Slideshare is being integrated into Scribd as of tomorrow. To avoid falling under the TOS of Scribd, per their own suggestion you need to delete your account.

I always thought Scribd was Slideshare’s more evil sibling, even if I don’t remember precisely how I arrived at that conclusion. I deleted my own Slideshare account last week. Tonight I deleted my company’s Slideshare account as well.

My company also has a Scribd account, from the time when you couldn’t really upload regular documents to Slideshare yet. It went unused for the past 4 years or so, but we do use some embeds on our site.

I tried to also delete that Scribd account tonight, and immediately ran into the type of dark patterns that justify my existing perception of Scribd.

First Scribd does not allow you to download all of your own content. Read that again. We had 43 documents on Scribd, I could download 20 of them, and then downloads simply stopped working, and a banner appeared suggesting I open a monthly subscription. They had a 30 day free trial, so I went that route, and downloads then resumed. After downloading all our content, I deleted all content from our company’s Scribd account.

Second, I ended the free trial subscription as well, which does the Facebooky thing of having to confirm 3 times or more you really want to cancel (we’re so sorry to see you go, are you sure you don’t want to change your mind, if you click this we’ll pull a very sad face… etc.)

Third, after deleting our content I wanted to delete our account and could not find a deletion button. I had to duckduckgo how to delete a Scribd account, and on their own help page found that I could not delete our account until a subscription has been cancelled (which I did) and it has reached its end date. Until then there’s no deletion button visible. This means I can delete my account only on October 23rd, when the 30 day trial subscription ends that I already cancelled, and which I only entered into because they wouldn’t allow me to access my own content otherwise!

Good riddance, in short. Or rather: good riddance, in 30 days. Added it to my task list so I don’t forget.

Many (news(y)) websites have become highly irritating to browse: when you scroll down towards the end of an article you’re reading they append a next article underneath it, and if you scroll past the end of the article change the URL in your browser’s address bar. Below is an example I encountered today.

That is highly irritating, as the browser is my tool, not theirs.

  • It regularly frustrates bookmarking (if you hit a bookmarklet at the end of an article it saves the url of the next article),
  • it creates an endless scroll experience (a dark pattern copied from the likes of FB), where news sites get an opportunity to present content they selected by algorithm that you weren’t looking for.
  • it doesn’t influence the back button. Hitting that brings you to an unexpected place therefore, as you may not realise you’re in an endless timeline and think you somehow landed in a different article,
  • if you use your browser’s default setting you won’t have noticed that the URL has changed as the address bar will only show the domain, not the full URL.

This behaviour is based on HTML5 pushstate, which allows a site to interact with your browser history. This can be used to e.g. decrease load times of additional pages and content. The endless scrolling however feels like a dark pattern usage of this possibility to me.

In keeping with Doc Searls’ Castle Doctrine of browsers, I’d like to block this behaviour.

Options that are available seem to be:

  • Use a reader view. This seems to break bookmarklets though, which is one of the nuisances I’m trying to fix
  • Block all javascript and use an allow-list. Seems drastic, though it’s something I’m increasingly leaning towards over the past few years. Alternatively I could use a ban-list.
  • Use ad blockers by adding rules for the specific scripts causing this.

Reader view is useful, but not for this specific issue. Adding rules to my adblocker might be feasible, but assumes that I can easily spot a) which sites do this b) which script on their site is doing it, in order to block it. Using a ban-list for Javascript only needs me to spot sites that do this, which is half the hassle of adding filters to my adblocking. Ban-listing some sites for javascript is also less inconvenient than blocking all javascript and allow exceptions. So for now that’s the way forward. Bloomberg, the source of the example given above, is now on the ban-list.

Jerome Velociter has an interesting riff on how Diaspora, Mastodon and similar decentralised and federated tools are failing their true potential (ht Frank Meeuwsen).

He says that these decentralised federated applications are trying to mimic the existing platforms too much.

They are attempts at rebuilding decentralized Facebook and Twitter

This tendency has multiple faces
I very much recognise this tendency, for this specific example, as well as in general for digital disruption / transformation.

It is recognisable in discussions around ‘fake news’ and media literacy where the underlying assumption often is to build your own ‘perfect’ news or media platform for real this time.

