Showing all posts tagged: technology

RSS is really simple, why do so many find it complicated?

17 May 2024

Chris, writing at uncountable thoughts:

RSS is a pervasive, but little known, web technology that allows you aggregate all your content into one place for easy reading. There are very few websites without an RSS feed, although many don’t advertise the link (or, even realise they have it).

When you put an RSS feed link into your RSS, it is called “subscribing”. But don’t worry — it’s totally free, and you don’t give your email address.

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is really simple. But a lot of people don’t see it that way, and anyone who has ever syndicated their web content, has always struggled to convince their readers of that. Like, probably since RSS arrived in March 1999. Yet RSS almost had its moment, during the so-called golden age of blogging, circa 2003 to 2010.

Writers took to writing blogs, and readers took to reading blogs. Content Management Systems like WordPress churned out RSS feeds automatically. All a blogger had do was prominently post a link to their RSS feed. Really simple. Writing posts explaining what RSS was, and why it was useful, was also common. Erstwhile (by the looks of it) Australian blogger Meg Tsiamis, of (defunct) Top 100 Australian Blogs Index fame, wrote a post in 2007, outlining RSS to her mother, and other of her readers.

Sadly, the more in-depth resource she linked to, is no longer online. In other words though, we’ve been trying for years, decades, to impress upon others the simplicity and function of RSS, but too little, or no, avail. Unfortunately RSS plain simply baffled just about anyone, and everyone, who didn’t write a blog. RSS was too technical, too geeky, many people complained.

But popular perceptions of RSS were only one problem. Accessing RSS easily was another. Some argued Google closing down their popular RSS reader, er, Google Reader (which I never used), in 2013, sounded the death knell of RSS. But the real problem had always been one of uptake, or rather, lack of uptake. Geekiness aside, some people questioned the purpose of RSS in the first place.

I recall, in 2014, trying to explain the utility of RSS to a co-member of a small business coffee meeting group I was then part of. I pulled out my laptop at the cafe we gathered at one morning, and showed him my RSS reader of the time (NewsGator, I think). “Look, see, you only have to visit one website to read one hundred websites,” I said, as I scrolled through my subscription list.

He marvelled as he looked on, recognising a number of websites he visited regularly. “All you need do is get a RSS reader app, like the one we’re looking at now, subscribe to the RSS feeds you like, and you’re set,” I said. Despite my small presentation though, he still looked confused. He didn’t seem to understand why you’d stop visiting a website, to read its content elsewhere.

Oh, the frustration.

Today RSS is even simpler. No apps are needed, one only has to create an account through a RSS aggregator website, Feedly for example (free for a basic account), and start subscribing. You don’t even need to know the URL of a website’s RSS feed. Type in the regular URL, and Feedly will search for available feeds.

Subscribing to an RSS feed is really the same as following someone on Instagram (IG). And it’s just as simple. Choose an IG page you want to follow, and tap the follow button. With RSS though, instead of following, you’re subscribing, although some RSS aggregators call the process following.

Better still, and as is often reported elsewhere, your subscription is anonymous (you could follow my RSS feed, and I’d have no idea unless you told me), and you only see the content you want to. There are no algorithms, or annoying “suggested for you” content. How good is that?

Well, not good enough, perhaps. Until subscribing to a RSS feed literally becomes as easy as following someone on social media, selling RSS as a really simple way of following a website, will, unfortunately, remain a hard sell.


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Like describing a photo to a friend, how to write alt-text

15 May 2024

Web designers and bloggers have been able to use alternative text, often referred to as “alt-text”, to describe images and photos, for decades. Alt-text helps people with little or no vision comprehend a website image, so long as the description is reasonably accurate.

In recent years social media has caught up, and most channels, Instagram, Threads, Mastodon, and Bluesky among them, allow users to add alt-text to images they post.

The facility has left people wondering though about the best way to describe an image. Sadly, writing something like “a photo of my cat” as alt-text for a photo of a pet, doesn’t quite cut it.

A person with low vision knows your photo is of a cat, but is left wondering what sort of cat, what colour is the cat’s hair, and so on. So some degree of detail is useful.

Scott Vandehey, writing at Cloud Four, offers a straightforward suggestion for writing alt-text: imagine yourself describing something you’re looking at, to someone who you’re on the phone to:

I find people often get too wrapped up in what the “rules” are for alternative text. Sure, there are lots of things to be aware of, but almost all of them are covered under this simple guideline. If you were talking to a friend on the phone and wanted to describe a meme you saw, you might say “There was this dog wearing safety glasses, surrounded by chemistry equipment, saying ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.'”

