Lurking, Twitter, The Commons, and Private Posts

Lurking

Yesterday I was catching up on chat logs and ran across a stub for lurking on the IndieWeb wiki. I cleaned up the formatting a bit and added some additional material. Later Ton Zijlstra dropped a link to his excellent article from 2004 on the topic: Lurking and Social Networks (though honestly, I first came by the link courtesy of our good friend Jeremy Cherfas who added it to the wiki page).

Lurking is the quiet watching/listening that what many people of the web do in chat rooms in order to begin gauging culture, learning jargon or lingo, and other community norms or unspoken principles before diving in to interact on a more direct level with other participants.

While the word lurking can have a very negative connotation, online it often has a much more positive one, especially in regard to the health and civility of the commons. Rather than rehash what Ton has done an excellent job of doing, I won’t go into the heavy details and history of online lurking, but instead, let’s take a look at where it isn’t in today’s social media landscape.

Twitter

Since 2004, Twitter and a slew of other social media has popped up on the scene and changed many of our prior behaviors concerning lurking. In particular, Twitter’s interface has made it far easier to either like/favorite a post or retweet it.

In comparison the the preceding era of the blogosphere represented by Tons’ post, Twitter has allowed people to send simple notifications back and forth about each others’ posts indicating a lower bar of interaction than writing a thoughtful and measured comment. Now instead of not knowing about dozens, hundreds, or thousands of lurkers, a (micro)blogger would more quickly know who many more of their readers were because they were liking or resharing their content. Naturally there are still many more potential lurkers who don’t interact with one’s posts this way, but these interactions in some way are like adding fuel to the fire and prompt the writer to continue posting because they’re getting some feedback that indicates they’ve got an audience. Twitter has dramatically lowered the bar for lurkers and made it more socially acceptable for them to make themselves known.

A mid-century imagining of a Twitter company sign on the side of a commercial building, but aged to the point that the sign is rusted, broken, and decaying from neglect
Twitter image from the collection Social Decay by Andrei Lacatsu

Of course, not all is rosy and happy in Twitterland as a result of this lowering the social bar. Because it’s so easy to follow almost anyone and interact with them, naturally everyone does. This means that while before one may have lurked a blog for weeks or months before posting a response of any sort, people are now regularly replying to complete strangers without an resistance whatsoever. While this can be valuable and helpful in many instances, oftentimes it comes off as rudely as if one butted into the private conversation of strangers at a public gathering. At the farther end of the spectrum, it’s also much easier for trolls to tag and target unsuspecting victims. As a result, we have the dumpster fire that Twitter has become in the past several years for many of its users.

The problem for the continued health of the commons is how can we maintain a bar for online lurking, but still provide some feedback? How can we keep people from shouting and yelling at passer-by from their proverbial front porches or vice-versa? How might we encourage more positive lurking online before directly jumping into a conversation? 

Read Posts and Private Posts

For several years now, as a part of the IndieWeb movement, I’ve been more directly controlling my online identity and owning my content by using my own domain name and my own website (boffosocko.com). While I still use Twitter, I’m generally only reading content from it via a feed reader. When I post to or interact with it, I’m always publishing my content on my own website first and syndicating a copy to Twitter for those who don’t own their online identities or content and (sadly) rely on Twitter to do that for them. 

Within this setting, since roughly late 2016, I’ve been posting almost all of what I read online or in books, magazines, or newspapers on my own website. These read posts include some context and are often simply composed of the title of the article, the author, the outlet, a summary/synopsis/or first paragraph or two to remind me what the piece was about, and occasionally a comment or two or ten I had on the piece.

screencapture of a read post on my website
An example read post with context from my website at https://boffosocko.com/2019/06/02/lurking-and-social-networks-ton-zijlstra/

In tandem with these posts, I’m also sending webmentions to the websites of those pieces. These (experimental) read webmentions are simply notifications to the originating site that I’ve read their piece. In our prior framing of lurking or Twitter, I’m sending them the simplest notification I can think of to say, “I’m here lurking. I’m reading or looking at your work.”

I’m not saying that I liked it, favorited it, disliked it, bookmarked it, commented on it,  or anything else, but simply that I read it, I consumed it, I spent the time to interact with it. But in contrast with Ton’s older method of looking at server logs to see what kind of traffic his posts are getting, he can see exactly who I am and visit my website in return if he chooses. (Ton’s old method of sifting through those logs was certainly not a fun experience and the data was usually relatively anonymous and useless.) These newer read notifications could potentially give him a much richer idea of who his (lurking) audience actually is. Then when someone shows up with a comment or reply, it’s not completely from out of the dark: they’ve previously indicated that they’re at least somewhat aware of the context of a potentially broader conversation on his site.

These read notifications are semantically different from likes, favorites, or even bookmarks on other platforms. In fact many platforms like Twitter, which has moved from “stars” (with the semantic idea of a favorite) to “hearts” (with the semantic idea of a like), have so few indicators of reaction to a post that the actual meaning of them has been desperately blurred. Personally I’ll use Twitter’s like functionality variously to mean: “I’m bookmarking this (or the linked article within it) for reading later”, “I like this post”, “I’ve read this post”, or even “I’m acknowledging receipt of your reply to me”. That’s just too much meaning to pack into a silly little heart icon.

Because I’m using my own website over which I have complete control, I can make it do a better job of unpacking some of this semantic tom-foolery. I’ve written about it a bit in the past if you care to see some of the details: Thoughts on linkblogs, bookmarks, reads, likes, favorites, follows, and related links. See also: the read-posts tag on this site.

If they choose, some website owners display these read post notifications in one or more ways. Some sites like Aaron Parecki’s or Jeremy Keith’s will show my interactions as bookmarks. Others, primarily WordPress-based websites that support Webmention (via plugin), will actually show these interactions in their comment sections under the heading “Read” and display my photo/avatar as an indicator that I’ve interacted with that post. In the case of read posts on which I’ve written one or more comments, the receiving site also has the option of showing my interaction not as a read/bookmark intent, but could also show my comments as a reply to their post. I’ve written a bit about this and its potential for large news outlets before in Webmentions: Enabling Better Communication on the Internet for A List Apart. There are also some older legacy sites that might show my interactions as a trackback or pingback, but these seem few and far between these days, particularly as those systems are major targets for spam and the Webmention protocol has a richer interaction/display model.

screencaputure showing how Jeremy Keith displays my read post as a bookmark. The relevant section reads: "# Bookmarked by Chris Aldrich on Thursday, April 11th, 2019 at 1:31pm"
How Jeremy Keith displays shares, likes, and bookmarks (including my read post) in the comment section of his website.
Facepiled Likes, Reads, and Mentions in the comment section of the online newspaper with a heading "Reading" under which appears an avatar indicating one person has read the article.
The display of a read post on ColoradoBoulevard.net

A new itch

But as I think about these read posts, lurking, and being more civil on the internet, I have a new itch for some functionality I’d like to add to my website. I very frequently use my website as a digital commonplace book to collect links of things I’ve read, watched, and listened to. I’ll collect quotes, highlights, and even my own marginalia. As I mentioned above, my read posts sometimes have comments, and quite often those comments are really meant just for me and not for the author of the original post. In many cases, when my comments may be too egregious, sensitive, or perhaps even insulting to the original author, I’ll make these posts private so that only I can see them on my site.  Of course when they’re private, no notifications are sent to the site at the other end of the line.

Sometimes I would like to be able to send a read notification to the site, but also keep my commentary privately to myself. This allows me to have my notes on the piece and be highly critical without dragging down the original author or piece who I may not know well or the audience of that same piece which I haven’t properly lurked (in the positive community-based sense indicated above) to be as intelligently and sensitively commenting as I would otherwise like. Thus I’d like to build in some functionality so that I can publicly indicate I’ve read a piece (and send a notification), but also so that I can keep the commentary on my read private to either myself or a smaller audience.

I suspect that I can do this in a variety of meta-fields on my website which aren’t shown to the public, but which might be shown to either myself or logged in users. In some sense, this is a subset of functionality which many in the IndieWeb have been exploring recently around the ideas of private posts or by limiting the audience of a post. In my case, I’m actually looking at making a post public, but making smaller sub-portions of it private.

