back to the blog with MarsEdit

As I’ve noted several times over the years, I do almost all my writing in a text editor, BBEdit. But when I write a blog post in BBEdit, the process of getting it onto the blog is not as straightforward as it might be. I write a post in Markdown, convert it to HTML, and copy it to my clipboard. Then I open a browser tab for the relevant blog/blogging platform — WordPress for my personal blogs, Blogger for this one — paste in the text, add some tags, and hit Publish. 
I can do all this very quickly, and save a step or two with Keyboard Maestro, but even so it’s not ideal. The estimable Dr. Drang has written some scripts to post directly from BBEdit to WordPress, but I lack the skills to make those work for me, and I can’t even imagine having the skills to write an equivalent script for Blogger. So… 
I’ve owned Daniel Jalkut’s blogging app MarsEdit for a long time, but just recently have dedicated myself to using it every day — and it’s great, a marvelous piece of software. You can write in rich text, HTML, or Markdown (the last slightly awkwardly, but it works) — it even lets me edit a post in BBEdit if I want. MarsEdit offers very convenient options for pasting in links, and also serves, if you wish to download your previous posts, as a backup for your blog. 
For me, one of the most useful features of MarsEdit is the ability to draft a post in any of my blogs and then with a dropdown menu change it to a different blog (this feature aids in cross-posting also). 
When I’m done drafting and adding tags, I click “Send to Blog” and it uploads flawlessly, every time. 
MarsEdit has been around a long time, and I hope will be around for a long time to come. Frustration with most of the dominant social media platforms has led to a mini-revival of blogging, which I hope will become a full-scale revival. Austin Kleon has been blogging daily for several months now; Dan Cohen has gone “back to the blog”; Gordon White recently wrote, “Last night, sitting by the outdoor fire, drinking and ranting into a wordpress window as in the days of yore was joyous.” The great Warren Ellis has noticed: “My RSS reader is starting to get nicely repopulated, and the more people who notice this, the better the world gets.” 
Let’s do this thing. Let’s bring back the blog. And if you have a Mac and want to make blogging as simple and seamless as possible, use MarsEdit

some friendly advice about online writing and reading

Dennis Cooper, a writer and artist, is a pretty unsavory character, so in an ideal world I wouldn’t choose him as a poster boy for the point I want to make, but … recently Google deleted his account, and along with it, 14 years of blog posts. And they are quite within their rights to do so.

People, if you blog, no matter on what platform, do not write in the online CMS that your platform provides. Instead, write in a text editor or, if you absolutely must, a word processing app, save it to your very own hard drive, and then copy and paste into the CMS. Yes, it’s an extra step. It’s also absolutely worth it, because it means you always have a plain-text backup of your blog posts.

You should of course then back up your hard drive in at least two different ways (I have an external drive and Dropbox).

Why write in a text editor instead of a word processing app? Because when you copy from the latter, especially MS Word, you tend to pick up a lot of unnecessary formatting cruft that can make your blog post look different than you want it to. I write in BBEdit using Markdown, and converting from Markdown to HTML yields exceptionally clean copy. If you’d like to try it without installing scripts, you can write a little Markdown and convert it to HTML by using this web dingus — there are several others like it.

While I’m giving advice about writing on the web, why not some about reading as well? Too many people rely on social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter to get their news, which means that what they get is unpredictably variable, depending on what other people link to and how Facebook happens to be tweaking its algorithms on any given day. Apple News is similarly uncertain. And I fundamentally dislike the idea of reading what other people, especially other people who work for mega-corporations, want me to see.

Try using an RSS reader instead. RSS remains the foundation of the open web, and the overwhelming majority of useful websites have RSS feeds. There are several web-based RSS readers out there — I think the best are Feedly and Newsblur — and when you build up a roster of sites you profit from reading, you can export that roster as an OPML file and use it with a different service. And if you don’t like those web interfaces you can get a feed-reading app that works with those (and other) services: I’m a big fan of Reeder, though my introduction to RSS was NewNewsWire, which I started using when it was little more than a gleam in Brent Simmons’s eye.

