Coming to you via Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_9) AppleWebKit/537.71 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/7.0 Safari/537.71

November 9th, 2013

This history of the browser user-agent string evokes times past, when life on the World Wide Web was simpler, yet user-agent strings got more and more complicated.

The pity of it is that my favourite web browser1 ever never got popular enough for anyone else to want to pretend to be it.

[Via The Tao Of Mac]

  1. I do wish Omni Group had kept actively developing OmniWeb. You can still download it, but they stopped doing anything with it beyond maintenance releases years ago. Even so, if they'd ever fixed some weird shortcomings in the program's Applescript support I'd probably still be using it as my main web browser to this day.

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Subcompact Publishing

November 27th, 2012

Craig Mod is excited by the possibilities of Subcompact Publishing:

In 1967 Honda unveiled the N360.

The N360 was a kei, or light style car; a subcompact.

I like to imagine the engineers at Honda huddled together, dumping the sum total of all car design and production technology on our worn, wooden table. Around they gathered and together they asked, "What's the simplest thing we can build with this?"

[...]

The N360 was something an American car company would never dream of producing. You can't blame them though: they had no incentive by which to dream such dreams. Unlike the American automotive industry, the Japanese automotive industry wasn't beholden to industry momentum or legacy. And when you're not beholden to legacy, you can be excessively brazen.

In the software industry we talk about MVPs, or Minimum Viable Products. The N360 was a Minimum Viable Car.

The N360 didn't make it to the States, but the followup – and near equally cute – N600 did. Next came the Honda Civic, then soon after, the oil crisis. We all know how the story goes from there.

[...]

Honda was a nobody in the car industry. But they gained foothold and marketshare by building a car that was more appropriate for many consumers. They had built a subcompact.

So I ask: where are our digital publishing subcompacts?

Mod spends a fair bit of time extolling the virtues of Marco Arment's The Magazine, which I wrote about back when it launched. I've maintained my subscription through the first four issues, but I have to admit that I'm wavering over whether to retain it. The application's virtues remain – it's a beautifully polished application, even if I'd like more control over the presentation of the content that it permits,1 but the content isn't that interesting to me.

In principle, an article extolling the virtues of a wet shave, or the proper way to make a cup of tea could be engaging and fun to read, even to a hirsute guy like me who would quench his thirst with a Diet Coke rather than brew a cup of tea every time; in practice I haven't found them to be so. I'm finding that on average there's one article per issue that I find moderately engaging. It doesn't help that some of the writers, whose work I've read on their own weblogs, are covering very familiar ground. Marco did say early on that he hoped to expand the pool of writers after the first few issues, so I'll probably give it another couple of issues to see if things improve.

Having said all that (and to get back to the ostensible topic of this post), there's no doubt in my mind that the basic model of Subcompact Publishing could well develop in all sorts of interesting ways, freeing up writers to write instead of having to code an application and submit it to someone's app store. It's just a shame that whatever tools people come up with will most likely end up being tied to a specific operating system/hardware type/payment mechanism.

Isn't this a problem the web was supposed to have solved by now?

[Via Marco.org]

  1. In particular, I like pagination in my reading apps, dammit! Marco has explained in one of his podcasts that flexible, high-quality pagination is really complicated to do well so for now he's going with a scrolling view.

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CustomReader

November 3rd, 2012

Ever since Apple introduced the Reader feature to Safari, I've been forced to engage in the same ritual after every update to Safari. The thing is, Reader does quite a good job of rendering a cluttered web page readable, but it insists on doing it using justified text, which looks hideous. The (not very user-friendly) way to fix this was to find the Reader.html file buried inside the Safari application package and add a simple text-align: left; to the CSS embedded in that file and save it. Problem solved, except that after each Safari update you'd almost certainly have to repeat the trick. Better still, in some updates Apple changed the location of the damned file so you'd have to figure out where it lived now before you could apply the fix.

