hello, dammit.

Web of Trackbacks

Trackbacks were developed as a way to connect blogs and promote communication. Your blog sends a trackback to my blog. My readers see the link to your blog on one of my posts that interests them. They might be interested in your opinion on whatever it was that I was writing about, so they can click through and read your blog. The end result is that more people are exposed to more blogs, and hopefully more information and more points of view. Trackbacks help make the web a web.

Unfortunately, trackbacks are easily faked, and indeed are currently being used to try to stuff spam into blog comments. So pingbacks were developed, to try to fix many of the problems with trackbacks. Pingbacks require a reciprocal link. That is, a site sending a pingback must contain a link to the ping destination. The ping recipient will connect to the ping originator and verify that this link is present.

Recently on the WordPress hackers mailing list, someone proposed a plugin that introduced trackback verification, to which Phil
retorted that it "turns trackbacks into pingbacks".

I get a lot of trackbacks and pingbacks, mostly from bloggers writing about my plugins. So far, every trackback I've received has originated from a post that included a link to me. So the proposed plugin didn't sound all that unreasonable to me. I didn't expect that it would change anything for me, or my blog, in any substantial way.

But just this afternoon I received a trackback to a post of mine. It landed in my moderation queue, because the originating blog has never sent a trackback or pingback before. Being the diligent blog owner, I clicked through from my moderation queue to see who had linked to me, and why.

I was delighted with the post that I found, and wasted no small amount of time playing the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game I found linked there. But nowhere in the post was any mention of me, my blog, or my post. The ping originator had read my post about the HHGTTG movie, and decided that I would like to know about the game. Rather than send me an email, s/he sent me a trackback. A perfectly reasonable -- and useful -- application of trackbacks!

And here we find the value of non-reciprocal trackbacks. I found a cool link; and was intrigued enough to peruse the rest of the site -- something I don't often do when following links that lead to posts about my plugins, for some reason. I found a nice howto for pretty permalinks in WordPress on IIS, something I likely never would have found!

I need to remember to do this. I've been using my blog for almost two years now, and I've not yet used trackbacks in this way.

Data Access

Owen points out Remember the Milk, a feature-rich competitor to Ta-Da List. The feature list looks impressive, and I'm inclined to give this a try. Ultimately, though, I don't think I will.

I saw Matt Palmer's post in the other day, and I was immediately reminded of it today:

Basically, if my data is stored somewhere else, I'm restricted to whatever method the gatekeeper of that data deigns to give me.

Even though Remember the Milk publishes iCal and Atom feeds of your data, your data is still bound up in their servers.

I host my website on my DSL line. I'm fortunate to be using Speakeasy for my DSL service: they specifically encourage subscribers to run their own servers, unlike most other DSL and cable providers. I'm paying X number of dollars every month for the convenience of an always-on connection. Since I'm paying for it, it makes sense to me to consolidate a lot of my data onto a server connected to that always-on connection. I know where it is; I know how to get to it (and can get to it in a variety of ways); and I can do whatever I want or need to do with that data. I don't have to worry about a service evaporating overnight, or a change in the terms of service, or whether I'll be able to access my data in a year.

Sure, managing my own server requires some non-trivial investments of time and effort. It's my data; it's worth it.

Blog Advertising

Each month this year, I've seen a steady increase in the number of visits to this site. January through May, traffic grew from twenty to twenty two thousand visits each month. Then the numbers exploded into thirty three thousand in June, and sixty thousand in July! August saw just under sixty thousand visits. July was something of a ringer for my stats, because July had the WordPress Backup Week, for which I released the WP-DB Backup plugin (thanks again to Owen for his phenomenal contributions to that!).

I know a lot of people spend a lot of time and energy trying to drive traffic to their sites. These people are almost all trying to get eyeballs to the advertisements adorning their pages, and are not always strictly interested in giving the visitors meaningful content. And still other people spend a lot of time and energy trying to put advertisements on their sites to begin with.

I've been thinking a lot about ads, lately. I imagine (though don't know for sure) that I could earn some modest spending cash from ads on this site, given the volume of traffic. The money would be useful. But I worry that I'd then begin to focus on ensuring that eyeballs come back to see the ads on my site. I'd switch from full-text feeds to summary feeds, to force readers to click through to read my posts. I'd sprinkle ads between the posts, to ensure that you, the reader, would see them, instead of just ignoring everything in the sidebar as I so often do. I'd labour over writing posts that earn traffic, as opposed to posts that are indpendently meaningful. In short, things would change for the worse.

I didn't start this blog, or this website, to make money. I started it to share my thoughts; and then to contribute to the collective body of knowledge about a variety of subjects. I enjoy the interactions I've had with people from all over the world. I enjoy not worrying about how many visitors I've had in any given month; and I enjoy being surprised when a post I make receives a lot of traffic.

I've earned a few bucks, and a few luxury items, from my WordPress plugins. Some folks have donated cash; others have purchased items from my Amazon wishlist. These are so much more meaningful -- and genuine -- to me than any advertising revenue.

I'm not saying that advertisements are necessarily bad; though I do think that they are increasingly diminishing the usability of many websites.