So, the upshot: in online writing and reading alike, look for independence and sustainability. Your life will be better for it.

Noah Millman is very smart about blogging

Here:

I started blogging in 2002, hanging out my own shingle on blogspot. I
did it primarily as a belated response to the trauma of 9-11: I had
been emailing news items to a variety of friends and family with an
obsessiveness that nearly deserved a DSM number, and one of them finally
told me I should stop emailing him and start a blog if I felt compelled
to tell everyone what I thought. So, against my wife’s explicit
instructions, I did.

And I loved it, right from the get-go. The thrill of instant response
to what I said was a perfect fit for my latent writerly ambitions for
recognition and my Wall Streeter’s inherent attention deficits. I would
write, I would press “publish,” and someone out there would respond.

But that response wasn’t merely gratifying or instructive; it shaped
what I wrote, shaped the persona (a better word than “self”) that I was
developing on-line. My style, my subject matter, my politics, my sense
of who I was and was meant to be evolved in part based on what got
positive reinforcement and what didn’t, even though I wasn’t being paid
anything at all. A gift economy is still an economy, and there’s nothing
particularly pure about non-commercial social discourse. “No man but a
blockhead ever wrote except for money” – so said Sam Johnson, but in
fact the truer statement is that no man but a blockhead ever tried to
earn money by writing. When it comes to money, Willy Sutton had a much
better understanding. So all of us writers, whatever our medium, write
out of some other compulsion than to earn a living. And to the extent
that that compulsion has something to do with having readers, we have to
watch the progress of our addiction, how it is changing us.

“A gift economy is still an economy,” and the blogosphere may not even be that. The networks of exchange are complex and still imperfectly understood.  

curators and imitators

You know what annoys me? Well, actually, that would be a long list. You know one thing that annoys me? The way some people on the internet use the word “curator.” People find cool stuff online and put links to that cool stuff on their website, and they say that they’re “curating” the internet. When Jorn Barger invented that kind of thing he was content to call it a weblog — a record or “log” of interesting stuff he found online.

Now, one might argue that the weblog or blog has changed its character since Barger invented it: instead of logging cool things found online, it primarily logs a writer’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences (often about stuff found online). So maybe a new name is needed for the “logging” kind of site?

Maybe. But can we try for something a little less pretentious than “curator”? In the usual modern senses of the word, a curator (who often works for a museum) has a complex set of responsibilities that can only be carried out well by someone with a good deal of training, taste, experience, and intelligence. A curator plays a role in deciding what a museum will acquire, and once acquisitions have been made, will consider which objects are to be displayed, for how long they will be displayed, and in relation to what other objects they will be displayed. Curators organize objects in space and present them for public scrutiny. They also educate the public in the understanding of those objects, and of the principles of organization employed. Curators also help to care for those objects, to make sure they don’t get damaged or lost. (In ecclesiastical language, the priest who cares for the people of a parish while the rector is away is called a curate.)

Almost none of this is at work when people link to interesting things they have found on the internet. If a person whose website links to other websites is a curator, then a person who walks into the Louvre with a friend and points out the Mona Lisa is also a curator. It seems to me that if we go with that usage we’re losing a worthwhile distinction.

When I first made a comment about this on Twitter recently, I got pushback from my friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and since he’s a very smart guy I have thought about this some more. His concern is that my point is unnecessarily elitist, and I don’t mean for it to be that — and I don’t think it is. It’s just a matter (I hope) of distinguishing among different sorts of online activity.

So I’d suggest this as the beginnings of a taxonomy:

1) The Linker: That’s what most of us are. We just link to things we’re interested in, without any particular agenda or system at work. That’s what my Pinboard page is, just a page of links.

