Kicks Condor

Infostrats

One does not simply read the Internet…

(Draft.)

This term I lifted from Ton Zijlstra—what is my strategy to comb through the gigs and gigs of input I can plug myself into on the Web? My aim here is to keep my finger on the pulse of individual personal activity on the unwalled Web, so my infostrat is mainly about attempting to track and discover thousands of people. But Ton also includes: deciding what and how to bookmark or archive stuff, sorting through conflicting news stories and accusations, and alternating “periods of discovery with periods of digesting and consolidating”.[1]

In a way, the effort is to establish a personal internal algorithm to help the Web survive—the infostrat. This seems essential.

But, first, is tracking thousands of people a worthwile effort? Doesn’t that just lead to a large, thin layer of links for people that you really don’t know much about? (And, thus, leading to the same kind of linkblogs that we’ve seen over the years, which chase one novelty after another—a giant conveyor belt that just rolls by?)

From Ton:

A useful method all through human evolution is expanding your range of interactions by off-loading things to your environment[2], and so diminishing the amount of information you have to remember or handle at the same time.

Much like a traveller who wants to see the world, experience cuisine and stand in front of important paintings—I want to find all kinds of people and see if we can talk and get along and work together even.[3] I know it’s probably not possible to have 1,000 deep relationships. It’s sick to even discuss numbers in this way. The only reason I say ‘thousands’ is to open myself up from my old way—which I felt was to have only a handful of close friends. But now I am wondering what is possible.

So now, with my aim quite clear, I think of the tools. Inately, I feel that simple and obvious tools are best. This is a reaction to the inscrutable algorithms we see on the social networks. If I don’t understand the workings of the algorithm, then it is arbitrary to me. However, I know that I will need some complexity—I already find usefulness in crafting detailed tag queries on Pinboard.

Tools are tools because they provide agency, they let us do things that would otherwise be harder or impossible. Tools are tools because they provide reach, as extensions of our physical presence, not just across space but also across time. For a very long time I have been convinced that tools need to be smaller than us, otherwise they’re not tools of real value.[4]

So what does it mean for tech to be ‘small’? From the essay “Small Tech Provides Agency, Big Tech Takes It Away”:

Technology to provide us with agency needs to be not just small, but smaller than us, i.e. within the scope of control of the group of people deploying a technology or method.

An example is given: ‘Facebook groups are failed tools, because someone outside those groups controls the off-switch.’ This is a useful distinction—the tool needn’t necessarily be small in purpose. But it must be entirely within your control—or the group’s control. Another example: ‘Like the thermometer in my garden that tells me the temperature, but has additional value in a network of thermometers mapping my city’s microclimates.’

Ton has a very good summary of agency (a way of thinking through the purpose of the tool) and Aral Balkan has a list of criteria for ‘small tech’ that I think I agree with.

Now, given the goal of “find the others”—here is my cheat sheet summary:

  • My tools must aid both discovery and digestion. (I sound like a velociraptor here.)
  • Specialized ‘digestion’ tools: RSS reader, familiar ‘planets’ like Indienews and Indieweb.xyz.
  • Specialized ‘discovery’ tools: search engines, crawlers, directories.
    • Do I use my feeds as a starting point? Search engines and crawlers could begin there. “Here is a big list of newly discovered items among the places you frequent.”
    • It’s also very important to get outside that. My instincts say that this is the place for ingenuity, following random epiphanies and trying unknown tools and networks, to see what shakes out.
    • Encouraging the development of directories. Once a new directory emerges, there is suddenly an expansion in reach for ‘discovery’.
  • ‘Blogs’/‘wikis’ are a good tool for both, because they network the discovery and digestion process. This is already collaborative.
    • How does this improve in 2019? Well, for now, by using a hybrid blog and wiki—to combine the reverse chronological order of a blog with the information storehouse of a wiki. (Hypertexting)
    • Right now there are stark lines between text, audio and video. Do the lines blur somewhere? I’m far from knowing how this media comes into play.

Of course, there are people everywhere and I could spend all day on Instagram. But I find that unsatisfying—I hate scrolling news feeds. These are not ‘small tech’—perhaps the interface might be, but the algorithm and the network is not. I wonder to what extent the corpypastas (or CorpASAs) limit the infostrat.

Social Distance

My father:
Conversation is a sacrament.

Ton:
My filtering is not a stand alone thing in isolation, it is part of a network of filters, yours, mine, and other people’s. My output is based on filtered input, and that output ends up in other people’s filtered input. I treat blogging as thinking out loud and extending/building on other’s blogposts as conversation. Conversations that are distributed over multiple websites and over time, distributed conversations.

h0p3:
Hyperconversation. It’s more than the usual penpalling.

