A Link Blog, Finally

For years—like ever since I started blogging in 2003 or so—I’ve wanted to include a link blog on this site. You know, one of those side bars that just has cool links. Back in the day, Andy Baio‘s link blog was my jam, something I often paid more attention to than his main blog. It looks like Andy shut down his link blog (though you can see what it looked like circa 2006 via the Wayback Machine). As usual though, I’m behind the times by a few years, so I still want a link blog, even if they may be passé.

The main reason I want the link blog, honestly, is not to share the links, but to help me dig up links later on for teaching or research. And, like Andy’s original link blog, I wanted to provide brief annotations of the links—basically to remind myself why I saved the links in the first place. Now, I already save links with Pinboard, and if you look at my Pinboard feed, it is essentially a link blog. You can even use Pinboard’s “Description” field to add annotations to your bookmarks. But there are at least three problems with Pinboard as a link blog:

  1. It’s not very pretty.
  2. It’s not integrated into my existing blog.
  3. And it shows everything I save on Pinboard. But not every link I save is worth annotating or sharing.

What finally spurred me to make a true link blog was a recent post by Tim Owens, who describes how he annotates articles in his RSS reader (TinyRSS) and posts them on a separate blog. Tim’s method got me thinking. It’s a great setup, but one drawback is that the annotations happen in TinyRSS, while I want the ability to annotate links from multiple places, not just what happens to show up in my RSS reader. For example, I’m just as likely to want to add a note to and share a link I see on Twitter as I am a link that’s among my RSS feeds.

The solution was simple: continue using Pinboard, but automate the posting  of bookmarked links to my blog. But not every link, just the ones I want to share. Pinboard makes this stupid easy, because (1) you can tag your saved bookmarks with keywords, and (2) Pinboard generates a separate RSS feed for every tag. In other words, Pinboard can generate an RSS feed of the links I want to share, and I can use a WordPress plugin to monitor that RSS feed and grab its posts.

Here’s the step-by-step process:

  1. Add a link to Pinboard. However I add a bookmark—via browser bookmarklet, the Pinner app on my phone, even via email—I have the option to add a description. This becomes my annotation.
  2. Then, if I want the link to appear on my link blog, I tag it “links.”
  3. Pinboard creates an RSS feed for bookmarks tagged with links.
  4. Next, the FeedWordPress plugin on links.samplereality.com grabs the feed and posts it.

A few notes:

  • I configured FeedWordPress so that the title of each new RSS feed item links back to the original article. The downside to this is that each new link/note is not a separate post; the upside is that links to the original source are right there, easy to find and click.
  • My link blog is technically a separate blog from my main blog (what you’re reading now). There were a few reasons for this. One, I didn’t want every new annotated bookmark crowding out my regular posts, or worse, clogging up the inboxes of people who subscribe to my posts via email. Two, I wanted the link blog to have a theme of its own. Three, when I search my link blog, I can be sure it’s only searching my bookmarks and not my blog posts.

So that’s it: my new link blog.

Bonus Content! I also set up Zapier to posts my annotated bookmarks to Twitter as they come in. Basically, the free version of Zapier (which is similar to If This Then That) checks my Pinboard links feed every 15 minutes, and when something new appears, it posts the link, title, and description to Twitter.

I once read that NPR uses a digital strategy they call COPE. Which means Create Once, Publish Everywhere.

I like to think of my Pinboard > Blog > Twitter system as DOPE. Draft Once, Post Everywhere.

What about Blogging Keeps Me from Blogging

Yesterday in Facebook Killed the Feed I highlighted the way Facebook and Twitter have contributed to the decline of scholarly blogging. In truth though, those specific platforms can’t take all the blame. There are other reasons why academic bloggers have stopped blogging. There are systemic problems, like lack of time in our ever more harried and bureaucratically-burdened jobs, or online trolling, doxxing, and harassment that make having a social media presence absolutely miserable, if not life-threatening.

There are also problems with blogging itself as it exists in 2018. I want to focus on those issues briefly now. This post is deeply subjective, based purely on an inventory of my own half-articulated concerns. What about blogging keeps me from blogging?