The great thing about writing alt-text is the way you can write it once, say on a Notes file, but publish indefinitely, depending how many channels you end up posting the image to. It’s what I do now. Write a caption and alt-text first, then start posting across my socials.


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A simple text editor named Tine, by Martin Dorazil

15 May 2024

A text editor without the bells and whistles, called Tine. A nice name for a text editor.

The main goal of this editor is to keep the focus on the text editing and not be distracted too much by buttons, tabs, menus, and animations.



Unwanted AI-generated content has a name: slop

14 May 2024

Seen at Simon Willison’s Weblog:

Not all promotional content is spam, and not all AI-generated content is slop. But if it’s mindlessly generated and thrust upon someone who didn’t ask for it, slop is the perfect term for it.

Spam and slop. Now there’s a diet guaranteed to be bad for your health and mental well-being.


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Can blogrolls build communities online? I think so

9 May 2024

A screen cap of disassociated's links page, circa November 1999.

A screen cap of disassociated’s links page, circa November 1999. Them were dark days…

Daniel Prindii asks, could blogrolls form the basis of community building online? Well, once upon a time, when they were known as links pages, that’s exactly what they did.

But with the development of AI tools, spam, and SEO-optimized articles the experience of the web search is a horrible one, where the chances to discover something new minimal. The 404 Media team has made a good analysis of this change. Everyone goes online to learn new things, and to connect with close friends. When your search or feed is clogged with spam and bots, it defeats the whole purpose.

In a way, the early search engines defeated the purpose of link pages and blogrolls. Later, some of them penalised websites carrying blogrolls, as they believed they were made up of paid links. And that was the beginning of the end of blogrolls. But not in the Indie Web/Small Web corner of the web. Here they are common, and serving their original, and perfectly innocuous, purpose of sharing websites a blogger likes, and thinks their readers will enjoy.

With discovery becoming ever more difficult by way of the search engines, the day of blogrolls has come again. To that end, I’ve set up, or maybe reinstated after a long hiatus, a blogroll here. It’s a start, and something I’ll add to over time.


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In search of the last internet cafe on Earth

7 May 2024

Homepages and personal websites may be on the way back, but what of that other venerable staple of the early web: internet cafes?

In the late 1990’s they were everywhere. Venture onto any suburban shopping strip, and there’d be at least one net cafe in amongst the other shops. When I first acquired the domain name in 1998, we went into a net cafe so I could see the website on a computer that did not belong to me, or anyone I knew. To believe the disassociated domain name really existed, and was live online, I had to load the URL into the browser on a device alien to me.

I may’ve told this story elsewhere, somewhere here, before.

But ten years later, well into the first decade of the twenty-first century — the noughties, or aughts, if you must — net cafes were still common place. I used to do contract work, and not every workplace I went to had full internet access for all employees. Many, initially, granted unfettered access only to those at managerial level. Contract staff were deemed too risky for the privilege. Who knows what sort of websites they might lookup while the meter was running.

I was at one such place, near Central Station in Sydney, and on lunch breaks, used to regularly visit a net cafe, located below street level. The place practically had the atmosphere of a night-club; the room was dimly lit, and music blared out of a surround-sound speaker system. And it was massive. There was long row after long row of small cubicles, each hosting a desktop computer.

And it was always busy; remember we’re talking circa 2008 here. It was located a few hundred metres from one of Sydney’s largest universities, so that may have had something to do with its popularity. It seems hard to believe the place is gone now.

As they all have, from just about everywhere. But there are exceptions, and if you look hard enough, or travel far enough, you might stumble upon one of these remnants of the web’s early days.



The personal website returns: the good, the bad, and the ugly of it

6 May 2024

Kyle Chayka, writing for the New Yorker, in an article heralding the demise of the platform era:

Now digital-distribution infrastructure is crumbling, having become both ineffective for publishers and alienating for users. Social networks, already lackluster sources for news, are overwhelmed by misinformation and content generated by artificial intelligence. A.I.-driven search threatens to upend how articles get traffic from Google. Text-based media have given way to short-form videos of talking heads hosted on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube. If that’s not how you prefer to take in information, you’re out of luck. Surrounded by dreck, the digital citizen is discovering that the best way to find what she used to get from social platforms is to type a URL into a browser bar and visit an individual site.

