Wk31: Wait A Minute Mr Postman – The Problem With Email

Is this really the best way to deliver your mail?

Have you ever sat in a corporate seminar that taught you how to email? I have. Many times.

One time, the instructor told us this: that emails are legally binding documents, like mail. And should be treated like mail. Like legal documents.

This is, of course, bullshit.

Email is like language itself. We, the people, define it. And we have decided that the formal document is just one of it’s many uses.

But when we divide up what we use email for, we see that other alternatives are creeping up.

The crux of all this is that email serves a lot of purposes. And some people treat it like one thing.

It can be quick sharp text messaging.
It can be short notes and banter
It can be a long letter
It can be a 40 page report.
It can be….anything.

With links and attachments, emails can be absolutely anything.

And we send 107,000,000,000 of them a year.

But are they the best at everything? It’s quickly seeming like a no.

It seems insane that email might become redundant. And maybe we will replace it in parts.

Email has it’s limits and it’s drawbacks.

Spam is a problem. I hate keeping track of people’s changing emails. Both those problems are solved in Facebook’s message system. Some universities don’t give their new students email addresses. They get a social media account.

I don’t have to update my Facebook address book when someone changes work. It’s constantly updated for me. In a way, Sean Parker’s failed dream of Plaxo has come true.

Think about it. Before Facebook, there was still a chance you could lose track of someone. If you don’t have their email address, then what?

Spam is less of a problem on Facebook too. A Spam Robot can’t trawl the net for your Facebook inbox and send you a message. Those message are protected.

Ok, yes, there’s limits. No attachments. And maybe you want the odd unsolicited message. And more.

Let’s get to those.

Why else do people use email?

I subscribe to things. Band newsletters, site updates etc. And Twitter is just far better for that. And more instant. Most mailing list send outs have a link to read them online. And they will never go to spam if I just follow the headlines from Twitter.

No attachments? Plenty of sites to store files. As we head into an era of could computing, why send me that mp3? Why not just share it with me on my the cloud? Who needs downloads?

The irony, of course, is that most of these services take an email to sign up to. Facebook’s Connect service is a big challenge to that. Some sites like Rootmusic allow you sign in from your Facebook account – no email required EVER.

Emails are easier to store, and easier to file. But not THAT easy. I’ve been dragging certain emails around for years. And have lost many more. My gmail account, almost a decade old, is unsearchable, full of crap.

The fact it’s supposed to be everything is one of it’s problems. Useless notifications about some WordPress setting are mixed in with important receipts. Newsletters mixed with work figures. Personal emails mixed with links to jokes.

Everyone has thousands of emails under their belt. Thousands is probably cutting it short by a long way. Millions is more like it. Being a desk jockey, my whole job is just pushing emails around. Is this really the best way to communicate?

Google Wave is considered now a failure, but I thought it was interesting. The Google team obviously thought about what was wrong with emails tried to address them. Instead of twenty mails back and forth about one thing, it all sits in one “conversation”. It wasn’t perfect, but they tried to address the way people loop in others or exclude people as email trails grow and grow.

It might sound like a small issue but all that crap you get at the top when you reply to an email – the “to” and “from” stuff. Useless. Sometimes I have something to send but cannot be fucked coming up with a subject title all the time.

Email has not really developed the way just about everything else online has. I can’t embed videos. File sizes are still a problem.It is a formatting nightmare all around. And they aren’t as instant as they first seemed. God knows how many times I’ve asked someone if they have my email yet.

Spam and security are still issues. I still have to manually allow graphics in my emails in most cases. Most identity fraud and hack jobs use email as their way in. Yet we still hang on to email as our main means of communicating with eachother.

It’s one of the nice things about technology. If what you have isn’t perfect, and not improving, then someone somewhere is quietly reinventing it.

And email is far from perfect, and definitely not improving.

A few years ago, friends of mine started to abandon the landline. It was a bit risky, but they felt like they never used it. They will learn to live without it.

Maybe that day is coming for email. Not soon, but it’s coming.

It’s an interesting experiment to think about. Can a person survive without an email address these days? And if not, are we getting closer to the point where that can be true?

