Projects for personal & shared media use, creation, tracking, sorting, & archiving.
Last updated: 2 October 2022
Started: 22 September, 2020
Short links to this doc:
above: Cognac distillery. in Diderot’s 1763 Encyclopedie
Media Distillery is an ongoing array of projects for personal & shared media use, creation, note-taking/annotation, tracking, sorting, and archiving. It includes and integrates both personal tools and publishing/sharing. See also "Reading" page on my personal web site, which has a condensed display of my reading queues and brief explanation.
This is a continuation of projects I discussed previously in, e.g. 2012 presentation "Healthier Information" at Quantified Self conference at Google HQ; article: "From reading drift to reading flow: how to reclaim focus (and self)." September 3, 2013, and also other related posts tagged "user agency."
There's a famous, foundational quote about the topic, from Herbert Simon, 1971:
"In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."
--Herbert A. Simon (1971) "Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World."
Although it is also to some extent an ancient and perennial cultural topic, e.g. from Ecclesiastes's "of making many books there is no end," etc.
"The biggest library if it is in disorder is not as useful as a small but well-arranged one."
- Schopenhauer, "On Thinking for Yourself" 1851.
We inherently live amid many “streams” of media — which could be broadly defined to include our perceptions of the general environment, the flows of information in more structured contexts such as a workplace, the flow of what’s published (formally 'media'), how 'news' media operates, social media, time itself.
Likewise, we’re always, to take Ann M. Blair’s terms (in the fascinating historical study Too Much To Know, 2011), “storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing,” in a multitude of ways: from how our perception and memory works, to many ad-hoc means such bookpiles, shelves, notebooks, post-its, bookmarks, etc.
It’s a question of how well and happily we can do this navigation and minding. If we are too much in the stream, we might experience overload and dissolution, never getting to focus or the point or our best selves.. On the other hand, if we retreat to existing acquaintances and interests, we risk being contained by habitual thinking, boredom, and homophily, perhaps even false consciousness, ideological subjugation, and exploitation. Or if you're like a hunter-gatherer on the primordial savannah, getting killed by unexpected, undetected threat; so to speak.
People may or may not see a problem with the current environment, or their own or others' media use. Here are some possible cases or reasons you might care:
The phenomenon and perception of information/media over-abundance has arguably become much more pervasive now because of the huge proliferation and low cost of media sources, cable & satellite television, near-universal use of media-capable and Internet-connected mobile phones.
An important factor is the phenomenon of hyperabundant 'free' or zero-marginal-cost media -- both marketing / persuasive and 'consumption' media -- aggressively competing for your attention granularly and constantly. We tend to associate that with Internet media, but it's important to consider that much media has been free and abundant in much of human history: from
(for an excellent, global and anthropological/historical view of media & news considering this viewpoint and which has shaped mine, see: Stephens, Mitchell. A History Of News From The Drum To The Satellite,1988).
[edited out of another article].
What I like about LibraryThing is that it looks up and displays book covers and book info easily, given e.g. an ISBN or title; and it's very customizable.
What I don't like is that it doesn't generally import or export files much, handle non-book materials well, interoperate with other services, or allow extension e.g. by scripting. These are reasons one might instead use a powerful, more generic tool like Google Sheets, as I do to track digital files, shown in section below.
my "_Readings" folder, where I save digital files of reading material, for various purposes. . I save copies of files for various reasons, for later reference, just to recall them, etc. This is currently more open-ended and mostly just reverse-chronological, vs the curated listing of books above.
When a new item is put in the folder, it triggers a script (on IFTTT.com) that writes a new line to the end of the spreadsheet. I periodically move these new items to the top, so it stays reverse-chronological for easier viewing.
I'm thinking about evolving this to a prioritized list, to better serve my goals of prioritizing reading. I could do this by dragging or cut-and-pasting rows from the bottom to the top of the spreadsheet, but that's generally too tedious with a ~800-line file. So I plan to implement a move-row-to-top script, like this one.
Generally I find this a very & broadly useful design pattern/practice for curating and decisionmaking: loop through a list, select items to move to top; repeat. See discussion of 'loop' pattern in my "Media Distillery" essay/guide. The pattern is used in varying degrees in e.g. read-it-later tools, YouTube 'watch later' list and viewing queue, and -- in my opinion, particularly well -- in some podcast apps such as PocketCast.
imagine a model where all items are collected in one Google Sheets doc.
