In 2002 I started collecting the bits, knots and clods of thrown away cassette tape that ever so often could be seen lying or hanging around in the streets, parks, fields, in gutters, trees, fences… I then mount my finds back onto a cassette, to be able to listen to them.
In a word, the answer is yes. For the past few years I’ve been using micro.blog, which I’ve come to think of as the loveliest place on the Internet. It isn’t lovely by chance, it has been deliberately designed that way, and is lovingly nurtured to keep it full of positive vibes across its wonderful community.
On the surface, micro.blog is selling blog hosting. For $5/month, you can sign up and host your blog posts there. The monthly fee makes sure that your site isn’t cluttered with any adverts. You can post using apps for iOS, iPadOS, MacOS and Android as well as via the web. Blog posts can be ‘micro’ status updates of 280 characters or less, and if you go over this limit, the official apps and web interface reveal a ‘title’ field to accompany a more traditional blog post. You can syndicate your posts to Twitter, Medium, Mastodon, LinkedIn and Tumblr, with the full text being posted if it can fit in a tweet, and a title and link posted if it is longer. Photo uploads are included; the official apps helpfully strip out any EXIF metadata, such as where the photo was taken, in order to protect your privacy. A $10/month plan gives you the ability to host short videos or even podcasts (‘micro casts’), which you can record using the Wavelength iOS app.
But this is just where the magic starts. You don’t actually need to host your content on micro.blog. I’ve had my own blog for many years, and have recently started to take my content off of other platforms such as Instagram and Goodreads and host it myself — I want my content on my own platform, not somebody else’s. If you have an existing blog like I do, you can create an account and link it to your existing website via an RSS feed. Any post you write on your own blog then gets posted to your micro.blog account, and syndicated to wherever you want it to go. You can even set up multiple feeds with multiple destinations for cross-posting:
Once you have an account set up, you can start to use the main micro.blog interface. Here’s where you will see posts from everyone that you have ‘followed’, whether they have a micro.blog hosted account or syndicate from their own site. It’s a bit like a calmer, happier version of Twitter:
Here’s where some of the thoughtfulness of the design comes in. Discovering people to follow actually takes some effort. You can click on the Discover button to see a set of recent posts from a variety of users, lovingly hand-curated by the micro.blog Community Manager Jean MacDonald. If one of these posts catches your eye, you can click on the username or profile photo and press ‘follow’. That person’s posts will now appear in your timeline. By default you will also see their ‘replies’ to other members of the community. You can click on a button to view the whole conversation thread, which can lead you to explore and discover more people. This effort means that the emphasis is on quality over quantity, with gradual discovery.
You can also discover people by selecting someone’s profile and clicking through to see who they follow that you aren’t following:
One of the best design choices made on the platform is that there are no follower counts. I have no idea how many other users follow me, or anybody else. There are also no ‘likes’, just a button to privately bookmark a post for you to access again easily in the future. Reposts (or ‘retweets’) don’t exist either — if you like a post that you read and want to amplify it, you need to create a new post of your own. Hashtags are also not supported. Again, the emphasis is on quality and not quantity, on conversations instead of engagement metrics. This works to reduce people posting content just to ‘go viral’, and keeps the noise down.
So far, so straightforward. But there’s more magic.
The creator of micro.blog has authored an iOS app called Sunlit, which allows the creation of photo posts on your blog, whether you are hosting your content on micro.blog or externally. You can also see posts from other people that you follow on micro.blog. It’s like viewing the micro.blog content through an Instagram-type lens. The photos you see are from the same timeline that you see in micro.blog. You can comment on and bookmark posts, and switch between the Sunlit app and the main micro.blog apps or web interface. I love an occasional browse through the timeline using this app if I’m in the mood just to see some wonderful photos.
So, this means that all of your content sits on your own blog. No more silos of posts on different platforms.
But here’s the thing that feels most magical to me. If someone reads a post of yours on micro.blog, they can reply to it. But in the spirit of you owning your own content, these replies get posted as comments on your original blog post, even if the blog is hosted on your own independent website. Every time this happens, it blows my mind a tiny bit. Here’s an example — I recently posted about how exhausting the Clubhouse app is, which sparked a few comments and conversations. People responded on micro.blog and these ended up as comments on the post on my site:
It really is a wonderful place to spend some time. If you’re looking for an alternative to the noisy, regularly hostile place that the traditional social media platforms have become, and/or owning your content is important to you, it is well worth checking out. It’s been a source of joy over the past couple of weeks to see a real-life friend regularly posting there, and I know from talking to him that he’s loving it.
