Proactive design panel on the front end

As a followup to my email to Ian – I came across this post with a “proactive design panel on the front end”. It’s nice to know I’m not living in my own imaginary bubble :)

frontend_proactivedesign

“This further raises the question, what else should we bring to the front to enable a better visual connection between options and website appearance?”

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Email to Ian Stewart

I left a comment on this post by Ian Stewart. The comment was:

“this sounds nice but superficial … I would wish for something deeper and more substantial …”

Ian did not approve the comment but did write me to ask what I meant. I wrote him a lengthy email. He replied and said I should post what I wrote. So here goes nothing:

Hello Ian,

First, THANK YOU, really THANK YOU for writing me. I wasn’t expecting that.

Introduction (for context)

I rarely voice my thoughts on WordPress anymore. I don’t think anyone is listening. I used to reach out to Jane (I guess that if Jane will remember me it will be as a nudge) and occassionaly poke Matt. I am not a developer (though I know more about development then I care to admit – and don’t care to become one) so I can’t really get in on the conversation. I used to be a software designer … now I am homesteader in a remote village in Romania.

I don’t follow WordPress blogs much anymore. You are my only link to the project (I follow you on Twitter) – and that is because I still use Thematic exclusively for all my themes and have great appreciation for your work. So REALLY thank you for asking.

I used to dump my thoughts on WordPress in a ad-hoc blog – though it is mostly dormant: http://ontekusuto.iamronen.com

Though at first my answer will not appear to relate to themes, I promise you, it does.

Idea1: Frontend Admin

I think WordPress development in general, themes included, is pointed in a self-indulgent direction. Self-indulgent in the sense that it caters first and foremost to the “geeks” who make it or use it. It is a typical development issue (apparently both in closed source and open source) – developers develop first and foremost for themselves. Even the recent discussion around”options” is a geeky one. The “geeky” side of me has tremendously enjoyed post-types, post-formats, custom taxonomoies,etc. But for the end-user in me WordPress hasn’t had any substantial changes since I think 2.7. It has gone through refinements, some asthetic upgrades.

I strongly recommend an excellent and fun book on this: http://iamronen.com/2007/08/the-inmates-are-running-the-asylum-by-alan-cooper/

For there to be a serious conversation around these issues there has to be a context … and to me the only context that counts is people – end-users. Now with WordPress one could argue that this is a huge problem because there are so many diverse users. However I do believe there is a way around this problem. Fortunately WordPress has a clear and loudly communicated purpose, to “democratize publishing” … and here’s the thing … that has been accomplished. Anyone who wants to have an online voice either already uses WordPress, knows about WordPress or knows someone who knows about WordPress. It is an amazing achievement. However from a user-experience perspective WordPress could have stopped at 2.7 and still attained this position.

From what I can tell, though the overall numbers of WordPress users are impressive, … is expansion is also crawling forward. It only seems to jump substantially when there is some kind of merger or another platform goes under. I suspect this will be even more true if you filtered out active blogs from “play blogs”.

However I can point out at least 3 groups of people who are already publishers but are not on WordPress nor can they consider it as an option for their needs:

  1. Commenters – anyone who leaves comments is a blogger. Anyone with an IntenseDebate or Disqus profile is a blogger (I think there needs to be super easy, almost transparent though optional migration path from an IntenseDebate profile to a WordPress blog – I envision a future without comments – I sure wish I could automatically integrate my IntenseDebate & Disqus comments within my WordPress blog – a new post-format “post-comment”!).
  2. Tumblr – in my mind Tumblr exists because WordPress UI is not right for them – it is so complicated that many (many millions) of people can’t handle it. Had Tumblr been open-source I would not be worried – but it is a commercial platform. So, in my mind this is WordPress being out of tune with its own purpose by driving people away from a democractic platform to a commercial one.
  3. Facebook – though there is much social garbage on Facebook – there is also much content (again many millions). There are people there with a voice that don’t know that (a) they have a voice and (b) they’ve sold their voice. WordPress is not an alternative for them … again not because of capability but because of inappropriate UI.

So what has all this got to do with Themes? I used to believe that WordPress admin needs a MAJOR simplification (http://ontekusuto.iamronen.com/okwaterdown/). I still think it needs it and that it is doable as a plugin however I now believe it needs to be taken a (major) step forward. The first step in this direction was taken by the P2 theme which included post-creation in the theme. Well that is a direction that definitely needs to be explored further.

  • Theme options? how about bringing them to the blog itself. The doorway already exists with the new admin-bar.
  • How about a quick post interface from the front end?
  • How about an upload image (one image, no question asked).
  • How about authoring an “aside” (and sending it to Twitter for me) without having to leave my blog or having to go through “publishing a post”.
  • How about a small theme API and library for enabling other developers to hook into and expand such capabilities

I believe this kind of capability can open the door to a whole new UI domain for WordPress where important and interesting things can happen.

