Google Suggest: Your Company + Scam

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I find that the auto suggestions feature from Google Suggest in the Firefox search box very useful. But perhaps not in the way it was intended.

Google Suggest works via algorithms that “use a wide range of information to predict the queries users are most likely to want to see. For example, Google Suggest uses data about the overall popularity of various searches to help rank the refinements it offers.” In other words,  type one word and Google will tell you the next word most likely to be typed after it. Type “dimitar” and the most likely second word will be “berbatov” (this may not been a lot to non-soccer fans, but trust me, the two words go together like rock and roll for the rest of us):

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This can be useful, or at least revealing.

For example, I received one of those awful pieces of spam from Tagged.com that give the whole social networking thing a bad name:

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Click on the “Click here to block all emails from Tagged Inc., 110 Pacific Mall Box #117, San Francisco, CA. 94111” and you’re taken to a page where you’re asked to sign in or sign up. A sure sign of a scam if ever there was one; what happened to opting out a la CANSPAM?

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So I figured I should Google these clowns and see what’s being said about them. Type their name into the Firefox search box, and then hit the space bar, and this was what Google offered me as the most popular search terms:

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Having your product name coupled with “spam” and “scam” in its top three searches can’t be good.

Needless to say, tagged.com is a scam, at least in the way it tries to hoodwink users into signing up and signing up their friends. Here’s how the excellent and resourceful Amit Agarwal recommends you get rid of it from your inbox. It’s a shame that so many apparently good names are involved in something so blatantly anti-social and spammy. At what point do these people feel they’ve lost the game and allow corners to be cut? One of the founders even spoke at last year’s Authentication and Online Trust Summit for crying out loud.

The bigger issue is how to stop these sites from damaging social networking further. But that’s for another day. For now, using Google Suggest is a good quick way to know whether you’re on a hiding to nothing if you even click on a link in one of these emails. Take another scam networking site I’ve written about recently, Yaari. Its Google Suggest juice comes out looking similarly dodgy:

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Compare that with something a bit more bona fide, like LinkedIn:

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While this is a useful tool for us, I’m guessing that the companies involved are going to be hiring some drones to try to massage these results so they don’t look quite so  bad.

An Answer to Our Scanning Prayers?

 NeatDesk

I’m always amazed at how weak the market for scanners is. The devices aren’t always that good, and the software that accompanies them is generally speaking pretty awful. Those that were once good, like PaperMaster, are now dead.

So it’s good to hear that NeatReceipts, once interested mainly in, well, scanning receipts, is now called The Neat Company, and is about to launch NeatDesk – “the all-new desktop scanner and digital filing system.” It’s got what looks like a pretty cool Automatic Document Feeder scanner that will take receipts, business cards and documents—in the same scan.

I used NeatReceipts and thought it was a good effort—it did a good job of trying to parse receipts, although the user interface was overly complex and the software not particularly stable. Neat Co says the software has been completely overhauled.

The device is going to sell for $400+ once it’s launched. More anon.

The Neat Company – Preorder Sale

Update: Evernote have added PDF preview for Windows. Is there room anymore for Paperport and its ilk? This is a great addition to Evernote and something I think really pushes it into the ‘capture all your cr*p’ category. Good on them.

How to Give Visitors Your Location

However good your directions may be, there’s nothing like a map to show people where you are. But it’s fiddly, and usually they’ve already left home by the time they realise they don’t actually know where you live.

Here’s a great and simple way to include a map of your location with your directions and address, in the form of a simple link which can be emailed, sent by instant message or SMS. The resulting page looks good online and in a phone browser.

Go to Schmap.me and type in the name you want to have as your address — www.schmap.me/loosewire, for example:

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If it’s available the box will turn green.

Enter the address on the next page and the Google Map on the left of the address will immediately jump to that location:

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There’s a room for notes, where you can include driving directions:

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(There are more fields available if you want them.)

The resulting page will look like this:

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It also looks good on a phone:

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Include the link at the bottom of your email signatures or in your contact address book. It’s easy enough to then send it to friends by email, SMS or instant message.

