This is part of my blog, which I have long since stopped maintaining. The page has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. Please go back to the homepage to see the current contents of this site.
Facebook, and many other online services, have an almost-clever security measure that tries to protect users against account theft. It uses your IP address to do a “Geo-IP” lookup – that is, to figure out roughly where in the world you normally access the site from. If an access attempt happens from elsewhere, the user will have to supply extra information to log in – often an “identify this person from their tagged photos” quiz.
Even if you pass this test of your identity, however, strange things sometimes happen – after a recent trip to France I found myself having to re-authenticate all my apps, and after a few days in Germany, my friend Pete could only restore normal service by changing his password.
I can see how this feature could be useful for some people – perhaps even the majority – but for some it has the potential to be a major irritation. Not only is there no way to disable it in Facebook’s case, there’s also no way of venting your frustration when it goes horribly wrong.
For this reason, I suggest that Facebook’s settings page needs the following options:
“Google+”, Google’s new stab at social networking, is doing the rounds of tech news sites today. So what’s it like – if you scored an invite, should you be using it, and if you haven’t yet, are you missing out?
If you’ve used Facebook – and let’s face it, you have – Google+’s interface will be immediately intuitive. A long feed of statuses and shared links, the ability to comment, re-share and “+1” (i.e. like). It does photos and videos, integrating with Picasa. It does check-ins, integrating with Latitude. It does text and video chat, integrating with Google Talk. You’re probably not surprised by any of this.
It’s most un-Facebook-like feature is its “Circles” – groups of people that you can share with easily. This is possible with Facebook groups, but there it’s the exception rather than the rule. Google clearly intends for your Circles to define the way you share, chat, and use Google+.
If this is sounding a lot like Diaspora to you, well… it is. Aside from the distributed nature of Diaspora, it’s virtually identical – including the slow invite procedure that causes it to be a virtual ghost town at the moment. Only time will tell if it suffers from the same problem, the root cause of which being that it is not the world’s first social network.
It has some great ideas, and if nobody were members of Twitter or Facebook already, it would be easy to say “yeah, this is great, let’s all use this”. But Google+ requires effort – time taken to invite friends, curate your groups, set up sharing preferences. It’s a reasonable amount of effort to invest for people that aren’t sure if their friends are going to use it too.
But the biggest, most important issue is that it doesn’t, at present, integrate. With anything. Now it is still under heavy development; I’m sure integrating with other services will come soon. But right now, it doesn’t talk to Twitter. It doesn’t talk to Facebook. It doesn’t have a public API to talk to third-party apps. I, and many other users, are so heavily invested in Twitter and Facebook that the transition to Google+ has to be seamless – it has to work alongside the other networks, without any extra effort, otherwise it’s just not worth the bother.
To make the point, this is how the networks and apps that I currently use interact: (yes, I was that bored)
There’s not space on there for something that accepts status updates, unless it’s supported by SuccessWhale or TweetDeck. There’s no space for something that accepts check-ins, unless it syncs with Foursquare. No space for anything to use my pictures unless it can get them itself from Flickr. No space for another chat system unless I can use it from Pidgin or Skype.
I don’t mean to be negative to Google+ – it’s a good service which I’m sure, given time, will become great. One day it may be the new Facebook, a social networking behemoth that all others aim for and compare themselves to. And it actually cares somewhat about privacy (for now), which would in my opinion make it a preferable king of the social networks. Its UI is great; combining Google’s characteristic minimalism with some actual great design rather than just utilitarian blocks of colour.
But for $deity’s sake, Google, give this thing a public API. As Twitter realised five years ago, the API is as important as – if not more important than – the service itself. Let us mix it up in weird and wonderful ways with the services we’re already using, and Google+ will instantly lose most of its barrier to entry.
I’ve been asked a couple of times why it is that my status posts on Facebook are locked down, visible only to friends or sometimes friends-of-friends:
…but yet with the same button-click that I post to Facebook, I post exactly the same thing, publicly, on Twitter:
Surely that’s undoing all the good of my Facebook privacy settings?
The reason is because I’m not doing it for reasons of my privacy – I’m doing it for yours, and what your expectations of privacy might be.
