Rohan Jayasekera's thoughts on the evolving use of computers -- and the resulting effects

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

coComment: my endorsement

I don’t normally think about “Web 2.0 applications I couldn’t live without”, but if I did, the most obvious one would be coComment.

If you leave a comment on a blog post and don’t want to keep checking back for any further comments, such as a reply to you by the post’s author, coComment is your friend. It’s certainly mine. While I have the post and its current comments on my screen, I click my coComment bookmarklet, and in the window that pops up I click “Track this conversation”. Any further comments will automatically show up in my feed reader. (Of course you can use it even when you haven’t left a comment yourself and just want to see what others are saying. I’m just focusing on what I find to be coComment’s prime benefit.)

I’ve been using coComment for around a year and I’d hate to be without it. I don’t see any obvious source of revenue, so I hope the people behind it come up with one. (Co-creator Laurent Haug wrote in My SHiFT talk: the lessons of that “Put the ads day one”, but I see no ads now. I rarely go to the actual site so it wouldn’t surprise me if the ads weren’t doing the job and were dropped.) I’d certainly be willing to pay for the service.

Online storage, part 2

In my post Online storage I wrote about how your PC isn’t the best place to store your data. Here’s another reason. Yahoo! has just announced that, starting in May, Yahoo! Mail “will begin offering everyone unlimited email storage”. Including on their free email service.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Are you creative? Join the club

Startup investor Jeff Clavier mentions in his latest blog post that his most recent investment, online game site, includes a game called The Fancy Pants Adventures which has been played over 150,000 times. (The site claims only 57,201 “gameplays”, so there may be different definitions at work. Either way, it seems like quite a few.) According to this Reuters story, the game’s author receives about $2 a day as his share of the site’s advertising revenues.

An author also gets up to $250 if his/her game gets a high rating by users during the week it first appears, and up to $1500 for a high rating during the month it first appears. So there is up to $1750 additional to be earned, but only one person can get that much during any month.

If you’re creative and you enjoy creating things that other people like, things that can be delivered over the Internet, opportunity is knocking. Enough money to live on isn’t. To make a living you need to find things that other people can’t or won’t do — and the Internet is reducing the number of activities that fall under “can’t”.

I’ve previously written about what I’m calling Deflation 2.0, but not in nearly three months so I hope I’m not boring you. I do think this shift is gigantic and I’m very concerned about its effects on many people’s livelihoods.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Reduced barriers to entry for ... narcissism!

Almost everyone I know is talking about Twitter. I think that’s because they’re trying to justify using it.

In early January, to try to figure out what all the fuss was about, I signed up and started reading friends’ “tweets”. This month, after the fuss increased, I started issuing tweets more often myself, to get more experience of the other side. It didn’t help me appreciate Twitter.

Tara Hunt says that “it is a terribly narcissistic mistake to believe that anyone gives a flying snake about what you ate for breakfast”, and sees tweets as “A legacy, if you will, of our lifetime. Something for our grandchildren to look back at and see how we lived.

I think it is a terribly narcissistic mistake to believe that our grandchildren will be much more interested in what we had for breakfast than our friends are. They might take that sort of look back into history a few times in an entire lifetime. After all, they’ll be busy keeping up with their own friends’ tweets. (Won’t they?)

I see the current popularity of Twitter resulting from the confluence of two things: a reduced barrier to entry for narcissism on the part of those writing (blogging got us started, but a blog post takes a lot more time than a tweet), and a fear of social isolation on the part of those reading. To stay with the pack you have to pay attention and keep up. Because if you don’t, you’ll have to rely on your real friends for connection — and hope that they still have time left over for you after their Twitter friends.

I suppose a nicer spin on it would be to say that Twitter is about feeling connected. (Not to be confused with being connected.) Back in 1995 I gained insight into television from an article in Wired Magazine by Evan I. Schwartz:
... People watch television for an entirely different reason: to feel that they are part of something larger than their own lives. Why else would so many people know so much about characters in Cicily, Alaska, and the Melrose Place apartment complex without learning the names of their real neighbors? TV watchers seek out characters and stories with which to identify. It’s a deep psychological fix that cant be explained in economic terms. They also turn it on for company, as background noise.

Twitter sounds a lot like that, and I don’t expect such needs to go away.

But what of the production side? Currently we are in an economic bubble, and at times like this narcissism is indulged. When the social mood turns down, I expect narcissism to become uncool, and take Twitter’s popularity with it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Blogging infrequently is a feature, not a bug, part 2

In my earlier post Blogging infrequently is a feature, not a bug I said that I’m more likely to read blogs that have fewer posts. Well, I learned today that my blog-reader, Google Reader, actually added support for this in mid-December! From Google Reader - Common Questions:

8. How does auto-sort work?

When viewing all items, you can click "View settings" to choose a sorting order. Auto-sort works by prioritizing subscriptions with fewer items. This means that your friend's blog with an item a month will not be drowned out by higher volume sites such as the New York Times because we'll raise it to the top.

Auto-sort is a great idea, but unfortunately doesn’t work for me because it doesn’t take into account how important I consider each blog. I subscribe to 258 blogs but only read the “high importance” ones religiously, reading the medium-importance ones when I have time and the low-importance ones only rarely. I could of course prune out the low-importance ones, as many people do, but as my interests shift the importance of a blog can change, and I don’t want to lose the information about which posts I’ve read.

