Archive for the ‘Rantings’ category

WordPress, Money, and Freedom

I see a creeping scourge overtaking the free ethos of the WordPress community, and I don’t like it. It’s not necessarily menacing, or threatening, or even really a scourge (as I know I just called it) but it’s a thing I don’t like and it took a plugin I’ve used for years being discontinued for me to more clearly see the problem.

WordPress as a whole — the community more than the tool — is less-free now than it was a year ago, and less so still than it was five years ago. That’s the nature of what I see as the problem. But the reason I’m so tentative to call it a problem is that WordPress is also a far better tool now than it was a year ago, and certainly far more than it was five years ago. And like it or not, I think this fundamental creeping unfreedom has, at the least, contributed to the rate at which WordPress has become a better tool than it has ever been.

In my estimation, the first foot-fall of this unfree menace (again, I say that but don’t wholly mean it) were the “premium” themes. Someone, I think it was Brian Gardner, had the reasonable thought that rather than making money solely by purpose-building WordPress themes for clients paying $500 and north, they could fill a market-gap with a well-made theme priced around $100. For users who wanted more than a free theme could give them, but less than hiring a designer would, they got a product that pretty well sat that gap.

One could debate endlessly whether there are more or less good free themes being made today, but judgement about that is inherently subjective and thus not worth making. What is almost certainly true is that free themes are no longer the only non-exclusive themes that exist. And while I, as a rather poor person certainly preferred it when all themes I could hope to use were free-as-in-beer, it’s not an unmitigated catastrophe that they aren’t.

It is worrying how likely it is that because “premium” themes aren’t free-as-in-beer, they’re not building on each other. Being harder to get makes them less likely to be publicly modified and enhanced by others, and to be used to make other similar themes better. Again, we need to balance these facts with the fact that there are more better-quality themes generally, etc, but the effect is not negligible.

Now the other day, the WordPress.com Stats plugin declared to me it has been discontinued in preference to Jetpack, which Automattic portrays as the plugin to “blast-off” into the fun world of WordPress.com features. It’s also, almost certainly, going to give Automattic a convenient place to get self-hosted WordPress users to enter the world of paying for some features, as has always been the available on WordPress.com.

Again, this isn’t ransom or anything. It’s a completely sensible — even admirable — business move, but it’s not exactly fostering freedom and building better software for all users. How many features might not be built into the core of WordPress because Automattic has a money-making Jetpack feature that does the same thing? (Is the reason there is no backup functionality in the WordPress core that VaultPress exists?) Questions like this always contain some alarmism, but that doesn’t mean we should just ignore the potential for a conflict of interest.

These type of vague but indefensible concerns are precisely why I bristled at the thought of replacing what was a relatively lean and fast plugin with the colossus that is Jetpack. I have no concrete reason to think the WordPress core will suffer so Automattic can make more money, but that fact that a I’m seeing more and more avenues by which this could come to pass definitely gives me pause. And that, I guess, is all I’m really trying to say.

After all, as one of my favorite quotes goes:

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

The Problem with Mailto:

uzards (ASA)A very large stack of mail.

As anyone who’s spent much time surfing the internet can probably tell you, a mailto: link is the kind that usually launches a user’s email client and has some information — at minimum an address, but subjects aren’t uncommon — already filled in.

It sounds benign enough, but I don’t like it. There are three essential problems with using mailto: links on today’s internet. The first is a problems for the publisher, the second is a problem for users like me, and the third is a problem for all users. Add those all up, and I’m rather certain that mailto: links should be used as little as possible.

The most obvious and well known problem is the one posed to the publisher. That is: for nearly as long as there have been spammers on the internet, they’ve built bots those go around and scrape information from mailto: links. With this information, they do what any sensible spammer will, send you offers to enlarge your penis, get rich quick, win the lottery, and — if you’re really lucky — sign up for totally disgusting forms of pornography.

No one wants this stuff, and so schemes have been imagined to combat the problem. Some are rather low-tech, like creating a broken mailto: link like “mailto:me[at]me[dot]com.” This can work, if the sender recognizes that you’ve broken the link and they need to fix it. A myriad of other, more complex, options exist and yet none of them offer much compelling reason for not abandoning the format altogether.

But honestly, I don’t really care about the problems a publisher has when they use mailto: links, I have a problem with the inconveniences they cause me.

The first of which, and admittedly a not completely common one, is that I use Gmail as my primary email client. As such, when I (inadvertently) click a mailto: link the computer launches the default email client which I’ve never used nor configured. This means that I get a useless program launch that lets me compose an unsendable email.

There are work around for this, of course. One of the more elegant is offered for the forthcoming — but already widely used — Firefox 3. Gina Trapani explains how a few mildly technical steps can make the browser launch Gmail for mailto: link. But this isn’t something that the average user of a web-based email client is likely to know about or do, so it hardly solves this problem for those who want to use the mailto: link.

The last gripe was already touched on, but has broader implications than I earlier suggested. I can think of few things worse than navigating around a site and inadvertently launching another program — whether or not I regularly use that program.

This is usually a result of poor design, but not always. To my mind, the greatest sin is when a site puts a mailto: link in main navigation controls. This wasn’t too abnormal a decade ago, but mercifully convention now say that such a link should never launch an external program without warning. Some have yet to get that memo about conventions, however.

Though I personally dislike curmudgeonly exhortation from anyone, including myself, sometimes it just feels necessary. Mailto: links are a poor invention when they work perfectly, and a hideous invention when they don’t work properly.

