we stopped making companies on top of the web for the benefit of users, and instead made the web for the benefit of companies (and by extension, capital), at our expense:

But by attaching monetary value to search ranking, what Google ended up catalyzing was a never-ending arms race, where they constantly updated their algorithm and each community on the web constantly tried to learn how to exploit the new mechanics. The stakes of the algorithmic arms race kept going up; [...] understanding how to appease Google became the cornerstone of multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns. [...] it became about publishing content that suited the algorithm, whether it was true or not. At first, the only people paying attention were nerds making content management systems, then a broader audience of people trying to optimize their search engine positioning.

Eventually, though, movements across the political spectrum came to understand that knowledge of how to appease the algorithms that govern social media had profound social and cultural power. It wasn’t just marketers who figured out the best way to promote their ideas, it was trolls and activists and harassers and people on the fringes who wouldn’t have had any way to get the word out before—both for better and for worse. At that point, the rise of fake media markets was inevitable.

So the blogroll was an animal that became extinct by being extremely nutritious to its predator. By being a signal of what matters on the web in PageRank, it was instrumental in "mapping the web" for search, like road signs in a small town. Once we had maps, we destroyed the road signs. And now the map makers are extorting us.

Killing the golden goose

Facebook does the same to our social relationships. We get some nice things for sure, but have little control over what we get to see, we must see it with ads, while they learn every detail about us and do every cheap trick they can think of to be scrolling their News Feed endlessly.

To see how silly the asymmetry is of the value prop, give these a look:

Facebook charges people to show you the things you asked to see. They experiment on you and your moods. They deny their algorithms have any say in election results but assure advertisers they can influence your spending decisions.

It's no wonder we're all polarized, angry, and miserable. And it's hitting our youth in staggering numbers.

So, blogs!

I've mentioned before I'd like to participate in making the web more open. I highly encourage us to visit the sites we like, and maintain our own web presences when able and possible. And I hope we can have rich experiences without having to trade our lives and identities to ad platforms.

I encourage us to use RSS Readers and other decentralized, democratizing technologies, or at the very least, to build on them. I'm using Feedly, though I'm looking again at The Old Reader, and may look into hosting my own (I'd be willing to share!). My clients are the venerable Press app2 and Newsbeauter, though Feedly has an app on all platforms that works pretty well. You can download this list as a list of urls as a text file or as an OPML file, which these tools can use to import.

So! If you're looking for great things to read, here are many of mine!


Non-tech, though curious/delightful

What are your favorites? Leave a comment for me and others to find!

1. ^ See a blogroll here under "Allies in Discontent," on the right side, including to an old site named "More Paul" 😉

2. ^ One way you know that a tech is good is when hasn't had a single update in almost 4 years and still functions extremely well.

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