Tags: community



Owning my words

When I wrote a few words about progressive enhancement recently, I linked to Karolina’s great article The Web Isn’t Uniform. I was a little reluctant to link to it, not because of the content—which is great—but because of its location on Ev’s blog. I much prefer to link directly to people’s own websites (I have a hunch that those resources tend to last longer too) but I understand that Medium offers a nice low barrier to publishing.

That low barrier comes at a price. It means you have to put up with anyone and everyone weighing in with their own hot takes. The way the site works is that anyone who writes a comment on your article is effectively writing their own article—you don’t get to have any editorial control over what kind of stuff appears together with your words. There is very little in the way of community management once a piece is published.

Karolina’s piece attracted some particularly unsavoury snark—tech bros disagreeing in their brash bullying way. I linked to a few comments, leaving out the worst of the snark, but I couldn’t resist editorialising:

Ah, Medium! Where the opinions of self-entitled dudes flow like rain from the tech heavens.

I knew even when I was writing it that it was unproductive, itself a snarky remark. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But I wanted to acknowledge that not only was bad behaviour happening, but that I was seeing it, and I wasn’t ignoring it. I guess it was mostly intended for Karolina—I wanted to extend some kind of acknowledgment that the cumulative weight of those sneering drive-by reckons is a burden that no one should have to put up with.

I knew that when I wrote about Medium being “where the opinions of self-entitled dudes flow like rain from the tech heavens” that I would (rightly) get pushback, and sure enough, I did …on Medium. Not on Twitter or anywhere else, just Medium.

I syndicate my posts to Ev’s blog, so the free-for-all approach to commenting doesn’t bother me that much. The canonical URL for my words remains on my site under my control. But for people posting directly to Medium and then having to put up with other people casually shitting all over their words, it must feel quite disempowering.

I have a similar feeling with Twitter. I syndicate my notes there and if the service disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed any tears. There’s something very comforting in knowing that any snarky nasty responses to my words are only being thrown at copies. I know a lot of my friends are disheartened about the way that Twitter has changed in recent years. I wish I could articulate how much better it feels to only use Twitter (or Medium or Facebook) as a syndication tool, like RSS.

There is an equal and opposite reaction too. I think it’s easier to fling off some thoughtless remarks when you’re doing it on someone else’s site. I bet you that the discourse on Ev’s blog would be of a much higher quality if you could only respond from your own site. I find I’m more careful with my words when I publish here on adactio.com. I’m taking ownership of what I say.

And when I do lapse and write snarky words like “Ah, Medium! Where the opinions of self-entitled dudes flow like rain from the tech heavens.”, at least I’m owning my own snark. Still, I will endeavour to keep my snark levels down …but that doesn’t mean I’m going to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour.

Rosa and Dot

Today is October 13th. It is Ada Lovelace Day:

Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Today is also a Tuesday. That means that Codebar is happening this evening in Brighton:

Codebar is a non-profit initiative that facilitates the growth of a diverse tech community by running regular programming workshops.

The Brighton branch of Codebar is run by Rosa, Dot, and Ryan.

Rosa and Dot are Ruby programmers. They’ve poured an incredible amount of energy into making the Brighton chapter of Codebar such a successful project. They’ve built up a wonderful, welcoming event where everyone is welcome. Whenever I’ve participated as a coach, I’ve always found it be an immensely rewarding experience. For that, and for everything else they’ve accomplished, I thank them.

Brighton is lucky to have them.


Here in the UK, there’s a “newspaper”—and I use the term advisedly—called The Sun. In longstanding tradition, page 3 of The Sun always features a photograph of a topless woman.

To anyone outside the UK, this is absolutely bizarre. Frankly, it’s pretty bizarre to most people in the UK as well. Hence the No More Page 3 campaign which seeks to put pressure on the editor of The Sun to ditch their vestigal ’70s sexism and get with the 21st Century.

Note that the campaign is not attempting to make the publication of topless models in a daily newspaper illegal. Note that the campaign is not calling for top-down censorship from press regulators. Instead the campaign asks only that the people responsible reassess their thinking and recognise the effects of having topless women displayed in what is supposedly a family newspaper.

Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project has gathered together just some examples of the destructive effects of The Sun’s page 3. And sure, in this age of instant access to porn via the internet, an image of a pair of breasts might seem harmless and innocuous, but it’s the setting for that image that wreaks the damage:

Being in a national newspaper lends these images public presence and, more harmfully for young people, the perception of mainstream cultural approval. Our society, through Page 3, tells both girls and boys ‘that’s what women are’.

Simply put, having this kind of objectification in a freely-available national newspaper normalises it. When it’s socially acceptable to have a publication like The Sun in a workplace, then it’s socially acceptable for that same workplace to have the accompanying air of sexism.

That same kind of normalisation happens in online communities. When bad behaviour is tolerated, bad behaviour is normalised.

There are obvious examples of online communities where bad behaviour is tolerated, or even encouraged: 4Chan, Something Awful. But as long as I can remember, there have also been online communites that normalise abhorrent attitudes, and yet still get a free pass (usually because the site in question would deliver bucketloads of traffic …as though that were the only metric that mattered).

It used to be Slashdot. Then it was Digg. Now it’s Reddit and Hacker News.

In each case, the defence of the bad behaviour was always explained by the sheer size of the community. “Hey, that’s just the way it is. There’s nothing can be done about it.” To put it another way …it’s normal.

But normality isn’t an external phenomenon that exists in isolation. Normality is created. If something is perceived as normal—whether that’s topless women in a national newspaper or threatening remarks in an online forum—that perception is fueled by what we collectively accept to be “normal”.