Idea2: CSS Magic

So you managed to let people choose a background color and a header image … pardon my french but … big woopeedoo.

How about letting people choose one color and have a theme palette generated around it. How about giving them a few control like good old TV’s – brightness and contrast to modify the look of the theme. If you want to get adventurous … let them choose another color. Make it fun … make it a game!

I know that there have been some efforts on CSS modification libraries (I even recall someone working on a Plugin for this … I think it was a summer-of-code project). That needs to be coupled with some color-palette knowledge (mathematic and asthetic) … and there is some magic there.

How about exploring an API of sorts to let other theme developers integrate this capability into their themes?

How many junk themes would become redundant it people had a little more (fun) control over the looks of their site?

Again – I’m thinking of millions of other people (less serious bloggers) who I want to see on WordPress.

Summary

These are just two off the top of my head … and this is without being in a conversation with others and this is without having WordPress on my mind much (our water supply froze, the chainsaw is on the ritz and the car wouldn’t start for a week due to freezing temperatures).

One of the obstacles to a healthy democracy is getting everyone to vote. The right to a vote is not enough if it isn’t realized. There are commercial online forces taking away or taking advantage of people’s voices. Democratizing Publishing is a noble cause – but comes with responsibility … WordPress is neglecting people who are not proficient enough to use it – kind of like “money buying power” only with WordPress its “geek knowledge buying power” – and both are not right … and not very democratic.

Thank you for your precious and much appreciated ear-time.

I wish you and everyone at WordPress a prolific and inspiring 2012.

All Things Good
Ronen

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WallPress – A WordPress Alternative to Facebook?

Andreea, my life partner, uses Facebook. It has played an undeniable role in her developing an outreach and real-life, professional social network here in Romania. It is used to support her WordPress powered website. Yet I continue to be disturbed by the fact this is happening on Facebook. Every word she types into their systems empowers them and dis-empowers her. The main application in her Facebook experience is the main page where information from all of her connections streams in. I’ve been watching her use this and I believe that it is possible to create an alternative for this experience using WordPress.

I believe this is important. I believe other attempts have failed. I believe WordPress has a responsibility to take on this challenge.

From this point on this post will be more technical.

Infrastructure

I believe that there are three key elements, already in existence, that need to come together to create a WallPress:

  • WordPress Posts are the most basic publishing element needed. It is adaptive for different types of content via post formats, it is time-stamped, it can be commented on and it (together with it’s comments) can be distributed via RSS.
  • rssCloud by Dave Winer is an enhancement of RSS that, at the end of the day, makes it faster – closer to real-time. To my understanding it should be technically possible to create a WordPress Plugin that will turn any WordPress installation into an rssCloud server (able to both broadcast and receive).
  • WordPress Themes are a highly versatile mechanism for creating a front-end. It has already been demonstrated (see “P2 Theme“) that it is possible to publish content from the front end blog view without needing to access the admin. I believe this capability is critical to the needed user experience

User Experience

I feel it is important to remember (especially amongst developers who I hope will come across this post) that this entire post is written with a “non-blogger” user in mind. The current WordPress administration is way too complicated for these users. They do not see themselves as content publishers – they simply want to say what’s on their mind to their social circles.

Note: I believe that, if a bridge is built, that many people who are currently “non-bloggers” may mature into bloggers. Many already have … but they are confined by the state-of-mind imposed by Facebook. Moving onto a WordPress driven platform will inevitably provoke them into blogging-consciousness.

If you strip off the user-experience from the Facebook wall – what you have is an RSS aggregator of posts and comments. However its the user experience that makes it attractive and accessible to many people who are not inclined to take on a more demanding technical learning curve. WordPress’ administration (content management) user interface is far off this mark.

This is what makes WordPress Themes a core element in creating a Facebook alternative. A Theme could be developed to offer an alternate, simple and clean route for publishing.

Integration

What follows is a description of the operation of a working account.

  • Users publish “aside” posts from a P2 like front end.
  • rssCloudServer distributes a post package that includes:
    • Post Type (aside, post, image, link, gallery, etc.).
    • Post Excerpt (automatically extracted/generated based on the post type).
    • Post Content.
    • Metadata on how to connect to the post’s comment thread.
    • Metadata on how to subscribe to the post’s comment thread.
    • Metadata on how to _POST a comment to the post’s comment thread.
    • Metadata on how to _POST a like to the post.
  • rssCloudServer listens for post related traffic (comments, likes, re-posts)
  • A push (rssCloudServer to theme) or polling (theme to rssCloudServer) mechanism is used to keep the theme updated in “real time”.