Update: Be wary of what you put up there: the information is not visible to search engines, but the page could be stumbled upon(since there’s no password). So, in the words of the company, best not use it for sensitive information.

links for 2008-09-24

Social Networks Aren’t Social

Social networks are not really social—they’re informational. While they may appear to be social, and perhaps we flock to them and participate in them because we feel a need to socially connect, the real currency is information. Whereas we might go to a bar, a cocktail party or a dinner and spend 90% of our time talking about things that are not important to us, just to maintain and keep alive that social ‘space’, and 10% exchanging really usable and useful information, online the percentages are probably inverted.

Looking at my Facebook inbox, the last 10 exchanges have been about arranging to meet a professional acquaintance who is about to move to Indonesia, chatting with a casual acquaintance about why they’re quitting their job, getting information from a professional acquaintance about her deleted blog, a request to appear on a radio show from a close friend, offering advice to a professional acquaintance about furthering their career, requesting help from a professional acquaintance about interviewing her boss, and then a handful of inconsequential exchanges with friends and semi-friends. These exchanges are data-rich, in the words of Edward Tufte, whereas the average real-world conversation is much less so.

(I’m not talking about enjoyability here, and this is not to say that social interaction isn’t important. They’re of course more fun—it’s really hard to get drunk with someone on Facebook—and In many ways the data that comes out is more useful, because it comes after vital ‘social greasing’—wine, song, ambience, comfort, shared intimacies—that lubricate the lips. I’m just talking ratios.)

This all sprung to mind reading some great notes that Ethan Zuckerman is taking at Picnic08, who quotes from a panel discussion that includes Linda Stone, Jyri Engeström, Matt Jones, Addy Feuerstein and Philip Rosedale. Jones, the founder (should that be foundr?) of Dopplr, reckons we should let go of the idea of friendship in many social tools and just focus on the exchange of information:

He quotes Merlin Mann, who describes the new feature on FriendFeed which allows you to pretend to follow a friend so you won’t create an awkward social situation, “This is a major breakthrough in the make-believe friendship space.” There are many rich ways we can build social relationships online, but we’d do better to focus on the information we already exchange, the “wear we leave on social objects”, rather than forcing make-believe friendship.

I reckon he’s right on the money there. Many of us try to create a distinction between Facebook friends and LinkedIn friends, but it’s getting harder and harder. I keep Facebook only for those people I’ve met, but increasingly, as my tight network of friends new and old thins out the people I’m adding are loose acquaintances.

The relationship we have is based on trust—after all we knew each other, once—but the usefulness trumps the warm fuzziness. We hope to make use of our renewed acquaintance, and. perhaps, we’re not so shy about exploiting it.

This was what I thought would happen on LinkedIn.  My policy there was to add pretty much anyone who wasn’t trying to sell me life insurance, a house or a bank. But at least for me it hasn’t really worked. Being LinkedIn buddies doesn’t really seem to be enough to create a connection through which business can flow. (This despite, theoretically, everyone wanting to know a journalist if only so they can pimp their product.)

The bottom line? I don’t think make-believe friendship works, and I think social networks will fail if they focus on that. It’s not about finding new friends. It’s about facilitating the exchange of information through existing ones: sharing websites, job offers, invitations, photos, whatever will help or entertain your friends and acquaintances.

Of course, friendships are strengthened through these exchanges, but it’s not the ‘friending’ that is doing it, it’s the information.

…My heart’s in Accra » Picnic08 – The future of social networks

PS Just spotted this from David Weinberger: “But sites like Facebook aren’t about information. They’re about self, others, and the connections among them.” Sounds like we’re not in agreement, but I’d say we are: information, in this case, is talking about the personal data one puts up on these sites. I’m talking about the information that is exchanged on these sites: the trading that takes place, the process. The difference is between the photos a hairdresser puts in his window display and what actually goes on inside the barber.

links for 2008-09-24

Curing the Inbox Twitch

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Sorry, say that again?

Research indicates we’re bad at recovering from interruption: In a study last year, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by email. As the Herald points out: People who check their email every five minutes waste 8.5 hours a week figuring out what they were doing moments before.

Assuming you’re like me and don’t have any holidays, that’s more than 18 days a year of wondering what the hell you were working on before you opened that chain email about Sarah Palin’s collection of moose-fur slippers.