Last year, Relly wrote about her experience at a conference:

Then there was the one comment I saw in a live irc style backchannel at an event, just after I came off stage. I wish I’d had the forethought to screenshot it or something but I was so shocked, I dropped my laptop on the table and immediately went and called home, to check on my kids.


Because the comment said (paraphrasing) “This talk was so pointless. After she mentioned her kids at the beginning I started thinking of ways to hunt them down and punish her for wasting my time here.”

That’s a horrible thing for anyone to say. But I can understand how someone would think nothing of making a remark like that …if they began their day by reading Reddit or Hacker News. If you make a remark like that there, nobody bats an eyelid. It’s normal.

So what do we do about that? Do we simply accept it? Do we shrug our shoulders and say “Oh, well”? Do we treat it like some kind of unchangeable immovable force of nature; that once you have a large online community, bad behaviour should be accepted as the default mode of discourse?


It’s hard work. I get that. Heck, I run an online community myself and I know just how hard it is to maintain civility (and I’ve done a pretty terrible job of it in the past). But it’s not impossible. Metafilter is a testament to that.

The other defence of sites like Reddit and Hacker News is that it’s unfair to judge the whole entity based purely on their worst episodes. I don’t buy that. The economic well-being of a country shouldn’t be based on the wealth of its richest citizens—or even the wealth of its average citizens—but its poorest.

That was precisely how Rebecca Watson was shouted down when she tried to address Reddit’s problems when she was on a panel at South by Southwest last year:

Does the good, no matter if it’s a fundraiser for a kid with cancer or a Secret Santa gift exchange, negate the bigotry?

Like I said, running an online community is hardDerek’s book was waaaay ahead of its time—but it’s not impossible. If we treat awful behaviour as some kind of unstoppable force that can’t be dealt with, then what’s the point in trying to have any kind of community at all?

Just as with the No More Page 3 campaign, I’m not advocating legal action or legislative control. Instead, I just want some awareness that what we think of as normal is what we collectively decide is normal.

I try not to be a judgemental person. But if I see someone in public with a copy of The Sun, I’m going to judge them. And no, it’s not a class thing: I just don’t consider misogyny to be socially acceptable. And if you participate in Reddit or Hacker News …well, I’m afraid I’m going to judge you too. I don’t consider it socially acceptable.

Of course my judgemental opinion of someone doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to anybody. But if enough of us made our feelings clear, then maybe slowly but surely, there might be a shift in feeling. There might just be a small movement of the needle that calibrates what we think of normal in our online communities.

Open device labs

It’s been just nine months since I threw open the doors to the device lab in the Clearleft office. The response in just the first week was fantastic — people started donating their devices to the communal pool, doubling, then tripling the amount of phones and tablets.

The idea of having a communal device lab wasn’t new; Jason had been talking about setting up a lab in Portland but the paperwork involved was bogging it down. So when I set up the Brighton lab, I deliberately took an “ah, fuck it!” attitude …and that was new:

There are potential pitfalls to opening up a testing suite like this. What about the insurance? What about theft? What about breakage? But the thing about potential pitfalls is that they’re just that: potential. I’m treating all of them as YAGNI issues. I’ll address any problems if and when they occur rather than planning for worst-case scenarios.

So far, so good.

Since then I’ve been vocally encouraging others to set up communal devices labs wherever they may be—linking and tweeting whenever anybody so much as mentioned the possibility of getting a device lab up and running. Then the Lab Up! site was established to help people do just that.

Now there’s a brand new site that’s not just for people setting up device labs, but also for people looking a device lab to use: OpenDeviceLab.com.

  • Help people to locate the right Open Device Lab for the job,
  • explain and promote the Open Device Lab movement,
  • attract Contributors and Sponsors to help and donate to ODLs.

It’s an excellent resource. Head on over there and find out where your nearest device lab is located. And if you can’t find one, think about setting one up.

I really, really like the way that communal device labs have taken off. It’s like a physical manifestation of the sharing and openness that has imbued the practice of web design and development right from the start. View source, mailing lists, blog posts, Stack Overflow, and Github are made of bits; device labs are made of atoms. But they are all open for you to use and contribute to.


When I was writing about browser-developer relations yesterday, I took this little dig at Safari:

Apple, of course, dodges the issue entirely by having absolutely zero developer relations when it comes to their browser.

A friend of mine who works at Apple took me to task about this on Twitter (not in the public timeline, of course, but by direct message). I was told I was being unfair. After all, wasn’t I aware of Vicki Murley, Safari Technologies Evangelist? I had to admit that I wasn’t.

“What’s her URL?” I asked.


“Of her blog.”

“She doesn’t have one.”

That might explain why I hadn’t heard of her. Nor have I seen her at any conferences; not at the Browser Wars panels at South by Southwest, nor at the browser panels at Mobilsm.

The Safari Technologies Evangelist actually does speak at one conference: WWDC. And the videos from that conference are available online …if you sign on the dotted line.

Now, I’m not saying that being in developer relations for a browser vendor means that you must blog or must go to conferences. But some kind of public visibility is surely desirable, right? Not at Apple.

I remember a couple of years back, meeting the Safari evangelist for the UK. He came down to Brighton to have lunch with me and some of the other Clearlefties. I remember telling him that I could put him touch with the organisers of some mobile-focused conferences because he’d be the perfect speaker.

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m not actually allowed to speak at conferences.”

An evangelist who isn’t allowed to evangelise. That seems kind of crazy to me …and I can only assume that it’s immensely frustrating for them. But in the case of Apple, we tend to just shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well. That’s Apple. That’s just the way it is.”