I created a Path account but it never stuck with me. As a social network, the value is in connecting with other people and you can only do that if they also join the service. Facebook and Twitter already had big enough critical mass that there was little hope in getting enough of my friends to join to make it useful.
Does anyone use Path? Aside from being a beautiful iOS app, is there any advantage to having yet one more social network?
— Andrew Doran (@adoran2) December 2, 2011
I remember reading about Path in 2012 when controversy erupted about the app taking a copy of your address book to do things such as let you know when friends signed up for an account. At the time I thought that they had been unfairly singled-out as so many apps did exactly the same thing, but it was good overall that a story got out which made people more privacy-conscious. Maybe that will be their legacy.
I’ve had a feeling for a while that I haven’t been using Twitter as much as I used to a couple of years back. The ‘index graph’ that comes as part of the download package seemed to confirm this, but what was stark for me was exactly how long ago I really was a ‘heavy’ user. Things seem to tail off after 2011, a couple of years after I started.
(This fits with the general pattern of me getting older and thinking that ‘most things’ happened a couple of years ago whereas actually they took place much further back. “Oh, Ronnie Barker died a few years ago.” Yes, 13 years ago.)
I thought it would be interesting to take the monthly statistical data (it’s in a .js file in the Twitter download) and see exactly how much my usage had declined by plotting it in a proper chart. Here’s where I got a second shock. If you follow the trend line from mid-2010 this is pretty much the exact point where my usage bisects zero:
I have such fond memories. Back in the day I made some lovely friends, had interesting discussions about all kinds of topics, organised Tweetups, and generally had a great time. I even had good conversations aboutwork — Twitter and it’s wonderful hive mind had utility. But it became exhausting. Fear of missing out meant that I didn’t unfollow people unless there was really no value in what someone had to say. I gave up on trying to keep up with my main timeline and switched to using lists, one for the Technology folk I was interested in following closely and another (private) one for my friends, family and anyone else I didn’t want to miss. I also had the odd one here and there for when something was blowing up in the financial markets or Formula 1 and I wanted an up-to-date commentary. But even that was too much. I don’t know how much of it was a change in me or a change in the place itself, but I can’t find the energy for it anymore.
I still add people to my follow list quite liberally, as I know I’m not actually going to read their tweets. These days my Twitter feed is used as input for Nuzzel which notifies me when articles get shared by more than five people in my timeline.
Life seems a lot healthier with longer form content of blogging, reading and more considered discussions. The time I used to spend reading my timeline is now instead spent in the Kindle app or going through blog posts in Feedbin/Reeder.
There are still lots of people I admire who seem to get a lot of value out of Twitter and still be productive and do great work, but I don’t feel like I can be one of them in any meaningful way.
From the latest Herts for Learning eSafety parent newsletter (not online yet at the time of writing):
The whole notion of making social media platform more addictive is harmful. Where you deliberately design them to play on people’s angst it is downright odious.
Once I had everything in place the migration itself only took a couple of hours. I started with an export and import of my site using the WordPress-provided tools but found that this only transferred the basics — mainly the text. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years tweaking different aspects of the site and didn’t want to go through trying to reassemble it again. The All-in-One WP Migration plugin came to my rescue — this exports pretty much every aspect of a WordPress site including media, plugins, customisations etc. and lets you drag and drop the exported file to its new home. In order to export the data I had create a new folder on the server and grant write permissions to it, but I didn’t need to make any customisations for the upload to work on the new site. Exporting is free but importing a file of over 512Mb means that you need to buy a licence for USD 69 (about GBP 50). My export file was 1.4Gb so I had to pay; in my mind this was money well-spent considering the alternative of spending hours making all the customisations, reinstalling plugins and uploading all of my old media again.
Uploading my own static HTML content was as simple as can be, again making reference to the many straightforward Siteground tools and reference pages on how to create a key pair to enable an SFTP connection.
