Tag Archives: social web

The End of Boorish Intrusion

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One of the ironies about this new era of communications is that we’re a lot less communicative than we used to be.

Cellphones, laptops, iPhones, netbooks, smartphones, tablets, all put us in touching distance of each other. And yet, perversely, we use them as barriers to keep each other out.

Take the cellphone for example. Previously, not receiving a phone call was not really an option.

The phone would ring from down the hall, echoing through the corridors until dusty lights would go on, and the butler would shuffle his way towards it.

Of course, we were asked by the switchboard operator whether we’d take a call from Romford 230, but unless you were a crotchety old earl, or the person was calling during Gardener’s Question Time, you’d usually accept it.

Nowadays we generally know who it is who’s calling us: It tells us, on the screen of the phone. It’s called Caller ID. This enables us to decide whether or not to receive the call. And that’s where the rot sets in.

Some of us refuse to accept a call from a number we don’t recognize. It could be some weirdo, we think. Some of us will only take a call from a number we don’t recognize. We’re adventurous, or journalists sensing a scoop, or worried it may be grandma calling on the lam from Belize.

Some of us see a number from someone we know, and even then don’t take the call. Maybe we’re busy, or asleep, or watching Gardener’s Question Time.

The phone has changed from being a bit like the postman—a connection with the outside world, and not someone you usually turn away—to being just one of a dozen threads in our social web.

And, as with the other threads, we’ve been forced to develop a way to keep it from throttling us. Whereas offices would once be a constant buzz of ringing phones, now they’re more likely to be quieter places, interrupted only by the notification bells of SMS, twitter alerts or disconnecting peripherals.

I actually think this is a good thing.

I, for one, have long since rejected the phone as an unwelcome intrusion. I won’t take calls from people who haven’t texted me first to see whether I can talk, and those people who do insist on phoning me are either my mother or someone I don’t really care for.

What has happened is that all these communications devices have erased an era that will in the future seem very odd: I call it the first telecommunications age. It was when telephones were so unique that they dominated our world and forced us to adapt to them. We allowed them to intrude because most of us had no choice.

There was no other way to reach someone else instantaneously. Telegram was the only competitor.

Now we have a choice: We can choose to communicate by text, twitter, Facebook, Skype, instant message, email. Or not actually communicate directly at all: We can set up meetings via Outlook or Google Calendar, or share information without any preamble via delicious bookmarks or Google Reader.

Our age has decoupled the idea of communicating with the idea of sharing information. This is probably why we have such trouble knowing how to start a conversation in this new medium. When the communication channel between us is so permanent, when we know our friends are online because we can see them online, then communicating with them is not so much beginning a new conversation as picking up a new thread on one long one.

We have all come to understand this. We see each other online, we know everyone we’ll ever need to communicate with is just an @ sign away, so we all appreciate the tacit agreement that we don’t bother each other unless we really need to.

And then it’s with a short text message, or an instant message that pops up in a unobtrusive window.

In this world a ringing phone is a jarring intrusion, because it disrupts our flow, it ignores the social niceties we’ve built up to protect our permanent accessibility. It’s rude, boorish and inconsiderate.

Which was probably what people said about the introduction of the telephone. It’s only now that we realize they were right.

Foleo, Foleo, Where Art Thou?

image

Caption competition:

“Is this a dagger I see before me?”

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio”

Now you see it, now you don’t

Photo from BusinessWire

It has the grim predictability of a company that doesn’t seem sure of what it’s doing, and what people want. Ever since Ed Colligan unveiled the Foleo — a Linux-based sub-sub-notebook — a few months back, folks have been saying it was a mistake. Now it’s dead.

I liked the idea, but felt it was the wrong solution: the iPhone and the Nokia N800 seem to prove people now want something that isn’t just a workhorse, but another onramp to the social web, whereas the Foleo seemed to be aimed simply at business customers. Such folk have long been used to lugging heavy stuff around, so it made no sense.

Anyway, Ed has done the right thing and knocked the project on the head, taking a $10 million hit (while sparing a moment for the poor third party developers who committed time and resources to software to run on the dang thing). What is most telling, though, are the comments left on his blog post announcing the gadget’s demise. They reveal the frustration and supportive passion of Palm users around the world, and to me illustrate what people really want from the once-great company:

  • a better interface that isn’t so buggy and unreliable.
  • better battery life (the Foleo boasted six hours. But remember the IIIx: days and days on a couple of AAAs. How far backwards have we gone?)
  • more durable. The IIIx also survived a lot of bashing about.
  • a phone that isn’t a sop to the phone companies — in other words, so it can do VoIP, work on WiFi networks as well as cellular ones.
  • find a way of getting a bigger screen onto a Treo. How about projection?  
  • GPS. Things have moved on, Ed, and nowadays we expect our devices to fit a lot more in.
  • Like good cameras. Not just for snapping, but for scanning.
  • And 3.5G.
  • And probably WiMAX.
  • And big storage.
  • And decent software that can handle PDFs, flash, browsing and interactive stuff.
  • And decent keyboards (get back in bed with the ThinkOutside guys, or whoever bought them.) I still love my Bluetooth keyboard and can’t understand why they’re considered such an afterthought.
  • Voice commands and voice recognition.
  • USB connectivity

The bottom line, is that we’ve been thinking the PDA is dead, whereas we should be thinking the other way around: The smartphone is just a PDA with connectivity. A good PDA does all these things we’ve been talking about, and while we take calls on it, that’s a small part of what it is about. We just want the things we did on our PDA to be connected, that’s all.

