Archive for the 'Review' Category

A review of Twitter (and Daring Fireball, by accident)

Monday, September 1st, 2008

The impetus for me to use Twitter in earnest was the Twitterrific app for the iPhone. By making it easy to update my status and to check on others, regular posts just started coming out. I twittered about the olympics, Obama’s speech at the DNC, and other random bits. I watched as others responded to various events; for example, today there are lots of snarky comments about Sarah Palin’s daughter and what it means to McCain’s chances of winning the presidency.

Yet despite my active participation, I don’t see the point of Twitter. Is it deliberatly-short posts of a blog combined with a newsreader for other user’s blog? Is it a status program, to keep others updated on what you’re doing? Because Twitter is both, it is nothing more than a collective mental wank. Let me explain.

Twitter as a microblogging platform.

This makes slightly more sense to me than a status feed. But why would anyone want have a blog severe restrictions on post length? Because not every thought wanting to be written down and shared needs to be meaty and loaded like what’s being attempted here at Budaeli.

And while anyone can set something like this up on any sort of blogging platform, the secret sauce is combining it with a newsreader so that your comments mingle with everyone else’s that you’re following.

If we look at two examples from the blogger John Gruber, his Twitter feed and his link feed from his great website, Daring Fireball, you can see the difference in how the content is presented. I’ve seen twitter posts coincide with link posts in the same vein, and he reveals more of how he’s really thinking through twitter, especially when readers can respond immediately. In fact, his posts about Sarah Palin’s daughter where full of personality, while his one post to his linked list showed only a direct response with only the slightest hint of what he really thinks about the situation. And yet they go hand-in-hand.

Does Gruber need both? Well, that’s the interesting part: Gruber is one of the few professional bloggers. He has carefully crafted a brand around his Daring Fireball that I think includes his Twitter feed. There are regularly-sized posts, short links with concise opinion and description, and a feed where he reels off whatever is on his mind with less of a filter than the other two. Taken together and combined with his valuable insights, you have a great resource for analysis of technology (specifically Apple- and web-related), with a few prescient coverage of other topics.

Twitter as a status feed.

There is absolutely no reason for anyone to actively update the a feed telling others what they’re doing. It’s nothing more than how people nowadays will be at a party, but calling their friends to see if there are any better, while degrading the quality of the party that’s already happening around them. Only now you can spray your whereabouts to everyone, including strangers and people who have no right/don’t care what you’re doing.

This doesn’t just go for twitter, but every other service that has the same functionality. How hard is it to just exist in the place we are, without having to suck everyone else in? Even the case for automated status updates is silly, because it’s just that much more information to lose any justification. It’s OK to keep track of news from specific areas, but to keep tabs on the exact goings-on of all your acquaintances is bordering on absurd. This is partly why I have so far succeeded in joining the major social sites, the major exception being Last.fm. If any of my friends, family, coworkers, or anyone else wants to check up on what I’m doing, they can easily call me, email me, semaphore me, leave a comment on Budaeli, whatever. There is lack of a good argument to make it so easy for others to know what you’re doing, and to get regular updates. It’s more complex than that, and I can see the benefits of having a page for people to catch up with you while being 1,000 miles away, but in general it’s a wee bit silly. I mean, whatever happened to the American dream of disappearing from others for awhile?

Will Twitter succeed? Will it ever get past the early-adopter phase?

I don’t know. With any of these micro-blogging systems, a lot depends on reaching a critical mass of users, much like instant messaging platforms. Twitter has a head start at the moment, but they’ve had enough technical issues to allow space for other systems, like Pownce. Also, slightly different systems like Tumblr also exist that provide a slightly different experience and potential for content.

For now, I’ll remain perplexed as to the real power of Twitter. Until I figure it out you can check out my own twitter feed.

“Nightfall” by Issac Asimov

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

NOTE: Here be spoilers!

Supposedly, “Nightfall” by Issac Asimov is one of the best short stories in the science fiction genre. It definitely was one of the first stories to legitimize the genre so sci-fi literature could be taken more seriously.

The story takes place on a planet that has nighttime once very two thousand years. The rest of the time is constant sunlight thanks to several nearby stars. Leading up to the event, there is debate as to what will happen, as history seems to stop at the last nightfall. A religious group claims to have knowledge of what existed before the last night, and they claim that people go crazy and that only they know how to deal with the nighttime – but the scientists are torn over whether that’s what will happen or if it’s just some religious clap-trap.

