Monthly Archives: July 2009

Social Media adoption, and Community Building

Just a short post today. Euan Semple was recently interviewed by GuruOnline and the result was a great series of short videos in which he discusses how and why businesses should get involved in social media, how it can affect the way they work, and some of the tools that can be used. I liked his response to the thorny ROI question, and in particular his final statement in the last of the 15 segments – “corporations don’t tweet, people do”. Check it out.

In a related thought, I really enjoyed Matt Simpson’s blog entry yesterday about community building in corporations: The Manager Who Thought He Could Create a Community. It’s so true that it takes more than just a few clicks of a mouse to create a community of any kind – it takes work, participation, nurturing, and most importantly, conversation.

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140 characters – the perfect size

This post will be longer than 140 characters in length

That’s OK though, because it’s a blog post. It’s not a tweet, an SMS, or a status update. It’s designed to be something longer and more in-depth. It’s a place where you the reader, and I as the author, can explore some thoughts in more detail.

140chars

In the past couple of months I’ve detected a number of debates around the “140 character limit” imposed by microblogging. In fact, this “limit” was pretty much invented / pioneered by the darling site of the moment, Twitter.

A few weeks ago, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey spoke at IBM Research in Almaden. During the talk, he described how they arrived at the infamous number of characters in a tweet… I’m paraphrasing here, but feel free to check the video for his exact words:

The maximum in an SMS message is 160 characters before breaking the message, so we took 15 characters for the username, 5 characters for formatting or whatever, and ended up at 140 characters… we wanted to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the cheap $20 Nokia prepay cellphone…

With the runaway success of Twitter, and indeed with the increasing use of cellphones and mobile devices to access websites, the past few years have seen the proliferation of the 140 character status update. There are conferences dedicated to realtime microblogging (and, more specifically, to Twitter) which bear the magic number in their titles. We’ve become used to a more condensed form of communication, cutting out unnecessary words and letters from our online communications, and shortening our URLs.

However, one hundred and forty characters are not enough for everybody.

My friend Andrew frequently complains about the limit. Karl has been known to comment on the restrictions of shorter communications. Luis was famous for his thoughts which often used to run across 3 or 4 separate tweets – I unfollowed him for a while as a result, since he was breaking my preferred “rules”, but he’s better these days… I think he was suffering from email withdrawal 🙂

Personally, I think 140 characters is the ideal length for microblog-style status updates.

Readability

For one thing, I’ve found that I’ve become accustomed to scanning realtime feeds from sites like FriendFeed and Facebook, and the short, sharp updates are very easy to read and digest. Almost accidentally, it seems as though @ev and @jack hit upon a length of update which is naturally easy to scan and absorb, without having to really stop, pause, and read. As Stowe Boyd noted back at the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin last year (and again, I’m paraphrasing), the realtime web is like a continuous river of information, and blogs are becoming the rocks in that river, the places where more considered thoughts can be written and conversations held. Twitter, Friendfeed or whatever else provide, aggregate and prioritise the links and hooks out to the larger chunks of content. The fact that I barely have to pay attention to the stream but can quickly absorb the things that catch my eye enables Ambient Intimacy.

Write-ability

Sending a short status update is quick and easy – it barely takes a moment to type something of that length, and anything longer than 140 can be painful on a smaller mobile device, so it seems to strike a nice balance there. As Ben and Willie have pointed out, learning and adapting to the size constraint can have beneficial effects on the way we communicate in other media, too (my emails have become shorter and crisper, or more often have been replaced by quick IM updates).

On the other hand, there are some downsides to our newly-enforced brevity. Two areas of particular concern to me are the glut of URL shorteners (which may make URLs easier to exchange, but break one of the principles of the web,in my opinion); and the difficulty of archiving and preserving conversations. I wonder whether Google Wave will have an impact on either of those issues. Anyone at Google want to get me on the beta so I can give me opinion on that? 😉

Flexibility

We’ve basically standardised the length of text updates to a whole bunch of online RESTful web services, making the convergence of clients to support those services much simpler. The mixture of content that can be shared over bite-sized streams of this kind has proven to be remarkable – from newsflashes, location updates, short links to larger articles or image snapshots, to IRC-style conversations and simple status information, and also to automated systems and pinging information between applications. I’ve often wondered whether Twitter is, in fact, the new nervous system of the Internet… and, according to Techcrunch, so have the company’s employees.

