By Nathan L. Walls

Articles tagged “writing”

The Web has become an awful place to read

Somewhere in the past 10 years or so, the Web has become terrible for reading and readers. We don’t suffer from lack of writing quality, or quantity. Enough lands in my feed reader, via email newsletter, or on Twitter daily such that I will never want for something new to read. My queue of Instapaper articles or saved browser tabs will tell you this has been the case for some time.

No, I mean, the act of reading itself on the Web, in general terms, has gotten worse over time with outright hostility toward readers. The design of news sites, particularly regional and local newspapers that aren’t making the sort of nationwide play for subscribers that The New York Times or The Washington Post are have gotten worse.

I mean the slow accumulation of weight that modern sites have taken on. The sliding interruptions. Paragraphs that shift as you’re reading them because the surrounding ad positions have reloaded and the page text has reflowed. Autoplaying video, with sound, that “helpfully” moves itself to a bottom corner of your browser window as you scroll down the page. The newsletter modal after you’ve scrolled to read the second paragraph. It will offer a “Maybe not right now” passive aggressive dismissal.

It’s the alert message that tells you the site would like to send you notifications when they post new content. “Yes” or “Maybe later”. Never, “No, thank you, do not ask me again.” I’ve already breezed past the persistent cookie banner with several questions. I’ll come back to that.

The newsletter thing bugs me, because I see it so often on sites. Do I want, right now, to interrupt what I was in the middle of doing, to subscribe to a newsletter. Friends, I was in the middle of reading. I have seen it, too, where I go to site, having clicked on a link, from the newsletter, and see the admonishment to subscribe to the newsletter. I think because sites and their advertisers view newsletters as higher quality and thus more valuable than Web traffic. That feels right, but, also seems like punishing a reader instead of rewarded them with fewer obstacles and interruptions for doing exactly what the newsletter asked of them.

What a site could do, should do even, is shift the reader analytics tracking they’re doing for ad placements to smoothing the reader’s path. Skip showing that newsletter reader your subscription call to action.

The cookie banner bugs me severely. Ostensibly, this is a site telling you they’re saving your customizations and want to tailor recommendations to you. I think a lot of that, specifically, is bullshit. Being able to track what you read between different properties, that an ad provider can show you retargeted ads, from site-to-site. That it will do. It will also help feed Google Analytics and whatever profile Facebook has for you and whichever other ad tech vendors a site makes use of.

The analytics practice is a lot. Google gets to know tons about you as a reader. Sites get free analytics tools, but, that’s essentially a side-business for Google in exchange for acquiring more information. I think, too, site managers and owners don’t know how to treat or read the analytic data they have because they keep pivoting to video.

The other regrettable practice that comes out of this is click-chasing by lots of “news” sites rewriting stories from somewhere else. This is completely different in spirit from the early 2000s weblog practice of linking and adding some context or explanation for wonderful things. Jason Kottke still does this, and bless him for it. No, this practice leads to the Rolling Stone rewrite of an incomplete local news story, and then everyone riffing off of that. Rolling Stone and other sites do rewrites like this to attract traffic for ad positions.

Meanwhile, browsers like Firefox, Brave, and Safari have taken to reporting on what invasive techniques they’re blocking from sites. By comparison, Google’s Chrome is still advertiser friendly. It certainly helps Google’s business. Chrome, Firefox and Safari had lots of available ad-blocking plugins. Site ads become more intrusive and annoying. For a time, a lot of sites carried straight-up malware in their ads, because websites outsourced everything about the online advertising side of the. Malware ads carried readers away from the site reading to some tar pit with even worse practices trying to get victimes to install something nefarious or part with banking information.

It got worse. Advertising networks bought the ad blocking browser plugins and turned them into ads. Websites added plugin detectors to block readers from reading if they wouldn’t let the site’s advertising try to grift them.

Reams of first and third party JavaScript power these websites. Generally speaking, the HTML, and text of a website are overly complex, and simultaneously, aren’t all that much. But, ads, and these reams of JavaScript, sometimes video, cost readers in concrete device resources, device memory, CPU, and (potentially capped or otherwise limited) networking bandwidth.

