The Facepalm at the End of the Mind

I can no longer keep myself from commenting on the Facebook “emotional manipulation” study. Alas. Here are several points.

  • Do you want your money back?
  • Don’t we only know about this study done on 689,003 people because it was written up and reported on in a prestigious journal?
  • Could it be that other studies might have been done, or might be going on right now, or might happen in the future, and we might know nothing about them because their results will be kept as proprietary information?
  • Why didn’t something this massive and egregious ever happen on the Web – you know, the open Web that isn’t run by a single corporation?
  • Don’t we have, or didn’t we used to have, news feeds on the Web, like the Facebook news feed that the company manipulated?
  • Such as RSS feeds?
  • Using a free standard, which anyone in world can set up in their own way without adhering to a single company’s policy?
  • Don’t we, or didn’t we, subscribe to these RSS feeds with feed readers, such as Liferea?
  • Wouldn’t it be harder for a person or company to manipulate a news reader that subscribes to feeds on the open Web and is running on a person’s own computer?
  • Particularly if this news reader is free software and you can build it from source that you and everyone else in the world can inspect?
  • Could it be that the “users,” as we like to call them, are the ones who really made a fundamental mistake here, rather than Facebook?
  • You know how Facebook is, well, a company, a for-profit corporation?
  • So, it’s actually supposed to harvest data from users as efficiently as possible and exploit that data to make more money, up to the limit of what the law allows?
  • Can’t companies be sued by their shareholders if they don’t act to maximize profits?
  • Could it be that Facebook is, in everything it does, trying to harvest information from, exploit the data of, and learn how to profit from the behavior of those people called “users,” whom Facebook legally and officially owes absolutely nothing?
  • Remember the World Wide Web?
  • Remember blogs?
  • What happened to these blogs, including the one that I was part of that helped to shape the emerging field of digital media?
  • Was the recent zombie craze formulated to help metaphorically describe what has happened to blogs?
  • Why do I still blog?
  • Have you noticed that I get a comment on my blog about every other month?
  • What does it mean that I can announce the publication of a book that I worked on for years, and after more than two weeks, this post hasn’t garnered a single comment?
  • Remember how, after overcoming a few (diminishing) technical barriers, anyone could write about whatever topics – personal, political, academic, technical, aesthetic – and could host a forum, a blog, in which anyone else in the world, as long as they were online, could respond?
  • Remember how attitudes toward technology, changing methods of media consumption and transformation, and other important discourses were shaped by people having public conversations on the Web in blogs?
  • Why do I get thousands of spam comments on my blog each month, sent in complete disregard for the things that are posted here?
  • These spam comments might be sent by organized crime botnets, in part, but since some of them are commercial, might they be sent by or on behalf of companies?
  • Companies trying to maximize their profit, indifferent to anything except what they can get away with?
  • Why do we think that we can fix Facebook?
  • Why did people who communicate and learn together, people who had the world, leave it, en masse, for a shopping mall?

Just When I Was Worried that I’m Not Blogging Enough

Dear Mr. Montfort,

I do not want to cause offense, merely offer a suggestion: would you
consider removing the parts of your blog that clearly do not deal with
interactive fiction from “Planet IF” (

While I am not saying that your posts are not intersting or that the term
“interactive fiction” should only apply to text adventure games in the
narrow sense (and while I appreciate the articles on Game Design and other
forms of interactive fiction that appear on Planet IF), the sheer volume of
your blog posts, along with “Grand Text Auto”, sometimes tends to drown out
anything else.

Label This One a Failure

It’s tough to write about the ideas that didn’t work out. Sometimes the negative results actually aren’t very interesting, and it’s better not to discuss them. In other cases, it’s impolite to point out other people’s roles – to blame them – and impossible to discuss the failure otherwise. But when a failure is not too big of a deal, possibly instructive to bring up, and as least as much my fault as anyone else’s, that rare opportunity to post about it presents itself.

