Smartwatches: Coming Soon to a Cosmos Near You

This is a column I did for the BBC World Service, broadcast this week. 

There’s been a lot of talk that the big boys — by which I mean Apple and Samsung — are about to launch so-called smart watches. But how smart does a watch have to be before we start strapping them to our wrists in numbers to make a difference?

First off, a confession. I’ve strapped a few things to my wrist in my time. Back in the 80s and 90s I used to love the Casio calculator watch called the Databank, though I can’t actually recall ever doing a calculation on it or putting more than a few phone numbers in there. About a decade ago I reviewed something called the Fossil Wrist PDA, a wrist-bound personal digital assistant. It didn’t take off. In fact, no smart watch has taken off.

So if the smartwatch isn’t new, maybe the world around them is? We’ve moved a long way in the past couple of years, to the point where every device we have occupies a slightly different spot to the one it was intended for. Our phones, for example, are not phones anymore but data devices. And even that has evolved: the devices have changed direction in size, from shrinking to getting larger, as we realise we want to do more on them.

That in turn has made tablets shrink. When Apple introduced the iPad Steve Jobs famously said that was the smallest the tablet could reasonably go, but Samsung proved him wrong with the phablet, and now we have an iPad Mini. All this has has raised serious questions about the future of the laptop computer and the desktop PC.

But it shouldn’t. For a long time we thought that the perfect device would be something that does everything, but the drive to miniaturise components has actually had the opposite effect: we seem to be quite comfortable moving between devices and carrying a bunch of them around with us.

This all makes sense, given that our data is all stored in the cloud, and every device is connected to it either through WiFi, a phone connection or Bluetooth. We often don’t even know how our device is connecting — we just know it is.

So, the smartwatch optimists say, the time is ripe for a smartwatch. Firstly, we’ve demonstrated that we are able to throw out tired conventions about what a device should do. If our phone isn’t really our phone anymore then why not put our phone on our wrist? Secondly, the cloud solves the annoying problem of getting data in and out of the device.

Then there’s the issue of how we interact with it. It’s clear from the chequered history of the smartwatch that using our digits is not really going to work. We might be able to swipe or touch to silence an alarm or take a call, but we’re not going to be tapping out messages on a screen that size.

So it’s going to have to be voice. GeneratorResearch, a research company, reckons this would involve a small earpiece and decent voice-command software like Apple’s Siri. I’m not convinced we’re quite there yet, but I agree with them that it’s going to take someone of Apple’s heft to make it happen and seed the market.

In short, the smart watch might take off if it fits neatly and imaginatively into a sort of cosmos of devices we’re building around ourselves, where each one performs a few specific functions and overlaps with others on some. If it works out, the watch could act as a sort of central repository of all the things we need to know about — incoming messages, appointments, as well as things the cloud thinks we should know about, based on where we are: rain, traffic jams, delayed flights.

But more crucially it could become something that really exploits the frustratingly unrealised potential of voice: where we could more easily, and less self-consciously, talk to our devices and others without having to hold things to our ear, or be misunderstood.

In time, the smartwatch may replace the smartphone entirely.

I’m not completely convinced we’re as close as some think we are, but I’ve said that before and been proved wrong, so who knows?

In Malaysia, online election battles take a nasty turn

2013 05 03 15 49 30

Jahabar Sadiq of The Malaysian Insider

Here’s a piece I did from KL on Saturday ahead of Sunday’s election. It was pushed out ahead of the poll for obvious reasons but it might have a broader interest in how the battle for influence over online media has evolved in Malaysia, with relevance elsewhere. 

May 4 (Reuters) – Ahead of Malaysia’s elections on Sunday, independent online media say they are being targeted in Internet attacks which filter content and throttle access to websites, threatening to deprive voters of their main source of independent reporting.

Independent online news sites have emerged in recent years to challenge the dominance of mostly government-linked traditional media. The government denies any attempts to hobble access to the Internet in the run-up to a close-fought election.

“During the 2008 election we were wiped off the Internet,” said Premesh Chandran, CEO of independent online news provider Malaysiakini.

