Corresponding in the social net

mind your headI must be getting old. I’ve been corresponding with a few people through Facebook’s messages and I’m finding the experience a little disheartening. Perhaps it is because I get these messages, which can be quite long, on my mobile while I am walking around. I want to read them (but can’t because I’ll run into someone). I admit I sometimes park myself next to the wall along the sidewalk for everyone’s safety. But even as I read, what I imagine would have been great material for letters sent by boat across the ocean,  I am simply unable or unwilling to respond from my little corner of the urban flow. So I make a mental note to respond later when I am home, sitting down, and able to give the proper attention that I believe my friends deserve.

This has led to think a little bit about long form communication. Years ago, while working on a job, I use to write, what I am certain my coworkers believed were small treatises regarding certain aspects of the project. Often I would get quick response like: “can you please use bullets and make your emails smaller.” How dare they? Do they think I just like to write, to see my words on the page (don’t answer that – it’s meant to be rhetorical). Sometimes, I think I would have been better off printing them out and nailing them to their door. Most of the time, I would love to send in reply a link to my latest favourite comment on lists, which includes a great insight on bullet points. But I don’t, because maybe I understand the environment of communication has changed and is continuing to change. So as I get older, I guess I just lament that a little.

But let’s think about what communication is. At its root, it is about being able to express something and have the other person understand. In deep intimate relationships, trusting and giving relationships, a little can be said, maybe even something can be expressed without words and there is no misunderstanding. I recently came across a wonderful term called exformation, which refers to the discarded information that still leaves a message in a given context understood. This reminds me of Claude E. Shannon’s work on Information Theory and signal noise. We have such different ways to communicate as human beings, some of it using technology, some of it using less technical means, like a hand-shake or a kiss. And whatever we do, we are communicating beings. The interesting part is thinking about when we use which form of communication. And that, regardless of what is trendy or what is used by our friends, remains a decision based in what works. Are we able to express ourselves in a given medium? That is the only way to choose the right way to communicate.

As a writer, I sometimes think I would rather write a short story for a friend, than explain how I feel. I also love links to odd ideas and I share them often on Twitter and Facebook. I send emails to some friends and family, because I know they will read those. I leave post-its for others. Sometimes, I chose to be very calm in how I talk. Other times, I need to stand and I find my hand takes on a life of its own. Communicating is so wonderfully diverse. And believe me when I say, I think about it a lot – I love communicating. I would give up all sorts of things in my life to find more and more people to communicate with, because in the end, all I’ve got is what I think and how I choose to express it. When I write you, when I text you, I am telling you a story. It may be the most intimate thing in my life and I may choose to post it somewhere publicly, but I do so, with only one idea in mind, that I understand who I am talking to and how my words or lack of words (my exformation) will make sure the communication does what I want it to. And the back and forth of a correspondence, whether it is real-time or over many many months, is an expression of my understanding of what you have communicated to me (please don’t write long emails, send me bullet points, because that’s all I will read). So it is the appropriate response to the given correspondant. That is all that matters.

As I lament the death of long form writing, I saw a great article about the winner of social media. Can you guess? Email, of course. Certainly you can argue against this, but I’ve always considered email part of the social network, and perhaps the best for a given context. Before that term arrived and we were all just talking about social theory online, email was clearly the most important. It was the most used. But somehow, as Facebook and others arrived and began to produce outstanding numbers about their users, we all just kind of forgot that we use email all the time. And yet, even though this is true and our jobs depend on it, in my day to day networking, when I met someone, I’m trying to get their Twitter handle or become friends with them on Facebook or LinkedIn. In other words, I’m looking to follow them. I don’t want to communicate (yet), but I do want know more about them. I’m looking for them to share with me, and to do so in a way in which they do not yet need to care who I am (which is why I prefer Twitter). But at some point, the communication flips around, and I find I’m trying to respond to their tweets, whether they follow me or not; and I’m trying to get their attention, whether they notice me or not. Occasionally I strike up a little conversation. Usually public, but eventually it can progress to the private kind. It’s after corresponding over a longer period of time, that I find I miss email. And I miss the willingness to stop, take time (not on the street, as I said) to respond intelligently and with a care, crafted for this person, so that they really do understand me. This is my goal. To make my communication good and meaningful. So when when I lament the long form, it’s probably nothing more than an existential lack in myself, that the particular person I’m communicating with, simply isn’t the person I have made that deeper connection to, so that I would take out a fountain pen, and under candle light, write for hours and hours and then carefully place it in an envelope, seal it in wax and then set it on its way across land and sea to arrive months later in the hands of someone who truly understands me.

