Reflecting on 2014, a couple of themes:

  • Reclaim. In the past, I’ve written about taking back technologies from corporate entities. This year, I’ve found myself embarking on what I consider to be the natural extension of Project Reclaim: taking back my attention from technologies. In April I ditched my smartphone, and in September I stopped using Twitter. Each decision arose from a desire to devote more of my limited mental and emotional energies on things that matter most to me, like my family and my work. In each case, the pull of inertia was strong – the natural thing was to continue using the tools, just like everyone else around me was doing – but in each case, the rewards of letting go have been significant.
  • Ease. My wife and I decided over dinner tonight that 2014 felt easy. We didn’t move this year. We enjoyed satisfying jobs and financial stability. Our son transitioned from a toddler to a very nice little boy. In contrast, our family has a number of very large changes coming in 2015, changes that will be hard in many ways. So the relative and welcome easiness of 2014 is worth a moment’s pause.
  • ShippingDuring 2014, BuddyPress shipped a number of major versions. I put a huge amount of time into BP 2.0, as both a developer and a release manager, and I think it paid off – IMHO it’s one of the most important releases in BuddyPress history. BuddyPress 2.2 will come in the first weeks of 2015, and it too promises to be a really important release. In addition, I was invited to join the WordPress core team for the 4.1 release, an experience that’s been fulfilling in its own way. Considered alongside a number of successful client project launches, I’ve been involved in a happily large number of solid software releases this year.

A big year ahead, but for now, за ваше здоровье!

Project Reclaim update

Back in March 2011, I kicked off the Project Reclaim project. Since then, others have picked up where I’ve left off – most notably, Doug Belshaw and D’Arcy Norman (who have surpassed me both in the reclaiming and in the blogging about the reclaiming). Behind my radio silence, though, has been a flurry of recent reclaiming activity:

  • I’m mostly de-Mac-ified. I recently bought a Samsung Series 9, which is serving as a stopgap full-time machine until I have the time to set up a desktop Linux rig. On day one, I wiped the Windows 7 installation and installed Arch Linux. It took some time to get set up, and I’m still using my Mac for a couple of things (Picasa, Skype, the old Adobe AIR Tweetdeck), but I’m almost totally moved over. I may write a post or two in the upcoming weeks about specific parts of the transition – there were some pain points, to be sure, especially in the initial setup. But, in general, it’s been smoother, easier, and more pleasurable than I would have guessed. Using Linux full time makes me feel like I’m back in the driver’s seat of my computing life, and it feels extra good to know that 95% of the software on my full-time machine is non-proprietary.
  • At the same time that I moved to Linux, I also switched to Vim. I’d been a user of BBEdit, which is a really great piece of software, but moving away from the Mac meant I had to choose something else. So I figured I’d go for the powerhouse of all text editors. Vim has a certain allure. When I was younger, I studied jazz piano. I remember watching my instructor play and being driven nearly to tears: I understood, in broad strokes, what he was doing and why it sounded the way it did, but it crushed me that I couldn’t translate that knowledge into the same kind of performance magic that he could. I feel much the same way about Vim masters. I’m far from a master, but I’m getting much much more fluent. Also, of course, Vim is non-proprietary, and it gives me major geek cred. So, big win all around. I should note that the Vim transition has actually been far more difficult than the Linux transition, and it was only after about four or five weeks of full-time use that I started to feel like I was back to my pre-switch level of productivity. (In this sense, it was a lot like switching from QWERTY to Dvorak.)

The big proprietary services and software products left in my life are Dropbox and Twitter. Moving away from Dropbox is fairly simple – see D’Arcy’s great posts on his experiments with Owncloud – I’ve just been lazy about it. Twitter is far more complicated, both technically and socially, as well as far more pressing, given Twitter’s recent NBCishness. So that’s the next mountain to climb.

How many others have been Reclaiming over the last year or two? Would love to see more projects along the lines of D’Arcy’s and Doug’s.

BuddyPress and the YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter plugin

A few weeks ago, I wrote about reclaiming short URLs using YOURLS. That post raised some interest among the CUNY Academic Commons team in having a URL shortener just for the Commons, with full integration into BuddyPress. So I emailed Ozh Richard, author of YOURLS, about the possibility of adding BuddyPress support to his official YOURLS WordPress plugin, YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter. He graciously accepted my offer to do the leg work.

