Year: 2012

    Designing for Granddad

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    Slate’s recent article, “2011 Was a Terrible Year for Tech”, coins the term “mom-bomb” for the moment that technology journalists declare a gadget so easy-to-use that it is actually useful to people who aren’t technology journalists:

    He begins by praising the gadget’s intuitive interface and its easy setup process, but eventually he finds that mere description doesn’t adequately convey the product’s momentous simplicity. That’s when he drops the mom bomb: This thing is so easy that even my mom could use it.

    I’m blessed with parents that, by and large, ‘get’ technology.  Their VCR never flashed 12:00 (and now they have a DVD recorder); they both have Android phones that they can happily e-mail from.  My grandparents are a different story, of course.  Two of them have almost never used a computer, but my Granddad has a nice new shiny one and uses it regularly.  But as the article points out, what tech journalists and we tech-savvy users think is simple and ‘user-friendly’ often falls far short of the ‘mom (or granddad) test’.

    A few observations spring to mind:

    • Moving photos from a digital camera to a computer is one of the simplest tasks non-‘tech-savvy’ users often want to do.  But when you plug in a digital camera, Windows 7 helpfully pops up this dialog:

    Windows 7 Camera AutoPlay Dialog

    Do I want to “Import Pictures and Videos” using Windows, or using Windows Live Photo Gallery?  What’s the difference?  Do I want to “Copy pictures to [my] computer”?  Do I want to “Download images”? Where will the photos go?  Will they still be on the camera?  I just want to see my photos, so I click “Open device to view files”, but what the heck is “DCIM”?

    • I set Google as his browser homepage, and since then, he has been getting his news not from the BBC News bookmark I created, but using the ‘News’ link on Google’s own menu that appears at the top of its pages:

    Google Menu Bar

    …which is great, except that Google can change that menu at any time.  And of course they are doing exactly that:

    New-Look Google Menu

    To my granddad, and many other novice internet users, the distinction between bookmarks – which only change if you want them to – and web page navigation menus – which can change at the webmaster’s whim – is not necessarily clear.

    • Even simple mouse commands can be unclear and difficult.  In the example above, Google’s instruction to find the new menu is to ‘roll over’ the logo.  When the novice user figures out that means ‘hover the cursor over’, they’re greeted with a JavaScript popup which will disappear again if their cursor accidentally wanders too far from the popup.

    It’s my family duty to be tech support, and occasionally I am called upon to fix things that have actually gone wrong.  But more often than not, I am called upon to try to rationalise a simple task that is unexpectedly complex to perform.  This complexity has usually arisen because the software’s developers and most vocal users are so immersed in common UI paradigms that they just don’t notice that the complexity exists.  For the novice user, on the other hand, even your software’s installation wizard is complexity they’d rather not deal with.

    The Slate article is right to cite Facebook’s user interface as a particularly onerous example of software complexity.  Feeds, live updates, inboxes, hidden inboxes, walls, profiles, Timeline, comments, likes, tags – some users need and revel in that level of complexity, but a significant number just want to, say, see what their kids are up to.  I’m nervous that one day soon, my granddad will ask me to set him up with a Facebook account.  I’ll dutifully comply, log him in, and give him this:

    Facebook User Interface

    Where does one even begin?  There are multiple feeds, multiple menus, pop-up and pop-down boxes.  How do you add one of these “status” things?  How do you add a friend?  How do I send a message to someone?  What’s public and what’s private?  Why is there so much stuff?

    In the world of User Experience (UX) design, we spend so much time thinking about how software will be used and by whom – personas, use cases, red routes and all the rest.  But in the majority of software I see when working with novice users, it seems that either the novice user has not been considered, or their persona is paid lip service while the latest excitingly complicated new features are bolted onto the software.

    As creators of software and of user experiences, I know we can do better than this.

    Do you have any thoughts on how we can design better for the novice user?  Just want to vent about an app with a particularly poor UI, or about a relative with a particularly poor grasp of computing?  Fire away in the comments below!

