The blog and the social media

Because The Wire had signed up to be some kind of A-listed publisher with Facebook, The Wire‘s staff was required to create Facebook Pages under each writer/editor’s name. So I created the ‘Vasudevan Mukunth’ page. Then, about 10 days ago, Facebook began to promote my page on the platform, running ads for it that would appear on people’s timelines across the network. The result is that my page now has almost as many likes as The Wire English’s Facebook Page: 320,000+. Apart from sharing my pieces from The Wire, I now use the page to share my blog posts as well. Woot!

Action on Twitter hasn’t far behind either. I’ve had a verified account on the microblogging platform for a few months now. And this morning, Twitter rolled out the expanded tweet character limit (from 140 to 280) to everyone. For someone to whom 140 characters was a liberating experience – a mechanical hurdle imposed on running your mouth and forcing you to think things through (though many choose not to) – the 280-char limit is even more so.

How exactly? An interesting implication discussed in this blog post by Twitter is that allowing people to think 280 characters at a time allowed them to be less anxious about how they were going to compose their tweets. The number of tweets hitting the character limit dropped from 9% during the 140-char era to 1% in the newly begun 280-char era. At the same time, people have continued to tweet within the 140-char most of the time. So fewer tweets were being extensively reworked or abandoned because people no longer composed them with the anxiety of staying within a smaller character limit.

But here’s the problem: most of my blog’s engagement had already been happening on the social media. As soon as I published a post, WordPress’s Jetpack plugin would send an email to 4brane’s 3,600+ subscribers with the full post, post the headline + link on Twitter and the headline + blurb + image + link on Facebook. Readers would reply to the tweet, threading their responses if they had to, and drop comments on Facebook. But on the other hand, the number of emails I’ve been receiving from my subscribers has been dropping drastically, as has the number of comments on posts.

I remember my blogging habit having taken a hit when I’d decided to become more active on Twitter because I no longer bore, fermented and composed my thoughts at length, with nuance. Instead, I dropped them as tweets as and when they arose, often with no filter, building it out through conversations with my followers. The 280-char limit now looks set to ‘scale up’ this disruption by allowing people to be more free and encouraging them to explore more complex ideas, aided by how (and how well, I begrudgingly admit) Twitter displays tweet-threads.

Perhaps – rather hopefully – the anxiety that gripped people when they were composing 140-char tweets will soon grip them as they’re composing 280-char tweets as well. I somehow doubt 420-char tweets will be a thing; that would make the platform non-Twitter-like. And hopefully the other advantages of having a blog, apart from the now-lost ‘let’s have a conversation’ part, such as organising information in different ways unlike Twitter’s sole time-based option, will continue to remain relevant.

Featured image credit: LoboStudioHamburg/pixabay.

Advertisements

A for-publishers stack and the symmetry of globalisation

Journalism as the fourth estate has been noticeably empowered in the Information Age, with technologies like the WWW, broadband connectivity and smartphones in (almost) everyone’s pockets. However, the opportunities to responsibly exercise the resulting power have been coming at a disproportionately greater cost: to be constantly fast, constantly smart and constantly vigilant. Put another way: in journalism until the early 1990s, there were the journalists and then there were the readers. Today, there are the journalists, there’s a tech stack and only then the readers. Many newsrooms often forget that this stack exists and often dictates what news is produced and how.

I received a very sudden reminder of this when I opened my browser a few minutes ago. If you use Pocket and have the Chrome extension installed, you’ll likely have seen three recommendations from the app every time you opened a new tab:

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 7.54.09 PM

The article in the middle – ‘The 7 Biggest Unanswered Questions in Physics’ – pertains to topics something I’ve repeatedly discussed in my stories, although I’ll concede they may have been more detailed than is desirable for an article like that to become a hit. However, the details/nuance/depth all notwithstanding, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article published by an Indian publication – or even non-American/British publication – among the Pocket recommendations. This of course is a direct reflection of where the app was made and people from which part of the world use it the most.

Where the app was made matters because nobody is going to build an app in location A and hope that it becomes popular in faraway location B. Pocket itself is San Franciscan and the bias shows: most recommendations I’ve received, or even the non-personalised trending topics I’ve spotted, are American. In fact, among all the tools I use and curation services I follow, I’ve come across only two exceptions: the heartwarming human-curated 3QuarksDaily and Quora. I’m not familiar with Quora’s story but I’m sure it’s interesting – about how a Q&A platform out of Mountain View came to be dominated by Indian users.

