Category Archives: blogging

From Books-internet to Television-internet

I’ve belatedly discovered that Persian-blogging pioneer Hossein Derakhshan (hoder.com) was released from prison in Tehran just over a year ago and has returned to book blogging in Persian. Last year he published a long essay on the Medium publishing platform titled “The Web We Have to Save: The rich, diverse, free web that I loved — and spent years in an Iranian jail for — is dying. Why is nobody stopping it?”

Here are excerpts from his essay about how the web has evolved:

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web — a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.

Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.

Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.

Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.

Some networks, like Twitter, treat hyperlinks a little better. Others, insecure social services, are far more paranoid. Instagram — owned by Facebook — doesn’t allow its audiences to leave whatsoever. You can put up a web address alongside your photos, but it won’t go anywhere. Lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there. Many don’t even realize that they’re using the Internet’s infrastructure when they like an Instagram photograph or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook video. It’s just an app.

But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: They are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage — and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.

Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Its biggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: novelty and popularity, reflected by the real world dominance of young celebrities. That philosophy is the Stream.

The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex –and secretive — algorithms.

The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites.

But the scariest outcome of the centralization of information in the age of social networks is something else: It is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations.

Surveillance is increasingly imposed on civilized lives, and it just gets worse as time goes by.

In early 2000s writing blogs made you cool and trendy, then around 2008 Facebook came in and then Twitter. Since 2014 the hype is all about Instagram, and no one knows what is next. But the more I think about these changes, the more I realize that even all my concerns might have been misdirected. Perhaps I am worried about the wrong thing. Maybe it’s not the death of the hyperlink, or the centralization, exactly.

Maybe it’s that text itself is disappearing. After all, the first visitors to the web spent their time online reading web magazines. Then came blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter. Now it’s Facebook videos and Instagram and SnapChat that most people spend their time on. There’s less and less text to read on social networks, and more and more video to watch, more and more images to look at. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favor of watching and listening?

[T]he Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies.

The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.

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Filed under blogging, democracy, economics, industry, Iran, philosophy, publishing

Vintage Year for Vietnamese Dissidents: 2006

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2486-2519:

2006 was a unique opportunity for Vietnamese dissidents. The country was in the final stages of joining the World Trade Organisation. Negotiations with individual WTO members were followed by drawn-out multilateral talks and then an equally drawn-out process in the US Congress to award Vietnam Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) status, an adjunct to WTO membership. In addition, Vietnam held the rotating chair of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group, during 2006, and was due to host its annual summit in November. Twenty-one leaders had been invited, including the presidents of the USA, Russia and China and the prime ministers of Australia and Japan. Vietnam was also seeking a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. All of this meant the Communist Party was vulnerable to criticism from abroad and therefore less able to crack down on dissent with its usual efficiency.

There was another factor too. By 2006, broadband had fully penetrated Vietnam; internet shops were available on most city streets. Through the net, dissidents managed to surmount the physical barriers the state had erected around them and bridge the gaps of physical distance, of ideology and – at least as important – of ego, which, until then, had kept them divided. Services originally intended to allow teenagers to flirt with each other provided invigorating links with Vietnamese exiles in the United States and elsewhere. Websites such as PalTalk host chat rooms in which hundreds of people can type messages to each other and simultaneously listen to an audiostream or watch video. In effect, each chat room is an interactive radio ‘narrowcast’. Narrowcasters can give out information, make speeches, discuss developments and take questions and comment from the other participants. Suddenly dissidents in Vietnam had access to a new world of ideas and to a reservoir of supporters. Until then many people had been reluctant to trust each other, never knowing who was an informer; but a few overseas activists acted as ‘brokers’ – in effect vetting the dissidents who contacted them and putting them in touch with one another. They also began to provide cash.

With the cost of living so cheap in Vietnam, relatively small amounts of money raised abroad could go a long way. Supporters groups sprang up in Australia (Bloc 1–7–06), the US (Bloc 1–9–06) and the UK (Bloc 10–12–06) and sent in money for dissidents’ living expenses and equipment. With hundreds of thousands of overseas Vietnamese remitting money to relatives each month it was easy to disguise the transfers. They weren’t particularly clandestine; most went via Western Union. Once inside Vietnam, the money was moved by couriers to where it was needed. When police stopped the car of one dissident, Nguyen Phuong Anh, on 15 December 2006, they confiscated 4.5 million Vietnamese dong, the equivalent of about $300, about six months’ wages for the average worker. He told them he had planned to buy clothes for needy paper boys. The money was crucial. It paid for computers, dozens of mobile phones, and hundreds of SIM cards to enable the dissidents to stay in touch even as the security services tried to disconnect them.