What do you think?


The Flickr Blog just announced their reward for "early adopters":

  • an extra year of Pro status
  • two gigabyte upload capacity per month
  • two free Pro accounts to give to friends

This is the first of the major changes brought about by the Yahoo! purchase. I was intrigued when the hints were nade about "rewards"; but this is way beyond anything I had imagined!

You see, Chris, the Yahoo! purchase hasn't totally ruined Flickr!

Identity, and Self-Expression

Chris puts forth the argument that gravatars should humanize the web. I agree with his premise, but not his conclusion. Gravatars should help personalize the web, and not necessarily humanize it.

Self Expression

Blogs are all about self-expression. Everything about a blog -- from the blog engine, to the layout, to the links, to the main content -- tells us a little about the owner. Likewise the comments left by others reveal to us who else reads the site, from which we can infer even more information about the blog owner. If you read a lot of blogs, chances are that you'll see any particular blog owner leaving comments elsewhere, too, which provides still more information about the person behind the blog. None of this has anything to do with what the blog owner looks like.

We don't get to know people off-line just by their appearance. We get to know them based on their style, their idiosyncracies, and their mannerisms: things they do and not just things they are. So in a sense, a gravatar is just a kind of internet tee shirt to complement the mannerisms presented on a blog or comment. A gravatar, just like a catchy handle or a unique blog layout, tells a lot more about the person than what they look like can ever reveal.


Chris closes with I am a person and I have something to say, and I should not be afraid to say it... as me.. Clearly Chris wants to synchronize his online identity with his offline identity. I'm generally striving for the same confluence, but that's not what everyone wants. Some seek pure escapism; others seek a refinement or exaltation of their everyday self. Still others want pure anonymity.

The internet allows people to put forth the identity they want others to see. If someone wants to present an anime character as their gravatar, then I know something about that person that I would never know just from looking at their photograph. Moreover, our identities are rarely immutable. Instead they grow and change subtly over time as we experience and learn new things. Should our gravatars be flat, static pictures?

A gravatar, as a type of avatar, is something more than just a representation of a person's physical characteristics or some thing(s) in which they're interested. It's an archetype, an "ideal example", of something. A photograph of ourselves seems to fall short.


Chris talks about people, but he doesn't mention community. The internet presents tremendous opportunities for communities to develop and flourish. As social creatures, our identities, or at the very least how we express those identities, shift slightly based on the contexts in which we present them. The self we present on a joke-sharing blog may be very different from the self we present on a tech-support blog. The "face" I apply to comments on my own blog might be very different from the one I use when I comment on someone else's blog.

In some contexts, we want to show our affilitations, which have nothing to do with how we look. A close-knit group, like game clans for example, could coordinate gravatars among their members, using their in-game identities on a discussion. A veterans group might want to display an insignia. A group project -- something fantastical like Ghyll or something serious like Wikipedia -- might merit a different presentation of our identity than our personal blog.

An Identity Infrastructure

Since gravatars are keyed off of email addresses, one could (conceivably) register several different gravatars against several different email accounts: one for a personal account, one for a GMail account, etc. Thus when posting a comment the commenter could choose -- based on comment content, or some other factor -- which visual representation of their identity should be applied to their comment by selecting the appropriate email address. Over time, though, this becomes tedious; and it forces us to adapt to the tool instead of the other way around.

And gravatars aren't just for blog comments. Gravatars are tool-agnostic, and can be leveraged in almost any online community context. I can envision a Mozilla Thunderbird extension that displays gravatars on email messages (akin to X-Face from days of old). Some instant messaging clients already support "buddy icons", which should easily be extended to support gravatars.

If gravatars represent an infrastructure for expanded self-expression and identity, does it really make sense that each person must use multiple email accounts to represent all of their gravatars? Certainly the single-gravatar-per-email encourages people to think a little more about what they use for a gravatar, but it imposes an artificial restriction.

A Solution

I like the idea of gravatars, but I don't like being required to use one gravatar for every site. I'm sure others don't either. So I've modified the original WordPress gravatar plugin. Here's what my version does:

  • caches gravatars locally for a user-specified period of time (seven days by default)
  • presents a web-based interface for configuring default gravatar settings
  • allows blog admins to enable or disable local gravatars
  • allows registered users to define local gravatars that override their default
  • allows blog admins to see a list of local and cached gravatars
  • allows blog authors to use gravatars in the body of their posts

In a sense, this plugin strays pretty far from the original idea of a globally recognized avatar. But in another sense, it greatly expands it. Not only does this pluign make the gravatar infrastructure more resilient by distributing where gravatars are stored, it makes gravatars more flexible by allowing site-specific gravatars. It is my belief that this aspect will encourage more people to register for blogs, something which currently doesn't offer much benefit. It is my hope that registered users will grow into contributing authors, making blogging even more interesting than it is now. And finally this plugin makes gravatars something much more than just comment eye candy, by making them available inside the body of a post.

Gravatars may help make the web more human; but I'll be happy with them making the web more personal.

Download the plugin at my Gravatars plugin page
This plugin only works with WordPress 1.5 and above.
Thanks to Vidar for testing this plugin!