Circling back to the ‘7 Unanswered Questions’ article: Its creator is NBC News, a journalistic outlet, while its contents are being published via Google Chrome and Pocket – a.k.a. the stack. And the stack powerfully controls what I’m discovering, what thousands of people are discovering, and how easily they can save, consume and/or share it. Because Pocket and NBC – rather, app P and app Q – are both American products, there is an increased likelihood that P and Q will team up to promote content and distribute it worldwide; the likelihood is relative to that of an app and a publisher from two different regions teaming up, which is lower. This breaks the symmetry of globalisation.

Of course, the biggest exception to this would be an app that is truly global, like Facebook. Then again such exceptions are also harder to come by – nor do they always neutralise the advantage of having a cut-above-the-rest ecosystem of apps and app-makers that provide a continuous edge to homegrown publishers. Though don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a flavour of protectionism. I like many of Pocket’s recommendations and appreciate how the app has helped me discover a variety of publishers I’ve come to love.

Instead, it’s a quiet yearning (doped with some wishful thinking): Will my peers in India have been farther along in their careers had there been an equally influential Indian for-publishers stack?

Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.

Blogging with Gitlab

About a week ago, I figured out how to use Hugo, first with Caddy and then with Dropbox and Gitlab. Hugo + Gitlab in particular is an amazing combo because it’s so easy to set up and run with:

  1. Create an account on Gitlab
  2. Fork this repo: https://gitlab.com/pages/hugo
  3. Import a theme of your choice
  4. Update settings in config.toml and social.toml
  5. THAT’S IT.

No code. Working on it has been a hoot as well. I use Atom to compose my posts (I was able to create a macro that made it easier for me to populate the front-matter while the Markdown Preview package recreates Ghost’s writing environment very well) and Cycligent to commit. Granted, this adds two more steps to the shortest publishing process (headline, body, tags, publish) but I don’t mind losing the extra 30 seconds.

And just like that, most of Ghost’s principal features are taken care of:

  • Markdown + live preview
  • Content tagging
  • Team sites
  • Scheduled publishing
  • SEO and social integration (with Cloudflare Apps)
  • HTTPS (either with Cloudflare or Let’s Encrypt)
  • RSS and integrations (Slack, etc.)
  • Email subscriptions (with MailChimp)
  • Open-source access
  • Theme-editing

(Not sure a CDN is necessary with static sites but if you’d like one, Cloudflare’s is pretty good.)

What’s not taken care of: backups. Although I’m sure there’s a way, e.g. by firing up your page on Gitlab CE hosted on a VPS or syncing your repo with a local copy once in a while. Best part (if you take the latter option): zero cost for the entire thing. Gitlab caps repo sizes at 10 GB, which is amazing – potentially humungous if you host your images elsewhere and import them by URL. Plus Gitlab also takes care of the security, continuous integration/delivery, etc.

All of this has made me curious about where an entity like Ghost has left to go in its efforts to simplify the publishing process, etc. Ghost made sense in a world where WordPress was crowded, other CMSs were going to be as niche/unaffordable as they are and SSGs came with a non-gentle learning curve. However, Gitlab makes it dead-easy to run with an SSG like Hugo. If someone created a GUI for Hugo like they did with Cactus (now defunct), it would – as they say – “just work”. Hell, if Bitnami releases a Hugo (or Octopress) stack soon for Lightsail, Ghost might have nothing else to do but stick to its journalism plan.

Featured image credit: Snufkin/pixabay.

Reneging on an old promise

This morning, I activated a feature that would display ads on my blog. I’m given to understand the bulk of my most loyal readers get their dose of Gaplogs edmx via email. However, I still get a reasonable number of hits on the blog itself, and I activated WordAds to capitalise on it and help pay for an upgrade that I think my blog deserves.

Eight years ago, when I launched this blog, I’d promised my readers that this blog would always be a labour of love, free to read and free of ads. The first two still hold. Being able to make money off of my writing doesn’t change what or how I write. Some of my friends can tell you how I complain every once in a while about how unreasonably difficult it is to be read widely and to be considered valuable in an industry as a science writer. But this hasn’t kept from continuing to be a science writer because it’s what I love to do.