Connecting to ConnectedChina

ConnectedChina homepageI attended a presentation today by Irene Jay Liu, news editor for Thomson Reuters and project leader and editor for ConnectedChina. It was a great demonstration of the app, especially since there is so much to see in the app. It is difficult to understand all its potential unless you see someone using it or you spend a lot of time with it.

My favourite take away from the presentation was how Irene called it a living app because it is designed and built upon a database that is continuing to be updated. It is an impressive system that will surely influence how future projects like this are built.

I asked a question about the deep-linking and sharing from within the app. It struck me that there is potential for this kind of reuse, but that likely it is not fully being used. Irene indicated their analytics do show deep-linking. However, I find the very nature of the app, with hidden URLs (why couldn’t they use HTML5’s History API?) and built-in sharing and back buttons are doing a disservice to the potential of this impressive database.

Although Irene said that the average user spends 22 minutes on the site and the app was built to emphasize this sticky quality, I cannot help but believe it is missing a great opportunity, if they don’t find a better way to encourage deep-linking. Like I mentioned above, taking advantage of HTML5’s History API would greatly improve this. It would also enable the back button to have meaning, as well, the emphasis on exposed URLs for all the resources within the site would increase how it is shared.

Another major problem with the app is that there is no mobile version. And even worse, the experience simply fails without any indication or message about the display issues. I suspect they will fix this and eventually construct a web-based front-end. Without a mobile version, the ability to pass around addresses on services like Twitter become very complex. A person will need to save and open on another device, if they wish to follow any of the shared links.

The ConnectedChina app also includes a limited series of related news pulled into the app from Reuters. The articles nicely link into the various data within the app. I asked whether these URLs have been used outside of the app, where these original news articles appear and Irene said that Reuters is a large organization and it would be difficult to do this is any systematic way. Fair enough, but you know the trick to beginning to incorporate links elsewhere within Reuters would be to expose those links and construct the app first and foremost for sharing.

So I’m brought back to Irene’s comment about the app being designed to be sticky. I can’t help but feel like this goal, although impressive if people are spending so much time within it, is nevertheless missing a great potential by not emphasizing the social. After all, I feel like that is what I have been learning over the last few years. Information Architecture has been changing from the system like a gated community, where you search within the site using a deep information structure, to one where there are a million entry points into the information you offer. Learning how to enable this kind of open infrastructure is so important to the projects we build now. It will be great to see if ConnectedChina will adapt in this direction.

One final thought on why this is all so important: Irene mentioned that not many people know that the ConnectedChina is a living app. Certainly one way to get the word out is to promote it. But an even better way is to develop the system so that social networks and search engines begin to pick up on all the massive amounts of direct links available to your data. This way, you literally create a map (or better yet, let others create the map for you) of the information you have. And by opening it up, you encourage other sites to use those data points almost like Wikipedia. Knowing that there is a direct URL and being confident that the content at the end of that URL will persist and become updated is the best way to encourage the use of a living app.


How to build a website by not building it

I recently provided some free advice on how to approach designing a website for a University Division. It might be worth every penny paid for it.

First off, let me be clear: asking a graphic designer to design your website is akin to asking an Architect to design your landscape. Certainly there are graphic designers who have more experience, but I find this more rare than you would think. A website is not a thing or a place. It is information in motion: from production to delivery. To design a good website, you need to understand your content first, which involves designing and developing a true content strategy. This is more difficult than you think. You need to understand your audience, not just in the simplistic terms of ‘prospective students’. You also need to account for the fact that you won’t get it right at first and that your site must always be evolving. This is what many graphic artists fail to appreciate and respond to, in part because they are probably more used to producing objects. Again, a website is not an object.

Here are a few more random thoughts.

Your website needs to be built upon a content management system (like WordPress, which I recommend). This will help to streamline how it is built and and how content continues to change. It will also force your designers (hopefully) to recognise the dynamic parts of the site.

It must also be mobile friendly, which I recommend being accomplished with a responsive design. Have a look at the Faculty Website and resize your browser to see how the design changes. Depending on the design itself and other factors you determine by your content strategy, you will have at least 5 relatively different designs (based on the ‘breakpoints’). You need to be thinking about all of these layouts at the same time as you design, and it isn’t easy. It is common to not fully achieve this, but based upon your market, you make certain tradeoffs in the initial implementation. Costs will help to determine this.

Make sure your designers follow an agile development model, which is an iterative approach that will force them to adapt the design as new requirements are determined. This will provide you better feedback and enable you to better manage the project. All good web developers follow this model, at least in part. By the way, the waterfall method, which is to design everything and then build it, has been the standard since the 70s. It was introduced by Winston Royce as a flawed model, but given mankind’s ability or inability to appreciate irony, it has become the way many things are designed and built. Wireframes are almost entirely useless. Decisions will be made which will completely negate your wireframes. For example, when working on your mobile versions, your design sense will be challenged by physical constraints which are absolutely essential to a good product (ie. buttons are two small to touch).