In 2005, those of us blogging at Grand Text Auto had the idea of starting a “label.” We wanted something that would riff on our blog’s name and serve to showcase larger-scale projects that we did. The idea was that our creative projects would benefit from being associated with each other, just as our blog writing was more lively and had wider reach thanks to the shared context of Grand Text Auto.

After going through our usual best practices process of name development – perhaps, based on experiences like these, I’ll one day start a naming firm – we chose to call the label [auto mata]. With the square brackets and everything, if you want to really give a shout-out, although “Auto Mata” could work if that’s what fits your house style.

I offered to design the logotype. Now, I’m much less likely to start a career in graphic design, and certainly couldn’t drive that auto very far if I did, but I do like to indulge my dilettantish design interests when the opportunity presents itself. This is what I came up with:

Admittedly, it doesn’t exactly slap one in the face.

I don’t think my understated logo was the real problem with [auto mata], though. First Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade (July 2005) and then my own Book and Volume (November 2005) were released “under” (perhaps “with” is a better preposition) this label. And that was it. No other “extraordinary e-lit, digital art, and computer games” appeared as [auto mata] releases, which was one big problem. A list of two things isn’t doing that much helpful association or offering people very much to browse. I think if we had kept adding a piece to the [auto mata] catalog every few months, we’d have accumulated a very interesting collection that people would be looking at. We might even encourage the crossing of boundaries between (the stereotypes of) literary work, visual art, and computer games that Grand Text Auto was all about. But we weren’t all regularly doing larger-scale projects that were downloadable. [auto mata] couldn’t really, in any straightforward way, “release” an immense, functional Atari VCS joystick.

Another problem, though, is that [auto mata] was just a list on a Web page. We didn’t build much buzz around [auto mata] itself, or work to promote the label per se as opposed to the two pieces that were released under it. Perhaps this work would have done itself to some extent as our list of publications grew and our offerings drew in people from different communities. But, unfortunately, the work wasn’t done.

Michael, Andrew, and I often mentioned [auto mata] in promoting our pieces. The site is still up. But now it’s 2011, and it’s worth noting that both Façade and Book and Volume have been published again in the fine context of the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2. Although some “previous publication” information is included for each piece in the Collection, Michael, Andrew, and I all neglected to tell the editors that these two pieces are [auto mata] releases, so that information (provided within the pieces) doesn’t appear on the introduction pages where other bibliographic information is available.

Ah, well. I don’t regret the discussion that led to our developing [auto mata]; nor do I regret the not particularly onerous efforts that we took to get this label launched. In a different situation, such a label might have served not just to catalog work, but as an incentive or rallying point for the Grand Text Auto bloggers in creating work that could be proudly presented alongside other pieces. Perhaps a similar label could still do that for a different group of people.

Lessons from the Breakdown Lane

While attempting to upgrade to a new Ubuntu distribution Sunday late night, I managed to slag I don’t mean that I insulted my server; rather, I irrevocably converted it into a molten heap, or at least the software equivalent.

The bright side of such failures (perhaps the light is provided by the glowing and otherwise useless material that used to be serving my website) is that one learns how good one’s been at backing up. In my case, I actually had recent copies of almost all of my data stashed away: not only important files, but also the mysql database. That means that after about 12 hours of reinstalling and once more setting up my server, most of it was up and running.

The one thing I didn’t have, due to a permissions/backup quirk, was the image directory for this blog. I had a very old copy of the directory, but had stopped storing local copies of blog images a while back, trusting in my backups that didn’t work. Obviously, I’m to blame; of more general interest than my culpability is what I tried in an attempt to find the missing images, and what did and didn’t work:

FAIL: The Internet Archive Wayback Machine. As best as I can tell, the Wayback Machine’s acquisition apparatus has been switched off since mid-2008. Nothing of Post Position is available at the Internet Archive – no trace of it. There’s no record of Grand Text Auto since mid-2008, either. I found only the tiniest hint of activity in recent months. The major, bustling site Reddit has exactly one image available for all of 2010. The IA Wayback Machine was better than nothing, but was never searchable; now it seems to be over.