Why not make it longer?

The 140 debate became a bit sharper recently, where I commented on some internal tools at work that were using status updates of slightly longer lengths… say, 250 or 500 characters. The argument in favour of those lengths goes that 140 characters is just too short, sometimes. OK, but how is any other arbitrary limit any better? I’d argue that once you get to the 250 character size, I struggle to be able to simply scan through something. I’d also suggest that at 500 characters, you’re at the point of writing a short blog post.

I remember that at the genesis of one of the tools in question, a friend of mine argued for more characters to be allowed so that he could embed HTML tags in his updates. Strange how the huge variety of Twitter clients have managed to evolve rich hyperlinking features without having embedded HTML syntax in the updates, then.

Another of my colleagues suggested that you “need” more than 140 characters for some discussions. OK, but for those discussions you could either turn to IM (for one-to-one conversations) or a blog post, possibly linked to from a microblogging site, for a debate with comments. By the way, those blog posts and comments are likely to be indexed and retained by Google, whereas immediate and more generalised discussions held on a realtime service are still not effectively indexed. If you’re not satisfied with Twitter’s ability to thread and group conversations, there are other tools out there of a similar nature which do have some of those features. Also, if you want to go halfway towards a blog post, but have something to post which is a bit more than a status update, you might consider Tumblr or Posterous.

That was a lot more than 140 characters. Darn it.

(thanks to the always-excellent Geek & Poke for the cartoon used above, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

Simple photo publishing – a new site

iSnapshotter is live.

It’s a really simple Tumblr-based site with a custom domain name. I intend to use the Tumblr app on the iPhone to post my more interesting snapshots there… typically these get edited on the phone using Photogene, CameraBag and Autostitch.

I wanted to keep iPhone shots largely separate from Flickr, and the new capabilities in the 3GS make it much nicer for taking snapshots on the road. It was pretty trivial to create… add a new tumblelog on my existing Tumblr account, snap up a custom domain via UK2.net, choose a nice photo-centric theme, download the Tumblr iPhone app, and I’m good to go. Now all I’d like is the ability to queue posts from the iPhone so I can spread them out a bit more.

Thoughts on Google Chrome OS

I’ve resisted writing anything on the recently-announced Google Chrome OS, for a number of reasons… the most significant one being that so far, we don’t know a huge amount about it. This hasn’t stopped reams of opinion being written or spoken about it anywhere else though, so a week on from the announcement, I thought I’d lay down a few opinions of my own.

First of all, I always felt that the Chrome browser itself kind of pointed towards an operating system, since the engineers were clearly thinking in terms that you’d usually associate with an OS – ideas like the threading model immediately made me think of the domain of the operating system. The “Google OS” has been one of those rumours that has consistently failed to die.

So what do we know? We know that Google Chrome OS will be based on Linux and will be largely open source, and that the initial target constituency will be the netbook market but that it has ambitions to the desktop. We know that it will have a new windowing system (bye bye X). We hear that Google has been courting various netbook manufacturers, and we know that it should be out sometime in 2010.

On the threat to the desktop

Scott Bourne was saying on MacBreak Weekly this week that he felt this meant it would be no real threat to Mac OS X, and I guess the ensuing discussion really sparked the majority of this post. Scott based his assertion on a straw poll of people who he’d asked “OS X or Chrome?” (a: OS X) for laptops, and “Chrome or Windows Mobile?” (a: Chrome) for PDAs. I just think that’s an impossible discussion right now. So far it’s vapourware. We don’t know what Google Chrome OS will look like and we don’t know what features it will have. It’s pointless to try to compare it to existing operating systems at this stage.