It is visible within Mastodon in the missing long tail, and the persisting dominance of a few large instances. The absence of a long tail means Mastodon isn’t very decentralised, let alone distributed. In short, most Mastodon users are as much in silos as they were on Facebook or Twitter, just with a less generic group of people around them. It’s just that these new silos aren’t run by corporations, but by some individual. Which is actually worse from a responsibility and liability view point.

It is also visible in how there’s a discussion in the Mastodon community on whether the EU Copyright Directive means there’s a need for upload filters for Mastodon. This worry really only makes sense if you think of Mastodon as similar to Facebook or Twitter. But in terms of full distribution and federation, it makes no sense at all, and I feel Mastodon’s lay-out tricks people into thinking it is a platform.

This type of effect I recognise from other types of technology as well. E.g. what regularly happens in local exchange trading systems (LETS), i.e. alternative currency schemes. There too I’ve witnessed them faltering because the users kept making their alternative currency the same as national fiat currencies. Precisely the thing they said they were trying to get away from, but ending up throwing away all the different possibilities of agency and control they had for the taking.

Dump mimicry as design pattern
So I fully agree with Jerome when he says distributed and federated apps will need to come into their own by using other design patterns. Not by using the design patterns of current big platforms (who will all go the way of ecademy, orkut, ryze, jaiku, myspace, hyves and a plethora of other YASNs. If you don’t know what those were: that’s precisely the point).

In the case of Mastodon one such copied design pattern that can be done away with is the public facing pages and timelines. There are other patterns that can be used for discoverability for instance. Another likely pattern to throw out is the Tweetdeck style interface itself. Both will serve to make it look less like a platform and more like conversations.

Tools need to provide agency and reach
Tools are tools because they provide agency, they let us do things that would otherwise be harder or impossible. Tools are tools because they provide reach, as extensions of our physical presence, not just across space but also across time. For a very long time I have been convinced that tools need to be smaller than us, otherwise they’re not tools of real value. Smaller (see item 7 in my agency manifesto) than us means that the tool is under the full control of the group of users using it. In that sense e.g. Facebook groups are failed tools, because someone outside those groups controls the off-switch. The original promise of social software, when they were mostly blogs and wiki’s, and before they morphed into social media, was that it made publishing, interaction between writers and readers, and iterating on each other’s work ‘smaller’ than writers. Distributed conversations as well as emergent networks and communities were the empowering result of that novel agency.

Jerome also points to something else I think is important

In my opinion the first step is to build products that have value for the individual, and let the social aspects, the network effects, sublime this value. Value at the individual level can be many things. Let me organise my thoughts, let me curate “my” web, etc.

Although I don’t fully agree with the individual versus the network distinction. To me instead of just the individual you can put small coherent groups within a single context as well: the unit of agency in networked agency. So I’d rather talk about tools that are useful as a single instance (regardless of who is using it), and even more useful across instances.

Like blogs mentioned above and mentioned by Jerome too. This blog has value for me on its own, without any readers but me. It becomes more valuable as others react, but even more so when others write in their own space as response and distributed conversations emerge, with technology making it discoverable when others write about something posted here. Like the thermometer in my garden that tells me the temperature, but has additional value in a network of thermometers mapping my city’s microclimates. Or like 3D printers which can be put to use on their own, but can be used even better when designs are shared among printer owners, and used even better when multiple printer owners work together to create more complex artefacts (such as the network of people that print bespoke hand prostheses).

It is indeed needed to spend more energy designing tools that really take distribution and federation as a starting point. That are ‘smaller’ than us, so that user groups control their own tools and have freedom to tinker. This applies to not just online social tools, but to any software tool, and to connected products and the entire maker scene just as much.

Wenn du schreibst, Heinz, das der Studiengang Content Strategie noch aktiv in Entwicklung ist, da die Disziplin sich noch immer weiter gestaltet, heisst das denn das ihr euch zunehmend auch mit Algorithmen usw auseinandersetzt? Nebst zB Einflussnahme auf Wahlen, wobei ich Inhalte gezeigt bekomme die andere nicht über den selben Politiker zu sehen bekommen, fand ich gestern ein krasses Beispiel wobei auf Netflix andere Akteure im ‘Filmplakat’ gezeigt werden je nach meinem Profil, inklusive meiner Hautfarbe. Die Frage dabei ist wohl wann eine Strategie zum ‘dark pattern‘ wird. Und wann es unendlich leichter ist mich was vorzuzeigen als für mich mich dagegen zu wehren. Machtdifferenzen durch Content Strategie?