After the update to Safari 6 I found the latest home of the Reader.html file and applied my customary edit, but for some reason Safari ignored the revised CSS and kept on rendering justified text in Reader. In searching for hints as to why this might be happening, I came across a much better answer: CustomReader:

With CustomReader, you can change pretty much any aspect of Safari Reader's appearance. CustomReader's settings panel has a graphical user interface that lets you edit a few basic settings, like body font and background color, with a few clicks. But the true power of CustomReader lies in the Advanced tab, where you can directly edit the custom stylesheet that the extension inserts into Safari Reader. By editing this stylesheet, you can override any of Safari Reader's built-in styles with one of your own.

CustomReader has another feature that may be of interest to some. If you find yourself frequently invoking Safari Reader on a certain kind of page at a specific site – for instance, articles on the New York Times website – you can have CustomReader automatically enter the reader whenever you open that kind of page.

It works!1 And with any luck it'll keep working after the next Safari update.

  1. I do have one small quibble. That 'invoke Reader automatically if you visit a specific site' option requires you to enter an escaped version of the site's address: not www.independent.co.uk/, but //www\.independent\.co\.uk/.+. I understand why it's doing that – using a regexp allows for more flexibility in choosing which subsections of a site should trigger Reader – but surely there could be a simple 'trigger-for-this-entire-domain' option that would do the job for 95% of prospective users. But then, probably 98% of Safari users either don't care about text justification badly enough to see this as a problem that needs resolving, or else wouldn't want to touch the CSS for Reader anyway.

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451

June 20th, 2012

I love the fact that Tim Bray is so keen that his proposal for a new HTTP status code for cases where access to a resource is blocked for legal reasons incorporates a Latin example that is both grammatical and historically accurate:

One of the things in the proposal is that the 451 Unavailable for Legal Reasons status is sup­posed to be ac­companied by an explanation of what the legal restrictions are, and what class of sites they apply to. The proposal has an ex­ample, and since obviously you don't want to use any real legal author­i­ties in this situation, I decided to pick on the Roman Empire:

This re­quest may not be serviced in the Roman Province of Judea due to Lex3515, the Legem Ne Subversionem Act of AUC755, which dis­al­lows access to re­sources hosted on servers deemed to be operated by the Judean Liberation Front.

[...]

But I made up the name of the Roman law by typing some­thing into Google Trans­late. So… does any­one read­ing this know what a plausible Latin name would be for such a law, and how it would be cited? Roman his­tory is full of law­suits, so I assume it must have been a fairly routine operation. Thanks in ad­vance.

Attention to detail1 being very much the mark of the Alpha Geek.

  1. And yes, he's already acknowledged that he muffed the Monty Python joke, and will be inserting a reference to the People's Front of Judea in a future revision.

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The Future of Publishing v5.0 beta 1

May 7th, 2012

Technology Review publisher Jason Pontin learned the hard way that Apps weren't the future of publishing after all:

[...] Tablets and smart phones seemed to promise a return to simpler days. Digital replicas of print newspapers and magazines (which could be read inside Web browsers or proprietary software like Adobe PDF readers) had never been popular with readers; but publishers reasoned that replicas were unpleasant to read on desktop computers and laptops.

The forms of tablets and smart phones were a little like a magazine or newspaper. Couldn't publishers delight readers by delivering something similar to existing digital replicas, suitably enhanced with interactive features, which would run in applications on tablets and smart phones? [...]

Here's hoping that the magazine's solution – transitioning to an enhanced web site built to accommodate all sorts of screen sizes, complete with an RSS feed to let users keep track of all the content they publish – ends up netting them enough income to keep publishing.

[Via Scripting News]

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Haters gonna Hate, Hat-Tippers gonna Tip their Hats

March 21st, 2012

Following on from the flurry of comment on the Curator's Code the other week1, the Code's creator Maria Popova has responded. In a manner of speaking.

Unfortunately, Popova has responded not so much by addressing the points people have made – be they about why the term 'curation' is inappropriate or about how unsuitable obscure Unicode symbols are as substitutes for the phrases 'Hat Tip' or 'Via' at the end of a post – but by spending three quarters of her post quoting paragraph-long passages from the essays of Albert Einstein on 'the ties of sympathy', 'public opinion', 'our interconnectedness, interdependency, and shared existence', 'good and evil, creative bravery, and human value', and 'life's highest ideals' before alluding to the way that some commenters have responded to her suggestion with 'venom and mean-spirited derision' before pivoting away from the substance of the arguments being made about her project and talking instead about how unacceptable cruelty is and how disappointed she is in many of those who have criticised her suggestion.