The same goes for this blog. It will always be a labour of love and my writing here will always be honest and independent of any financial or other material interests. Case in point: I’m reluctant at the moment to say this blog will always be free to read as well. Who knows, if someday this blog becomes really popular and if it becomes feasible to install a paywall, I will. 😉 The best I can promise is that edmx will always be free to read for the existing clutch of ~2,900 followers.

Featured image credit: andibreit/pixabay.

‘Infinite in All Directions’, a science newsletter

At 10 am (IST) every Monday, I will be sending out a list of links to science stories from around the web, curated by significance and accompanied by a useful blurb, as a newsletter. If you’re interested, please sign up here. If you’d like to know more before signing up, read on.

It’s called Infinite in All Directions – a term coined by Freeman Dyson for nothing really except the notion behind this statement from his book of the same name: “No matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness and memory.”

I will be collecting the links and sending the newsletter out on behalf of The Wire, whose science section I edit. And so, you can trust the links to not be to esoteric pieces (which I’m fond of) but to pieces I’d have liked to have covered at The Wire but couldn’t.

More than that, the idea for the newsletter is essentially a derivative of a reading challenge a friend proposed a while ago: wherein a group of us would recommend books for each other to read, especially titles that we might not come upon by ourselves.

Some of you might remember that a (rather, the same) friend and I used to send out the Curious Bends newsletter until sometime last year. The Infinite in All Directions newsletter will be similarly structured but won’t necessarily be India-centric. In fact, a (smaller than half) section of the newsletter may even be consistently skewed toward the history and philosophy of science. But you can trust that the issues will all be contemporary.

Apart from my ‘touch’ coming through with the selection, I will also occasionally include my take on some topics (typically astro/physics). You’re welcome to disagree (just be nice) – all replies to the newsletter will land up in my inbox. You’re also more than welcome to send me links to include in future issues.

Finally: Each newsletter will not have a fixed number of links – I don’t want to link you to pieces I myself haven’t been able to appreciate. At the same time, there will be at least five or so links. I think The Wire alone puts out that many good stories each week.

I hope you enjoy reading the newsletter. As with this blog, Infinite in All Directions will be a labour of love. Please share it with your friends and anybody who might be interested in such a service. Again, here is the link to subscribe.

Returning to WordPress… fourth time round.

My blog got me my job. After all, it did make a cameo appearance during my interview, drawing an “Impressive!” from the Editor of the newspaper sitting opposite me. Ever since that episode in early June, I decided that I was justified in spending almost three hours on it each day, checking the stats, making small changes to the design, keeping an eye out for new options and themes, weeding out spam comments, etc.

It is also since then that I have been comfortable spending some money on it. First, I bought a domain, set up some space at Hostgator, and set up WordPress. That didn’t last long because I had a bad time with Hostgator. It could’ve just been that once, but I decided to move. Next in line was Posterous, but once I learnt that it was being bought by Twitter, I decided to move again. I didn’t like the idea of my blog’s host being affiliated with a social networking service, you see.

The third option was Blogger. While its immense flexibility was welcoming, I found it too… unclassy, if I may say so. It didn’t proffer any style of its own, nor did it show any inclination for it. While WordPress.com restricts access to themes’ CSS files, Blogger has almost no restrictions nor offerings. This means that if I wanted a particularly styled theme, I’d have to code it up from scratch, instead of being able to choose from over 200 themes like in WordPress. That much of flexibility isn’t always great, I learnt.

The final stop was Squarespace. At the end of the day, Squarespace doesn’t fall short on many counts (if it falls short at all). For $96 p.a., it offers one free domain, 20 GB of hosting space, a wealth of templates all easily customized, and a minimalist text editor that I think I will miss the most. Where I think it doesn’t match up to WordPress is social networking.

Bloggers on WordPress have the option of following other blogs, liking posts, sharing stuff they like on their own blogs, and generally availing the option to interact more strongly than just by sharing posts on Facebook/Twitter or leaving comments. In fact, I think WordPress also has a lot of “bloggers” who don’t have blogs of their own but are logged in to interact with authors they like.

So, for the fourth time, I returned to WordPress… and here I am. Will I continue to be here? I don’t know. I’m sure something else will come along and I’ll put some of my money in it, perhaps only to find out why WordPress is so awesome for the fifth time.