It’s probably a great story, but my opinion of it was hampered by how I interpreted other people’s description of the story. In my head, “Nightfall” was a story revolving around the idea of: what would happen if humans only saw the stars once very thousand years? Asimov’s answer was more a critique on polar approaches to the problem (scientific versus religious) and some notion of claustrophobia. The fact that I was expecting the way that people went crazy was not what happened in the story, which was greatly disappointing. As I imagined “Nightfall” in my head, people were looking forward to the nighttime because of the folklore around it, and when they saw the stars, they went crazy at the beauty of it all. In the actual story, people went crazy rather because they were afraid of the dark. Kinda lame.

I can write a better story than “Nightfall.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point

Monday, August 18th, 2008

People at work have been recommending The Tipping Point to me for a long time; now that I’ve read it I can see why. The book is about how ideas spread, specifically ideas that become popular. When it came out there was a lot of talk about it, and it was on everyone’s business book reading list. Strangely, though I don’t see companies using Malcolm Gladwell‘s observations to create wildly popular products. Ideas are still tipping, and I can see many things happening now which will tip soon.

Try to take the concepts of the tipping point as a rule or a law; rather this is just one way that ideas spread among humans. Think of the tipping point more as a tool or a path.

An idea or thing tips like this: something new is created and adopted by the crazy innovators who are always doing weird things. This new thing is then noticed by early adopters who take it and add to the thing some tweaks that make it more palatable. Then the large group of people who take their cues from the early adopters pick up the thing, tweak it a little more to make it more mainstream and more to their taste. Somewhere around this point this thing or idea will ‘tip’ – it’ll become popular among the mainstream and adopted by the vast majority of people. After it’s established among this group, is when the late adopters, the people who don’t like change all that much, will take up the thing – and this is when it begins to die (or be assimilated into society, Gladwell isn’t very specific on this part, probably because it’s not all that interesting).

That is The Tipping Point, grossly simplified. The beauty of the movement of this idea or thing is that its path among society is independent of the medium, save that every step of the way is aided by three things that humans love to do: communicate, evangelize, and learn.

For example, same-sex marriage and the use of ebook readers are about to tip, I think. Other things, like reading fiction for entertainment and interest in space exploration, will tip in the next 5-10 years. Things that have just tipped are using Mac computers and those scarves that look like PLO scarves.

What was most fun about The Tipping Point is seeing what kind of people my friends and coworkers are, as well as myself. Gladwell identifies communicators, mavens, and salesmen as crucial to passing along an idea or thing to make it tip; while the groups of people that adopt ideas or things are in this order: innovators, early adopters, early majority, the majority, and late adopters.

I fall into the maven type perfectly. I’m aware of many things going on in popular culture, subcultures, as well as a thorough knowledge of the past and present of technology. And I tend to be the one telling other people about this stuff. Meanwhile, most of my friends are either communicators or salesmen – I know a couple of people who are massive communicators that know many, many people. In addition, I’m usually an innovator or early adopter, depending on the idea or thing. I was an early adopter of mac computers, just before the early majority started using them (4-5 years ago), while I’m an innovator of ebook readers since most people still don’t have one yet. Strangely, I was an innovator of the metrosexual look – it sounds crazy, but I was dressing that way before the early adopter guys started dressing sharply (only an early adopter would have noticed: the stuff I was wearing was way off the mark and thank god there’s no pictures of me looking that way, that I’m aware of!). What’s fascinating is that I remember lots of ideas an things that came my way that I either didn’t adopt and pass on (raised collars, swing dancing, facebook), or I embraced them but they died (Korean soap operas, Charles Bukowski, Eee PC).

Malcom Gladwell is a fascinating writer. He tends to specialize in ‘human technology’ – things that we do that are as powerful as machines but all biological and only half-understood. His other book, Blink, is a good excuse for making snap judgments. Sometimes, the right answer is the the first thing that pops into mind. I can’t wait to read next book, coming out later this year. Here’s an article by him about how some ideas come about because a lot of people were thinking about the solution at the same time, it was just waiting to be discovered.

A recent example of this that I encountered was that my Mother was looking for a new car, so she went shopping with my Father and I. We looked at two small SUVs; the first one had lots of gadgets and cool features that Dad and I really liked (I get my love of gadgets and technology from him), but Mom was confused by how some of the features worked and didn’t like the size of the rear window. At the next dealership we looked at a similar model that was a very good vehicle without all the cool buttons. But before she took the SUV out of the lot for a test drive she loved it: the rear window was a good size and she was comfortable driving it. For the next hour Dad and I had the task of convincing her that it’s OK to buy something this fast, even a car, if your instinct is telling you this is the one you want, you’ll be happy.