    Towards a Simpler Desktop

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    In one of my previous blog posts, “Designing for Granddad”, I examined some of the user interface features that cause my grandfather issues when using his computer, and left a few hanging questions as to how we software designers can make our apps less confusing to the novice computer user.

    As is my unfortunate habit, I spent some of today checking out how work had progressed on the GNOME-shell and Ubuntu Unity desktop environments.  (I enjoyed the eye candy for around three hours before reverting to the UI of least resistance.)  Various complexities in their interfaces irritate me and seem to have provoked the wrath of a community of largely experienced computer users.  This got me thinking about how I would go back the other way, and design a desktop environment for absolute novice computer users – one without many of the frustrations of modern software.

    Gnome-Shell Screenshot

    The Gnome-Shell Interface

    My ideas, roughly distilled into a sort of ‘design manifesto’, are:

    1. One activity at a time.  Here I actually agree with Gnome-shell and Unity’s focus on  full-screen applications, avoiding unrelated yet overlapping windows.

    2. Never hide the means to change activities.  Both Gnome-shell and Unity hide their application switcher during normal use, requiring at least a mouse movement or a click to get it back.

    3. Don’t change state with mouse position.  Novice computer users often have trouble controlling the mouse.  Unity’s auto-hiding dock and Gnome-shell’s “hot corner” could prove frustrating, particularly the latter which completely changes the display when hit.

    4. No system trays.  The distinction between the taskbar and system tray is not well-defined and can be confusing.  Gnome-shell is a particularly bad offender here, with not one but two tray-like areas.

    5. No notifications (unless they help).  Pop-ups confuse and scare novice users.  If at all possible, the app should use a sane default rather than asking a question, and do nothing rather than displaying information.  If a pop-up does appear, it should be helpful and clearly worded.

    6. Stateless apps and background services.  The user wants to get their e-mail. Reading e-mail is a legitimate activity, but leaving a mail client open so that they are notified of new mail is not.  Use background services so that it doesn’t matter which apps are running.

    7. Zero tolerance on UI clutter.  While UX people like me may sometimes deplore clutter and idolise minimalism on aesthetic grounds, for the novice user, every bit of clutter is something that they feel like they should know how to use.

    8. Explain things clearly.  Keep words to a minimum, but ensure that the user always feels confident that they know what clicking a given element will do.

    9. Undo everywhere.  Offer an “undo” option wherever possible.  If you’re dealing with small but important items (such as e-mail), consider offering a non-destructive way of getting e-mail out of the user’s face – “archive” instead of “delete”.

    10. Use icons and words together.  Novice computer users may be young or old, and users of any age may have poor vision or may not speak the language in which the interface was written.  These may result in users finding either icons or words easier to understand on a control.  Providing both, by using clear iconography and simple text together, helps to alleviate this problem.

    I’ve mocked up a couple of interfaces to show a desktop environment that adheres to these principles.  The first shows the “desktop”, taskbar and an example notification:

    Simple Desktop Environment - Taskbar & Notifications

    The second shows the mail app with example messages:

    Simple Desktop Environment - E-mail App

    Is there anything you particularly like or hate about the mockups or the design principles behind them?  Bear in mind that if you consider yourself tech-savvy or a software designer yourself, you’re probably not the target audience for this desktop environment – pretend to be your mother or grandfather for a minute and see how you feel about the suggestions I’ve made.

    I’m happy to go further with these designs if you think it’s useful, and of course your own ideas and suggestions are more than welcome.  The comments section is yours!

    For anyone wondering, the mockups in this post were generated with Mockingbird, an excellent UI mocking web-app.

    App Idea: CatchUp

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    Here’s some initial design ideas for a location-aware chat app that, as far as I am aware, has significant new features over and above existing mobile chat apps (iMessage, WhatsApp, BBM etc.) and existing location-based functionality in apps (FourSquare, Facebook check-ins, Google Places).

