Archive for the 'Internet' Category

Why Did I Leave Quora, Why It Is Not Such a Big Deal, and Why Do I Nevertheless Hope to Come Back

This post is sad and angry. I don’t mention any names, but some people may read it and identify themselves here. Here’s my request to these people: I hope that this doesn’t hurt you personally. It’s not my intention to hurt anyone personally. All people have to do their jobs; sometimes they are happy about what they do despite some people’s complaints, sometimes they aren’t happy, but do it anyway because they need to pay bills, or because that it’s necessary for some kind of greater good. I totally get it. There’s a certain chance that I’ll meet some of you online or in real life. If this ever happens, I hope you don’t feel embarrassed or intimidated. I’ll be happy to meet you and I promise to be friendly. Thanks for understanding.

I used to be a prolific writer on the question and answer website Quora. I was even named a “Top Writer” four times. Sadly, in 2018 this once-fine website ruined itself.

The problematic signs were there even earlier, but the true catastrophe began with the “Links” feature. This feature adds links to articles on other websites to the Quora feed. Before this feature’s introduction the feed consisted mostly of questions and answers, as one would expect from, you know, a questions and answers website.

The articles and the websites shown as “Links” in the feed are selected automatically by Quora’s software. How does this software work is a mystery. There appears to be some intention to show things that are related to the topics that the user follows, but it also suggests unrelated topics. Sometimes they are labelled “Topic you might like”. Sometimes they aren’t labelled at all:

There’s no way to select a website to follow and see links from. There is a way to mute websites, but other sites will be shown instead.

There’s also no way to remove all the Links from the feed completely. By popular demand from Quora users, a volunteer made a browser extension called “Qure” that does it, but it only works on the web and not on the Quora mobile app.

The Link items in the feed look almost exactly like questions, which is severely distracting, and feels out of place. Quora staff people who work on this feature know it—”the links feel out of place” is a direct quote from a staff person. They know that many users dislike them, but they choose to show them anyway. “We’ll show links less to people who don’t like them” is also a direct quote from a staff person.

Let this sink in: They know that some people don’t like the links, and they show them to these people anyway. My logic—I won’t even bother calling it “ethics”—tells me that when you know that a person doesn’t like a thing, you don’t show that thing to that person at all unless you have a particularly good reason and you can explain it.

Another problematic feature that Quora introduced in 2018 is “Share”. This sounds like a sensible thing to have on any modern website, but on Quora it has a somewhat different meaning. “Sharing” on Quora means putting an item in your followers’ feed with a comment.

This is similar to retweeting with a comment on Twitter. It works fairly well on Twitter, but Quora is not Twitter. In Twitter everything is limited to 280 characters—the tweets and the comments on retweets. On Quora answers can and should be longer, but the comments are short, and this feels imbalanced.

What’s worse, even though Quora says that the comments on shared items “provide additional insight“, they are actually rather pointless. In fact, many of them are not even really written by people, but filled semi-automatically: “This is interesting“, “This is informative”, “Great summary”, “I recommend reading this“, etc. Those that are actually written by humans are not much better, for example: “H.R. has been a wonderful teacher and excellent writer. Since joining Quora last year I’ve latched on to his brilliance – he’s earned his place firmly”. This says nothing substantial that couldn’t be expressed by simply upvoting the writer’s answer.

Both links and answers can be shared. I’ve just explained why sharing answers is pointless. Sharing links is a weird thing: On one hand, seeing a link that was shared by a Quora user makes relatively more sense than seeing a link that was added to the feed by faceless software for some reason I don’t know. In practice, however, it doesn’t make the link any more sensible or useful. Shared links feel totally relevant on Facebook and Twitter, but Quora is neither Facebook nor Twitter. It’s a site for questions and answers, or at least it used to be one.

And then there are the items that are questions or answers, but that are shown to me on my feed for mysterious reasons: They are categorized under a topic I don’t follow, they are written by users that I don’t follow, and they weren’t even upvoted or shared by users that I do follow. They are just totally, completely unrelated to me.

Occasionally they are labelled as “Topic you might like” or “Author you might like”, but sometimes they don’t even carry this label.

