Mastodon - the open social network

Mastodon is a federated social network, an alternative to Facebook and Twitter that gives users more control over their data. As with other social networks, you can send pictures, video, links or text. But unlike other services, you are in complete control of what you see; there’s no algorithm running in the background with control over your feed.

Rather than being a single service, there are many independent communities that users can belong to (or start their own); users can send messages within or between communities. The default community is at https://mstdn.social/, but you can choose which community to use for your primary identity. You can later change communities without losing your followers.

On top of that, Mastodon doesn’t serve any ads, is built on top of open-source software, and is funded through donations rather than venture capital or selling user data. The donation-funded model certainly has its risks, but hopefully it remains viable for a long time!

Indieweb - Restoring people's control over their online presence

The Indieweb is a community promoting the use of individual rather than corporate web sites. It focuses on people owning their own data, on their own domain– both to prevent large sites becoming information silos and to mitigate against the risk of any given product being shut down. Content can be syndicated (cross-posted) elsewhere, like how this site cross-posts to Twitter, but Indieweb community members use their own personal domain as their identity on the web. They interact with others in the Indieweb community, and the broader web, using a minimal set of principles, protocols, and formats.

Its “people-focused” mission makes it the perfect candidate for what Improving the Net is trying to promote. I do have my own domain but still need to add some of the biographical information and links to my other online profiles. Maybe that will be a project for over the holidays!

Mac Open Web - indie apps for the open web

Continuing with yesterday’s theme of sites that compile lists similar to this site, today’s entry is Mac Open Web, which lists independent and open web apps and native apps in the following categories:

  • RSS Clients
  • Blogging and Writing
  • Development
  • Podcasting
  • Design
  • Productivity

Many of the things I’ve covered before are on those lists, and I hope to cover other ones in the future.

Ethical.net - promoting ethical technology

If you’re bored with getting just one suggestion a day from this site, you’ll be excited about Ethical.net, which lists many products in services similar to ones I’ve talked about on this blog. In fact, many of my suggestions can be found on Ethical.net, along with a lot more! Their suggestions come in a variety of categories, from email and browsers to game stores, books, and voice assistants. They even have their own forum for you to submit suggestions and talk to like-minded people.

I’ll be looking over the site for new things to recommend here, too!

Mozilla - supporting a human-centered Internet

Mozilla is of course best known as the company behind the Firefox browser, but their contributions to an open and sustainable internet go far beyond that. Here are some of the other things they’re behind:

  • Firefox Monitor, which I mentioned yesterday, alerts you when your email address or other personal information is included in a data breach.
  • Pocket, a service that saves articles for you to read later, is focused on user privacy.
  • Holiday gift guides that research how various tech products handle users’ data and to what extent they track you.
  • MDN, one of the best resources for web development documentation, guides, and tutorials.

I’d encourage you to check out any or all of the above!

Have I Been Pwned - Notifying you about data breaches

Have I Been Pwned collects data from known data breaches and can notify if your email address, password, or personal data has been exposed. It also allows you to check if a password has been leaked (either through one of your accounts, or someone else using the same password), using a clever algorithm that doesn’t require you to actually share your password (which is of course not safe), or even the full hash of the password. Rather than try to summarize how it works, I’d invite you to just read the Frequently Asked Questions about the service.

I specifically use HIBP through the excellent Firefox Monitor, which uses HIBP as its data provider. I also HIGHLY recommend using a password manager like 1Password (the one I use), LastPass, or KeePass (there are many others, too). I’ll likely talk more about password managers in the future.

(h/t @jayeless for suggesting this, even though I’ve known about it for years!)

The idea for this blog came from a post by @matthewlang back in February, but it took almost nine months to finally sit down and commit to starting it. I wanted to get a couple weeks under my belt before really talking about it too much, though. Thanks for the idea!

NetNewsWire - RSS Reader for macOS and iOS

NetNewsWire is a free and open source RSS reader for Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

Some might criticize the decision to be macOS-only, but as with most decisions, there are tradeoffs. Focusing on the Apple ecosystem allows NetNewsWire to feel like a native app (because it is)! Like other well-run open source communities, there is a clear Contributor’s Guide and Code of Conduct. It supports syncing with a Feedbin account, but can also be used with purely local subscriptions.