On Twitter, a reply to me is a first-class citizen – a tweet in its own right. It has a ‘reply ID’ field to help thread conversations, and it mentions my handle using the ‘@’ convention, but otherwise it is a tweet like any other. You, the replier, have one simple privacy setting – is your account public or private? Can the world see your tweets (including that reply) or just the people you allow?
By contrast, on Facebook, a comment is a second-class citizen – a child of the original post. Implicit in this is that it inherits the original post’s privacy settings. As the commenter, you do not have control over who sees what you write. Assuming – as most have – that the original poster has accepted the default privacy options, the commenter has only one choice: either allow their reply to be public and searchable for the entire internet, or don’t reply.
On Facebook there’s no way I can let you set who can see your comments, so I do the best thing I can: make your comments visible only to the 300 or so people who I am reasonably sure are not evil. If you like, you can check the list and see if you object to anybody on it.
It’s not ideal, but it’s the best I can do to respect commenters’ privacy on a service that itself respects privacy only grudgingly.
Just over seven years ago, after one potential student house deal fell through, I asked around the Games Society to see if anyone was in a similar situation. I met one girl who was strange and hyperactive and who was looking for other people to share a house with. She introduced me to a house and another potential housemate, and that housemate proceeded to introduce me to a nightclub, an entire musical genre, and another girl whom I immediately developed a crush on. Little did I know then that the house would come to define my time at university, and the people whom I turned to in desperation to find a house would become some of my best friends.
A couple of months later, the strange hyperactive girl asked me out. I, being shy, easily breakable and largely terrified of the opposite sex, said no. Via the medium of a cryptic LiveJournal post.
She drifted out of my life for a year and a half, moving away from my university city while I applied myself to my studies and my increasingly inappropriate crushes on other people. But then, that year and a half later, she was back in Southampton for one weekend which began with following fairy paths, continued with whisky and bitter tears, and ended up with that strange, hyperactive girl asking me out for a second time. This time, I seem to recall, I said “yes”.
University finished for me in the summer of 2006, splitting us further apart. But in November of that year, we moved to Bournemouth together.
In 2007, we had a child. In 2008, we bought a flat.
Yet more years have passed. We have come a long way from being a strange, hyperactive girl and a terrified boy who refused her advances. This Friday, the tenth of June in the year 2011, in the presence of those friends from long ago and many more besides, we were married.
Every year, when the days start to heat up, it feels like a liberation that some strange part of me worries might never come. But it’s here now, as inevitable as any season. May turns into June with barely a second thought. The wind swings around to the south, blowing hot from foreign lands. It rises, too, tickling the tops of trees but bringing no relief to those on the ground under the scorching sun.
Temperatures drift inexorably towards the thirties. The gorse flowers have faded and gone, passing their torch to the buttercups in the meadows and the cow parsley that crowds every hedgerow and riverbank.
Winter and Spring have had their day. Now it is time for Summer; king of seasons, our season. It is time for deep blue skies and endless green fields. It is time for the smell of barbecues and the salty sea. It is time for the sound of parched heath underfoot and the calls of swallows in the cool evening air.
It is time to run, and play, and swim, and laugh, and dance between the hot sand and the blazing sky.
Summer is here.
Whilst walking the night-time streets of Guildford, Eric remarked to me that it was a place that felt permanent; a place where one could put down roots. My home, and now hers, stands in complete contrast. Bournemouth is a new town, founded two hundred years ago as a seaside resort – which it still is.
She lectured me on the joys of her old inland town, with its stone walls and canals. I asked why one would want to put down roots, when you could have a beach instead?
She branded me a ‘flotsam person’, and that was that.
But I suppose I am, really. I carry things that remind me of the sea, so that I feel at home wherever I go. The feeling of being tied to a place, a town with history, isn’t for me. Like the sand that drifts forever eastwards, despite the groynes that try to stop it, I’m happy anywhere near the sea. I love the feel of transient beaches, transient lives, forever in motion. Years come and go, bringing with them the ebb and flow of people – students, summer students, tourists.
I am a flotsam person, a driftwood person, happy wherever I can wash ashore and sit on sand as the waves lap against my feet.
