A format only robots could love

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.


  1. 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.


  • Phil -

    I find that the best way to remember something for posterity is to tell someone else, who will hopefully repeat it back to me suitably edited or enhanced at some point. And thus a lot of the attempt at writing things down for later is to try to make some sense of things rather than to preserve words in amber.

    I've used systems that I thought were completely ephemeral (Usenet) which turned out to be almost unfailingly thorough in archiving (DejaNews et seq). For all that archiving, which provided something like a complete word-dump of my Internet output 1985-1995, I rarely go searching through it (and sometimes am embarrassed mildly for what I find).

    Reverse chronological format is kind of weird, like telling a story starting at the end and working backwards. It turns the narrative into some funny soup. I'm not sure what to think about that, except to note that I'm often more confident in the long-term ability of my paper notebooks to capture a moment in time.

  • The problem with things like comments on other people's websites, is that they often only make sense in their original context - ie after having read the thing you're commenting on. Of course, you can (and you do) link through to the original post, but it still feels a bit odd. In some ways, the link is all you need...

  • Frankie -- you're right in that it's a bit odd to only store my part of a lengthy conversation. I thought about only storing links to the comments but if I'm doing that then it's not much more trouble to store what I write too. I hope that it might give a bit more context as to the nature of the comment thread, or the aspect of it that interested me. While it's a bit odd I think it's more useful than just the links.

  • But aren't you concerned about the lack of privacy that you and others who are doing this are positively creating for yourself? Of course I understand that the most important parts of your life are not being put on the web but an awful lot is, and will remain there. And presumably if you stood for parliament for whatever group in 20 years time there will be eager researchers trawling back through all this information.

    I'm sure it's a generational thing, or perhaps I'm looking at it from the wrong angle, from one viewpoint this is no more than aggregating the writing of an old-fashioned newspaper columnist but it's so much more than that.

  • Glyn, I completely agree and it's something I think about a lot.

    On the one hand, as you say, I don't put everything online. There are many events and thoughts during the day that, for example, I don't Twitter because I know that strangers, close friends, old friends, people I've only met once, my mum, and people who'll know me in the future will all read it.

    I really think that putting a lot of "stuff" online is bit like being famous. In the same way that a star would manage what the public sees of them we have to be careful about what we let out into the world. It's not a pleasant analogy for me -- all the fake openness associated with such Hollywood behaviour is appalling -- but I think it's a fair one.

    And as for all this still being here in 20 years time... yes, it could cause problems. Hopefully I've learned to be considered enough about what I put into public. For example, I don't want to badmouth people any more than I would to their face and my weblog isn't a diary in which I bare my deepest feelings.

    It has crossed my mind what this could all mean if, say, I went into politics. I'm probably being idealistic but I like to think I could stand by most things I've said online. And if I went into politics I like to think (again, unrealistically probably) that I could be a straight-talking, nothing-to-hide politician who would, you know, answer questions rather than avoid them and just be real. Although it only takes a couple of past slip-ups to surface to scupper a campaign! If it's a problem I'll have to live with that and never become a politician (there are worse restrictions on life!) -- at the moment a lot the lives of myself and my friends are shared semi-publicly online and I'd have to be single-mindedly focused on protecting a hypothetical future career to deny myself taking part in this. That's not the kind of person I want to be.

    I am (and we are) probably lucky in that the internet only came to prominence once we were (reasonably) grown up. I can't imagine the problems future politicians will get into when they've spent their teenage years posting stuff on MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, et al...

  • I think it's quite a natural, human thing to want to treasure our creative output, no matter how big or small it is, but I can't help but feel that it's easier to embrace the ephemeral, and let it all go.

    My concern is that by trying too hard to keep it all together, organised and archived, we're setting ourselves up for disappointment when it slips away, in a house fire, in a dodgy backup, in a mistake.

    So whilst I'd love to be able to hold onto my digital output, archived forever for my grandchildren and beyond to see, I won't try too hard, and hopefully I won't be too disappointed when it's gone.

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Monday 27 October 2008, 11:17pm

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27 Oct 2008 at Twitter

  • 10:01pm: Brrr, wearing my woolly hat indoors. Hello winter.
  • 11:02am: Off to Islington to meet the rest of the cast of a short film, then a couple of hours rehearsal.
  • 9:55am: I think all email is recovered thanks to local copies of IMAP mail and Time Machine. I love Time Machine. Still nervous about it though...

Music listened to most that week

  1. Camera Obscura (11)
  2. The Mountain Goats (10)
  3. Jaga Jazzist (8)
  4. Alton Ellis (8)
  5. Calexico (6)
  6. Joe Bataan (4)
  7. Bec & Beth (4)
  8. Bloc Party (4)
  9. Quickspace (3)
  10. J Mascis (2)

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