Google told me to put this blog on a diet

The screen real estate around these words should look a little neater now–not much thanks to my own editing instincts. Instead, I needed a scolding from Google.

That came from its PageSpeed Insights tool, a page you can use to check the performance of your own site or any other. It’s been around for years, but I didn’t think to use it until after I finally connected this site to Google’s Search Console webmaster tool last May (yes, even though I’ve been blogging here since 2011 and am supposed to be a professional tech journalist) and saw a prompt to try PageSpeed Insights in my results.

The results were not flattering: a mobile performance score of 47 out of 100, with desktop performance better but still subpar at 89. Scrolling down revealed a variety of flaws in this blog, some that I could correct with the limited tools of a free WordPress.com account and some that I could not.

I started with the first obviously fixable thing, image sizes. Google suggested that I convert such frequently-downloaded elements as the background image to “next-gen formats” like WebP or JPEG 2000. But instead of switching to files that Apple’s Safari browser can’t display, I opened the original photo for the background (a view of the Blue Ridge from a bike century ride in 2006) in my Mac’s GraphicConverter app and exported it with a lower image-quality setting that cut its size by a third at no visible cost.

That did not impress PageSpeed–my mobile score actually dropped to 44–so I moved on to the third-party code that Google reported had been getting in the way of my own content. It listed Facebook as a major offender, accounting for 207 milliseconds of delay. Removing the Facebook widget that you formerly saw in the right-hand sidebar boosted my mobile score to 53, with the desktop score essentially unchanged at 87.

(PageSpeed Insights scores fluctuate up and down with each test, so don’t get bent out of shape if yours drops by five for no apparent reason, at least not until you run the test again.)

Then I removed the Facebook and Twitter share buttons and elected to toss all of the share buttons except the tool to e-mail a link to the page. That edged the mobile score up to 58 and pushed the desktop score up to 96.

This pruning got me to look again at all the ads you see around here–and think about how low-rent so many of them are. I turned off the three “additional ad placement” options that had been salting each post with extra banners. That may cut into my ad revenue, but it’s already so thin I’d rather that my professional presence online not look quite so janky.

Having spun myself up fully into Marie Kondo mode, I returned to the sidebar and removed the Twitter widget (PageSpeed Insights had blamed Twitter code for 119 ms of delay) and some non-interactive links that only cluttered that part of the page.

The results of all this effort as calculated by PageSpeed Insights just now: scores of 76 on mobile and 99 on desktop. I hope you notice this blog loading a little quicker–and I trust you appreciate how this exercise has also rid my blog of Facebook’s tracking.

It’s not the most wonderful week of the year

It’s after 7 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, and I wrapped up my workweek and  checked off the last major Christmas chores barely an hour ago. Unfortunately, this is not a departure from my holiday habits.

I’ve never been one of those people who can have all presents purchased and wrapped by a week before Christmas. Every year, the back half of December has me scrambling to find worthy presents for family members until I’m worrying more than I should about Amazon shipping deadlines–or finding that I’ve slipped past the wrong side of them. The joy of the holidays escapes me too easily.

At the same time, the advent of CES–Evil Advent, if you will–and the usual onslaught of PR pitches for exhibitors at that enormous electronics show steadily destroys my ability to focus on my day job. My inability to learn from prior gift-shopping experience seems to be matched by the tech-PR industry’s inability to learn that flooding journalists’ inboxes with repetitive or irrelevant pitches–often coupled with invitations to CES events scheduled in defiance of that show’s schedule and traffic, and often followed by cold calls that are never a good idea—-does not constitute effective outreach.

Being treated as if I have an infinite amount of time to evaluate and respond to CES pitches that themselves assume I’ll have an infinite amount of time in Las Vegas during the show is especially maddening when I’m already feeling strung out by the holidays and struggling to write and file the year’s last stories so I might have a few days around Christmas to do as much of nothing as possible before getting on a plane to Vegas.

It is easy to slip into both workload paralysis and errand paralysis, feeling too overwhelmed to do anything that isn’t due this hour and then feeling lousy for getting so little done. That’s a cruel little cocktail of stress and shame, and I imagine many of you have mixed it for yourselves this month.

