AltPlatform and a conversation about the Open Web

There is a new conversation about the Open Web and it’s called AltPlatform.org.

The Open Web is increasingly important as the major silos online attract more users and become more insular to maintain their dominance. A prominent example of a silo is Facebook and its service ecosystem.

The Open Web stands as an important counterpoint to the siloed Web. In a sense, it’s a lot like the contrast between open source software and proprietary systems. Proprietary services tend to be easier to use, even if they are harmful on the long run.

As important as it is, the Open Web also a largely invisible theme because the vast majority of the Web’s denizens are happy to use siloed services without much thought about the implications of investing so much in them.

The open Web is a “global public resource”

I’ve been a big believer in the Open Web for some time and I was pretty excited to discover that Richard MacManus and a few other writers have launched AltPlatform.org, a non-profit publication focused on the Open Web:

What do we mean by “Open Web”? Firstly, we want to experiment with open source (like this WordPress.org blog) and open standards (like RSS). We’re also using the word open to signify a wider, boundary-less view of the Web. In other words, we want to look for opportunities beyond the Walled Gardens – proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter where you don’t own your own data, you have little control over your news feeds, and you have to live by certain rules.

Our desire to explore the Open Web explains why we’ve created a new blog, rather than simply start a Facebook Page or sign up to Medium. We’re a group blog because we want to create thoughtful, inspiring posts that link liberally to others. We want a proper archive of content, which isn’t possible on Facebook or Medium. We want our feed of content to flow across the Web using RSS. Heck, we might even resurrect trackbacks.

The chances are that the Open Web, as a theme and as a call to action, will have relatively limited appeal to people, generally speaking.

Most people want to share stuff and check their news. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other similar services make this really easy and you don’t need to build a site and maintain it to do that.

Open Web technologies also tend not to pass the “my Mom uses it” test. This is an adoption killer unless you’re sharing with communities who are already using alternative platforms.

Still, the Open Web is worth protecting and talking more about. It’s pretty encouraging to read about how Open Web technologies can be used for the type of sharing we have come to expect in more closed services, even if it requires a bit of tinkering at the moment.

AltPlatform.org looks like an important part of that conversation and I’m pretty excited to participate in that conversation going forward. If this appeals to you too, you should definitely read the Open Web Manifesto:

http://altplatform.org/2017/05/30/open-web-manifesto/

One suggestion I’d make is that MacManus and Co. license their work under a CC license that fosters sharing and reuse. It sort of goes with the territory.

Image credit: Toa Heftiba

6 December is my Social Anniversaries Day

6 December has become my Social Anniversaries Day! This morning I saw a personalized video celebrating my 10th “Faceversary” (the anniversary of me joining Facebook).

In even bigger news, today is also the 12th anniversary of this blog. I published my first post titled “In the beginning …” on 6 December 2004. At the time this blog was called “Wired Gecko” and it has been through several iterations and used various domain names since then.

In the beginning …

Excluding this post, I have published 3 910 blog posts and have 8 567 comments so far.

Blog status as of 2016-12-06
Milestones

The next major release of WordPress, version 4.7, is also due to launched today too. I’m sure Automattic wasn’t thinking about me when the release date was planned but it’s a nice synchronicity nevertheless.

I’ve been thinking about my blogging again lately. I haven’t always been particularly consistent with how much and when I write but I have been expressing myself through my writing in one medium or another for almost 25 years.

You’re miserable because you’re not writing

I write for many reasons. Sometimes, as I explained in my post titled “You’re miserable because you’re not writing”, I write “because it unblocks the dam of emotion that has built up”. Mostly, I write because I have a strong compulsion to share ideas and interesting things.

"Writing, to me, is the meaning of life"

The more I write, the more I learn and, soon enough, “that all gives way to a wonderful flow that you don’t want to stop so you keep writing to keep the pipes clear and fresh water flowing”.