It’s difficult to discuss this feature because unlike “Share” and “Links” it doesn’t even have a name. It’s just… random stuff that I didn’t ask to see, and that appears in my feed. In this blog post I’ll call it Nonsense. It’s not a nice name, but that’s what it is. (I really want to know this feature’s real name. It surely has one. If you are on Quora staff, please tell me what it is. I won’t reveal your identity.)

I would possibly understand showing this Nonsense to new users: Quora may want to suggest you stuff to follow to get you hooked. But I’ve had the account for seven years, I follow lots of people and topics, I visit the site several times a day, and I know very well what I want.

What’s worse, Nonsense items are shown to me while many items written by people I do follow are not. I followed people on Quora because their personality or knowledge genuinely interested me. To me, “Follow” means that I’m interested in seeing stuff written by these people. But Quora decided to disregard my specific request, and to show me Nonsense instead.

There’s no way to run away from Link items, from Share items, and from Nonsense items. Quora has a Mute feature, but for the most part it does more harm than good:

  • When you mute a Link item it mutes a particular link source, for example New York Times or Breitbart (yes, both are available), but when you mute one source, other sources are shown instead and there appears to be no end to it.
  • When you see an answer on a topic you don’t follow, you can mute that topic, but this (probably) means that if an answer is written in this topic by a user that you do follow, you won’t see it. This is often not what one wants. For example, “Entertainment” is a topic on which answers are often shown to me, even though I don’t follow it. I don’t want to see this random answers, but if a user I follow posts an answer in a question for which this is one of the topics, I’d be OK with seeing it.
  • When you see an “Author you might like”, and you don’t actually like that author, you can mute them. As above, this is not necessarily what I want: If that author happens to write an answer on a topic I follow, I’ll be OK with seeing it. I just don’t want to see that author’s answers when they are completely unrelated to me, but this is a feature, and there’s no way to get rid of it.

When I first saw the Links in February 2018, I was immediately appalled: What is this thing that is neither a question nor an answer?! When I saw that I cannot remove them from my feed, I pretty much immediately decided to stop using the site. It was clear to me that something is badly wrong.

Even thought I deleted my Facebook account in 2015, I created a new one some time after the links were introduced, just so that I could join the private Quora Top Writers Feedback group. For several months I tried talking to the Quora staff people in that group and understand: Why do the links even exist? Why are they so random and useless? Why are pointless items shown to me? I got almost zero substantial replies.

I intentionally came back to sincerely using Quora, thinking that the algorithms will learn my behavior, and show me more relevant links, or no links at all. This didn’t work, of course, and Quora became even worse when the awful Share and Nonsense features were added, so in June 2018 I stopped posting there almost completely.

After some more time, the Facebook group’s moderator didn’t like my questions about these unfortunate features, and removed me from the group, too. The explanation was that they were repetitive, which is understandable; what is less understandable is that instead of removing me from the group they could try answering the questions. They didn’t. They did suggest sending my complaints to a particular email address for Top Writers. I did it, and I received no reply.

So that’s it, I guess.

A legitimate question arises: Could I use Quora without the feed? Not really, because the best thing about Quora was that before the disastrous 2018 changes it showed me answers that interest me and questions that need answers on topics about which I know something. Without this, the site is not that useful. It moved to being oriented much more towards readers who are prone to click on clickbait and to writers who are local Quora “stars”. I don’t belong to either group.

(Before I go into the last conclusions, I should mention one unrelated and very positive thing that Quora did in 2018: Expansion of its internationalization efforts. For years, Quora used to be explicitly English-only. Later, Quora introduced sites in several new languages, among them Spanish, German, Hindi, Portuguese, Indonesian, and French. It also added an answer translation feature, which, while not yet implemented perfectly, is a step in a very good direction. I hope that it gets developed further and doesn’t get killed.)

I have a bit of a price to pay for publishing this blog post. I probably won’t be a top writer again (this came with pretty nice swag). I might be banned; not that it matters, because I plan to deactivate the account anyway. I may run into Quora staff people at professional conferences, and things may get awkward (see the top of this answer—I do hope to meet you, and I hope that it won’t get too awkward).

