Tech

Own Your Data

A partial reconstruction of a discussion between Jeffrey Zeldman, Tantek Çelik, and a few others on the merits of self-hosting social content and publishing to various sites rather than aggregating locally from external sources.

I’ve been following discussions like this with some interest lately. Jeremy Keith posted a piece on his decision to self-host his bookmarks and cross-post to Delicious, rather than enter them in Delicious first and rely on their API to get his data out. Stephen Hay wrote a similar post on a shift in the way we post and consume content given the plethora of social content-sharing sites in existence today:

For a while we’ve posted our data all over the internet on all types of services. These services provide APIs so we can access the data we put into them, so that we can do things with that data. Read that again.

The prime example of all this lately is the social bookmarking site Delicious. In December 2010, a slide leaked from a Yahoo meeting indicated that Delicious was to be shut down. People on Twitter and elsewhere on the web collectively freaked out. Some people had thousands of bookmarks that would seemingly be gone, lost forever at the whim of Yahoo. People started to wonder if someone should instead build an open-source version of Delicious, and others pointed out how extraordinarily hard that would be. The end result being, people are starting to realize just how frail our data is. We post photos, articles, tweets, and whatever else we want, to lots of different sites, but we don’t actually have control over that data once we hit “post.”

So is it better to self-host your content and push that data out to separate services, or post directly to those services and pull your content into local backups after the fact? I don’t have that answer. But I did find this exchange on Twitter to be quite fascinating, and wanted to have some sort of linear record of it for posterity.

Update (Jan 10): Jeffrey Zeldman expounded on his thoughts from yesterday in a post on his own site:

We can’t preserve social relationships connected to our data. I can save my photos but not nice things you said about them.

Own Your Data on zeldman.com

Update 2 (Jan 10): Tantek has posted his own follow-up as well:

I’d rather host my data and live with such awkwardness in the open than be a sharecropper on so many beautiful social content farms.

On Owning Your Data on tantek.com


Personal

Be social more. Be “social” less.

imjoshdean:

Be social more:

I don’t mean tweet or check in on Foursquare more, I mean go out and interact with people more. I have a lot of acquaintances, not many friends. More often than not, I stay in, and don’t go out. I could be around more people more often. Stuff like that, you know?

Be “social” less:

By comparison of some people I know, I use Twitter sparingly, but still I think I use it too much (and more people use it WAY too much). I talk all the time, but I don’t say anything. There is too much noise, and not enough meaningful sound. As a guy I know puts it in his own resolution ‘speak less, say more.’

Yes. THIS. This is exactly what I meant in my obligatory list of resolutions for 2011. Josh just states it better.

Tech

Up and Gone; Or, The Ease of Relocating in the Digital Age

I recently had the pleasure of dogsitting for my parents while they were out of town, and in the process of temporarily relocating myself to their house, I realized something.

It’s extremely easy to pick up and relocate ourselves in an age where everything has gone digital.

This isn’t really a surprise. There are lots of books and blogs extolling the virtues of a location-independent lifestyle. Even for those of us who aren’t globe-trotting, it’s become remarkably easy to just… leave. For the two weeks I was living at my parents’ house taking care of their dog, I packed a single bag with a few changes of clothes and basic toiletries, a couple books, and my laptop. (Plus my phone, but that’s always on me and thus not really counted as packing.) That’s it.

All my other possessions were unimportant.

Granted, I wasn’t packing for a survival trek. I knew there would be food on hand and a kitchen to prepare it, a bed to sleep in, and functioning utilities. But it was interesting to see just how few of my own things I needed in order to be away from home for two weeks.

  • Mail was not a concern – all my bills are handled online, and personal letters have long been replaced by email, texts, and the social web. The sum total of my physical mail for two weeks was a pair of Netflix envelopes and a handful of unwanted marketing flyers and catalogs (which go straight to the trash).
  • Netflix and Hulu were at the ready for movies and TV. iTunes holds my music library. A couple books, which could just as easily have been library loans, and a very active dog sufficed for most of my entertainment.
  • Two weeks’ worth of clothing really doesn’t take up much space and can be packed fairly quickly. A few pairs of jeans, several t-shirts and overshirts for work, and some sweatshirts, plus a coat and gloves, all of which fits well in a moderately-sized duffle bag.

My laptop and my phone are undoubtedly my two most important possessions. Those two devices have replaced (or at least could replace) my mailbox, my media center, a bookshelf, paper notebooks, my alarm clock, and a phonebook, among other things. Digital storage is cheaper than ever, so I could easily back up all my DVDs to a portable harddrive.