I write a lot about writing because it is so much a part of how I express myself. My other big outlet is my photography and I tend to swing between writing-intensive and photography-intensive phases. Occasionally, like the last week or so, I am somewhat balanced between the two.

It’s a flow. It comes and goes. That is the nature of my writing and photography. Hopefully I will discover how to bring the two together in the year ahead. I have a feeling that achieving that will uplift both passions and create new opportunities for me.

Here are some of my thoughts on this blog’s 10th anniversary. I think they remain as relevant today as they did two years ago:

This blog began its life under a different domain on 6 December 2004. It has survived in one form or another until now, thanks and no thanks to me. I started my blog after tinkering with blogging back in the primordial days of the social Web when blogging was the New Thing, after interactive fora. Keeping a blog alive for 10 years feels like an achievement. Having 3 527 blog posts under my metaphorical belt (not counting this one) feels like I have made a meaningful contribution towards documenting my life and the things that interest me. It is something worth commemorating.

Image credit: Pixabay

The Web is still important for writing

I clicked on a link to a 2014 post by Matt Mullenweg titled “Why the Web Still Matters for Writing” after I scanned through another recent post and I thought I’d reshare it here:

Why the Web Still Matters for Writing

I especially like this quote:

But the web is like water: it fills in all the gaps between things like gaming and social with exactly what any one particular user wants. And while we all might have a use for Facebook – simply because everyone is there – we all have different things that interest us when it comes to reading.

I have this recurring thought that the Web is a wonderful platform for writing and publishing and, if we weren’t all so caught up in various models of control, we may be more open to publishing more stuff to the Web, natively. It just makes so much sense to me as an open and flexible platform (and one of the motivations for my newest project). It’s also why I love the idea of authors publishing books online as well as in the usual digital and print formats.

A great example of an author who has done this (and possibly for similar reasons) is Jeff Jarvis who decided to publish his latest book, Geeks Bearing Gifts, on Medium in stages.

While I’m on this topic, here is another gem I found on Mullenweg’s blog titled “On Syndication and Rolling Your Own“. It goes all the way back to 2003, those early days of blogging:

On Syndication and Rolling Your Own

Remember that this was before Facebook, Twitter and much of the social Web we have today. It was also a couple months before WordPress was first released.

Image credit: Foundry from Pixabay, released under a CC0 Dedication

Are blog-centric status updates feasible yet?

Just thinking about the story on The Guardian about protecting the open Web that I linked to earlier, I’m curious what a blog-centric status update model would look like?

I have a couple IndieWeb plugins installed on this blog which bring actions like Twitter likes, retweets and (theoretically) Facebook likes and comments back here. I haven’t seen Facebook actions replicated here but the idea is interesting. It opens the possibility to that whole distributed social Web model IndieWeb strives for but using a WordPress blog like this one.

Should professional websites have blogs?

My primary business is my digital risk consulting business and its website has a blog along with static pages about me, my services as related themes. I have maintained a blog on my professional sites for about 9 years, it just seemed like the right way to set up a professional site. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering whether I should separate my blog from the static site?

Sam Glover wrote a post titled “Get Your Law Blog Off Your Law Firm Website” on Lawyerist a while ago and I pulled it out of my Instapaper archives to read again. Glover makes an argument for why professionals, particularly lawyers, should maintain a separate blog because it’s function is different.

Blogging is long-game marketing. When you have a well-read blog, you earn your own media every time you post something. You don’t need to wait around for the local news to call you for your analysis of the latest celebrity divorce or corporate bankruptcy (although if you have a good blog, they probably will); you can just publish it yourself.

But in order to build that audience, your blog is better off on its own website, with its own look and feel. Your blog should appear to be (and actually be) a publication, not a law firm’s marketing website.

The basic idea is that people visit law firm websites when they are looking for a lawyer and only stay on the site long enough to assess whether the firm can help them out. On the other hand, people who find a professional blog they find informative keep returning for more content, not necessarily because they Google’d something they need help with.

