Friday, July 22, 2011

Social Networks

The release of Google+ has caused me to reflect on what social networks mean to me. When I look at my top four visited websites, two are from Google (Gmail and Google Docs) and the two are Twitter and Facebook. Clearly, I spend a lot of time bouncing around inside these companies' sites so it's worth taking a closer look at why I use them.

is for connecting with people I know personally. I do not, in general, accept friend invitations from people I haven't met. That said, my familiarity level with my Facebook friends is highly variable. Some are high school buddies I haven't talked to in a decade, others are good friends who live elsewhere and it's very valuable to connect with them whenever I can.
To me, Facebook's value is entirely in its social graph. I don't use apps, answer questions, I've deleted most of my profile, I don't upload or view photos often. But damn do a lot of my friends use it and many will probably never migrate elsewhere. So, as much as I would like to move to a service which offers me more value, I may end up sticking with Facebook, if only to have an account I check once a month to see if anyone has messaged me.

became my favorite social network about a year ago and I'm still really high on its potential. Like a lot of people, I dismissed Twitter as silly at first; how could anything meaningful go on? Isn't it just for following Ashton Kutcher and quipping one-liners? But then I started using it and now it has basically replaced my RSS reader. I follow librarians, educators, and techie people I've never met, all of whom share wonderful links that have made me more informed and amused on a consistent basis. Things happen first on Twitter and if you want to be current, that's where you need to be.
The biggest downside to Twitter is that I'm certain most of my friends will never migrate. Also, until recently (with the ability to search your Gmail address book), it was not easy to discover people I knew on the network. So while I have several friends who primarily use Twitter, they're in the minority.

It's worth taking a moment to contrast my own forms of sharing. Twitter = public, professional | Facebook = personal, sometimes political. For the most part. It's interesting that I can observe many friends doing precisely the opposite, being more open on Facebook while having locked down Twitter accounts. To each their own.

comes in here because of the preceding paragraph: it can unify the public and private sharing in one location. I can share personal details, which I not only do not want randoms I've never met to know but also probably wouldn't interest people who do not know me personally, with my Friends circle. When I find interesting links, I can share them publicly or to a more targeted audience, like my Librarians circle or my extended circles. Furthermore, Sparks—which I literally just got around to using this morning—adds another discovery service within the G+ platform, making it even easier to find and share content.
A lot of people have hyped the "integration of G+ with other Google services I already use" argument. And I do like that, whenever I'm searching or using Gmail or Docs (which I use a lot...see 1st <p>), I have a notification icon in the upper right corner. But I'm not sure much more meaningful integration can follow. I don't want a "add this person to your circles" icon every time I receive mail from someone new, or a "share this to G+" button in Docs, since I rarely publish from Docs. I think Google+ needs to either A) convert my Facebook friends, which will be difficult, or B) enable sharing to and receiving feeds from other services so that I can stay in G+ but connect with people elsewhere.

As an aside, I'm sort of worried that Google is going to make the same mistake Facebook did and maximize the G+ platform, adding in feature after feature after feature until its so cluttered that I cannot stand it or grok the different content types (is this an Event or a Group or a Page?). What I would really love is a completely modular interface where any panel can be removed and numerous plug-ins added. Think the Firefox of social networking. Do it. Do it now.

Other Social Networks
are not social. I use Goodreads and a lot and I truly love their services, but I cannot identify any way that they involve connecting with people. Rather, they are more like personal analytics sites that offer me interesting data about myself and can suggest new books/musics based on their extensive access to my previous history. And then LinkedIn, while a great place to post a resume, is populated almost entirely with content pulled from my friends' Twitter feeds, so there's no need to check it regularly.

Readers, what's your social network hierarchy? Does anyone out there still use only one site? Or better yet: if you could use only one site, which one would it be? I think I'd go with Google+.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How I Read

being an attempt to narrate a pseudo-random set of texts

When I have myself settled in the morning, I try to read through things in order of their priority, starting with emails and working down to RSS feeds at certain tech sites. This morning, I amazingly only have two emails and they're both advertisements (one from Chronicle of Higher Education and one from—a nice representation of my tastes) which can be quickly archived. I then check Facebook, which almost never has anything interesting anymore, before checking Twitter. A tweet from @webianproject, whom I just started following yesterday, leads to a ConcievablyTech article on their project which I open in a new tab. I scan through my RockMelt edge apps for more articles and open one Mashable overview.
Generally, my approach is to scan through titles using feed services, opening up intriguing ones in new tabs. Then, since I usually have an overwhelming number of tabs open, I scan through the links and filter them into different categories. Longer articles which do not rely on embedded media (video and images) I drop into InstaPaper using a bookmarklet. Short articles I read immediately. Moderate length articles that do not rely on embedded media I convert into a legible form using Readability's legacy bookmarklet. The only articles I read in their original form are A) ones that are readable in the first place, which is a rarity since the web is mostly tiny fonts and distracting sidebars, and B) ones that rely on media. A good example is this David Calhoun post on Safari improvements in iOS 5; the short videos and table about Javascript would be mangled by InstaPaper. Sometimes I use RockMelt's built-in “Read Later” function to save media-rich articles.
Before I head to the bus stop, I sync my iPod Touch's InstaPaper app. On the bus, I listen to Glasser's Ring and continue reading through a First Monday article about open source software community SourceForge using InstaPaper. I get maybe five minutes of reading done as I'm a little tired and in the mood to space out to Glasser. When I arrive at the library, I check email and Twitter on my iPod using the library's wireless, reading a short piece of tech news. The first thing I do once I'm behind the reference desk is answer an email, which I read carefully and reply to. It's a simple question in a short email, but I find that you have to read reference queries very thoroughly in order to divine what the user actually wants. Reference work itself breeds an interesting type of reading based on rapid navigation. We often hear the modern age characterized (with an implicit and rather unjustifiable negativity, if you ask me) by such scanning instead of in-depth reading, which is immensely useful for circumventing both the Scylla of too many resources and the Charybdis of imperfect discovery tools.
At the reference desk, I have ample time between questions to do other things. I use this time to converse with colleagues, get out from behind the desk when possible, and do some design work on a website and some flowcharts..There are certainly things I could be reading but I choose to limit myself to work-related emails, granting myself a short reprieve from the mental assimilation of information.
After work, I read through my Twitter again, saving a couple interesting links to InstaPaper. One of them, unfortunately, cannot download into the app for some reason, so I have to view it in the browser on a mobile-unfriendly site. Then I run into some librarian friends and read a paper handout they've used to survey students, the first printed word I've read all day. I walk back to my apartment, which gives me the time to finish the SourceForge article. Academic articles are interesting in terms of reading style. Depending on what you want out of the article, your approach can and should vary. For instance, if you plan to do a similar study, you will pay closest attention to the methodology. If you're synthesizing innumerable articles for a literature review, you may only skim the abstract and conclusion. If you want to learn something that improves praxis, then the discussion and conclusion are most important. I read the SourceForge article pretty carefully all the way through because I was suspicious of some methodological shortcomings, but the authors admitted those same deficiencies in the conclusion so I actually could have skimmed more.