But at the same time… it’s not actually a big deal. Even though before 2018 Quora was a really nice place to ask my questions and to answer questions for which people need an answer, it is nowhere near being a truly essential site like Wikipedia. Stopping to read and write there every day allowed me to focus better on family and work, and also to revive some old neglected projects, such as translating Wikipedia articles or proofreading Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar at Wikisource.

All that said, yeah, I’d probably be happy to come back. The web does need a good question and answer site, with relevant topics, with pleasant design, and with good moderation. Quora used to be such a site. It is no longer such a site, with or without me. It can easily go back to being one. However, this will only happen when it becomes possible to remove Links, Shared items, and Nonsense from the feed.

A couple of last conclusions:

  1. On a website that has the characteristics of being a social network or a writers community, users need to be empowered somehow. It’s not easy, and it has costs, but when it’s done right, it’s worth it. Wikipedia empowers its users ridiculously: on no other site can the users edit the site’s CSS and JavaScript (not all users, but a lot of them). Reddit is not as transparent as Wikipedia, but it’s quite empowering as well: subreddit moderators can pressure the site’s management. The results of this pressure may be unpleasant and controversial, but it’s nevertheless good to have balances. Quora users are not empowered at all. It gives the company a lot of control, but is it actually good?
  2. Some people enjoy random weird algorithmically-selected stuff, and some people don’t. I hate the Links, and the Nonsense items, and a lot of other users hate them, but some people are fine with them. And that’s OK. That’s what preferences are for.

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Twitter Must Make it Easy to Mass-Report Spam Bots

I found a network of Russian female bots. Twitter spam bots.

They are not actually female. They just have Russian female names and female photos.

Most of those that I found were created in September 2016, although some were created at other times.

They all have similar taglines:

  • “In my opinion, everything is wonderful. I wonder what else” (“По-моему всё прекрасно. Интересно что ещё”)
  • “Right now absolutely everything is excellent. I wonder how else” (“Сейчас вообще всё отлично. Интересно как там ещё”)
  • “It looks like absolutely everything is wonderful. I’ll see what will happen next” (“Вроде вообще всё прекрасно. Посмотрю что будет дальше”)

… And so forth, with minor variations, which are very easy to detect for a human who knows Russian, although I’m less sure about software. (This reminds me of how I was interviewed for several natural language processing positions around 2011. All of them were about optimizing site text for Google ads, and all of them specifically targeted only English. When you only target English, other languages are used to spam you.)

Their usernames are all almost random and end with two digits: flowoghub90, viotrondo86, chirowsga88 (although “90” seem to be the most frequent digits). As location, they all indicate one of the large cities of Russia: Moscow, Krasnoyarsk, Perm, Saint-Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don, etc.

All of them post nothing but retweets of other accounts popular in Russia:

Curiously, all their names are only typical to ethnic Russians. Names of real women from Russia would be much more varied—there would be a lot of typical Armenian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Georgian, and Tatar names that reflect Russia’s diversity: Melikyan, Petrenko, Rivkind, Gamkrelidze, Khamitova. But these spam bot accounts only have names such as Kuznetsova, Romanova, Ershova, Medvedeva, Kiseleva. If you aren’t familiar with the Russian culture, let me make a comparison to the U.S.: It’s like having a lot of people named Smith, Harris, Anderson, and Roberts, and nobody named Gonzalez, Khan, O’Connor, Rosenberg, or Kim. Maybe the spammers wanted to be more mainstream than mainstream, and maybe it is just overt racism.

I found them when I noticed that a lot of unfamiliar accounts with Russian female names were retweeting something by Pavel Durov in which I was mentioned. Durov is the founder of VK and Telegram, and I guess that he can be classified under “major internet businesses” in the list above. I noticed the similar taglines of the “women”, and immediately understood they are all spam bots.

These accounts are active. Some of them retweeted stuff while I was writing this post. I also keep getting retweet notifications, more than two weeks after Durov’s original tweet was posted.

When I am looking at any of these accounts, Twitter suggests me similar ones, and they are all in the same network: Russian female names, similar “everything is wonderful” taglines, similar content. So Twitter’s software understands that they are similar, but doesn’t understand that they are spam bots that should be utterly banned. I also noticed that some of them are still suggested to me after I blocked them, which goes against the whole point of blocking.

