Social software: those who can, do

Don Clark’s new blog, Big Dog Little Dog, let me to Tom Davenport’s musings about Web 2.0 at Harvard Business Publishing. Davenport holds the President’s Chair in Information Technology and Management at Babson College, which makes some of his reaction all the more puzzling.

Caffeine: the lubricant of social softwareHe asks whether we’ve all gotten “a little overly precious” and wonders how we can produce value “if we’re all sitting around blogging and Facebook-friending.”

Hey, I like making fun of the trendy (a group I’m not personally acquainted with), and there’s enough silliness and bandwagon-riding in the technology world to last at least till the bicentennial of Canada.  Even so, I think Davenport is possibly worrying too much about too little when he  wonders “whether social media can really be the basis of a solid economy.”

Probably not — but that seems like a lot to ask from a wiki, a blog, or a network site.  I don’t expect my fax machine to be the “basis” of my consulting practice, but it’s a handy tool for certain tasks.

I don’t look to Facebook or LinkedIn to replace how I network, but they extend my potential reach, expand the ways in which I connect, and cost a hell of a lot less than attending professional conferences for their meet-and-greet facets.

I haven’t found a great deal of professional use for Twitter yet, though several people whose opinions I value do.  Interestingly, a visit to my wife’s office might surprise Davenport as it did me.

She is director of communications for a nonprofit, and gets the print version of Public Relations Tactics, a newsletter of PRSA (the Public Relations Society of America).  Some of the headlines on the front page of the October 2008 issue:

  • Twitter, the tweet smell of success
    • Maximizing the benefits of the micro-blogging service
    • How the application can be a powerful business tool
  • Streamlining social networks with FriendFeed
  • Delivering digital discourses in a YouTube age
  • Connecting to communities through Facebook groups

One article offers “10 ways that companies can use Twitter” from a PR standpoint, from monitoring tweets from reporters (like those looking for spokespeople or sources), to Twittering at a conference or trade show, to managing reputation (for example, by responding to individuals who tweet about the company).

Another article by Joan Stewart (“The Publicity Hound”) shares the consultant’s experience — and how it changed the way she works.

When I first heard about Twitter, I couldn’t believe busy people would waste time writing about what they were doing in carefully edited 140-character messages.

Now that I’ve been actively Twittering for several months, I find it hard to understand why more companies and nonprofits don’t use this powerful communication tool to monitor public comment about their brand and push their marketing message.

Smart Twitterers do more than that.  They rely on this tool for crisis communication.  Some use it to spot customer service problems almost immediately and respond far more quickly than their expensive customer call centers ever could.

I’ve been looking lately for examples like this — people tackling work problems with technology.  I don’t know Joan Stewart, but I’m pretty sure she hasn’t dropped all her other public relations tools in favor of Twitter — she’s just found a new one that produces results she values.

Caffeinated social software photo by Phil Strahl.

Giving good audio, or, I see what you’re saying

Some time ago, I came across Boxes and Arrows, a journal concerned with design: graphic design, interaction design, information architecture and so on.

In the September 2008 issue, Jens Jacobsen talks about information architecture for audio.  As he points out, audio is linear. “You can only consume it in a linear fashion and you have to listen to it at a given speed.”

When beginning an audio-related project, ask yourself whether audio is the right medium for your message. In some cases, text is a better choice and in other cases it’s video. Don’t use audio just because you can. If you are certain audio is the best choice, there are several fields to help inform how you implement it.

Jacobsen offers several guidelines from different fields. It’s worth reading the entire post; these are simply highlights from different field — like information architecture:

  • State the length. Let people know how long the audio’s going to be.
  • Introduce the topic. “In printed text…[this] might seem hackneyed, but with audio… it’s best not to jump right into the topic.”
  • Provide orientation from time to time. Let the listener know where he as and what’s coming next. In a long piece, consider giving an option to skip sections via the interface.

From journalism:

  • Keep it short. (My opinion: because it’s one way, five minutes of audio feels a lot longer than five minutes of conversation.)
  • Repeat often. Jakobsen means a summary at the end, but also repeat the main subjects or themes.  Don’t refer to them by pronouns or synonyms.  You know what you’re talking about, but your listener has nothing to go on but short-term memory.
  • Take advantage of the possibilities. Change the style of speech, the tone, the speed.