    Background

    Pictochat

    The inspiration for this idea came, more or less, from the Nintendo DS “Pictochat”application.  PictoChat allows up to 16 users to link their DS consoles over a peer-to-peer WiFi connection, and share doodled messages with each other in real time. Between a couple of DS-using friends, PictoChat is an interesting gimmick, but I first encountered it coming into its own at an anime (Japanese animation) convention called MinamiCon. Here, the concentration of DS users was so high that multiple 16-person PictoChat rooms came into existence, full of people chatting away with other convention-goers.

    This was in 2005, before the now ever-present smartphone really came into its own. What about today? Achieving a critical density of DS users to make PictoChat useful is no longer an issue – a critical density of smartphone users exists at every event and every non-event in the Western world. What if we reimagined PictoChat for the smartphone?

    Concept

    There is one big change to the PictoChat concept that we need to make to have a viable idea – and one big addition.

    Attempting to write using DrawSomething

    • Text, not pictures. The DS’ stylus and resistive touchscreen were ideal for doodles, but not so much for text – though a keyboard was available. Modern smartphones have thumb-friendly capacitative screens, and anyone who’s tried to give textual clues in DrawSomething will tell you that writing text PictoChat-style is a non-starter. This new app needs to be text-based, with optional picture and video sharing, much like MMS.
    • Catching up. The idea of “catching up” provided the app’s working title, and forms a secondary mode for the app. As well as real-time chat between people in close proximity, the app also attempts to solve the problem of “how do I keep in touch with people I did [activity x] with?”. Say, for example, that you are at a concert. Over the course of the event the app detects 20 people in your vicinity. You could chat with them live (though hopefully you paid to watch the band not stare at your phone…), but the app remembers who was there so you can also chat to them afterwards.

    Technical Issues

    There are a number of technical issues that the app would have to address.

    • Privacy. It must be easy for users to indicate that they don’t want to be interrupted by messages, and that they don’t want people to detect your presence and “catch up” with you later.
    • Identification. Integration with Facebook would be desirable to allow users to find their friends on the service. However, the app is providing a semi-public mapping of people to locations, so CatchUp users should not be identifiable to people who are not their friends. Foursquare has struck a reasonable balance here.
    • Connection technology. PictoChat used device-to-device WiFi. This is not ideal for CatchUp as it would prevent users from using their WiFi for other things. A low-power Bluetooth connection is a possibility which would also enforce the “chats must be local” idea. However, if we are going to enable “catch up” chats later, we need a server-side chat backend anyway, so it may be best to route everything through the server and determine user proximity for local chat groups on the server.

    CatchUp Architecture

    CatchUp Architecture

    • Integration to other services. Integration with the Facebook, FourSquare or Google Places API could give users the ability to “check in” and use the chat facility together, increasing uptake. Integration with services like Last.fm could incorporate knowledge of event times and places, meaning that the “catch up” chats can have sensible names like “Justin Bieber Concert, Wembley Stadium, 1/1/2012” rather than “with 312 users at Wembley Stadium, 1/1/2012”.

    Last.fm's Events List

    Last.fm’s Events List

    • Blocking. It must be easy for users to block and report abusive users, prevent them from finding out where the reporter is in future, etc.

    Mockups

    I have produced a couple of user interface mockups for the potential design:

    CatchUp Main Menu

    CatchUp Main Menu

    The main menu of CatchUp presents a simple list of chat opportunities, in reverse chronological order.

    At the top is the “Chat now” area. Pressing there takes you to the live chat for your location, as determined and managed by the CatchUp server. The tile shows where CatchUp thinks you are, and how many people you will be placed in a chat room with.

    Below this is a list of all your “catch up” opportunities. If configured to do so, CatchUp monitors your location in the background. If you stay in a location with enough people for long enough (possibly without having to explicitly open a chat), a “catch up” for that event will be placed in the list. The user can press one of these to be taken to a chat room for everyone who was there. Users can remove the Catch Up from the app (and thus prevent being chatted with by other event attendees) with a swipe.

    Settings will have fine-grained privacy options, for example to prevent the user appearing in others’ Catch Ups without explicit permission, to mark certain locations that Catch Up will automatically deactivate itself in, and so on.