Back when I was soliciting questions for this year’s browser panel at Mobilism, Remy left a little rant that began:

When are we, as a web development community, going to stop giving Apple a free fucking pass? They’re consistently lacking in the open discussion in to improving the gateway to the web: the browser.

And he ended:

Even the mighty PPK who tells entire browser vendors “fuck you”, doesn’t call Apple out, allowing them to slither on. Why is it we continue to allow Apple to get away with it? And can this ever change?

When I next saw Remy, I chuckled and said something along the usual lines of “Hey, isn’t that just the way it is at Apple?” And then Remy told me something that made me rethink my defeatist accepting attitude.

He reminded me about the post on Daring Fireball where John describes the sneak peak he was given of Mountain Lion:

But this, I say, waving around at the room, this feels a little odd. I’m getting the presentation from an Apple announcement event without the event. I’ve already been told that I’ll be going home with an early developer preview release of Mountain Lion. I’ve never been at a meeting like this, and I’ve never heard of Apple seeding writers with an as-yet-unannounced major update to an operating system. Apple is not exactly known for sharing details of as-yet-unannounced products, even if only just one week in advance. Why not hold an event to announce Mountain Lion — or make the announcement on apple.com before talking to us?

That’s when Schiller tells me they’re doing some things differently now.

And that, said Remy, is exactly why now is the time to start pushing back against Apple’s opaque developer relations strategy when it comes to Safari: they’re doing some things differently now.

He’s right.

Apple’s culture of secrecy has served them very, very well for some things—like hardware—but it’s completely at odds with the spirit of the web. That culture clash is most evident with Safari; not just a web browser, but a web browser built on the open-source Webkit platform.

I’m sure that Vicki Murley is great at her job. But her job will remain limited as long as she is hampered by the legacy of Apple’s culture.

That culture of secrecy is not written in stone. It can change. It should change. And the time for that change is now.

The change you want to see

A little while back, Andy wrote:

Even if you happen to be a genius in the waiting, there are no svengalis to pluck you from obscurity and put you on the pedestal you know you deserve. … So if you want to contribute to articles, write books and speak at conferences, you’re the only person in the way.

You can contribute to A List Apart. You can write for Smashing Magazine. You can also put a resource written in HTML at your own URL that is retrievable via HTTP …write a blog post, in other words.

If you prefer dead trees, you no longer need a publishing house. Lulu, MagCloud, Newspaper Club …you have incredible resources at your fingertips.

Move The Web Forward is a guide to help web workers of any skill level contribute to web standards.

JSConf is looking for speakers. You have until January 15th to fill in this form and step up to the plate.

The Industry Conference is looking for speakers. Here’s the form for you to fill in.

In a few days it will be a new year. Traditionally this is a time of resolutions and vows of self-betterment. If you were planning on making any kind of resolution related to contributing to the web community, I hope that you’ll find some of these links useful.

And if you choose to ignore these links, that’s fine. But then if at any time in the new year you find yourself kvetching about articles or talks from “the same old faces” …physician, heal thyself.

Shepherding Passionate Users

Heather Champ is speaking about community management at An Event Apart San Francisco.

She begins with a little history lesson in the Ludicorp/Flickr/Yahoo story. Flickr is constantly evolving and Heather’s job is to make sure that people’s experience on the site remains pleasant. Flickr is huge and sometimes when people are complaining in the forums, Heather would like to just show them the statistics on how much processing Flickr is doing.

Heather demonstrates the amazing spread of real-time information coming into Flickr, showing examples from the Asian tsunami and the July 7th bombings in London. The counterbalance to these really big world events are the personal events being documented: births, deaths, weddings. Heather shows an wonderful touching from Ari of her grandfather’s death.

Heather’s role is community manager. Sometimes she feels like a piñata—people beat you with sticks and you still have to give them candy. She’s helped out by a lot people; regular Flickr users.

Good guidelines really help: Don’t be creepy. You know that guy? Don’t be that guy. As Flickr has grown, the guidelines have stood the test of time really well.

It’s important to give people tools. Allowing people to flag up their own photos as potentially offensive is hugely helpful. Allowing people to block other users is also really empowering. Heather herself has used this to block the angry hordes who were leaving nasty comments about video in her photostream. Then of course there’s always reporting tools; allowing people to report problems.

Communication is key. Heather relates the story of the long downtime; over six hours (never believe the developers when they tell you that everything will be fine). During the downtime there were constant updates on the blog. It’s really important to be open and transparent. When things to go wrong, own it. Admit it. Don’t try to whitewash it. Also, if you need to make a change to how people experience your community, don’t wait. Flickr waited eighteen months to finally do the Flickr/Yahoo merge and they really regret it.

Don’t create super villains. Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions and take actions that won’t be appreciated. If you don’t handle that situation well, you can end up with a super villain—someone who keeps coming back to haunt you forever …just like the people in that amazing New York Times article about trolls.

When the universe gives you lemons, make lemonade. When there was unannounced downtime on Flickr, they turned it into a colouring contest: print out these circles, colour them in and the winner will get a prize. Over 2000 submissions were uploaded. The level of creativity was startling. Every one participated ended up getting an extra three months on their account.

Change is hard. A very vocal minority responded really badly to the addition of video on Flickr. Some people had very fixed ideas about what Flickr’s purpose was. In the first 48 hours of a new feature, you’re just going to get people responding to the fact that there’s been a change of any kind. In the next two weeks, you get a clearer idea about what people think about a feature.

Heather finishes up with some stories.

There’s the tale of the subway flasher. These stories that break into the mainstream bring with them a flood of people to your site who are not part of your regular community.