Finally, it is unfortunate that I am no longer working at the University. I had plans to get that whole Faculty in shape in terms of its information. The Division blog, which I was beginning to work on has stalled. I believe that model is the kind of one you need to follow because it places content first and aims to create a low-point of entry for new content. This is so important, as it constructs a network of information, not a website. If you try to build this kind of system, your content becomes immediately shareable (via the social networks like Facebook, Twitter etc.). In my opinion, this will do more for your Division than a visually stunning site. My hope was always that people like you would begin to promote your own work, which would continuously add new and interesting information to the Division. Regarding curation, which becomes the dominate design framework, it needs to be an evolving process.

As for how your Division site will interact with the Faculty Website, my plan was always to thin out the Faculty site and make it mostly an aggregator of the content being produced within the Departments and Divisions. Although I called these other sites ‘blogs’, it is not nor was ever meant to be a derogatory term. I considered them far more important, but I was playing a little slight of hand, to wrestle away the centrally controlled system that was constructed and which simply is not sustainable. Do this project, by all means, but don’t get hung up on the branding (domain name) and visual separation from the Faculty. That is a non-starter and means far less than you think. The only thing that matters on the internet is how people find your information, and once they find it, how they understand it. A good design is one that makes that clear. Unlike a poster, it is not the thing that draws you in. The experience (UX) is what matters because it allows people to continue to use your site and to find more information. I think it is good that you want a simple site. The overall design should aspire towards minimalism, since it is the content and the graphics/images used in the content that will really be the thing that impacts the people who visit your site. Let your work sell itself.

So, I’m sorry that even in my attempt to give you some brief ideas, I go on and on. These ideas are dear to me and I feel very strongly about them, because I understand information. I have a history of presenting these points of view and finding them almost too much for people. I understand only too well that I am advocating for a complete redefinition of the classic website. All I can say is that these ideas are not original – this is the dominant discourse in this field. And it is how you should build your Divisions online information. There is no website. This is no real place to visit. It is something far more ethereal and yet far more powerful and useful.

Let me know if you are interested in hearing more. I also have some books which might help explain my arguments better. One in particular, Designing Disorder, is by the former design director of the NYTimes. It is a very small and straightforward book. And beautiful.

If we can work on redefining some terms, I am confident that I can give you some real ways to discuss this work with your designers that will produce a system – a network of information – that will accomplish what you need it to do. And it will still look great.

Does Twitter need a mute button?

Dave Winer seems to think so.

And it has been suggested before. I found one call for this the last time we had an election and I bet we will hear more again soon (if not already).

The problem though is not as simple as it sounds. The tweet stream is not just about who you follow – it is also about who can direct message you. And for this reason, muting or temporarily unfollowing someone doesn’t make sense. Sure, I suppose Twitter could make it so that a mute doesn’t prevent a direct message, but I think there is a better way to do this. And it’s already built.

It’s lists.

In reality, we shouldn’t be following our main stream. For many dedicated tweeters, this stream is just too much. In fact, in my experience, most clients can’t even properly support following a large group of people (ie. 150+), especially when you live in a completely different timezone. It’s difficult to catch up with people who are writing 8 hours before you.

The solution is to have two lists: active and inactive. These two lists would make up all our followers. All that would need to be done is for Twitter and other clients to enable an easy way to move people between these two lists. A person would either be on or off, vocal or mute, active or inactive. Removing you from one list, would add you to the other.

And then to make it all work even better, we’d just need to develop a nice programatic way to move people between these two lists based upon events in time (sxsw, superbowl, oscars), by keyword (football) or some other metric we haven’t even dreamed of.

In fact, it is this last idea which I think is really missing from Twitter. Our streams need to be dynamic. Facebook has their super duper, super secret news filtering system. Twitter, given the nature of its user base, needs to build a more interactive, user-defined and user-controlled way to filter. This will allow us all to take our streams to the next level.

Social Software

I find that Tom Coates’ definition of Social Software is missing one of the more important aspects of Social Software.  It really isn’t about software.  It that has more to do with people than it does with code.  This is much like Social  Engineering, which has more to do with people than it does with engineering.

‘Social Software’ illustrates how programming is beginning to change.  We are now entering a stage where non-programmers are able to build ‘software’, and this ‘software’ is beginning to have serious implications on our social space.  So, perhaps a better way to think about it is this:

Social Software is the programming of the space between people.