SEMI-FAIL: Google. Google’s cache had/has a very small number of my images – only the ones I have recently posted. Perhaps Google cached my images from three months ago and longer in the past, too, but has removed them? The cache is nowhere near a snapshot of the Web, in any case. Google also keeps smaller copies of my images within its image search. All images there are degraded by being reduced in size and converted to jpg, even the smallest of images. This at least allows people in my situation to see what they’ve lost, though. Of course, Google’s cache is not meant as a serious archival tool, so recovering at least few recent files from there was nice.

FAIL: Bing. Yes, I checked the Bing cache (used by Yahoo) also. It doesn’t seem to cache images at all.

WIN: The Electronic Literature Organization and After I had more or less given up, and after I had started to recreate images to fill the gaps in blog posts, I remembered that Archive-It, thanks to the work of the Electronic Literature Organization, has archived not only works of electronic literature but also contextual information, such as e-lit authors’ websites. Their archives are searchable, too. Archive-It and the ELO did keep copies of material from, and succeeded in preserving the images that I’d lost, outdoing the Internet Archive as well as Google, and Microsoft. (Again, I did get some copies of recent images from Google, and neither that cache nor Bing’s is intended as an archive.) Scott Rettberg did a great deal of work on the ELO Archive-It project, I know, which was undertaken by the ELO when Joe Tabbi was president. Matt Kirschenbaum worked to connect the ELO with Archive-IT, and Patricia Tomaszek did much of the implementation work. A particular thanks to those ELO folks along with the others who worked on this project.

Online archives don’t exist as backup services, of course, but it’s not absurd to see if they can help individuals and organizations in times of crisis – in addition to performing their main function of serving scholars and helping preserve our cultural memory. Given the intricacies of backing up, data storage and formats, and technological change to new systems and platforms, this is sure to be an important secondary function for the digital archive.

Please let me know if you find anything missing or broken here at

Grand Text Auto is Back

Grand Text Auto, for six years (May 2003-May 2009) a single blog with six co-authors (Mary Flanagan, Michael Mateas, your very own Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, Andrew Stern, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin), is now back as an aggregator of four blogs by the original GTxA authors, including this one. Check it out. Update: Thanks to Josh McCoy of UC Santa Cruz, who set up this new formulation of Grand Text Auto.

Parade Lap

Welcome to Post Position. This website is what we call a “computer blog.”

More specifically, this is where I will post things, including my positions on interactive narrative, imaginative and poetic digital writing, the material history of computational media, and video and computer games. The subject matter will range from platform studies to minimalist poetry generation, and there will almost certainly be posts with critical takes on electronic literature, discussion of my own work on developing interactive fiction and an interactive fiction system, reflections on teaching this kind of thing at MIT, and many other types of wackiness. I might even write about plain old books that aren’t very directly connected to digital media matters. I might discuss non-computational academic matters, or offer materials from “old school” writing projects that I’m working on.

As many who wander here may know, I’ve been blogging for the past six years at Grand Text Auto. In posting and discussing things on this blog, I’ll certainly be influenced by that collaborative venture. Post Position won’t have the energy of that entire group, of course, the same broad community of readers, the same special projects, or the general job listings and announcements of other people’s events. But some things that flourished in that context should be found here are well: links to things online worth reading and playing, 1k (and longer) reviews of books (and probably other things), April Fools hoaxes and other pranks, discussion of my computational writing practice, and pieces of critical and polemical writing that wouldn’t easily fit elsewhere.

I’ll try to keep this space open for the sort of conversation, discussion, and even vigorous argument that Grand Text Auto has hosted. I’ll do whatever I can to make this an inviting space for those who want to comment. Unless the spammers end up winning, for instance, you will not need to register or take an elaborate test to have your comment appear, even if the moderation queue catches it for a short time.

I’ll say more soon, but for now, welcome.