I've been thinking a little bit more about the whole Meg Pickard BIMBO review thing. For those who haven't seen them, the comments on Meg's site are quite instructive. Quite apart from opinions of BIMBO itself, many of the comments suggest some intriguing -- by which I mean `negative' -- conclusions about web logs and their readers. Naturally, this comes out sounding like a bit of a rant. For instance:
IOM, chris, you seem to struggle with the fine tune points of the english language.... re the difference between fact and opinion. is english your first language ??
... I've been actively arguing things out over the web since the late '80s....
I am impressed -- nay, astonished -- that this man has apparently been arguing things out over the web since before it was invented. (In a later email, he tells me that he meant JANet and X25. Go figure.)
Every time I find myself using a web comments system, it's like taking a step back into the past. The technological problem of sending somebody comments on their work via the internet was solved more than thirty years ago with the invention of email. And for public discussions, USENET dates from 1979; mailing lists are even older. If you spend any time communicating over the internet, it's likely that you've spent some effort on organising your working environment to be convenient for you to use.
Yet when you respond to somebody's ``'blog'' posting, it's de rigeur to type your message into a tiny box on some dumb web page which then goes off and reformats what you write in an unhelpful manner. And once you've submitted your comment, it simply gets appended to a completely unstructured transcript which really doesn't help the reader follow the conversation. And, of course, the designer has done their utmost to make the page unreadable to anyone using a high-resolution screen. I mean, pixel sizes in font directives? What are these people on?
While I appreciate that there's value in having the transcript of discussion near to its subject, the state of the technology is really lamentable. But there we are. It's the new reality. I guess the web enthusiasts are too busy trying to make everything XML to bother learning from the mistakes (and even the successes) of the past.
More generally... the `unique selling point' of the web and the web browser as its user interface is `unity of interface': the user has a single way to interact with all sorts of different services and information. So what do the providers of those services do? They go off and, each, individually, figure out how to provide their own different approach to whatever it is they're trying to do, almost as if they're trying deliberately to break the abstraction. Now, it's not so bad that people are reinventing the wheel all over the place -- we all do that -- but it's sad that so few of those wheels turn out round.
Though it's no great disaster that web comments systems don't use some preexisting standard like NNTP, that they don't use any standard at all means that each site has its own foibles, limitations and idiocies which the reader must learn about from scratch for every web site and web log in the world. If there were a standard for web comments systems, it would be possible to produce a program to interact with them in a sensible and intelligent manner, working around their limitations just as email clients are designed to work around the limitations of email. As it is, that's not really feasible.
In some cases there's a commercial imperative behind the technical limitations: you can imagine, for example, why Live Journal doesn't allow its users to link to people using other web log sites as `friends' on their journal pages. It's a reasonable guess that the Live Journal people believe that their interests are best served by trying to decommoditise `online diaries' as a medium. In the case of individuals... well, the incentive is less clear, and it leaves me baffled.
Like all arguments on the internet, this one degenerated into semantics pretty quickly. (Presumably if it had gone on any longer, we would have started on Hitler, but happily the argument was nipped in the bud before that.) I was, however, fascinated by the reverence in which the term `content' is held. I suppose that this is reflected in its overuse when describing things to do with the web. We have content management systems, content creators, rich content, content aggregators, multimedia content, and so forth. Everything, apparently, apart from actual content, which, as ever, remains in short supply.
Which is, of course, why BIMBO exists at all. Were I slightly more pretentious, I might be tempted to call it a `collaborative [content?] filtering experiment', but in fact it's patently obvious what it does, so there's no need for a buzzword-compliant mission statement.
- Somebody complained that it was impossible to know what to expect of the BIMBO moderators without reading the site to find out. Well, duh. Do they expect every web site to come with a statement of its motivations and biases? Newspapers don't supply insert cards explaining their opinions -- perhaps for reasons of practicality as much as anything -- the reader is expected to figure them out. I shouldn't expend too much effort on the peanut gallery but this seems to have been a common complaint and I'm at a loss to understand the confusion of ideas from which it must result.
What is it with peanut galleries and pseudonyms? A sample: SpunkyTheMonkey, Graybo, meesteryan, jj. Now, I expect that some of these are motivated by a desire to economise on keystrokes resulting from an unwillingness or inability to type accurately -- `jj', for instance, is the one who made the comment about my grasp of English reproduced above -- but others obviously don't. For instance, I don't think it can be substantially easier to type `SpunkyTheMonkey' than it is to type `Joe Dockrill', which is the name he gives on his web site.
So I'm guessing there's some other motivation here, but I can't see what it is. Given that hiding behind a pseudonym has the effect of making your statements look suspect, I presume there is some competing advantage which has eluded me. In some cases the intent is obviously to post anonymously, but that can hardly apply to those who are providing links to their own web sites along with their pseudonyms. I'd love to know what's really going on here. Send me an email if you have any ideas.
(Actually, I'm being a bit unfair to Mr. Dockrill. He's obviously pretty l337, since sometimes he spells his pseudonym l1|<3 Th15.)