“Our concern is that we’ll see a repeat of that on May 5. Can we really live without independent media on election night, given that both sides might not accept the result?”

More here: In Malaysia, online election battles take a nasty turn

An End to Profanity

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We all want to encourage our grandparents, children, and others of a sensitive disposition, to venture online. But not if they end up on a video-sharing web-site like YouTube, where the comments appear to have all been written by people in extreme emotional pain, or a Facebook group, where robust language is considered de rigeur.

And how about those online gaming sessions, where you can pit your Xbox skills against someone you’ve never met? What’s made this more fun in recent years is the advent of services that let you speak to the other people you’re playing with at the same time. Great, except for the fact you might find, in the words of one web-site, “the profanasaurus on the other end of the mike is a schoolboy still at the age where yelling random insults at strangers seems amusing.”

Technology, belatedly, is coming to the rescue. Microsoft—maker of the Xbox–has just received a patent for something called an “automatic censoring filter” that can remove undesirable speech in real-time. The undesired word or words would be made unintelligible or inaudible. Of course, many of us would be happy to apply this kind of technology in our daily lives, at home or in the office.

Which, to a certain extent, we can. If you use the popular but not overly popular Internet browser called Firefox, you can install an extra add-on which allows you to do your own web-page censoring. It’s quite simple, really: just choose the words you don’t want to encounter in your daily browsing, and when they appear on a page they’ll be replaced by a gap, or by words of your own choosing. (You can find more details here:

A comment on YouTube, for example, would now look something like this: hey you [charming expletive], why don’t you [charming expletive] my [charming expletive] you [charming expletive]. It’s not Shakespeare, but it won’t make Gran blush and you can still catch the writer’s drift.

All these ribald comments, however, may be a thing of the past. A cartoonist called Randall Munroe recently drew a comic strip in which someone writes a computer virus forcing people who leave sophomoric comments on YouTube to listen back to what they’ve written before they post it. Needless to say they realize how stupid they sound and stop. (You can find the comic strip here:

YouTube seem to have taken the idea to heart, and have now added a button below the box where you add your comments that says Audio Preview. Press it and a robotic voice will read back what you’ve typed in the box. (And yes, it will include any profanity you care to include.) The hope? People adding absurd and insulting comments may realize how puerile they sound before they hit the post button.

This is an excellent ruse, but I fear that those people who think vulgar language is a form of rapier wit are already lost. The battle would seem to be to try to help those who make poor choices in their online interactions only when under the influence of alcohol. These might involve impassioned declarations of love or hate for ex-partners, say, or recommendations to bosses about where they might put their staff assessments, that would never have been made in the cold hard light of day.

Technology can’t really save you from such poor choices, but it can throw up a few road blocks. A mobile phone service in Australia, for example, has introduced a service called Dialing Under the Influence which allows you to blacklist numbers you think you might feel the urge to call at some point during the evening when you’re not thinking as clearly as you should be.

Google has just introduced an online equivalent for their Gmail program called Goggles, that requires the sender to perform some simple math problems before sending any email to an ex or to your entire staff when you’re at your most vulnerable: late at night at weekends, for example. The thinking is that if you’re sober enough to be able to do the math, then probably your message is not going to get you into trouble. (Details here:

All good helpful and public spirited stuff. Sad, though, that technology has now taken on the role of trying to save us from ourselves.

©2008 Loose Wire

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at or via email at

Beware of The Away Message

By Jeremy Wagstaff

There are few things more exhilarating, I suspect, than being able to set your email account to respond with an automated message that says: “I’m on holiday. I won’t be answering your email for a while. I’m going on holiday to Barbados, and Bob Loser, my colleague, is covering for me, so call him on +1–723–7893–782. Have a nice day.”

This may feel good but it’s not always a good thing to do. Here’s why.

These auto-respond messages will be sent to anyone—anyone—that sends you an email. And that means spammers, scammers and other people who may not be your friends. Do you tell everyone in your neighborhood that you’re going away? Probably not. So why would you tell anyone who happens to send you an email?