To be clear: Maria Popova is perfectly entitled to be offended and upset at criticism she feels to be other than 'constructive' and to call out the community accordingly.2 For what it's worth, I don't think that most of the commentary she linked to (or that I've seen for myself elsewhere) was particularly aggressive or derogatory or bullying. Sceptical as to the benefits of her suggested approach? For sure. Put off by what they saw as the misapplication of the term 'curation'? Absolutely. But with one exception3 they weren't particularly personal or bullying, let alone 'sinister'. But I also recognise that I've almost certainly seen only a small portion of the total response, and in any case it's not my call to make; if Popova felt attacked then of course it's for her to respond as she sees fit. I'm just finding it really hard to square the discussion that I saw going on in various corners of the web with the vicious debate Popova is describing.

It's a shame that she devotes so much space in her post to inspirational quotations and so little to addressing the arguments people made in response to her suggestion, given that she's making a post on the same site where she announced the launch of the Code? Why accuse critics of factual inaccuracies but not address them right there?

To be fair, Popova does mention and link to one site where there's some discussion of the pros and cons of her idea, but it's mostly commentary from third parties and the comments from her that they cite only addresses the issues to the extent that she argues that the Curator's Code site (which, remember, offers bookmarklets for download, all set for users to install so that bloggers content curators can easily insert appropriately-formatted links including her chosen Unicode symbols to their posts) wasn't really about the Unicode symbols or even about her site, it was about 'the bigger point' of why 'curation' matters. If you make specific proposals with accompanying blocks of Javascript code, I think it's incumbent upon you to address issues people raise in detail, not just lament the incivility of those who raise questions about your proposal and airily refer to notions about how now the details aren't important.

[Via swissmiss. Given the context, I can't believe that I forgot to add a 'Via' block to my first draft of this post!]

  1. See my post on the subject here, and a trio of posts at Pop Loser including links to some of the commentary elsewhere here, here and here.
  2. And, to clarify still further, I'm not writing this because I feel that she's directly, or even implicitly, criticising what I wrote about her proposal. First because I'm approximately 99.753% certain that she'll never have noticed what I wrote, and second because I don't think I was in any way venomous or mean-spirited in my post. If you think otherwise, please tell me so.
  3. A tweet linking to an extremely juvenile animated .GIF. Which is at best an impolite but snarky comment on the amount of intellectual masturbation going on over this topic – to which I plead guilty to adding my portion right here in this post! – and is not anyone's idea of a civil contribution to the debate. But it's also atypical of the level of commentary out there.

1 Comment »

The Twungle

March 18th, 2012

Margaret Atwood has posted another1 tribute to the Twungle:

[On Twitter...] you find yourself doing all sorts of things you wouldn't otherwise do. And once you've entered the Enchanted E-Forest, lured in there by cute bunnies and playful kittens, you can find yourself wandering around in it for quite some time. You might even find yourself climbing the odd tree – the very odd tree – or taking refuge in the odd hollow log – the very odd hollow log – because cute bunnies and playful kittens are not the only things alive in the mirkwoods of the Web. Or the webs of the mirkwoods. Paths can get tangled there. Plots can get thickened. Games are afoot.

  1. Previously.

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[Via Pop Loser, H/T The Curator's Code]

March 11th, 2012

I've read Introducing The Curator's Code: A Standard for Honoring Attribution of Discovery Across the Web three times now and I still don't see what it accomplishes.

Part of the problem, I'll admit, is that I just don't like the use of the word "curation" to describe the process of writing a linklog. I've been posting links and adding a 'Via' link showing where I got the main link from for twelve years now,1 but I'd never dream of suggesting that I've been 'curating' a collection. It seems to me that the term 'curation' implies a distinctly strategic approach, putting together collections of objects that are somehow related to one another, or which comment on one another in some respect. The only conscious strategy I've applied is that of posting links to the things I've found interesting/amusing online. I don't doubt that looking at my 'body of work' will reveal some clues as to what sort of subject matter I'm interested in, and probably also some shifts over time in what I post about, but I'm under no illusions that my interests are different to those of dozens hundreds thousands millions of ageing English-speaking geeks out there. I do this not because I'm trying to build up a coherent collection, but because sharing links is, at some level, what the World Wide Web was made for. I don't want to just be reading the web without giving something back, and both writing a weblog and attributing my sources are part of that.

