I will project I spent more time remixing the featured image for this post than writing it, but the reward of both is something I can likely never fully explain.

It was the best of software, it was the worst of software, it was the age of the metaverse, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of agile methods, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of frameworks, it was the season of code rot, it was the spring of new features, it was the winter of fatal errors, we had every library before us, we had nothing to reuse, we were all going direct to free sofware, we were all going direct to micropayments —in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Not Charles Dickens but his great great great great grand non relative, @CogDog Dickens?)

In this week I faced the worst of software times, with a web-based tool I had used years before but on using it now, seemed to defy intuition, it’s documentation did not explain a feature it claims to support, and all of the helpful YouTube videos from as recent as 2020 showed me interface elements that were not present.

What was my recourse? There was no contact, support was only a searchable set of Other People’s Frequently Asked Questions (never my own). I could not ask for help. There was no way for me to even ask for a change in the way it worked.

But in another chapter these week, a different software I found an interface inconsistency that while the user forums offered a customization, affected the system in a way not helpful. In maybe a manner of a few hours of posting, someone on the development team had pushed a fix to github, and in less than 2 hours I could update my version and make it do what I wanted.

One chapter is open source the other is “free” software owned by one of the biggest commercial firms in the biz. Good luck guessing which is which.

Chapter One: The Worst of…

I have at least two things going now with OEGlobal where we are soliciting responses that are asked in short video form. And yes, the first reach is using our community space OEG Connect and asking to reply with whatever means people can share video. That will mean a lot of links to Google Drive, maybe some YouTube private videos.

I was thinking about a web app I had used and recommended long ago (like 3 times the length of time we have been living in the pandemic, so that’s infinity * 3), Flipgrid. What I recall is that it’s like a video based topic thread, and as the host or setter-upper you can set a time limit on the response. You end up with a grid of video replies, all grouped nicely together.

That’s my blurry memory. Then they got bought by Microsoft, but I remembered that if you had an educational institution email address you could get a free account (I did a few using my Kean University email where I adjunct taught a few times, thanks Kean!) I think I did one as an activity for Ontario Extend (but it seems to have been vanquished from the activity bank).

Years pass. My mind was reseeded when last year I came across via one of those unexpected twitter link curiosity stumbles this grid of students in Mexico sharing (en español) their experiences on doing web annotation with Hypothesis.

So I decided to experiment. I found I was able to create a FlipGrid account with my OEGlobal email address, and created a test topic to try. They force you to associate it with a group, so I had to create a group. This is where it got wonky, because it forces you to choose one of three options for “membership” which to me means you have to specify who get access by email domain (I could do for my colleagues), knowing in advance their FlipFrid usernames, or by whatever the heck Google Classroom links in.

Only members you've added can access your Group. Add members and create join details here. Manage members. Choose one of these options to add your members. These options are Email or Domain, Username, or Google Classroom

I could not find any reference in the documentation on creating public grids. I aw references to updates for Public Groups, but nothing about creating Public Groups. Then there this is this kind of “explanation” that defies comprehending.

So naturally, and often before turning to software’s own quote/unquote documentation, I search the rest of the internet. Here is a very detailed video from 2020 explaining how to create a public group in FlipGrid— except there is no such feature anymore.

I tried appealing to The Twitter, but only heard that someone had done it before.

Through my own brute force stumbling I discovered how to do it– use that option to create a guest password. This means, when you send the invite link to someone, you have to tell them to ignore the first options to Join With Google or Join with Microsoft and enter the password.

That “or” is pretty tiny. Anyhow at least people can record a video response. It gets in the can. They do not get a link to share with until much later (by email).

The whole system is weird as users see the site via URLs like flipgrid.com/***** but for me as the person who sets it up, I am within admin.<meta charset="utf-8">flipgrid.com/***** — I keep confusing myself where I am. And as admin, I can do more, like get sharing URLs and embed codes that users cannot.

But at least you can jump in (if anyone is desperately seeking to try this test leave a comment below, I will send link and the code, see what I will resort to to get comments?)

My testing flip grid. So far the responses are Felix pretending to be me, me pretending to be me, and my OEG colleague Isla)

And nowhere have I found any way to generate the lovely gallery grid view I saw in the link I shared earlier for the students in Mexico (thought the “+” in the URL would do it, alas no. Only by exploring some of the action menus did I discover that this view is what Flipgrid calls a “mixtape” (that sounds like a term devised by a committee, yechhhh). The only access is via the menu inder your icon?

These answers are probably somewhere on their site, but I am done with my fishing attempts.

Yes, it’s free software, but I really am subject to it’s design. I am guessing the legacy views are not available, but I cannot find anyplace where I can ask of the software team, much less suggest/request a feature change.

This is how most software works, we are insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of how the offer it only”.

Chapter Two: The Better Of…

It would be maybe over reaching to say “best of” but I had an different experience entirely today with the Discourse platform we use for OEG Connect. And it’s not quite comparable, but it does illustrate how open source software could and should work.

Now Discourse does not really have a lot of organized user documentation per se but what it does have is a user/developer community (and it is run in it’s own software, that says something right there). I get most of my answers there and also plugins, modifications, etc.

And my situation is just an interface issue that I found today to be inconsistent. There is a button in the editor for inserting a hyperlink, and it uses the familiar link icon. That works fine.

This is the button you click in the editor that looks like the one in almost every other editor to add a hyperlink to a selected chunk of text.

But here is the problem. On viewing a post there is a button used to get the link to that post and/or for sharing that link on social media. It does several things when the button is clicked:

The post share button offers a button (on right) to copy the link to a post or topic, but more options below to share in social media or to start a new Discourse topic about. A lot is going in!

But here is the confusing part. The button that Discourse uses here is the same link icon used in the editor to insert a hypertext link:

To me this is poor interface design- the same symbol is used for buttons that function very differently.

And I did find previously a way to change that icon to something else, using this bit of documentation. But it changed both button icons! So I could change the share icon but it meant that the hyperlink icon in the editor was also changed.

I crafted a new post to describe this situation, I thought I stated it pretty clearly. I got a few replies but all of them were making different suggestions on which icon was better to use for a share icon. I was not asking for icons, friends! but in maybe an hour, a reply came from Penar who looks like does development that included a link to the GitHub change request for this feature.

Sweet! I can see what’s happening and the request even has a link reference back to the topic where I made the request (smart bot you got!)

And I was able to go in the Discourse admin area to updates, and see that there were changes available (sadly I missed doing a screenshot) that included this change. Boom! I ran an update, and maybe 3 hours after requesting a software feature it was done.

I was now able to share back that it worked on my site (with a reminder about an extra step to make the new icon available). We have the familiar link icon for the hyperlink tool in the editor, but now the share icon on our site is different:

I have customized now the share icon to something other than a link icon

Now the icons on a button are hardly a significant software change. But the feeling for me, as a user of this software, where I can ask questions make interface suggestions, and see it happen are absolutely the Best of Software Times.

This is not just saying all open source software is glorious and commercial stuff crap, but noting the difference when you can be part of the change process, rather than a subject to a developer’s whims.

And extrapolate this from Open Source software to Open Content… it’s the same tale.


ThE End

Featured Image: Okay I was trying to think of the title and metaphor of this post, and the title of Dickens’ book came to mind. I found a classic comics public domain version on WikiMedia Commons and I was off to the remix races in Photoshop, changing the title, adding cogdog to the banner, and even putting software icons on the figures. I have more fun with my features images than I ought to me allowed. But hey, it’s my blog!

From the Classic CogDog Library! A Tale of Two Software!
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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so)

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