Pluralistic: Pluralistic is three (19 Feb 2023)

Today's links

William Blake's watercolor of Cerebrus, the three-headed hell-hound.

Pluralistic is three (permalink)

Though I didn't know it at the time, Jan 29, 2020 was my last day at Boing Boing; as it happens, that was nearly exactly 19 years after my first day at Boing Boing. Though it was a tough decision, it was the right one, and while I'm no longer helping to write the site, I'm still an ardent reader, a co-owner, and a well-wisher.

I started writing Boing Boing at the age of 30. When I stopped, I was 49. That's a lot of living. Web-writing had come a long way since then, and so had the web, and the world – and so had I. While the way I blogged had evolved substantially over my years at Boing Boing, all those changes had been evolutionary – a series of incremental shifts.

After I left Boing Boing, I spent three weeks thinking about how – or whether – I would continue to write the web. In a world where platforms have interposed themselves between creative workers and their audiences, manically twiddling the knobs that determine whether the people who ask to hear from you ever get to do so, starting a new publication was a daunting proposition.

It felt like my two choices were to pick one or a few platforms and devote my efforts to platform kremlinology, trying to figure out what words, subjects or formats would cause The Algorithm to block the people who'd subscribed to my feed from seeing it; or to start a standalone website, which no one would ever see, but which I would control.

Both of these are bad choices, so I chose neither – or, depending on how you look at it, both. POSSE stands for "Post Own Site, Share Everywhere," and it's an idea that comes out of the Indieweb movement. Under POSSE, you post your work to a site you control, but syndicate to all the platforms and silos, with a link back to the original:

Though the platforms might punish you for this – think of Instagram and Facebook hiding posts with links to the public web, or Twitter's short-lived policy of suspending the accounts of users whose bios included their Mastodon address – any attention that did slip past their stingy, tight-pinched sphincters would at least have a chance of connecting users directly to your own site and its feeds.

Three weeks after I quit Boing Boing, I launched Pluralistic, my POSSE project, which sees me publishing one or more essays, five or more days per week, homed on my own non-surveilling, non-tracking, ad-free WordPress site, a fulltext RSS feed, and a plaintext newsletter, and mirrored to Tumblr, Mastodon, Twitter and Medium:

Today, Pluralistic is three years old. Even with the global pandemic that followed shortly on its founding, I still find myself marvelling at how quickly the time has flown by – and, thinking back over the past three years, I'm also profoundly satisfied with how it has shaped up.

Even though Pluralistic isn't a group blog – a Metafilter wag commented on the irony of calling a solo project "pluralistic" and they weren't wrong! – I couldn't have done this without help. First, and most importantly, I must thank the incredible Ken Snider, who has hosted my servers for decades, and who is one of the most thoughtful, diligent, and skilled network administrators I've ever had the privilege of knowing. I can't thank Ken enough – without his help, I'd be hamstrung.

Early in Pluralistic's history, the pioneering cryptographer Loren Kohnfelder noticed that I was making the formatting errors characteristic of someone who is trying to do a lot of fiddly work manually. Loren wrote to me out of the blue and volunteered to write some python scripts to make my production more streamlined and – crucially – less error-prone. If you are interested in the minutiae of how these scripts work, here's a process post I published in 2021, on the 20th anniversary of my first blog post:

Even Loren's excellent automation tools can't fix my own errors. I am a bottomless font of typos and other PEBCAK-type errors, and many readers write to point these out, but none are so diligent, regular and thoughtful as Gregory Cherlin, who has helped me fix more typos in my work than anyone except my mother, who is the world's greatest proofreader (Gregory is a close second).

Pluralistic has a (far too) irregular podcast component. I started podcasting in 2005, when Mark Pesce, John Perry Barlow and I got on the subject at a speaker's dinner at a conference in Montreal and Mark demanded to know why I wasn't doing one. I blamed it on my travel schedule, saying that I wouldn't be able to sit down in a quiet room with a good mic on a regular basis. Mark insisted that I was being too precious and that I could just record with my laptop mic from wherever I happened to be – a hotel room, a taxi-cab, whatever. The result was a lot of fun, but very rough:

In 2009, I was at a club in London when a guy came up to me and introduced himself. That was John Taylor Williams, a sound engineer in DC who loved my work and hated the sound quality of my podcast. He graciously volunteered to master it for me and while he promised that he wouldn't insist that I upgrade my recording situation, he did offer multiple useful suggestions. He's still mastering today (and is the engineer on all my audiobook projects) and under his patient tutelage, I've bought some decent gear and learned how to use it – and my podcast sounds great today. Thank you, John!