  1. Images. Instagram, Facebook, and the social media gurus have convinced us that every post needs to have an image to “engage” your audience. No image, no engagement. You don’t want to be that sad sack blogger writing with only words. Think of your SEO! So, we feel pressure to include images in our posts. But nothing squelches the mood to write more than hunting down an image. Images are a time suck. Honestly, just the thought of finding an appropriate image to match a post is enough to make me avoid writing altogether.
  2. Length. I have fallen into the length trap. Maybe you have too. You know what I’m talking about. You think every post needs to be a smart 2,000 word missive. Miniature scholarly essays, like the post I wrote the other week about mazes in interaction fiction. What happened to my more playful writing, where I was essentially spitballing random ideas I had, like my plagiarism allegations against Neil Gaiman. And what about throwaway posts like my posts on suburbia or concerts? To become an active blogger again, forget about length.
  3. Timing. Not the time you have or don’t have to write posts, but the time in between posts. Years ago, Dan Cohen wrote about “the tyranny of the calendar” with blogging, and it’s still true. The more time that passes in between posts, the harder it is to start up again. You feel an obligation for your comeback blog posts to have been worth the wait. What pressure! You end up waiting even longer then to write. Or worse, you write and write, dozens of mostly-done posts in your draft folder that you never publish. Like some indie band that feels the weight of the world with their sophomore effort and end up spending years in the studio. The solution is to be less like Daft Punk and more like Ryan Adams.
  4. WordPress. Writing with WordPress sucks the joy out of writing. If you blog with WordPress you know what I’m talking about. WordPress’s browser composition box is a visual nightmare. Even in full screen mode it’s a bundle of distractions. WordPress’s desktop client has promise, but mine at least frequently has problems connecting to my server. I guess I’d be prepared to accept that’s just how writing online has to be, but my experience on Medium has opened my eyes. I just want to write and see my words—and only my words—on the screen. Whatever else Medium fails at, it has a damn fine editor.

Individually, there are solutions to each of these problems. But taken together—plus other sticking points I know I’m forgetting—there’s enough accumulated friction to making blogging very much a non-trivial endeavor.

It doesn’t have to be. What are your sticking points when it comes to blogging? How have you tried to overcome them?

And if you say “markdown” you’re dead to me.

Facebook Killed the Feed

There’s a movement to reclaim blogging as a vibrant, vital space in academia. Dan Cohen, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and Alan Jacobs have written about their renewed efforts to have smart exchanges of ideas take place on blogs of their own. Rather than taking place on, say Twitter, where well-intentioned discussions are easily derailed by trolls, bots, or careless ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Or on Facebook, where Good Conversations Go to Die™.

Kathleen recently put it more diplomatically:

An author might still blog, but (thanks to the post-Google-Reader decline in RSS use) ensuring that readers knew that she’d posted something required publicizing it on Twitter, and responses were far more likely to come as tweets. Even worse, readers might be inspired to share her blog post with their friends via Facebook, but any ensuing conversation about that post was entirely captured there, never reconnecting with the original post or its author. And without those connections and discussions and the energy and attention they inspired, blogs… became isolated. Slowed. Often stopped entirely.

You can’t overstate this point about the isolation of blogs. I’ve installed FreshRSS on one of my domains (thanks to Reclaim Hosting’s quick work), and it’s the first RSS reader I feel good about in years—since Google killed Google Reader. I had TinyRSS running, but the interface was so painful that I actively avoided it. With FreshRSS on my domain, I imported a list of the blogs I used to follow, pruned them (way too many have linkrotted away, proving Kathleen’s point), and added a precious few new blogs. FreshRSS is a pleasure to check a couple of times a day.

Now, if only more blogs posts showed up there. Because what people used to blog about, they now post on Facebook. I detest Facebook for a number of reasons and have gone as far as you can go without deleting your Facebook account entirely (unfriended everyone, stayed that way for six months, and then slowly built up a new friend network that is a fraction of what it used to be…but they’re all friends, family, or colleagues who I wouldn’t mind seeing a pic of my kids).

Anyway, what I want to say is, yes, Google killed off Google Reader, the most widely adopted RSS reader and the reason so many people kept up with blogs. But Facebook killed the feed.