Today I’m releasing the fruits of this collaboration: version 1.5 of YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter. YWTT 1.5 automatically detects when you’re running BuddyPress, and adds the following BP-specific features:

  • Member and Group URLs – Generate short URLs for member profiles and for group home pages.
  • A “pretty URL” setting – Instead of generating random URLs (like http://blo.so/54), you can make member and/or group members ‘pretty’ (like http://blo.so/username or http://blo.so/groupname).
  • User customizability – Optionally, you can add new options under groups’ Admin > Group Settings and members’ Settings > Short URL allowing users to request a custom short URL of their choice. (This feature requires that you set YOURLS_UNIQUE_URLS to false in your YOURLS configuration file.)

Down the road, I plan to flesh out BP-YOURLS functionality, with optional short URLs for forum topics, activity items, and so on.

I’ve also slipped full localization support into version 1.5. Send me your mo/po translation files if you’d like them to be distributed with the plugin.

Download YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter 1.5, with BP support.

Shorten your own dang URLs

In my last Project Reclaim post, I talked about using WordPress as a Twitpic-like personal mobile photo service. When the ultimate goal of the photoblog is to send a tweet, it’s almost always necessary to use a URL shortener. But trusting your URL shortening to a free service is a dangerous move. If that service goes out of business, or if they decide to take down the database for some reason or other, the links in those tweets will break. (This problem is delightfully called “linkrot”.)

So, while URL shorteners are sometimes necessary, they’re also an obvious instance for reclaiming your data. Moving to your own URL shortener means that you control the domain, you control the content, you can back up the database however you’d like, etc.

I went with a piece of software called YOURLS. It’s written by Ozh Richard, a WordPress developer, and there’s a slick WP plugin that makes it a great choice for use with my WP photoblog. Here’s a short walkthrough of how I set it up.


  • Get a domain. Something short is nice, obviously. I just started typing two- and three-letter domains into my domain registrar’s search box (I use Dynadot), which showed me the top-level domains available, until I found one that was easy to look at and remember (http://blo.so). Make sure you do whatever setup your registrar requires to get the domain working – probably as simple as setting the nameservers to your host’s NS addresses.
  • Install YOURLS. The instructions provided at the YOURLS site are pretty concise, but here’s the gist: upload the software to the server, create a new database, copy the sample configuration file to user/config.php, and fill in the configuration file with the proper database info, etc. You can get more YOURLS config info here.
  • Configure an Apache virtual host, if necessary. If your hosting provider doesn’t have cPanel or some other tool that easily lets you point your new short domain to a subdirectory, you’ll need to do it manually by creating a new Apache virtual host file and activating that site. This website has a pretty good explanation. But essentially, just copy the default configuration in sites-available (likely at /etc/apache2/sites-available) and change the info in the VirtualHost section.
  • Install the WordPress plugin. The YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter plugin is easy to install and set up. Once the plugin’s installed, go to Dashboard > Settings > YOURLS and fill in the necessary information. Setting up the Twitter bit is a pain, thanks to Twitter’s requirement that you get a developer’s key, but it’s easy to do. Just follow the on-screen instructions.

At this point, everything should be set up. Send a test post or two to try it out.

Bonus! Use me with Tweetdeck

YOURLS has a REST API that can be used with a bunch of applications. For instance, I’ve configured my TweetDeck installation to do its URL auto-shortening with blo.so. Go to Settings > Services and choose Other from the URL shortener dropdown. Your endpoint will look something like http://blo.so/yourls-api.php?signature=XXXXXXX&action=shorturl&url=%@&format=simple. You’ll have to replace blo.so with your own URL, of course, and the XXXXXXX signature with a custom YOURLS signature password. You can get it from the YOURLS admin screen (http://example.com/admin/tools.php > Secure passwordless API call)

Here’s the great thing. There’s no reason why a couple people can’t share a single YOURLS installation. In fact, I’ll put my money where my mouth is, and start my own URL shortening co-op. I’ll give usernames/passwords to blo.so to the first couple friends who want in. Send an email to boonebgorges at gmail if (1) you are my friend, (2) you want in on blo.so, and (3) you promise to actually use it and break the bit.ly/tinyurl habit.

Kicking the Twitpic habit with WordPress

Twitpic and its ilk are pretty convenient, especially when they’re integrated into mobile Twitter apps. But as recent articles have shown, the terms of service of such services can be downright icky. Twitpic may have changed its tune a few days after the outcry, but honestly, if it takes an outcry to make a company not be evil, then maybe you shouldn’t be dealing with that company.

