Programming Notes

January 31st, 2010  |  Published in etc  |  1 Comment

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I’ve spent the past several weeks thinking a lot about how people come to be “on the Web.” I don’t want to get into the reasons for why I’ve been thinking about it … I just have. I’ve been through a few stages in my own on-the-webness (Web presence):

  • I started out with a Geocities account when I was stationed at Fort Bragg

  • I progressed to a really simple static site while I was living in Charlottesville

  • I fiddled with assorted self-hosted Web software once we moved to Portland

During the first few years we lived in Portland, I was pretty fiercely into the “host everything yourself” mindset: My own blogging software, my own gallery software, even my own bookmarking software.

Once Ben was due to come along, I got away from a lot of that. There’s no sensation quite like waking up to the smell of a smoking server in the room that has been designated as the nursery. I moved to a shared hosting setup, kept my own blogging software, but gradually moved to services like flickr and delicious.

I was making tradeoffs in the kind of pain I wanted to endure. When you self-host everything, there’s a lot of attendant worry: You have to keep up on security updates, you have to make sure all the moving pieces you’ve cobbled together aren’t doing things that break each other. When you outsource all that stuff to the likes of flickr, SmugMug or someone else, you have to worry about those services staying afloat, not deciding you need to pay more to maintain your presence on them, etc. etc.

When social networking sites came along, I was very much into self-hosting almost everything. I signed up for Friendster and Orkut, but they didn’t provide much value. I thought MySpace was garish.

For the past year or so, I’ve been using Facebook more and more because it offers a lot of what people used to go to three or four different providers to get: bookmarks, light blogging, posting pictures and video, etc. etc.

There are a couple of problems with Facebook from the perspective of putting together a Web presence, but the biggest one is that if you start from Facebook, you don’t leave Facebook. Your “stuff” is on Facebook, and that’s largely where it will stay. So it’s demonstrably worse than a flickr or Smugmug (both of which offer either Web services or paid products to quickly get your content back, or a delicious (which provides you several ways to reclaim your bookmarks) or a hosted blog (for which there are usually documented procedures for getting a dump of your corpus). In the end, when you start with Facebook, you’re allowing Facebook to replace the reason you might have joined in the first place—as a place to find and keep in touch with friends—with a new reason: a place to establish your Web identity and presence. Facebook’s got its reasons for wanting you to do that, but because Facebook has shown little interest in facilitating the easy movement of those scraps of your Web presence to other places, you’re faced with the need to keep your own copies of everything, which is why people are attracted to hosted services in the first place: low maintenance and archival requirements.

For the past year or so, I’ve let my distributed Web presence languish and I’ve used Facebook almost exclusively to post pictures, video, etc., but as I’ve thought about this over the past few weeks, I’ve decided that’s backwards. To the extent possible, that distributed Web of hosted services should be feeding into Facebook using the assorted apps and services that make that possible.

There are some pitfalls to feeding Facebook from the outside:

  1. There’s a sensibility among the sort of people who want to use Facebook to keep up with their friends that Facebook apps are intrusive and cluttery. I’ve noticed a lot more talk about unfriending Facebook users who spend more time with games and apps than using the service as a sort of microblog/status sharing tool.

  2. Some of the services used to feed Facebook from the outside are buggy and unreliable. Some of that is because Facebook itself is sometimes shoddy, but some of it is because the services themselves are poorly written and meet just one or two use cases, then they languish either because the programmer has moved on from Facebook, or because the programmer hits some upward bound of competence and can’t encompass more use cases, or because an API changes somewhere and frustrates the programmer beyond keeping up.

Where the first issue—that growing sensibility that apps are externalities to the “genuine” Facebook experience—is concerned, you risk annoying a few friends because they might perceive you’re dumping stuff into Facebook.

You also risk annoying people who are following you more than one place: If you set up Facebook to echo your Twitter feed, for instance, your Twitter friends who are also your Facebook friends stand to get each tweet twice. Sure, they can turn off the app that’s posting your tweets to your Facebook feed, but they might not know that. Same with anything else you use to feed Facebook.

I guess I think it’s worth that risk. Here’s one example why:

I recently realized that I was missing a collection of pictures I took about 18 months ago. They weren’t the most important pictures in the world, but I’d taken the time with this particular batch to sort through them and do some digital darkroom work. Somehow, at some point, during a process where I’d consolidated all my pictures into one directory, those pictures were left out of the process and I couldn’t find them on my computer. Fortunately, I’d uploaded them to SmugMug, where I was keeping most of the pictures I took that mattered to me. I pay a good amount per year to use SmugMug ($40), but I get to store my originals up there. A few minutes after finding them on SmugMug, I had them back down in the local collection. If I’d uploaded those pictures to Facebook for storage, I wouldn’t have had access to them in their original sizes or resolutions. So with SmugMug, I had a reliable archive/redundant backup I could access quickly and easily. Flickr provides the same service. Dropbox does as well. There are still risks inherent with using those services, but I’d rather count on lightning not striking twice on the same day than just once.

So starting today I’m going to spend some time figuring out ways that my blog, Twitter, pictures and bookmarks can feed into Facebook instead of wishing Facebook wasn’t such a black box. As a small hint at why I’ve been thinking about this at all, I’m also going to be spending time figuring out how to help other people do that, too.


  1. gl. says:

    February 3rd, 2010 at 10:37 pm (#)

    this is great! perhaps this post will migrate to the new project blog someday. :)

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