Platform refers to walled garden environments such as Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram. Places you can check out of, but never leave. I may not be a one-hundred percent fan of some of them, but I don’t necessarily welcome their total demise either. Social networks are part of the internet’s evolution, and fabric. They play a role. But when you find yourself trapped within their confines twenty-four/seven, something’s not right.

Needless to say, I welcome the homecoming of the homepage, personal or otherwise. Not that some ever really went away. Some websites, as Chayka notes, were determined to remain outside the walled gardens. Tech news site The Verge is one, even going so far as to incorporate a social-media feed/stream like feature, when they revamped their website about two years ago. If you can’t beat them, join them. Sort of.

But another line in Chayka’s article sent a shiver down my spine:

One could argue that its [The Verge] makeover, which has now become a subject of admiring chatter among media executives and the editors who work for them, heralds the revenge of the home page.

It’s great The Verge has shown us what a post-platform internet could look like. Not so good, perhaps, is the news that “media executives” are seemingly salivating in delight at the prospect. Out goes one money-making model: the platforms, back comes another: the homepage. But we’ve been there before. And depending how many websites you continue using, still are.

When blogs — perhaps the first descendent of the personal website — began to really take off, about twenty years ago, the first influencers were not far behind. The monetisation strategies quickly followed. This wasn’t all bad. That a writer could make a living, independently, from their craft, was an ambition many aspired to. But as time went on, things began to get out of hand.

And I’m not referring to the plethora of blogs-about-blogging, the content farms, and who knows what else. Reading many blogs had become a trying experience. I lost count of the number of times I’d made my way to a blog — often through a search engine query — to look up something, only to be immediately greeted by a popup box, obscuring the content. They’re called “entry popups”.

“Would you like to subscribe to this publication by email?” read the annoying message. Well, I might, but I’m in no position to decide, as I’ve not been able to read a single word of what’s written here, so have no idea if subscribing is worth my while. Give me ten minutes, I might have a better idea.

Equally irritating were the so-called “exit popups”. Move your mouse pointer towards the top of the page, and, on the assumption you were leaving the blog, one would appear. Their purpose was to entice you to stay, perhaps by offering a discount on an e-book (which you had no interest in), and/or making another attempt to garner an email address.

The early years of the social networks were positively refreshing in contrast. Here was an online experience devoid of popup boxes, ads, and content of questionable quality. Short wonder so many people sought refuge on the platforms. Of course the respite would be short-lived. Now people, “digital citizens”, are returning to websites. But my question: how long before the money hungry marketers make the same transition?

You can still peruse The Verge without being blocked-out by those annoyingly ubiquitous popup boxes. They still carry adverts, but they’re relatively unobtrusive. Of course, The Verge is not a personal website, and the primary goal of personal sites is generally not to turn a profit. But there’s nothing wrong, I think, with a publisher of a personal website, or blog, deriving some income from their website, especially where they are creating content others find useful or enjoyable.

But does that make it ok? To therefore monetise personal websites? Those unkempt public parks, as Mike Grindle eloquently describes them?

I think it’s vital that we still have web spaces where rampant monetization and marketing are frowned upon or outright disallowed – spaces like the Fediverse, personal blogs, and the indie web. They are like the unkempt public parks of the internet’s town square-turned-metropolis. They are places where we should be careful to not let the billboards outgrow the trees.

The billboards had outgrown the trees, particularly towards the end of the first homepage era. And then they eventually swamped the platform era apps. Can anyone else see the trend here? I’m sure the aforementioned media executives can, as they eagerly anticipate the return of the homepage. But they’re not interested in collateral damage.

I can’t imagine though, too many Indie Web/Small Web personal websites sacrificing screen real estate for a great many billboards. There are other means of monetising, some so low key they’re almost invisible. While hardly the best examples of personal websites, even if they are published (mostly) by individuals, Daring Fireball and Kottke nonetheless make for noteworthy role models.

Enduring also, both have been online for decades. Daring Fireball, whose revenue model I’ve written about previously, features a single, small, advert in its left hand column. And it doesn’t look half bad either. Kottke meanwhile, draws income from a voluntary membership system. There’s barely a billboard to be seen, but I’m guessing both publishers are doing well.

If that’s not proof less is more, what is?

Meanwhile plenty of personal website readers are happy to make “buy a cup of coffee” type donations to content creators whose work they like, or buy their products. There’s also going to be other ways to go about this, without a return to those homepage destroying, oversize, billboards.