Another contemptible practice is not even loading the whole article at once. Instead, a few paragraphs, separated by ad positions and then some manner of “Click to read more” button. I haven’t figured out the why here. The expensive page-retrieval and load has already occurred. Maybe it’s a manner of protecting against reader modes or other weird robot mitigation. It seems related to a largely disappeared trend to split web articles across multiple pages.

Now, let’s say a reader makes it well into an article, perhaps to the end. I hope that reader is expecting chumboxes, because that’s what’s there. In the past, a news article would have three or six terrible ads for get rich quick or lose weight fast schemes. Now, those lousy and deceptive visual ads will darn near infinitely scroll on some websites. Famous crypto surgeon knows the 30 second routine to clear out your offline wallet. Do this once everyday, and throw away this vegetable.

What I find frustrating is news sites have made putting any sort of news article in context much harder than it ought to be. Stories typically aren’t updated to point at newer, more complete information. It’s rarely possible to know if a particular article contains the most recent information a news organization has. But, somehow, simultaneously, looking through archives in a systematic fashion or even just browsing to past-days news is nigh impossible.

Substantial responsibility for the reading experience decline I’m describing lays at the feet of the news industry through a combination of the collapse of advertising revenue and a disinclination to maintain in-house expertise.

In 1999, at the beginning of my brief reporting and editing career, the newspaper I worked at, the Press-Tribune of Roseville, Calif., did not have an internal library. The company that bought it joined it with several other local newspapers in the foothills and suburbs east of Sacramento and cut staff, including the librarian. They sold off the presses, sublet the now empty half of the offices formerly occupied by the press, and printed the papers from a central facility in Auburn. Our work computers has small hard drives, even for the time. We could only keep two or three editions of the paper’s QuarkXPress files around before our managing editor came around and removed anything but established templates. After the paper went to press, a week or so later, we had no company-maintained record of what we’d printed. This working arrangement was pretty informative for where the rest of the news industry ended up by 2021.

The way this plays out online is archives start off terribly, and get worse over time. Newpapers change online publishing systems and URLs change, and it’s rare for a paper or news site to either redirect old urls or migrate the articles at the old address to a new system. The New York Times_ does it well, as does The Atlantic magazine. Lots of local news sites, however, do not, and our communities, local and online, are poorer for it. The attention sites pay to their site design has declined, apart from finding more opportunities to interrupt readers.

Collectively, reading any manner of long-form content online, particularly news, has gotten worse. The Web could be and should be so much more than it is. Faster pages, easy to find credible content, credible information that’s updated as circumstances warrant and doesn’t mysteriously vanish when a content management system changes. Reading online should not require megabytes of third-party JavaScript, should not require trading privacy and device security, substantial portions of device and networking resources, to read.

Readers deserve better.

Using Drafts

I was turned on to Drafts listing to the Back to Work podcast with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin, back when Drafts 4 was current and before there was a Mac client. If I recall correctly, Merlin was talking on the fact that Drafts was a good dumping ground for random bits of text that he could then decide what to do with.

It took me a bit to really grasp the promise.

Ordinarily, I work with BBEdit and Vim when I’m at my computer. Both are great for handling established lists, text manipulation, editing and so forth. But now, most things I write on the iPad, iPhone, and a fair amount of what I write on my desktop starts in Drafts.

BBEdit has some provision for temporary text in the form of its Scratchpad, something I use frequently. There’s a global Scratchpad and one available for each BBEdit project. I set-up a different BBEdit project for each codebase I use. Actively, I have snippets of text in two or three different scratchpads.

What’s harder, though, is starting a new document in one of these programs, because, pretty quickly, in wanting to save this text to disk, there’s a decision about what to call the thing I’m writing. Surprisingly, there’s some friction there, because besides giving the piece of writing a name, there’s the aspect of where it goes.

For ephemera, I don’t need the text I write to end up in a permanent file. I do need the text to appear across my devices and be easy to locate. Drafts does just that.

If and when I am ready to save an entry to a file, Drafts gives me that option. It’s plain-text. It supports Markdown. It syncs nearly instantly and it gets out of the way. Drafts also has Workspaces functionality, and wow, is it nice.

