201X in review

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Tue 31 December 2019

Well, this has been a big decade for me. At the close of 200X I was still very young as a programmer, had just gotten married to Morgan, had just started my job at Creative Commons, and was pretty sure everyone would figure out I was a fraud and that it would all come crashing down around me when everyone found out. (Okay, that last part is still true, but now I have more evidence I've gotten things done despite apparently pulling the wool over everyone's eyes.)

At work my boss left and I temporarily became tech lead, and we did some interesting things like kick off CC BY-SA and GPL compatibility work (which made it into the 4.0 license suite) and ran Liberated Pixel Cup (itself an interesting form of success, but I would like to spend more time talking about what the important lessons of it were... another time).

In 2011 I started MediaGoblin as a side project, but felt like I didn't really know what I was doing, yet people kept showing up and we were pushing out releases. Some people were even running the thing, and it felt fairly amazing. I left my job at Creative Commons in late 2012 and decided to try to make working on network freedom issues my main thing. It's been my main thing since, and I'm glad I've stayed focused in that way.

What I didn't expect was that the highlight of my work in the decade wasn't MediaGoblin itself but the standard we started participating in, which became ActivityPub. The work on ActivityPub arguably caused MediaGoblin to languish, but on the other hand ActivityPub was successfully ratified by the W3C as a standard and now has over 3.5 million registered users on the network and is used by dozens (at least 50) pieces of (mostly) interoperable software. That's a big success for all of it that worked on it (and there were quite a few), and in many ways I think is the actual legacy of MediaGoblin.

After ActivityPub becoming a W3C Recommendation, I took a look around and realized that other projects were using ActivityPub to accomplish the work of MediaGoblin maybe even better than MediaGoblin. The speed at which this decade passed made me conscious of how short time is and made me wonder how I should best budget it. After all, the most successful thing I worked on turned out to not be the networked software itself but the infrastructure for building networks. That lead me to reconsider whether my role was more importantly as trying to advance the state of the art, which has lead me to more recently start work on the federation laboratory called Spritely, of which I've written a bit about here.

My friend Serge Wroclawski and I also launched a podcast in the last year, Libre Lounge. I've been very proud of it; we have a lot of great episodes, so check the archive.

Keeping this work funded has turned out to be tough. In MediaGoblin land, we ran two crowdfunding campaigns, the first of which paid for my work, the second of which paid for Jessica Tallon's work on federation. The first campaign got poured entirely into MediaGoblin, the second one surprisingly resulted in making space so that we could do ActivityPub's work. (I hope people feel happy with the work we did, I do think ActivityPub wouldn't have happened without MediaGoblin's donors' support. That seems worth celebrating and a good outcome to me personally, at least.) I also was fortunate enough to get accepted into Stripe's Open Source Retreat and more recently my work on Spritely has been funded by the Samsung Stack Zero grant. Recently, people have been helping by donating on Patreon and both my increase in prominence from ActivityPub and Libre Lounge have helped grow that. That probably sounds like a lot of funding and success, but still most of this work has had to be quite... lean. You stretch that stuff out over nearly a decade and it doesn't account for nearly enough. To be honest, I've also had to pay for a lot of it myself too, especially by frequently contracting with other organizations (such as Open Tech Strategies and Digital Bazaar, great folks). But I've also had to rely on help from family resources at times. I'm much more privileged than other people, and I can do the work, and I think the work is necessary, so I've devoted myself to it. Sometimes I get emails asking how to be completely dedicated to FOSS without lucking out at a dedicated organization and I feel extra imposter-y in responding because I mean, I don't know, everything still feels very hand-to-mouth. A friend pointed to a blogpost from Fred Hicks at Evil Hat about how behind the scenes, things don't feel as sustainable sometimes, and that struck a chord with me (it was especially surprising to me, because Evil Hat is one of the most prominent tabletop gaming companies.) Nonetheless, I'm still privileged enough that I've been able to keep it working and stay dedicated, and I've received a lot of great support from all the resources mentioned above, and I'm happy about all that. I just wish I could give better advice on how to "make it work"... I'm in search of a good answer for that myself.

In more personal reflections of this decade, Morgan and I went through a number of difficult moves and some very difficult family situations, but I think our relationship is very strong, and some of the hardest stuff strengthened our resolve as a team. We've finally started to settle down, having bought a house and all that. Morgan completed one graduate program and is on the verge of completing her next one. A decade into our marriage (and 1.5 decades into our relationship), things are still wonderfully weird.

I'm halfway through my 30s now. This decade made it clearer to me how fast time goes. In the book A Deepness in the Sky, a space-trading civilization is described that measures time in seconds, kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds, etc. Increasingly I feel like the number of seconds ahead in life are always shorter than we feel like they will be; time is a truly precious resource. How much more time do I have to do interesting and useful things, to live a nice life? How much more time do we have left to get our shit together as a human species? (We seem to be doing an awful lot to shorten our timespan.)

I will say that I am kicking of 202X by doing something to hopefully contribute to lengthening both the timespan of myself and (more marginally individually, more significantly if done collectively) human society: 2020 will be the "Year of No Travel" for me. I hate traveling; it's bad for myself, bad for the environment. It's seemed most importantly to be the main thing that continues to throw my health out of whack, over and over again.

But speaking of time and its resource usage, a friend once told me that I had a habit in talks to "say the perfect thing, then ruin it by saying one more thing". I probably did something similar above (well, not claiming anything I write is perfect), but I'll preserve it anyway.

Everything, especially this blog, is imperfect anyway. Hopefully this next decade is imperfect and weird in a way we can, for the most part, enjoy.

Goodbye 201X, hello 202X.