Not long after my post about the game DJ Rivals, I finished the main part of the game and hit a metaphorical wall. There was no more story; I’d bought every item in the store and mastered the game’s hardest moves. The game tries to offer replay value via progressively harder missions based on those earlier in the game, and via battles against human players of comparable level. The latter offers nothing to play for apart from in-game money, which I already had in abundance, while the former offers only the elusive carrot of 100% completion, which dangled too far distant for me to want it much.
So I stopped playing – which is probably fair enough. I’d played it, enjoyed it, finished it and stopped. But it got me thinking about the number of games I’ve played that don’t end.
Zynga’s Farmville is perhaps the most well-known example I could give. At the beginning, the game is about designing a nice farm, planting the most efficient crops, coming back to harvest them and planting some more. This is fun. Then it’s just something you do. Then it’s annoying. Then you start contemplating spending real money on in-game items to automate the process. At this point it’s clear that planting and harvesting crops is not the game – the game is having a bigger and better farm than your friends. And the only way to achieve this, assuming you weren’t lucky enough to start first, is to be more devoted to the game or spend more real money than your friends do. (It shouldn’t surprise you that these are both things that make money for Zynga.)
A case of escalation of commitment (or commitment bias) can kick in, whereby the player has invested enough effort in the game that even though they are no longer enjoying it, they can’t bear to quit. And this only gets worse over time, because unlike most non-social games, Farmville and its kin don’t have an ‘end’. There’s no story to finish, and because the makers of the game can easily add more, higher-level items to acquire or quests to fulfill, there is no 100% completion to aim for. You quit, or you play forever.
I am no better than the rest as regards being sucked into these games. Tactics in Battle Stations only extend as far as clicking a button and upgrading your airship within one of a few effective builds, yet my character made it to level 85 before I quit, realising that the rate at which new shiny equipment was added to the game outstripped the rate at which I could acquire it. Starfleet Commander is a good strategy game in its own right, but after having reached the end of the tech tree, I found nothing worthwhile to aim for. The same flaw has turned me off Backyard Monsters at level 36, too.
Moreover, all of these games suffer from a time delay mechanic that increasingly is enough to put me off a game (Dungeon Overlord, for example) all by itself. Now, part of the aim of all these games (from the creators’ perspective) is to get users returning regularly to play – and view ads. To achieve this, every game I have mentioned – and countless thousands of others – have in-game activities that take time of the order of hours or days. This, I think, is my main problem with them.
In the vast majority of traditional computer and console games, there is a concept of a gaming “session”. The player sits down to play the game, plays continuously, and stops when he or she is done. But the majority of the new breed of social games aren’t like that.
They begin with a rush of activity, much like other games. You put the first few buildings down in your base, plant the first few crops, start and finish researching technologies within a few minutes. At some point, you choose to stop. But the game hangs its carrots just out of reach. “Sure,” it says, “you can stop. But your building is only half an hour from being finished. And once it’s finished, you’ll be able to do this and this, and build this, which only takes a few hours…”
In the early stages, it grabs you back when you might prefer not to be playing. Later on, by contrast, it switches around to perhaps the more annoying mode. More advanced things tend to take longer to build, research, grow, or whatever – possibly many days. So you’ll sit down for your gaming session, you’ll do your five minutes of formulaic clicking, harvesting your crops, planting new ones, then… then you stop. You can’t do any more; you have to wait two days before you can play again. In two days, you spend five more minutes clicking the same things, then stop again.
Once upon a time, I enjoyed these Facebook games, and I thought I still did. But yesterday, I logged in to do my five minutes of clicking, and realised all of a sudden that it was exactly the same five minutes of clicking I had done the day before and the day before that. I was grinding towards a non-existent goal, performing mindless tasks in search of a sense of completion that I knew would never come.
I thought, “why am I doing this?”, and it dawned on me that I didn’t have an answer to that.
I love playing games, and presumably always will. But I think I, and possibly others, need to get better at judging the enjoyability of games in this casual, social age. Certain kinds of game and certain games companies are now remarkably good at exploiting sunk cost and commitment bias, and in order to only play games that we enjoy, we should evaluate the game better, and decide earlier when it may be time to quit.