I don’t know how many there are of them in this network. Likely thousands. I reported thirty or so, and I wonder whether it’s efficient for anything.

I also don’t know what is their purpose. Boost the popularity of other Russian accounts? But those that they retweet are popular already. Waste the time of people who try to use Twitter productively? Maybe; at least it’s the effect in my case. Function as bot followers in “pay to follow” networks? Possibly, but they have existed for a year, and they don’t follow so many people.

I’m probably not discovering anything very new in this post. But especially if I don’t, it all the more makes me wonder why isn’t this problem already addressed somehow. At the very least it should be possible to report them more efficiently with one click or tap. And Twitter should also provide a form for mass-reporting; currently, Twitter’s guides about spam only suggest this: “The most effective way to report spam is to go directly to the offending account profile, click the drop-down menu in the upper right corner, and select “report account as spam” from the list.” It’s OK for one account, but it requires five clicks, and it doesn’t scale for something as systematic as what I am describing in this post.

I do hope that somebody from Twitter will read this and do something about it. This is obvious systematic abuse, and I have no better way to report it.

I Deleted My Facebook Account

I used Facebook quite a lot. I posted lots of things, I got to know a lot of people, I learned about things that I wouldn’t learn anywhere else, I shared experiences.

But the feeling that I am the product and Facebook is the user got stronger and stronger as time passed. It happens with many other companies and products, but with Facebook it’s especially strong.

In February 2015 I stopped posting, sharing and liking, and I deleted Facebook apps from all my other devices. I continued occasionally reading and exchanging private messages in a private browser window.

Then I noticed that a few times things were shared in my name, and people liked them and commented on them. I am sure that I didn’t share them, and I am also quite sure that it wasn’t a virus (are there viruses that do such things on GNU/Linux?). Also, a few people told me that they received messages from me, and I’m sure that I didn’t send them; It’s possible that they saw something else under my name and thought that it’s a message even though it was something else, but in any case, nobody is supposed to think such a thing. That’s not how people are supposed to interact.

I am not a bug, not an A/B test, not a robot, not an integer in a database. I am Amir Aharoni and from today Facebook doesn’t use me. There are other and better ways to communicate with people.

Stop saying that “everybody is on Facebook”. I am not. I don’t feel exceptionally proud or special. I am not the only one who does this; a few of my friends did the same and didn’t write any blog posts or make any fuss about it.

You should delete your Facebook account, too.

Weird GMail Habit: Removing Control Characters

GMail has a weirdish feature that probably very few people except me know about. When using it with a Hebrew user interface, invisible control characters—LRM, RLM, RLE, LRE and the like—are added to some strings to make them appear correctly in a mixed-direction interface.

Most notably, they are added to email addresses. I sometimes want to copy these email addresses as text, and my mouse pointer picks the control characters as well. Of course, these control characters are by themselves invisible to humans, but very much visible to computers, and an email address with these characters is not correct, even if it appears to be the same to human eyes.

It already became a habit for me to carefully delete and manually restore the first and the last characters of an email address to make sure that the control characters are removed.

It would be better if GMail just used the <bdi> element or CSS bidi isolation. They are fairly well supported in modern browsers and provide better experience.

The Fateful March of 1998 – my #webstory

I first connected to the web in the summer of 1997. I bought a new computer with Windows 95 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 2. For about a week I thought that that’s how the web is supposed to look, but I kept seeing messages saying “Your browser doesn’t support frames” on a lot of sites. And then I found that there’s this thing called Microsoft Internet Explorer 3. I went to microsoft.com and downloaded it. It was the first piece of software that I downloaded. It was about 10 megabytes and took about an hour on my dial-up connection.

Most notably, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3 supported frames and animated GIFs. I loved animated GIFs! I guess that it makes me quite a hipster.

A cat in headphones dancing to house music.

House cat. Sorry, it’s an anachronism— this animated GIF is from mid-2000s. 1997’s animated GIFs were quite different.

And then Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 came out. I thought—”well, if the move from IE2 to IE3 made such a big difference, then I guess that I should try number 4, and it will be even cooler”. And I tried. And it was a disaster. The installation screwed up everything on my computer. I had no idea how to disable the dreaded Active Desktop, which it introduced. It didn’t work so well with my Hebrew version of Windows 95. So I did what a lot of people did very often back then and formatted my hard drive and re-installed Windows.

