I’ve just added a new section to my site: Comments written on other sites. Every time I post a comment on another site I’ll make a copy here. It’s already stocked up with every comment I’ve made on other sites since July 2004.
I haven’t done this because I have an over-inflated sense of my importance and believe every word I type should be saved for posterity.1 It’s more that I’m trying to slowly push this site toward an example of what I think a personal website should be these days: an aggregation of all a person’s online activity.
Once upon a time home pages were little more than static lists of your favourite things or photos of your cat. Maybe you went as far as linking to other stuff on the web, a behaviour that gradually evolved into weblogging. But for some time there still wasn’t much distributed personal activity that could be aggregated.
These days, of course, many of us are generating much more activity online but it’s spread increasingly thinly among many third-party websites. I eventually want my site to be a single collection of everything I do online in public. So far, aside from the writing that only happens here, I also aggregate links posted to Delicious, display my most recent Flickr photos, include posts from my other site, and feature my most recent Twitter. (And when Twitter fix their API I’ll archive all my Twitters here.) Aggregating offline, real world, activity such as my reading and music listening is a bonus.
There are tools to help us do this aggregation. For example, there’s Sweetcron or Movable Type’s Action Streams or FriendFeed. One problem with these, for me, is that they’re too mechanical. They treat every item as equal, whether it’s favouriting a YouTube video, Twittering a thought, posting a photo to Flickr, or writing a long essay.
Some people love this kind of aggregation. Good for them. I, however, am human and my eyes glaze over when trying to comprehend a chronological stream of equally-weighted events, a format only robots could love. This is rubbish. (Examples: Sweetcron, Action Streams, FriendFeed.)
There must be better ways of showing such “here’s what I’m up to” information. My home page isn’t the answer; the bulk of it uses an overgrown weblog format and suffers from using identical treatments for different kinds of content. But I have started to make it more human friendly. For example, if I post dozens of photos to Flickr in a day only a few appear on the site, with a link to see the rest, rather than swamp the page. And Twitters, whose value decreases rapidly with time (unlike longer essays), aren’t part of this chronological stream. But it needs, and will get, bigger changes.
However, this “here’s all the recent stuff” format isn’t the only way to aggregate things. For nearly four years I’ve been using my own “on this day” aggregation. For example, the sidebar next to this piece of writing shows Flickr pictures from the same day, a comment I posted on another site, what I was reading that day, and what music I listened to that week. This page of aggregated Delicious links is another example. Some day I’ll add the day’s Twitters and other events.
Another reason to aggregate everything as completely as possible — ie, saving the text of a comment on a friend’s site, rather than only a link to it — is that I want to physically own my own words (and pictures and…). We’re dispersing our activity around a vast number of Web 2.0 services, some of which will inevitably go bust, merge with others, lose data, stop being free, etc. I want to think further ahead and keep a record of what I’m doing and saying now that I will still be able to access in decades time.
How to provide all this accumulated information to others is another problem. I occasionally read people complaining about information overload from friends. We’re doing so much and trying to tell everyone about everything. My attempt at doing things right so far amounts to providing separate RSS feeds for each of the main kinds of data I’m aggregating, plus a single combined feed of everything together. There are probably even more flexible solutions. Be a good friend and let people choose how much of you they want to read.
I’m not saying “I’m doing everything right, all other solutions are useless”. I have a long way to go before the at-a-glance “what’s Phil up to” dashboard is as good as it could be.
And I’m not saying “you too should spend days writing code and wrestling with content management systems to do the same”. Hopefully this kind of aggregation will become easy enough that everyone can do it by default. But, so far, other mechanical aggregation solutions aren’t designed for humans.
- In fact, while putting this archive of my comments together I realised how repetitive and disagreeable I can sound. One person’s helpful correction is another’s overly superior put-down. One person’s illuminating story is another’s self-obsessed conversational dead end. ↩