It’s obviously unfeasible right now. But not so impossible as we once thought.

Wk23: Close Your Eyes – the flagging power of advertising and clickthroughs

Ads are getting quite silly these days

Is anyone else worried that there might not be enough advertising money to fund the internet?

By all accounts, the online market is STILL growing. Yet, right now, I am already sick of advertising covering just about everything I see online. Is it only going to get worse?

Be it apps, social networks or websites, everywhere is an ad. Advertising funds the internet. It funds Google, it funds Facebook, it funds Twitter. It funds newspapers online, blogs and more. It’s almost to the point where if you don’t have ads, it’s not a real site.

But it is lowest common denominator stuff. Pop up ads. Expanding video ads. Ads with sudden audio. Plenty of scantily clad ladies. Ads before videos. Ads before websites. They might as well hit you in the face with a coke can.

It is all about eyeballs and click-throughs.

Eyeballs is how many people see the ad. Click-throughs are how many people click on a follow through.

Which has turned the internet into one big game of eyeballs. And plenty of under-handed tricks are around to make you click on things just to add to someone’s eyeball count.

Take the Huffington Post. Possibly the worst site on the internet. Amongst the many under-handed and sly tricks they use is pumping out list after list that means nothing, just to get people looking at their ads. They are really, really good at it too.

Some topics bring in more hits than others. The Dark Knight, Harry Potter and Radiohead seems to draw bigger numbers, despite the value of the news. Constantly reporting about these topics, even when there is no news, makes more money than reporting on actual news.

It is not good for journalism. But it is how the internet has been running for years now.

Are we getting sick of ads? I know I am. In fact, many small ones I tune them out completely.

But ignoring them also leads to a worrying slide.

The more we mentally block out ads, the less we click on them.

The less we click on them, the less effective they will be (and… cheaper to buy too).

Meaning? There could be even more ads.

People say they want digital content for free – but it’s not free. It’s crowded with fucking ads.

You have artists like Tom Waits who take a hard stance against the use of their music for advertising. But when Waits’ music is already on Spotify, paid for by their ad clients, is there any difference?

And will anyone make a Tom Waits-like stand in the online world? Will any site with hundreds of thousands of readers refuse advertising on a cred argument? I’d like to see it but I doubt it. I think the online world has decided that ads are the way to make money.

And so we get to things like Content Farms. These are sites that are surrounded by ads, with one small piece of content. Say – how to tie a tie. Because people type those questions into search engines, you have these sites pop up and they will make money off someone.

Shitter still is the current run of “free” Apps filled with ads. Even when you buy games, some decide to show you ads as well.

Can anything be done?

Maybe.

I am toying with building a website naming and shaming annoying ads and boycotting them. Maybe it wont work, but I know I do it. But so far it’s all about dishwashing liquids and stuff where the audio pops up. Although if I was John Safran or the Chaser, I would go to the homes of these people and suddenly pump these ads at them at volume.

I am also careful where I click. It might seem stupid but I avoid shitty sites that are all about the ads. I also boycott the Huffington Post’s stupid lists. Or looks slideshow lists that make me click ten times. All these stupid tricks to get me to see ads.

I would list the sites but it might inspire curiosity in you, and get you googling.

But look out for these shitty sites. They use headlines like traps. They republish articles by others and hype them up to get traffic. You will notice them more. And if we all made a bit of an effort to avoid them, they wont grow.

Basically, the internet is moving away from the Encyclopedia Britannica and more like a Big W catalogue.

But back to my original worry. Is there enough internet money to go around?

How much stuff is there to advertise? It was a 2.3 billion dollar market in Australia last year. Will there ever be a ceiling? Or can we actually hit 5 billion? Or 10 billion? Is there that much to advertise?

Or if we hit the ceiling, what happens then? Then will there be even more underhanded tricks to get your eyeballs?

If we expand our number of readers, can we grow beyond a reasonable amount for anyone to advertise with? It’s the problem YouTube has. What do you advertise next to a cat video with 20 million views? What one product has any chance of appealing to 20 million people from such disparate places?

And then there’s the places they don’t advertise on yet. Like my operating system. Like my mp3 program. Apple’s iCloud perhaps? When the money runs out, you know some bastard will get there.

