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Egon was right. Print is dead. (Except when it isn’t)

Bad news. Print is dead for what must be at least the seven hundred and sixty-eighth time this year.

Egon Spengler proclaimed that print was dead in 1984. It wasn’t. We all stood around the corpse of print when Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, only to watch it get up, say “It was just a scratch”, and then go on to sell more books than ever before.

Now, publishers are warning that production costs are going to soar (just like the cost of everything else) and that changes will be necessary.

Print runs will be smaller and fewer books will be published. Maybe. Book sales soared during the pandemic and many consider publishing, even in archaic old formats like putting ink onto tiny slivers of a dead tree and then gluing them all together, to be reasonably recession-proof.

My guess is that print will never die until something better comes along. Something that doesn’t need to be charged; something that can be loaned to your friends; something where you can write in the margins; and something looks really, really good on a shelf. If it can also be made of trees, that would be good. Trees are getting to too easy right now.

In short, print isn’t dead. It might need a bit of a rest and a good cup of tea though.

The theft of code by Microsoft Co-Pilot will be decided in court.

Once upon a time, three witches sat around a cauldron. Their names were Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish. They were the three merry witches of Microsoft and under the silvery light of a crescent moon, they were casting a spell to rid the world of their mortal foe – open-source software.

I’m an old hand of the software world and I remember when Microsoft was The Enemy, with a capital “E”. They had openly described open source as “a cancer” in 2001. Extinguish, of all the Microsoft witches, was the one they wanted to call upon. Linux must die. Firefox must burn.

But then, something changed. By 2016, Steve Balmer had learned to love Linux. Extinguish slipped back into the shadows behind her stygian sisters and Embrace stepped forward, warm arms extended. The old hands had seen this trick before, of course. We knew what to expect. “Look out,” we said, “Embrace comes before Extend and Extend comes before Extinguish”. But nobody listens to old hands. There’s a reason there are so few of us.

Microsoft embraced Linux. It contributed code. It began to play the game. It put Linux at the heart of its cloud hosting platform, Azure. Embrace worked her magic so well this time around that we barely noticed that sometimes the hands around us belonged to Extend. And those hands tend to close around your throat.

When Microsoft bought Github, we old hands raised warning flags yet again. Microsoft, the old Enemy, could not be trusted. Github was too valuable, too important, to allow it to fall into their hands. But, nevertheless, it happened. We had been embraced. We would be extended. We feared being extinguished.

But, instead of extinguishing us, Microsoft had a new plan. A new witch, creeping from the dirty swamp waters of corporate strategy. This witch, all grasping hands and leash-leather skin had a name. She was called Enslave.

Thus enters Co-Pilot, Microsoft’s AI tool that can generate code for you. You ask, it writes. It’s a code genie, a wish-granting machine that creates software out of thin air. Except, it doesn’t generate anything. It doesn’t write anything. Co-pilot copies code from existing projects… existing open-source projects.

Back in the early days of the web, there was a technique called “content spinning” – it involved taking (stealing) someone else’s content, changing some words, and then passing it off as your own. All you needed was a digital thesaurus and a completely absent moral compass.

Ostensibly, Co-Pilot is no different. It’s a smarter spinner, but it’s just a spinner. It’s gobbled up as much code as it can handle, billions of lines from projects stored on Github, parsing comments, chewing up variable names, and turning the hard work of a vast number of open-source developers into copy-and-paste patterns that Microsoft can package and resell. For profit. For itself.

They say that the system generates code but there are numerous examples on the web now of code that has been taken verbatim from open-source projects. The licenses under which open-source code is released normally require attribution of any code that is reused back to the original author. Co-pilot doesn’t do this. Arguably, feeding billions of lines of open-source code into a Frankensteinian sausage machine is also not what open-source software authors had in mind when they pushed their code to Github.

I have code on Github. Had I been asked for my consent for it to be used in this way I would have said no. (And not just because I’m an old hand and Microsoft is The Enemy). Read my code? Fine. Reuse my code? Absolutely. Learn from it, copy and paste it? Crack on. But pick it up and sell it? No.

I’m an old school free software advocate. I like “Free as in Freedom” as well as “Free as in Beer”. Of course, open source code gets half-inched and put inside proprietary software. It’s inevitable. But Microsoft are committing this larceny on a grand scale, and they are breaking open source licenses (at least in spirit) to do it.

Developers with projects larger than mine aren’t taking things lying down though. Microsoft are being taken to court and the future of Co-pilot, and AI code generation, will be put to the test.

https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/microsoft-sued-for-open-source-piracy-through-github-copilot/

Co-pilot doesn’t do quite as good a job as it needs to in hiding it’s sources. Like a cub reporter cracking under interrogation from their hardened editor, it gives up the goods too easily, spitting back lumps of good that are straight copy and paste from open source projects.

