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Google Notebook and Yahoo Web2.0 (and digressions on social search).

Been playing with two new-ish products today: Google Notebook and yahoo MyWeb2.0.

Let’s tackle the latter first. This is Yahoo!’s way of integrating their hipster properties del.icio.us and flickr into the tragically 1999 Yahoo brand. It’s really just another service that helps you personalize your searches, by looking at your imported bookmarks (more on that in a second) or by looking at your network.

Say I search for “fashion”. The first result is within my imported delicious bookmarks (which I’m assuming don’t update automatically, by the way- will I have to save the xml file and reupload it every day?), the second is within my contacts, and the third is “everyone”. So this “Web2.0” is really just “search your contacts bookmarks”, rather than a real social search service.

I’m assuming there’s some sort of groovy search-within-your-network feature, but since my network consists of Erik Benson and nobody else, that’s not very exciting for me. And neither Erik nor I are really using this service very much. So right now Yahoo! is basically finding contacts for me, I guess, which seems to consist of one girl, Caterina. She has good taste in bookmarks and alll, but how did Yahoo! match us up? There’s not much explanation.

I think it’s really a rebrand of del.icio.us. I imported my 580+ del.icio.us bookmarks — which had to be done manually, btw- i had to open the delicious/api/posts/all file, save it as xml, and then import it. Since Yahoo! owns del.icio.us, you’d think it would have been easier than that. You’d think. But this isn’t for power users, it’s for regular Yahoo! users. In other words, I will not be using it. Like Yahoo! 360, it attempts to take fairly sophisticated pieces of web technology and wrap them in a mommy-daddy interface. Maybe good for the target market, but I’m not it.

Second, Google Notebook. This is a combination web page-Firefox extension that works a lot like Performancing. You click an icon in the browser status bar to launch an applet that lets you clip-n-save web content, which you can also be annotated, aggregated, etc. in either the browser or the web interface.

The clipping and annotating might be vaguely useful. I am, after all, a researcher (my current job title is “Social Software Researcher”) so I spend a ton of time aggregating content from various websites, comparing and contrasting different ways of doing things, and so on. It will be nice to be able to collect and organize web data without using del.icio.us or Word.

Notebooks can also be made public, which I’m assuming would work similarly to Squidoo’s lens feature, except probably not as well, since that’s all Squidoo does and this project is probably like 3 people on their 20% time. You can search all public notebooks for keywords, which basically works similarly to a technorati search, except not as well, since there aren’t very many public notebooks. I searched for “gadget” in “all public notebooks” and it brought up Sagaro’s notebook, which consisted of a lot of blog postings and some random notes. Not many that had to do with gadgets. My search for recipes was more useful.

What both of these services has in common is the idea that socially situated search is someday going to be something really useful. In theory, this might be true: I’d be more likely to find a great academic article through a search targeted towards other professors and students in my field. And if I was looking for something that pertained to my friends, it would make more sense to work within a search network of my friends. But if I’m looking for something for work, school, or just a random query, there’s no reason why my friends would be better at finding it than anyone else.

Plus, I’m not going to import my entire online social network into ANOTHER site. I don’t have a single social network, anyway. I have my LJ friends (250), my MySpace friends (350), my Gmail contacts (probably less than 100), my Flickr contacts (about 50), and while there are some overlaps, the most overlap is OBVIOUSLY among the heaviest internet users, NOT the people I’m closest to. For example, no matter what social networking site I sign up for, (LinkedIn, TagWorld, Vox, Consummating, whatever) I find Erik Benson and Josh Santangelo. Unsurprisingly, all three of us are ultra power users who work in the industry. While we are friends, and I’d connect to them anyway, you’d think from the amount of affiliations the three of us share that we were BFFs.

So I don’t really see how social search can work correctly until it solves the “social” problem. Recently, I signed up for TagWorld and was pleased to find that it can go through your gmail contacts and match them up against already-existing users. If it could do that for MySpace as well, it would really be useful.

Anyway, I’m digressing.

businessweek on social search
wiki social search (really horrible article. I might spend the rest of today cleaning it up).

why we all hate to fly

I went to a really lovely wedding in Seattle this weekend that required me to take lots of uncomfortable and inconvenient flights: a six a.m. flight, two layovers in O’Hare, and a redeye. Ugh. Flying nowadays is miserable. First, you feel that you’re being squeezed for every penny. You have to pay for food on most flights. Some airlines make you buy headphones. You have to pay an extra $39 on United to get an Exit row. On other airlines, you have to pay just to pick your seat, or to get a non-middle seat! I actually sucked up and paid the $40 for “Economy Plus” so I could get off the plane first and make my flight (ridiculous 25 minute layover in Chicago), but this shouldn’t have been something that cost me extra money.

But what made me the most irritated was watching people while I was waiting in line at 4 a.m. at LaGuardia to check into my 6 a.m. flight. United there has eliminated customer service representatives for all but first class and paper ticket holders (and remember, paper tickets cost extra these days). This means everyone has to use the eTicket checkin kiosks. Now, I love those kiosks, don’t take me wrong. They take about 1/8th as long to use, you can pick your seat and print everything yourself and take care of it all without involving anyone else, and I never check luggage so it’s a good way for me to sneak my giant rolly cart onto the plane without being harassed about checking it. But I am 29 and a technologist.

There were about 6 people in the paper ticket line, all men and women in their late 60’s, I’d say. They were very uncomfortable using the kiosks and wanted to talk to a customer service representative. They had eticket printouts and didn’t understand why those weren’t considered paper tickets – they are paper, after all! The United representatives would not talk to them, wouldn’t really even look at them, and just kept repeating that they had to use the kiosks. BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE!

You *have* to give your customers the option to use traditional service. First, it’s no big for people in their 20s and 30s who are used to everything changing every six months anyway, but for older people, or just people who aren’t comfortable with computers, using automated kiosks and the like can be confusing and stressful. I was telling my friends about this, and several of them said that their grandparents had never used computers (This is the same reason I hate the new federal prescription drug laws, which require elderly people to advocate for themselves and encourage using the internet for research, when these are the exact populations who can’t advocate for themselves and who aren’t comfortable using the internet, often because the site or application they’re using isn’t designed for people with poor eyesight or the inability to type or whatever) and would not be comfortable using kiosks.

Second, the kiosks do not offer accessibility options such as text magnification or varying input options. It’s not like differently abled people don’t fly on airplanes!

Third, cutting service jobs to cut costs = unhappy passengers, customers and employees. The few human service reps were overloaded and stressed out. They were constantly having to explain why they couldn’t talk to an eticket holder. The passengers were upset. And I’m sure the airline has cut service jobs at least 50% since introducing the eTicket kiosk. Bad all-around experience.

It’s the same way I feel about automated voicemail systems that invoke apoplyptic rage upon failing to recognize your 100th pleas to talk to a representative. I’ve almost thrown my cell across a room rather than deal with Sprint’s terrible automated service. And as much as I love the automatic grocery checkout machines, they will be used mostly to keep costs down by limiting service jobs. Overall, I do not believe that mass adoption of these machines is a utilitarian solution, in terms of what is the best solution for the largest number of people.

Automated service technology can be a good solution for some problems, but it is not a universal solution. And it is not a reason to cut jobs and underserve specific populations of customers. I know the airlines are in major crisis, especially with fuel prices, but shitty customer service doesn’t help anyone. It’s why I’ve basically stopped flying on AirTrans and some of the really low-budget airlines. United was okay otherwise. And at least it’s not Southwest.

class presentations

My “Values Embedded in Communication Technologies” class had the first half of our final presentations yesterday and they were really excellent. Two of my classmates analyzed Napster (the first, dearly-departed P2P network, and the second, mostly ignored pay-to-rent service) from the perspective of Yochai Benkler, who wrote The Wealth of Nations. I haven’t read this book, but from what I understand, Benkler divides economies into two kinds, the network information economy (new model), and the industrial information economy.

Network information economy:

  1. Fosters critical and self-reflective culture
  2. Promotes individual freedom
  3. Is a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere not hyperbolic or anything
  4. Is a platform for better democratic participation

Industrial information economy

  1. Centered in collecting information
  2. Engaged in cultural production – I’m assuming this means the economy is engaged in cultural production. I think I need to read the book to understand this.
  3. Focused on the manipulation of symbols

Their analysis was astute and it made me write a little chart in my margin:
Napster –> Audio Galaxy (which I loved) –> Soulseek –> Torrents
Am I missing anything? I was never a big Limewire fan.

Michael Gallope and Betty Ng presented on iTunes and Michael presented a very Benjamin-esque analysis of the application.. he’s a PhD student in ethnomusicology and he classified iTunes as a postmodern technology of consumption.

If we assume that modernity is represented by the Phonograph, popular around the turn of the last century, we can classify music consumption as collection, whereas iTunes, as a technology of post-modernity (I prefer the Giddens classification of late modernity, but I know what he means) is about being a librarian of your own music collection. Whereas the physical object of the CD is posited to have authenticity intrinsically (by existing), what happens when this is transformed into an object in a database without an external referent?