Another great story involves a thief who stole a Mac and then subsequently used Photobooth and unknowingly uploaded photos to the real owner’s Flickr account.

When they launched geotagging, the Flickr folks thought that there would be islands of porn in the middle of the ocean. What actually happened was that somebody managed to spell FUCK over Greenland, just through geotagging a ton of photos!

You can’t make this stuff up and you certainly can’t predict it.

One last story. Pandas are cute and cuddly. But in the Flickr universe, there are two warring groups of panda conservationists who try to hack each other’s accounts. Unbelievable but true.

Community service

I returned from Spain at the weekend after a really enjoyable time at Fundamentos Web. The conference was very well organised and had a nice grassroots feel to it (helped, no doubt, by the very, very reasonable ticket price of just €130 for two days!). My sincerest thanks to Encarna, Martin, Andrea and everyone else who helped put the event together. It was an honour to be invited.

After the conference proper, Tantek taught a one-day microformats workshop. I might be a bit biased but I thought he did a great job. But I think I was even more impressed with the audience and the smart questions they were asking.

In fact, the best thing about the conference wasn’t any particular presentation or panel—it was the people. The language barrier didn’t get in the way of having a good ol’ natter with fellow geeks. I was introduced to a Spanish web standards community called Cadius. They have meetups in various parts of Spain to drink and discuss design and development… my kind of people.

I count myself very fortunate to live somewhere where there’s a vibrant real-world community. As I’ve said before, Brighton seems to have an inordinately high number of geeky gatherings. Why, on the very night that I got back from Spain, I found myself playing Werewolf thanks to Simon and Nat. The night after that, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Steven Pinker (hey, language geekiness is still geeky).

The most recent Brighton geek meetup I attended was the £5 App where local entrepreneurs and developers get together to showcase things they’ve built. This time, it was my turn. I gave a talk on the past, present and future of The Session.

As it turned out, I had quite a lot to say. Without really intending to, I spoke for about two hours, occasionally demonstrating a point by playing a quick jig or reel on the bouzouki. I’m sure I must have bored everyone senseless but once I got started, there was no shutting me up. I touched on some of the technical aspects of the site but mostly I focussed on the community side of things, recounting how sites like Fray inspired me to start getting stuff out there—if there was one downside to being at Fundamentos Web last week, it was that I didn’t get to see Derek Powazek who was in London for The Future Of Web Apps.

I decided to forego slides for my £5 App presentation but I did put together an outline of points I wanted to make. I hope I managed to put the site in context of the aural and written history of Irish traditional music, focussing in particular on the rip-roaring tale of . For the record, here’s the outline in format:

  1. Irish traditional music
    1. Itinerent harpers, e.g. Carolan composed tunes.
    2. Traveling dancing masters. Pipes, fiddles, flutes and whistles.
    3. Dance music:
      1. Jigs—East at Glendart
      2. Reels—The Wind that Shakes the Barley
      3. Hornpipes—The Rights of Man
      4. Slip Jigs—Hardiman the Fiddler
      5. Polkas—Jessica’s
      6. Slides—O’Keefe’s
    4. Usually no known composers.
    5. Aural transmission.
  2. Francis O’Neill
    1. 1848: Born on August 28th in Tralibane, County Cork.
    2. 1865: Ran away to sea. Mediterranean, Dardanelles, Black Sea.
    3. 1866:
      1. Liverpool to New York on the Emerald Isle (meeting his future wife, Anna Rogers).
      2. New York to Japan on the Minnehaha.
      3. Shipwrecked on Baker’s Island.
      4. Rescued by the Kanaka crew of the Zoe: 34 days to Hawaii.
    4. 1869: Teaching in Missouri before moving to Chicago (sailing the Great Lakes).
    5. 1873: Sworn in as a policeman. Shot a few months later by a gangster (bullet never removed).
    6. 1901: Chief of Police.
    7. 1903: The Music of Ireland.
    8. 1905: Retires.
    9. O’Neill’s 1001: “The Book”.
  3. Pub sessions
    1. 1947: The Devonshire Arms, Camden, London.
    2. No set lists. Not the same as jamming.
  4. Folk Revival
    1. 1960s: Sean O’Riada, The Chieftains, Planxty.
    2. 1970s: The Bothy Band.
  5. The Internet
    1. Mailing lists like IRTRAD-l.
    2. ABC format.
  6. The Session
    1. 1999? Original site with no domain
      1. Very little interaction.
      2. Weekly updates: a new tune.
      3. Email subscribers.
    2. Relaunch, June 3rd 2001, thesession.org
      1. Member profiles and tunebooks.
      2. User-submitted tunes, recordings and links.
      3. Discussions.
    3. Incrementally:
      1. Sessions.
      2. Events.
  7. Community management
    1. One rule: Be civil.
    2. A little attention every day.
    3. Benevolent dictatorship.
  8. Tech specs
    1. LAMP: Linux Apache MySQL PHP
    2. Edit in place for admins… just me.
    3. JavaScript for progressive disclosure, faux pop-ups for forms
    4. Ajax for pagination.
    5. Lean, mean standards-based markup is good for SEO.
    6. Minimal use of graphics means speed, even on dial-up.
  9. Show me the money!
    1. Tip jar.
    2. Amazon shop.
  10. The Future
    1. More network effects from more user data.
    2. Travel section?
    3. Ratings?
    4. Better back-end code. An API?
    5. Expose more data like most popular tunes.


I’m still thinking about blog comments so I thought I’d get a few hyperlinks and blockquotes out of my system.

Dave Winer promotes the idea of blog-to-blog conversations rather than the easier solution of providing a comment form:

That’s what’s important about blogs, not that people can comment on your ideas. As long as they can start their own blog, there will be no shortage of places to comment.