That makes some sense to me although I have maintained a blog on my business sites because my thinking was that having a blog there keeps the site dynamic (assuming I publish regularly) and that keeps Google and other search engines interested. Perhaps my thinking is dated and/or no longer valid?

Is a blog on a professional website an attempt to mix oil and water, metaphorically speaking? Does that model hinder both from being more effective on their own?

If it is better to separate the two, I’m tempted to merge the WTL blog into this one. On the one hand, doing this enables me to write more fluidly and focus my writing on one blog and, on the other hand, keeping a focused blog maintains the niche I created and better serves readers who are only interested in that content.

I’m sure this stuff used to be simpler back in the day when blogging was still new. Any thoughts?

Blog migration, destruction and recovery in 873 easy steps

This is a story of momentary triumph, devastation and recovery. It was a collaborative effort but the real hero is Nathan Jeffery who you can read more about at the end of this post (so please keep reading).

I had two sites a few days ago which I decided to merge into one. The one site was a portfolio site at one of my domains and the other was my long standing blog (this one, more or less). I initially thought it would be a good idea to have a standalone portfolio site, distinct from my blog and other sites but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to rather combine it with my personal blog and create a single personal site with an expanded portfolio section and the blog posts.

I also decided to move my personal site from my pauljacobson.org domain to this one. A .org domain is more for NGOs than people but it was available at the time and seemed to work. I found a WordPress Codex article titled “Moving WordPress” which describes how to move your WordPress site from one domain to another with options for moving on the same server (which I was doing) and across servers.

The instructions are a little technical but I followed them (mostly) and was able to move my blog to this domain fairly easily. It worked well but I forgot to do a couple things with the old site to facilitate an easy transition across to the new domain. The portfolio site was a couple pages so I just exported the pages from that site and imported them into the new site and I had a working site by midnight on Saturday night.

On Sunday morning I decided to uninstall the old site’s WordPress installation through the Hostgator backend and even though the wp-config file in the old directory that contains database details was modified to a different database, the old site’s configuration seemed to maintain a link to the database the new site was using. The way I moved the site, both the new site at this domain and the old site at pauljacobson.org were sharing a database. When I uninstalled the pauljacobson.org WordPress installation, I deleted that database and not only undid all my work the night before but also lost the only coherent version of my blog.

My only thought for about an hour isn’t fit for publication. To make matters worse, I didn’t think to backup my site or the underlying databases and Hostgator doesn’t automate backups unless you configure that somehow.

What I did do was export the WordPress XML file from within WordPress and I had similar export files from 2013, 2010 and a little earlier. Unfortunately when I imported the export files I had, I found that a lot of very old posts suddenly had publication dates for when I did the import, in other words for Sunday. That didn’t work at all for me. There were too many posts to go back and manually edit the dates.

Fortunately, I had started chatting to Nathan Jeffery about the migration (we chat now and then about technical stuff) and he was helping me redirect the pauljacobson.org site to this one using edits to my .htaccess file (don’t worry if that means nothing to you, it isn’t really relevant to the story).

So, on Sunday morning I messaged him with what began a very long process of recovery:

Right, everything was working pretty well (the redirect hadn’t kicked in yet) and then I deleted the old WP installation and it too the database my new site was relying on with it

I at least had the foresight to download a version of a database I was working with for the migration but, when I tried to import that into a new database for the new, gutted site, I received errors from phpMyAdmin:

mySQL errors in phpMyAdmin
mySQL errors in phpMyAdmin

Nathan then began the process of saving my site. I sent him the SQL database and he did some magic to it and returned a database which phpMyAdmin rejected, for a different reason:

#1064 – You have an error in your SQL syntax; check the manual that corresponds to your MySQL server version for the right syntax to use near ‘<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w’ at line 1

It turned out there was some HTML stuff at the end of the SQL file which Nathan removed and we uploaded to phpMyAdmin and it accepted it. Two things happened at this stage:

  1. I only added about a third of my blog’s original posts; and
  2. I didn’t have a user in the database and couldn’t login (the database has sets of entries for posts, comments, users and for some plugins and the database we uploaded didn’t have user details for some reason).