Item addition in various other places triggers addition also to the sheet.
(analogous to eg Save to Pocket)
Spreadsheet has different views, so you can eg view:
- books only
- print book only
on each item, a button to push item to top (top within category, or overall)
Serendipitously, today I encountered an entrepreneur and startup with a promising take on media prioritizing, which relates well to something I was thinking about yesterday and gives me a nice prompt to write/think more about it.
Heyday, apparently founded by entrepreneur Samiur Rahman @samiur1204 in San Francisco, "automatically saves content you view, and resurfaces it when you need it."
and here's Samiur's pinned tweet pointing to a key use case and motivating pain point:
"if a key to life focus & Tao is, attending to what's of higher path & value…what if higher-aligned material, eg sentences from top book/articles #readinglist, were steadily reinserted into the streams that shape & entice us, eg social media & soundscape."
I had been thinking about this yesterday, because I was looking forlornly at my little-surmounted online "Reading Pile" (ReadingPile.tmccormick.org/). This is a prioritized list of books & other reading material I keep on LibraryThing platform, periodically updating & reordering it from various sources such as my ReadingsFolder.tmccormick.org auto-generated spreadsheet of items dropped into my digital readings folder.
While the reading pile stays unsurmounted, at the same time—as I've observed since at least ten years back in "Healthier Information" talk—I find myself regularly dipping into and floating along and engaging in Twitter. It's a typical "the world is too much with us" experience, in Wordsworth's terms.
Then I recalled my and others' experiments going way back, in Tweet-publishing longer texts. I call my project exploring this BlockBook (Blockbook.tmccormick.org, formerly Bitdocs, or stylized 'biTdocs' to foreground the Tim / TDocs pun). In this, I have for example Tweet-published entire texts like Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself".
and here's the "Song of Myself" edition: @song_of_myself
Joining these multiple threads, what if materials from one's prioritized reading list/pile were available in disaggregated, 'distributed' versions (i.e. BlockBook versions), and these could be redirected into one's streams?
Building on Blair’s terms, and incorporating ideas of “stream” and “flow”, I suggest the design pattern of a ‘distillery‘. Multiple incoming streams (eg water, grain, yeast, heat) come together in an ongoing process of refinement, becoming much more valuable and focused (& ‘contained’ in a bottle).
Alternatively, consider a design pattern analogous to a brewpub: a place that gathers and refines/ferments ingredients into valuable, locale-customized beer, and food; also, curates other materials such as other producers' beer/spirits; also provides a place for people to enjoy these things together -- shared, condensed, mixed 'spirits' of other kinds.
Perhaps even more basic to the proposed processes here is the idea of building [additional] loops into what are commonly discussed and experienced as 1-way consumption or stream processes. I wrote about this in 2013, parts included here in a screenshot with small type to suggest it's a sub-loop for the present discussion:
[from Wikipedia, "Commonplace Book"
"Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity, and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are similar to scrapbooks filled with items of many kinds: sententiae, notes, proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, prayers, legal formulas, and recipes. Entries are most often organized under subject headings.
"Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each one is unique to its creator's particular interests but they almost always include passages found in other texts, sometimes accompanied by the compiler's responses."
"'Commonplace' is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (from Greek tópos koinós, see literary topos) which means "a general or common topic", such as a statement of proverbial wisdom.
In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings, such as John Milton's example. Scholars now understand them to include manuscripts in which an individual collects material which have a common theme, such as ethics, or exploring several themes in one volume.
As a genre, commonplace books were generally private collections of information, but as the amount of information grew following the invention of movable type and printing became less expensive, some were published for the general public.
Commonplaces are a separate genre of writing from diaries or travelogues. Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective."
"[in the 18th century], publishers often printed empty commonplace books with space for headings and indices to be filed in by their users.
"By the early eighteenth century they had become an information management device in which a note-taker stored quotations, observations and definitions. They were used in private households to collate ethical or informative texts, sometimes alongside recipes or medical formulae.