Once the content was uploaded and I’d tested it out I had to make a few tweaks to the variables so that it recognised itself as the canonical andrewdoran.uk and then repointed the DNS entries to the new site. I know that DNS is meant to take up to 48h to propagate but the change seemed almost instant from where I was connecting from. I also made a simple change to redirect ‘www’ requests to the non-www equivalent.
Having got the site up and running it was exceedingly easy to use the Siteground-provided tools to not only install a valid Let’s Encrypt SSL certificate but also to get any requests to HTTP pages redirected to the HTTPS equivalent on the site.
As far as migrations go it was exceptionally straightforward. It’s great to know that not only am I now able to serve up site content over HTTPS but also that I don’t need to worry about maintaining the operating system on my web server, as the host will do that for me.
My mind is blown by how quickly there is a grotesque race to the bottom as soon as a new technology platform is introduced. YouTube’s launch in 2005 feels like yesterday and here we are already.
Tip: Don’t start a company with a 25 person payroll, the usual accompanying costs and barely a plan.
We had some commitments from clients, and stable footing. But within a few months the bedrock client would fall away. We’d call a meeting and stare at each other. I’d love to tell you we walked out and left a jammed whiteboard with a birds-eye view of a broad strategic plan. We didn’t. We just kept trying stuff.
Their Track Changes podcast is excellent. I’m a little behind but have been listening since episode one. Each show has smart people (Paul and Rich, the co-founders) talking to smart guests about a broad range of topics. Their candour about what the podcast is and does for them as a marketing tool is refreshing, and makes me wish I was back in New York so that I could pay a visit to one of their events. Last year they even sent me a book with highlights from their first few episodes. Cool company and I wish them every success.
Troy Hunt’s excellent podcasts and blog posts have alerted me to the fact that web browsers are soon going to get more and more aggressive with websites that are not served up over https with valid SSL certificates. At a simple level, these certificates ensure that data is encrypted between the web browser on your computer and the server at the other end. Years ago, they were only really used for when you were checking out with your ‘shopping cart’ in an online store or accessing data at your bank. You knew that you were ‘secure’ by the fact that a padlock appeared next to the address of the web page you were on. For many reasons, it is now best practice to serve encrypted web pages for everything. When you visit an unencrypted website in the future, instead of passively just not displaying a padlock your browser is start to give you much more prominent visual clues that the website is not secure.
Last night a friend sent me this message:
…which is what Mobile Safari on iOS 11 shows you when you go to any page on my site prefixed with http__s__ instead of http. It looks as though I have inadvertently tweeted an https link and this resulted in everyone thinking I am a cyber criminal trying to steal their financial data off the back of a two-minute review of a 50-year old film. Not good. So, it’s time to jiggle the priorities on my to-do list and embrace a move to https across the site. This is where the problems start.
If I was hosting my site on wordpress.com or another platform they would take care of all of of this for me. Instead, I find myself spending a not insignificant amount of time looking into how to go about getting an SSL certificate (Let’s Encrypt), the best way to get it installed on a web site running Apache httpd on top of Ubuntu (Certbot, so that it automatically renews the certificates when they expire and I don’t have to do this every three months) and how to do this under the specific Bitnami setup that I launched all those years ago.
Three years of using Solaris as part of an undergraduate Computer Science degree in the late 1990s and using PuTTY once in a blue moon gives me enough confidence to get going, but hasn’t exactly garnered me with the technical chops to step up when things get challenging. After much frustration and fear of making a wrong move on the back end as a ‘super user’ (as I’m anything but) I have thrown my hands up, admitted defeat and opened a request for help. If anyone has any ideas as to how I can complete this process, I would be extraordinarily grateful for the time back that you will be giving me.