Not cool, Microsoft.

This court case will take a long time to settle. Courts aren’t good at dealing with technology issues for one thing and this will be a landmark case in terms of determining what open code and open data can be used for when training AI.

Like the look of all those fun, text to image AI machines? Just remember they took a lot of images created by real, living artists to “train” the AI how to make a picture. Want to use one of those AI copy writing machines? Spare a thought for every writer who has had their work, probably without their knowledge, ground up and fed into the machine.

I’m not Luddite. I’m not here to smash the looms. I’m fascinated by AI and believe it has huge potential. I’m just not keen on people taking stuff that doesn’t belong to them. Like I said, I’m an old hand.

I do hope there will be a few old hands on the jury of this case as well…

Mastodon Tips for Writers

I’ve had my eye on Mastodon for a while. When I was last revamping my website, there was a time when I was considering running a Mastodon server as a place to host my own “microblog”. I love microblogs but I’m always wary of putting all my content on someone else’s platform – so over-investing in Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram has never sat well with me. With my fellow writers running around like people looking for lifeboats off the Titanic as Twitter threatens to sink (either offline or into some kind of terrifying hellscape), I’m feeling a little vindicated that I’ve always tried to keep my audience on platforms where I have a degree of control.

Jumping from Twitter to Mastodon is pretty daunting though. It’s not just a different user interface but a different way of networking with different “rights and wrongs”. It’s not nearly as scary as people (mostly people with very large Twitter followings) want you to think though.

Here are my top tips/quick answers to the problems I see people complaining about the most.

Does it matter which Mastodon server I choose?

Signing up to Mastodon means picking a server to call “home”. The server that you pick only has a small impact on who else you can follow and network with. The whole point of Mastodon (and the wider “Fediverse”) is that it works by federating content between multiple, disparate servers. I’ve got two accounts, one on mastodon.social and one on writing.exchange. I can see posts from either server, and from almost any other Mastodon server, on both.

There are some servers that will block content from others, normally because the content would breach the moderation guidelines set by the server owners. This isn’t worth stressing about – if you were with happy with Twitter picking and choosing what you can see, there’s nothing to fear from Mastodon.

And, with Mastodon, you can choose to change servers at any time. I started out at toot.wales but moved because the server was oversubscribed and performance was suffering.

How do I find my Twitter friends on Mastodon?

There are a number of tools you can use to find your Twitter contacts on Mastodon, including easy and automated options like FediFinder. Finding your old tribe is only half the fun though. Hashtags are hugely powerful on Mastodon as the timeline is purely chronological, not “optimised” in the way that the Twitter feed is. You can discover fantastic new people to follow, and be a lot easier to discover, on Mastodon.

It’s a good idea to copy and paste your Mastodon ID into your Twitter profile somewhere to help people who are using tools like FediFinder to your new account.

I don’t like the Mastodon app, is there something better?

Just like with Twitter, there are plenty of different apps you can use to access Mastodon and the Fediverse. The official Mastodon app is not the best choice, it seems to exist mostly to fill the gap that would otherwise exist in App Stores if it wasn’t there. If you’re an Android user, I recommend you give Tusky a try.

Is Mastodon good for writers?

Personally, I’ve found the #writingcommunity hashtag on Mastodon to be far more community oriented that Twitter which, on a bad day, can be nothing more than a heavy downpour of authors shilling you their books with scattered showers of virtue signalling and empty praise from people you’ve never met (mostly in the hope of a follow back either from you or from someone else in the thread).

The community on Mastondon is different. There are more people asking and answering questions, more people sharing useful information, and a more genuintely supportive vibration about the place. Perhaps it’s because there’s still a certain “rebel culture” to life on Mastodon, a sense of being an outsider. We’re a smaller group, but maybe better for it.

Where can I learn more?

I highly recommend the website fedi.tips for learning more about the Fediverse. You can follow them as well. (On Mastodon, obviously)

Do I need to leave Twitter before I join Mastodon?

No. Mastodon is just another social network. You can be on Mastodon and Twitter. You can be on Mastodon and Instagram. You can been on all three, plus Facebook and LinkedIn, and Hive (whatever that is). And, as anyone who is on more than one social network will tell you – different networks are good for different things.

One thing I don’t think anyone needs to do is announce that they are leaving, or staying, on Twitter. Honestly, unless you are a major celebrity, the world doesn’t care. (And even then, it only cares a little). Save yourself the embarrassment of coming awkwardly back into the party after storming off. (Or worse, storming off but having nobody notice).

When you’re the product, but it turns out you’re worthless

First Twitter, now Alexa. We are seeing an important shift in the “users = profit” dogma that could have huge ramifications in the tech startup space.