Anyway, setting aside my doubts about the use of the term 'curation', I don't see what the use of a special Unicode symbol to mark a 'Via' or a 'Hat Tip' link adds to the web. Those Unicode symbols presumably have other uses, so you can't rely on them a semantic indicators: they're just a text decoration that will mean absolutely nothing to anyone unfamiliar with the concept of the Curator's Code. It'd be immensely helpful if there was a <via> HTML tag that denoted the source of an item and could be used both to style the text on a web page and to allow web tools to latch onto 'Via' links and make some use of them, but really all this is it's a side issue.

The important principle is the question of a weblog author's willingness to attribute the source of a post. Most people who write linklogs (or post to Tumblr, or maintain publicly accessible lists of links at Pinboard or Delicious or wherever) decided a long time ago whether they wanted to go to the trouble of attributing the source of the items they found. I suspect that their decision had very little to do with whether there was a universally recognised Unicode character to use to tag their 'Via' links.

[Via Pop Loser]

  1. Whatever you do, don't be surprised if some of the internal links on those pages don't work. I really should have put thebeard.org to some other use once I migrated the weblog to soreeyes.org years ago now, but somehow I've repeatedly got to the stage of installing a new CMS but then not knowing what I want to use it to publish.

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He did it!

March 4th, 2012

Tristan Louis has a confession to make:

I killed the internet.

It wasn't some thing I had planned but it was the net result of my actions. And I'm going to explain how it happened. [...]

[Via James Fallows]

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Graphic designers aren't ruining the web

February 19th, 2012

John Naughton's article charging that Graphic designers are ruining the web isn't entirely fair to graphic designers. In fact, to my mind it's a rare example of Naughton being almost completely wrong.

It's only occasionally a case of designers trying to design prettier pages and increasing the size and number of files required to produce their desired look; more often, the root of the problem is the desire of publishers to embed a couple of dozen separate objects on a page, many of them being links to social networking sites or pointers to other parts of the site you're on. And, of course, adverts. Lots of adverts.

As it happens, I was so tired of the Guardian's site cramming the articles I read into less than half of my browser's window and surrounding it with extraneous crap that I read Naughton's article using the wonderful Instapaper Text bookmarklet: much better. The Readability Bookmarklets do a similar job, and with the bonus that a share of your monthly subscription1 can be claimed by the publisher, providing them with at least some income to compensate them for the income they wouldn't have got from the ads you didn't see.2

  1. In proportion to the share of your reading via Readability that month.
  2. And probably wouldn't have clicked on anyway.

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Cyberflâneurs revisited

February 8th, 2012

Evgeny Morozov laments The Death of the Cyberflâneur:

THE other day, while I was rummaging through a stack of oldish articles on the future of the Internet, an obscure little essay from 1998 – published, of all places, on a Web site called Ceramics Today – caught my eye. Celebrating the rise of the "cyberflâneur," it painted a bright digital future, brimming with playfulness, intrigue and serendipity, that awaited this mysterious online type. This vision of tomorrow seemed all but inevitable at a time when "what the city and the street were to the Flâneur, the Internet and the Superhighway have become to the Cyberflâneur."

Intrigued, I set out to discover what happened to the cyberflâneur. While I quickly found other contemporaneous commentators who believed that flânerie would flourish online, the sad state of today's Internet suggests that they couldn't have been more wrong. Cyberflâneurs are few and far between, while the very practice of cyberflânerie seems at odds with the world of social media. What went wrong? And should we worry? [...]

Morozov's argument is that most web users these days aren't going online to see if there's anything interesting out there today: they're shopping, or seeking out news headlines, or engaging with one another via walled gardens1 like Facebook.