Let’s take a real world example: A security expert I know found himself on the receiving end of a revenge attack by scammers he’d been trying to put out of business. To get payback they put his name and email address on a forged email that itself looked like a scam. The expert’s email in-box was deluged with bounce-backs—emails sent to addresses that don’t exist, or don’t exist anymore—and angry emails from those who believed he had suddenly switched sides and was now in the scamming game.

But what he also found was that he was receiving dozens, if not hundreds, of emails from addresses where the recipients have automated some sort of response informing the sender they’re out of the office. A lot of those auto-responses contained surprisingly personal information that would be very handy to someone somewhere: Who to call, where that person will be, when they’ll be back.

And not just that: the person’s full-name and workplace, details of injuries incurred that are keeping the person in question at home and companies notifying senders that the person in question no longer works there. In one case the auto-respond said the intended recipient of the email had been fired for misconduct.

So why is this a problem? Two words: social engineering. Social engineering is when a scammer uses our social habits to engineer a way past our defenses: calling up the overworked tech department, say, pretending to be a staff member who’s forgotten his password, or calling the switchboard to find out the boss’ birthday—a clue, perhaps, to her password— pretending to be a boyfriend.

In the case of the away message, all a bad guy would need to do is flood a company with emails, either guessing the email addresses, using a dictionary attack (where practically every word in the dictionary and English language is used) or else grabbing names from an online company directory. If a dozen people have auto-responds on, the information gained would be enough for a socially engineered attack on the company as a whole.

It needn’t be this sophisticated. If you send an auto-respond message saying you’re not going to be at work for the next few weeks, someone might decide that information is worth passing on to the local cat-burglar or someone at a rival company hoping to steal your customers.

Of course, this sort of lapse happens in the real world too, which should remind us how careless we tend to be. David Weinberger, a technology writer and consultant, pointed out on his blog recently that we’re quite happy about leaving signs on our hotel room door when we go out for the day:

“Often, on the back of a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign is a ‘Make Up My Room Now’ message of some sort,” he wrote.  “But, now matter how they phrase it, isn’t it the same as an “I’m Out, So This Would Be a Good to Rob Me, Especially If You Are Squeamish about Violence” sign?”

This is part of a bigger problem we’re all going to have to wrestle with. As we use online services like Facebook and twitter more and more—updating our friends with our moods, our location, our activities—our privacy is going to be compromised.

Some of us don’t mind this. It’s nice to share information with friends. But what we tend to forget is that, once digital, this information is more readily accessible, and movable, than it was before. Clever scammers—and not so clever—can piece together these bits of information to use against us in ways we have not yet fully thought through.

Take twitter, for example. It’s a great service: free, and designed to allow those of us who want to share with our friends what we’re doing, in 140 character bursts. It’s very popular: According to a web-site called TwitDir ( which lists all twitter users who allow their updates to be public, there are more than three million users.

And that’s the thing. The default setting—the way things are configured when you sign up—your tweets, as your updates are called, can be seen by anyone. Anyone can ‘follow’ you—meaning they can track all your updates, without asking you permission first.  In short, anyone on the Internet can, in theory, stalk you.

OK, now I know that I’ve said twitter is a good thing. It is. And so is Facebook. All these services allow us to connect with people—friends in real life, friends we know only online. But we need to be smart about how we use them.

If you use twitter, check to see who is ‘following’ you and if you don’t recognize them, challenge them or block them. The same goes for things like Facebook. Don’t just accept anyone who asks as your ‘friend’, and if you can’t bring yourself to say no, limit what they can see of your details. (The default on Plurk, another popular service in Asia, allows only your friends can see your updates.)

And, lastly, be smart about what you put online—whether it’s a twitter update, a Facebook moan about your boss or in your email auto-respond message. If you can’t decide where to draw the line, just think of the sleaziest person you know, and ask yourself: Do I feel happy sharing this information with them?

I leave it to you to decide whether to boycott the “Please make up room” signs on your hotel room door.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at or via email at


The Lucrative Loneliness of the Chinese

By Jeremy Wagstaff

At what point do social networks on the Internet start to supplant ones in real life?

Take China, for example. It’s a relatively big example, so it’s worth taking.

