Nothing in particular has inspired any new blog posts here in recent weeks. Instead, I’ve spent much of my free time playing around with a few of the endless new gizmos that are hatching every minute in the now four-year-old world of “Web 2.0,” the cross-fed, componentized river of vital and stupid information that has supplanted much of the previous, segregated Web of static pages and discrete sites.
For our ancestors, adjusting the world to their liking meant hard physical labor, sweat, and bloody knuckles. Now, spending so much of our lives in virtual worlds, we simply click. And click. And click.
It has occurred to me that, between setting preferences and updating software, it would be quite possible to spend your entire life in front of a computer without ever doing anything useful whatsoever. When you multiply that sort of tweaking potential across an ever-expanding number of interconnected social networking profiles all over the Web, there are simply no minutes left to sleep, or to have a face-to-face conversation, or to watch a movie or read a book or play guitar or ride a bike.
Many of the thingamajigs I have tried ended up feeling like a waste of time.
On the other hand, I do constantly thirst for knowledge and intelligence beyond my own block. I want to know what is happening now — and now — and now — in any one of a bunch of specific subject areas. Toward that end, a couple of the doohickeys I’ve been tinkering with have actually proven handy or delightful or both.
I wrote about Twitter back in April of 2007 when it first exploded, and I basically dismissed it. Since then, MySpace has copied the idea, and I have occasionally posted short status messages there for no good reason.
About a month ago, however, Steve Dahl opted out of writing a 450-word blog entry each day in favor of posting to his Twitter account, and so I gave Twitter another spin. It actually isn’t as pointless as I had assumed, once you give it a chance.
For one thing, there are a number of news-related Twitter feeds I follow. Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic sends out Twitter messages every time he posts a new “Daily Dish” item — which, as the presidential campaign heats up, sometimes seems like every minute. Barack Obama’s Twitter feed sends out a message every time there’s a live event streamed via Ustream.tv, so I have seen him speak dozens and dozens of times, and sort of miss him on days he’s not streaming while I’m cooking dinner. Even ABC7 meteorologist Jerry Taft has a Twitter feed, which is just downright charming.
On a more personal level, my sister in Ohio now sees my Twitter interjections even if she doesn’t have a Twitter account herself (or won’t reveal it), and I am able to follow the daily lives of friends and coworkers and even complete strangers in a way that doesn’t interrupt anything or necessarily require a reply. I have even received unexpected and helpful responses simply as a result of blurting something out on Twitter. Clive Thompson wrote an outstanding piece for last week’s New York Times Magazine about how our remote utterances into the virtual void are creating a new and potentially deep opportunity for intimacy.
Rejaw has many similarities to Twitter, but permits longer messages and even images, and it also facilitates real-time chat in public (“Shouts”) or private (“Whispers”).
Rejaw was a very hot topic a month ago when I signed up for my account. Within seconds of my first shout, I was contacted by “Nice Fish Films,” who is familiar with The Steve Dahl Show, and we chatted a little and have “followed” each other since then.
On the whole, however, Rejaw just doesn’t seem to have achieved enough membership yet. It could be a great conduit if more people used it. So far, a lot of the people shouting this very minute on the “Everyone’s Shouts” page are the same nerds you saw last time — especially that smirking blue background guy with the gray hat pulled down.
Maintaining all of these little status-messaging accounts separately would be a full-time job in itself. Instead, I use Ping.fm to post one message that goes many places. It also has a built-in URL-shortening function, conveniently skipping the TinyURL step in the process of squeezing information into short spaces. If you’re, say, watching Rachel Maddow and eating chicken cassoulet, and you need to get that message and a link to the recipe out to 20 different services ASAP, Ping.fm is your buddy.
The video above explains the utopia of “social bookmarking.”
I have a Delicious account, but I use it primarily to share worthwhile news items with anyone who’s interested, seeing as how I don’t like to send or receive such things through group emails because then there’s often an attachment to open, and you have to email a “Ha!” back, and the video really wasn’t funny enough to warrant a “Ha.” Read my Delicious bookmarks or don’t — I’ll never know.
My actual browser bookmarks are still in my browser, and I have only recently begun sorting them into folders by topic, which is neater, but still pointless since I revisit my average bookmark approximately never.
I think what may be missing from the Delicious social scene is the social aspect. Sure, other people could theoretically get use out of your bookmarks, but you get no cookie or even a thank you from them. I need at least a gold star or something for my altruism. You can join or create a “network” on Delicious, but there are no little thumbnail portraits of the other people, and without a thumbnail portrait, how can I know if I like you?
Ah, now here is the gold star. Digg is a simple popularity contest. Give an item your approval — “digg it” — and your vote is added to its total. You have made a difference in the world, citizen!
However, like all popularity contests, Digg can be fouled by zeal and ambition. I have one Digg “friend” who seems to approach digging almost like a career, lobbying me frequently to support various articles and video clips in which I have no interest. On the other hand, some of the items I have dugg — including two perfectly funny videos of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog at the Republican National Convention — are just sitting there with the one lousy digg each that I gave them, so maybe campaigning for items is necessary. I leave such endeavors to the next generation.
Another problem with Digg is the submission process. If you’re on a page and you see that it has already been dugg, then adding your approval is a one-click process. If, however, the item has no Digg button, you have to manually go to Digg’s submission page and begin filling out forms and answering challenges and scanning over potential duplicates and, well, pretty soon all the joy of digging has turned into a little spinning wheel that is grinding your precious life down the drain like a garbage disposer.