Enhancements

I believe that the Theme part of this project can and should evolve to supply other interactions – such as friends (and friend requests), photo galleries, a contact form, etc. Though all of these interactions are inherently possible in WordPress, they need to be designed an implemented so that streamlined functionality can be achieved from within the theme itself without having to access the admin.

Bootstrapping

It will be challenging to get this started – to get people off Facebook and onto WallPress. My thoughts on this are:

  • It needs to be initiated regardless of adoption challenges.
  • There will be early adopters – criticism of Facebook is abundant – action for an alternative is lacking or shortcoming.
  • There needs to be research into transitional features such as:
    • Getting started by scanning an existing Facebook accounts and migrating the information from it to a WallPress account.
    • Staying connected and syncing to a Facebook account to stay in touch with people who are still on Facebook.
    • Sending invitations to other Facebook users to migrate their accounts.
    • Harnessing the WordPress community to develop further features and capabilities that may compete with Facebook’s centralized feature development.
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Priority Inbox

Google has finally delivered a long-time missing feature from email – prioritizing the inbox. But Google can only go so far because all it has to learn from is email communication. For example, I would want prioritization on my Twitter feed and RSS reader as well – bu Google cannot access/control those. If my communication could be prioritized based on almost everything I do – prioritization would be better and applied to more then just email.

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Email without an Inbox

A great usage scenario is describes in this product idea – I want to send an email without the distraction of incoming information. The same could be said for any communication service – I want to send a twitter update without witnessing the incoming live-stream.

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Family Contact Information

Definitely a noteworthy context that ontekusuto can cover as described by Fred Wilson:

I want a web service that I can enter all of our family’s friends and other relationships into.

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Facebook Obliterating Privacy

Body language professionals tell you to look for tell-tale signs. For example, when you are engaged in an ad-hoc corridor conversation at work – look at the feet of the person you are talking to. If they are pointing at you he is with you, if they are pointing somewhere else – he isn’t.

When you hear Facebook talking about privacy, watch their feet – they will be pointed away from you. They are now with you at all – they are talking about abuse of privacy and trying to sugar coat it by making you think they care about privacy. Watch their feet!

Here’s a great visualization of where Facebook is taking your privacy.

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A Better Moral Order for the Internet

Mark and I have continued our Diaspora-inspired conversation ( myselfmark ) via email. The conversation now seems to be centered around whether or not the web needs to be centralized or decentralized. I would like to try to take apart and reframe the question.

The Internet is a meeting place between people and software applications. Currently the software applications that meet people on the internet are controlled and dominated by big tech companies. So essentially the internet has become a meeting place between people and big tech companies.

internet-freedom-beginning

This meeting is currently in a paradigm in which the centers are the big tech companies. It is a paradigm of social nature – people are subverted to social institutions. Personal identity is split and controlled (divide & conquer?) by corporate entities. This isn’t all bad: The big tech companies in their efforts to capitalize have innovated and demonstrated to us the potential of what can be done on the internet. This isn’t all good: it has a hidden but very high price tag.

internet-freedom-social

So now it’s time to change that paradigm and reorganize it around a better moral order. To do this the relationship between society and individual thought needs to be reversed. The weight needs to shift from the big tech companies to individuals. In this new paradigm individual thought is the basic building block of the web. Software applications are subverted to individual thought and expression.

internet-freedom-individual

We can think of this is a recentralization of the web. Only this time there will be so many centers – it will not feel centralized at all.

So how can we do this? The biggest and most innovative software company in the world is “open-source” and it is “of the people … by the people … for the people”. Why hasn’t it happened yet? Because open-source is just now starting to mature so that it can make people-friendly software products.

Where will this leave the big tech companies? Struggling, hopefully to get better – to find a new place in this new “recentralized” order of the web. The irony of it is that this is probably how big tech companies got started. At some point (I am guessing it has to do with business aspirations, the injection of funding and the exposure to shareholder interests) their priorities shifted and their creativity stagnated.

Take for example Google’s search – despite all the resources available to Google and their reputation for fostering employee creativity, their core capability – “search” really hasn’t changed/improved much in a long time. They’ve done wonders at improving their capability to squeeze money out of advertisers. They’ve even added drag-and-drop image attachment to Gmail – Wow! (much pun intended). But search has been pretty much the same for a long time. Sure, a recentralization of the web is going to demolish some of their working assumptions on exploiting privacy for advertising gains – but I wouldn’t be surprised if they would also end up inventing and providing some amazing new search technologies (and hopefully business models) around the new paradigms.

… And just for comparison – take WordPress. No two WordPress installations look the same. WordPress itself is constantly changing and it’s plugin ecosystem extends it’s reach way beyond any one person’s imagination.

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Eben Moglen – Freedom in The Cloud

This deserved a separate post. Thank you again to the guys at Diaspora.

