Underscores, optimization & arms races

Eventually, people wanted to have the whole title of their article show up in the web address. Part of this was just because it looked cool, but some folks had started to suspect that having those words in the address might help a blog post rank higher on Google. (Google was still a smaller player in the overall web search market at the time, but it was already by far the most popular search engine amongst internet geeks.)

But here’s the thing: web addresses can’t have spaces in them. To include a full title with spaces in a web address for a blog, the spaces would either have to be removed (ugly!) or converted into something equivalent. Since we were one of the first to encounter this issue, our team designed to have our content management system use underscores, based on the rationale that underscores were the character that most closely resembled a blank space.

The end result? Anybody who used our tools could write a a blog post entitled “My Great Cookie Recipe” and it would live at an address that looked like example.com/2005/04/my_great_cookie_recipe.html. By contrast, the WordPress team thought that hyphens looked better, so blog posts published on their tool would look more like example.com/2005/04/my-great-cookie-recipe. Sure, these different tools made slightly different choices about which character to use, but such a subtle distinction couldn’t be meaningful, right?

As it would turn out, we’d stumbled across a harbinger of how the entire web was about to change.

Source: Underscores, Optimization & Arms Races – Humane Tech – Medium

How hyphens vs. underscores kickstarted the race to optimise for, and game the systems of, the web’s biggest players.

Kickstarter launches subscription platform Drip

Kickstarter seeks to take on the likes of Patreon, Flattr et al:

Kickstarter’s hesitance to launch new products over the years gets back to this same apprehension. “Once you start to have some success, everyone, both inside and outside the company, starts asking, ‘Why don’t you try this or launch that?’ I’ve seen how that can be insatiable, and we’re always trying to watch out,” Chen explained. “Very quickly through inertia, you can end up at a place where you don’t have control.” For many employees, this restraint became a point of frustration. “We’re falling behind the competition, and we’re at risk of losing our lead in some key categories,” a current staffer told me.

Source: Kickstarter launches Drip, a new service that lets fans subscribe to their favorite creators – The Verge

The unpredictability of Medium

“Ev Williams is trying to brute force his way through the problem of publishing and monetization,” said Choire Sicha, cofounder of The Awl network, which migrated a handful of its sites onto Medium during its publisher partner phase in late 2015 and early 2016. “In doing so, he has upended people’s lives — he has upended good publications.”

“I understand the desire to be agile and to pivot, and to try new things when things aren’t working,” Sicha continued. “But it’s destructive — you can’t try people and things on, then discard them. It’s not how a media company or a publishing company can work.”

Ev Williams Wants To Save Media — Again. But Some Writers And Publishers Are Skeptical.

I have mixed feeling about Medium. I launched a publication for work, and that’s gone brilliantly well; I get mostly interesting things delivered to me in the digest emails; people I follow on other platforms (Twitter, mostly) surface great Medium content.

Increasingly, I read a headline and think “that sounds interesting”, yet I can’t read the article, as it’s for members only. But will I subscribe? No, because I’m not confident that this membership model will exist in 6 months. Something will change. The baby will get thrown out with the bath water. It’s not worth the bother. (I hope I’m wrong.)

How Dictionary Editors Find Meaning in the Age of Internet Speak

It is the role of modern lexicographers, according to Brewster, to track these changes—to wade through a near-infinite pool of formal and informal discourse, and, in the process, differentiate fleeting trends from substantive shifts in usage. Whether these shifts are annoying or welcomed is inconsequential—once they reach critical mass, ubiquity eclipses controversy. “What was once shunned and disparaged,” she says, “has a good chance of joining the ranks of the unremarkable.”

As a prime example, Brewster points to the word “negotiate.” In the early-20th century, journalists and orienteers began using the term as a verb meaning “to successfully travel along or over.” Grammar pedants took great umbrage at this usage and soon brought their fight to the mainstream media. A writer’s use of negotiate in a 1904 edition of The Saturday Review inspired one critic to fire off a letter to the editor. “Surely no purpose ornamental or useful can be served by this unwarranted extension of the sense of a familiar word,” he sassed. “Do the spoilers of English negotiate the English dictionary?” Despite similar complaints elsewhere, the new sense rapidly gained currency and eventually clawed its way into acceptance.

How Dictionary Editors Find Meaning in the Age of Internet Speak – Motherboard

News story formats

Following the birth of my son I’ve just started an extended period of parental leave from work. Prior to my departure I was trying to better understand, rationalise and improve the way we used platforms and formats.

These are clearly linked: you cannot post audio to Twitter; you can’t post a long-form article to Instagram. But this is good! Most publishers are just doing the basic stuff and there’s room to easily reach a far larger audience by publishing in different formats or by repurposing archive content for different platforms. And within our faculties we have so many potential writers, presenters and collaborators! We were just beginning to get somewhere. Oh well. Something to pick up when I go back.