    CatchUp Chat Interface

    CatchUp Chat Interface

    Chatting in CatchUp is a simple affair. As locations may have many people chatting, iPhone-style bubbles are replaced with a more basic appearance – though images and videos can still be embedded.

    Potential Flaws

    No application is without its flaws. Here are some that CatchUp would have to address:

    • User Critical Mass. Any social app is only as good as the number of people using it, particularly if the main use case is live chatting. Facebook integration could help a lot here, as could venue sponsorship such as posters with instructions / QR codes to download the app.
    • Balancing default privacy options. Many (most?) users will never change their privacy options. The default must be restrictive enough that the app does not raise Facebook/Buzz-style security concerns, but permissive enough that Catch Ups are still useful.
    • Web interface? Can Catch Up do without a web interface and run mobile-only like Instagram? Or would a web-based interface be useful so that post-event Catch Ups can be done with a proper keyboard?
    • Permanence. Catch Up needs to strike a balance between permanence (everything is kept forever – but UI becomes more complex and permissions more fine-grained) and impermanence (Catch Ups expire and are deleted – but we may need to allow users to get their data out).

    Naming Ideas

    Aside from “CatchUp”, a number of other names have been suggested:

    • Ketchup (a pun on Catch Up)
    • ReCollect (based on the idea that you can “collect” people at events then chat to them later)
    • LiveChat

    Next Steps

    What’s next for CatchUp is largely down to you.

    I am a UX guy and a Java/Python/PHP developer with zero experience of mobile app development – I can do a mean usability study, but I can’t make this app myself in a sensible amount of time.

    If you want to help make this app, get in touch. I can’t do it without help.

    If you want this app to exist but can’t help, share this post! Eventually it’ll get to someone with the time, skill and inclination to help out.

    And if you have any comments whatsoever, keep on scrolling. I’d love to hear any thoughts or (constructive) criticisms you may have!

    On Very Small PCs

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    With my recent acquisition of a Bluetooth keyboard added to the PowerSkin, my phone has completed its transition from thin, attractive polycarbonate slate to the monstrous assault on product design you see before you.

    Desire HD + PowerSkin + Bluetooth Keyboard

    Or so I would have said in the dim and technologically distant days of 2010.

    But really, I don’t have a giant ugly phone – because the other day, an incoming call interrupted my SSH session and I was briefly confused as to why someone was calling me on my computer.

    I don’t have a giant phone – I have a really tiny laptop, with a battery that lasts two days.

    Did the future happen while I wasn’t looking again?

    The Need for Mobile General Computation (aka, why I’m stuck with Android)

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    My mobile phone contract has well and truly hit the “18-month itch” stage – although I still have six months until an upgrade is due, I can’t help but look at adverts and scan gadget blogs and think “ooh, I want one of those”.

    I could go for an iPhone, and have a vast library of apps to choose from – far more than Android has ever offered.  I could go for a Windows Phone device and enjoy a user interface that is genuinely refreshing compared to the rest of the mobile OS options.

    But much as it annoys me with its weird bugs, poor battery life, fragmentation, weird manufacturer-specific skins and inconsistent interface, there’s one important advantage to Android that sways my decision back to it every time I consider the alternatives. It is simply this:

    I want to be in charge of my device.

    The seeds of the war on general-purpose computation are already taking root in the mobile OS space. Phones and tablets are quickly gaining ground as the primary means of getting things done in our online worlds, and implicit in that is that users of these devices are putting the manufacturers and the mobile networks in charge of what they can and cannot do with them.

    I reject this trend. I want root.

    I want to be able to uninstall the apps HTC and Vodafone think I should use. I want to firewall apps off from “phoning home”. I want to back up a complete partition image of my phone. I want to run any script I can think of. I want to tunnel my network access over SSH.

    By and large, mobile software and hardware manufacturers are hostile to this kind of activity. It’s impossible on a Windows Phone device. iPhones can be jailbroken but OS updates – including important security updates – undo the jailbreaking until some enterprising hacker can find another exploit.  Of the current crowd of mobile operating systems, only Android, with its open-source releases of the core OS, allows said enterprising hackers to create their own distributions of the operating system and maintain “root” whilst applying Google’s own OS updates.