I use NetNewsWire every day on both my MacBook Pro and my iPad, and it’s so easy to use I sometimes forget that it’s even there. Without great clients for RSS feeds, consuming them would be more work and make it easier to default to algorithmically-generated, attention-stealing feeds.

Internet Archive - preserving the world's information

The Internet Archive is a digital library containing books, audio, video, and other digital resources–including both information that originated on the Internet as well as older information that has since been digitalized. It partners with other organizations to archive their content, and also allows uploads from the community.

It is perhaps best known for the “Wayback Machine”, which preserves and allows you to view what many web pages looked like in the past. This obviously depends on the Archive having saved a copy of the page at that particular point, but for relatively popular sites which are no longer online, have switched owners or changed significantly, you’re likely to find an old version of the site.

Books published prior to 1923 (which are out of copyright in the US and therefore in the public domain) are available for anyone to download; newer books can be borrowed via the Archive’s Open Library.

The Archive currently holds at least 45 petabytes of information, and is scanning over 1000 books every day. It’s even archiving archiving this site, thanks to an integration set up by Micro.blog.

Accessibility - improving everyone's experience online

Accessibility (often called “a11y” by those who want to sound cool, because of the eleven letters between the first and the last) is the name given to the tools and processes used to make the Internet more accessible to people with visual, auditory, physical, or other disabilities. But improving a site’s accessibility doesn’t just make it better for people with disabilities; it often makes it better for all users.

If you’re new to accessibility, a quick search will reveal a ton of acronyms and terms: WCAG, AAA, AA, WAI, Section 508. If this makes you feel overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Here are some resources I’ve found to help with a gentle introduction to accessibility:

  • Empathy Prompts - Helps you build empathy for others who may experience the web differently through a series of prompts that anyone can implement.
  • Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) A project of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium); the WAI has developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which form the basis for legal guidelines in many jurisdictions.
  • Follow people like Eric Bailey and Adrian Roselli.

I had been meaning to talk about this eventually, but a kind note from Jay pointed out that this site itself had some accessibility challenges, particularly the contrast between some of the text (grey text on a white background) made it hard to read. I’ve since updated the site’s theme, to hopefully mitigate the issue. I used a color contrast extension for Firefox to automatically check the page.

There are a ton more helpful resources on accessibility, and I hope to mention many of them in the future. If you have any suggestions, please reply in the comments or contact me.

So what is this blog, anyway?

It’s been just about two weeks since I’ve started this blog, and after trying to force myself to write every day, I’ve started to get a better idea for exactly what I’m trying to express. Obviously, different people including myself can have very different ideas about what “improving” the Internet means, depending on their perspectives and motivations. But for me, it really comes down to this idea:

The Internet should strive to serve real humans first.

Sites, technologies, and organizations that treat humans as humans, giving them respect, autonomy, privacy, and dignity, are making the Internet a better place. Sites that treat humans as just sources of revenue, or worse, as the product itself are antithetical to this goal. There is certainly a place for commerce and financial incentives on the Internet, but these should be subservient to treating humans like actual humans.

So one purpose of this blog is to discover, promote, and share information about things that are making the Internet a better place. It may come across as being a bit cheerleading–and of course no person, site, or product is perfect or beyond criticism–but I’d love for this site to be a daily reminder that there is plenty of good on the Internet, if you know where to look.

It’s ended up being a bit more personal than I’d expected. Some of the things I’ve written about are things I have a lot of actual experience with, and others are things that I’ve heard about more or less in passing, but that I think fit in well with the theme of the blog. I want to be honest with my experiences, show how I have incorporated the topics I cover into my life (or plan to).

Thanks for reading, and please send any suggestions for things you think are worth mentioning! The About page has the best ways to contact me.

Solid - Giving users control of their data

Solid is a family of standards and protocols, along with software implementing them. It was designed to give users control over their data, while creating a decentralized network of computing resources known as pods. Co-founded by Tim Berners-Lee, it is a great example of rethinking our reliance on big monopolistic social networks and data silos. There are several existing providers that allow users to register their own pods, or you can run the software yourself.

I don’t have any hands-on experience with Solid, but I do remember running across it last year. I’m glad to see it’s still going strong and seems to be doing well. I’ll be interested to dig in a bit more and learn about it.