So how do you avoid this?

Well, I’ve talked before about keeping an empty inbox. That’s worth sticking to: It’s a lot easier to scan an inbox that’s nearly empty than one that’s full. (These are the kinds of profundities you get when you sign up for the Loose Wire column.)

But it’s even better not to scan the inbox at all. But I know this is not easy: I’m a compulsive email checker, and I really wish I wasn’t. What we’re really admitting, when we check our email—whether on a computer or a mobile phone—is that we’re not really in control of our lives.

We’re basically waiting for something: news, instruction, affirmation, confirmation, degradation, a sense of belonging, a distraction. Even a Dear John letter. Anything, basically, but what we have right in front of us. Anything than finishing off what we’re actually doing.

You’ll know this because on those rare occasions when you’re on a trip to the boondocks, and you have no phone signal, you’ll notice that the clouds haven’t darkened, the heavens haven’t opened, the sky, basically, hasn’t fallen. You’re still alive. The office still exists. You haven’t been fired. (And if you have, sorry about that. Maybe you should have checked your email more often. Just kidding.)

The other time you’ll notice that email absence isn’t necessarily fatal is when you’re working on something and you achieve that great moment of flow—when nothing can distract you and you’re on fire. Not literally of course; you’re just able to push aside all distractions and get on with what you’re doing.

This is why computers suck. They’re designed to be intrusive—to destroy flow. Your Microsoft Outlook has, as standard, a little icon that sits in the corner of your screen to inform you when an email arrives. This is basically the software’s way of telling you: “This computer is designed to help you work, but also to set your priorities for you. We know best. We know that a piece of spam we failed to identify as spam is more important to you than keeping your train of thought from coming off the rails.”

Well, this isn’t right. It doesn’t sound right, and it’s a sure sign that you haven’t figured out that YOU CAN DISABLE EMAIL NOTIFICATION. (See the little brown Outlook icon in the bottom right hand corner of your screen? Right click that and make sure that Show New Mail Desktop Alert doesn’t have a tick next to it.)

Now you won’t, or shouldn’t, get any more notifications of incoming emails. (If you’re not using Outlook you may have to hunt around to find out how to disable pop-up notifications. Thunderbird, for example, has its settings inside the Options/General tab.)

Of course, you still need to check your email. But unless you’re in a high-pressure job that demands to-the-second response times like air traffic control or running relatively large countries (in which case email overload is probably not going to be top of your list of irritating disruptions) you should be able to read your email when you feel like it, not when someone else does.

I, for example, recommend looking at your inbox not more frequently than every 15 minutes. It gives your hands a rest from the computer, and it yet it gives you enough time to pour your concentration into what you’re doing for a good stretch. If you can manage 30 minutes, go for it.

If your boss doesn’t feel you’re responding quickly enough, you may have to either tweak her or tweak the intervals between email checks.

The other way to limit email distraction is not to just respond to stuff. Cut down the emails you send and you’re less likely to get lots back. If you use a Blackberry, for example, don’t reply on the device unless you really have to; wait until you get back to the office.

Divide those incoming emails into those you need to, or can, respond to immediately without taking up lots of time. Those you can reasonably delegate, those you don’t need to respond to at all, and those you can respond to later. Only the last group needs to be dealt with later in the day; set aside time for that and do them all in one go. Then dash out the door.

Don’t copy everyone on your emails, and try to discourage your colleagues from doing so. It’s lazy practice and wastes everyone’s time. Send an email only to those people who really need to read it, and don’t think you’re being smart by forwarding stuff to other people as way of cutting down your workload. Never happens. It’ll always come back to you.

Emails, of course, aren’t the only distraction. Nowadays we tend to allow our personal life into our work life: web mail (Yahoo, Gmail, MSN) and even instant messaging services such as Skype. Facebook and social networks are one vast attention distorter. We managed quite well without them a couple of years ago; now we physically wilt if we can’t see what item Paul has stuck on his head today.

Now there’s nothing wrong with these things, well not too much, but they break up your concentration as badly as email. So don’t let them. Don’t have Facebook or web-mail accounts open in your browser when you work—not least because Facebook now includes a chat feature which lets your friends see you’re online and logged in and will almost certainly ping you for a chat.