I also liked his discussion of music and identity. It used to be that you’d go into someone’s apartment or dorm room and squat down next to their music collection to see what they had. I’d hide my cheesy CD’s (Marilyn Manson if you must know) so prospective swains wouldn’t see them and taint what I had carefully cultivated to be a strong indie music collection. And now you have no idea, unless you go through their iTunes, and we all assume that you have mp3s of stuff you don’t like that much. I have the entire LedZep discog in a moment of nostalgic weakness for high school, for example. I also liked the point that in iTunes you can create your own genres and classification systems, and that you can publish your playlists to your coworkers or wifi’d coffee shop denizens.

And me? I presented on ID 2.0, which is coming along okay. I still have some data collection to do. I spent a ton of time last week puzzling over Infocard, and all I can say is.. are you kidding? I’ll post my full critique later, but it’s really hard to imagine that customers are going to go for this technology. It’s way too Microsofty, not very cool, and seems to add another level of complexity for the user without protecting against some of the identity issues that are the most annoying. I can’t say I’m very jazzed about LID or SXip either but at least they’re not an entire other layer of infrastructure that everyone will have to slog through just to browse around. Obviously I have issues besides usability, but I think that very few people in this space are really considering the user in all this. And not the user like me or like your friend who works at Microsoft, the user like your mom or your grandpa. More later.

Web App Roundup, Part I

(Sorry for lack of updates; I’m in midterms right now.)

I’ve been playing with various Web 2.0 sites for the last two weeks. Here are some favorites. Please humor me and pretend you haven’t seen them before.

Best Start Page Creator: That honor goes to NetVibes. Terrible name (sounds like a feminist sex shop) but nice, low-fi implementation that imported my OPML feeds, Gmail, Del.icio.us and everything else easily and smoothly. Drag-and-drop setup and overall just nice. SuprGlu is prettier, but isn’t as flexible.

Best Weird, Virtual Desktop Thing: Goowy.com. Flash-based virtual desktop that basically aggregates data but also includes widgets, games, etc. They’re launching a Windows desktop soon. I’m not sure where this is going, but it’s really pretty and well-implemented, although I can’t see any actual use for it. Did I mention pretty?

Most Anticipated New Thingy: Google Calendar (leaked screenshots, currently high traffic site). Goodbye to HipCal and the other 20 online cal apps, as Google will crush you! I don’t even care if this is that good, I just want it integrated into my life in some way. The problem with HipCal, although I really like it, is that I have to manually enter everything into it b/c there’s absolutely no integration with email or any other software application. Logging into a separate site and adding an event every time I get a reminder is not useful. Here’s hoping Google Calendar is smart enough to synch up with Gmail: the personalized Google homepage (which isn’t that bad) still isn’t synchronized with Google Reader (which I really like). Let’s move this one out of Secret Labs Location and into Beta, shall we?

Best IM Thing, Ever: Meebo.com is an amazing interface that allows you basically to log into a trillian-style universal instant messenger client from the Web. No more having to search through the MSN website to find their janky web client for messenger. This product is brilliant, all hail Meebo. Note to development team: don’t let the lack of business model or possible path to profitability get you down.

Best Things for Your Blog: There’s a great Listible list of these, from which I poached Bitty, a superadorable minibrowser you can stick in a sidebar. I suspect it works a lot like a mobile browser in terms of cutting down content to bare-bones, but it’s surprisingly functional and extremely cute. I’d like to see some creative examples of sites using this technology, so let me know if you have any.

And I may as well mention Listible, a collaborative link-list creator, very much like del.icio.us but in group mode. This is a cool site, and I’d like to see more people using it than web geeks like me so we can have some stuff like “50 Hottest Boy Band Picture Galleries” or “Best Places to Get Fake Chanel Products” instead of just “90 lists of Web 2.0 Applications Under Different Names.”

Generation @: Online Communication and New Social Norms

I went to a panel this morning run by my department at NYU. The panelists were all social networking bigwigs, and the general topic was how social software is changing social norms.

The panelists were:

  • Matt Cohler: Facebook
  • Scott Heiferman: Meetup.com
  • Jessi Hempel: BusinessWeek, author of The MySpace Generation
  • John Hiler: Xanga.com

Some thematic highlights:

Is Cyberspace a place? The Online/Offline divide

  • The panelists made a significant distinction between two types of social software: the traditional ideas of online community as meeting people you don’t know, and the idea that social software is a tool that augments your offline, “real world” community.
  • LiveJournal, Xanga, and Meetup fall into the former category; Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook fall into the latter category. Note that the first category also assumes that you are interacting with these people to a certain extent offline: certainly Meetup is predicated on the idea of meatspace interactions, but Xanga/LiveJournal give rise to offline friendships as well.
  • Generally, the idea of cyberspace being its “own place” seems quaint and out of date.

