Giving you control over your words

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I am in the midst of taking what has amounted to an overly large first article for American Street, and attempting to edit it down for publication later today. Though the article is no longer than a good New York Times article, I’ve found that even among those who support the weblogging ‘long form’, there is limit to the number of words they’ll tolerate in one weblog posting. Perhaps this is for the best–less is more. Or as Shakespeare would say:

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.

As soon as the ruthless editing job is finished, I’ll post a link to the finished product. Or two or three.

In the meantime, I’ve also been a busy camper adding two major modifications to my site, both having to do with commentary.

There is an increasing trend lately to turn comments off completely; or only leave them on a brief time. This growing backlash to comments is due, in part, to problems with comment spammers or the hit-and-run Google bashers. However, much is due to the general abusiveness that occurs in comments that seems to be on the rise.

I have found that good, selective moderation mechanisms will help prevent most, if not all, the problems with the random Googler and the comment spammer. Unfortunately, though, this won’t help bring back intelligent and relatively civil discussion. Is turning off comments altogether the answer? What can we do from a technical perspective to deal with the growing hostility in comments?

I have formed a completely unfounded and without any data to back up the validity hypothesis. I think that the very nature of the comment mechanism can lead to some of the hostility.

We want to write in reaction to what a person has said, but we’re given a little bitty box to do it in. This makes it difficult to have a good feel for what we’re saying, even with preview. Then, once posted, we can’t go back and either edit or remove a comment we may come to regret. Whatever else we are, we’re human and humans react. Rather than providing technology built on the assumption of best or formal behavior, provide a mechanism that is built on the assumption of average or typical behavior.

That’s my hypothesis – the mechanisms and environment encourages quick and emotional reactions, and this leads to flamewars. The next step is to test it. Rather than join with others and turn comments off, I decided to experiment with the format. Where these changes will lead, I don’t know. But it will interesting to watch.

The first change I’ve made is added the ability to edit or delete a comment after you’ve made it. The only requirement is that you must do so using the same IP address you used when you made the comment in the first place.

Once you’ve left a comment – and it can be something simple like ‘hello’ to start – you’ll see an option called “Advanced Editing” on the comment author line; clicking this opens up a separate page with a very large comment box and buttons to help with inserting HTML markup into the text. I call this page, the Marius Modification Page named in honor of Marius Coomans who inspired these new modifications.

In the comment edit page, you can edit and re-edit the comment as much as you’d like, or even delete it, if you would prefer. Once deleted, that comment is gone; from the database, as well as the page. I will not keep comments around that others want removed–like some form of digital blackmail that I can bring out again and again to use to beat the person about the head. There’s been enough of this in the past.

(Frankly, I disagree with those that say the Internet is forever. Nothing is forever. Forever implies that nothing ever changes; that which is born never dies. Beauty has at its soul, change. The most brilliant words, the most priceless creations, the most profound thoughts, will fade over time. It may take a thousand, or even a millions years, but they will fade.)

I don’t know what this advanced editing capability will do to weblogging conversations. I think people will like being able to edit their typos; but there’s nothing stopping a person from making volatile remarks that others will respond to, and then they later go back and change or remove these remarks. That’s the risk to this type of experiment.

The second change I’ve made is a little more unique. Instead of just posting a comment, you can now write an entire post: to agree, refute, or even extend the original writing. These ‘counter posts’, as I’ve called them are genuine weblog posts – capable of getting comments and trackbacks, and having their own permalinks. They won’t show up on my front page; instead they’re listed at the bottom of the associated essay, right above the trackbacks and other comments. If there is enough interest in these, eventually these counter posts, and their associated trackbacks and comments will have their own sidebar entry.

The counter post editing page is a full page, with lots of room to write. You can save your work while you’re editing, and preview the page as many times as you want. However, once published, that’s it – no edits on this one. It’s a permanent post and the only way you can edit it again is if I change the state of it for you.

Once published, the counter post connected to whatever original post inspired the writing. When a person clicks on the link for it, the post opens into a separate page no different than any of the regular posts. The author can turn comments on or off; same for trackbacks. People can also reference the URL specifically.

This is one I will monitor, very closely. I would welcome agreement, disagreement, or even an interesting segue –but I won’t welcome sales pitches, ego stroking, or people using this space to get nasty at others. The whole point on this modification is to remove the artificial constraints of the current commenting medium in order to see what this does to the resulting conversations. The modfiication isn’t there to bring out the worst in people.