Obviously there are some things I can’t digitize. My couch, for one. And as easy as it might be to order a pizza online, I like cooking, so my kitchen is here to stay. But the rest of my stuff? That’s just it – it’s just stuff. I’m planning to overhaul my belongings, going by the rule of “If I had to move right now and could only take one car, would this go with me?” My guess is that the answer will consistently tend toward “no.”

What else in my life can I digitize to reduce my clutter? Moving to a monastery and renouncing all worldly things is out of the question, but I’m open to suggestions.

Tech

Learn When to Say No.

The one skill that’s been most helpful to me professionally, more than any tech knowledge, is knowing when and how to say “No.”

Obviously any profession has certain skillsets that are required for basic completion of the relevant tasks. Architects need to be able to sketch designs and understand building stress points. Firefighters need to know how to hook up hoses and where to aim the water for best coverage. I’m a front-end developer; I need to know how to write proper XHTML and CSS, use Photoshop, and manage project timelines.

Even so, none of the various technical abilities I’ve acquired over the years are as important as simply knowing when it’s necessary to say “no” to people. It’s a “soft skill” but it’s just as vital as any knowledge of coding languages, operating systems, or tech support tips. I’ve learned that saying “yes” all the time leads to nothing but stress and ultimately sub-par work. You end up trying to please all the people all the time, and it’s just not doable.

I think too many people have this idea that it’s unacceptable to say no (or worse, to hear it from others). There’s a fear that saying “no” will somehow make them look incapable of handling the work, make them look like they can’t be trusted to get stuff done. They’re half right, technically. There’s a point at which workload outweighs available time, and when that happens the work will suffer, the person will suffer, and the client will suffer.

No one wants that.

I’ve learned — the hard way — that my health (mental and physical) and my output are directly affected by my ability to regulate my workload effectively. Knowing when and more importantly how to tell people that you can’t currently oblige their request is absolutely critical to keeping yourself in balance.

I just wish more people understood that.

Tech

Notes from the September mkeUX meetup: Search

Last night’s mkeUX was all about search – both SEO and paid search. Ross Monaghan and Jordon Meyer were great presenters and obviously have the background to back up their claims (and, after having a drink with the guys beforehand, not such bad guys in general). Twitter is a pretty good place to follow the action — search the hashtag #mkeUX — but I took some notes along the way, presented here for your amusement.

Ross Monaghan — “SEO & UX. WTF?”

Accessibility! There are already search engine optimization standards established by companies and groups like Google and the W3C. They’re designed to help you make sure your content is accessible. So… use them!

Search engines are essentially heavily disabled users. They have extremely limited ability to process Javascript, they can’t see your images, they won’t watch your Flash, and they won’t listen to your audio. If you don’t provide alternate means of consuming this content, it’s essentially invisible to search. The same goes for things that require user interaction – dropdown forms, etc. Search engines won’t jump through the hoops that human users may be willing to tolerate.

Keep it clean!

Keeping your URLs clean and human-friendly, and making good use of canonical URLs, will go a long way toward improving your search engine performance. Excessive use of querystring parameters, or extensive tagging without proper compensating techniques like using robots.txt to exclude “tag overview” pages, will inevitably start to dilute the value of the other links throughout your site. So be careful how you implement those “features.”

If I can read your page and immediately tell you what keywords you’re targeting, you’re doing it wrong.

Architecture. Sometimes you have to take a step back and ask yourself (or your client), “Why the hell are we building this website to begin with?” If there’s no clear answer, STOP. If there is a clear answer, then… great! Now what? You need to ensure a consistent and reliable strategy — taxonomies, structure, labeling, and organizational themes.

Jordon Meyer — “Paid Search Usability”

Paid search gets a bad rap.

— Jordan

In 2009, Google got $23 billion in revenue selling paid search ads and had 37 billion clicks on those ads. However, only around 2% of those clicks ever turned into an actual conversion. 98% of the ads ended up meaning absolutely nothing. Why? (Possible answer: people just distrust paid search results?)

Five opportunities to lose customers:

  • Irrelevant keywords – buying every conceivable keyword just in hopes of getting someone to click? Bad!
  • Misleading copy – “office chairs under $50!” when none of your office chairs are under $100
  • Generic keywords
  • Poor choice of destination – don’t send every click to your homepage! Take into account what the user is searching for, why they clicked, and where they expect to land.
  • Low quality of destination – if you have no calls to action, too much (or not enough) copy, high load times, etc… people will leave. And they may not come back.

You got the click to your site, now do something with it! Standards exist and evolve for a reason. Use them to your advantage.