The Social Media Plague

Over the last few years, I’ve been struggling with social media.

Growing up in a sleepy college town it was hard to find other weirdos, and the internet provided a new and interesting way to do so. While Usenet, IRC, AOL, MySpace, LiveJournal provided increasingly flexible options to communicate, the thing that brought folks together was a passion for sharing things they love. People were intentional in carving out spaces for communities, and found new things and ideas they could love. (By the way, Katie West has put together a fantastic anthology of stories about finding communities on the internet.)

Advertising has been around from almost the beginning, but social media changed things - instead of advertising showing up alongside the content, the content itself began being driven by the need for advertising. Today, we have sites like Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, and Twitter actively profiting off of disinformation. Years of user research has enabled these companies to deliver a dopamine hit straight to users for rage-clicking on posts. (If this is sounding like paranoid fantasy, note that there’s plenty of thorough research and documentation on the topic.) Sites are designed to drive folks into these walled gardens, to get them to refresh the page a thousand times a day, every spare minute waiting in line spent staring at phones waiting for the next crumb of content. The COVID-19 pandemic physically isolated most people, and this only amplified the drive to use social media as an escape.

And it’s making people miserable. It certainly makes me miserable. And when I’m feeling particularly curmudgeonly, I tend to say that it’s destroying democracy.

What Comes Next

During the pandemic, following a long period of work-induced burnout, I’ve spent the last year attempting to shift my energy towards productive efforts & creative endeavors. Spending time to share knowledge about my practice & craft. Making weird shit. To steal a phrase from Marie Kondo, I’ve been working on things that spark joy - at least in myself, but hopefully in others as well.

One of those efforts was the Move Carefully and Fix Things stickers, though ironically those started from a long (and very divisive) Twitter thread. Another was the website. I put up a Minecraft server to play with friends (come join us!). And most recently, I’ve been making very silly t-shirts designs for government IT policies:

FISMA image

I’ve also been reading more longform writing pieces from smart folks. Not everything needs to be a five-page article, but I’m sure glad that people are putting them out there. But moreover, the discourse emerging from those pieces has been fascinating and insightful.

And so, I had a realization: this is how I want to dedicate my time (outside of work, for now), finding more productive ways of building communities around things that we love and care about. At least for a while. The first step was in redesigning this website (more on that in a bit). In the coming weeks and months, I plan to explore what I’m thinking of as Web 1.1: modern takes on Blogs, RSS feeds, Webrings, and other basic means of content creation and sharing.

These efforts probably won’t fix all that’s wrong with the world today. But at the very least we can make the web a little weirder, a little more decentralized, a little more open and free.

If you care about these things too, please get in touch!!!

(Do not contact me if you want to talk about Web 3.0 or blockchain, I’m not interested.)

Of course you can always join my Civic Tech Webring too - it’s real!!!

An Overly-Detailed Breakdown of My Site Redesign

I had a few things in mind when redoing this site. I knew, thematically, that I wanted it to be a throwback to the late 90s era of design, while keeping modern aesthetics. One aspect that was more common back then than today is sharing content off-site, as the inclination nowadays is to get people to your site and keep them there. I wanted to be able to share the neat things I was finding on the web, so I made dedicated space to talk about other folks’ work without needing to overly-editorialize about it. Similarly, I find a lot of great government job postings, and I want folks to know about them because we need more amazing people in government. I used Jekyll’s data files to power these pieces, and integrated them into my RSS feed.

I went back to old classic web designs that incorporated mixed content effectively, and started plucking elements I found interesting like blocking and textures. K10K was a major source of inspiration, in addition to my own older website designs. I reverted to Silkscreen and Verdana fonts - which I’d used on my site 15 years before - while retaining the more modern Montserrat for headings (which is a decent free clone of the very-expensive Gotham font from HFJ made famous by the Obama Administration).

With CSS flexbox and grid layout methods being supported in most modern browsers, I took a long look at whether I still needed Bootstrap. Aside from layout blocking, the main thing I was using there was the navigation fallback for mobile browsers & small screens. I’d long since abandoned the multi-tier menus, and condensing down the text gave me more than enough space for a mobile browser. So, out went Bootstrap. For the moment, I’ve kept FontAwesome for icons, though eventually that will probably go as well, to be replaced with SVGs.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 90s-themed website if I didn’t have a music player, so of course I had to use MIDI files. However, I quickly learned a few depressing facts: 1) modern web browsers do not support MIDI files and 2) no one just keeps webpages of free midis anymore. I had to go digging through the depths of the internet to find a few suitable tracks. I then found the web-midi-player package, itself built on top of timidity. In retrospect, this was a mistake, as I also have to load patch files for every instrument the player will use; in the end, the downloads here are larger than if I’d just used MP3s. Furthermore, the audio driver used is not supported by most mobile browsers, so folks on their phone cannot enjoy my fine musical selections. At some point in the future, I’ll replace these with recorded MP3s of the MIDI files.

Having a MIDI player won’t be very effective if the song stops playing when someone changes pages, so I considered using a pop-out player, but that seemed like it could be less-fun and more-annoying. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to use unpoly – a little Javascript addition that turns static websites into single-page apps by loading just particular chunks of pages into the current page. (If you work with Rails, hotwire works similarly.) This way, I can swap out the main content area and leave the rest of the page alone - just like the early days of “DHTML.” One gotcha here is that for unpoly to work with your browser history (the dreaded back button problem), you have to manually set a configuration to tell it where to load it with a line of Javascript after loading, up.history.config.restoreTargets=[':main']; does the trick here. I’m surprised this isn’t the default.

Finally, I sprinkled in a few easter eggs that only the most dedicated spelunkers would find. Of course, it’s not the web if it’s not weird!

I do need to go back and spend some time cleaning up a few accessibility issues. I’d also like to add a classic-style links page in the future as well, but few folks are keeping their websites active these days. Maybe if this movement grows that will change!

At the moment, I’m finishing work on my new t-shirt store, but following that I’ll be spending some time on a little RSS reader I’ve been tinkering with. Hopefully some of you folks will get in touch about collaborating on some of these upcoming projects - I’m looking forward to hearing from you all!