According to a recent article in Web in Travel, an online travel publication, China now has two generations of one-child families, and, in the words of Harry Hui, chief marketing officer of PepsiCo International, “one of the loneliest generations in the world.”

Of course, he’s saying this like it’s a good thing, because marketers love lonely people (they can sell them chocolate and other kinds of comfort food, for example.) But more interesting for me were the implications for technology as a kind of security blanket.

Here’s how it looks to Hui. “Within those born in the post-80s, there are 470 million and their world is very different. The Gang of Four is a thing of the past. The Cultural Revolution is an art movement. They are brought up by their grandparents because their parents were working. They live in one household, shaped by three generations.”

Hui paints a picture of young people isolated by a missing generation and an absence of siblings—and presumably a shortage of cousins. Unsurprisingly, then, they’re turning to social networks, where they gather friends they are likely to know only online: “Friendster has more virtual friends in China than anywhere else,” said Hui.

If this is true—I’m not quite clear how Hui came by this information—it would seem to paint a picture of a disoriented youth pressured to get on but without the usual support network of real-life friends to help them. He quotes a China Mobile survey which seems to confirm this over-dependence on technology: “The mobile phone is more important than boyfriends or girlfriends for 90% of the younger generation,” he says.

It’s not as if China is alone in embracing technology. Indonesians have become big users of cellphones—and mobile browsers, proving they’re not just using them to send text messages, but have leapfrogged the Western model by adopting the cellphone as their primary computer—and the Philippines has also become a massive user of Friendster.

But I suspect each example tells a slightly different story. Technology is moulded to the needs of people. Social networks fit the cultural requirements of a society. And societies are different. If people are stuck in traffic all day, then mobiles become more important, a la Indonesia. (You also see a lot of usage of SMS, because people need to communicate short bursts of information to one another when they have little control over the speed of their movements, so to speak.)

In China, I guess, what we’re seeing is a combination of this: a generation that is comfortable with the mobile phone but lacking the physical social network that their parents had. In this case, maybe social networking is fulfilling a slightly different need: online friendships aren’t just a continuation of real-world ties, but relationships that are created and defined online. That’s the relationship.

This will all grow and expand massively as our cellphones become more powerful, do more for us. Juniper Research last month predicted that the number of active users of mobile social networking sites is expected to rise from 54 million this year to nearly 730 million in 2013.

Most of that is going to be in north and Southeast Asia, but don’t forget India: that, Juniper says, will become the largest region for mobile dating services by 2010. I rest my case that every society bends technology to its will.

Marketing people are clearly waking up to all this. But so should we.

You can’t help wondering what happens next in a place like China. If a nation of single children marry and have one child themselves, who in turn grows up and has one child with another single-offspring person, at what point does technology move beyond just being a crutch to being the cultural gate itself, through which all friendships, romances and connections evolve?

In short, what happens when Facebook becomes not just a reflection of one’s world, but the world itself?

Yes, we mould technology to suit us, but we need to be alert to the possibility of the reverse: that it defines us.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at or via email at


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 or via email at


Scaling Business Card Mountain

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One day everyone will be beaming/Bluetoothing their business cards to people, or sending them via email as soon as they get home from the Taiwanese Horticulture Convention. But for now we’re stuck with mountains of them on our desk, waiting for that moment that never comes when we might actually do something about them.

I’ve seen a lot of solutions to this problem, and none of them work particularly well. The most common seems to be the ‘Farm It Out to Your Assistant’ routine, which works well if you’ve got an assistant, but doesn’t really help him very much, since he’s going to have to type all those details in somewhere.

I’ve recommended before investing in a scanner, and that’s still a good option. Fujitsu’s ScanSnap lets you scan bundles of about 10 cards in one go, and does a pretty fair job of converting the images to text—what’s called optical character recognition, or OCR.

From there it’s a small step to moving the resulting files into Outlook, or whatever program you use to store these things.

But this still means you’re stuck with waiting until you get back from the convention or kayaking expedition, or wherever it was you gathered the small pile of business cards. By then you’ve forgotten who these people are, or you’re too tired to do anything about filing them away. Soon another convention comes along and the pile builds up.