This is a perfect little side project for Project Reclaim, and something of a no-brainer. Twitpic etc are stripped-down publishing platforms. I already run a couple installations of a non-stripped-down publishing platform, namely WordPress. So I set up my own photo blog in just a couple of minutes.

I already have an instance of WordPress Multisite that I use for a bunch of different purposes. So setting up the blog itself was easy – I went to my Network Admin panel and clicked Add Site. If you’ve never worked with WordPress Multisite before, you should know that it’s already built into the WordPress installation that you may already have. You can read more about how to turn on Multisite at the WordPress Codex, or you can watch a somewhat out-of-date but otherwise charming video of a handsome and engaging speaker talking on this very subject.

Then I found a theme that looks nice with photographs. I didn’t look very far. My favorite visual theme has, for some time, been Allan Cole’s AutoFocus. In the future, I’ll probably build a child theme that has a few tweaks appropriate for my mobile photo blog, but it works pretty nicely out of the box.

Then I fired up my WordPress Android app (there’s one for the iPhone too) and connected it to my new WordPress blog. (You’ll have to enable XML-RPC on your WP blog if you want to use the mobile app.) I tweaked a few of the blog setting in my app, so that the photo would be linked after I published it, and the thumbnails would be of an appropriate size.

Finally, I got a WordPress plugin that sends tweets every time a post is published on the photo blog. I’m using YOURLS (more on this in an upcoming Project Reclaim post), but there are lots of them out there that are freely available. Just search the WordPress plugin repository.

Now, when I want to tweet a picture, here’s what I do. Open the WP app. Create a new post. Click the Media button. Take the photo. Add the content of my tweet in the Title field. Publish. (Don’t have to do it in this order, of course.) Totally painless – and I don’t have to worry about any terms of service. Yippee!

For more reading, here’s another blog post about the very same idea.

Related posts:

  1. BuddyPress and the YOURLS: WordPress to Twitter plugin
  2. Shorten your own dang URLs
  3. Enabling Popularity Contest for WordPress networkwide use

Project Reclaim

Update: I have begun aggregating these posts at projectreclaim.net.

Lately I have been feeling increasingly uneasy about the state of my digital affairs. I am a leader on a number of open source software projects that pride themselves on, among other things, their ability to enable users to “own their own data”. Moreover, I am trained as a philosopher, and have spent a pretty fair amount of time reading and thinking carefully about the nature of data and our relationships with it. If anyone is in a position to develop and advocate for good models of digital independence, I am.

Yet, when I look around my digital world, I see instance after instance where I am, to a greater or lesser extent, completely reliant on the good will of commercial entities and their propietary systems. To wit:

  • My Twitter account is a big part of my online identity
  • The last five years of my private correspondence, personal and professional, is in Gmail
  • I use Dropbox for syncing documents between devices (like my blog_sandbox.txt file, where I’m writing this post!)
  • I use Picasa Web Albums to back up and share photos
  • I have a Mozy account to back up the rest of my important files
  • Until recently, I had an iPhone. I still use a Mac
  • I use Remember The Milk for task management
  • I store source code for all my projects in Github

Some of these are products; some are services. Some are free; some of them I pay for. And – for sure – some of the companies behind the products and services listed above are more evil than others. So I don’t want to pretend that my reliance on each of them is equally bad. But each item on this list plays a crucial role in my digital life, and each one of them operates in a way that is beyond my control, both literally (I can’t modify the source code) and more figuratively (questions about ownership, exportability, transportability are icky).

I’m planning to extricate myself.

Project Reclaim

In order to make it sound a bit fancier, I’m giving my project a name: Project Reclaim. ‘Reclaim’ because it’s a manifestation of my desire to fight the inertia that leads us to give up control over our computing experiences, my desire to reclaim control and ownership. ‘Project’ because this will be hard, and ongoing. And why give it a name at all? I’m hoping that, by being public about it – putting my experiences in a series of blog posts and tweets under a common tag – that I’ll be able to hold myself accountable, and hopefully guide others who are hoping to reclaim their lives a bit as well.

In short, Project Reclaim is the process of weaning oneself off of digital platforms that are closed source and/or under the control of others.


How will Project Reclaim actually work?