When I’m doing this sort of work I’m a sucker for this sort of visualisation:

This comes from Beyond 800 words: new digital story formats for news, a typology of news formats by Tristan Ferne for BBC R&D:

For the inception of a BBC R&D project to explore alternatives to these conventional formats I’ve conducted a review of the landscape of digital news, looking for innovations in article and video formats online. I’ve been looking particularly for story formats used for news that aren’t legacies from print or broadcast, that try to use the affordances of digital, that have been specifically designed for news and that are re-usable across stories and genres.

The challenges of translating a maritime novel into a ‘landlocked’ language

From an obituary of linguist Ognen Čemerski:

Čemerski spent about 12 years working on the translation of “Moby-Dick,” a project initiated during his undergraduate studies at Graceland University in Iowa, USA. He conducted it as a scientific endeavor, and used it as basis of his masters’ thesis in linguistics.

This was not the first translation of “Moby-Dick” in Macedonian. There was one edition published in the 1980s, translated from Serbo-Croatian, which did not produce a lasting impact.

The main problem of translating a book from 1851 about sailing and whaling was that the Macedonian language lacked maritime terminology. Most of the ethnic Macedonian population had been landlocked during the last centuries, having little contact with the sea in general and sailing in particular. In order to overcome this, Čemerski had to re-construct the vocabulary by first discovering the origins of the English terms, and then trace their equivalents in Macedonian or other Slavic languages.

Notes on a case of Nicholas Gurewitch

In December 2014 I backed a Kickstarter project by one of my favourite artists, Nick Gurewitch, creator of the Perry Bible Fellowship:

The project is called Notes on a Case of Melancholia, Or: A Little Death.

This is book about Death’s despair regarding his kid- an affectionate “Little Death” who simply doesn’t have what it takes to carry on the family business.

Dr. Edgar O. Wye is a psychoanalyst who takes Death on as a patient. The book’s rhyming narration will be taken from his case notes.

The book will run about 42-50 pages long, and will be completely illustrated. Graphic novel “frames” will be used on occasion, but this will really be more of a picture book – deliberately similar to the short books of Edward Gorey, but with a character-driven plot. Though it has a pretty high body count, it is in essence a family story.

It’s running slightly late. (About 18 months.) This is mostly due to the painstaking subtractive work required to produce each page: they are created by painting a board with black ink then ‘drawn’ by scratching millions of tiny lines with a scalpel.

Nick and his project were the subjects of a short documentary:

Nick’s just found out that his publisher has folded. It’s not too late to support the project to ensure it appears in a (somewhat) timely manner.

A domain of one’s own is important

Audrey Watters:

Students and staff can start to see how digital technologies work – those that underpin the Web and elsewhere. They can think about how these technologies shape the formation of their understanding of the world – how knowledge is formed and shared; how identity is formed and expressed. They can engage with that original purpose of the Web – sharing information and collaborating on knowledge-building endeavors – by doing meaningful work online, in the public, with other scholars. That they have a space of their own online, along with the support and the tools to think about what that can look like.

It doesn’t have to be a blog. It doesn’t have to be a series of essays presented in reverse chronological order. You don’t have to have comments. You don’t have to have analytics. You can delete things after a while. You can always make edits to what you’ve written. You can use a subdomain. (I do create a new subdomain for each project I’m working on. And while it’s discoverable – ostensibly – this work is not always linked or showcased from the “home page” of my website.) You can license things how you like. You can make some things password-protected. You can still post things elsewhere on the Internet – long rants on Facebook, photos on Instagram, mixes on Soundcloud, and so on. But you can publish stuff on your own site first, and then syndicate it to these other for-profit, ad-based venues. […]

That’s your domain. You cultivate ideas there – quite carefully, no doubt, because others might pop by for a think. But also because it’s your space for a think.

Medium: $5/mo for nothing

Kieran McCarthy on Medium’s curious ‘offering’:

Medium is offering literally nothing beyond promises:

  • Future “exclusive stories from leading experts” – um, who? On what? And when?
  • Early access to “a new Medium experience” – they are going to revamp their homepage. You’ll get to see it earlier.
  • Personal, offline reading list – you can save stories to a queue.

We can pretty much guarantee Medium that no one outside a few over-paid techies living in SoMa or Palo Alto is going to think that represents good value for $5 a month. The whole idea is doomed to failure.

Data reporting links from NICAR17

Chrys Wu has a comprehensive list of talks and resources from NICAR17—the conference for the (U.S.) National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

Some that jumped out at me as being particularly useful and/or interesting: