What are we doing when we Twitter?

I came across a post by J.P. Rangaswami, whose blog I quite like, and he was talking about Twitter and what he gets out of it. You can read the full post, but in essence he says that he gets something different from the people he follows on Twitter than he does by following them through Facebook feeds or through blog RSS feeds and other methods.

The example he uses is a link that Halley Suitt posted to Twitter (I’m sorry, but I refuse to say “tweeted”), which led him to an interesting article at The New Yorker. At first, this seemed like kind of a dumb example to me — couldn’t Halley have just emailed him the link, or posted it to her blog? But the more I thought about it, the more it confirmed something about Twitter and why it works (and sometimes doesn’t work), and in part it has to do with what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties.”

This reminds me of David Weinberger’s “small pieces, loosely joined” principle, and I think the idea is the same: information can flow in different ways through weak links, such as the kind Twitter encourages, and different things happen as a result. Maybe Halley Suitt wouldn’t have emailed that New Yorker link to JP because it didn’t seem important enough, or she doesn’t know him well enough (I don’t know); and maybe she wouldn’t blog it because it didn’t seem worth a blog post.

But posting it to Twitter gives it a kind of life, and exposes it to a whole range of people who might not otherwise have seen it. It’s not a cure for cancer, I will admit — but that’s still something. Some people I follow on Twitter may not be “friends” in the strictest sense, but they are still people I want to remain connected to in some way, even loosely. Dan York has a great list of the different ways Twitter can be used here.

To me, Twitter is just another example of what I think is becoming a continuum of communication on the Web. Sometimes the things we are doing or thinking are worth an email, sometimes maybe just a quick instant message chat, sometimes it’s worth a Twitter post, sometimes a blog post, and sometimes a Facebook status update. Twitter is also an interesting form of group chat/micro-blog, as was noted in the aftermath of the Bhutto assassination and other news events.

Yes, Twitter can be a big waste of time, as Scott Karp noted in a recent post (my response at the time is here). But then, as more than one person has noted, the Internet can be a big waste of time too. And yes, I have had to turn off notifications for certain people I follow on Twitter — no offense, Scoble — and others post a few too many personal details for my liking. But I think we’re still finding out how to use some of these tools, and there are going to be different methods for different people.

How many does registration keep out?

(cross-posted from my media blog)

The answer is inherently unknowable, of course, but my friend Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 had a great post recently about the ROI (return on investment) of registration systems — something he only thought of when he got prompted to log in at the New York Times after somehow getting logged out. How many potential readers get turned away by such prompts, he wondered.

It’s something I’ve wondered from time to time as well, whenever I hit a registration page — as I did the other day at the Los Angeles Times. I only wanted to read one particular article, which someone had blogged about (ironically, it was David Lazarus writing a dim-witted piece about how newspapers give away the store by not charging for their content). But the registration was just too much hassle. I couldn’t even be bothered to go find a BugMeNot login. (Time magazine’s Curious Capitalist blog has a nice rebuttal of Lazarus).

What did the LA Times lose by not having me read that article? Not much, perhaps. Advertisers and management types would no doubt argue that I wasn’t worth much anyway, since I’m not a regular reader and don’t live in LA, and therefore advertising would be wasted on me. But it’s also true that my view of the LA Times and its website has gone down just a little, and I’m unlikely to link to anything there — and that is a real long-term risk, I think.

In any case, Scott’s post is well worth reading, and Mark Potts has some thoughts over at Recovering Journalist as well.

Gmail’s new chat: Social or spam?

Ionut Alex Chitu at Google Operating System has been spending some time poking around in the entrails of the Javascript code behind Gmail, and has found what he believes are signs of forthcoming chat-related features, including what appear to be updates from your friends and contacts via the chat window (the chat function and a list of contacts was made an integral part of Gmail in the most recent update).

It’s not clear whether these updates will come as a pop-up chat window, or as a change in the GTalk status message you see below your contacts in the sidebar of Gmail, or some combination of the two — and it’s not clear whether they will only refer to things that your friends have done through other Google properties such as Picasa or Orkut or Google Docs. But if Ionut is right, then this appears to be another small piece of the Google Social (code-named “Maka-Maka”) puzzle.

Zoli Erdos is afraid that this could produce a tidal wave of spam from your Gmail contacts, who many people noted (during the recent Google Reader frenzy) may not be your actual friends. He compares the potential fiasco that would be involved to Plaxo’s notorious spam approach in its early days, but I think he may be overreacting. For one thing, you can choose to show only your “most popular” contacts in your Gmail sidebar — that is, the ones you email and chat with most often.

I seems as though Google is pulling the threads of its social net together, whether it’s shared items in Reader or user profiles or group chat. And the latest changes hint at a realization of the “email as social web” vision we heard about not so long ago, where your email is the center of a social net — I know that I already have chat and other features embedded in my mail, since I use GTalk almost exclusively from within GMail, and my Twitter conversations occur inside GTalk as well.

Drop that compact disc, music thief

If you’re like me, you’ve ripped hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of compact discs, and copied the music files to your hard drive so that you can play them on your computer, or on a portable music player. You may even have done so on the advice of Apple, whose slogan “Rip, Mix, Burn” helped to launch iTunes. In any case, you and I are both common thieves, according to the latest gambit from the record industry.

As a recent story in the Washington Post notes, the RIAA has filed documents accusing an Arizona man of copyright infringement for simply having 2,000 songs on his computer — even if those songs weren’t downloaded from peer-to-peer networks, but were copied from CDs that he legally purchased. According to the record industry’s lobby group, making a copy of a CD is theft, plain and simple.

This isn’t the first time the industry has tried to make this argument. Earlier this month, one of the RIAA lawyers in the case said that “when an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song.” And in the regular triennial review of the DMCA last year, the industry argued before Congress that making even one copy for personal use is copyright infringement.

As several people have pointed out, this is a reversal of the testimony that the record labels themselves put before the Supreme Court in the case against the Grokster file-sharing network. At that time, a representative of the industry told the court that “It’s perfectly lawful to take a CD that you’ve purchased, upload it onto your computer, [and] put it onto your iPod.” Now, that same activity is apparently theft.

Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 says that the record industry could be the first industry to actually be destroyed by digital technology, and he’s not the only one. Music insider Bob Lefsetz has made similar comments — and at times like these, the impending doom of the RIAA and the traditional label structure seems almost inevitable. I have a feeling that this view of the industry is not at all uncommon.

Note: The meaning of the RIAA’s comments in the current case is unclear (see Shelley’s comments below). As this post describes, the wording in the record industry’s brief appears to have been changed to refer to files that appear in a shared folder. But it’s clear from other comments, as I note in this post, that the RIAA believes simply copying a CD is infringement — although it may not be prepared to argue that in this particular case.

Netscape is finally dead, thank God

So AOL — known in the bad old days as America Online — has finally decided to remove the life-support equipment from Netscape Navigator and allow the browser to die in peace. As Mike Masnick notes over at Techdirt, plenty of people would no doubt be surprised to hear that AOL is still making Netscape at all, let alone putting it on ice. The tide of history has long since passed the venerable old browser by, and it is now like a relic from the Stone Age, sitting next to modern skyscrapers.

Even when AOL was still working on the browser, it was obvious that Netscape was already a museum piece. The last time I used it, everything from the user interface to the features themselves seemed either quaint or like an attempt to tart up something old to make it seem shiny and new, like putting a coat of neon paint on an old lawnmower, or watching an old man try to break-dance. But <a href="like Mike Arrington, I still have a soft spot in my heart for Netscape.

Navigator was the first real browser I ever used, although I had tried its precessor Mosaic a few times, as well as a few other early browsers from Booklink (which AOL eventually bought) and others. I remember the logo with the wheel from a ship, and the big N that sat in the upper corner of the browser window and glowed as the websites were being loaded. And I remember creating a “Netdex” Internet stock index for the Globe and Mail in 1995 when Netscape went public.

It was fun to watch Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark get the jump on Microsoft, and beat the bulky and ridiculous Internet Explorer. But then something terrible happened: IE got better and better, and Netscape started to get bigger and more bloated. By Netscape 5 it was actually a pain to download and use — IE was faster and in many ways better. And then came Mozilla, which changed the browser market again.

Mozilla became everything Netscape wasn’t: fast, easy to use, infinitely extendable, and secure in a way IE couldn’t hope to be. I switched a few years ago and have never looked back.

What can we learn from Wal-Mart?

As more than one person has already pointed out, the demise of Wal-Mart’s video download service comes as no real surprise. In many ways, it was stillborn to begin with. Why? Simple. Even when it was launched, it was obvious (to everyone but Wal-Mart, apparently) that the service was too restrictive. Only Windows format, and only on one computer, with no burning? It would have been a miracle if it had survived.

As Ian Rogers of Yahoo Music said in his recent call to arms for online music, “inconvenience doesn’t scale.” Wal-Mart is the size of a Latin American country in terms of revenues ($370-billion) and population (it has 2 million employees), not to mention market capitalization ($200-billion), but it still can’t make something as crippled as its movie service was popular by brute force.

Wal-Mart’s massive size might have helped it get deals with the studios for their content, but it apparently didn’t help the retailer pressure said studios into giving up the handcuffs they like to place on that content — either Wal-Mart wasn’t able to convince them, or it didn’t try hard enough. Let’s hope the failure of its service doesn’t convince others that it wasn’t worth it to even try; Wal-Mart’s effort was doomed from the start.