2) The Coolhunter: People who strive to find the unusual, the striking, the amazing — the very, very cool, often within certain topical boundaries, but widely and loosely defined ones. I think Jason Kottke and Maria Popova are exemplary online coolhunters.

3) The Curator: There are some. Not many, but some. The true online curator tends to have a clear and strict focus: he or she doesn’t post just anything that seems cool, but instead is striving to illuminate some particular area of interest. The true curator also finds things that other people can’t find, or can’t easily find, which means either (a) having access to stuff that is not fully public or (b) actually putting stuff online for the first time or (c) having a unique take on public material so that images and ideas get put together that the rest of us would never think to put together. I think Bibliodyssey is a genuinely curated site; also, just because of its highly distinctive sensibility, Things magazine.

Again, I’m not saying that one of these categories is superior to the others. They’re just all different, and the difference is worth noting.

about Tumblr

“This Is Why Your Tumblr’s Down” — because, if I read the piece rightly, David Karp doesn’t want to spend the money to hire more engineers to keep the backend functioning smoothly.

Well, whatever. I started my tumblelog more than four years ago, and for a long time it was a great place for me to store and present quotations and images that caught my attention. At one point I decided to shut it down, but only because I was trying to simplify my online life; I missed posting things to it, and a number of people said they missed my posts, so I resumed.

But then last year the site started to go down more and more frequently. Days would go by without my being able to get to it. In frustration I moved everything over to Posterous, but that required me to spend too much time fiddling with formatting, and the site, while always up, was really slow. Back to Tumblr.

Which meant, back to not knowing whether the site would be up at any given time. Eventually I got tired of the uncertainty and just stopped trying to post to the site. I stopped trying to visit the Dashboard to see what others were posting. I didn’t make a conscious decision to do this; I just stopped bothering. For nearly four years I posted stuff to my tumblelog because I didn’t doubt what would happen if I did so; but when I went through an extended period when I couldn’t guess whether the site would be up or not, it just got to be too much trouble. Instead of posting things to Tumblr or Posterous for everyone to see, I just posted things to Pinboard for me to see. I am reading as much as ever and recording my reading, but I’ve just drifted out of the habit of using Tumblr.

This is what unreliability does: it changes your habits, even if you don’t make a conscious decision to abandon a service.

Bogost on blogs

Here’s a wonderfully thoughtful post by Ian Bogost about the limitations of the blog as an intellectual tool, especially in academic contexts. This is an old theme of mine, so it’s nice to have someone pick up on it. Bogost writes,

Tim Morton is right to call out old forms like books and academic essays, rejoining [“exhorting,” maybe?] them to “figure out what they are about in this new environment.” But the same is true for blogs and other forms of digital writing as well. We’re no more stuck with the awkward tools that are blogs than we are stuck with awkward tools that are journals. . . .

I wonder what a writing and discussion system would look like if it were designed more deliberately for the sorts of complex, ongoing, often heated conversation that now takes place poorly on blogs. This is a question that might apply to subjects far beyond philosophy, of course, but perhaps the philosopher’s native tools would have special properties, features of particular use and native purpose. What if we asked how we want to read and write rather than just making the best of the media we randomly inherit, whether from the nineteenth century or the twenty-first?

I wish these were the sorts of questions so-called digital humanists considered, rather than figuring out how to pay homage to the latest received web app or to build new tools to do the same old work.

This is great stuff. Blogs are very poor tools for fostering genuine intellectual exchange, which is one reason why, increasingly, those exchanges happen for many on Twitter — despite the 140-character-at-a-time limit. We might ask why that is: Why do some many people prefer to exchange ideas on Twitter rather than on blogs? I don’t think it’s just laziness. And then we might ask another question: What might a tool look like that combines the best features of blogging and tweeting, while minimizing the flaws of both instruments?

class blogs

On Twitter this morning I asked for thoughts on how best to run a class blog, and replies are coming in. People are reminding me of Mark Sample’s excellent post on “blog audits,” and are tossing around other ideas too.