Over the past couple of hours, I’ve been encouraging the people of Twitter and Facebook to help me create the world’s greatest culinary cultural travesty. Starting with a pizza base, as probably the easiest thing to hold all the other stuff, I intend to pick one of the suggested foodstuffs for each country or region, and add some to the pizza.
Then cook and eat it, for great internet lulz.
There’s still plenty of time for you to suggest more foods from more places! The table below lists everything suggested so far, which I will try to keep up-to-date.
Country Food Suggesting Person
Miri & Richard Kille
I was working up to a blog post on Ubuntu’s new “Unity” interface a couple of days ago, but repeatedly stalled when it came to making a point. The only point I could come up with was essentially just “I don’t like this”, which isn’t the greatest of subjects for a blog post – to say nothing of the hundreds who have trodden that territory before me.
It’s a fairly bold new direction for Ubuntu’s UI, and the first time their default interface has really diverged from what the upstream GNOME project provides. Now I don’t like it for a number of reasons: it’s slow, it doesn’t provide some basic functionality, other functionality is really well hidden (Go on, re-order your icons. Try it.) and it’s got an “our way or nothing” approach to handling workspaces.
On one hand, as a software guy whose main specialisation is user interface design, I understand the urge to try new UI paradigms as often as possible, on the grounds that sooner or later you’ll discover something that really is better than what you currently have. On the other hand, I quietly despair at how far off that “something better” seems.
Take, for example, me. I’m a UX person, and a perfectionist when it comes to interfaces. I’m irritated by slightly-wrong fonts and icons a couple of pixels out of alignment. I love new things, new ways of organising and displaying data. I’m big on augmented reality. And my desktop looks like this:
Now I think that’s aesthetically pleasing, but in terms of functionality, it resembles nothing quite so much as:
The only notable exception is GNOME-Do (think Launchy on Windows or Quicksilver on OS X), which I use exclusively for launching apps. The main menu, lower left, only gets used if I forget the name of something. Aside from that, I’m using my computer in exactly the same way I was 16 years ago.
The reason for that, as far as I can tell, is that it is the UI of least resistance. In sixteen years, probably 99% of my computer-using time has involved an interface that’s very similar to that one. Sure, there are certainly better UIs out there. Maybe from an objective point of view, Unity is one of them. But for more than half of my life, my brain has been slowly optimising itself for the Windows 95 style interface.
To become the “next big thing” in desktop UI, a new paradigm must not only be better than what came before, it must be so much better that our brains don’t mind losing half a lifetime’s worth of learning.
That’s a milestone I haven’t seen reached lately on the desktop, and a fear we may not see it reached before “the desktop” stops being a thing.
Nearly six months ago, I sketched out some ideas for a site then called “healthi.ly”, since renamed to Daily Promise. In time I coded it up, made it public, and made the same commitment I have to other sites in the past – 20 active users gets it its own domain and investment of time and effort. Less than that, and it goes how it goes.
It never did make it to 20 users. Its height was around 10, and has since fallen to just two. Today, it falls to one.
I am leaving Daily Promise.
It remains where it is, costing me nothing, ready for use by anyone should they so wish. Its source code is still public, for anyone to grab and build upon.
I’m leaving simply because it doesn’t, after all, help me keep my promises – it merely helps me monitor them. I never found myself striving to beat my record, never felt a pang of guilt as I ticked a row of “no” boxes. I merely carried on as normal, not changing my lifestyle, just monitoring my behaviour as a set of green and red boxes that were at first fun, then over time became a chore.
Two apologies are due before I lay it finally to rest:
- Firstly to @HolyHaddock, who submitted a patch that would allow Daily Promise to allow “do this x times per week” promises – a requirement for his use case. Unfortunately it broke the way I used it, and I never worked up the enthusiasm to merge the two properly. So my apologies for your wasted effort.
- Secondly to @telli_vision, who outlasts me as the only remaining user of Daily Promise. My apologies for leaving you on your own, and I hope that the site remains useful for you.
And of course, thank you to all the users, everyone who offered their comments during the design phase and everyone who submitted bug reports since.
Daily Promise belongs to the world’s ever-increasing body of free software. If you like it, use it. If you don’t like something about it, take it, build on it, and make it yours. I’d love to hear from you.