skip to main bit
a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces
      Monsters'

Oblomovka

Currently:

RSS died for your sins

This blog has a mild obsession with celebrity, aging, and the past. As its author, I don’t much share these enthusiasms (my hobbies including eating corned beef sandwiches and reading), but I am happy to play along when required to do so, which is always. So:

This year, I have a really good idea, which at some point I must write down properly. It’s such a good idea, I tried to pitch it to SXSW as a keynote. (It’s okay, you can’t vote any more.)

This raised a problem: how do you tell the SXSW people “Look, I’m not a wanker or anything, I just think I could give a good keynote?”. Because, really, if you’re pitching yourself for a SXSW keynote, I think you’ve pretty much established a high Bayesian prior of being a wanker.

And what I ended up writing to the SXSW people, in the same gabbling way as those letters you write to the exam marker when you have nothing to say and two hours more of examination time, was a sort of spirited defence of why they hadn’t heard of me. I can’t remember what I wrote, but I think I may have said that I’d spent the last few years being “economical with celebrity”.

But the thing is, the more I think of it, the more it’s true. I have this internal governor of fame, which I crank up and down depending on how threatened I feel. I’d already taken a strategic risk in even pitching the keynote. I remember thinking to myself “Yeah, I could do this, I think, without being universally reviled.” And at this point, I’m actually quite proud of my ability to surf obscurity, apparently on command.

Nothing brought home the value of doing this as joining Google Plus fairly early on. I’m not proud of this — I think I got an invite from Skud (who ironically is now the Neo of G+, as far as I can see, and was hunted down by Google assassination bots until she fleed to Australia, where the bandwidth caps mean that every house has a protective robots.txt file).

But one of the side-effects of joining early is that you get thousands and thousands of followers, out of a fairly obvious founder effect I’m sure a lot of them are just spam accounts, but because it’s G+, you can’t tell which are the spam accounts because they’re all got names like “Reginald McFarlane” and “Evita Tavistock”. It’s a civilised place in that respect. But unfortunately, while G+ encourages spambots to at least adopt WASPy names, it transformed me — me of all people! — into a horrible, horrible person.

The problem is this: if I had blogged this entry on G+, the comments would have instantly be full of people either asking me what Bayesian probability was, or arguing with me about whether I’d used it properly. That and/or “founder effect’.

Let me say now that this is not one of those debates about civility online, and the rights of pseudonymous people, and whether it’s your fault you have such horrible commenters and such. I have different obsessions.

And let me also add that now I have touched elliptically on all of those topics, if this was G+ we’d end up talking about those topics instead, also.

This is an allied issue, which I still don’t think people pay enough attention to; which is that if you have seven thousand people following you, a good six thousand of those are going to be people you don’t particularly like. Even if you were Jesus, you can’t love those people. (And actually if you read the Gospels, you can see that Jesus is a pretty good example of this. He spends his whole time going WTF in the comment threads of his own parables. WTF, Peter, did you even RTFP?)

If they comment all over your posts, you will end up hating them, and shortly, mankind.

The problem, as ever, is — how do you pick out the other thousand? Especially when they keep changing?

I firmly believe that one of the pressing unsolved technological problems of the modern age is getting safely away from people you don’t like, without actually throttling them to death beforehand, nor somehow coming to the conclusion that they don’t exist, nor ending up turning yourself into a hateful monster. And that this problem invisibly creeps on people as their level of fame increases. And that the Internets continues to be amazingly good at randomly bestowing non-linear amounts of fame on people, in a remarkably well-distributed way.

Which comes to why I’m writing here. There’s a good chance – a good Bayesian chance, my friend – that you’ve been whittled down in some way. I’m hoping you’ve found this because I’ve been stuck in your RSS reader since whenever it was that RSS was hip (2004?). I’m pretty confident that you’re reading this because we have something better in common than just sharing the same web browsing protocols. Unless somehow I’ve accidentally crafted link-bait. Shit, well, fortunately my server crashes whenever I do that. (Yet another great reason to self-host!)

It’s a stupid way to filter people, but I really don’t know how else to do it, short of just posting this to my friends. Which of course is exactly what you’re supposed to do on Google+, via some sort of endless pal-pruning interface.

But really, posting public or private  isn’t a question of narrow strategy, it’s a question of personality. I’m not going to post privately, am I, because, really, what’s the point? I clearly crave having this linked to by millions of people, even if some of them might not say the right things.

Similarly, scores of my friends in their private Twitter accounts agonize over every added follower, and every one who leaves. And people of those two personality types will just spend the rest of time lecturing the other on how they should be more private, or how they should spurn obscurity. We both want our audiences hand-picked, we just don’t want to be our hands doing it.

Well, anyway, what I meant to post was that I have a ton of writing to do in the next few weeks, and the only way I know of writing more, is to write a lot more, so hopefully you’ll see me here more often.

And that you’re all my special friends, but you knew that.

Be sure to post something really dumb in the comments.

32 Responses to “RSS died for your sins”

  1. Ian Betteridge Says:

    First!

  2. Waider Says:

    Looking forward to more Danny in my rss reader. It’s one feed that I’ve always spared when I’m doing the inevitable culling.

  3. matt Says:

    WHen is NTK cOMing bak?

  4. Lee Bryant Says:

    Don’t worry. We’re all here and growing old together one post at a time. FWIW I too miss NTK and thought about your libertarian post just *yesterday* … whilst at a wedding. How’s that for micro-fame.