A Flickr-powered screensaver? Incredible

I don’t want to turn this into a Dave Winer *thing,* (and I don’t want to contribute to a “bitchmeme”) but I have to say that the release of his newest software tool — a Mac-only screensaver/RSS widget called FlickrFan — fills me with, well… a sense of underwhelmingness. I mean, Marshall Kirkpatrick tries hard to make it sound like the best thing since bread came sliced, and so does Robert Scoble, but still fails to stir much interest (at least in me). And not just because this software is just for Apples, either.

When you get right down to it (which doesn’t take long) it’s a screensaver for Macs that lets you subscribe to people’s photo feeds from Flickr. Is that really a huge development? I find that hard to believe. I’ve been using a Windows screensaver called Slickr for some time now that does pretty much the same thing, and my friend Rob points out that he’s been using his computer as a photo and media server for years.

I’m not saying that Dave’s software is useless, or that showing Flickr photos on your computer isn’t a worthwhile thing to do. Far from it. In fact, just the opposite — I think it’s a great idea. But I don’t really think it’s anything revolutionary. Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins over at Mashable doesn’t think it’s much to write home about either, apparently, and says Yahoo Go does pretty much the same thing, but better. Michael Gartenberg at Forrester says that it “totally changes the game,” but that’s a pretty hype-ish thing to say, as Ian Betteridge notes at Technovia.

Bhutto and the lure of easy solutions

This isn’t a political blog, so I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail on the completely unsurprising (but still saddening) assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. But I will note that I found out about it first from Twitter — where online friends such as Muhammad Saleem, as well as Rob Hyndman and Steve Rubel posted updates and news links almost minute by minute.

I find that kind of thing happening on Twitter more and more, and it’s one of the fascinating things about what amounts to a combination IM client/group mini-blog (Dan York has some thoughts about Twitter and “micro-publishing”). In any case, one of those links was to Hot Air, which had a great running update with lots of links, including one to a short take on the assassination from Mark Steyn, a former neighbour of the Harvard-educated Bhutto.

I don’t know a lot about Pakistan’s troubled political scene, apart from what I read in my newspaper and others, but I have a sense that Mark’s take is right on the money. In many ways, Bhutto was a prime minister right out of central casting: an attractive and Western-educated woman, a prettier, Muslim version of Maggie Thatcher. That made her hugely popular in the West, but to the people of her own country she seems to have been a much more troubled figure, as far as I can tell.

From most reports, she sounds like someone who promoted democracy and populism, but while in power was distant and somewhat autocratic; someone who trumpeted openness, but was tossed out of office amid a long trail of corruption allegations, not all of which could be explained as a government plot against her. The Telegraph’s obituary has a fairly comprehensive look at the woman and her legacy.

Crowdsourcing search for missing pilot

A short time ago, I was contacted by a man named Lino Ramirez, asking if I could help with the search for Ron Boychuk, a pilot who went missing somewhere over the interior of British Columbia on October 23. Lino had read about the search for Steve Fossett, the billionaire adventurer who also disappeared while flying in September, a search that used Amazon’s “crowdsourcing” service, Mechanical Turk. In that experiment, Amazon was provided with satellite photos of the route Fossett took, and anyone who wanted to could help to search the terrain.

Lino told me he was hoping to put something similar together, but he wasn’t having much luck finding the satellite photos necessary. About a month ago, he managed to make contact with someone at DigitalGlobe — one of the companies that provides satellite imagery for Google Earth — and they agreed to take some shots of the area on their next fly-by. To make a long story short, he just emailed me to say that the photos have come in from DigitalGlobe, and a Google Earth site called InternetSAR has agreed to integrate them into their system.

Anyone with Google Earth can now go to the InternetSAR site and be given (after registering) a random portion of the area to search. Lino says he got a total of about 5 gigabytes worth of data, which was divided into nine chunks and then sub-divided into smaller portions by InternetSAR. There is some misalignment with the existing Google Earth images (it’s easy to tell where because the new images show winter landscape and the existing ones are green) but other than that the two are relatively close.

In any case, a fascinating use of satellite imagery and the Internet to continue a search long after the authorities have given up (there’s some discussion of the search and the imagery here). For the sake of the Boychuk family, I hope the search is successful.

Video interlude: Evolution and clocks

I suppose this might appear to be in questionable taste, given how close we are to Christmas, but I came across a fascinating YouTube video (via Metafilter) which shows the results of a program designed to reproduce the elements of evolution — using rudimentary clocks and clock-related mechanisms as the building blocks of life.

The person who wrote the program intended it as a refutation of the argument that evolution must be wrong because complicated mechanisms such as clocks (and eyeballs) don’t just emerge by themselves. I don’t know whether it solves that debate or not, I just thought it was a cool video — given a supply of hands, gears, springs and other elements that are endowed with affinities similar to biological entities, and an evolution-like system, it seems that clocks eventually emerge.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcAq9bmCeR0&rel=1&w=425&h=355]