    So although I am bored of Android, though I crave a new and interesting user interface to play with, I crave freedom more. If I can’t make a device mine; if I can’t choose to be master of all that goes into it, out of it and through it, it’s not a general purpose computer – and I refuse to base a good proportion of my future computing needs on it.

    Anti-SEO Spam from iProspect (for British Gas)?

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    Today, I received a rather unusual e-mail.  Or more precisely, nine rather unusual e-mails within about a second of each other.  They were of the following form, altering only the onlydreaming.net link in the middle to use another WordPress tag (always ending with /feed):

    Hello,

    I work for the digital marketing agency iProspect on behalf of British Gas.
    As part of our ongoing SEO campaign – we looking to edit or remove some of the backlinks pointing to the https://www.britishgas.co.uk/ domain name.
    :
    We have identified the following link to British Gas on your site (onlydreaming.net):

    We would like to work with you and request that one of the below actions are taken regarding this link.
    This is to ensure that our client avoids violating the Google Webmaster Guidelines in any form due to a historic decision they or a previous agency has made.

    • Please remove the link from your website

    Please note that we are not trying to imply that your website is of fault for violating any guidelines, but that we have advised British Gas should remove any historic links that they acquired which could be interpreted as paid or intended to manipulate PageRank.

    Please let me know if you are able to action this request or if you require any further information.
    Apologies if you have received multiple emails, this is due to their being multiple links on your website (please review each one).

    Kind regards

    Has anyone seen the like of this before? To me it just seems utterly bizarre that in order to help British Gas meet Google’s guidelines for search listing, a third party is asking bloggers to take down links to their site.

    (For reference, the blog post that features in each of the feed URLs I received e-mails for is this one. It is not defamatory towards British Gas, does not deep-link into their site or do anything to influence British Gas’s search results – it is simply a link to https://www.britishgas.co.uk/, with the text “British Gas”.)

    I’m considering the following as a response, and would be interested to know if you thought it was appropriate, if you would add/remove anything, or whether you think I should ignore these e-mails completely, etc.

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    I have read your many automated e-mails of August 7, 2012 and would like to let you know that I will not be removing a link to British Gas’ website from my blog. Although the link to British Gas adds little to the content of the blog post concerned, aside from as an aid to visitors not from the UK who may not be aware of the company, I would prefer not to bow to what seems like a very odd request. I perceive your request as odd for the following reasons:

    • It is no business of mine whether or not British Gas’ website meets Google’s requirements. I have no particular animosity towards British Gas or iProspect, but simply feel that the contents of my blog are no concern of theirs, and neither will they be a concern for any staff at Google who review adherence to the Webmaster Guidelines.
    • If your concern is “links that they acquired which could be interpreted as paid or intended to manipulate PageRank”, a few moments of investigation will assure you that neither is the case here. My web presence is fairly transparent and it should be plainly obvious that I am not in the pay of British Gas. Furthermore, the blog post of mine that your links point to (https://ianrenton.com/blog/the-perils-of-gas-supply/) simply contains a link to https://www.britishgas.co.uk/, with the text “British Gas”, which is obviously not an attempt to affect British Gas’s PageRank or associate certain keywords with the site.
    • The post you have picked on is over two years old and posted on a blog that averages only 150 visitors per day. Like everyone else, I have no access to the calculations that set my own blog’s PageRank – however, it is surely low enough as to have no impact whatsoever on that of the British Gas website.
    • I feel some desire to refuse your request simply because your process is automated and clearly wide-ranging. For it to have picked up the problematic post nine times in quick succession – all nine being RSS feed URLs rather than the URL of the blog post itself – implies an automated crawler is at work. A vast number of people may have been hit with similar requests to this.
    • The final proof, if any was required, that my blog post is not an attempt to affect your client’s PageRank is that all nine of the URLs your crawler has flagged are explicitly disallowed in the robots.txt for onlydreaming.net. Although your crawler clearly disregards the requests made of it in this file, Google’s crawlers do not, and thus do not index any of the URLs you have identified.