The other reason the MacBreak Weekly crew decided that Chrome OS wouldn’t be a threat was that it would initially be limited to netbooks but “will it actually be able to make the step up to the desktop?”. This is an interesting discussion, as it assumes that the granddaddy / holy grail of machines is the desktop computer. But… wait a minute. Haven’t Apple spent the past two years convincing the whole mobile market that they have to have fully-capable computing platforms on their handheld devices? Isn’t the netbook market exploding? Aren’t laptops outselling desktops? Aren’t computers and televisions converging via set-top boxes and streaming media? People want computing power and access wherever they are, in a form factor that fits. I think the suggestion that the desktop is still “where its at” is deeply, deeply flawed – the desktop is dying, and has been for a long time. The desktop is a place where people occasionally anchor themselves, but the rest of the time they are moving around and taking their platform with them.

So is it a threat? On netbooks, in my opinion, yes – probably to both Linux and Windows. As for Apple, they aren’t going to be keen to let anyone run another OS on their hardware, and they’re not currently in the netbook market, so it probably is not a big deal right now. Windows XP still seems to be an OS of choice on many netbooks, but Microsoft probably will finally kill that with Windows 7. There are too many Linux distributions around (Linpus, Moblin, Ubuntu) vying for a slice of that market. The Google brand, combined with an experience that is genuinely pleasant, could take chunks out of both sides of that market. From there, who knows… but if it is Linux-based, we already know that that scales from big to small machines, so there are plenty of places it could go. I personally think it will be interesting to see where they choose to go with the user interface, and this is the area that will determine the future.

On the cloud

I think the idea that Chrome OS could be a lightweight system with the majority of content hosted in the cloud is particularly interesting. How secure are we all feeling this week about the safety of the cloud? In the light of the Twitter hack, I imagine that people are rethinking the security of the public cloud, anyway. Paired with a secure behind-the-firewall private cloud, a lightweight OS like this makes a lot of sense. That’s not to say I don’t like the flexibility that cloud/web-based services offer me – I use many of them, including things like Google Docs. Of course, you need a network connection for it to be effective, and it’s true that bandwidth is becoming pervasive, although if you take a look at 3G coverage for various UK mobile operators (hint, look at the PDF and the maps *per operator*, not the overall coverage map), you might want to rethink your dependence on that, too.

On the image

Will Google be able to get away with labelling Chrome OS “beta” to start off with? I think that in order to get people to use it, beyond the Google brand name, it will have to be really good, polished, and / or flashy and convincing enough as an initial experience for people to base their computing lives on it. I think it will probably have to have had more testing than many of the existing Google cloud web products.

Final thought

Right now, all we can really say is: “well, this is interesting”. We can speculate, but frankly, I don’t think we know enough to say anything more. That’s all I’m sayin’.

WebSphere Message Broker for the win…

The very brilliant Martin Gale joined my team at work last week. I’ve known Martin for a few years now and we had a bit of a shared experience last year going through our professional certification at the same time. He’s an unbelievably clever and talented chap, and it’s a privilege to now be sharing an office with him… I’m hoping that some of his Master Inventiveness rubs off on me! 🙂

Whilst he gets settled in, I’ve had the opportunity to seed my own technology preferences into his mind… this week, he’s been playing around with my personal favourite, WebSphere Message Broker (WMB), whilst developing his own newly-acquired interest in WebSphere Business Events (WBE). He’ll be an expert in both by, oh, 10am tomorrow…

I was very pleased that Martin has enjoyed his Message Broker experience so far! I’ve been using and consulting with the product for many years now, so I know I’m regarded as a bit of a bigot in this area, but it’s a pleasure to see someone using the product for the first time!

wmb-win
NB @martinjgale stream is private, this screenshot used by permission

The secret of success? I believe that it’s the fact that the programming model and toolkit for Message Broker have seen steady improvement and evolution over a number of years – rather than having large chunks of the model revamped between releases. It really has steadily become a stronger and stronger product.

Anyway – victory! More converts needed 🙂