There’s also something else that may help prevent a repeat of the overgrown billboard homepage apocalypse. Something that was not present twenty-years ago, at least not entirely in the form it is today, and that’s the Indie Web/Small Web community. A community determined to see independent publishers thrive. Massive billboards may one day again overwhelm, and wipe out, resurgent homepages, but not in all quarters of the internet.


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Windows 11 market share declining… in favour of Windows 10

3 May 2024

Well, this is something:

According to Statcounter, in April 2024, Windows 11 lost 0.97 points, going down from 26.68% to 25.65%. All those users seemingly went for Windows 10 since the OS, which will soon turn nine, crossed the 70% mark for the first time since September 2023, gaining 0.96 points.

A nine year old operating system is increasing market share over its much newer successor. Why does this not surprise me?

Windows 11 takes ever more autonomy away from users, while, at one point, also attempting to foist Microsoft products, such as the Edge browser upon them. That Edge may be pretty good is beside the point; let us decide what apps we run on our devices. Now there’s talk of ads featuring in the start menu. Staying classy to the last, hey?

Support for Windows 10 (Home and Pro) is presently scheduled to cease in October 2025. I say presently scheduled, because news of retreating market share may see Microsoft pull the plug earlier, in an attempt to shore up support for Windows 11. Whether users like it or not.

In terms of seeking (and implementing) alternatives to Windows Operating Systems, and forgoing Windows 11, October 2025 isn’t too far away. But it offers some breathing space.



Forget WhatsApp and Messenger, contact me via my website

2 May 2024

Despite their convenience, ease of sharing content, and even security, I steadfastly resist using the likes of WhatsApp, Messenger, Signal, Telegram, Wire, Viber, and whatever else is out there. I probably infuriate friends and family by refusing to assimilate, but really feel I can only keep up with a certain number of communication channels: chiefly email and SMS/text messaging.

Even though I might only have two main means of communicating with the outside world, three if phone calls or Facetime are included, there’s also a number of secondary channels. Conversations and comments on social media (across a number of networks), forums, and an in-house work app (not Slack), are among them. Some of those interactions can be quite time consuming.

We’re probably carrying on more conversations than we realise, and that’s before we get to face-to-face interactions. I’ve barely written three paragraphs about communicating, and already I’m feeling overwhelmed. Exactly what I set out to avoid in shirking all those messaging apps in the first place. Needless to say then, a recent blog post by Robert Kingett, on the general subject, struck a chord:

“Yeah, found you! I couldn’t believe it dawg. I looked you up on Facebook a billion times, but the app just wasn’t showing you, at all. Neither in the message screen or the actual timeline or anything.”

“Well, you know I have a website now, so that’s where I post. I’m a Blogger now. I stay on my website.”

I’m a Blogger now. I stay on my website. That’s something that should be printed on t-shirts.

When I catch up with friends, they ask me: “how’s disassociated going?” Then a few minutes later, “oh, and are you on Whatsapp by any chance?” Sometimes I’d like to respond by saying, “well, I don’t need a messaging app, because you know you can reach me through my website. You know, the same one that predates Facebook, most of the social networks, and messaging apps.”

But I don’t. I just shake my head. And it can’t be all that bad after all. Some of my friends live interstate and overseas, and we still manage to meet in person when in each other’s respective places of residence, hassle free. All without the need to involve messaging apps, aside from some texts. If you’re an avid user of messaging apps — go for it — don’t let me dissuade you.

But if you want to reach me, you know where I’ll be.


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What happens to American TikTok influencers if the app is banned?

26 April 2024

A few days ago the United States Congress passed a law stipulating that video-sharing social network TikTok either be sold by Chinese owned company ByteDance, or face being banned in America. It seems like drastic move, but American lawmakers have their reasons.

The proposal has been on the table for some time, and when I heard about it early last year, I wondered what might happen to the American TikTok influencers, many of whom make a living through their activities on the app. I guess we’re going to find out.

Apparently nearly half of the US population are TikTok members, and a reasonable number of them would be deriving some sort of income from it. But I doubt US TikTok influencers could launch a campaign to have the law overturned, by encouraging voter turnout for a particular political party.

The law had strong bi-partisan support from both the Democrat and Republican parties, so the outcome of upcoming elections in the US would probably make no difference. From the point of view (I should say POV) of American TikTok members who livelihoods depend on the app, I hope a buyer favourable to the US government comes along, if that means TikTok continues operating in America.


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