(Though do feel free to experiment with it in this post – please let me know what breaks.)

None of the code for these is available yet because both options are beta. I am experimenting with different text plugins and may add new features to both modifications. I am also, as a precaution, making nightly backups of my weblog database just in case something goes wrong.

Once tested, debugged, refined, and assured of their security, I’ll release code for both. These are drop-in modifications, and easily implemented in other weblogs.


The counter post functionality has been edited to allow the original author to edit or delete the new post, as long as they reference the post from the same IP address.

Media Weather

Cooler weather

Clouds rolled in yesterday and brought cooler weather. Thankfully. It’s still quite warm and humid, but I won’t risk collapse just walking to the mailbox.

I have made good use of this enforced at home time, though. Spending a little time here adding yet another modification to my WordPress installation; a little time there working on the Redland RDF wrapper in Visual Studio.

I’ve also been catching up on all these movies I’m getting through Netflix, though we don’t get as many movies a week as we could. For instance, we don’t sit down immediately and watch a movie when it comes in; sometimes I’ll skip movies for a couple of nights, and my roommate might wait for the weekend. But we’ve both found the service to be a good value, and we’re happy with it.

It’s changed, too. To compete with the new movie service from Blockbuster and Walmart, Netflix is now offering an option that allows you to have five or eight movies out at a time, rather than three. I’m trying to imagine why a person would need to have eight movies out at once. But then, I don’t understand someone who has a thousand feeds in their aggregator either.

Anyway, back to the movies. This week I watched Timeline, Mystic River, The Last Samurai, and the Fog of War.

Timeline wasn’t bad, but was somewhat predictable. The kind of movie you can watch while you’re coding.

The acting in Mystic River was very good, especially Sean Penn; but there was something about the movie that didn’t click with me. I didn’t think it did a good job connecting the events in the past with the events in the present time. It’s as if the past events were incorporated just to add an element of angst to the movie – hip pedophile movie moments.

I’ve never cared for movies that introduce elements and then don’t tie them together intelligently. It just didn’t happen with Mystic River, numerous awards or not. However, I liked the actors, and they played Charlestown dwellers to a tee.

Turning to The Last Sumurai. This movie has some very pretty scenery, and impressive scenes, but what’s with Tom Cruise and the poses? On the ship, pose. Teaching the Japanese, pose. Not just Cruise – the whole movie seemed posed somehow, starting with the Samurai kneeling on the hill and the breathless pause before the word “….honor”.

I found myself soon tired of the scenes that seem to be contrived, to pull every last ounce of Honor from each. The whole movie could be summed up as follows:

Man captured by enemy becomes one with his captors through a shared sense of Honor, and joins his new brothers in a fight where the odds are all against them.

Why must movies always use extraordinary characters to demonstrate honor? If Cruise starred as a teacher, and those in battle, plain farmers, I think I would have appreciated the movie more.

I was somewhat surprised at my reaction; after all, the movie is very popular. Perhaps I’m just not in the mood for Tom Cruise. Or perhaps it’s really just a dude flick. (Notice I refrained from a more colorful description that would have involved a word representing males that rhymed with ‘flick’. I hope you all appreciate my delicacy of mind.)

If I wasn’t overly enamored of The Last Samurai, I found The Fog of War to be a fascinating documentary. However, I’m saving my discussion of it for Sunday’s American Street essay.


Tech lists

I have rediscovered today why I don’t like technical email lists. Not to say the lists are wrong. I think it has more to do with personalities, and some people are comfortable with lists, others not. I am not.

So why do I, or should I say, did I go out out to the lists recently? This week, in all cases, it was because someone thought I might be able to help with something, or that I should share the code I’d created. So I ended up in three lists, two of which didn’t go well. The third did. One out of three isn’t bad. Not for me.

The two that didn’t work out have terrific people, and great stuff going on, as does the third. So why did the one work for me and not the others?

Much of it has to do with my perception of the third list as much quieter in tone than the other two. In some ways, I didn’t feel as if I was ‘on stage’ with the third, whether this feeling is backed up by reality or not.

I wonder if my discomfort with mailing lists has something to do with the fact that I don’t like IRC, either? Could it even be extended to that age old question of introverts or extroverts? In other words – extroverts do well in IRC and in email lists, introverts don’t? This could be a fascinating little study. We always assume extroversion/introversion has to do with being with people in person. Be interesting to find out if this extends to our online interactions.