He's not wrong that this is a description of how people choose to use the web, but I don't think that's necessarily a problem, any more than it's a problem that a lot of people who use public libraries will be engaging in a goal-oriented search for books that can improve their chances of passing an exam/finding a job/understanding what sort of optical aids they'll need if they want to see the Galilean moons of Jupiter, rather than browsing the New Fiction shelves for something to divert them from their daily routine. I suspect than most of the people walking the streets of late 19th century Paris weren't flâneurs, any more than most web users in 2001 wrote weblogs. The beauty of the web is that it lets us find and connect with other people who share our interests without letting that fact that 99.754% of web users aren't even slightly geeky about the same things as you and I get in our way, or theirs.

It's possible that one day Facebook's gravitational pull will cause us all to close down our vanity domains and start posting to our Facebook walls, but I'm sceptical that'll come to pass any time soon.

[Via Fimoculous.com]

  1. That's not the best metaphor, I suppose. Facebook isn't so much setting up walls as turnstiles – making it easy for information to come into Facebook from services that embrace Facebook's system of 'frictionless sharing', but hoping that their users will be so comfortable that they won't worry too much about what's going on outside.

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MegaUpload Reloaded

January 25th, 2012

Web designers all agree: the FBI's seizure of MegaUpload is a disgrace

Let's check out the source of the page:

<html>
<title>NOTICE</title>
<body>
<img src="banner.jpg"/>
</body>
</html>

No JavaScript. No AJAX. No CSS. Not even any tables. The image doesn't have ALT tags. Maybe you're not worried about Google indexing this page, or visually impaired people being able to read it, but I hope you realize you are just flushing the last 8 years of the Internet down the toilet. Interestingly, you went with the trailing slash that closes empty elements in XHTML but the DOCTYPE is…nothing. Whatever – this stuff is for nerds.

What we need to focus on is what a colossal missed opportunity this is for you. MegaUpload is down and the notice on the site is getting tons of exposure [...]

You must plan these operations, right? I mean, it's not like you just randomly seize private property on a whim. This is a failure of project management. You can't just bring in a designer at the last minute and expect them to polish your design turd. This is your chance to shine. Go wild. [...]

[Via Snarkmarket]

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444 is adorable

December 14th, 2011

HTTP Status Cats.1

[Via MetaFilter]

  1. To do: edit WordPress configuration to include local copies of the appropriate images in error pages.

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Really!

November 30th, 2011

Siri's apparent unwillingness to provide useful responses to search queries relating to birth control makes Apple look terrible. I wonder how much embarrassment it would take for Apple to cite the program's 'Beta' status and pull it for a while so they can work the bugs out?

For what it's worth, I'd be astounded if the behaviour people are reporting is the result of a deliberate strategy on Apple's part of trying to avoid giving information about contraception, rape and so on. If it is, it's clearly very poorly implemented, both because the iPhone will happily let you google for them1 and because it's such a hot button subject that there's no way it would have gone unnoticed for long.

I strongly suspect that Siri's anomalous behaviour will turn out to be some combination of the user's location, the quality and consistency of data in the databases and directories Siri is acting as a front end for, and some rough edges in Siri's code. Running natural language search queries against third party databases is hard: doing so when your data providers may themselves be erring on the side of caution when it comes to tagging and categorising the data you're accessing is never going to be close to completely accurate. Doing all that and having Siri respond in colloquial English rather than displaying less user-friendly but more informative error messages like "Connection refused" or "0 records found", and thus making every failed query look like the result of a conscious decision on Siri's part. isn't helping one little bit.

Whatever the reason, it'll be interesting to see how Apple respond.

[Via MetaFilter]

  1. Thus shredding any argument Apple might make that they're attempting to shield young iPhone users from information that some jurisdictions might not want them to be able to access.

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ZoomBySite

November 27th, 2011

One for the Safari users among you: the ZoomBySite extension makes Safari remember the zoom level you applied last time you visited a site, then automatically applies it again for future visits. Marvelous for the many web sites that assume we all still have the eyes of our 21 year old selves.

The one feature ZoomBySite is missing is that it doesn't respect Safari's Zoom Text Only setting and always zooms both text and images. You can still use the default Safari zoom feature, so it's not a disaster, but it's mildly irritating to have to switch to the native Safari method for some sites when ZoomBySite otherwise does such a good job.