Alexa began the smart speaker race. Alexa units have are one of the best selling products on Amazon. The name “Alexa” has become synonymous with voice assistants in a way “Siri” and “Hey Google” never quite did. And yet, ten billion dollars later, Amazon’s Alexa unit has yet to turn a profit.

People don’t buy things on Alexa, which Amazon thought they would. The interface for paying for skill (app) subscriptions is too complicated and variable. Too few other platorms have licensed the technology.

The net result is a smart speaker, sold at cost, in millions of homes, chewing up computing power every time a wants to know the time, what the weather is, or boil an egg. (Things we already had means to find out or do – you can’t monetise utility when there are other, cheaper, ways to do the same thing).

https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2022/11/amazon-alexa-is-a-colossal-failure-on-pace-to-lose-10-billion-this-year/

For a long time, startups have been able to pull in huge investment to loss making businesses because they have growing user bases. The belief has been that more users equates to more profits, even if the way in which the business will monetise its users is unclear.

Apple were the only business to take a different route, sticking to their model of making money on the hardware, not on some intangible and unknown future revenue stream. They canned their expensive smart speaker as a consequence when it failed to pull in the required sales figures.

Tech startup culture has proved that “If you build it, they will come”. It’s just not guaranteed that they will spend any money.

Would you pay to tweet?

I’m amazed this video isn’t being shared more widely…

Under the new rules that Twitter might roll out, paying users of Twitter will “outrank” non-paying users when it comes to visibility. The original purpose of the blue tick, which was to verify people with public identities were who they said they were, will be replaced by a two-tier system of paying and non-paying users. Elon Musk is right, for a lot of Twitter users $8 is what they pay for a latte – but will they pay that to use Twitter or will they flee to an alternative platform they can use for free?

Uncomfortable Fact: “Your” community belonged to Twitter

(That’s Bill Gates, not Elon Musk but… you get the picture)

I’m seeing many people in my writing community express genuine concern that they will lose access to their community as a consequence of what is happening with Twitter. The sad truth is that if you think you have/had a community on Twitter… you’re wrong. It was never “your” community. It belonged to Twitter. The platform belonged to them, the data belonged to them, and they sold it. Now, the business model may be changing. It could be the greatest “bait and switch” in social media history so far – create a community, sell it, then get the users to buy it back on a never-ending rental model. Nice work if you can get it and an object reminder that if the product is free then YOU are the product.

Back when I wrote “The Truth about SEO” and was working as a consultant with businesses and brands who were building their online presence, I repeatedly warned about the dangers of building your business on someone else’s platform. If you don’t own your customer/community data then it means that someone else does.

Should you pay for “Twitter Blue”?

My guess is that if Twitter goes ahead with this the platform will be barely functional for anyone who wants to tweet unless they pay the $8 a month. You could write the tweet of all tweets, a magnum opus in 240 characters that would break the heart and steal the soul of all who read it but nobody would because, without that blue tick, you’re getting buried under Crazy Joes Second Hand Tyre and Fried Chicken Emporium. That may be less of a problem than it sounds, however.

50% of Twitter users post less than 5 times a month. When these “lurkers” do tweet, it’s most likely to be as a reply to someone else’s message rather than starting a new thread of their own. By contrast, it’s around 10% of Twitter users who create 80% of the content on the site.

These are the users that Elon Musk is targeting with his new Twitter; the low and mid-tier influencers who haven’t reached “blue tick” status yet but that have invested significantly in their online presence and don’t want to start again on a new platform. Combine that group with businesses who will see (or be advised) that getting a “blue tick” is a mandatory part of presenting their brand on Twitter and you have a decent size customer base for the new incarnation of “Twitter Blue”.

So, should you pay? If you’re a “lurker”, absolutely not. If you only use Twitter to keep in touch with a small group of friends and like-minded people? Probably not. If you’re using Twitter to build an online brand or promote yourself in any way though, a blue tic will soon be mandatory.

Why not Plan B: Pay the Creators?

Here’s a question… If 10% of users are making Twitter the place that 90% of its users want to visit, why would you risk losing them? Surely it makes more sense to double down on those users and ensure that they stay on the platform? Seems logical but the reasons Musk may not be thinking in this way are twofold:

  1. He thinks Twitter is too big for celebrities and public figures to walk away from
  2. He thinks of the rest of humanity as “useful humanoid robots”

Take a look at the second clip below where Musk waits a painful amount of time for applause as he predicts a future of unlimited economic growth because of an unlimited number of robots (that somehow our fixed-size, fixed-resource planet will accommodate).

The truth that Musk has probably latched on to here is that most of the 10% of Twitter users who create content are replaceable. There are more “useful humans” still available to him, even if some of the existing creators decide to walk away.