Hopefully the era of advertising paying for the internet will end before any of that happens. Google, Facebook, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo make billions a year in advertising. They are not going to let that go. But if there was just ANY other way to make money, we could solve this.

Which is maybe the first step of asking if the internet is free. People pay for Spotify to get rid of the ads. Or if a site takes a stand as ad-free, we should support them. And perhaps subscriptions is the future after all.

I don’t know. All I know is that I’m sick of being sold things every second of my online life. And it’s only getting worse.

Wk13: Lost In Translation – The Treachery Of English

Languages is still a challenge online

I consider myself, pretentiously, an international citizen. I speak a couple of languages and I’m learning another. That, coupled with travel has made me aware of what I call the “Treachery of English”. Why is technology so inherently English?

In the futuristic TV show Firefly, everyone speaks the only two languages that are left – English and Chinese. It doesn’t seem so much like science fiction anymore.

It seems an odd by-product of the internationalisation of our culture. That language seems to be moving to a Highlander model – there can be only one.

Digital success favours the English. How many great digital products have come from non-English properties? Perhaps only Spotify. Google, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, YouTube, etc. All from English speaking countries (mainly the US). No wonder some countries see the internet itself as Western Imperialism.

How did we get here?

Sometimes the language itself is the problem. I worked for two years on a project to create a Chinese version of a website and was thrown head first into the problems of double byte. After we spent thousands, we would have had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch.

URLs are in English. HTML uses Roman characters. The whole internet would have to be reinvented to make it otherwise. To work in the digital space you have to learn English. And sadly, this battle may have been fought and lost. Maybe some future iteration of HMTL may change it but I think not.

But there is a bigger threat. That framework of English washes down river, with major consequences.

New technologies start in English or Roman characters. With luck they expand futher, but usually they don’t. Twitter is reliant on English. iTunes only has one store that displays non Roman characters – Japanese. And most computers can’t disply it correctly because it uses a plugin for Windows. Even the Chinese keyboard on an iPhone, a device of infinite possibilities, is clumsy.

But it isn’t just east versus west.

Everything starts with one language – English. How far down the list is Danish? Czech? Or French Canadian? These are the languages that are dying out.

These smaller languages always get screwed. Movies, even big tentpole ones, don’t get translated into many languages. You might get a French, Chinese or German, but Serbian?

But here is the point of all this:

The digital revolution should destroy these market concerns.

We can reach anyone who can speak any language – online.

I am going to use Harry Potter as a barometer for languages. Those books were published in over 65 languages (including language variations like French Canadian, Cantonese and more). This says to me that there is a) a market, no matter how small and b) a translator probably looking for work.

Point a), the small market, should be big enough to support the zero printing cost of digital. And hopefully the profits from that small market can support the wages of Mr b).

And if that market is there, and it’s attended to and supported – it can grow

Then there are the books that already exist. For some reason, my iTunes/iBook account doesn’t let me buy any French books. Why? Why can’t I get the Serbian digital version of Harry Potter. Or at least the French one?

Like most things, it’s a hangover from the old world. Why would you print up French Harry Potters in the UK, when there is a small audience for it? But now it’s clicks of a button, the changing of territory rights in a table. Yet no one is looking at this. Or worse, someone is still thinking it’s not worth their time.

This might horrify right wingers who believe in one language for one country. But I believe otherwise. How great to be able to access books, movies and music in their original language.

Film, books and music companies are bleeding money. And online sales are healthy, but they are still missing out on a massive financial trick. All because we are still used to promoting and selling one language version in one country. Everything else is a niche market.

If we are all looking for money, surely catering to all language speakers everywhere is the first step.

Let’s look at it from another angle. I want to buy Roald Dahl’s works in French.

It exists. It’s been digitised. iTunes has it on their servers. I have a credit card. You want my money. I want to give it to them.

What’s the hold up?

How do we avoid the vision of the future from Firefly? How do we stop culture from sliding into a single language monotone?

We have to make the internet admit that there is more than just English. And the underused, under appreciated non English market could be a critical key in making digital products more profitable.

It’s a world wide web after all. Lets reflect the whole world.