The iPad, an external keyboard, and Drafts, is a pretty idealized writing environment. It’s full-screen, (mostly) distraction free, when I let it be.

Here are the tasks I use Drafts for:

  • Building up shopping lists
  • Creating workout plans
    • This was more of a thing before gestures broadly all of this
  • Drafting tweets
  • Saving URLs for link posts
  • Writing blog entry drafts
  • Taking notes for work meetings
  • Writing most anything I haven’t figured out any particular structure to just yet
  • Composing emails, Slack messages, or anything i might paste into a web-based textarea
    • I find dedicated text editors drop words, letters, punctuation or flat out lose everything much less often than webforms textareas do
    • As with drafting tweets, there’s an added benefit in that composing offline means fewer opportunities for a hasty autocorrect or dropped error
    • On Slack, I avoid “Nathan is typing…” for minutes while I gather my thoughts, I’ve already done it once I send something

Once I’m done with the above, Drafts gives me several options of how to act on what I’ve just written:

  • Preview Markdown text as lightly-styled HTML
  • Save an entry as a text file
  • Send a tweet directly from Drafts, which is nice when I don’t want to open the hellsite directly
  • Send a tweet thread
    • The hack here is by writing in terms of a tweet thread, I will veer into just writing. At that point, I’m working on a blog entry and, as a goal, I would strongly prefer to publish more here than on Twitter.
  • Archive or delete the entry once I’m done with it, particularly ephemeral lists

It’s a valuable tool.

Unlazy writing and thinking

I spent a lot of time reading and writing on Twitter in 2017. I haven’t pulled together a 2017 corpus of tweets, but there’s some thinking I was happy to share in thread form. There’s also a fair amount of time I spent that I’d struggle to consider as well-spent on Twitter.

Mentally, I’m ready for something different than what I’ve been doing. Twitter’s format, even at an expanded 280 characters, doesn’t encourage me to develop my thinking and writing the way I would like.

I want my writing to embody and encourage proactive thinking. Both in myself as a writer, and hopefully within whatever audience I’m fortunate to have read this. I want write less from a reactionary perspective. Some of that this past year has been snark. Some has been shouting into the void at various horrors politic. I think my motives are fine, but I can better channel the writing I do than I have been.

My hypothesis is I’m better writing thoughts on a particular topic out in long form. I’ll set it down for at least a bit, then return to edit and refine. I’ll post it on this site and then share a link on Twitter. I think I’ll have better work than the work I produce hashing out my thinking in an unwieldy and uneditable Twitter thread.

I’m interested in quoting and linking with citations to source material. I’m interested in updating a piece, fixing misspellings or poor phrasing when I find it.

Twitter as Endless River has been easy for me to indulge in as a lazy writer and lazy reader, particularly given a pretty busy year at work. Flick, scroll, open some tabs, maybe read them, refresh, repeat. My fear of giving in to laziness as both a writer and a reader is that said laziness encourages lazy thinking.

My desire to shift direction on writing has another element, ownership. Andy Baio wrote about this in 2016:

Here, I control my words. Nobody can shut this site down, run annoying ads on it, or sell it to a phone company. Nobody can tell me what I can or can’t say, and I have complete control over the way it’s displayed. Nobody except me can change the URL structure, breaking 14 years of links to content on the web.

I like that approach, too. It’s the approach I’m using for this site. Similarly, there are services like micro.blog to provide longer, non-siloed places to write. I’m interested in RSS and JSON feed as content sharing mechanisms. I’m keenly interested in writing on and for the Open Web.

Here, I can post as much or as little as I (and I’m guessing with this), my audience can stand on a given topic. If a post needs 3,000 words, that’ll happen. That’s going to be far easier to read here than a 60 tweet thread, whether or not I used Twitter’s new threading tool. If I want to post a lot fewer words, perhaps just to say I liked a link, this site should fit that need, too.

I’m interested in approaching where I read and what I read in 2018 differently. Specifically, putting more emphasis on reading clear, articulate writing from others outside of Twitter.

My hypothesis is that active, considered reading will lead to more considered thinking. That will lead to active, considered writing. I plan to be doing more of that here this next year.

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