(h/t Cal Newport’s blog) If you don’t already follow Cal’s work, you should!

Feedbin - A modern feed reading service

Feedbin is a service that makes reading RSS feeds work well on the web or on your devices. Feedbin has its own iOS application, but third party applications also exist for macOS and Android. I personally use NetNewsWire on both macOS and my iPad.

In addition to RSS feeds, Feedbin allows you to subscribe to email newsletters and read them in the same interface as your other feeds. Just subscribe to newsletters with your customized @newsletters.feedbin.com address.

Finally, Feedbin allows you to subscribe to one or more Twitter users’ feeds and see all the posts without all the ads or being tempted by “like” or “retweet” options. If a tweet links to an article, it shows the body of the article right there, without needing to click. (This requires your own Twitter account to get an API key). If you like to follow a handful of Twitter accounts but worry about getting sucked into the attention-grabbing service itself, Feedbin is a great way to do that!

I just switched from a monthly subscription to a yearly subscription, after trying Feedbin for a few months and being thoroughly impressed.

Ecosia - Planting trees with web searches

Ecosia is a search engine that uses the profits from ad revenue to plant trees all over the world. On average, every 45 searches on the site translates to a tree planted, and so far Ecosia has planted well over 100 million trees.

Like DuckDuckGo, which I’ve talked about previously, Ecosia is committed to protecting users’ privacy, and has a very easy to read privacy page.

I’m still using DuckDuckGo as my primary search engine, but love to see more services that are taking market share away from Google and promoting privacy and diversity among search engines.

Browsing the web on a 50 MB data budget

In a 2019 article for Smashing Magazine, Chris Ashton talks about what it’s like to browse the web with just 50 MB worth of data transfer per day, mimicking what might be economically realistic in developing countries without extensive broadband or mobile networks.

The point isn’t to see how many pages Chris can view (spoiler alert: not many), but instead to give practical tips for reducing the size of web pages and the data needed to transfer them, which translates into benefits for all of a site’s visitors. I won’t spoil all the tips, but most of them come down to minifying, compressing, and otherwise being selective about what data gets loaded and when. And in general, it’s really just being more empathetic and understanding the situations that all your users are in.

This blog post is the last in a series of articles written by Chris. They’re all good, and maybe I’ll talk about some of the other ones in the future, but go ahead and read them all now. You won’t regret it.

Fastmail - Email, Improved

Fastmail is an email service offering a privacy-focused, user-centric alternative to free email providers like Gmail.

It has everything you would want from an email service: web and mobile apps, contacts and calendar support, integration with other clients using IMAP and CalDAV/CardDAV protocols. And it has nothing that you don’t want, like ads or being tracked along with the rest of your web activity. It even has a streamlined feature to import all your email, calendars, and contacts from Google and many other email providers.

Although it’s not free, you pay per user account, not per address or domain. Because Fastmail supports custom domains, all of my domains forward to the same account, using wildcard, so I have effectively infinite email addresses but only pay for one account. I even have my Gmail account set up to forward to Fastmail, as I transition the email address on all of my online accounts to use Fastmail address(es).

Because email is a core feature and product for Fastmail, they care a lot about email standards, and even helped develop a new protocol, JMAP, which has been accepted by the IETF as an Internet Standard (RFCs 8620 and 8621.

I’ve talked before about Hey, which seems promising for me once it supports custom domains and some other features. But for now, Fastmail is the email service I use every day.

Beautiful News - It's a good world after all

Beautiful News collects good news, statistics and facts and publishes a daily chart via email, RSS, and various social networks. Created by the team behind Information is Beautiful, it covers categories including climate, health, clean energy, and gender equality. It also has an archive of previous charts if you need an antidote to typical pessimism in news coverage.

(h/t: @toddgrotenhuis) I’ve followed Beautiful News before, but it had slipped off my radar. Thanks for the reminder! If anyone has suggestions for things worth mentioning on here, feel free to send me a message on Micro.blog, on Twitter, or an email to hi-at-improvingthe.net .

UPDATE I just realized that Beautiful News was a 365-day project that ended in October 2020. Even if there aren’t any more new posts, the archive is still a great reminder of the good in the world.