…I realized that I had updated the prioritized hierarchy to how likely I will respond to a piece of communication. From least likely to most likely, this is the hierarchy:
Spam < LinkedIn < Facebook < Twitter < Email < Slack < Phone < SMS < Face to Face
This struck a chord with me. A while ago I wrote down a list of all of the electronic inboxes that were playing a part in my life as I needed to take a step back and see it all. Discounting the ones that are both from and to myself (namely my unprocessed Drafts entries and my Evernote inbox), my own response hierarchy today looks something like this:
Spam < Flickr comments < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Blog comments < Personal email < Goodreads/Strava comments < Facebook mentions < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face
Maybe I am over-thinking it as the comments and mentions don’t always require a response (although the notifications do nag at me on my phone and I have a lingering guilt about not looking at them as often as I perhaps should). Anyway, let’s remove those:
Spam < LinkedIn < Voicemail < Facebook Messenger < Personal email < School governor email < Work email < Phone < Twitter < Skype for Business < Telegram/WhatsApp < SMS < Face to Face
Lopp’s analysis of each form of communication is interesting. I’m impressed that he manages to get to Inbox Zero every day both at work and home. I get there sometimes, but it isn’t as frequent as I would like.
My hierarchy isn’t always consistent. Voicemails on my mobile from strangers get much less attention than voicemails from people I know, but even then iOS doesn’t do a great job of nagging me about the ones that I have listened to but not actioned. Occasionally I’ll flick across to voicemail and find six or seven that stretch back over the past few months.
I don’t answer the phone to external numbers on my work phone as 95% of the time it is a sales call; unfortunately for those callers I have also removed my work Voicemail so I don’t need to deal with changing the security PIN every month. The value of voicemail is far outweighed by the inconvenience of accessing it — most of the time my missed calls list is sufficient for me to know who to get in contact with. People who really need to contact me in a work context from outside my company will have my email address or mobile number.
Email is fine for business type things but completely broken for ‘proper’ correspondence in that the more important a personal note is to me, the longer I’ll tend to leave it until I find the time to sit down and write a considered, meaningful response. I fully understand that this may be no more email’s fault than it is the fault of the letter-writing paper that also goes untouched in our house. Perhaps the long-form two-way personal communication is dead in the era of instant responses, or only useful when you have a lot to say to the other person and don’t want to be interrupted or get a reply.
We use Skype at work for instant messaging but it is almost completely on a 1:1 basis with barely any shared channels. It feels like a missed opportunity but multiple attempts to get it started have never caught on. Perhaps our company is too small, or we don’t have enough geeks.
Slack doesn’t feature at all as an inbox for me yet — I’m a member of three ‘teams’, none of which are directly linked to my employer. I mainly lurk and therefore don’t get many communications that way.
Twitter used to occupy a giant amount of time but my usage has tailed off significantly over the past couple of years. For a long while it felt like a real community and that I was part of something — I even organised a small handful of well-attended ‘tweetups’ in our town for everyone to meet — but over time I had subconsciously given up trying to keep up and have gone back to reading blogs and books. I get very little direct communication from it and when I do I’m pretty responsive. The main role it plays in my life now is as an aggregation source of interesting things to read via the wonderful Nuzzel app.
It’s interesting to me to write this down as it gives me a realisation of how complicated things are these days and how much of a cognitive burden it is to keep up with it all. It’s no longer sufficient to get to Inbox Zero with my three email accounts and feel that I am ‘done’; all of the others need to be checked and drained as well on a regular basis.
When I started work at my current firm in 2010 the managers in the team were all walking around with newly-released iPads in their hands. I distinctly remember my boss raving about how he had been in contact with the developer of a mind-mapping app he was using and how changes he had requested were being released to his iPad just a few days or weeks later. It felt magical. Compared with the computing experience we had grown up with, it was magical. The iOS App Store’s ubiquitous links back to application developer websites made it so straightforward to get in contact, and the rise once again of applications created and maintained by solo developers meant that emails got straight to the right person. My boss’s enthusiasm gave me an ‘of course, why didn’t I think of that?’ feeling.
A few years later, I became very involved as a user of the Readmill social reading platform. Talking to the team via Twitter and providing regular feedback led me to having good long Skype conversations with a couple of members of the team. It felt great that they cared so much that they wanted my input and I really wanted to help them to make it more successful.
