Mid March Check-in

Mar 13 2021 02:14pm

In my previous check-in post I wondered what I should do next, now that I have an access-control system. When I need to make a decision like that, I try to give myself a few days of not-very-much-work. I look through the code for little things to clean up. I reorganize things over and over, without really changing the details, until I'm happy with them or bored. I explore any interesting rabbit-holes I noticed, and try to plan out work I'm not sure I want to do yet. Above all, I cut myself slack. Take a nap. Watch someone rebuild an engine because I always wanted to know what's inside. Watch a documentary on the Bauhaus, notice the possibilities and the vulnerabilities of optimistic artistic/industrial movements in times of rising fascism. When I'm coming off a period of structured focus it just takes time for my mind to get back to a neutral posture, the kind of calm attention that I want for making decisions. I've never had a job where I would have felt comfortable doing that--clocking out at 10AM after doing a half hour of work, announcing "I don't feel like doing this right now" and not having to justify myself or burn through vacation time or have to "make it up" later or feel like I was getting special treatment because I was "one of the productive ones"--but with every week that passes I get more and more confident that this will be the most usefully-productive year of my career so far. Rest works. Feeling secure works. Feeling uncoerced works. And as I've said before, I strongly reject the explanation that this is something I've "earned" somehow, or that I should think of it as a "privilege." It's not a privilege afforded to me; it's a natural human right that's denied to almost everyone else. As a creative species, we are operating at 10% efficiency, maybe less, because everyone is stressed out all the time about basic things. There is no other natural resource that we squander and misuse like human potential, and no other resource we could tap as quickly to solve every problem that we face. But I digress; now I'm feeling rested and I think I know how I want to move forward. There are a few different threads to tie together; I'll try to show what they are over the rest of this post. If I manage to convince myself by the end of it, I'll know I'm ready.

There are three (or two-and-a-half) things that appear to be real candidates for the next couple months of work:

  1. I could work on building administration tools into the site design I have now
  2. I could work on integrating an existing standard for how sites can talk to each other
  3. I could work on documentation so that other software writers can build on what I'm doing more easily (this is similar to #2 because both prioritize the participation of the existing software- and standards-writing communities)

It's worth a digression into the existing ways that sites can talk to each other. This discussion needs two words to be clearly defined: protocol and taxonomy. A protocol is an explicit procedure for doing something, like the set of things you need to do to mail a letter, including the envelope, the way to write the address, the stamp, etc. A taxonomy is a categorization of things, like "the different types of mail you can send"--first class, priority, media mail. A taxonomy both defines and limits the area it covers: if you want to mail a thing, you have to pick one of the existing categories of mail; you can't define your own.

When we think about websites talking to each other, we care about both protocols and taxonomies. The protocol is important because the website that sends the message and the website that receives the message need to agree about how that interaction should work. The taxonomy is important because different types of message have different characteristics; a public tweet is different than a blog post and both are different than a direct message. Every type of message requires almost a whole website-worth of user interface--entire systems like twitter and instagram can be devoted to one or two types. Those types, in turn, influence the character of the system, its personality, the human interactions that take place there. One is tempted to underestimate the amount of work involved in coming up with those types and their behaviors, because there are familiar forms that seem to obey something called "common sense" rules; obvious in a no-I-can't-define-it-go-away style, the hallmark of offloading the cognitive dissonance of the world onto someone you don't want to help but won't hesitate to blame. These things are hard, and the best case scenario of getting them right is that no one notices. Faced with that kind of rock face to climb, it's a good idea to poke around for a bit in case someone's left a cheeky ladder propped up nearby.

Indeed, when we look around, we find several promising and well-developed candidates from different communities with different focuses. In no particular order:

  1. Microformats, Micropub, and Webmentions: Microformats are a way of adding semantic labels to otherwise-standard HTML, basically describing structured ways to construct and read types of information, like "a personal profile" or "a comment on a blog post" within the existing structure of a web page. Micropub is a protocol for sending and receiving messages of those types, and webmention is a related protocol for notifying systems when someone publishes those types of messages. These standards have evolved primarily out of the Indieweb community, which continues to use and maintain them.
  2. ActivityPub: ActivityPub is a set of protocols for sending and receiving messages, either between websites or from a client application--like a browser--and a website. Instead of defining its own taxonomy, ActivityPub uses the published vocabulary of the ActivityStreams 2.0 syntax. Basically, ActivityStream's vocabulary contains a few basic building-block types, like defining the concept of an "activity," and also defines a way to create new building blocks. The social network software mastodon is the most visible implementation of ActivityPub.
  3. Secure Scuttlebutt (SSB): SSB is a family of protocols for building distributed applications. One of its core concepts is the gossip protocol; a way to spread information (including securely access-controlled information) throughout a network without relying on a central hub or even, necessarily, internet connectivity.
  4. Matrix: Matrix is a protocol and taxonomy for chat clients; it proposes a way to build standardized chat systems without requiring a central hub.
  5. Atom / RSS: Atom and RSS are both widely-deployed protocols and vocabularies for syndicating content, used mostly for blog posts and articles.

All of these are reasonable and interesting designs. All of them also pass the critical bar of having working implementations--that is, there are programs designed to follow the standards and there are people who are satisfied enough with those programs to use them regularly. As a lifelong not-expert in applied human sociality, I would much rather use these kinds of indicators--who uses a thing, for what, and how do they feel about it--as a guide to what already works, rather than trying to "logic" my way to "what people will like" from some set of axioms.

Of course, as I said before, even a small number of message types are a massive amount of work to support well--like potentially an "all the effort that goes into Twitter" amount of work. And since there are definitely five different protocol / taxonomy things that I already know about, and doubtless even more that I don't, there's a bit of a target-selection problem. Knowing how I work (slowly, inquisitively, independently), and using as a guideline the fact that it took me a month to be satisfied with an OAuth client implementation (another example of following an existing specification), it would realistically take a couple of months for me to build a solution that I'd be happy with. And what I'd have, at the end of it, would be a system embodying the character, personality, and social context of whichever set of standards I'd chosen. It would be a big investment, is what I'm saying. And I can't really decide on a good set of criteria for deciding which of these things would deserve that investment more than the others.

I occasionally mention the tools I use for building this system. Two of them, exploranda and donut-days, are code libraries of my own design that make it easier to design back-end processes like the HTML-rendering code for this website. A third is terraform, and the small library of terraform modules that I maintain. None of the three is really suited to building social media interfaces--the actual screen layouts that let you author and read social media. In fact, I've never really made a tool for interface construction that I was happy with. It would need to meet the bar that I set for the others; it would need to be conceptually simple, flexible, and package-able; it would need to fit in seamlessly with the rest of my tools, participating with them in the task of the overall system; it would need to be something that makes me happy to use.

So here's the situation as I see it:

  1. There are a lot of reasonable candidates for "how a social media system ought to work" and the kinds of things that it should enable you to do.
  2. Each candidate requires infrastructure, process code and interface code.
  3. I have tools I like for building infrastructure and process code, but not interface code.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. What I would like to do next is to explore ways of building interfaces and evaluate each, as I've done with infrastructure and program design, in the context of the ethical and pragmatic choices it makes. Out of that exploration I intend to arrive at a tool that works well for me; either one like terraform, which is published by someone else but embodies design choices I like, or one like exploranda and donut-days, which I maintain so that I have a natural way to work. Over the next few weeks I hope to report progress in this effort, both in terms of what Im learning and thinking, and what I'm prototyping and building. Stay tuned!