That’s exactly what Tantek does on his blog by displaying any Technorati links (reactions) back to his posts.

Joel Spolsky expands on the problem with comments:

They are a part of the problem, not the solution. You don’t have a right to post your thoughts at the bottom of someone else’s thoughts. That’s not freedom of expression, that’s an infringement on their freedom of expression.

When a blog allows comments right below the writer’s post, what you get is a bunch of interesting ideas, carefully constructed, followed by a long spew of noise, filth, and anonymous rubbish that nobody … nobody … would say out loud if they had to take ownership of their words.

This issue of taking responsibility for, and hosting your own words also lies behind Andy Rutledge’s attitude to feedback:

Anyone who feels the need to comment on what I write may send an email to me just as easily as writing a comment in some form on my site. Further, if someone takes issue with what I say, they may write about it from their own website and take responsibility for what they put forth, as everyone should.

But perhaps the best justification comes from John Gruber during a podcast chat transcribed by Shawn Blanc:

I wanted to write a site for someone it’s meant for. That reader I write for is a second version of me. I’m writing for him. He’s interested in the exact same things I’m interested in; he reads the exact same websites I read… If I turn comments on, that goes away. It’s not that I don’t like sites with comments on, but when you read a site with comments it automatically puts you, the reader, in a defensive mode where you’re saying, “what’s good in this comment thread? What can I skim?”

The comments over on Digg are, of course, an extreme example of just how puerile comments can be but at least they’re quarantined over there. I’ve never understood why a site owner would actually want to get Dugg and invite those kind of people over to piss on the furniture. As Jason Kottke put it:

Digg sents lots of traffic but IMO it’s mostly useless. They usually read only one page, send stupid emails, and never visit again.

And yet, again and again, I see sites like Digg and YouTube held up as paragons of community and interaction. I was chatting with Andy at work about how many potential clients treat community as some kind of checklist; comments: check, ratings: check, tagging: check. Thomas Vander Wal has come up against the same attitude. His solution is to point people to this Kevin Federline page on Amazon and ask Now, do you still want tagging?

I’m always impressed when site owners can provide a new, different way of fostering interaction. I really like the way del.icio.us uses the proto-machinetag syntax of for:username to allow sharing between users. It’s so much more discreet than the pre-filled emails that most sites use for user-to-user communication. It allows for a network to develop in an understated, organic way.


Sometimes I write something here in my journal and open up the post for comments. It doesn’t happen very often, maybe one in ten posts. That’s because I still firmly believe in my corollary of Sturgeon’s Law for blogs:

Comments should be disabled 90% of the time.

No doubt there are still those who believe that what I am doing is somehow anti-community. The fallacy there is in equating comments with community. Choose a random video on YouTube or a random story on Digg, read each and every comment and then tell me that the comments contribute to any kind of community discussion. They are shining examples of antisocial networking.

As for the oft-quoted justification that comments on blogs enable conversation, I’m going to quote my past self again:

The best online conversations I’ve seen have been blog to blog: somebody posts something on their blog; somebody else feels compelled to respond on their own blog. The quality of such a response is nearly always better than a comment on the originating blog for the simple reason that people care more about what appears on their own site than on someone else’s.

I’m guilty of this myself. I chimed in with some comments on Jeff Croft’s latest post. There was some subsequent miscommunication between Jeff and myself that I think was partly due to the medium: a textarea at the end of a blog post has a low barrier to entry but it’s that same ease of access that discourages deeper reflection. If I had crafted a response here on my own site, I probably wouldn’t have hit the curt tone that I unintentionally wrote in and I’m sure our mutual misunderstandings could have been avoided. Jeff has now deleted the back and forth we had in the comments as is his prerogative and that’s probably for the best.

I often wonder why so many writers are so keen to have comments on their blogs considering the burden it places on them. Managing a centralised community (the kind fostered by blog comments) is hard work. I know this from all the effort I put in over at The Session. It takes a lot of time and it can be extremely frustrating (though, admittedly, it can also be very rewarding).

Between my ill-advised contributions to Jeff’s blog post and a particularly heavy week of cat-herding at The Session, I was feeling less than optimistic about the nature of online communication. Then I made the mistake of reading the responses to Molly’s open letter to organisations beginning with W. I became very despondent indeed.

I find it very depressing to see people I consider to be good friends bickering. The really discouraging aspect is that these disagreements are based on such minor differences. I’m reminded of Gulliver’s Travels in which a debate about the correct way to crack an egg eventually leads to war.

For crying out loud, we’re all on the same side here, people! We have so, so much in common and yet here we are, focusing on the few differences that separate us. Step back. Look at the big picture. We are comrades, not enemies.

Leaving aside the trolling and petulance in the comments—which should hardly surprise me, given my opinion of most blog comments—the contents of Molly’s post is equally dispiriting but for different reasons.

Molly is calling for more action from the W3C and the WaSP. She’s right, of course. Things have been far too quiet at the Web Standards Project. I’ve been feeling guilty about my own lack of activity and Molly’s rallying cry has increased that feeling.

But here’s the thing… I don’t think I can muster the requisite energy. I’m not saying that the work of the DOM Scripting Task Force is done but the perception of JavaScript has come along way since we wrote our manifesto. Two years ago, I really felt that something had to be done. I couldn’t just sit still. My colleagues and I were motivated to get out there and encourage best practices. A lot of that came from frustration: anger is an energy. Today, that flame burns lower. I’m not saying that best practices are widespread but they’re more widespread than they were and I got the feeling that there are a lot of good developers out there who could do a better of job of spreading the word than me.