(It seems to me that this view really devalues “virtual communities”, seeing them as somehow less important or less worthy than online communities; this view was espoused by all the panelists. I definitely agree that the online/offline dichotomy is outdated. And I also agree that the shift to replicate one’s offline networks online is significant. But I do think that there are still enormous numbers of people using social software to create “virtual” communities (just look at fandom), and that this shouldn’t be discounted or looked at disparagingly.)


Many of the panelists talked about the culture of fear around online communication fueled by Dateline NBC’s Predators series and the recent upsurge in MySpace scare stories. The overall feeling was that these concerns (and to my dismay, they lumped privacy, identity flexibility, and micromarketing in this category) were due to the technology being new, and therefore unfamiliar. Many analogies were drawn between the introduction of the automobile and how social practices had to emerge and become institutionalized (crosswalks, stoplights, etc.) to respond to problems and fear of the new. Matt said (paraphrased):

“Do we need education around potential risks of internet? Sure. But those risks are no different from the risks of other communication technologies and the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. People need to be educated.”

Jessi pointed out that every website that exists will eventually go out of favor or be replaced by something else, and it makes more sense to educate users rather than depending on the sites to police themselves. When the user base moves to a different site, they will retain their skill set, rather than having to again depend on a different site’s mechanisms for enforcement.

(I tend to agree with this. I don’t think websites should be responsible for patrolling for underage drinking, risque pictures, etc. But I do think that websites have to include features that make privacy and security a priority. MySpace, for example, is flat out refusing to let people make their profiles private because it dilutes the value of the network. Right now, only younger users are “allowed” to make their profiles private, which means that lots of users who want to have private profiles are changing their ages in order to protect their privacy. MySpace is now threatening to kick them all off.

This is ridiculous and I’m sure MySpace will have to change this policy soon since they’re currently in the middle of a PR nightmare over teenagers, pedophiles, etc. Privacy should be built into every system, it should be recognized as a basic right online, and people shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to kludge it together. The answer to this, of course, is “If you don’t want to reveal your personal information, don’t join MySpace,” but MySpace does afford certain types of social capital that are important to teenagers. In some social circles, if you’re not on MySpace, you really are missing out on a significant part of social interaction. The tradeoff should not be giving up your personal information.)

Identity and Marketing

The panelists debated over advertising. Scott (Meetup) was very critical of including advertising, and Matt was obviously less critical (since that’s where Facebook is making its money). Jessi pointed out that micro-targeted advertising is better for users, because they are given information about products they actually want.

My response to this is something I heard Joseph Turow (Annenberg School of Communication at University of Pennsylvania) say at AOIR: What’s good for the individual (getting a discount on something, finding out about a new product) is not good forthe collective, in terms of both our overall privacy rights, and in terms of which people are then constructed as valued consumers and which are left out completely.

Overall, I found the panel to be very squirrelly about marketing. I pointed out that microtargeted advertising is dependent on singular, “authentic” profiles – you know, my MA thesis – and that these networks don’t build in provisions for people to present themselves differently precisely because they are dependent on advertising. I talked about my students finding my MySpace profile and having to neuter it as a result, but I could have given a thousand examples of people being fired for their blogs, or the NYU undergrad who was fired from her job at an IP law firm for being a member of NYU’s Free Culture group, or of a gay guy being outed to his Christian, conservative family through his Friendster profile. Significant stuff.

Well, the answer to that was a softball to be sure. Matt (Facebook) said that he thinks we’re moving towards a world that is more socially transparent, where there will be less of a divide between your work self and your play self, and so these issues won’t be a problem. I think this is really shortsighted. Just because we can now wear jeans to work and call people by their first names does not mean that our desire to vary self-presentation has decreased. There need to be spaces where I can express myself in ways that my employer, my parents, or my ex-boyfriend won’t find out about. It’s really patronizing to users to basically say “society will change, so we’re not going to do anything about it”, it assumes these issue aren’t significant, and it totally takes the onus of responsibility off the company and on to society.

These are issues that social software HAS TO address. Increased transparency won’t result in everyone being about to be their “true selves” 24/7, it’ll mean people have to hide who they are so they won’t get fired, and employers will be monitoring everyone’s online and offline selves. It’s one thing to work for a liberal social networking dot com, it’s another thing to work for Wal-Mart. Personal transparency needs to be a choice, not a requirement of use, and it must be respected.

I’m working through my notes and might post more if anyone’s interested, but I think these are the generally main points of the talk. It was really fascinating to hear many of the issues I obsess about all day being addressed from the business standpoint, which is completely different from the academic viewpoint, in that it’s generally much less critical and can’t, by definition, critique the profit orientation of the enterprise.

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