Personally I’m a fan of contact forms — like the one I use. There are a lot of plugins that make it easy to build one for WordPress, the most noted of which is cforms II. If that’s too much, you can also simply create a separate page that says Contact, and offers an email address there. Or you could simply make explicitly clear that your email address is behind a mailto: link. I’d certainly prefer seeing the inelegant “Contact Me (mailto:)” to the deceptive “Contact Me.”

Of course as just a random internet curmudgeon, there’s little reason for you to follow my advice. I accept that. But don’t tell me I didn’t warn you when you receive an angry email from a curmudgeon like me.

How to Paginate on the Web

It’s a problem that all internet users face from time to time. I, seemingly incapable of reading anything but a computer screen, face this problem all the time.

The problem is essentially this: page views are what determines advertising rates on the internet. The more page views a website has, the more they can charge advertisers. Thus they have a perverse incentive to stretch even the smallest article over many pages.

I loathe this practice, and as a consequence I’ve thought about it quite a lot, and so I’m here to offer the internet some salient advice on the topic.

  • Paginate responsibly. I offer for you consideration, a list of the top 25 band logos of all time. As the rather famous Jason Kottke prefaced his link to the site, only offering one image per page is absurd. Surely it’ll give you a massive number of page views for those who are willing to click all the way through, but you also risk a massive number of people quiting after three clicks.
  • Make a single page view available. This strike me as a reader as absolutely required, but I’m appalled by the hordes of respectable sites that refrain from doing so.
  • If I must, I’ll use “Print View.” This is a double loss for most publisher, who (thankfully) refrain from putting an ads on their printable page. Unfortunately, these views are also ugly and unoptimized for screen reading (that is, if they were optimized for reading at all).
  • I’ll leave if it’s too hard. If you offer a single page view, you’re only half way there. You also need to make it easy to find. Putting it at the top of the page is probably best, putting it at the bottom of the page makes sense. Whatever you do, don’t hide it or I’m apt to give up on reading your content entirely.

Practical Examples

NYTimes ToolsIf someone understands how to paginate on the web, it’s the New York Times. Not only do they offer a single-page view, and not only is there a good amount of line-spacing, but they’ve made the button easy to find. Right at the top of every single paginated article (and right to the right of this text) they have a convenient “Single Page” link for me to click before I even start reading.

Another, but different, style is offered by The Weekly Standard. The conservative weekly’s website could perhaps use a face lift, but their pagination policy’s sensible. Though the don’t offer a simple single page view, they never extend an article past page two. The effect of this is that though a reader must “turn” the page, even for long articles you don’t have to “turn the page” 24 times.

Also of note is an online “magazine” I love, Slate. Because I’ve confessed to being a fan, I can and will now browbeat them a bit. You should know that the average Slate article is one or two pages long. Now consider this: after the first page, right by the pagination links they offer a “single page view” that snaps to after the end of page one. Slate PaginationThis policy is more sensible than the one in use at The New Yorker (where the “single page” link in the same position takes you to the top of the single page view), but it’s flawed. After all, for a two page article — again, Slate’s average length — this has essentially the same effect as click onto page two. If articles were routinely three or more pages long, this would make sense. But as an avid reader I feel confident in saying that this is rarely the case.

Surely it’s hard to get it right, this choice between pageviews and reader satisfaction. Most websites do an admirable job. But that doesn’t mean I won’t still be a little bitter that they aren’t putting my desires first.

Tell Me When You Wrote This

fdecomiteTunnels of Time

If there’s one problem in this ever-growing blogosphere, it’s that sites are so easy to create that no one worries too much when they die. So they continue to sit out here with the living, quickly becoming useless piles of bones that get in the way of the rest of us.

This is a problem in itself, but it’s one with which we can cope. We can cope so long as these bones aren’t intentionally made to look more alive than they are. So long as bones show themselves to clearly be bones, we living members are pretty able to avoid those we don’t really want to look at.

But a problem arises when you hide that your website is a skeleton. When you decide that you’ll get rid of post times or — and this is far, far worse — dates. Then when I come upon your site a quick glance around doesn’t tell me if I’m dealing with a skeleton or a living, breathing, changing blog

And if there’s one thing I less like than a dead blog, it’s a blog that doesn’t quickly fess to its deadness. Some otherwise great blogs and themes have this problem. I really like a lot about Brian Gardener’s Revolution theme, but I hate that no version puts publication times or dates on all the articles shown on the front page. Perhaps this was intentional or a simple oversight, but I don’t like it.

This is the internet age when lifespan of content is measured is hours, or — if we’re to be very generous — days. In such an atmosphere not telling me when your content was published is like admitting that you’re not a part of these exciting and rapidly changing times.

In some situations you could get away without times. Yahoo!, for example, doesn’t offer them on it’s homepage. And the Washington Post and LA Times are both lax about the times their stories were written. But they’ve got a great deal of built-in trust as well-known sources of information, and arguably important ones. A visitor can easily guess that, at most, the content is a day old.

But visitors to MyRandomSite don’t know who you are or what you do. They don’t know that they can trust that you’re not a pile of bones. So you need to tell them. Not much is needed; seeing “March 5, 2008” on a post is enough in most situations. That way I can tell that if nothing else, your site’s not a pile of bones. Maybe you’ve not updated in a few days or hours, but I know when you were last seen breathing. In a place where content’s cheap and credibility costs a great deal, that little bit matters a lot.

So please, bloggers, webmasters, web designer, and spectators, put a time stamp on your content. On your front page. Tell me that you’re not expired and I’m more likely to stick around and give what you’re doing some consideration. Thank you.