Apart from that quirk, ZoomBySite does one thing and does it really well: recommended.

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The shame is not ours

November 25th, 2011

Brent Simmons on The Readable Future:

No app built for reading starts with the premise that the publisher has done an acceptable job.

I wish I shared Simmons' optimism that the public's desire to read clean, easy to read web pages will push publishers towards tidying up their web sites. I think instead we'll see publishers trying really hard to push users to access their sites using custom apps where the publishers can control the user experience and perhaps even charge for access to their content beyond a certain minimal level, and putting as much of their web-based content as they can get away with behind a paywall.

I hope I'm wrong, but I reckon that we're in for at least another decade of news sites being festooned with all sorts of non-content in the hope that somehow the site will attract enough page impressions and thus advertising revenue to compensate for the decline in print circulation.

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35.9 million versus 73.5 million

November 23rd, 2011

Tom Morris on why WebFonts matter.1

  1. Clue: it's got nothing to do with how pretty they can make our web pages look.

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We're all nude and available

October 15th, 2011

Evgeny Morozov finds Jeff Jarvis' latest paean to the wonders of the internet deeply flawed, and rather unserious:

Why are we so obsessed with privacy? Jarvis blames rapacious privacy advocates – "there is money to be made in privacy" – who are paid to mislead the "netizens," that amorphous elite of cosmopolitan Internet users whom Jarvis regularly volunteers to represent in Davos. On Jarvis's scale of evil, privacy advocates fall between Qaddafi's African mercenaries and greedy investment bankers. All they do is "howl, cry foul, sharpen arrows, get angry, get rankled, are incredulous, are concerned, watch, and fret." Reading Jarvis, you would think that Privacy International (full-time staff: three) is a terrifying behemoth next to Google (lobbying expenses in 2010: $5.2 million).

"Privacy should not be our only concern," Jarvis declares. "Privacy has its advocates. So must publicness." He compiles a long and somewhat tedious list of the many benefits of "publicness": "builds relationships," "disarms strangers," "enables collaboration," "unleashes the wisdom (and generosity) of the crowd," "defuses the myth of perfection," "neutralizes stigmas," "grants immortality … or at least credit," "organizes us," and even "protects us." Much of this is self-evident. Do we really need to peek inside the world of Internet commerce to grasp that anyone entering into the simplest of human relationships surrenders a modicum of privacy? But Jarvis has mastered the art of transforming the most trivial observations into empty business maxims.

Contrary to Jarvis' protestations, Morozov's review doesn't read to me as a personal attack – more a clinical, brutal dismantling of a collection of shallow cliches in support of the argument that we shouldn't worry about the way pretty much every commercial entity we deal with online seeks to hoover up as much personal information about our use of the internet as it can because the (somewhat nebulous) benefits outweigh the potential problems. So long as you respect your cultural norms, you'll be fine.

[Via The Awl]

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Tangle

October 12th, 2011

Bookmarked to geek out over later: Tangle – a JavaScript library for reactive documents.

"Reactive documents" is such a dull term: just go and play with the examples and you'll see how much fun could be had if your documents could act like spreadsheets.1

[Via The Tao of Mac]

  1. I realise that's not exactly an enticing prospect to some, but it's a a truly neat idea, nicely implemented. Honest!

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Delicious just can't understand why it's the shy, quiet ones who get all the girls.

October 3rd, 2011

The relaunch of Delicious (minus several useful features) has resulted in another wave of interest in Pinboard. Co-founder Maciej Cegłowski welcomes the newcomers:

For any bookmarking site, the fan subculture is valuable because it makes such heavy and creative use of tagging, and because they are great collaborators. I can't think of a better way to stress-test a site then to get people filling it with Inception fanfic. You will get thoughtful, carefully-formatted bug reports; and if you actually fix something someone might knit you a sweater. And please witness the 50 page spec, complete with code samples, table of contents, summary, tutorial, and flawless formatting, the community produced in about two days after I asked them in a single tweet what features they would want to see in Pinboard*. These people do not waste time.

* See also: this.

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