That’s not just about being able to take calls, it’s about SMS, email, browsing, and of being able to meld into our environment — GPS to know where we are, cameras and HSDPA and GPS to take photos that go straight to Flickr, tools like Jaiku to wrap us into our social network. It’s still a digital assistant, it’s just a connected digital assistant.

As one commenter put it, it’s still a Getting Things Done Device.It’s just we do lots of different things these days, so a to do list shouldn’t be where you stop.

del.icio.us Tags: , , , , , ,

Enough Mainstream Silliness, Please: The Social Web Works

I’m a big fan of mainstream media — course I am, I work for them — but I’m also a big fan of the other stuff. Like Wikipedia. It’s usually the first place I start if I’m trying to familiarize myself with a new subject, even a new one.

Which is why I get uppity when mainstream media disses Wikipedia with the kind of broad-brush strokes it usually accuses the online world of making. Like this one from The Boston Globe, in a story (not a column) about social finance sites:

The wisdom of the crowd may be a fine way to discover the most amusing YouTube video, but Wikipedia has been vilified for inaccuracies, and the online world hardly has a reputation as a trustworthy source.

In one short sentence the writer manages to dismiss

  • YouTube as a mere site for “amusing” videos,
  • the “wisdom of the crowd” as a mere mechanism for finding stuff,
  • Wikipedia as apparently the mere butt of vilifiers, and
  • the online world as, basically, untrustworthy.

Sources? Examples? A measure of balance? Er, none.

Now I like the Globe, and I love the IHT, where I read this, so I’m guessing this might just have been a bit of sloppy editing or last-minute “background” so enamored of editors. But frankly I can find very little vilifying of Wikipedia, at least if one counterbalances the criticism with the praise  — and the sheer numbers: nearly 2 million articles in English, in the top 10 websites. (The best source, by the way, for criticism of Wikipedia is, er, Wikipedia; the piece has 125 external references.)

So, come on, mainstream journalists. The time is past for sniffy, unsubstantiated asides about things like Wikipedia. The social web has already established itself and proved itself. It ain’t perfect, but neither are we.

Sharing the wealth – The Boston Globe

The Unsocial Web

A piece by Donna Bogatin on why many more people read web sites liked digg.com rather than contribute to it has in itself spawned enough responses to become something of a summary of why the social web, citizen journalism, user-created content etc may not be quite the revolution it appears. Here’s how I see the responses:

  • I just want to watch. The more stuff is out there, ironically enough the less incentive there is to contribute. There’s probably a graph for this somewhere. People will contribute if they think their contribution is worth it. That means a) other people like it, b) it doesn’t take up too much time c) the stuff isn’t there already, or likely to be and d) that contributing to a site comes after browsing a site. (see Not On My Own Time, Thanks, below.) The logical conclusion of this is that while contributions may rise exponentially, gradually the number of contributors dwindles until a hardcore of contributors remains (see The Weirdo Factor below).
  • The Weirdo Factor. We newspaper journos have known this for a while. The kind of people who contribute, or contribute most, don’t represent a good cross section of ordinary readers/users. Readers’ letters are always great to receive, and they may contain useful and interesting stuff, but they tend to come from the same people, or group or kind of people. And that means an editor would be a fool to treat his mailbag as a cross section of his readership. Same is basically true of the Net.
  • Not On My Own Time, Thanks. Digesting Time isn’t the same as Creating Time. Most people probably browse sites like YouTube.com and Flickr.com at work. This means that the more content there is on these sites at work, a) the less productive workers will be, and b) the less likely they’ll actually upload their stuff — since that will probably have to be done at home, in a separate session. If you’ve already spent a couple of hours on YouTube.com at work, why would you spend more time on it at home?
  • People Don’t Like Hanging Out With Weirdoes Taking the above a step further, many users are going to be discouraged by the general tenor of discussions at places like Digg. Flaming and generally being rude may seem like a life to some people, but most people don’t like it very much, and are not going to expose themselves to ridicule by posting to such sites. (They are also not going to want to expose themself to being ignored: what happens if you Digg something and nobody comes?)
  • Freedloading off a freeloader Then there’s the reality that the social web is largely a Commenting Web, not a Creating Web. Not all of it, of course: Flickr.com is a very creative place. But photos are always of things, requiring only that someone have a camera and be there, and take a good picture. Writing is different. Writing is not just about commenting on what other people are writing. (Well, OK, this post is.) Writing is also about reporting  – about actually going out and finding information, digesting it, writing it up and then distributing it. Blogs, the foundation of Web 2.0, were built on the idea of commentary. But commentary always has to follow content, since without it there can be nothing to comment on. We shouldn’t confuse sites like Digg.com as content sites, since they simply aggregate links and comment. In the end, this freeloading element will have to be added to by something more substantial for it to grow. Netscape’s new site understands this, although I’m not convinced making a couple of calls to add to a wire story constitutes news gathering (but then again, a lot of journalists have done that for years, so who am I to quibble?)