The last workweek before Christmas is the worst for this, since at that point there’s almost no time left for the holiday chores and the CES planning and the year’s last crop of stories. Plus, most of the good holiday parties already happened.

All of this stress boiled over Thursday morning, when call from a 646 number I was sure I didn’t want to take set Google Voice ringing on my phone, tablet and desktop. As I cursed at my computer and reached for my phone to dismiss the call, I answered it instead. Oops. There’s a Toyota publicist who probably thinks I’m some unhinged nutcase… which might not be that far off from my frazzled state this time of year.

I’m (still) sorry about the schlock ads here

Yesterday’s announcement of a merger of Taboola and Outbrain–the dreadful duo responsible for those horrible “around the Web” galleries of clickbait ads tarting up many of your favorite news sites–provided yet another reminder of how fundamentally schlocky programmatic ads can get online.

But so did a look at this blog.

When WordPress.com launched WordAds in 2012, the company touted a more tasteful advertising system that bloggers here could be proud of. The reality in the seven years since has been less impressive.

The WordAds program features some respectable, name-brand advertisers like Airbnb and Audible, to name two firms seen here tonight. But it’s also accepted too much tacky crap–including some of the same medically-unsound trash that litters Taboola and Outbrain “chumboxes”–while struggling to block scams like the “forced-redirect” ad in the screenshot at right.

Over the last year, I’ve also been increasingly bothered by the way these ads rely on tracking your activity across the Web. I know that many of you avoid that surveillance by using browsers like Safari or Firefox with tracking-protection features, but I’d just as soon not be part of the privacy problem. Alas, WordPress has yet to offer bloggers the option of running ads that only target context (as in, the posts they accompany), not perceived user behavior as determined by various programmatic systems.

I do make money off these ads, but slowly. Most months, my advertising income here doesn’t exceed $10, and I can’t withdraw any of the proceeds until they exceed $100. I had thought that I’d see one of those paydays last month–but August’s addition to my ad income left me 28 cents shy of that C-note threshold.

So in practice, my major return on WordAds is the opportunity to have my face periodically shoved into the muck of online marketing. That’s worth something, I guess.

What to expect from me on Twitter

A few years ago, the sci-fi author John Scalzi decided to write an explanation of how he uses Twitter, then pinned a tweet linking to that post to his profile so anybody thinking of following him could easily find it. That’s a good idea, so I am stealing it.

Birds want to fly.

What I tweet about: I’ve often used the phrase “public notebook” to describe my tweets–in the sense that I share observations about the things I’m writing about as I learn them. Twitter remains highly useful for that, and for learning about various tech accomplishments and failures as other people report them.

I don’t just stick to tech, though. You will also find me rambling on about politics (writing freelance means I can ignore any stupid newsroom verdicts asking reporters to pretend they don’t think about the issues they cover), food, travel, gardening, space, sports (usually baseball), transportation, architecture, music, and parenting. Yes, there will be dad jokes.

Whom I follow: Most of the nearly 1,000 people I follow have some connection to the tech industry–they’re other tech journalists, analysts, policy advocates or industry executives. I also follow many politicians, in some cases because I think they have notable things to say about tech policy and other cases because I kind of have to (trust me, I’d rather not have Donald Trump’s rants in my timeline). Some companies are in my following list for customer-support purposes, and some friends are there because I like hearing from them. And in one case, I followed a reader by accident after fat-fingering the “follow” button, then decided to let that stand.

Why I might not follow you: While I’ve overcome my early snobbishness about cluttering my timeline with too many people, I’m still not going to follow somebody just because they ask. And “follow me back so I can DM you” is the worst kind of follow-me request. My e-mail address is in my bio for a reason, people!

I use the block button: I still don’t block people all that often, but if somebody is wasting my time with bad-faith arguments, I don’t owe them my attention. And tweeting nutcase conspiracy theories at me–about Seth Rich’s murder, to name the most common–will get you blocked almost immediately.

My DMs aren’t open: Direct messages can be useful as a replacement for text-message banter, but I don’t have my DMs open for everybody for the same reason I don’t invite the world to text me–I don’t need my life to be any more interrupt-driven. So if you were thinking of sending me a PR pitch via DM: My e-mail address is in my bio for a reason.