    I hope these reasons satisfy you as to why I do not wish to remove the link you have identified. If you and your client concerned with removing “astroturf” links and links intended to manipulate their PageRank, perhaps the pages containing these links should be identified first by investigating any “historic decision(s) they or a previous agency has made”, rather than deploying a web crawler to notify everyone on the internet who has ever linked to British Gas’ homepage.

    Regards,

    Ian Renton

    Rainy Evening Statistics: When to Harvest Sloes?

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    This morning I half-heartedly posted on Facebook:

    Today’s Game Theory problem: pick an ideal date for picking sloes, bearing in mind current warm/wet weather predictions for October and a population density of 10000/sq.mi. of other potential sloe pickers. (10 marks)

    Well, I’m bored, so let’s get our geek on.  Again.

    The Weather

    I live in one of the warmest parts of Britain, on the south coast with temperatures continuously moderated by sea breezes from the south-west.  Frosts here are rare outside of December and January, and although the long-range forecast suggests “some chilly nights (are) possible” for the end of October and beginning of November, that’s unlikely to bring actual frost to us.

    (Case in point, 2010’s impressive snowfall. See that tiny bit of snow-less grey right on the south coast? That’s us.)

    So, although traditionally sloes are supposed to be picked after the first frost of Autumn, we cannot expect that to happen for a couple of months yet.  But will the sloes last that long?

    The good news is, mild wet weather is good for letting the sloes ripen.  The longer they are left on the plant, the juicier they are.  We don’t want to pick them too early as they will be bitter, but leaving them as long as possible has its own risks.  Namely:

    The People

    The longer the sloes stay on the bush, the greater the change that nasty thieving hobbitses other people will make off with them.  We can follow the example of the Drake Equation to estimate the likelihood of this.

    “My” sloe bush is in a relatively busy part of town.  Naturally, I shan’t say where!  But I would estimate that something like a thousand people a day walk past this bush.  Let’s call that the passer-by rate, R.  Our other important factors are fn, the fraction of passers-by that will notice and identify the sloe bush, fh, the fraction of passers-by that will want to harvest sloes, fr, the fraction of passers-by who will identify sloes as ripe, and N, the number of helpings of sloes on the bush.

    A reasonable set of estimates may be fn = 0.01 (the bush is quite well hidden), fh = 0.1 (a reasonable proportion of people will make sloe gin given the chance), and N = 1 (for there are only 200-300 accessible sloes).  fr is trickier as it depends on the ripeness of the sloes themselves and thus will increase with time, but we can go for a reasonable guess that 50% of people think they’re ripe, so fr = 0.5.

    This gives a total probability that the sloes will be harvested, per day, as:


    Ph = R × fn × fh × fr × N
         = 1000 × 0.01 × 0.1 × 0.5 × 1
         = 0.5

    A worrying 50% probability that the sloes will be taken on any given day!

    In Conclusion

    I think it’s pretty clear that I need to get out there and grab myself some sloes before anyone else does!

    Lament for Web 0.1

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    With every passing day, my Facebook feed is spending more and more time informing me that old school friends “like Amazon”. (No shit, really?) In the background, it’s fiddling our feeds, showing and hiding entries according to what it thinks is relevancy, and also what it thinks is profit for itself. Game spam is constant. On the other side of the fence, Twitter is trying to force out the third-party clients that made it great, so that it can monetise its users more easily.

    Facebook Pages You May Like

    Should we be surprised? Feel betrayed? Not at all. Facebook and Twitter are in it to make money, yet we use them for free. It’s pretty clear that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. We should only expect free-to-use websites to change in favour of their profits, never in favour of us as users.

    But I’m growing tired of it. My use of these sites is intensely personal – they are my default, or only, way of contacting many of my friends – but yet this personal process is controlled by a company that is willing and able to affect the process to make money. If it’s more profitable to show me “Bob likes Product X” than to show me Bob’s deep and meaningful status update, you can bet I’ll be shown the “like”.

