Site Notes

Tonight I played with WordPress.com themes a bit before settling on PressRow and uploading a header image. (The picture above the masthead should be iconic for people who’ve lived in Tianjin without being a photo that “screams China.”) Though many of the themes look great, one annoying thing is that so few of the fixed-width themes available can accommodate medium Flickr images without resizing or partially cropping the pictures. Even Youtube videos feel the pinch on some themes. Now, I’m not super-keen on flexible-width themes, but we really need themes for 800 pixel resolutions these days? A lesser annoyance, but worth mentioning, is that few themes look right when using sidebar widgets — formatting is always a little off.

That said, my choice of theme may be moot, since most of you who read this blog — if you do read it — are probably doing so through a news reader, so any aesthetic changes I make will be transparent to you. Syndication has the potential to replace most direct blog visits, and I’ve already seen some bloggers start to link using syndication links rather than direct blog links, which could diminish cross-blog connectivity. For instance, if I link to a Feedburner RSS link for someone’s blog post, then she will likely see the incoming link from Feedburner, not from me. Traffic remains the same, of course, but, what if, on top of these developments, there were also a universal way to comment blogs without visiting them? If that were the case, why would anyone directly load a URI again? That’s one ultimate direction we may take when we separate form from content.

Webby musings aside, I’ve made another small change to my blog content by adding a second miniblog powered by Fanfou, the Chinese Twitter/Pownce clone. I had initially tried to use the QQ-integrated Taotao but Tencent has annoyingly established a daily quota for registrations and I lack the patience to keep trying. Thankfully, I chose Fanfou after a pointer from a Twitter friend and found it more user-friendly (not to mention better-looking) than Taotao. As some readers will note, my Fanfou miniblog is in (bad) Chinese. Other readers will just see a lot of gibberish in the sidebar. To clean up the RSS a bit, both the Twitter miniblog and the Fanfou miniblog are syndicated through a Yahoo! Pipe* that strips out the name from the beginning of each post. The only drawback to this is that updates are a little slow.

On top of the changes listed above, I also reorganized my tags and categories to strip out some redundancy and clarify things a bit. On a professional WordPress install, the right plugins can make this task easy, but on WordPress.com, editing tags, and, to a lesser extent, editing categories, is a chore. I’m lucky my blogging output has been so light — I had to edit all of my posts manually to clean up the tags and categories. I like WordPress a lot but the lack of built-in tag management has always been a little disappointing.

* Pipes, which allows for all kinds of RSS syndication, is just about the best thing Yahoo! has done in years.

In Search of Status Synchronicity

Like a lot of bloggers, I’ve taken the status/miniblog plunge in the last few months.

  • I used to use Jaiku before China blocked it.
  • I’m using Twitter because it’s still unblocked and a bit more communication-friendly than Jaiku.
  • I also have a Facebook account and update my status there.

This kind of blogging is on my mind because WordPress just introduced Prologue, which as far as I can tell, is a bit of clever theme coding that emulates Twitter in group form. In fact, Prologue doesn’t represent a terribly new concept, since short-post form sideblogs have been around in WordPress for years, but it looks nice and is bound to give people some new group blogging ideas.

But the addition of Prologue to the WordPress theme set also reminds me of a problem arising from the glut of status/miniblog services, namely, how can we effectively manage updating so many different services with our information, and how can our friends access our statuses or miniblogs in a convenient manner? This echoes the old “how many blogs do you need?” question, but with statuses the possibility for redundancy is far greater.

For example, Facebook offers both a current status feature and posted items feature, which, in turn, provide the same capabilities as Twitter or Jaiku. In my case, I usually make my Facebook status the most “personal,” since it’s for my Facebook friends only, whereas my Twitter is public and therefore has less “man, I drank too much last night”-type statuses, but there’s still overlap. If I joined a Prologue blog, would my posts there be significantly different from either Facebook or Twitter? It’s doubtful. On another front, I’ve considered making a Chinese language miniblog on Taotao, since most of my friends on Twitter can’t read Chinese and would probably get a screen filled with boxes when they see my status updates. Yet fragmenting my writing once again doesn’t seem like a very good idea.

Overall, if there was a way to easily synchronize status updates between the different web services, it’d be a boon and cut through the clutter of managing and reading so many different services. (The alternative, of course, is to only use a single status service — or no services at all.) There are some messy web applications along these lines, such as the Twitter application for Facebook, which turns your Facebook status into an ugly “X is twittering:” line. But what’d really be helpful is a software solution, possibly designed along the lines of Thwirl, that’d let me manage all of my statuses or miniblogs from one place. This would require either sticking a lot of different API-handling features into the software or having the web companies standardize their posting APIs.

Similarly, if the program included an interactive “status reader” that pulled all of a person’s statuses which are visible to you* together for you to read, it’d make following someone’s activities more interesting and enjoyable than by loading each service individually. This may actually be the easiest part of the program to create, since most statuses are output as XML and are thus easy to present to the end user. But it’s important to make it more than just a glorified RSS reader.** It needs to be interactive by ensuring that the status reader is compatible with the web service that the status is being pulled from. For example, if I see that my friend Ed on Facebook has a big job interview tomorrow, I should be able to click on his name and send him a Facebook message of support. At the same time, if I see that a friend from Twitter has posted an interesting link, I should be able to click on her name and send her an @user message. The heart of the reader side of the program would be a “status address book” that contained each friend’s various status feeds, which could either be manually input or discovered via email address input.

Over time, I expect that the status update services will go the way of the IM services and social networking sites, which started out numerous but have slowly faded away into duopolies like Facebook-Myspace and MSN-Google Talk. Consequently, over time, my software bleg might be rendered moot by user preferences, much as multi-platform chat has become less innovative with so many new users sticking to MSN or Google Talk. But for now it’d be a damn cool tool to have.

* The key here is “visible to you.” If the status would not be normally visible to you, you shouldn’t be able to read it. Privacy matters.

** RSS readers make blog reading much easier, especially here in China where loading individual pages is slow, but the lack of interaction through the reader — I need to load the website directly to comment — has always struck me as a weakness.