Serendipitously, I’ve heard three podcasts in the past few days which have made me start to think again about the connections we are able to make and the value that they bring. Firstly, Ryan Holiday on Tim Ferris‘ podcast spoke about how mentors aren’t necessarily people with whom you have struck up a formal relationship:
Ryan: People think mentorships are these very official relationships — the way that an apprenticeship was like your parents basically sold you to someone in exchange for like room and board for a number of years and then you officially learn a trade. A mentor is anyone who you learn from, who gives you advice and teaches you things…and you don’t actually have to meet them for them to be your mentor…I think a lot of people they hold out for this sanctioned, official relationship rather than learning from anyone who has wisdom or advice or value that they could pass your way, and if you put it into practice and you do something with it, they see value in that as well.
Tim: Asking someone to be a formal mentor is the absolute best way to never have a good mentor.
Tim: Because it’s like, “Hey! Do you want to sign up for an unpaid part-time job, because you have so much free time?” It doesn’t work. So I’d just be curious to hear what you did and what you would recommend people do if they were trying to find or looking for that type of teacher. I think ‘mentor’ is problematic as they think of it in such formal terms. Maybe you can talk on that point.
Ryan: I think it was once every couple of weeks — no, couple of months probably — and I would just ask questions that I thought would be helpful to me but very easy for him to answer. It’s like hey, if you want me to read your manuscript that’s a lot of work for me to do…if someone wants you to give a five-second instant opinion on a title, you’re like “Sure, that’s one email.” And so I don’t think people think about 1) what they are actually asking and then 2) they ask a lot over and over again.
The Verso Books podcast featured an interview with Ilija Trojanow, author of The Lamentations of Zeno, where he explained how he got in contact with a scientist as part of his research for his novel on glaciers and climate change:
Ilija: After a while I had the backbone of the story and I realised that if I was to write about it I would actually have to get seriously involved, I would have to get seriously informed about stuff like geology and particularly glaciology. And then of course in regard to the more scientific aspects of climate change. So I looked up on the Internet who is a well-known glaciologist and I found a professor in Zurich who has a very Swiss name, Haeberli. I called Professor Haeberli and he very kindly invited me [to visit]). I went to the university in Zurich and told him the story and asked him to brutally honestly tell me whether from his point of view as a specialist if it makes any sense. And when I was telling him the story you could see how his face kind of changed a little bit; I was thinking to myself “Oh boy, he’s going to tell me ‘No, forget about it. This is utter nonsense.'” And quite the opposite happened, he actually said “Where did you get the story from?” And I said “Well, I dreamt it up, basically.” And he said “This is incredible, this is exactly the way I feel and this is so pertinent and so close to my personal experience and the experience of so many other scientists I know. So, by all means, go ahead and write it and if you need any help…”
Anil Dash featured on the wonderful Track Changes podcast where he noted that:
The Internet was for people to communicate. The main thing people do on the Internet today is send messages to each other. That’s the most popular thing.
Anil takes this to an extreme by featuring his email address and phone number in his online profiles, for example on Twitter, which sounds crazy but doesn’t seem to have caused him any problems:
my phone number's been on the internet for a dozen years. Nobody calls. 😔
— Anil Dash (@anildash) October 7, 2016
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about people I admire and want to be around — whether physically or virtually — in order to learn from. As I have grown up with the web over the past twenty years there are a few characters that have always seemed to have popped up in multiple contexts — Matt Haughey, Anil Dash, Jeff Atwood, Merlin Mann, Michael Lopp, Andy Baio, Euan Semple, JP Rangaswami and Marco Arment to name a few — and continue to do so. Their work and thoughts have been very valuable to me. I’ve always felt like a simple consumer of the great things they produced, admiring from afar, reading their blog posts and tweets, listening to their podcasts and watching their videos. On occasion, I’ve spoken to some of them through email, or more often Twitter, and in each case I find it amazing that they have ever found the time to respond.
Sometimes when I am grappling with solving a difficult problem or making something better, particularly at work, I forget that there are lots of experts out there who are just a few taps away. Remembering to cast a wide net with my communications is something I need to do much more often. However, as per Ryan Holiday’s comments above you need to make sure that you aren’t placing an unreasonable burden on people and that ideally the question has value to both of you.
This happened to me before when I spotted the Station Master (of the now defunct Station Master’s Weblog fame) at one of the tube stations that I use on my commute – again, I thought of saying “hi” but had nothing to really talk about other than the fact that I read his blog. Not many avenues of conversation there.
Nobody wants to come across as a stalker!