Set aside time to do your personal email and Facebooking but make sure that it’s only a few times a day; anything more frequent and you’ll be as distracted as those highly caffeinated laptop users in Starbucks who kid themselves they’re working.

(The other modern distraction are status update services like Twitter. These are real productivity killers. They’re great for staying in touch with people, and feeling connected, but once again, set boundaries for yourself.)

If you have any say about how your organisation is run, consider proposing some alternatives to email. Wikis are a great way to move non-urgent information around. Instead of sending everyone an email about how the entertainment committee are considering a suggestion that toilets be fitted out with ambient lighting to improve bowel movement, put it on a department wiki, so employees can check it themselves from time to time. Not everyone needs to know right here right now.

In short, the smaller your inbox and the smaller your colleagues’ inboxes, the less distracted you’ll be. And hey, I didn’t check my inbox once writing this. God knows what has happened in the meantime. Better check.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

Is New Media Ready for Old Media?

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I’m very excited by the fact that newspapers are beginning to carry content from the top five or so Web 2.0/tech sites. These blogs (the word no longer seems apt for what they do; Vindu Goel calls them ‘news sources’) have really evolved in the past three years and the quality of their coverage, particularly that of ReadWrite Web, has grown in leaps and bounds. Now it’s being carried by the New York Times.

A couple of nagging questions remain, however.

1) Is this old media eating new media, or new media eating the old? On the surface this is a big coup for folk like ReadWriteWeb—which didn’t really exist three years ago—but look more closely, and I suspect we may consider this kind of thing as the beginning of the acknowledgement by old media that they have ceded some important ground that they used to dominate. This, in short, marks the recognition of traditional media that theses news sources are, to all intents and purposes, news agencies that operate on a par with, and have the same values as, their own institutions.

2) Is new media ready for old media? I have a lot of respect for ReadWriteWeb, and most of the other tech sites included in this new direction. But they all need to recognise that by participating with old media they need to follow the same rules. There’s no room for conflicts of interest here: Even the NYT has reported on potential conflicts of interest for Om Malik and Michael Arrington (here’s a great piece from The Inquistr about the issue, via Steve Rubel’s shared Google Reader feed.)

The thing with conflicts of interest is that they’re tough. It’s hard to escape them. And it’s not enough to disclose them. You have, as a writer (let’s not say journalist here, it’s too loaded a word, like blogger), a duty to avoid conflicts of interest. Your commitment as a writer has to be to your reader. If your reader doesn’t believe that you’re writing free of prejudice or favor, then you’re a hack. And I don’t mean that in a nice way.

Which means you have to avoid not only all conflicts of interest, but appearances of conflict of interest. Your duty is not just to disclose conflicts of interest, and potential conflicts of interest, but to avoid them. If that means making less money, then tough.

So, for these ‘news sources’, the issue is going to become a more central one. Of course, the question will grow larger as these outfits move mainstream. But it may become more pressing for the carrier of the news, not for the provider: Who, say, accepts responsibility for errors and conflicts of interest? NYT and The Washington Post, or the carriers of the news? I’m sure there will be lots of caveats in the small print, but if material is on the NYT website, I think a reader would assume it reflects that paper’s ethical standards. If you’re in doubt, think of the recent United Airlines case.

That story’s reappearance started on Google News, and then was picked up by Income Securities Advisors, a financial information company, which was then picked up by Bloomberg. The technical error was Google’s, in finding it on a newspaper website and miscategorising it  as new, but the human error was in the ‘news source’, which saw it and then fired it off to their service, which is distributed via Bloomberg. Who is to blame for that mess? Well, the focus is all on Google, but to me the human element is the problem here, namely the reporter/writer who failed to double check the source/date etc of the piece itself.

The bottom line? It’s great that old media are recognising the quality of new media. What I want to see is this rising tide lifting all boats. Old media needs to not only grab at these news sources out of desperation but learn from their ingenuity, easy writing style and quality, and these outfits need—or at least some of them need—to take a cue from old media, take a look long and hard at themselves and ask themselves whether they could serve their readers better by shedding all conflicts—real, potential, or perceived—of interest.

links for 2008-09-21