"For women, who were excluded from formal higher education, the commonplace book could be a repository of intellectual references....Commonplace books were used by scientists and other thinkers in the same way that a database might now be used."
September 12 2021.
Note (2 October 2021), I am currently experimenting with the open-source citation manager tool/platform Zotero, to manage various bibliographic resources I've developed over years, including HousingWiki articles, Village Buildings and Apology for the Reader book research, and various current collaborations/articles.
I may start using Zotero to manage some or all of the listings of books, Web materials, digital files, films in Media Distillery project.
This no doubt tends to look laborious and complicated. However I think that's largely because I'm deliberately tracing and experimenting with methods. Where it aims to go, for myself and others, is to shape habits and tools that flow easily; mostly self-maintain; feel accessible, appealing, and rewarding; and reduce rather than exacerbate experiences of overload and anxiety. Indeed, most of what's described here is habitual for me, or ijust nudges my habits, and uses tools I'm quite familiar and comfortable with. It uses various tools because these are the ones I found fitting and comfortable for different purposes.
(photographs I take, photos of media [e.g. book sections], images captured from social media, web browsing
For labeling, managing, locating, and Web-publishing Media Distillery components, and topic pages and writings I create, I've been exploring the use of subdomains.
A subdomain is a prefix put in front of a domain-name, e.g. 'sometopic' in 'sometopic.mydomain.com'.
If you control a Web domain-name, like 'mydomain.com', then you can freely create subdomains like this, and configure them so that they redirect to any other URL, i.e. place on the Web, that you want. Typically, they are used to direct Web traffic to some appropriate sub-area of your web presence; so for example, the URL "mail.yahoo.com" takes you to Yahoo's mail service rather than the main Yahoo page, or "uk.acmecorp.com" may take you to the UK web site for Acmecorp.
In my case, I am using subdomains to label and create URLs for various projects under my personal domain tmccormick.org, e.g. filmslist.tmccormick.org; or for various topic pages within some project, e.g. africanarchitecture.housing.wiki for the article on African Architecture in HousingWiki.
These subdomain URLs I then configure so they redirect to the document I specify, which may be:
In distributed, open collaborative projects like these, the paramount needs tend to be: minimizing barriers to participation, using the most familiar tools/methods possible, and minimizing the difficult of administering and evolving.
By using subdomain URLs, I can have logical and brand-consistent URLs for materials, but host those materials with Google Docs or other tools. Using Google Docs as the primary document editing and presentation form means:
Advantage 2: easy hot-key navigation
one unanticipated benefit of the subdomain URLs approach, I've discovered, is that it often makes documents very easy and quick to get to, because browser address bars easily autocomplete the URL from just one or two letters.
When using a desktop/laptop computer, for example, much of the time I get to things pressing the hotkey Command-L (which takes one to the address bar, in Chrome and other browsers on MacOS), then either entering a search term, which triggers a search-engine search, or one or two letters which either
a) prompt lookup of the subsequent string in some service such as Amazon, Internet Archive, HousingWiki, via "custom search engine" feature of browser; or
b) by auto-complete, get and then follow one of my commonly-used redirect URLs such as filmslist.tmccormick.org.
Advantage/feature 3: flexible subject labels
This approach is somewhat reminiscent of the subject headers used in commonplace books (see section above about these). But, compared to how these are used in print media, this has expanded capabilities, since it facilitates:
Related to the "URLs as 'commonplaces'/headers" idea above, I'm working on developing personal or project home pages that fully or partly automatically present the more active & important, shared or public items.
One way to do this may be to embed, on a Web page, a view of a Google Drive folder which contains the project/person's shared/public materials, and is sorted by Recently Modified.
Or, embed a view of a Google Sheets spreadsheet which lists project/topic names and URLS -- this is easy to automatically or manually reorder to highlight the most important or active items. (I use this approach for the Projects page of my personal web site tjm.org).
Common related methods:
Current reading bookpile: readingpile.tmccormick.org.
(a sub-list in my LibraryThing book catalog, easily to change, add to, reorder).
archived articles - it's a good idea to not depend on things staying up or findable on the web. Pocket's paid versions allow this, some research tools like Evernote do this in ways and I used to use that. I'm considering setting up something for my past and ongoing readings with open-source tool Archivebox.