And the question arose—which browser should I use? IE3 was stable, but I didn’t like that it was getting old. So I went to netscape.com, to try that Netscape Navigator browser that I kept hearing everybody talking about it.

And I loved it.

I loved its nifty toolbars and its bookmarks manager. I loved the crash reporting; it crashed quite often, actually, but I didn’t feel so bad about it, because Microsoft’s programs crashed often, too, and in case of Netscape I felt good about reporting these crashes. Netscape’s email program, Netscape Messenger, was truly outstanding. I especially loved the green dot, which marked messages as read and unread in one click. Most of all, it said very clearly something that I came to realize only years later: “I am a program that lets you browse the web as well as possible. I am not trying to do anything else.”

Fast forward to March 1998. Netscape made the big announcement that the development of its browser becomes an open source project code-named “Mozilla”. I started hearing about “open source”, “free software” and Linux shortly before that, but it was mostly in the context of crazy geek hobbyists. And then suddenly a big famous end-user product that I love becomes open source—that felt really cool.

I followed Mozilla news since then. I heard about Bugzilla before its first version was released. I liked Mozilla’s decision to redo the whole rendering based on standards, even though many people criticized it. The thing that annoyed me the most in Mozilla’s early years was the lack of support for proper right-to-left text support, which was present in Internet Explorer. That’s why I, sadly, used mostly IE, and even became a bit of an IE power user. But I waited eagerly for Mozilla to do it and tried every alpha release.

"Are you fed up with your browser? You're not alone. We want you to know that there's an alternative... Firefox." The logo of Firefox is drawn with names of people.

The famous New York Times ad.

I was thrilled about the announcement of Firefox, the first stable version of Mozilla’s browser. I gave 10$ to the famous 2004 New York Times Firefox advertisement, and I still have the poster of that advertisement at home.

A long list of names, including Amir Elisha Aharoni

And there’s my name. Third line in the middle.

It always seemed natural to me that I follow Mozilla news so eagerly. I thought that everybody does it. I mean, how is it even possible to use the web in any way without being at least a bit curious about the technology that runs it?

And then in 2008 I wrote a little unimportant post in my Hebrew blog about a funny spelling correction. Tomer Cohen commented on it and suggested me to try the Hebrew spelling dictionary and Hebrew Firefox in general. And that’s how my big love story with software localization began.

I started sending corrections to the translation of Firefox’s interface translation. I started sending corrections to the Hebrew spelling dictionary. I got so curious about the way the spelling dictionary was built that I ended up doing a whole university degree in Hebrew Language. Really.

And in 2011 I started working in the Language Engineering team in the Wikimedia Foundation. I love it, and it probably wouldn’t have happened without my involvement with Mozilla. In the same year I also became a Mozilla Rep—a volunteer representative of Mozilla at conferences, blogs and forums.

Probably the most important thing that I learned from my Mozilla story is that loving the web and being curious about it is not something obvious. Most people just want something that works for checking weather, news, Facebook friends updates, homework help and kitten videos. And for the most part, that is perfectly fine. But the people’s freedom to read reliable and complete news on any electronic device cannot actually be taken for granted. Neither the people’s freedom and privacy to share their thoughts in social networks. Mozilla is among the most important organizations that care for these things and it develops technologies that make them possible. Technologies that let you browse the web as well as possible and don’t try to do anything else.

We do it for one simple reason: We love the web.

Do you love it, too?

P.S. As I began writing this post, I realized that Microsoft’s Active Desktop was not so different from today’s devices, which are heavily based on web technologies: Firefox OS, Chrome OS and others. I can’t say that I love Microsoft, but as it often happens, it was quite pioneering with ideas, and not so good with their execution. Credit where credit’s due.

Always define the language and the direction of your HTML documents, part 01

I received this email from Safari Books Online:

Email in English from Safari Books, oriented like Hebrew

Email in English from Safari Books, oriented like Hebrew. Click to enlarge.