A year ago, when Pluralistic turned two, I reflected on the way the site had changed over the 550 posts I'd published thus far (today, it's 767), focusing on the fact that I have no metrics for any of the channels I manage – not even a humble page-counter:

Rather than using analytics and usage statistics to guide my work on Pluralistic, I focus solely on qualitative elements – feedback from readers (and critics). Mostly, that's feedback on substance. I call my blogging process "The Memex Method" – a way of iteratively improving my own ideas by presenting them to other people, rather than working through, say, a private commonplace book:

I'm generally less interested in people who want me to write about something other than the things I'm interested in. From the start, the beauty of being an independent web-writer is being freed from the tyranny of trying to identify and please an audience, and instead using my work to attract the audience that shares my interests (even if they disagree with my views):

One kind of non-substantive disagreement/suggestion I do pay attention to is readability suggestions; the point of Pluralistic is to discover and engage people who share my interests. Over the past year, reader feedback has led to improvements in my headline style and other formatting elements.

However, there are elements of the Pluralistic project that are more important than readability. For example, many Mastodon readers have asked why I don't switch to a server with a 5,000 character limit. The answer is that the server I use,, is run by the digital rights group La Quadrature Du Net, an organization with a long history of standing up to censorship demands. Censorship-resistance is simply more important than character limits. Ken is working on standing up a new Masto server for my use, but it turns out to require some new hardware, and that process takes a while, especially if you care about getting the hardware right.

Another example: I post bare links in all my syndicated posts, rather than using anchor text. One reader wrote to ask if I could stop to make things easier for the text-to-speech tool he uses to listen to my posts while on the move.

I had to disappoint him: the bare links are there for a reason. In an age where platforms routinely rewrite links so that they pass through an analytics filter, it's possible to select a bare link, copy it, and paste it into your location bar, bypassing surveillance.

The reader suggested that bare links would pose a problem to visually disabled users, who would have to endure listening to URLs, but I've never heard this from a visually disabled person directly, and the one blind friend I asked about it said that he had become so accustomed to skipping over URLs and other machine-readable passages that he didn't even notice them.

One place where I pay a lot of attention to accessibility is in the alt text for my images. I am not a visual person by nature, and I don't have a subscription to any of the stock art sites (and most stock images are incredibly bland). Instead, I make weird, phantasmagoric, often barely competent (but enormously satisfying) collages out of public domain and Creative Commons materials:

These are often so abstract as to be barely comprehensible (as befits someone working on the weird and abstract issues that are my life's work) and adding alt text doesn't just make these more accessible, it also helps me spot areas where I could be clearer.

Three years is an eyeblink – and it's an eternity. In the three years since I started publishing my work on Pluralistic, under a Creative Commons Attribution-only license, I've moved into much longer-form, considered, synthetic pieces, a process that has only accelerated over the past year. Magazines and other commercial publishers have begun to syndicate these pieces, sometimes picking them up for free under the CC license, sometimes paying me to edit or adapt them for their pages. Both are fine with me. I've got a lot on my plate – seven books in production! – and I am happy to have my work syndicated for free if it means I don't have to do more work.

Like Woody Guthrie once said:

This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

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#10yrsago Understanding the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: can you go to jail for violating a clickthrough agreement?

#10yrsago Students get class-wide As by boycotting test, solving Prisoner’s Dilemma

#5yrsago China’s Internet Czar has been purged

#5yrsago Wikipedia discontinues its “zero-rating,” will focus on research-driven outreach

#5yrsago Jen Wang’s “The Prince and the Dressmaker”: a genderqueer graphic novel that will move and dazzle you

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#1yrago The child labor story hidden by the Great Resignation

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#1yrago Tech platforms' playbook inevitably produces dumpster-fires

#1yrago Pluralistic is two

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Friday's progress: 504 words (106895 words total)

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EDITORIAL REVIEW

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. ON SUBMISSION

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. ON SUBMISSION

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Social Quitting

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023

  • The Internet Con: A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech, Verso, September 2023

  • The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

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