To begin with, I’ll most likely be looking at doing this at a small scale just for myself and my commonplace book, as I can definitely see second and third-order effects and a variety of context collapse issues when portions of posts are private, but others who may be privy to them are commenting on those pieces from the perspective of their public spheres which may not be as private or closed off as mine. i.e.: While I may have something marked as private, privy readers will always have the option of copy/pasting it and dragging it out into the public.

For those interested, I’ll briefly note that Sebastiaan Andeweg just wrote Private posts: the move of the checkins which has some useful and related background to private posts. (Of course I remember exactly when I read it.) I also highly suspect there will be a private posts related session(s) at the upcoming IndieWeb Summit in Portland in June (tickets are still available). I’m interested to see what others come up with on this front.

Replied to Context challenges between and social media silos by David MeadDavid Mead (David John Mead)

My utopian dream of owning all my content would be to post it on my blog first. Syndicating to whatever social media silo's I choose afterwards.

This isn't a reality as some of these silos (Instagram) don't allow posting apart through their apps.

This forces me to accept their context for my content if I consume it into my site, from them.

This context piece David Mead is talking about is a far bigger issue than most people might give it credit for. Most don’t even notice it because their lives are split up so tragically online that they simply have never had any other experiences. Seeing things from a different perspective, I can guarantee that they’re missing out.

I’m reminded of chef Alton Brown who regularly gives the cooking advice that one should never buy unitasker kitchen tools, but instead get multi-taskers that can do a variety of jobs. This typically cuts down on a lot of the mess and fuss in one’s kitchen and generally makes it a nicer place to prepare food. Nine times out of ten the unitasker is a much more expensive and infrequently used tool and ultimately gets lost in a junk drawer. More often than not, there are one or multi-taskers that can do a better job for far less. 

In some sense social silos like Twitter (with functionality for notes and bookmarks), Instagram (photos), Facebook (notes, photos, links, etc.), Swarm (locations and photos), etc. are just like those unitaskers in the kitchen. They only do one (or sometimes a very few) thing(s) well and generally just make for a messier and more confused social media life. They throw off the mise en place of my life by scattering everything around, making my own content harder to find and use beneficially. On my own website, I have all of the functionalities of these four examples–and lots more–and its such a much better experience for me.

As time goes by and I’m able to post more content types (and cross link them via replies) on my own website and even to others’, I do notice that the increased context on my website actually makes it more interesting and useful. In particular, I can especially see it when using my “On This Day” functionality or various archive views where I can look back at past days/months/years to see what I had previously been up to. This often allows me to look at read posts, bookmark posts, photos, locations to put myself back in the context of those prior days. Since all of the data is there and viewable in a variety of linear and non-linear manners, I can more easily see the flow of the ideas, where they came from and where they  may be going. I can also more easily search for and find ideas by a variety of meta data on my site that would probably have never been discoverable on disparate and unrelated social sites. That article I read in July and posted to Twitter could never be grouped again with the related photo on Instagram or the two other bookmarked journal articles I put on Diigo or the annotations I made with Hypothes.is. But put all that on my own website, and what a wonderful exploding world of ideas I can immediately recall and continue exploring at a later date. In fact, it is this additional level of aggregation and search that makes my website that much more of a valuable digital commonplace book.

I’ll note, as a clever bit of of search and serendipity to underscore the discussion of context, it’s nearly trivial for me to notice that exactly two years ago today I was also analogizing social media and food culture. Who knows where those two topics or even related ones from my site will take me next?

👓 Why “click here” is a terrible link, and what to write instead | Stephanie Leary

Read Why “click here” is a terrible link, and what to write instead by Stephanie Leary

An astonishing percentage of what I do with my clients’ web copy involves eradicating the phrase “click here” from their links. For more information, click here.

You see it everywhere. Everyone’s doing it, so it must be a best practice, right?

Wrong. It’s the worst possible practice. You should never, ever use “click here” in a web link.

Why?

“Click here” requires context.

Some good solid advice here for creating links!