    I miss everyone being equal. I miss services that were honestly free. I miss being close to the infrastructure I use to communicate, rather than having it abstracted. I miss Web 1.0.

    Hell, I miss Web 0.1.

    irssi

    There was a time, not so very long ago, when IRC was our Twitter. It was just as full of funny links and pithy comments, but it was communication between friends, not 140 character witticisms broadcast into the ether in the constant, vain hope of affirmation delivered by the retweets of strangers.

    There was a time when blogs were our Facebook, our innermost thoughts put out there for our friends and no-one else; when our friends would think of something to say and say it, rather than simply dishing out an iota of affirmation with the “like” button.

    There was a time when mailing lists were our forums, just simple e-mails back and forth without the need for moderators, or advertising, or CAPTCHAs.

    There was a time when USENET was our Reddit, a place to while away hours without karma whores and downvotes.

    Those times are never coming back. No friends of mine are willing to leave Facebook and talk to each other on a mailing list. The monetising services of Web 2.0 are simply much better, easier to use, nicer to look at, more functional. But they’re lagging behind the tools and services of the old internet in other ways. Honesty – what you put into IRC is what you got out, no server inserted “promoted tweets” into your channel. Thoughtfulness – we had to say things to each other, no likes, no retweets, no upvotes.

    At this point it would be appropriate for me to announce some kind of online “back to the land” movement, ending with a rhetorical “who’s with me?”. But rhetorical it would be, because nobody’s with me. I am, at the age of 27, simply old and curmudgeonly before my time; sitting typing in monospaced text to an audience that already sold themselves to play FarmVille.

    The Ego, the Social Graph, and the Great Unfriending

    This is a post from my blog, which is (mostly) no longer available online. This page has been preserved because it was linked to from somewhere, or got regular search hits, and therefore may be useful to somebody.

    Long ago, in the early years of Facebook’s rise to power, it became apparent that it had another key feature alongside feeds and wall posts – the friends list. Not only was it a good way to keep in touch with friends after University, it also became a good way of declaring who those friends were. This aspect was emphasized more and more as the site’s user base increased; you could now keep a quite exhaustive catalogue of who you knew. There were even apps on Facebook’s fledgling platform that allowed to to map those friends, and see interesting groups and connections form.

    Facebook Friends Graph

    My Facebook Friends Graph

    For a shameless nerd such as myself, this is great stuff – I love having a neatly curated index of almost everyone I know, particularly one with which I generate pretty visualisations. This one here shows a nice distinction between people I went to school with (orange), university (blue), people I work with (green), DDRFUKers (purple), and a great interconnected yellow mass of Soton Kiddies, LARPers, neighbours and post-University friends.

    But however nice it might be to see this in pictorial form, I know this information. All of it is in my head; each different group and the few people that make the links between them. There’s no need to record this data to help me.

    Of course, I need to record this data in order to talk to these people and share status updates on Facebook. But I barely interact with anyone I went to school with. At work, a mention of something I posted on Facebook tends to be embarrassing. Most of the dots marked yellow or purple are people who are on Twitter, and who I would prefer to talk to there.

    So for whom am I updating, and publishing, what has become known as my “Social Graph”? I have already established that although I curated my Social Graph out of an egotistic and nerdy desire to catalogue everything, it serves no purpose for me. Presumably, then, I am doing it for the benefit of Facebook and its advertisers who can use it to add cruel hooks into friends’ feeds. “Hey, 24 of your friends play this!” “Ian R likes some guy’s band!”

    At best, “unfriending” on Facebook seems like something that is done by spurned teenage girls complaining about how much of a bitch their ex-“BFF” turned out to be. At worst, it seems like an outright denial that you have ever known a person. But what benefit does a user get from declaring themselves “friends” with someone they’ve said not a single word to in ten years?

    If, as I have previously bemoaned, I still don’t want to quit Facebook entirely, then I fear a Great Unfriending may be nigh.