Wk 12: I’m So Tired – Digital fatigue and retirement

"This Angry Birds game is brilliant!"

When I was young, I would program the VCR for my family home. I don’t think this was a rare occurrence. Most kids I know were better than their parents at it. They were old and didn’t understand how these new machines work.

Years later, I realised that I didn’t know how to tune a VCR anymore. The technology passed me by. I would sit there holding a tune button on the player. But now it was on the remote. And little cousins of mine were better than it than me.

For years this thought has haunted me ever since.

What if technology passes me by completely? How do I stop it?

The idea of “digital retirement” is taking, ironically, some strides in my life. Having just turned 30, many of my friends are wary and against Twitter. They just don’t ‘get’ it.

What is annoying is the arrogance of this statement. It’s almost as if they’re saying “Hmmm, I think the world is wrong on this one.” When the opposite is true. It is the point where you have retired from the digital world.

How does this happen?

There’s a Douglas Adams quote that is often used out of context:

– Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

– Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

– Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Adams used this in a piece about technology, and the DANGERS of perceiving things as wrong or weird just because you happen to be born at the wrong time for it.

But there is a deeper reason tied to another old quote.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

My problem with the VCR came because I already learnt how to program a VCR. And it is harder to forget something than it is to learn something.

Most people I’ve spoken to will not get a different phone from an iPhone on their next upgrade. The main reason seems to be – I can’t go back. Regardless on where you stand on the iPhone, learning a whole new mobile operating system is a pain. I was once given a Sony Ericsson phone for free, with a camera. And kept my old two colour camera-less Nokia because it was too hard to learn a new thing.

This is an important side point. People can get stuck in their ways. Apple has gotten there first with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Yet they struggled for decades against Windows because who could be bothered learning a whole new operating system? The digital world – although ever changing – is ruled by habit.

The other great example is when Facebook changes anything. Oh the complaints.

But the world is going to change with or without you. And pretty soon the technology and networks that support my old Nokia (let alone that sized sim card) will be gone completely. Do I rally against the future? Is it against the natural order of things?

If there is such a thing as “digital retirement”, something I personally want to avoid at all costs, then it comes from “digital fatigue”. That all this new technology is getting too much. And technology just grows faster and faster.

So, the way to defeat it might be the thing that keeps normal retirement and fatigue at bay.

Exercise.

Try new things. Keep active in the digital space. Try out new things. Get the blood flowing in those muscles.

The people I’ve met who I think are the best thinkers, and are ahead of the game, are naturally curious. And they have dozens of logins to try out every new service they hear about. And they don’t always understand them, but who does.

You don’t have to love it – the general opinion of chatroulette was that it was crap and a fad. Most people agreed, but who actually tried it?

It’s that attitude I love – constant discovery.

I am still excited by new technology all the time. I don’t always understand it, but I don’t understand all new music either.

What I am worried about, is if I ever get to the point where I say “I don’t get it”. If I hate it – fine. If I don’t even understand, that’s a worry.

Once again – take Twitter. We all knew that the first people to hop onto that would be those with the most free time and the least to say. We saw that with mIRC. Then with forums. Then on MySpace and Facebook. But those who never thought any of those things were worth their time were never going to ‘get’ Twitter.

I wonder what Albert Einstein would make of an iPad. Would he “get” it? I know my parents are amazed I have a French dictionary on my phone. Maybe he wouldn’t understand it – but he would understand it’s usefulness – maybe? Or maybe it would be too much for him.

But that retirement is bound to happen to me. And in a way, I’m looking forward to that too. I love tech, digital and inventions. That in my lifetime there may be something so new, so different that my mind just gives up on it – that’s exciting.

Until then, there is so much to explore. And to explore FOR THE SAKE OF EXPLORING.

Travel keeps you young, they say. And adventures in new digital technology can keep digital retirement at bay too.

Wk11: Close To You – the open and closed debate, and do we care?

Open source, open platforms, closed ecosystems – seems these terms have been bandied about A LOT of late. They are very technical terms, and very important causes, with plenty of pros and cons on both sides.

But what about outside of the technical world?