Retweets might be endorsements: Retweets always mean I want the original tweet to get a wider exposure, but that doesn’t mean I think highly of them. You can be sure that I hate a tweet if I share a screengrab of it to avoid accidentally popularizing that tweet or its author (and I wish more of you would do that instead of having Twitter’s algorithm think some idiot’s output deserves broader publicity). If, however, I retweet without adding any commentary, I probably do approve of that message.

Other notes: I’m frequently sarcastic, which can go over poorly in a medium that destroys context. I often live-tweet events like tech conferences, which can make my feed really busy. I have almost never done any live video on Twitter but probably should. And because I am a sci-fi nerd, my proudest moment on Twitter just might be getting retweeted by Mark Hamill.

AirDrop apologists have some opinions

Who knew suggesting that an Apple interface enabled undesirable outcomes and ought to be changed would be so controversial? Me–I’ve been critiquing Apple’s products since before the company was doooomed in 1996.

But even so, the level of enraged techsplaining that greeted last weekend’s Yahoo post about AirDrop file-sharing has been something else. To recap that briefly: While AirDrop’s default contacts-only setting is safe, accepting a file transfer from somebody not in your contacts requires setting it to “Everyone”–a setting that does not time out but does automatically display a preview of the incoming image. The predictable result: creeps spamming strangers who had set AirDrop to Everyone and then forgot to change it back, and by “spamming” I mean “sending dick pics from iPhones with anonymous names.”

AirDrop settings screen on an iPhone.(For more details, see my Aug. 2017 USA Today column or this Dec. 4 post from the security firm Sophos.)

Suggesting that Apple have the Everyone setting time out or not auto-preview images did not go over well the people–most apparently men–who filled the replies to my tweet Sunday sharing the post. Let me sum up the major points these individuals vainly attempted to make, as seen in quotes from their tweets:

“It’s contacts only by default.” Yes, and if nobody ever interacted with people who weren’t in their contacts and offered to use this handy feature to share in a file, you would have a point. As is, this request comes up all the time–my wife saw it from Apple Store employees–as I explained in the post that these techbros apparently did not finish reading.

“Still trying to make a big deal of something I’ve never experienced.” Thank you, sir, for proving my exact point about the problems of having development teams dominated by white men. As writing about “Gamergate” made obvious, things are often different for the rest of humanity, and “I don’t have this problem” is not a valid defense of a social feature without confirmation from people outside your demographic background. Sorry if asking you to acknowledge your privilege is so triggering, by which I mean I’m not sorry.

“At some point, you have to take some goddamn responsibility.” Ah yes, the old blame-the-customer instinct. I hope the multiple people who expressed some version of “why are you coddling people too dumb to turn Everything off” don’t and never will work in any customer-facing role.

“you don’t have to accept every airdrop item that comes in.” What part of “automatically display a preview” don’t you understand?

“What I don’t understand is why these creeps aren’t reported by the receivers to authorities.” What part of “iPhones with anonymous names” don’t you understand? And before you next resort to victim blaming like this, you should really read up on the relevant history.

“There are far worse UX issues in iOS if that is what you are concerned about.” News flash, whataboutists: I write about problems in the tech industry all the time. Stick around and you’ll see me take a whack at a company besides your sainted Apple.

And that brings me to the annoying subtext beneath all these aggrieved responses: The notion that questioning Apple’s design choice is an unreasonable stretch, so we should look anywhere else for solutions to what even most of my correspondents agreed was a problem. Well, if that’s your attitude, turn in your capitalist card: You’re not a customer, you’re a supplicant. And I don’t have to take your opinion here seriously.

Should I be on Patreon?

I’m not a millennial and I don’t have any tattoos or piercings, so I would appear to be wildly ineligible for Patreon.

Yet I’m still curious about using that crowdfunding site to give people a chance to underwrite my work if they feel so inspired. I can’t tell if that is me being entrepreneurial or vain, so I’m writing this post to try to untangle my thoughts.