DarkPatterns.org - Shining a light on bad website behavior

DarkPatterns.org is a site dedicated to exposing malicious patterns websites use to trick users into doing things that aren’t in their best interest.

Taking a “name them and shame them” approach, the site, run by Harry Brignull and Alexander Darlington explains how sites can cause you to spend money you don’t want or make it harder to get out of a relationship with the site. The Dark Patterns Reading List has additional resources for people who want to learn more.

I tend to think I’m a pretty savvy web user, but there were some patterns on the site that I wasn’t aware of before.

Because this is the Internet, I’ll be explicit: the dark patterns themselves are making the Internet more hostile to users. But the DarkPatterns.org site raising awareness of them is a good thing!

RSS - Build your own news feed

RSS is an open standard for syndicating web content, including news articles or blogs. Subscribing to one or more feeds allows you to automatically receive new content, and control what you see and in what order. As a bonus, you don’t have to worry about a social media site’s algorithm hiding or prioritizing items.

There are many popular RSS services and client applications. I use Feedbin—which also allows you to subscribe to Twitter feeds and email newsletters—along with the free and open-source NetNewsWire for macOS and iOS. I’ll have posts on each of these in the future. Google ran a popular RSS web client called Google Reader, but shut it down in 2013.

There’s an RSS Feed for ImprovingThe.Net. I’d encourage you to subscribe!

DuckDuckGo - Search without being tracked

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that Google is not the only way to search the Internet, despite their massive dominance. There are other search engines out there.

DuckDuckGo is one such search engine, and happens to be the one I use every day. Its focus is on user’s privacy. Just like Google, it still makes money primarily by selling ads that show up in search results. But unlike Google, it only sells ads against the terms you search for, not anything about you or your browsing behavior. In fact, they don’t store or track any information about you at all.

I’ve set my default search engine in Firefox to be DuckDuckGo, and also installed their Privacy Essentials Firefox extension. Maybe 1% of the time, DuckDuck go doesn’t find what I need, in which case I can still go back to the big G.

Micro.blog - The way the social internet should work

Micro.blog (the site this blog is hosted on) is a blogging platform and social networking site designed for human-driven (rather than machine-driven) interaction.

On Micro.blog, you can write short “micro” posts or longer content. You can comment or reply to other blogs. You can host a blog with your own domain name, or it can connect to an existing blog hosted on Wordpress or elsewhere. You can add “bookmarks”, which are essentially private “likes” (no one else can see them). You can see who other accounts are following, to learn about other blogs you might want to follow. You own your content and can export it at any time.

You can’t see a list of everyone who follows a specific user, or know how many people do. You can’t amplify other content except by adding your own reply. You can’t use “likes” as a measure of popularity. All of these prevent the worst sides of human nature that other social networks try to exploit.

I cautiously hooked this Micro.blog up to a new Twitter account, to hopefully make more people aware of Micro.blog and the rest of the things I’ll be sharing on here.

To me, it seems like Micro.blog has tried to take the best parts of Twitter and leaving the rest, not to duplicate or replace it. But maybe we’ll all get lucky and it will replace Twitter (and Facebook and Instagram and…) anyway.

Fathom - Privacy-focused Website Analytics

Fathom is an alternative to Google Analytics and similar web analytics software. It provides information about top pages, referrers, devices, browsers, and country of origin, without using cookies or otherwise violating users’ privacy.

On top of that, Fathom is an independent, bootstrapped company. It’s not free, which means they don’t have to compromise on the things needed to run a “free” service.

Google Analytics was the very first thing I blocked using uBlock Origin (which I’ll talk about soon, I’m sure), but I’m going to add a blanket whitelist for Fathom’s servers, out of respect for site owners who choose to use it instead of Google Analytics.

Web analytics without user tracking is possible!

Hey.com - Rethinking Email

Hey is a (relatively) new email service by the makers of Basecamp that’s rethinking how we use email.

One of the least flashy but, in my opinion, most important features is blocking so-called “spy pixels” that can track when, where, and how many times you open an email.

I haven’t tried Hey out just yet (I’m waiting for the custom domain support that will be coming with Hey for Work), but it’s good to see some innovation in a technology that is fundamental to a lot of digital life but hasn’t seen much love in years.