For the music fan, the movie fan, the culturalist – where should we stand on the open vs closed debate? And should we even care?

I think we should.

But there are lots of arguments for and against either side. But maybe we can boil them down to some clear and simple headlines to keep in mind.

Open.

The idea of it is built upon one of the very foundations of the web – that all data is equal.

Open-source, open-standards, open-platforms – it all comes from that core idea. That we share information. That we remain transparent. (I’m going to refer to open-anything as “Open”).

Did you know that you can “View Source” on any website? It brings up the code for that website. Not that many people had code websites from scratch anymore, but I can see how anyone created any part of their website, and replicate that. And by doing that, learn a new skill.

A lot of great stuff has come from the world of “Open”. Firefox is probably the best example – built on a system that is completely open. The great thing is people can create more stuff that fits right into Firefox. I have an All Music Guide search bar, for instance.

This blog is created on WordPress, one of the best examples of “Open” when it works. WordPress is a “distributed company” – it’s employees all work remotely, around the planet. And they all develop for this blogging software separately (or in teams). The whole thing is open, they don’t need to worry about permission from the boss or others.

Here. Take it all. Go make something.

Closed.

Essentially, the idea that something (software, hardware), is protected, mostly as intellectual property. And you can’t screw around with it.

Even though the web is built a spirit of “Open”, computing has been ruled by “Closed”. Microsoft Office is the most famous. If you want to create an add-on for Office, you had to pay Microsoft to un “close” the door for you.

And it works. It protected the program’s integrity, and helped make it perhaps the most popular computer program in the world ever.

Similarly Apple, with it’s “closed” iTunes systems means that there is only one way to use it – Apple’s way. You don’t really own the program. You pay the company for the use of it.

But to understand it better, there is a very clear example of the spirit of “open” vs the spirit of “closed”. It’s MySpace vs Facebook.

Although not completely open-source, MySpace certainly came from the place of “Open”. You could, if you knew HTML coding, change your MySpace profile into almost anything. You could move stuff around, change all the colours and more.

Facebook, however, is very “closed”. Although they allow for some development, they a cordoned-off sandboxes in a larger, unchanging ground. You are just borrwing some space, really.

But the success and failures of both are at the heart of what “Open” and “Closed” means for us – non programming, no techie types.

“Open” is great for the technically savvy and inventive, but for a majority of us wh don’t know what we’re doing, looks shit. “Closed” traps us to conform with everyone else – but at 500 million users – maybe we’re ok with that?

The “Open” vs “Closed” fight has now gone to the tablet world. Google’s Android system is “Open”. Apple’s iPad is “Closed”. Android supporters, Apple haters and techies all attack the iPad’s “Closed” spirit. Over and over in announcements and press releases, the “Closed” point is beaten home.

But does anyone care?

Because Android has a big, huge, fineprint. Android is “Open”, and that means open to everyone. Including a simple Wallpaper App that was sending user’s personal data to somewhere in China. And it’s against the spirit of “Open” to stop it.

On the other hand, iPads and the iOS securoity measures is akin to censorship. Sure, Playboy can’t get on the store. But neither can iTunes competitors. Or clever programs that don’t fit Apple’s incredibly strict guidelines.

Yet, the iPad is the success. As is Facebook.

So who wins?

I think we have to all accept that there has to be both.

Further – that most people will go with “Closed”.

And early adopters and techies will go with “Open”.

There’s no use pumping out PR about how much better “Open” is, and how it is better for innovation and creativity. Most people don’t want innovation and creativity. They want robust and reliable. And they’ve voted that way time and time again. They voted to close.

As for “Open”, it is hugely important to keep it around. Not only as opposition – although there is a sense of “keeping the bastards honest”. But as a place for those who are more innovative, tech savvy and creative than the average bear to out those big ideas to use. Create it for the world, and the world will follow later.

I think it’s time to stop those silly articles about which is better – “Open” or “Closed”. It confuses people. And it distracts from what is truly better or worse about your product.

And in the end, there will always be a audience for both. And one far more than the other. Get over it. Case closed.

Android App sends data to China – http://www.cultofmac.com/android-app-sends-personal-data-to-china/52929

Recent discussion on Digital Planet about the “Closed” iPad. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00f32rt

Wk7: The real second life – Digital data after you die.

