Having discovered the ActivityPub-based microblogging platform Mastodon and its feature to produce RSS, Dave Winer (one of the people that helped defined the RSS format) has set up to fight the lack of support for titleless feed entries in feed readers. The intent is commendable, as well as Dave's approach to titleless blog updates, but seeing his take on it has made me think again about my (current) approach to maintaining the Wok.

I've actually pondered several times in the past about this and related issues, wondering about the best approach to handle esp. collections, such as my quotes collection, my “lightning” aphorisms (the closest thing to an on-site microblog), my “upsetting” discoveries, etc, updates to which could be considered both from a “single item” perspective and from a container update perspective.

The problem for me isn't just one of titlelessness, though, especially since I actually generally prefer to have titles, doubly more so when I can think of interesting ones: my problem is actually that I'm growing tired of some of the limits of the platform I'm using, but at the same time have a distinct preference for its underlying architecture, which is arguably responsible for those same limitations.

I like that each post here is a text file. But this also means that it needs a filename, even if the post itself might not have a title. Of course, the post having a title makes it easier to choose a filename. I could go with titleless posts, but then I'd have to think of a way to name the files in a way that is unrelated to the title. (Not that dramatic: this cold just be the date-time).

There's more though: the post metadata (author, date) need to be entered manually. This is strictly speaking not necessary, especially since this is a single-author thing, so the author could be inferred, and the date could be taken by the file metadata itself —except for the whole revision-control tracking and pushing across different machines, that messes this up. The presence of in-file metadata isn't a bore as such, but having to enter it and keep it updated is, and while for a long-form post like this one it's not even that much of a bother, it is one of the obstacles to quick-posting one-liners or other small content.

The obvious way out would be to cook up some scripts to handle this. The obvious danger is that these scripts could easily grow to become an ad hoc, informally specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of a blogging platform. And considering I have all intentions to move away from IkiWiki, would this even be worth the effort?

Of course, there's no guarantee that my “moving away from IkiWiki” is going to happen any time soon, so a quick & dirty patching up of the issue in question might have some value, even though we all know about the permanence of the temporary. Even worse, it's surely not going to be “quick” in any sense of the world (but plenty dirty) if the script will need to accommodate the many existing different collections that I've already started. It could work, OTOH, for at least the one of them, and potentially for a new one with a similar structure to be created ad hoc: because, and that's another thing, there's something to be said about microblogging, that can't be said for other form of long-form composition, and it's that its “immediacy” promotes usage.

From my experience on Twitter first and Mastodon later, I've noticed that the posting format encourages writing even for content longer than the character count limit for the single post usually imposed on these platforms: I've found myself writing long threads that could have just as well been long-form posts more often than not. This isn't just a matter of practicality due to the higher degree of automation, or the frequency with which one might find themselves on the website or “app”: there's something about the limit that tricks the mind, appealing to the possibility of jotting down “just a couple of words”, even when one ends up writing several thousands.

As far as I can see I'm not the only one feeling this way, although I wonder if others also perceive the tension between this and the consideration that microblogging is not designed for long form. I am a big fan of “using the right tool for the right job”, but on the other hand, a tool that invites you to write is better at its job than one that isn't as encouraging. Moreover, the chunked format of microblogging threads helps give a structure, a rhythm to the text that must be sought with purpose in standard blogging. And the resulting rhythm isn't just stylistic: it provides hooks to the reader for comments, quotes, etc, in a natural way for the platform itself.

Microblogging doesn't necessarily entail a lack of title, but it often is titleless, to the point that a title isn't even supported on some platforms. This contributes to the simplicity and immediacy of the posting format, but also reduces flexibility unless the platform does support the feature —or something that can be (ab)used to a similar effect, like Mastodon's Content Warnings (CWs). Usage of a platform always requires some adaptation to the characteristics of the platform: for example, Mastodon's lack of a “collapse thread” feature has led Cory Doctorow to use CWs on “child” posts in his famously long threads on Mastodon, and as he tells it when discussing Pluralistic, composing his daily thread starts on Twitter, because it's the “least forgiving” platform.

Now, I'm not anywhere near as prolific as Cory Doctorow, so I probably won't ever need the scripts have helped him lighten the manual load, and my blogging isn't professional enough to justify to myself the long-winded routine of multi-posting to separate platforms in addition to my self-hosted site (POSSE: Publish Own Site, Share Everywhere), but I am annoyed by my own over-reliance on Twitter previously and Mastodon to post content long enough that it would have deserved its own entry in the Wok, so I'm now left pondering on the strategy to adopt for the future (aside from backing up my off-site posts and importing them here —one of these days).

To my advantage I have not only the much lower production rate, but also the much smaller platform expanse: I only actually care about sharing my content on the Fediverse. This is something I achieve even now by sharing links to my articles on Mastodon, but I'm looking into better-integrated solutions, some way to support at least a minimal functional subset of ActivityPub that would allow others to follow my posts and maybe interact with them (favorite, boost, comment) directly rather than through my Mastodon account. Once this is achieved, the next step would be to aim towards a simplified way to microblog on the Wok, with a dedicated section and possibly some way to simplify the creation of posts (and chains thereof) on this future section. And yet, I'm not really looking forward to hacking my way through the IkiWiki codebase (again). Switching to a different platform might help in this sense, but in this case I'd also take the opportunity to also move to a different format (AsciiDoctor) for my source, but this is less supported by existing static site generators … and suddenly this all gets on the road to become a full-time unpaid web development job.

I might never get to the point of having the platform I really want in my hands, but maybe some interesting tech ideas may come from walking this path, even if only sporadically.