  5. Lee Says:

    Yeah, Dan. Maybe your site would fall over less if you fixed the permissions on the wordpress cache directory – unless you relish those localised slashdottings?

    Also: hot grits, Natalie Portman, etc.

  6. Liz Says:

    I can’t believe that some of your so-called “commenters” think hot grits are dumb.

  7. Neil Says:

    Perhaps we need to resurrect the non-binary newsgroups and starting posting blog entries there.

    And yes, please bring back NTK.

  8. Larry Hosken Says:

    Let me see if I’ve got this right. If you get too many stupid comments on this blog post, you’ll retreat back to someplace even “further back in time” than RSS’ 2004? OK, I’ll be over here, obsessively refreshing the NTK homepage.

  9. Danny O'Brien Says:

    (Me and Dave actually have a plan for NTK, but it will have to wait until 15 years have passed. You will all be disappointed.)

  10. Yatima Says:

    Everything about this is like HITLER.

  11. Grego Says:

    Your mom!

  12. Sumana Harihareswara Says:

    I’ve missed you.

  13. Rafe Says:

    Still a subscriber, after all these years.

  14. Andre Manoel Says:

    Blogs. Those were good times. Not like what kids do nowadays.

  15. Andy Todd Says:

    Keep it up, because the more you write the less time I have to reflect that I don’t write enough on *my* blog (or G+ or Facebook or anywhere else).

  16. Michael Mouse Says:

    We love you, that’s why we’re here.

    Pseudo-randomly, the cool thing about Bayesian updating is that even if your prior sucks, your estimate gets better with more evidence. I look forward to more evidence.

  17. pqs Says:

    I attained happiness by not posting in any social network and closing the comments section of my blog. I told my readers e-mail me if they want to comment my posts. The result is I receive no comments, no spam, no trolls and just a few very interesting e-mails from time to time. Which I really enjoy repling.

  18. Evan Prodromou Says:

    unscruiibe

  19. Danny O’Brien’s phrase of the week : All New Musings Says:

    [...] Danny O’Brien’s phrase of the week # “I think I may have said that I’d spent the last few years being ‘economical with celebrity‘.” [...]

  20. Ewan Spence Says:

    I’m Scottish so therefore being disappointed is in our DNA. How long until the 15 years are up?

  21. Paul Dixon Says:

    I still live in hope of NTK living again, and whenever a Danny O’Brien post appears in my feeds, I think “ooh, it’s back! Back! BACK!!”.

    So until this 15 year moratorium expires, will look forward to more posts here.

    Hey look! A Catonkey!

  22. pinboard September 12, 2011 — arghh.net Says:

    [...] Danny O’Brien’s Oblomovka » Blog Archive » RSS died for your sins you can’t tell which are the spam accounts because they’re all got names like “Reginald McFarlane” & “Evita Tavistock” [...]

  23. Danny O'Brien Says:

    Terrifyingly, fifteen years ago is next year.

  24. esnyder Says:

    I just want to say that I think this:

    …Skud (who ironically is now the Neo of G+, as far as I can see, and was hunted down by Google assassination bots until she fleed to Australia, where the bandwidth caps mean that every house has a protective robots.txt file…

    was both the most amusing and ruthlessly succinct summary of the nymwars that I have had the pleasure of reading. Thank you for brightening my day!

  25. Lukas Says:

    How am I supposed to remember why I started following you in 2004? Boggles the imagination. Whatever fault led me here seems to be congenital, however, so I imagine I’ll still be reading in 2018. When your next post will be! Ta.

  26. Andrew Brown Says:

    “if you have seven thousand people following you, a good six thousand of those are going to be people you don’t particularly like. Even if you were Jesus, you can’t love those people. (And actually if you read the Gospels, you can see that Jesus is a pretty good example of this. He spends his whole time going WTF in the comment threads of his own parables. WTF, Peter, did you even RTFP?)

    If they comment all over your posts, you will end up hating them, and shortly, mankind.

    The problem, as ever, is — how do you pick out the other thousand? Especially when they keep changing?”

    You know this made the baby Jesus cry. And me laugh. Because it’s true.

  27. Andrew Brown Says:

    In fact, I laughed so hard I broke out of the closing tag. Never mind.

  28. Matt Petty Says:

    Whenever I struggle to figure out how to track tasks and get stuff done (which is always) I think of wat or whatever that vim folding task list thing you wrote was. That and the Wired story and the washing up.
    More of the same, stat.

  29. Dave Phelan-Player Says:

    It can’t be 14 years since the last NTK. That’s insane. I still have withdrawal symptoms.

  30. Phil Wilkins Says:

    I still <3 RSS, and I still have a mail rule for NTK.

    I think I hate G+. At least Facebook fulfills a purpose. G+ just feels like why not give even more info to Google.

  31. Phil Wilkins Says:

    It’s only 4 years Dave. It just feels longer.

  32. Watching Them, Watching Us Says:

    Improving the Signal to Noise ratio by “obscurity through security” ?

    You could restrict your audience to just the handful of journalists and NGO activists who publish and can actually use their PGP Public Encryption Keys properly.

    Obviously that would exclude both Julian Assange and David Leigh from your words of wisdom.

    “Be sure to post something really dumb in the comments.”

    An example of how not to set up a British wikileaks style whistleblower website, including the publication of a PGP Public Encryption Key as their own, to which they do not have access to the corresponding Private Decryption Key.

    http://leakdirectory.org/index.php/BritiLeaks_false_start

    (they now have a potentially much better website in progress)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.