Your network is rotting before your eyes.

This is made even more absurd by the fact that actually online networks, both for business and pleasure, are blooming. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, Plaxo, all operate for the sole purpose of making your network of friends and business contacts more efficient.

But name cards seem to still operate in a analog world of their own.

Here’s how I get around this problem. It’s not perfect, but it saves time and means that the leads and contacts you make are strengthened and you can find all the details you need when you need them.

First off, make sure you get a card or a name from the person. If they don’t have one, which often happens, see whether they’re up to sending you their business card digitally. Most phones nowadays make this relatively easy.

Nokia, for example, let you send a ‘business card’ to other users via either SMS text message, multimedia (MMS, a kind of email), Bluetooth or infrared. Be prepared by making sure that you have your own contacts in the phone, along with (preferably) a photo, your business title and address—all the things you’d hope would be on a business card.

(The photo is a good way of reminding other people who you are. I’m sure you’re a very memorable person and the life and soul of every party, but it’s worth hammering home the point. This photo will eventually sit on their phone and in their contacts program, so make sure it’s a good one.)

Be ready to beam these details to someone else—find the contact, select options and then send business card—and help the other person find theirs if they don’t already know how.

Chances are, however, the other person won’t be up to doing this, so just make sure you’ve got their name right, give them your card and ask them to email their details to you.

Chances are they’ll forget, so when you get back to your computer Google them (or look them up on sites like LinkedIn, or Zoominfo, or Wink.) Grab that data and make your own Outlook entry (a great tool to make this easier is Anagram——which is smart enough to fill out the fields in a contact file automatically.)

If this person is on LinkedIn etc, connect to them that way to reinforce the link and to make sure that their contact details are automatically updated to your database. (More on this in a future column.)

If they do have a name card, as soon as you get back to your room, into a cab, or somewhere you can sit down, get out your cellphone and take a photo of it. Change the camera settings to close up and make sure it’s in focus (the camera usually beeps when it’s in focus.)

It’s possible, you see, to send that photo to a service which will automatically scan the name card, convert it to text (and to a standard business card format called VCF) and email it back to you all ready to go into your Outlook or other contact database. It’s also free. (The scans will also be saved online, should you ever need them.)

The service is called scanR ( and works with most types of phone. And it works well. This means you’re scanning the name card almost as soon as you’ve received it, meaning there’s a much higher chance you’ll remember the guy—especially if you add a few notes to the contact details (“Met at party where he was wearing hostess on his head” or somesuch.)

There’s an even faster way of doing this. If you have an account at Plaxo, a networking and contacts backup service, you can tell scanR to automatically send business cards to your Plaxo account. If your Plaxo account is synchronizing with your Outlook address book  then that’s all you need to do. Once scanned with the phone, that contact wends its way back to your address book without you having to do anything.

It may seem a long way around but until we’ve ditched this charmingly antiquated little custom from our business world, I’d suggest that it’s the easiest way to avoid Business Card Mountain.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at or via email at


Loose Wire: Bookmarks Are Dead. Long Live Bookmarks

Bookmarking, the act of marking a favorite website, has become a much more complicated matter these days. Here’s how to master the art of keeping tabs on the web

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A thought occurred to me the other day, as these things do. Who uses bookmarks anymore?

Not the kind you put in books–although I have noticed they’ve been in steady decline too. I mean the kind you add to your browser to keep a record of a website you’ve visited that you’d like to go back to one day, if there was ever time.

So I dug more deeply. And I found it’s true that people tend not to bookmark as much as they did, but for a range of reasons.

It’s not that people don’t bookmark, it’s that the purpose of bookmarking is less obvious now than it used to be.

The point of bookmarking stuff is a bit more varied now. Websites we regularly visit are, for many of us, now part of our daily Really Simple Syndication feed. If we want to share a bookmark we can do it via StumbleUpon or Facebook. I see a lot more of the latter, recently—always fun to do—and StumbleUpon, if you haven’t stumbled upon it yet, is a rich trove of treasures maintained by some very fun people.