I exported user info from another database I had on the server and that gave me access to the site’s admin section. At this point the site was up but I didn’t have most of my blog posts, just a couple WordPress XML export files that didn’t work properly because the publication dates for a lot of the old posts were changed to yesterday’s date (when I imported the file).

I used an old WordPress XML file to add posts up to 2011 and then started working on the date issue in those old posts. Nathan involved one of his coders in the problem and I spoke to Adii Pienaar (one of SA’s top WordPress people who founded WooThemes). He thought it may be a server issue so I opened a support ticket with Hostgator. I only received a response from Hostgator this morning (about a day later) which may be helpful to someone else who encounters a similar issue:

Thank you for contacting Hostgator support and I apologize for any delay in addressing your request. I see you are needing to restore a database on your account. In future we would suggest submitting restore requests through the form at https://www.hostgator.com/restore so that your request is sent to our restore queue which is prioritized and receives much quicker responses due to the nature of the work involved. We do have a backup of your databases, however we will need to know which database name you are wanting restored so that we can get this taken care of for you. Please note that restoring from our weekly courtesy backups incurs a $15 restore fee which we will require your approval for. I should also mention that the MySQL databases is the only thing we will have a backup of for your account, as your account exceeds the 20GB disk space limit for it to be included in our full home directories backups that are performed each week.

I probably would have paid that if they had come back to me sooner but it doesn’t seem to be useful given what we managed to achieve in the meantime.

Nathan, his coder and I couldn’t work out what the problem was with the WordPress XML file. I also noticed that my site on Hostgator was experiencing more downtime than usual (I use Monitor in JetPack and receive email notifications when my sites go down). I decided to explore a new host and a few people recommended Media Temple:

I created an account with them to use their “Grid” shared hosting. They had a special going where I could get the first month for $5 instead of $20 so it wasn’t a difficult decision.

It took a little time for me to get used to the Media Temple control panel. I also discovered that my upload limits on Media Temple are lower than Hostgator (20MB versus 64MB) and I had to chat to support to increase a default 2MB upload limit to 20MB but once that was done, I got started on a new test site.

We hit another snag in phpMyAdmin on Media Temple because the file upload limit there is 10MB and my SQL download from the partially recovered site on Hostgator was 17.5MB. The next plan was to focus on the WordPress XML file to restore my site. I used a handy WXR splitter app which Nathan found and split my WordPress export into small chunks and started importing them into the site.

I discovered that when I imported the oldest posts into the new site on Media Temple, I still had that publication date issue so I deleted the test site and started again. I opened the XML file that was giving me a problem and noticed this weird date string in the post metadata of the old posts which weren’t being dated correctly:

This is from the pub date metadata of one of the entries: <pubDate>Wed, 30 Nov -0001 00:00:00 +0000</pubDate>

Notice the -0001 year in the string? Somewhere along the line the dates for those posts were changed to this -0001 year. That seemed to tell WordPress Importer to give those posts the current date and not the correct publication date. I located all the posts with that buggy year and deleted them from the XML file and imported it. That worked but I didn’t have all those posts in the new site.

The posts seemed to be from the early 2000s so I went back to an old XML backup which didn’t have that buggy year and imported that backup. That created some duplication in the posts so I found a plugin that de-duped my blog posts. I imported the pages from my portfolio site and found myself with a complete site (at least from the perspective that all my posts seemed to be in place).

I then exported the XML file for the reconstituted site, deleted the test site and changed my DNS settings for this domain to point to Media Temple’s servers. I had to break up my XML file again using that WXR splitter app and started importing the fragments into a new site which I set up on Media Temple’s servers. The domain registration changes took a little while to propagate and that interfered with the restoration a little but I finally uploaded all of the XML fragments and reconstituted this site.

I used the Velvet Blues url update plugin to change the internal links in this site to the new domain and I’m not checking whether all my attachments and images have made it across from my locally stored backup directory.