The bottom line may be, just may be, that after huge bursts of participatory interest, that may even last a few years, the kinds of people who keep Slashdot going are going to be the people who keep Digg.com and every other user-driven, Web 2.0 site going. I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I love Slashdot, and there are some extraordinarily intelligent people on there (as well as some who could spend some time in the open air) — but it’s not a group that’s, er, broadly representative of the citizenry at large. They’re hugely dedicated, very focused, very knowledgeable about their sphere and have opinions coming out of their ears. A bit like folk who wrote letters to newspapers, come to think of it.

Tags for Sale to Fund a Wedding

Lame gimmick or wave of the future? Entrepreneur Launches Web’s First Tag Directory to Raise Money for His Wedding:

 A Canadian entrepreneur wants to raise funds for his wedding by listing websites on his del.icio.us account for $20 per listing. Patrick Ryan, 37, and his fiancée have been dating for 5 years; he hopes that TagDirectory.net will attract advertisers. Advertisers will be able to list their website under as many categories (tags) as they want.

Ryan hopes to raise $250,000 from the site. So far he’s raised, er, $280, according to the ticker at the top of the directory itself. His initiative has already raised hackles among the del.icio.us community who have questioned, among other things, the size of his wedding.  Turns out he’s hoping to marry in Cuba. That would explain the cost.

It seems a tad lame for several reasons. First off, I don’t really see how the idea would work. Why would anyone visit a paid directory of tags? How do you drive traffic to a site that doesn’t differentiate itself from any other website, except that some advertisers have paid to be there? Secondly, the social web is not about grabbing bucks, especially for a wedding (tsunami/hurricane/earthquake victims, maybe. A quarter of a grand would buy a few cold-weather tents, something I’m sure taggers would be interested in stumping up for. But a wedding?

Thirdly, it raises questions about the vulnerability of such services to manipulation by sleazy marketing types. As one poster to the delicious-discuss users’ group puts it: “It does bring up an important issue, though — who is to say what constitutes “good” or “bad” tagging behavior,” the poster says. In this case, he says, it’s relatively easy because the originator “publicizes his commercial use; but I’m sure there are plenty of guerilla marketing weasels out there who have been doing similar things ever since the service started.” It’s not so much about filtering out the bad ones on an individual basis, but about “the underlying manipulation/distortion of the data for applications like a recommendation or ranking engine.”

Tagging is a great technology and I suppose it would be churlish to abuse someone for trying to make money from it. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that all those tags are out there because the folk behind these services, and those who tag websites to support them, did it all, initially at least, for free. I wish Patrick Ryan a happy wedding.

Tags for Sale to Fund a Wedding

Lame gimmick or wave of the future? Entrepreneur Launches Web’s First Tag Directory to Raise Money for His Wedding:

 A Canadian entrepreneur wants to raise funds for his wedding by listing websites on his del.icio.us account for $20 per listing. Patrick Ryan, 37, and his fiancée have been dating for 5 years; he hopes that TagDirectory.net will attract advertisers. Advertisers will be able to list their website under as many categories (tags) as they want.

Ryan hopes to raise $250,000 from the site. So far he’s raised, er, $280, according to the ticker at the top of the directory itself. His initiative has already raised hackles among the del.icio.us community who have questioned, among other things, the size of his wedding.  Turns out he’s hoping to marry in Cuba. That would explain the cost.

It seems a tad lame for several reasons. First off, I don’t really see how the idea would work. Why would anyone visit a paid directory of tags? How do you drive traffic to a site that doesn’t differentiate itself from any other website, except that some advertisers have paid to be there? Secondly, the social web is not about grabbing bucks, especially for a wedding (tsunami/hurricane/earthquake victims, maybe. A quarter of a grand would buy a few cold-weather tents, something I’m sure taggers would be interested in stumping up for. But a wedding?

But then again, tagging is a great technology and it would be churlish to abuse someone for trying to make money from it. But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that all those tags are out there because the folk behind these services, and those who tag websites to support them, did it all, initially at least, for free. I wish Patrick Ryan a happy wedding.