But useful as the internet was to the dissidents as an organising and discussion tool, it was much less effective as a proselytising force. The national firewall prevents the casual web-surfer accessing dissident websites and intercepts unwelcome emails. That didn’t stop one middle-aged Ho Chi Minh City-based activist, though. At night, after his family had gone to bed, he would trawl Vietnamese discussion sites and blogs harvesting the email addresses of anyone making critical comments. Then, with his harvest complete, he would send out two or three hundred emails with details of dissidents’ activities. He would tell them about strikes and how to form trade unions and about lobbying activities in the United States. But he couldn’t send all the messages from one email address because he feared the security services would soon track him down. So instead, he laboriously maintained dozens of different accounts and sent just a few messages from each one. It worked, and he managed to stay below the police’s radar. But even this very direct mailing had limited success; the phantom spammer estimated his response rate was less than 1 per cent. So even with all these technological innovations the number of active dissidents remained small.

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On the Road Again

We’re traveling the rails of southwestern and central Japan for the rest of the month.

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Seven Years of Blogging—and Much Else

I began blogging seven years ago today (in 2003), after finishing our family Christmas letter (the Harking Herald–Jahrblatt, now in vol. 20), and having a few free moments to see how easy it might be to start my own blog on Blogger.

About four years ago (in mid 2006), after researching free online tools while on a short sabbatical in Japan, where my wife was teaching at the time, I began editing Wikitravel articles about cities I had visited there. I also created my first new article on Wikipedia and started a Flickr site for all the photos of springtime in Japan that I took with my small digital camera. I’ve now added more than 3400 photos from other travels, some of them scans from older prints, which have altogether attracted about 430,000 views.

Shortly after returning to work in July 2006, I migrated a work blog from WordPress.org software running on our own server, to a better-looking, sturdier, and more spam-proof blog at WordPress.com. I easily imported all my old posts from my old Far Outliers on Blogger.com into a new Far Outliers on WordPress.com and began posting to both blogs, partly as backup, partly to avoid orphaning my old blog and its regular readers and indexers. I have created several more WordPress blogs for other people since then. Each Far Outliers blog now contains over 2100 blogposts of identical content but different appearance (with almost 660,000 page views on my older Blogger site, plus over 200,000 on my WordPress site).

About two years ago (early in 2009), I discovered that my documentary photography hobby could serve to supply photos for the intersection of two WikiProjects: WP National Register of Historic Places and WP Hawai‘i. That hobby snowballed drastically this year after a local reporter who likes to write about old buildings profiled us in the local paper. By now I have edited, expanded, or created hundreds of Wikipedia articles.

About two months ago, after our daughter’s wedding, I finally relented and joined Facebook, to which I’m now adding more old photographs of friends and family, photos with faces in them.

So there you have it, a growing list of excuses for not blogging as much as I used to. The next seven years of blogging may remain fairly lean, but only because I’ve got too many other projects going.

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Another Holiday Hiatus

We’re off to Japan until the end of the month.

UPDATE: I’ve been very busy since I got back, but I have managed to upload, in small batches of a half dozen or so at a time, several score of the hundreds of photos from our trip, many of them with captions that contain tiny Wordcatcher Tales in their own right. Just click on the images from my Flickr account that display on this blog.

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Blogging Sabbatical

I began blogging six years ago this month, in December 2003. Since then, I’ve published over 2,000 blogposts, most of them excerpts from books I was reading. But the number of posts has declined each year—from over 550 in 2004 to under 200 in 2009—as I’ve become involved in a greater variety of online publishing hobbies.

In the spring of 2006, I bought my first digital camera (a little point-and-shoot Olympus), took it with me on a 4-month sabbatical spell in Japan, and soon began building a portfolio of documentary—rather than artistic—photos on Flickr, some of them scans of old photos from my earlier travels. This month I got my third digital camera (a Canon Powershot) and my Flickr portfolio numbers almost 2,500 images. This year I had to replace my trusty old HP flatbed scanner, orphaned by Vista, with a new Canon that I am quite happy with. (A local middle school is now making use of my orphaned scanner and ancient workhorse of a printer—an HP 5MP Laserjet.)

Early in 2009, I discovered major photographic lacunae that I could easily fill in Wikipedia’s coverage of sites on the National Register of Historic Places in Hawai‘i and began a campaign to photograph as many as I could and upload them to Wikimedia Commons, then add the images to the articles. Now I’m rather heavily involved in WikiProject Hawaii and WikiProject NRHP, both as a photographer and an writer/editor.

These online documentation projects have convinced me to put this blog on the back burner in 2010 in order to concentrate on a long-term language documentation project I need to finish: a comprehensive grammatical description of Numbami, the once almost entirely undocumented language whose speakers were my gracious hosts during fieldwork in Papua New Guinea in 1976. I have completed and published many bits and pieces about the language over the intervening years but need to put them all together and fill in many gaps. Unlike other projects described above, it’s more a duty than a hobby—a daunting one, but not unpleasant to contemplate.

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Summer Travel Hiatus

Back in August

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