I still have work to do behind the scenes to complete the restoration but I have an almost complete site. I learned a couple things in the process:

  • Make regular backups of your databases and your WordPress XML files
  • Prefer hosting services that automate the backup process for you in case you forget or (like me) don’t even think about it
  • Persistence is essential for this sort of thing, there is usually a fix, you just have to find it
  • I know a lot more about WordPress, databases and XML files than I did a couple days ago

The hero in all of this is Nathan. I was just chatting to him about my site’s migration and he just started pitching in late Saturday night. I don’t know many people who work as hard as he does (I think he sleeps, I’m just not sure when) and he still steps in to help me when I hit a snag. As snags go, this was one of my most spectacular DIY (Destroy It Yourself) efforts and he was with me the whole way, messaging me with suggestions, feedback and uploading modified versions of my databases and XML files. If it wasn’t for Nathan, I may have given up on my site as lost. Instead, I have a site which seems to be complete and turns 10 in December (here is my first post). He is very modest but, holy cow, he helped me out of a spectacular mess.

Here is more information about Nathan:

If Nathan can help me with this in his spare time (granted, very limited spare time), imagine what he can do for your company when he is totally focused and has his team with him. In case you are wondering, this isn’t a paid or bartered plug. Nathan selflessly stepped in and helped me out in a big way. That should tell you a lot about him, his integrity and dedication and why you should talk to him when you need work done. I am enormously grateful.

Something else I was thinking about throughout this process is that all this effort we put into restoring this site merits much more attention to my blogging going forward. I’ve been a writer since I was at school and its always been something I love doing. I intend doing more of it more regularly, barring more DIY experiments …

This site is now powered by Squarespace

Update: The site subsequently returned to WordPress. 🙂

After an aborted attempt to migrate this site from its WordPress home of many years over the weekend, I completed the migration to Squarespace yesterday. I really like Squarespace as a platform and while WordPress worked just fine for years I felt it was time for a change and to consolidate my various blogs. My plan now is to post the stuff I would otherwise have posted to my Tumblr blog to this site too and to use this site as my canonical hub on the Web down the line.

I noticed that while the site looks awesome in Chrome, Firefox doesn’t seem to like the theme or stylesheets all that much. Here is what the site looks like in Chrome:

Paul Jacobson's Hub - Chrome screenshot

And this is what it looks like in Firefox 9 beta:

Paul Jacobson's Hub - Firefox 9 screenshot

The new site feels a lot snappier to me and its apparently incredibly difficult to bring a Squarespace site down so this site should be a lot more stable and responsive than its previous version.

All about the traffic?

I’ve been a little obsessed about my blogs’ traffic for a while now and lately I have found myself wondering why. Sure blog traffic is important if you want to make some money off your blog because it is all a numbers game. It didn’t help when I was told that the stats I have been relying on are probably not the important stats from an advertising perspective and the 200 000 page views (give or take) are not nearly as important as my humble 21 000 unique visitors last month (which doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as the page views for the month). So I started to reconsider what is important to me when it comes to my blogs, particularly the blogs that have even less traffic than this blog and it occurred to me that while the traffic is great (when I have a lot of it and get a cheque from Google), I blog because I enjoy writing and talking about stuff.

I am probably not going to be able to retire on my blogs for a long time (ok, probably never) and with all the new blogs starting up, the first mover advantage sailed long before I started blogging that exciting day in December 2004 so I am probably far better off just focussing on my writing. That is the important stuff, isn’t it?

I came across a post by Seth Godin where he talks about this emphasis on stats and how too strong a focus on traffic distracts us from the real reason why we blog in the first place. After all, if it was all about the traffic then I may as well spend the time it takes to put out a decent post setting up multiple link blogs and begging for links from other bloggers. But it isn’t really about the traffic for me. Sure I am ecstatic to have loads of people (all of you) reading what I write and letting me know what they/you think (and I’d love to have more of you dropping by) but you are more than just numbers to me so I write for you and for me.

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