When I set up blogs for class I tell students that there are five kinds of participation they can engage in:
    • Offering an interpretation of something we’ve read;
    • Asking a question about something we’ve read;
    • Linking to, quoting from, and responding to online articles or essays about what we’re reading;
    • Providing contextual information — biographical, historical, whatever — about the authors we’re reading and their cultural and intellectual worlds;
    • Commenting on the posts of their fellow students.
    One question I have is whether I should value some of these kinds of post more highly than others, and reward them accordingly. Any thoughts about that? Any other suggestions?

    novelty, once more

    There have been some interesting reflections recently on the advantages and disadvantages of the blog as a medium for literary criticism and reflection: see here, here, and here.

    I have mixed feelings on these points. On the one hand, since blogs tend to be personal, non-professional, and unpaid, they ought to be ideal venues for people to reflect on whatever they happen to be reading, whether it’s brand-new or only new to them — or not even new to them: over at Tor.com there is a long-running blog series on re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which I think I have mentioned before in these pages. I’m pretty sure I’ve also mentioned group reading/blogging projects like Crooked Timber’s Miéville Seminar and the Valve’s Book Events, like the one on Theory’s Empire.
    But there is not nearly enough of this kind of thing online, and I blame, as I have so often blamed in the past, blog architecture itself, with its relentless emphasis on novelty and (relative) brevity. We need to fight against this — I need to fight against it. Why shouldn’t I spend a month blogging my way through a big old book? Maybe someday I will. . . .

    “a colossally elaborate manipulation”

    Tim Burke is one of the most consistently thoughtful bloggers I know — and I’m choosing that word carefully: Burke doesn’t blog very often because he actually takes time to think before posting. The problem with the web, of course — and especially with the world of blogs — is that not many people follow Burke’s example. In a recent post, he gives a good reason why this is so:

    There’s really very little to be said for trying to carry on a conversation (online or otherwise) with people who have nothing but an instrumental view of conversation as a means to their own anti-pluralistic or illiberal ends, who concern-troll every debate in the hopes of getting someone to take the bait. There are a set of writers who work hard every day trying to create a framework where the only right answers can be some kind of dogma, who will never for one passing second acknowledge the legitimacy of evidence which contradicts their own pet doctrines, who are never even momentarily in any danger of being persuaded by any countervailing viewpoint. For these writers, all online discussion is a colossally elaborate manipulation. I spent too much time in developing this blog arguing for an indiscriminate openness to conversation. Pursuing conversation with the comprehensively dishonest is a fool’s errand, and I’ve sometimes been just such a fool.

    This seems exactly right to me. In an environment dominated by “ideological amplification”, very few people have any interest at all in thoughtful conversation, and they are hard to find in the midst of all the shouting.I have thought about this a lot, with no results. I have argued for years that the post-plus-comments model is fundamentally broken — it works fine for a blog with a readership the size of this one, but it simply doesn’t scale — but I can’t for the life of me come up with any alternative to it, except the famous Slashdot karma model, which has the opposite problem: it works only at a very large scale.When I wrote for The American Scene, for a time we had a wonderful community of conversation and debate, but then the comboxes were overwhelmed by trolls and other unhelpful voices, and became unreadable. Sure, I could look for the remaining thoughtful commenters, but only at the cost of having to wade through a great deal of garbage to get to them. Increasingly that came to seem too much trouble; and commenting itself came to seem too much trouble for a number of the people I most valued. If a typical post had three hundred comments instead of thirty, a Slashdot-like system could have filtered out the crap and left me with a reliable body of interesting comments to read; but with just thirty comments, one thoughtless vote can have a disproportionately great effect.I have returned to this topic many times over the past few years, because I can’t find any answer to these problems. The person who figures out a new architecture for online communication that encourages real conversation and filters out the trolls will have performed a great service for humanity. Though of course the trolls are always with us.