  1. Assess the situation I’ll first need a way of figuring out which systems and platforms are worth moving away from, what their replacements should be, and in what order I should effect the transition. I’ve got a few rules of thumb.
    • Open source is better than closed source. I write open-source software for a living. I believe that, on balance, it makes better software. And I believe that using software where one has access to the source code is a necessary component of maximizing one’s digital autonomy. Thus: if the third-party system I’m currently using is also a benefactor of open-source communities (like, say, wordpress.com), it makes it less urgent to move away. And, when selecting replacements, select open source if at all possible.
    • Paying is better than getting something for free This might seem like a contrast to the previous rule, but I don’t think it is. When you use a free service, somebody’s paying the bills. Usually that means targeted advertising – think Facebook and Gmail. Paying service fees, on the other hand, and agreeing to the contract that comes with it, generally has the effect of making the relationship more transparent. Of course, this is far from absolute, but it seems reasonable in a broad sense. Plus, I like to support developers and services that are truly valuable.
    • Go for the low-hanging fruit In cases like email, there are well-established, straightforward (though not necessarily easy…ugh) ways of fending for yourself. No need to invent the wheel. On the other hand, some of the areas where alternatives are less obvious – social networking-type data springs to mind – also happen to be areas where I have some expertise and leverage. So, in those cases, it might be worth innovating.
    • Get the important stuff first My email history is more important to me than my Twitter history; the convenience of Github is more valuable to me than the convenience of Dropbox. Plan the Reclaim accordingly.
    • Get the vulnerable stuff first Recent statements by Twitter have made me think that the way I interact with the services is more subject to change in the upcoming months than, say, the way I interact with Gmail. That’s frightening. The more profit-hungry the company is – and, thus, the more disinclined to have the customer’s freedoms in mind – the more urgent it is to pull yourself out.

    Clearly, some of these considerations are at odds with each other. But they give a rough framework for deciding whether, when, and how to carry out the mission of Project Reclaim.

  2. Make the switch Here’s where the action happens: I do what I need to do to move myself to the replacement.
  3. Write about it This weekend I spent an afternoon on the problem of Twitter, and I ran into a ton of technical problems that remain unresolved. I imagine that there will be similar hurdles for each part of the project. I’m hoping that, by writing about the problems (and, where they exist, the solutions) I can help other people to take some of the same steps themselves, or even to spur someone really smart to come up with better solutions than the ones that currently exist.

What I expect from myself

My goal, ultimately, is to move away from third-party, closed-source services and platforms altogether. It might take some time. So I’ll make some interim goals: by the end of 2011, I’m hoping to have my email moved, my microblogging federated, my own backup system on my own server space, and my computer running an open-source OS.

Even if I manage to meet this goal, there’s a very real sense in which Project Reclaim will necessarily be an exercise in futility. I’ll always have to buy server space, and who’s to say that Amazon or Slicehost won’t go berserk tomorrow? I’ll always have to connect to the internet, which leaves me perpetually at the mercy of the ISPs, who are IMO more evil than all of the other service providers put together. It’s a depressing state of affairs: the kind of autonomy I want might be impossible given the way that the economy works. I take some solace in the fact that philosophers have spilled much ink over the problem of free will without coming up with a clear formulation of exactly what kind of autonomy would be worth arguing for. At least I’m not alone in my delusion.

That said, it’s a fight that I feel I have a responsibility to fight. If I’m going to continue to argue for the use and development of open source software, I have to start putting my money where my mouth is. And so, to me, Project Reclaim is less about my being a paragon of virtue, and more about my wanting to sleep a bit better at night.

Do I think that everyone should do this? People should prefer open solutions to closed ones, all things being equal. But generally, all things are not equal. Most people don’t have the time to write their own software, to run their own servers. For those people, decisions about their digital life are (rightly, I think) made more on the basis of aesthetics and convenience than lofty concepts like Autonomy and Ownership. But there are a few considerations that are perhaps relevant for the kinds of people who read my blog:

  • Open source developers who tout the importance of data ownership and other such freedoms have a special responsibility to model best behavior in these areas.
  • Academics, more than anyone, should be sensitive to the dangers of leaving the crucial pieces of one’s online self in the hands of corporate entities. That’s true for personal artifacts like email, but perhaps doubly so for scholarly work that ought to be part of a public trust.
  • Educators, like open source developers, should model best practices, encouraging students to take control over their digital identities.

So, while I wouldn’t belabor the point for the average Joe, I do think that people who consider themselves members of one of these groups – as most people reading my blog probably do – that they should think carefully about their relationship with the tools and services that enable their digital existence.

To freedom!

Related posts:

  1. Project Reclaim and the email dilemma
  2. Done with Apple
  3. Shorten your own dang URLs