Perhaps the Google Reader people could make auto-sort more sophisticated by letting the user define the priority algorithm. Suppose that I’ve defined the tags “high” (for high-importance blogs) and “medium” (for medium-importance blogs), in addition to the two built-in tags of Starred items and Shared items. I could then be given a page that looked like this:
_ points for: Infrequent
_ points for: Starred items
_ points for: Shared items
_ points for: high
_ points for: medium

and I could enter numbers like this:
5 points for: Infrequent
0 points for: Starred items
0 points for: Shared items
5 points for: high
3 points for: medium

Then with auto-sort the posts that had the most points would be shown at the top, with both infrequency and importance taken into account.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Making feeds friendly, part 2

In my earlier post Making feeds friendly I talked about, well, making feeds friendly. But what about people who don’t, and won’t, use feed readers, at least not yet?

There is an alternate way for people to get new blog posts: email. This mechanism has been around longer than feed readers, with services such as FeedBlitz and more recently FeedBurner making it easy for bloggers to offer this option to readers.

But how do you indicate this option on your blog? Now that one of the ways that feeds have been made more friendly is the advent of the orange “subscribe” button , I think there should be a similar “subscribe” button to subscribe by email. So a little while ago I created one, which looks like this , and although you can see it on this blog there is a much nicer-looking example on my other blog at Having two white-on-orange icons near each other suggests that there is some linkage between the two: you can subscribe, and here are two ways to do it.

If you have a blog, I encourage you to add a subscribe-by-email option if you haven’t already, and feel free to adopt my signage. (Also feel free to improve the image. For instance, the orange colour isn’t quite the same, and the corners should be chopped off.)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

My one "complaint" about Facebook

About two months ago, a member of the TorCamp community (I’m not sure who it was) joined Facebook and invited other members to join as well. Who then issued their own invitations. Within a week or so, almost all the active TorCampers had not only joined Facebook but had started using it with a vengeance.

I was, and continue to be, very impressed by Facebook’s design. There are hardly any products/services whose design I have few complaints about. When the PalmPilot first appeared, that was one. (Too bad it hasn’t evolved — Treo keyboards aren’t integrated nicely into the built-in applications — but I suspect that the Apple iPhone will repeat the achievement.)

My only complaint has been that the “news feed” I see on Facebook’s home page, which lists all the things that have been taking place among my friends (person X was tagged in a photo album, person Y wrote something on someone else’s “wall”, persons Z and W are now friends) only lists the most recent such events, as many as will fit within its idea of maximum reasonable page length. Although you can customize the types of events you are informed of, and mark certain friends as more important or less important, I find that to make sure that I see all the events I want to see, before they disappear off the bottom of the page, I have to check Facebook at least twice a day. And not just at any old times, since the events are concentrated during the part of the day that my friends are typically awake. Couldn’t the people behind Facebook provide the “news feed” via RSS or Atom so that I wouldn’t have to worry about missing anything? What kind of “feed” isn’t available as a feed?

Well, they could, but this “missing feature” forces me to go to Facebook often — which I imagine suits Facebook’s creators just fine. They make money from advertising on the site, and from offering me the option of giving virtual gifts to other members — at a price. And once I’m there I can engage in whatever activities Facebook has, which helps keep my friends coming back to Facebook to drive revenue.

So it’s not a bug; it’s a feature — however annoying. But I must admit that I’m no longer really annoyed. Now I’ve gotten into the habit of checking Facebook frequently, and when I have the option (e.g. when I’m not working at a client’s site) I go there even more often than I “have to”. I have been assimilated.

As in so many online communities, some Facebook users could reasonably be called “addicted”. From this TechCrunch item (via Mark Kuznicki in TorCamp’s Skype chatroom):

A Goldman Sachs trader in the UK named “Charlie” was warned by his employer that his visits to Facebook on company time were to stop. He spent, apparently, over 500 hours on Facebook in a six month period. That works out to about 4 hours per day.

Unwisely, perhaps, Charlie posted the warning email on his Facebook account, saying “It’s a measure of how warped I’ve become that, not only am I surprisingly proud of this, but in addition, the first thing I did was to post it here, and that losing my job worries me far less than losing facebook ever could.”

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Web apps need to meet high standards

As Web-based applications hit the big time (e.g. the recent launch of Google Apps), the Wild West culture of Web 2.0 becomes unacceptable. Users who aren’t early adopters, whether they pay cash or pay by looking at ads, will expect these apps to work solidly. This means, for instance:
  • It is no longer acceptable for to be down frequently, whether because of technical problems (of which there are quite a variety) or because its maintainers have the gall to schedule maintenance during the middle of a business day in North America. It’s not as though owner Google Inc. lacks money. (So I need to set aside some time to migrate to WordPress.)
  • Omnidrive can’t just disable file synchronization for some users without even telling them that it’s done so — that’s central functionality! That such a key issue should be treated so cavalierly has lost my confidence in Omnidrive — and without confidence there’s no way I’ll let them store my data, even though I know they’re changing their approach so that this particular problem goes away. (So I’ll be looking at alternatives, such as Amazon S3 combined with a local client such as Jungle Disk. I hadn’t actually started to use Omnidrive anyway, other than to try it out.)
I think there is a good chance of one or more high-profile service failures this year, which in addition to causing considerable embarrassment to the affected providers will serve as a wake-up call to those providers who don’t yet take reliability seriously enough. And will make it harder for startups to gain customers when they’re in competition with trusted (justifiably or not) names like Google and Amazon.

Such failure(s) will also have various pundits proclaiming that this reveals a serious flaw in the whole idea of Web-based applications, even though they’ll be wrong. (You read it here first.)