I first encountered Patreon when founder Jack Conte gave an exuberant presentation on the site’s backstory at 2013’s XOXO conference. (His talk rambles a bit–which is fine if you enjoy dancing robots–but overall merits 24 minutes of your time.) I decided that letting fans pledge as little as a dollar or two a month to indie creatives was a smart response to declining ad rates and the overall horribleness of the content industry. And then I thought little more about that concept until I started seeing more people and sites I know pop up on Patreon.

You can sum up the Patreon proposition as “Kickstarter over time.” Instead of asking for support for a particular project, creators invite fans to kick in a defined sum each month to support their ongoing efforts–and can also offer extra rewards for contributions above a certain level.

For example, my friend Glenn Fleishman‘s typographic-centric pitch includes exclusive or early access to his articles, science-minded podcaster Rose Eveleth offers a patrons-only newsletter, and the Arlington news site ARLNow.com touts a private Facebook group for more-generous contributors.

After conversations with a few Patreon fans at XOXO this September, I e-mailed Glenn to ask how that was working for him.

His two bits of advice: Find something you can provide to Patreon contributors that they couldn’t get elsewhere, and show what their support lets you do that you couldn’t accomplish otherwise.

I think I have a good answer for that first item: my time. As most people who have e-mailed me can attest, getting my attention when I’m constantly changing channels between stories and clients is… problematic. If I could offer something like a private Slack group or some other closed forum, I’d like to think that would appeal to people who miss the Web chats I did at the Post. (I miss them too.)

The second thing, though, is harder to answer. I think I do a decent job of selling enough stories from each out-of-town event to cover my travel costs… although conferences like the Online News Association’s annual gathering routinely defy my attempts to monetize them. Would that be enough of a what-you-helped-me-do story?

My other concerns: I wouldn’t have enough time to tend a Patreon page (note that I’m typing this near 10 p.m. on a Saturday); nobody would support it; worst of all, nobody would support it, and outsiders would then point and laugh.

At the same time, I like the idea of generating another stream of income, even if it only underwrites one trip a year. Getting acquainted with the inside of a crowdfunding platform seems like an overdue to-do item for me. And the last few months have made me increasingly uneasy about relying on my Facebook page for occupational banter with readers.

Having spent this much time musing about crowdfunding, I might as well crowdsource part of this decision. Please take the poll below, and if you have suggestions for what you’d want me to do at Patreon or another crowdfunding platform, please share them in the comments.

 

Twitter Moments: where context goes to die even more

Two articles recounting politicians not telling the truth caught my eye Tuesday morning. That would have made it another day ending in “y,” except that the story each candidate sold didn’t make them look that much better or worse than the reality documented in contemporary records–why stick to the unsupportable story?

So I tweeted that thought and linked to these pieces about Democratic senatorial candidates: a report by the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin on how Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D.-Ariz.) tales of childhood homelessness didn’t square with her family’s utility bills from those years of grinding poverty, and a fact-check by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler ruling out a debate claim by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D.-Tex.) that he did not try to flee a 1998 DWI arrest that he has otherwise owned up to as inexcusable.

Four hours later, Twitter’s app notified me that this tweet had been added to a Moment–a curated collection of tweets on a topic that can show up in the timelines of people who don’t follow you. You can’t opt out of this publicity without blocking the account that created the Moment, which seems impossible if Twitter’s editors were behind it.

Then my notifications started getting a little weird.

I got a bunch of retweets and likes from people who had stuck #MAGA hashtags in their bios (as in, the acronym for President Trump’s favorite slogan) or added a red X to their name (a protest against Twitter “shadow-banning” right-wing voices, an allegation that has yet to survive independent scrutiny). Maybe they thought they’d found a kindred spirit; if so, they could not possibly have looked at my other recent political tweets.

But I also received shout-outs from a few people with Resistance hashtags or blue-wave emojis conveying their outrage at Trump’s GOP. They might have approved of my overall output on Twitter, but they could not possibly have read the reports I shared in that tweet–maybe they thought I was talking about Trump or his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh?

This kind of context asphyxiation can happen any time on Twitter, but a Moment’s ability to catapult a tweet far out of your normal audience and its usual context magnifies the odds enormously. I got a sense of that from watching Helen Rosner’s XOXO talk three weeks ago, but now I understand this from firsthand experience. Thanks, I guess?