Then there are two other types: saving a webpage you won’t forget and one you’re afraid you might. That might sound silly, but it’s the difference between putting car keys somewhere prominent so you won’t lose them and leaving them somewhere prominent so you remember you have a car.

An online equivalent is your bank account website, say: You’re unlikely to forget you have a bank account, but you might forget the address—or hate typing in the address again. Whereas a cool new tool for collecting the email addresses of people who share your middle name might sound like something worth visiting again, but chances are you’ll forget it exists unless you save it somewhere.

So, saving something you go back to regularly makes sense as an in-house bookmark—one you’d store inside your browser, as in the old days.

But what happens when you come across something that looks interesting, but not exactly vital? How can you keep them some place you’ll know where to find them later, if you remember they exist?

This is where I think bookmarking becomes more of a useful service. And tagging—labels you add to things to help you find them (think losing car keys, not forgetting you have a car) is an important part of it. But it still doesn’t work that well. Tagging is a great tool—and bookmark storing services like have made it much easier by suggesting tags for things—but I still find navigating my own tags too time-consuming a task.

I don’t think I’m alone. What I’ve noticed that, at least among geeks, we’re turning less to software and more to people to help us find those signposts quickly.

Now, sharing our online day with others on services like twitter, gives us a channel to quickly communicate with a select crowd who are, at least for now, as cooperative and helpful as the early denizens of the net. So why bother rooting through your tags when you can tap into the wisdom of the twitter crowd?

That is what bookmarks, and bookmarking services, have to compete with. I’m guessing that what will evolve is a combined service where a request that is sent via twitter—anyone remember the name of that service that lets you talk to people with the same middle name?—would simultaneously search your own databases of links and saved stuff. The answers—automated, human–would merge together and the results would organize themselves into a list.

Which might itself, in true Web 2.0 fashion, become a new form of content.

So, in short, bookmarks are dead, long live bookmarks. They are still the best signposts we have for getting around the web, but we have moved beyond the idea of needing to save them in some order. What we want know is to be able to find them quickly—and to be able to have what we find put in a broader context. Who better to do that then your big network of online friends?

How do you save your bookmarks? Share them with me at the email address below.

©Loose Wire Pte Ltd. Jeremy Wagstaff is a Singapore-based commentator on technology. His guide to using computers, Loose Wire, is available in bookshops or on Amazon. He can be found online at or via email at

The Future Of The Net

Newsweek takes a look (via TechDirt) at a future Internet controlled by corporations and governments through Digital Rights Management, secure chips and micropayments. It’s an interesting article, and makes me ponder some interesting supplementary questions:

Are spammers, for example, the enemy of ordinary Internet folk, or virtual Robin Hoods eluding corporate control of the web? We all hate them now, true, but may we look back on them — at some future point when corporate and governmental control dominates the web — as tolerable evidence of the Internet’s chaotic freedom? By trying to push them off the Internet through legal means, are we just tying our own future in knots?

Another thought: are micropayments the saviour of small business on the Internet, or just a trick by big corporates to tie us into their trickling subscription model? Living in Indonesia — banned by PayPal and many smaller online sellers, which won’t accept any payments from such a lawless country — I know a little of what it feels like to hostage to the bigger e-commerce sites, because they’re the only ones to accept my dollar. In the future, will it only be the big companies who have the risk models and infrastructure to do online business in a world of online IDs, DRMs and micropayments?

I’m confident that the anarchic tendencies of the Internet will undermine many corporate efforts to lock in customers: The online music site that thrives will be the one with the broadest range of file formats and the smallest limitation on how those files are used, stored and copied. Methods to cripple or limit use of software will always be cracked. Indignation will limit the advance of chip-based IDs — in your computer, around your neck, in your handphone.

But I think those of us calling for regulation, standardisation and crackdowns on the Internet to make it safe for the ordinary user need to think harder about other threats to its future, in particular anything that punishes or banishes anonymity, anything that discriminates against the user accessing the web based on his/her point of entry (country, state, neighbourhood) and, in particular, any corporate which tries to set up tollbooths to grab a nickel every time we do something we used to be able to do for free.