How to protect yourself against the Twitterpocalypse

I’ve always been an advocate of posting content to multiple channels and of using your own website as your primary online presence. It’s a more difficult route because “walled gardens” like Twitter, Facebook, etc. don’t like you posting links that take users off their platform (if Twitter Blue means the algorithm no longer hates links, maybe I’ll be putting my $8/month down!) but it is ultimately more sustainable.

Having a presence on multiple platforms reduces the risk of losing access to a community and increases the number of people you are able to reach. You may think Mastodon is too much like hard work or that TikTok dances are too hard on the hips but coming to platforms late only makes it harder to develop your presence.

A Prediction: Twitter’s Future is Pay to Play

I predicted that Twitter might become a paid service some time ago, along with the risk posed by decentralised platforms such as Mastodon and Jack Dorsey’s “Blue Sky”.

As a subscription service, Twitter could have a vibrant future but I suspect that this would be short-lived. We are seeing proof that social media platforms have a shelf life; each new generation of consumers tends to gravitate towards platforms that their parents don’t use. Facebook and Twitter are both suffering heavy attrition to TikTok for example (a platform that, currently, also does not charge its users to post content). Unless it finds away to attract new users, the benefits of being on Twitter will diminish. If those users who may feel compelled to stick with Twitter and pay to maintain their communities there also start to lose interest, or find that $8 isn’t worth it, Twitter could eventually start to feel more like a graveyard than “the world’s town square”.

Unlike Twitter’s blue check mark however, you normally only have to pay for your grave once.

Legoland

We’ve been going to Legoland for years, but we’ve never been for the Bricktacular before. Bricktacular is Legoland’s November firework display. It’s pretty impressive, not least because you can get special glasses at Legoland that transform every spark into the sky into a Lego brick. It’s an incredible sight!

Windsor Castle

First time visiting Windsor Castle this year. You’re not allowed to take photographs inside the castle itself; practically this is probably just because it would cause huge delays as every inch of the interior is crammed with incredible historical artifacts but I’d like to believe it’s actually because there’s an understanding that there’s no way that the average amateur photo camera snap could possibly capture a true sense of what the castle interior holds.

There is an immense sense of shared history here, of a thread of continuity weaved through the pages of our collective history. Walking the halls of Windsor Castle is walking through time itself.

Social Media: It’s about control…

I saved this image when I first saw it back in October. Since then, Elon Musk has bought Twitter, and in the days and weeks that have followed the acquisition, there has been a crash in advertising revenue, mass layoffs, and an exodus of users. Amongst those losing their jobs are content moderators who have been at the forefront of the battle to keep misinformation and hate speech off Twitter.

Advertisers are leaving Twitter in droves and it’s up to users if they want to follow suit. For some, the platform is already becoming too toxic. Others, particularly “influencers” will be wondering if their personal brand is damaged or enhanced by being present on Twitter.

The problem for many users is – where do you go if Twitter is no longer for you?

As the image above outlines, all of the social networks are owned by someone… Except one.

Enter Mastodon

A literal “elephant in the room”, Mastodon is a decentralized social network similar to Twitter that, by design, has no one owner. Anyone with enough technical skill can set up a Mastodon server. That server becomes part of the federated network of Mastodon servers, meaning users on any server can follow and see content from users on any other server.

The experience is not quite the same as Twitter – discovery is more difficult and although Mastodon registrations have increased dramatically since Elon Musk purchased Twitter, there are still only a fraction of the users on Mastodon that there are on Twitter (and they are spread across a large number of servers, so you need to hunt them down).

If you are looking to connect and converse with other people with similar interests, Mastodon has a lot to offer. If you’re looking to reach a large number of people, you’re going to find the community small compared to Twitter (however, this does amplify your voice and mean you’re more likely to get interactions, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing).

The other thing to keep in mind with Mastodon is that it is moderated, just like Twitter is (or was), but moderation is server-specific. When you first register with Mastondon you need to pick a server and you will inherit the moderation rules of that server. If you truly want “free” social media, your only option is to run your own server, set your own rules, and then rely on federation (through the “Fediverse” of Mastodon servers) to spread your message across the network of Mastodon servers.

Setting up a Mastodon server is fairly complex, but something I think I may try… just so that if I bump into Elon and he mentions that he owns a social media platform I can say “oh yeah, I’ve got one of those as well”

Get my Gothic on at Tyntesfield

Ah, the annual pilgrimage to Tyntesfield for Halloween. Who doesn’t love a gothic mansion?

This place is incredibly atmospheric, has amazing grounds, and the constant rotation of the huge collection of personal possession left behind by the Gibbs family means that there are often new things to discover.