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benjamin.computer
BENJAMIN BLUNDELL'S  WEBSITE
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The Flickr diaspora, website bloat and what is important.

17-11-2018

So a few of you will have noticed that I've changed the design of my little website here. This is mostly inspired by Fabien Sanglard - I'll admit I pretty much ripped off the look but then so did he I'd wager. There are a lot of programmer sites that look like this these days and I think I know why.

I quite like design, graphic design specifically. I got my start working as a webdeveloper when I was 16 years old. I learned photoshop on an old mac, then a PC and I found I really quite enjoyed it. Web development is very accessible. You can see all my old websites on the wayback machine; I think the earliest dates back to 2001. Not too shabby (I've been using the oni handle since at least that time - 17 years! Wao!).

Things change though. At the risk of sounding like a proper old man, the web isn't what it used to be. Some things are pretty cool - the video streaming industry giving folks the chance to earn money doing what they love, online marketplaces, places to upload photos... ah, but now we segue into the problem. Over-engineering, advertising and social media. I'd say these were some of the major ills of the web.

Fabien, this bloke, WIRED, and others are calling time on what has been called the bullshit web. It starts with the fact that the web is bloated, takes too long to load, is laden with crap we don't need and stuffed to the gills with adverts, trackers and other apparatus of the stalker economy. However, this is perhaps my favourite summing up of the problem:

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit. - Harry Frankfurt

Pretty deep stuff right? I've had arguments with other programmers, especially these who identify as web-developers, where I feel that programming is dead. People don't want to believe me, but I think I haven't expressed it well. Reading up though, I find I'm not alone. It's not about programming per-se, it's about what we build and what we, as human-beings learn.

Put another way, I was super excited as a 16 year old, to be learning a special skill that allowed me to create images, sounds, words and put them online! It felt like a secret club I was part of. Sure, maybe that sounds elitist but all of us have something that defines our personality, our identity. Today, I look at large parts of the industry and wonder things like "have you ever programmed an ARM chip directly?", "have you ever picked up a soldering iron?", "Ever taken apart some malware?", "Do you care about making your virtual server faster by tweaking the network stack?". It seems to me that so much of the industry is bullshit - specifically we are using our skills to make things that don't matter and deep down, we know the things we are doing don't matter. I find that more and more, I don't relate to the tech-sector (gah! I hate the contraction of the word technology). I find myself less and less impressed with Silicon Valley and it's related ilk. Sure, there's great engineering going around in parts of it - the best I'd wager - but to quote Mr Robot: You have to dig pretty deep, kiddo, before you can find anything real. We live in a kingdom of bullshit.

So where does Flickr come in? Well, I used to use Flickr to host my images. For a time, I paid for it. I have a lovely picture frame in my house that I built myself, that shows images from one of my albums when I turn it on. It's simple and beautiful and it cheers me up. I stopped paying for flickr when they began to give away so much storage it was silly. Around this point I knew, at some point, they'd end up going under or changing significantly. Now, we all know. And I don't really fancy losing my images. I don't hold any grudges against flickr at all - it's a fair business practice. But this is the truth of the web - if you aren't paying, you are the product.

All this is related to caring. Do you care about programming, about what you build, about truth, about human spirit? It all sounds a little high-falutin I admit, but I don't think I'm so far off the mark. It's one of the reasons I switched to science instead of industry or the freelance technology-world. I had a think about what matters with regards to the web and I came up with a few things I can act on:

A lot of emotion and energy has been spent already when it comes to social media, advertising and tracking, spying and the like, but I think we can start small and do things that can help more generally.

I don't want to be down on design. I'm really not! But style needs to meet substance and spirit. Don't just think graphics, think engineering and content. I've found that posting to places like Reddit, Hackster.io, Hackaday and the like works really well. Most folks will come to what you write through various routes, especially today, so perhaps the focus needs to be on quality content with elegant style that reflects the underlying technology.

I have a project called Zotdroid. It's not fancy or world shattering, but people rely on it, I get some money from it and most importantly, people thank me and provide useful feedback. It's a handy tool for getting research done. It's a responsibility, it's good for the spirit and therefore it isn't bullshit. Ok fine, I can hear people saying "But it's using Google store and Android and all that you hypocrite" to which I'd say sure, but it's a start. Already I've been asked to consider other app stores and I sure will!

Some people are against ad-blockers. I understand some folks work in advertising and similar roles. But I think that if enough people use ad-blockers we'll come to a point where the powers that be will be forced to reconsider other methods of monetisation. I'm fairly pleased to see that Patreon is a thing, and maybe I'll think the same of Twitch one day.

I host my own stuff a lot. It's a lot of effort and has caused a lot of stress, but I care about it and I want to learn more about sysadmin stuff, how things work behind the scenes, and so that night I spent stressing out in the London Telehouse building when I almost lost all the email for me and my family - that is the cost of what I see as fighting the good fight. Of course, you can't do it all and if that's not your thing, then there are services out there you can pay for and that's a good thing. But if you count yourself as a computer-nerd, then really this is the stuff you should be getting into. It's getting to the point where self-hosting and coding your own is an act of defiance.

I've managed to find some pretty good groups out there. Demosceners are a cool bunch, as are some of the retro game creators. The Zotero community is lovely, as is the UK Research Software Engineering bunch, and many of the fine folks at EMF. I'd say the most social media I've ever used is Roll20. It does take effort and I'm still not there yet but there's a path to follow at the very least.

So if anyone knows a good alternative to Flickr let me know! :D I suspect I might have to write my own at some point but you know I'm cool with that.

Also, I still use RSS :D


benjamin.computer