This has happened before. I caught the CSS bug back in 2001. I started evangelising at any opportunity; mailing lists, blogs and so on. A few years later, I was kind of burned out but in a good way. I couldn’t muster the necessary enthusiasm for activism but that was okay: plenty of other people came along with abundant time and energy. I was free to get on with actually building websites, using standards instead of just talking about them.

Well, apparently it’s not enough to just use best practices. Molly—and others I’m sure—want to see much more direct action. But I can’t force myself into action. I certainly can’t get behind the conspiracy theory that Molly is seeing in Mozilla and Adobe collaborating on JavaScript… it’s bad when companies don’t sit down and talk to each other but it’s worse when they do? I just don’t get it.

I’m also getting tired of the no-win situation: you can either get passionate about a cause and be labeled a zealot or you can keep your head down and be labeled complacent. To quote Molly: Fuck. That.

I honestly don’t think I can muster the requisite enthusiasm to contribute to mailing lists, blog posts and other fora for advancing best practices. I am, however, very willing to lead by example; to publish online using standards and validate what I put out there. Maybe that isn’t enough. But I’m drawing a line.

I can appreciate how much effort someone like Molly has put into fighting the good fight over the years. But I can also see the toll it has taken and I don’t think I’m willing to pay that price. I’m not feeling quite as nihilistic as Brothercake but I can certainly relate to his conclusion:

So screw the endless arguments. I’m just going to quietly get on with doing what I think is the right thing to do, in the way I think it should be done.

There are still topics that get me excited. Microformats have rekindled my love of markup and I don’t see that excitement fading anytime soon.

In amongst all the doom and gloom that’s being weighing on everyone’s shoulders lately, I’m immensely buoyed by Aral’s outlook. I share his optimism regarding the collaboration between the worlds of Web standards and Flash. Crucially, I think that what Aral and I feel is bolstered by interaction and communication in the real world.

I love the Web. I really do. But sometimes I think that one good natter over a beer is worth a thousand mailing lists or a million blog comments. For that reason, I intend to maintain as much meatspace standards activity as I can: conferences, workshops, local meetups… but don’t expect too much in the way of emails, articles or other online evangelism from me. I’m going to be too busy building a better Web to spend much time talking about building a better Web.

Comments are, most emphatically, closed.

The Future of Web Apps, day one

I’m spending more time in London than in Brighton this week. After BarCamp London 2 at the weekend I had one day to recover and now I’m back up for the Future of Web Apps conference.

Like last year, the event is being held in the salubrious surroundings of Kensington; normally the home turf of Sloane Rangers, now overrun by geeks. But the geeks here are generally of a different variety to those at BarCamp (although I’m seeing a lot of familiar faces from the weekend).

The emphasis of the conference this time is more on the business, rather than the techy side of things. It makes sense to focus the event this way, especially now that there’s a separate Future of Web Design conference in a few months. The thing is… I don’t have much of a head for business (to put it mildy) so a lot of the material isn’t really the kind of thing I’m interested in. That’s not to say that it isn’t objectively interesting but from my subjective viewpoint, words like “venture”, “investment” and “business model” tend to put me to sleep.

That said, the presentations today have been less soporific than I feared. There was some good geeky stuff from Werner Vogels of Amazon and Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo, as well as some plain-talkin’ community advice from Tara Hunt.

The big disappointment of the day has been WiFi. Despite the fact that Ryan paid £6,000—remember, he’s not afraid of announcing figures in public—nothin’s doin’. For all the kudos that BT deserve for hosting the second London BarCamp, they lose some karma points for this snafu.

The day ended with Kevin Rose giving the Digg annual report. He left time for some questions so I put this to him:

I see Digg as a technological success and a business success but I think it’s a social failure. That’s because when I read the comments attached to a story, people are behaving like assholes.

At this point, people started applauding. I was mortified! I wasn’t trying get in a cheap shot at Digg; I had a point to make. So after informing the crowd that there was nothing to applaud, I continued:

This is probably because of the sheer size of the community on Digg. Contrast this to something like Flickr where there are lots and lots of separate groups. My question is; should you be trying to deliberately fragment Digg?

The answer was a resounding “Yes!” and it’s something that he touched on his talk. Afterwards, I was talking to Daniel Burka and he reckoned that Digg could take a leaf out of Last.fm’s book. The guys from Last.fm had previously talked about all the great features they were able to roll out by mining the wealth of attention data that users are submitting every day. Digg has an equally rich vein of data; they just need to mine it.

Anyway, it was a good day all in all but I feel kind of bad for putting a sour note on the Digg presentation. Plenty of people told me “great question!” but I felt a bit ashamed for putting Kevin on the spot that way.

Still, it’s far preferable to make these points in meatspace. If I had just blogged my concerns, it would have been open to even more misinterpretation. That’s the great thing about conferences: regardless of whether the subject matter is my cup of tea or not, the opportunity to meet and chat with fellow geeks is worth the price of entry.

The comments of crowds

The Future Of Web Apps summit took place in San Francisco this week. By all accounts, it was an excellent two days although it did spark an interesting hand-wringing debate about diversity which reminded me of the best ever episode of Father Ted: “I hear you’re a racist now, Father”.

One of the speakers was Mike Davidson. During his talk about Newsvine and online communities, my ears started burning. Why, I do believe he’s talking about me!

It all goes back to this post I made where I talked about how crap most comments are:

I’d like to propose a corollary of Sturgeon’s Law for blogs: Comments should be disabled 90% of the time.

Mike made the point that he finds it frustrating not being able to comment on my posts. Fair enough. He also speculated that the lack of a comment facility here might well lead to a decrease in traffic. I think he’s probably right.