PDFs/eBooks archive (Google Drive > _Readings)
Research projects / bibliographies:
since early 2014, I’ve bookmarked, using the Pocket “read it later” tool, almost all articles & papers I’ve found online, except for casual/skim reads1 – by Sept 2020, about 65,000 items.
Mainly this was/is done just to use the read-it-later and format-standardizing readability capabilities of Pocket, but if used habitually as I do, it can produce a quite thorough record of online browsing/reading patterns.
It's a useful and beguiling tool for short term read-it-later use, but curiously, even more than most consumer web tools, Pocket does very little to help you deliberately manage, analyze, get overview or metrics on, transform, or interoperate with the data ('archive', 'library') you build up in it. Consumer web tools, in my view, pervasively tend for various reasons to provide "stream-sipping," narrow, contextless, dependent, non-scaleable interactions; as opposed to full downloads, offline use, overviews, batch operations, automatic operations,
On the contextlessness angle, for example, Pocket strips dates off all items, and gives you no idea of the total size or growth rate or read rate of your archive. Sort of like being in a casino, no clocks or daylight -- it seems intentional. Also, the archive it generate is minimally useful, e.g. it gives you the initial URL Pocket received rather than dereferenced URL, meaning in my case a very large portion of opaque short-links like t.co (Twitter) and ow.ly, which in themselves tell you little, and also may hide tracking info, passwords; and may expire or break.
This, obviously, for me would not do. So in September 2020 I created a software tool Pickpocket to help collect, format, and analyze/prioritize Pocket media archives.
It uses script programming (Bash shell, Perl, curl, wget) to retrieve my Pocket URLs archive, unshorten (dereference) and retrieve the URLs, recover dates, retrieve article titles, normalize item source/domain names, and transform the archive into a Google Sheets sheet for further sorting & analysis.
Using that Google Sheets spreadsheet I did further analysis, deduplication, and prioritizing of items to read, reread, or add to various research projects such as Village Buildings book sections.
Also, this analysis was done to gather ideas/requirements for a next phase web archiver/analyzer tool in development.
1 Jan '01 - considering more carefully more why/when I use Pocket. It's:
a) in mobile use, saving to Pocket the link for almost anything I think I might read or reference later, as encountered on Twitter, web, Facebook, in email, etc. This is because:
i. following arbitrary links long ago became too slow, unpredictable, and risky-seeming (esp. because media sites became exceptionally slow, loaded with adware, and unusable due to popups, ads, etc. Also, I haven't always had always-on internet connectivity to even follow links in real-time.
ii. I find I generally prefer and find useful to separate browsing/discovery mode from closer evaluative reading.
b) in desktop use,
i. like (i.) above but a lesser portion of the time, because links can be followed with less risk and delay due to e.g. ability to open them into a separate/background window, and because I get higher page usability due to using ad-blocking software, font settings that override the site's, etc. ]
Blair, Ann M. (2010). Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age..
McCormick, Tim (2012). "Healthier Information: using Quantified Self methods to address information anxiety." Quantified Self conference, Google HQ, March 28, 2012. (5-minute "PechaKucha" / lighting-talk format).
Video: http://vimeo.com/40245734 (15mins).
[note, In Q&A section, I field a probing first question from counterculture / Silicon Valley icon Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Review].
McCormick, Tim (2013). "From reading drift to reading flow: how to reclaim focus (and self)." September 3, 2013. http://tjm.org/2013/09/09/from-reading-drift-to-reading-flow-how-to-use-filter-sort-loopsand also other related posts tagged "user agency".
Schopenhauer, Arthur (1851). "On Thinking for Yourself."
in Parerga and Paralipomena (Greek for "Appendices" and "Omissions"), often translated as Essays" or "Essays and Aphorisms. Saunders translation (1896):
Hollingdale translation (1970?): https://archive.org/details/essaysaphorisms00scho (can be checked out for 14 days).
https://www.google.com/books/edition/Essays_and_Aphorisms/EWt_5YLqHcAC (partial preview).
Simon, Herbert A. (1971) "Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World."
Stephens, Mitchell (1988). A History Of News From The Drum To The Satellite.
Wikipedia (En). "Commonplace Book". accessed 03 October, 2021.