I especially like the suggestion, “Don’t overuse the thesaurus.” If you’re calling people learners, don’t change them into users, then stakeholders, then students, then knowledge partners.
Suggestions from usability engineering:

  • Design for the target audience. “Convince your design team to produce content for the users, not its creators.”
  • Create personas. Represent your target audience in the audio.
  • Create scenarios. You’ve got those personas sitting around waiting for osmething to do.
  • Test with users.

On that last point: in my experience, there isn’t a lot of testing of audio for things like online learning. It’s as if having a professional voice (or [shudder] your boss’s boss’s voice) will overcome any shortcomings in the text. That’s the audio equivalent of believing that if you choose the right font, your text will be more understandable — as opposed to easier to read.

Although interface guru Jakob Nielson recommends usability testing with “only five users,” you can see from the chart in his article that it’s possible to benefit from tryouts with just two or three people.

There’s all kinds of audio in learning: voiceovers, audio as part of video, and plain vanilla podcasts. If you’re going through the trouble to deliver information via audio, it makes sense to think about ways to make the optimum delivery.  Boxes and Arrows is all about delivery.

1931: noted on-air personality Pope Pius XI, with the creator of the Vatican radio system, Guglielmo Marconi.

1931: noted on-air personality Pope Pius XI, with (at right) founder of the Vatican radio system, Guglielmo Marconi.

Losing Face(book)

Social networking and preciousness (click screen shots for larger images):

Definitely not cool enough

Apathy or indifference?  Always a close call.

Smart, but not smart enough

Maybe Facebook can divert some of its talent from ginning up yet more ads and figure out how to recognize an obscure browser like Firefox 3.


Like Christy and Manish, who commented, I’d been using Firefox 3 for some time.  The actual problem resulted from an upgrde to ZoneAlarm Security Suite, without which I wouldn’t turn on the computer.

From the start, I figured it was something like that.  What annoyed me more than the inability to get to Facebook, though, was the cutesy-smug style of the error message.

“Sorry, we’re not cool enough to support your browser.”  Ignoring the faux humility, the fact is that Facebook had no idea whatsoever what browser I was using.  Maybe a cookie needed to be reset; maybe some security level was too high.  Still, it’s usually better to realize you don’t know what you’re talking about — or at least to beat others to that conclusion.

As for “please keep it real?”  A minor irritation, like ham-handed attempts at humor in online learning.

Don’t try so hard, Facebook.

New blogger: George Orwell

Well, technically, it’s not a blog. And technically, the author is Eric Blair, though George Orwell is the best known of his pen names.

The Orwell Prize (“Britain’s pre-eminient prize for political writing,” if they do say so themselves) is publishing George Orwell’s diaries as a blog.

They began a few weeks ago and will post his entries in real time, 70 years to the day after each was written. He began the diaries on August 9th, 1938 and kept them till October, 1942. So we’ve got a just-started blog that’s guaranteed to last for the next four years. Get your feeder ready.

A splendid joining of technology (blog software) with one of the most observant writers of the twentieth century. As a partner for The Elements of Style, it’s hard to argue with Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (1946) — and I’m not talking just about politics.

More than one blogger (including me) could take on board advice like this:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

A while back, I read the four-volume George Orwell: Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters, edited by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell (George’s widow). Different content from his diaries, but just as widely ranging, from book criticism to short notes to friends to a letter suggesting four possible pen names to use on Animal Farm. (He seems to have left the choice up to his agent and his publisher. )


Information: free, or expensive? Yes.

This blog includes a tool to display a quote at random from a database I’ve created. When I checked the blog after posting PC, XT, and me, this was the quotation I saw alongside:

Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive.

Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter.

It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient.

That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.

— Stewart Brand

“Information wants to be free” is a meme of long standing, as Roger Clarke points out. The expensive part doesn’t appear as often.

How you define “expensive” makes a difference — is it simply price? That kind of value can emerge in a marketplace (in which case I’m not sure I’d bid all that high for the right to broadcast the next Olympics). There’s also expense related to the transformation that information can bring.

While in general we tend to think that free — as in, openly accessed — information is a good thing, I for one get uneasy about the access other people might have to information I’d rather keep private. (For a grocery-store discount card, without which the “sale” price doesn’t exist, I signed up as Eric Blair.)

It’s not really the information that does the wanting, of course. Like two-by-fours or bags of concrete mix, information is an artifact, an artifice, an arrangement performed by human beings. So of course some want it to be highly expensive, so as to profit from it; others want it to be free, so others can profit from it.