Here is an attempt to create a rich community around bookmarking.
You get your own little “blog” page (like mine) and you also install the StumbleUpon Toolbar in your browser. From there, it’s sort of like channel-surfing the Web. You click a button in the toolbar that switches you to some Web page, and you can optionally give the page a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Theoretically, the system will learn your preferences and the pages you are shown will grow to reflect them. You can also submit pages manually, through a process less cumbersome than Digg’s.
The pages you like or submit are added to your blog, which other members can visit and add notes and become your fan and so on. Additionally, there are also groups of members (like the “Chicago” group), where you can discuss this particular subject with others who share your interest.
In practice, however, most of the discussions are dead and many of the members’ pages consist merely of long streams of images similar to the ones you get in the group emails from your sister-in-law.
I have seen that when someone stumbles your page, it can create a lot of traffic. When I come across something that could really benefit from exposure — like the rock and roll photographer with the daughter who needs brain surgery — I may fire up StumbleUpon to help the cause. On the other hand, this effect also makes StumbleUpon prone to zeal and ambition and spam. Plus, I’m not a big fan of the toolbar, so I mostly leave it disabled and don’t use the site very much.
I put up my MySpace profile a long time ago, and do not tweak it often. It has served as a contact point, and people I know have found me through it, which is pretty cool. I also get “friended” by a lot of bands. Usually I sample a song or two from their page when I add them. One that I really liked the other day is Runaway Dorothy. I have listened to their songs several times now and may just buy a couple.
My favorite thing about my MySpace page is the Project Playlist music player. Project Playlist is actually yet another social networking site and I have yet another profile there, but the cool thing is the playlist. The service gathers music tracks from all over the Web, and then you compile them into one or more playlists of up to a hundred selections each. It takes a little work, and often you can’t find exactly the songs you’re looking for, but frequently there are bootlegs or rarities that you never expected. Also, as with everything on the Web, some of these items will suddenly vanish in time. No matter — just go back periodically to clean out the deadwood and add some new tunes.
Seriously, I could listen to my playlist for hours and hours, but that’s me.
I was not much of a Facebook user until recently. At first, I considered MySpace to be more of a free-for-all, public thing where I would friend anyone who was not an obvious identity-theft porn bot, keeping my Facebook profile pristine and closed to anyone I do not actually know. Eventually, though, it dawned on me that I don’t know very many people in the first place, and few of those I do know use MySpace or Facebook or anything else. So, when some Steve Dahl Show listeners started adding me through Steve, I approved them even though we have never met.
Interestingly, this in turn produced more connections to people I actually do know. And, just as with Twitter, I now catch tidbits from people’s lives streaming by even if we have no direct interaction. You get a richer sense of the triumphs and tragedies and daily rhythm of life.
I’m reminded of a very touching scene in The Jerk in which Steve Martin reflects on how he had always wanted “a disco room” with his “own disco dancers and a party room with fancy friends.” Well, thanks to Facebook, I virtually have that now.
Still, Facebook remains somewhat alien to me, so I was happy to read that tech expert David Pogue also puzzles over some of its quirks. Currently, there’s apparently some grumbling about the latest Facebook makeover, but I don’t have enough experience with the old Facebook to make a comparison.
This is the single most helpful tool I’m using lately. I have known about RSS feeds for a long time, but I had never found a brilliant way to use them until Google Reader. Now, instead of hopping all over the Web to visit all of the various blogs and newspaper sites that I want to keep up with, I just add everything to Google Reader and I can see at a glance when there’s a new article at any of them, read what I care to, then “mark all as read,” and get on with my life.
Nearly any site you go to has an RSS feed you can subscribe to, often right up there in the navigation bar. It makes your daily Web rounds so much faster. I realize that I’m very late to this particular party, and that there are other RSS readers out there as well, but having finally tried it, I love Google Reader.
Especially cool is that it takes just one click to add any particular article to my shared items for the rest of the world. There are no forms to fill out and no challenges to face, so altruism is much easier.
Finally tonight, a tool which combines feeds from many of the gadgets above to produce a stream of information from any member — like my feed, for example. Next, mix that one feed with several dozen other people you know. Or a hundred.
FriendFeed allows you to follow other members’ daily Internet lives — not just their Twitter messages, but their Flickr photosteam, their YouTube favorites, and plenty of other stuff. Not only your friends’ items, but also the items of your friends’ friends. And not only can you see the items, but you can “like” them and/or comment on them, and then others can comment on your comments, and suddenly there really is a sense of impromptu community and free-flowing information exchange. FriendFeed has some powerful potential.
As with any new technology, the earliest users are technology fanatics, so a lot of the items in the feeds are items about FriendFeed or about similar services or about geeky things in general, but I got a taste of what can happen on the afternoon that the death of Isaac Hayes was announced. First someone Twittered that Hayes had died, then someone else posted the news story, then a third person “loved” “Walk on By” on Last.fm and then the YouTube videos started in, and the memories. Out of nowhere, a celebration of the man’s accomplishments had formed among strangers in cyberspace. Amazing.
Oh, one more social networking dealie I’m trying out is the Disqus comment system below.
Yeah, it’s semi-moderated. Lame, I know.