But here’s the thing: I’m okay with that. I don’t think lots of traffic is a goal to strive for. There’s no doubt that comments are a simple and effective way of driving traffic to your site, but to what end? Instead of having lots of visitors, I’d much rather have a small amount of the right kind of visitors.

I’ve tried to explain this to people in the past (especially people just starting out in blogging) but I keep running into the same problem over and over: nobody believes a word I’m saying. But I swear it’s true! I’ve seen the way that useless comments can lower the tone on other sites and I don’t want it happening here.

Let me reiterate that this problem is particularly troublesome on sites that cover a diverse range of topics. Narrowly focused sites tend to foster higher quality comments. That’s why I’ve got comments enabled on the DOM Scripting blog which is focused entirely on JavaScript, but not here on Adactio, which is a smorgasbord of any ol’ rubbish that pops into my head.

It’s definitely a challenge for a wide-ranging site like Newsvine which seems to be handling the situation quite well. It’s certainly doing a lot better job than Digg. The rude, pointless, spiteful bickering that goes on over there makes me want to block any referrals from that domain. Mind you, it could simply be a matter of numbers. Digg users have clearly left their Dunbar number in the dust while Newsvine still feels cosy enough.

I’ve been trying to get at the root of my issues with comments on blogs. Ironically, I was able to crystalize my thoughts through participating in the comments on a blog post by Bryan Veloso. Oh, the irony!

I realised that comments on blogs are trying to fulfil two roles. On the one hand, they are a feedback mechanism — “Good post!”, “Me too!”, “You’re full of crap!”, et cetera. On the other hand, people claim that comments are a great way of fostering conversation.

Well, which is it? Feedback or conversation? Comments are a so-so way of dealing with both although better tools exist. Email is better for feedback. Mailing lists, forums, and instant messaging are better for conversations.

Now that I’ve had my about the dual nature of comments, I can better address what I want from them.

Here at Adactio, I don’t want to start conversations. I’m not looking to foster a community. I already run one large online community and I’d rather keep this site separate from all that. I am, however, interested in getting occasional feedback or hearing what other people have to say about some of the things I write about here. So, after much deliberation, here’s the moment that almost nobody has been waiting for:

I’m opening up comments here… but with a twist. To encourage feedback whilst discouraging conversation, I’m turning to .

There are a number of factors that go into making a wise crowd:

  1. Numbers. Generally, the bigger the crowd, the better. I have no idea how many people read this blog so I have no clue as to whether there will be enough people to make this work.

  2. Diversity. A diverse range of backgrounds and opinions is vital. I suspect that my site is mostly read by geeks, but I know there are non-geek friends and family that also stop by. Everybody’s opinion is valuable.

  3. Independence. This is the clincher. To really get wisdom from a crowd, it is vital that each person is acting independently. For a practical demonstration, just think about the “ask the audience” part of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The results are strikingly good because each audience member has no idea what the others are choosing.

Comments on blogs fall down on that last point. Traditionally, comments are visible, thereby influencing future comments. That’s good if you’re trying to stoke a conversation, but lousy for getting some honest feedback.

So here’s what Im going to do:

I will occasionally open up some posts for comments. You will be presented with the usual form: name, email, url, etc. I would greatly appreciate getting your opinion. However, your comment will not be published immediately.

Comments will remain open for a set period of time; sometimes a week, sometimes a month. At the end of this time, all the comments will be published at once. At this point, it will no longer be possible to add a comment.

I still need to iron out a few technical details. It would be nice if there were a cron job set up so that you could be notified when your comment goes live. But mostly it’s a pretty straightforward set-up. It’s really only a minor variation on the traditional comment model but I’m intrigued to see what the results turn out to be.

Like I said, I won’t be doing this for every post. I intend to stick to my rule of thumb and keep comments closed 90% of the time.

Let’s get the ball rolling. What do you think of this idea? How vehemently do you disagree with my assessment of comments on blogs? Exactly how pretentious and arrogant do you think I am?

Comments are open.

Further comment

My thoughts on comments were cause for some debate in certain circles. I’m not the only one grappling with this issue.

I managed to lure Dunstan out of his self-imposed exile long enough for him to point to some ideas he had for a more heavily moderated commenting system where only useful additions appear with a post. This is somewhat along the lines of the BBC’s website where occasionally feedback is solicited but it’s more along the lines of letters to the editor: comments enter a queue and only representative selections are published.

For a very interesting take on the comments question, I highly recommend listening to this interview with David Sifry posted on the Podleaders podcast. Responding to the question of whether Technorati has any plans to begin indexing comments, he points out that whereas blog posts have a certain level of accountability, comments are more like the (often anonymous) throwaway remarks that polluted Usenet and chat rooms, preventing those technologies from scaling past a certain point:

One of the reasons I think blogging is very different from bulletin boards or chat rooms is that it fundamentally enforces a level of accountability.

I find that that level accountability tends to create, or enforce, a certain amount of thoughtfulness… a willingness to think twice before someone says nasty things.

The problem I have with many commenting systems on blogs [is that they] do not enforce any level of accountability.

That’s exactly what I was getting at in my original post when I said:

The best online conversations I’ve seen have been blog to blog: somebody posts something on their blog; somebody else feels compelled to respond on their own blog. The quality of such a response is nearly always better than a comment on the originating blog for the simple reason that people care more about what appears on their own site than on someone else’s.

Then the tricky bit is tracking those conversations. And that’s where services like Technorati come in.

Comments on community

I was an early beta tester of Newsvine, Mike’s nifty new website. I like it.