“Mark Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record, he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age. Because he harnessed ‘friday night’, that is ‘everybody needs to get laid’, and he turned it into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality… this is bad … we are technologists, we should fix it”

BUT here is where I believe academics, technologists and academic theory fails:

“We need to re-architect services in the net.
We need to redistribute services back toward the edge.
We need to devirtualize the servers where your life is stored.
We need to restore some autonomy to you as the owner of a server.”

Technologists HAVE to realize that most of the people in the world HAVE NO IDEA what you are talking about, and that you HAVE NO IDEA what people WANT – which is why something that is “so simple to do” hasn’t happened yet, and why other degenerate services like Facebook and Google are thriving.

“We haven’t given ourselves the direction in which to go… the direction in which to go is towards freedom using free software to make social justice.”

To carry that around with you, you have to do it in such a way that the ‘everybody who needs to get laid on friday night’ can understand too. There is a huge technological & intellectual & moral gap to bridge in order to make a social impact. Technological skills are not enough to cross that bridge. They haven’t been and there’s no reason to expect that to change.

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Freedom

This morning I intended to write a post inspired by an interaction on Mark’s post. When I sat down at the computer I saw this Twitter update from Fred Wilson – which led to an inspiring new project called Diaspora – which also affected my writing. Thank you to Mark, Fred and the guys at Diaspora – for the feeling of connectedness and ensuing hope.

Personal freedom is the greatest achievement and the greatest enemy of society. Society creates limitations which define a struggle for personal freedom. Society also creates an opportunity for individuals to challenge and struggle against those limitations. One possible resolution of these conflicting forces is personal freedom. One inevitable consequence of personal freedom is an attack on the social limitations against which it has fought (hopefully a discriminated attack that doesn’t destory the social fabric upon which it is built).

The current state of the Internet is an echo of this dynamic evolution. On the one hand it promises great personal freedoms, on the other hand it is dominated by companies which are dominated by and are agents of society – which seek to inhibit those freedoms. These companies are essentially enslaving the idea of “personal freedom” for their own ends. These companies have generally won-over the social/public aspect of the internet. They have done so to the point that they are able to threaten the inherent, potential personal freedoms of the Internet. They have done this so elusively that some people & non-profit organizations have dedicated themselves to creating an awareness of the threat.

The greatest challenger to coporate dominance and the greatest protector of internet freedom is open-source software – a social system dominated by developers. The social-system aspect of open-source software is like any other social system – it has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s core quality – the freedom to create – is both it’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness.

The strength is demonstrated in things like: (1) the fact that most of the software that drives the internet is open-source; (2) the availability of viable personal computing operating systems such as Ubuntu; (3) the global prevalence of open-source projects such as Mozilla’s Firefox; (4) the emergence of personal online presence applications such as WordPress.

The weakness is demonstrated in the amazing scale of the open-source domain and the relative uselesness of most of it’s end-user products. Most successful & high impact open-source projects are technological – that is technological products used by technological people. I have a feeling that amongst end-user products (products that have intuitive user interfaces) – less then 1% of open-source projects are usable. And of those, most are tolerable products not good ones. This means that most of the effort (99%!) that is put into open-source end-user products is wasted energy. That is a terrible loss.

The ecosystem of WordPress Plugins is both an example of this waste and thankfully an indication of how it can be improved. The Plugin repository supposedly has something on a scale of 10,000 plugins. My generous working assumption is that of those – about 10% are useful plugins (many of which still suffer from poor user experience and poor usability!) which make WordPress such a great and diverse platform. This means that the WordPress ecosystem performs 10 times better then the overall open-source ecosystem (of end-user products). Why?

  1. They are small applications with simple and clear purposes.
  2. They are easy to install and supposedly (still beyond me) easily to develop (complements of the WordPress Plugin infrastructure).
  3. Their developers don’t need to fiddle with design. The WordPress administration user interface sets a reasonable standard which is well known to it’s end-users. If plugin developers simply stick to the standard – they have a relatively good starting point for design. Their front-end aspects are at the mercy of themes and CSS.
  4. Their developers don’t need to market themselves. Good plugins spread virally througout the community.
  5. Their developers are protected from any dellusional aspirations to infringe on the privacy of their end-users. Their software runs within an environment that aspires to and guarantees personal freedom. Any attempt to compromise that will be quickly found-out and pummeled by the community.

I believe there is a lot to learn and emulate from the WordPress model. It’s a great model because (1) it is rooted in values which cherish personal freedom; (2) it is not engineered or planned – so it remains dynamic; (3) it has been given the freedom to evolve within these underlyign values. I have encountered numerous open-source projects that, I believe, could have explosive impact and widespread use if they would surrender their independence to a WordPress-like ecosystem. Ultimately, I believe that ANY open-source end-user product that wants to succeed has to either first become a core ecology of it’s own or join one that already exists.

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