skip here for the short version

Modern technology provides an opportunity to fill the day's interstitial moments with reading. Far from discouraging reading, we can leverage excellent services ilke InstaPaper to have access to different forms of information through different interfaces at all times of the day. Technology is not deterministic: each individual can adopt a unique approach to the tools available, whether that involves exclusive use of an iPad to read only Tweets and blog posts to exclusive use of printed texts for long-form reading. Yet my own reading is certainly quite distracted; the most long-form reading I get in most days is during bus rides. If texts are becoming more and more ubiquitous, it correspondingly takes a greater effort to focus in on a singular text.
And for the truly curious, here's a list of everything I read.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

How I Use Application Launchers

QuickSilver doing its thing.
Behind Internet browsers, application launchers are my second favorite type of software. They are not only faster than clicking with a mouse or trackpad but can take on numerous small tasks (simple math, moving files, opening folders) that are inefficient with a cursor. The more I keep my hands on the keyboard, the happier I am.
That being said, it seems a little ludicrous to admit that I use three different application launchers at once on my primary computer, a Snow Leopard laptop. Let me try to explain how they compliment each other and are suited to slightly different tasks.


is a powerful, open source launcher. I use it to open applications, folders, documents, but its specialty is moving things. No more frustrating dragging and dropping, I use the keyboard to trash and move files. Another specialty: documents which have no convenient default application. When I am designing websites, I might open an HTML file in <oXygen>, TextWrangler, NetBeans, or any of my numerous Internet browsers. Simply “open with default app” is not a useful option: QS can “Open With” any app.
QuickSilver is easily the most customizable option on this list and power users can do wondrous things with it. Someday, I will sit down and configure some triggers that integrate it deeper into my workflows. In order to make QS run quickly, you must selectively index only certain parts of your file system, e.g. going infinitely deep into ~/Library is death. This is both an advantage (limited and useful search results) and a weakness (some files are not accessible).


is a fast newcomer. I use it exclusively for two things: emptying the trash and opening folders or applications. While QS highlights a single result at first, Alfred instantly displays possible options and is ever so slightly faster than QS. Al is not open source and if you purchase the “powerpack” it begins to catch up to QS in functionality, though still lags somewhat from what I've read. My setup works best when only applications and system preferences are indexed, not documents, though I have experimented with that. Cool fact: Al tracks usage, so I can tell you I use it about 12.2 times per day.


is Mac OS X's built-in application launcher. It's the least useful item on this list but indexes the largest number of contents, so I use it to fill in the gaps. I also use the calculator and dictionary (begin typing an equation⁄word and it produces the result⁄definition) frequently, though both of the above have the same functionality. Why does Spotlight not quite cut it? For one, certain parts of the file system are bizarrely inaccessible (I'm looking at you, ~/Library), the options are extremely limited (you can blacklist certain folders and order your results by type—that's it), and it cannot do higher-order operations like QuickSilver nor is it as fast as Alfred.

Thus my three-tiered approach. Dear readers, is it insane or efficient? I think having the right tool for the job is important and this division of responsibilities has treated me well. If I relied on any one individually, it's almost certain that the index would be so bulky that speed would suffer.
Linux users: GNOME Do seems to be as good as QuickSilver. I love it. In the terrifying near future, I will have to use a Windows 7 machine at work, so if anyone knows of great (preferably free) application launchers, let me know. Otherwise, I'm sure LifeHacker can help.

Post Scriptum

I have learned a few tricks that anyone using these OS X launchers should know.
The Comma Trick in QuickSilver: to act on multiple objects, locate the first, hit the comma key, locate the second, hit comma, etc. and a list of icons below the pane will appear. Warning: the active object in the pane will also be acted upon. I frequently use this trick to clean up my desktop, moving several items to the trash or other folders.
Open Containing Folder in SpotLight: at first, it seems that Spotlight can only open⁄execute an object, but if you hit CMD+Enter instead of only Enter Spotlight opens the containing folder instead.
File Search in Alfred: hit the spacebar after activating Al to go straight into file search mode. This works well with my current index, which does not include documents, so the file search opens things up a bit while still maintaining speed in application launching.