The email is written in English, but notice how the text is aligned unusually to the right. Notice also that the punctuation marks appear at the wrong end of the sentence. I used Firefox developer tools to apply the correct direction, and saw it correctly:

The same email, with corrected left-to-right formatting using Firefox developer tools

The same email, with corrected left-to-right formatting using Firefox developer tools

This happens because I use GMail with the Hebrew interface. GMail has to guess the direction of the emails that I receive, because in plain text there’s no easy way to specify the direction (I hope to discuss it in a separate post soon). Usually GMail guesses correctly. Ironically, for HTML-formatted emails like this one, GMail often guesses incorrectly, even though in HTML, unlike in plain text, it’s quite easy to specify the direction by simply adding dir=”ltr” to the root element of the email.

Unfortunately a lot of HTML authors don’t bother to specify explicit direction. Many are not even aware of this exotic dir attribute. Others think that because “ltr” is the default, they don’t have to specify it. They are wrong: As this email shows, the left-to-right HTML content is embedded in a right-to-left environment, and the “rtl” definition propagates to the embedded content.

You could blame GMail, of course, but it’s much more practical to always define the direction of your HTML content, even if it’s the default. You can never know where will your content end up.

P.S.: I read this post before publishing and suddenly realized that its style is quite similar to “Best Practices” books, such as Damian Conway’s classic “Perl Best Practices” – it tells you to do something that is not obviously needed, and explains why it is needed nevertheless. I like to acknowledge sources of inspiration. Thank you, Damian.

The International Union of Wikis

People who work with Wikipedia quickly run into the interlanguage links – links to other versions of the same article. Inside Wikipedia lingo they are also frequently called “interwiki links”, although actually it’s not quite right: Interwiki links is a much wider concept.

Wikis existed long before Wikipedia was the most popular wiki of them all. They were a strange idea – websites that anyone could edit. They tried various ways of creating an inter-wiki community, in which different wiki communities would exchange ideas and reuse content and skills. Various schemes to do that were proposed, but none of them ever caught on – the old-days wikis were respectable, but small, and the web was too large and free-form.

And then Wikipedia came. Wikipedia started as a yet another wiki, so it tried to blend in the wiki community. At some point it got interwiki links – easy ways to link to other websites. It is easy to link to another page inside the same wiki by adding square brackets, and it is only slightly harder to link to another wiki: Instead of writing a whole URL with http and all that, you would just write a short prefix and a name of a page, and that’s it.

But to which wikis it is possible to link? Thanks to the popularity of Wikipedia, MediaWiki and other wiki engines, there are thousands of them now, and you don’t have prefixes for all of them. The prefixes for Wikimedia projects were managed in the internals of the database by the small group of developers. The list was exported to the Wikimedia Interwiki map. And actually… it wasn’t used that much. The old dream of having a network of wikis which are not just Wikipedia hasn’t come true yet. But this may change now, because recently the process became more open and user-friendly: The Interwiki extension was installed on Wikimedia wikis.

This extension allows displaying all the available interwiki prefixes in a dedicated table. It also allows users with appropriate preferences to edit them. Take a look at the Interwiki table for the English Wikipedia and you’ll see all the prefixes. Many of them are language codes – these are the interlanguage links. But there are many others: wiki communities of city residents, scientists, programmers, librarians, enthusiasts of countries etc. If you try the URLs in the list, you’ll see that some target sites are sadly dead, so they should probably be removed from the list. But others can be quite promising – for example Appropedia, a knowledge base of collaborative solutions in sustainability, appropriate technology and poverty reduction. That’s a very positive thing, not just because sustainability is a nice thing, but because it’s great to have many specialized information sources and not just one huge Wikipedia.

Now Wikimedia wiki communities can add their own interwiki prefixes to link to other websites that may interest them. An example off the top of my head is that the Slovak Wikipedia community would add a prefix for easy linking to a site with information about Slovak culture. Of course, the language and the topic can be just about anything.

This feature, just like all other MediaWiki extensions is translatable to all languages in translatewiki.net. For example, here’s the translation of the Interwiki extension to Hebrew. The translation of the Interwiki extension to the Slovak language, which I mentioned earlier, is not complete yet and should be completed. If you are curious in translating the extension or any other component of MediaWiki into your language, open an account at that website and just start translating.


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