Eschatology

The meaning of the day of the blog is changing. While some argue that long-form journalism is in, I think it’s about extreme-form journalism. By this, I only mean that long-forms and short-forms are increasingly doing better, while the in-betweens are having to constantly redefine themselves, nebulously poised as they are between one mode that takes seconds to go viral and another mode that engages the intellectual and the creative for periods long enough to prompt protracted introspection on all kinds of things.

Having said this, it is inevitable that this blog, trapped between an erstwhile obsessed blogger and a job that demands most of his time, eventually cascade into becoming an archive, a repository of links, memories, stories, and a smatter of comments on a variety of subjects – as and when each one caught this blogger’s fancy. I understand I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. However, this episode concludes a four-year old tradition of blogging at least 2,000 words a week, something that avalanched into a habit, and ultimately into a career.

Thanks for reading. Much more will come, but just not as often as it has.

A revisitation inspired by Facebook’s opportunities

When habits form, rather become fully formed, it becomes difficult to recognize the drive behind its perpetuation. Am I still doing what I’m doing for the habit’s sake, or is it that I still love what I do and that’s why I’m doing it? In the early stages of habit-formation, the impetus has to come from within – let’s say as a matter of spirit – because it’s a process of creation. Once the entity has been created, once it is fully formed, it begins to sustain itself. It begins to attract attention, the focus of other minds, perhaps even the labor of other wills. That’s the perceived pay-off of persevering at the beginning, persevering in the face of nil returns.

But where the perseverance really makes a difference is when, upon the onset of that dull moment, upon the onset of some lethargy or the writers’ block, we somehow lose the ability to set apart fatigue-of-the-spirit and suspension-of-the-habit. If I no longer am able to write, even if at least for a day or so, I should be able to tell the difference between that pit-stop and a perceived threat of the habit starting to become endangered. If we don’t learn to make that distinction – which is more palpable than fine or blurry most of the time – then we will have have persevered for nothing but perseverance’s sake.

This realization struck me after I opened a Facebook page for my blog so that, given my incessant link-sharing on the social network, only the people who wanted to read the stuff I shared could sign-up and receive the updates. I had no intention earlier to use Facebook as anything but a socialization platform, but after my the true nature of my activity on Facebook was revealed to me (by myself), I realized my professional ambitions had invaded my social ones. So, to remind myself why the social was important, too, I decided to stop sharing news-links and analyses on my timeline.

However, after some friends expressed excitement – that I never quite knew was there – about being able to avail my updates in a more cogent manner, I understood that there were people listening to me, that they did spend time reading what I had to say on science news, etc., not just from on my blog but also from wherever I decided to post it! At the same moment, I thought to myself, “Now, why am I blogging?” I had no well-defined answer, and that’s when I knew my perseverance was being misguided by my own hand, misdirected by my own foolishness.

I opened astrohep.wordpress.com in January, 2011, and whatever science- or philosophy-related stories I had to tell, I told here. After some time, during a period coinciding with the commencement of my formal education in journalism, I started to use isnerd more effectively: I beat down the habit of using big words (simply because they encapsulated better whatever I had to say) and started to put some effort in telling my stories differently, I did a whole lot of reading before and while writing each post, and I used quotations and references wherever I could.

But the reason I’d opened this blog stayed intact all the time (or at least I think it did): I wanted to tell my science/phil. stories because some of the people around me liked hearing them and I thought the rest of the world might like hearing them, too.

At some point, however, I crossed over into the other side of perseverance: I was writing some of my posts not because they were stories people might like to hear but because, hey, I was a story-writer and what do I do but write stories! I was lucky enough to warrant no nasty responses to some absolutely egregious pieces of non-fiction on this blog, and parallely, I was unlucky enough to not understand that a reader, no matter how bored, never would want to be presented crap.

Now, where I used to draw pride from pouring so much effort into a small blog in one corner of WordPress, I draw pride from telling stories somewhat effectively – although still not as effectively as I’d like. Now, astrohep.wordpress.com is not a justifiable encapsulation of my perseverance, and nothing is or will be until I have the undivided attention of my readers whenever I have something to present them. I was wrong in assuming that my readers would stay with me and take to my journey as theirs, too: A writer is never right in assuming that.