The kind of conversations between academics that used to take place on blogs still take place, but on Facebook, where the conversations are often locked down, hard to find, and written in a distractedsocialmediamultitaskingway instead of thoughtful and deliberative. It’s the freaking worst thing ever.

You could say, Well, hey, Facebook democratized social media! Now more people than ever are posting! Setting aside the problems with Facebook that have become obvious since November 2016, I counter this with:

No. Effing. Way.

Facebook killed the feed. The feed was a metaphorical thing. I’m not talking about RSS feeds, the way blog posts could be detected and read by offsite readers. I’m talking about sustenance. What nourished critical minds. The feed. The food that fed our minds. There’s a “feed” on Facebook, but it doesn’t offer sustenance. It’s empty calories. Junk food. Junk feeds.

To prove my point I offer the following prediction. This post, which I admit is not exactly the smartest piece of writing out there about blogging, will be read by a few people who still use RSS. The one person who subscribes to my posts by email (Hi Mom!) might read it. Maybe a dozen or so people will like the tweet where I announce this post—though who knows if they actually read it. And then, when I drop a link to this post on Facebook, crickets. If I’m lucky, maybe someone sticks the 😡 emoji to it before liking the latest InstantPot recipe that shows up next in their “feed.”

That’s it. Junk food.

Password Protecting PDFs on Course Blogs

This is a quick note to myself, so I remember the best way to protect PDFs behind a password on a course blog. Joe Ugoretz highlights the problems with most methods, and then proposes the solution I’m using here: Ben Balter’s WP Document Revisions plugin. There are a few tricks involved to get WP Document Revisions up and running on a WordPress multisite installation. Here’s what works for me: Continue reading “Password Protecting PDFs on Course Blogs”

RSS is Forever

One of the interesting features of Twitter is that you can delete a “tweet” you’ve written and it will retroactively disappear from any of your followers’ lists of tweets. This is different from RSS, where, once an RSS reader has collected the post data from a feed, the excerpt (or entire post) in the RSS reader takes on a life of its own, independent of the original blog post. So if you make any revisions to your original post after various readers have been “pinged,” then chances are those changes will not be reflected in the RSS feeds.

Case in point, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, posted a link to and some comments about a “news report” on how Barack Obama spends hours practicing gazing into the future pose. The only trouble was, this story, which Cowen appears to have taken at face value, was originally from The Onion. I read Tyler’s post on Google Reader, and when I tried to follow the story back to the Marginal Revolution site, I discovered Tyler had deleted the post, presumably because he realized his mistake. Here, below, is the only evidence that the post ever existed, a screen shot of the Marginal Revolution feed in my Google Reader.

Marginal Revolution Screen Capture

This vanishing post brings up some interesting questions for the age of blogging. When is it necessary to delete a post entirely, versus tacking on an addendum? Why not let an erroneous post stay live, but let the follow-up comments sort through any corrections that need to be made, preserving the original post as a kind of historical document (much as Wikipedia archives every version of a Wiki entry as part of the entry’s “history”)?

The vanishing post also highlights the fact that in the digital age, nothing is ever “lost.” As numerous politicians have discovered, even something as seemingly ephemeral as a text message is preserved in some corporation’s database, subject to subpoena. Come to think of it, I’m sure even Twitter has a copy of those tweets I deleted…

Dust? What dust?

Ignore the different looks this blog will be assuming these next couple days. I’m updating my templates and it’s going to take a while to get it all done. Damn Movable Type for totally changing the standards of their templates from version 2.6 to 3.x.

It’s been such a hassle that I’m toying with the idea of switching over to WordPress–except that I can get my permalinks to work. That is, my old posts don’t export over with the same file names, so they’d be lost to Google and whoever else might have linked to them at some point (yeah, right).

Anyway, pardon the dust.

Where has Sample Reality gone?

In my last post I mentioned that July and August have been crazy, and here’s the reason why: my son Nikolai was born on July 2nd. Here’s the little guy:

With a smile like that to look at, can you blame me for spending less time than usual online?

I will try, however, to get back to my regular postings about politics, literature, and new media…