The core of Ton’s infostrat is ‘social distance’—in a way, how deeply nested into conversation are you with this person?

I know many people, some very well, others less so, or I only know what you’ve shared on your site recently and we haven’t met at all. The social distance I perceive between me and you is part of the context of filtering. This is an otherwise unspecified mix of personal, professional, and other aspects that I am aware of with others.

In my RSS reader, I use a weight called ‘importance’: do I read this person daily? Weekly? Do I need be notified the minute they have something new? And my reader simply shows an overview—I actually have to go to the blog to digest. This ‘importance’ is a misnomer, though—I think ‘social distance’ is a better term.

Conversations prove out and strengthen the signal. They are also generators of source material and topics that line the conversation. (I may not necessarily converse with someone—I may just admire their art or writings, which all might become important.)[5]

This means that where I source information can’t be of the ‘news’ type, stuff that pretends it is neutral. Neutral isn’t useful in a filter. Commented, interpreted, augmented material is useful in a filter, as it adds context that help determine its information value. I source information from individuals as a result.

I’m not sure what to think about this. “Neutral isn’t useful.” What about Wikipedia? What about neighborhood events? These all feel like they can help—act as discovery points even.

Is the problem that ‘news’ doesn’t have an apparent aim? Like an algorithm’s workings can be inscrutable, perhaps the motives of a ‘neutral’ source are in question? There is the thought that nothing is neutral. I don’t know what to think or believe on this topic. I tend to think that there is an axis where neutral is good and another axis where neutral is immoral…

Who you are as a person is an essential piece of context in how to judge information. If you’re walking on the street and a random stranger asks to have a coffee, you interpret it very differently from when your partner walking next to you asks you the same thing. We are all walking information filters, our brains are very well used to doing that. So what I know socially about you helps me interpret what you share, as it will be coloured by who you are. Let’s call this social filtering.

Knowing people is tricky. You can know someone really well at work for a decade, then you visit their home and realize how little you really know them. This is worse on the Web because we are so much more concealed. On the other hand, you can meet someone and instantly grasp a huge part of their ‘self’.

I wonder if ‘knowing someone’ drives ‘social distance’—or if ‘desire to know someone’ defines ‘social distance’. How can we know Banksy? Is there a conversation there? What defines my social distance from @alienmelon or The World (a favorite band)? Maybe it’s worse than I thought—just a momentary, fragile vein of interest…

(I think about They Might Be Giants, which was such an important band to me as a teenager—and to all my friends as teenagers. But no one in that group would listen to them today. Today is for other things. Some say they haven’t aged well or that they are just for children. And I struggle to find any part of me that would want to listen to them again. But those arguments never stop us from listening to other things—perhaps there is a sensible, evolutionary argument for why these types of people go away for us—like we periodically need to clear space for new people. This ‘interest’ in some ways a social fabric type thing: zeitgeist, (‘spirit of the times’), this mood that effects all of us and acts as a superfilter on the culture—such that we can all agree that Holmes & Watson was a bad film.)

So we all live on this giant graph paper and we all have coordinates in different places—and when I look at h0p3 and I on the graph, we are way across from each other. Except the labels are all Socialist, Mormon, Aesthete, Atheist, Pluralist, Hikikomori, Cynic, Taco Bell Enthusiasm Levels, etc. When we turn the paper over to the Pleonasmic Rating, we’re right there, side-by-side, and the zeitgeist is well away.

So I think it’s instinctual. If you feel a closeness, it’s there. It’s more about cultivating that closeness. I just need to listen to some They Might Be Giants, as a thankyou for an old, forgotten closeness.


  1. No, I haven't read Ton's entire blog, but I've read everything under the tags that seemed relevant. It's very enlightening stuff! It is very focused on just being a human who is attempting to communicate with other humans---that's it really. ↩︎

  2. I would also like to suggest that it is much more difficult to control myself---in the Nike sense---than it is to control my environment to control me. (A simple example would be: setting an alarm clock.) So 'tools' can be an external actor on my own behalf, towards myself! ↩︎

  3. I can't help but feel that this is all motivated by an urgency that death has brought on. I have had seven people close to me die before middle age---three of them under the age of 10. My time and yours is small. I avidly read the wiki of luxb0x (a child) both because I fear losing him and because it is a gift for him to ACTUALLY BE ALIVE! At the same time that I am! ↩︎

  4. "Tools Valuable On Their Own, More Valuable When Connected" by, again, Ton. ↩︎

  5. Also interesting to think that the limitations of social networks hinder all of this---I personally can't have a conversation like this on Instagram or Facebook, because the network is inflexible or because it's unknown where my notes will end up in the feed. Imagine this steno trying to exist anywhere like that---though it would probably be fine on Reddit, I'm not sure. ↩︎

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