There are two ways of using Newsvine. If you want, you can simply use it as alternative to Google News, a way of catching up on the latest stories appearing on the wire. The other way of using Newsvine is to read and comment on what other users are linking to and writing about.

Personally, I find myself using the site the first way. I don’t just confine myself to the Associated Press stories though, I do also investigate intriguing things that other users are linking to. But I don’t really participate in the comments. The simple reason for this is that the comments mostly suck.

This isn’t the fault of Newsvine, it’s simply the nature of the beast. Most comments suck.

This shouldn’t be surprising. According to Theodore Sturgeon’s infamous take on the , 90% of everything is crud. One look at the music charts should be enough to confirm that this signal to noise estimate is about right.

Take Digg. It’s a nice way to find out what links people find interesting (a la del.icou.us) but the comments attached to each link are mostly a waste of space. The more popular the link, the more useless the comments. That’s revealing. There seems to be an inverse relationship between popularity and the usefulness of accompanying comments. Slashdot also testifies to this. I’m worried that as Newsvine grows in popularity, as it inevitably will, the comments will get even worse.

So why have comments at all? In a nutshell, comments are a great way of fostering a community. But that doesn’t really answer the question; that assumes that a community is necessarily a positive thing. But is it?

Clearly, the minds behind Digg, Slashdot and Newsvine feel that the value of the 10% outweighs the ballast of the 90%. They’ve made a conscious decision that having a community built into the site is important, perhaps even the whole point of the site in the first place.

Joshua Schacter, on the other hand, made a conscious decision not to have a comment-based community built directly into del.icio.us. A community still exists around the site; it’s still social software — it wouldn’t work unless lots of people were using it — but any benefit gained by adding comments would be accompanied by a corresponding increase in the general level of crapiness.

Clay Shirky nails it in his speech A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. This is a fundamental problem with social software (more so than real world situations because of The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory). The more popular the community, the more likely it is that comments are going to suck.

Should we abandon comments completely then? Absolutely not! I’m a great believer in Tim Berners Lee’s dream of read/write web. But we should think very carefully about when and where to enable comments.

And so to blogs…

Blogs are susceptible to the same problems as social software sites (as well as having to deal with comment spamming scum). The more popular the blog, the bigger the problem. Just ask Heather or Jason.

Most blogs allow comments. There’s no doubt about it; having comments enabled is likely to increase the popularity of your blog.

But that, in and of itself, is not a good justification. It assumes that popularity is desirable. The truth is that, when it comes to personal publishing, it’s not the amount of people who visit that count, it’s who those people are why they’re visiting that’s important.

Comments are a shortcut to a Pyrrhic victory of popularity at the cost of having your pages cluttered with pointless remarks (by pointless, I don’t just mean the negative stuff: “me too!” and “great post!” achieve as little as “you suck!”). If popularity is your aim, it’s better in the long run to claw your way towards that goal on the strength of your writing or design skills.

But comments can add value. They are particularly useful on sites that have a narrow, focused scope. The focused nature of the subject matter ensures that visitors share a common interest — otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.

The more general a site’s focus, the less chance there is of it receiving quality comments. A site that covers everything from politics (Republican vs. Democrat) to computing (Mac vs. PC) is going to be flame-war central. A site that deals exclusively in the appreciation of chihuahuas stands a much better chance of forming a cohesive community.

I have three blogs. Comments are enabled on two of them. Those two are narrowly focused. One is about JavaScript and the Document Object Model, the other is about good food. While the number of comments on those sites remains low, the quality of those comments is disproportionately high. My third blog is the one you’re reading now, which doesn’t allow comments. That’s because this journal is, quite frankly, all over the place.

Sometimes I’ll write about design or code, but I’m equally likely to rant about the government or rave about a good book. My audience is, therefore, also all over the place. Geeks visit in the misguided hope that they might learn something useful but this site also functions as a way for my friends and family to keep track of what I’ve been up to (Hi, Mum!).

The inverse relationship between a blog’s diversity and popularity on the one hand, and the usefulness of its comments on the other, would seem to fly in the face of the wisdom of crowds. The two central factors in the creation of a wise crowd are that it is large and diverse. But there is another crucial factor: the individuals in the crowd should be unaware of one another’s decisions. You can be sure that the “ask the audience” section of Who wants to be a millionaire? would yield very different results if every audience member could see how every other audience member was voting.

The fact that comments are observable by default means that they effect the outcome of their own experiment. This cat of Schrodinger’s is clearly dead.

If you solicited feedback through the more private medium of email, the wisdom of the responding crowd would be greater and the quality of the feedback would increase. But that would defeat the community-building aspect: there would be no real conversation amongst your audience.

I don’t think we should be looking at comments to see conversations. It isn’t much of a conversation when the same person determines the subject matter of every dialogue. The best online conversations I’ve seen have been blog to blog: somebody posts something on their blog; somebody else feels compelled to respond on their own blog. The quality of such a response is nearly always better than a comment on the originating blog for the simple reason that people care more about what appears on their own site than on someone else’s.

The difficulty then is keeping track of these conversations. would be a good option but it relies on a certain level of techiness on the part of the responder and again, the issue of spam raises its ugly head. These days, it should be possible to replace trackback with search using third-party tools like Technorati and Google Blog Search. Expect to see that kind of functionality built in to more and more blogging tools.

I think the fundamental issue with comments is that are often enabled without reason. I wrote already about the need to justify every design decision. The same should also be true for community decisions. Does every little blog post really need to accept comments? Wouldn’t it be better to save them for special occasions?

I’d like to propose a corollary of Sturgeon’s Law for blogs:

Comments should be disabled 90% of the time.