Confessions of a compulsive view-sourcer

Hi, my name’s Chris and I’m a compulsive view-sourcer. I’ve been a compulsive view-sourcer for several years, but most of the time I keep it to myself and try not to let it affect my family and friends. Sometimes I have a bad episode and then I feel guilty afterwards. Those bad episodes are happening more frequently.

You see, other people might favour crack or LSD, I prefer HTML. It gives me a real high to get some quality semantic HTML – I’m happy for hours. But there’s a lot of bad stuff out there that will just give you a headache; dirty HTML with all sorts of other crud added to it. I try to stay away from dirty code but it’s so much easier to find than the clean stuff.

Take last week. A website I used to be a regular visitor to relaunched with a new design. I went to have a look, but before I knew what I was doing I had right-clicked and viewed the source. Bad mistake. It was HTML, but only barely. Full of tables for layout, spacer GIFs, all the worst additives. I know I shouldn’t have done it, I just couldn’t stop myself.

I felt so dirty and guilty, not to mention ashamed. I had to do something about it, so I cleaned up the HTML. You can see the original version here, and my cleaned up version here.

This is where my compulsion to view sourcing gets hard to handle. I mean, it’s not enough that I see bad code, I just have to do something about it. The website I rewrote is now over 60% lighter when you count code and images, and has a clean and semantic HTML structure. If they get 250,000 visitors a month (but I think they get a lot more than that) with their old dirty homepage HTML that would be 59.6 gigabytes of data transferred. With the new clean HTML it’s cut down to 22.9 gigabytes.

But that doesn’t matter, because I’m never satisfied. I’ll always need another hit of HTML, and while the clean stuff is great, it’s the dirty stuff that’s much easier to find. Still, I suppose the first step is realising I have a problem.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised by Chris’ confession there is help available. Visit one of the excellent online support groups and get involved. Together we can stop the supply of dirty HTML to our screens.

Web capital = social capital

We all know that “social capital” is a phrase used to describe the influence, reputation and connections a person has in a particular social context. Like money, it’s something that’s hard to come by but easy to lose. Tara Hunt, a person with greater than average insight into the social web, explores this area in ‘Social Capital and the Influence of Social Networks‘. I suggest you read it as it will help you to understand my slant on this subject. I’ll wait.

Back? Good. It appears to me after reading that, and much more written about the rise of social networks and the blogosphere, that we’re not talking about anything new. In fact this stuff is as old as Google itself. Why? Here’s why:

Social Capital is … complex and includes … the Social Capital of those who you have relationships with

So if you have a relationship with someone of high social capital (related trivia: my second ever subscriber on FriendFeed was Hugh Macleod) that raises your social capital. Where have we heard that before? Oh yes, search engines.

Search engines, at least the traditional ones such as Google, have a fairly simple method of working out how important you are. Let’s say someone searched for the word “trombone”. If you have the word “trombone” then you’re almost certainly going to appear somewhere in the search results. How high up depends on how important and relevent you are – your “web capital”, if you will. Let’s look at both these parts.


The relevence is dependent on a) the searched words appearing on your web page and b) how often the appear and c) where they appear. Actually it’s a lot more complex than that, but for this simple illustration it’s enough. And I want to move onto the more important topic:


On the web not all websites are created equal. Those which have few links going to them are, to put it bluntly, less important than those to which many people have linked. So sites such as BBC and Amazon are massively important, as they have been linked by so many people. A link to a website is like a vote of confidence in that site – it translates almost directly into pure importance. OK, it’s more complex than that, but you get the idea.

So if you’re a little unimportant site, and you get linked from an important site, it has a positive effect. Suddenly Google says “Well, I thought that little site was unimportant, but look who has just linked to it! I’d better push it up the search results a bit.” And a few links from a few high-profile sites is like a Hollywood A-lister calling round your house and saying “Hey, come on, I’m taking you out drinking with my A-lister buddies”. It has a positive effect.

So what has this to do with social networks? A lot, as it’s exactly how social networks operate as well. The more people you have as “friends” and have you as a “friend” the more important you are. Great, fame and fortune awaits.

Except it’s all bullshiitake (to borrow a phrase from Guy). For more information on that see my recent post about social engineering.

Social engineering

A few weeks ago I had a message from one of the popular social networking websites of which, for some reason, I’ve found myself a member. The message stated that someone wanted to be my friend – someone whose name I recognised. I read the message and for a brief moment was happy that this person had contacted me after several years.

But then I read the message carefully and realised something was wrong. It was an automated message; there was nothing personal in it at all. My friend, who I haven’t spoken too in a few years, simply pressed a button and a series of digital widgets started the process to make us “friends”.

It would be easy to blame my friend, but he’s only doing what thousands if not millions of people are doing every day. These social networking sites make it very easy to create these digital connections, and the very fact that the numbers of friends that a user has on these sites is displayed turns it into a kind of competition. Remember, human beings are by nature competitive – it’s how we’ve survived for tens of thousands of years. But online social networking websites, on the whole, are putting quantity above quality when it comes to relationships.

The fact is that social networking is a poor substitute for real, tangible friendships. Can anyone really have hundreds or thousands of friends with whom they have a meaningful relationship? I doubt it, even if you discount a large percentage as being the online equivalent of those people you know by sight but wouldn’t necessarily say more than “alright?” to them if you saw them in the street.