👓 Required reading | Colin Devroe

Read Required reading by Colin Devroe (cdevroe.com)
The first time I linked to Colin Walker, which was only about 4 months ago, it was because he was fiddling with his blog, trying to come up with the right way to display his content for him and his audience. It is a topic that has fascinated me for 20 years and to see someone else thinking about it out loud is great.

Reply to Colin Walker on the idea of a required reading page

Replied to I've been thinking some more about the idea of a required reading page. by Colin Walker (Social Thoughts)
Could the things held here be placed on an About page? Possibly - it depends what they are. If they are links to your own posts then almost certainly. External links? Maybe, maybe not. So, why have a required page and what does it give the reader?

In classical studies in the Renaissance the number of texts which were popular and considered expected/required reading for a “learned” person were a relatively set number and generally completely consumable and completely known by those with an education. Thus a writer could make a reference to the old testament or to Cato and the vast majority of the audience would get that reference (without footnotes or explicit references) having read these same texts.

Sadly the depth and breadth of available literature has exploded since Gutenberg making it nearly impossible for anyone in a modern audience to have read and know what the author may presume them to know. As an example, in Shakespeare’s day many of his side references would be known by even the uneducated, while most modern students have to rely on Cliff’s Notes or annotated editions to understand those cultural references. The modern day equivalent is that most avid fans of the Simpsons television show are also generally well educated on popular film since the 1940s, otherwise they’re missing 90% of the jokes.

Things become much more stilted within the blogging arena, particularly when a writer may cover a dozen areas or more in which they may have significant experience, but which will likely be completely unknown to some of their regular readers, much less new readers who aren’t specialists in these fields themselves. This may turn away readers at worst, but will destroy the conversation at best. (Though I will admit it doesn’t seem deter some of the lookie-loos from taking at shot at interacting on the lowest levels at Terry Tao’s blog.)

In some sense, in knowing their audience, writers have to have some grasp of what they do or don’t know, otherwise it becomes difficult to communicate those progressively more expanding thoughts. Having hyperlinks certainly helps within a piece, much the way academics footnote journal articles, but it can be just as painful for the writer to constantly be referring back to the same handful of articles constantly. In this sense, having a recommended/required reading section may be useful, particularly if it were ubiquitous, but I suspect that the casual drive-by reader may not notice or care very much. However, for that rare <5% it may be just the primer they’re looking for to better understand you and what you’re writing about.

One of the most difficult things to do in a new job or when entering a new field is to become aware of the understood culture and history of the company or the field itself. One must learn the jargon and history to contextualize the overarching conversation. Jumping into Dave Winer’s blog without knowing his background and history is certainly a more painful thing than starting to read someone whose blog is less than a year old and could thus be consumed in a short time versus thousands upon thousands of posts since the literal start of blogging on the internet. It’s somewhat reminiscent of David Shanske’s problem of distilling down a bio for an h-card from the rest of his site and his resume. What do you want someone you’ve just met to know about you to more quickly put you into a broader context, especially when you want them to get to know you better?

I think we’re all in the same boat as David in figuring out the painful path of distilling all this down in a sensible and straightforward manner. I’m curious to see what you come up with and how it evolves over time.

👓 I’ve been thinking some more about the idea of a required reading page. | Colin Walker

Read a post by Colin WalkerColin Walker (colinwalker.blog)
I've been thinking some more about the idea of a required reading page. Could the things held here be placed on an About page? Possibly - it depends what they are. If they are links to your own posts then almost certainly. External links? Maybe, maybe not. So, why have a required page and what does ...

👓 Required reading? | Colin Walker

Read Required reading? by Colin WalkerColin Walker (colinwalker.blog)
Dave Winer posted: "I wish blogs could have the concept of required reading for the people who read the site." He uses it in the context of something external which he feels everyone should be aware of but, I feel, it could be anything. I've used a similar concept for years to highlight "recommended...

👓 Thoughts on a required reading page for blogs | Nitin Khanna

Read Thoughts on a required reading page for blogs by Nitin Khanna (nitinkhanna.com)
I’ve been following Colin Walker’s thoughts on a ‘required reading’ page since Monday and have been thinking about it myself. His own thoughts were based on Dave Winer talking about the idea. What is a required reading page to me? Dave Winer seems to suggest a page which would link to articl...