The problem lies in the glut of information available online about people. If you’re a fully committed member of a social networking site then the chances are you’ve added details such as your name, age, sex, location, education, likes, dislikes, recent experiences and much more. That will be all there in searchable, copyable format, possibly in the public domain. Rather than evenings spent chatting and comparing upbringings over a few pints, you can get to know the basics about someone by reading an online crib sheet on them without ever having met them. In my view that doesn’t make for quality friendships, but rather shallow connections.

You may think I’m entirely against social networking sites, but that is far from the truth. I’m a big believer in the Internet acting as the conduit along which real relationships can be forged and grow. After all, I’ve created several social networking sites and I continue to write on this blog which invites comments from any reader. However I do believe that any online system can only act as one of the threads tying people together in friendship. While the global nature of the Internet means that friendships can occur across potentially insurmountable physical distances, the danger is that physical distance will mean emotional distance as well.

Anyone can create a profile on the Internet and with judicious writing and careful management present a “face” to the Internet which is entirely incorrect. That’s not unheard of in the physical world, of course, but it’s a whole lot easier to do online. So your collection of hundreds of friends may contain duds, and who knows how many?

In the past I’ve not been as careful as I might have with what I have said online. Even with the most rudimentary searching skills it’s possible to find things I’ve written going back over 10 years, not all of it necessarily words I would endorse now. On the whole, however, I’ve been careful about what connections I make – and many of my online friends I’ve met in person several times. Bearing in mind my recent experiences with the friend-who-nearly-was I’m going to continue to be careful who I forge relationships with online. Perhaps the word “friend” should not be bandied around so lightly.

The Jazz Programmer

It seems everyone these days wants to be famous. However the vast majority of them don’t want to do the work required to be famous for anything worthwhile. They want to be famous for, well, being famous. They want to be rock stars.

The programming world seems to have been taken over by this attitude, with an increasing number of job adverts looking for a “rock star” developers. But is that really what the web and business in general, needs? I’m not so sure.

Ron Evans at Dead Programmers Society compares rock stars to jazz musicians, and I think the parallels can be easily seen with developers. I like to think I have a bit of insight into this area, being both a developer and having a degree in jazz (yes, really).

There are three basic ways in which programming and being a jazz player are similar:

The great thing about being a jazz player is the more you know the more you know you have to learn. The tough thing about being a jazz player is the more you know the more you know you have to learn. It’s the same with programming – there is no end to learning because programming, like music, is not a static thing. It changes, evolves, continually and you have to keep up if you want to succeed.

The great thing about being a jazz player is there are few rules. The tough thing about being a jazz player is there are few rules. Just like programming, the rules you follow are reasonably simple at heart. In jazz if you break the rules it doesn’t sound right; in programming if you break the rules then the application doesn’t compile. But even within those rules there is huge freedom of expression, a thousand ways to say/do the same thing.

The great thing about being a jazz player is the fact you can play “off” other people. The tough thing about being a jazz player is the fact you can play “off” other people. I work in a team of 6 developers, we all have our own styles and experience. We all share the strengths we have, and we create good stuff. Just like a band who gig together regularly, there’s an appreciation there of each other – even if we sometimes disagree about some things.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many fantastically talented and graciously generous people around the web who have shared code, understanding and insight with the world. So too I owe a huge debt of gratitude to those people who through their music have shared much that is both tangible and ethereal with the world.

This entry is in memory of the late, great Oscar Peterson. Rest in peace, Oscar.

Unplanned marketing

Let me tell you a story. This is about me and my friend Toby. We’re both musicians (although Toby is a proper musician who Does Gigs and Gets Paid for them) and we’re both into obscure, unheard-of music.

Two weeks ago I gave Toby a hundred or so tracks by a very eclectic mix of artists, mostof which he’d never heard of, to see if he liked any of it. It’s all stuff I like, mainly collected from websites like 2Hive and Aurgasm. He put it all on his MP3 player and off we went to enjoy our Christmas breaks, and hopefully Toby liked at least some of the music.

What happened there? What did that music represent? Who benefited from that transaction? The answer to that last question is easy: everyone. I benefited as I helped to strengthen my friendship with Toby (unless he hated all the music, of course). Toby benefited as he got a load of new music to listen to. And the artists benefited as it’s spread their music further than it would have otherwise gone, and may well result in a couple of sales, a couple of extra concert tickets bought, or just a greater awareness of who they are.

That music was what Hugh MacLeod calls a Social Object. Something that either brings people together, or gives their social interactions an angle when they are together.

So what did I do for that music? In the traditional, now rapidly becoming more defunct business model, I was marketing that music. Except I wasn’t, I was just letting my friend know about some music I like. So if it’s not marketing, what is it? Marketing 2.0? Unmarketing? I think it was just unplanned marketing.

Traditional marketing has been very regimented; as planned as it can be. Marketers know what sector of society they want to target, what time of day their TV adverts will go on, what magazines they will publish adverts in. This new kind of marketing is unplanned, natural, authentic. And it’s much more personal. I won’t try to sell Toby something I know he doesn’t want or won’t like (I think there’s only me in the world who likes banana sandwiches) but when it comes to shared social objects – music, whisky, table tennis, a love of the worlds strongest man competition – traditional marketing hasn’t got a chance.

Which is why Radioheads latest album launch was such a genius idea. It’s a shared object – they have lots of fans who could get the album easily and for free. It’s personal but global. And now they’ve launched a real, hold-in-your-hand version as well. The fact that they pretty much took over the music media for a couple of months tells you all you need to know – have something remarkable, a social object – and you’ll be noticed.

So the next time you’re talking with a friend and tell them how good your blender is, or the great book someone bought you for Christmas, or how comfortable your walking boots are, realise you’re doing unplanned marketing.