The dead can be a pain.

Much like pop music in the 60s, no one was quite sure how long this internet fad would last when it started. Now – as we live our most of our lives online – there are big questions to be asked. The biggest one is this:

What happens to all our digital data once we die?

It’s a hot topic for the last few months. I thought I would summarise the challenges and add some thoughts of my own.

The biggest question seems to be one of control. We leave behind a sea of digital data. We are told not to give out our passwords. But what happens to all this once we die. For those left behind, how do we access it?

Sadly – there is no one answer. The legal rights of estate executors versus the terms and conditions of social networking sites is a delicate fight. The law doesn’t side with either one, but it is sliding towards the side of the executors.

Recently, (link) Oklahoma passed a state law that gave an estate executor automatic control of the deceased’s digital accounts. But it is not that easy. Yahoo is very specific about their terms, and how you cannot transfer your account. If Yahoo was not an American company, the waters would murk further.

So just leaving it to your will may not be enough, from a legal standpoint. And there are other loopholes. Some technical (your will is public record, so leaving actual passwords in there, like bank ones, is a bad idea) and some cultural (leaving your estate to your children who may not be able to login to your accounts).

Evan Carroll and John Romano, authors of Your Digital Life (link) have lots more to say about this matter. They decry the lack of industry standard, and suggest you pick a “digital executor”. Someone who is digitally savvy and protect your legacy.

(Carroll also runs the Digital Beyond blog, that covers this issue http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com)

And what legacy is that? When you count them up, it’s a lot.

For most people, the obvious online profile you have is social media. Mainly Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and that lot. One step further is bloggers.

Then there’s User Generated sites. Flickr photos has been one that has been under contention. But there’s also YouTube.

Then services that are tied crucially to money. Your bank details are probably the most important. But there’s also Paypal. eBay. More. And various stores that take logins. Amazon. Music subscription services. iTunes login.

Games are another important one. Games like Warcraft and Second Life uses an invented currency with real life value. Although not based on money, equally crucial is any email accounts. Gmail. Hotmail. Yahoo Mail.

Then, there is simply the mark you make. Comments made on blog posts. Photos where you’ve been tagged. Music tastes submitted to Last.fm, or Apple Genius.

And there’s plenty more to go. Who owns all this data?

None of these services have a standard to do with death. Each treats security issues, and hence issues around accessing and transferring accounts, with varying seriousness. But with no standard to follow anyway, how can they come to a consensus?

(And what happens when we move beyond passwords? Are fingerprint scanners that far away?)

To try and counter this are the folks behind Digital Death Day (link). They are in their second year and have had two conferences so far and more to come. People from various walks of life are trying to get something done, and getting input from everywhere. They haven’t begun to work out a standard yet though. That is still very far away.

Beyond the rules of how things can be accessed – what should you do once you have access? How do you want to be remembered online? And how would you like to remember people you knew?

Beyond the lack of legal consensus – what is the cultural one? Is it weird for dead people to be on Facebook? Surely there’s a data issue as well. When Facebook touts it’s 500 million figure – are any of them dead?

And if we do get rid of someone’s facebook – what happens to their photos? Their comments? Their tagging? Is that not rewriting history?

And who owns it? If I put up a photo of you on my Facebook, is it mine – or yours? Do my executors have the right to decide what to do with my photos of you – ones that are tagged of you and on your profile?

Actually, Facebook is ahead of the game. They have a Memorialisation feature, which can be activated for people who have passed. It gets rid of things like contact information, but allows people to post messages. But no other service offers anything like it. I’ve not even heard of any other company looking into it.

And who said the internet was permanent anyway? In fact, far from it.

MySpace is falling apart. What happens when it falls apart completely? What happens to my profile? I’ve lost my old Geocities sites. Even URLs expire after a few years. Inactive Twitter profiles can be claimed. Some sites even clear out unused profiles after a while. How can you hold onto something that’s always moving?

If you were to freeze my digital life 5 years ago, it would look very different to my digital life now. What will it look like in 5 years time? And with even the devices we are using to view the web going through massive changes – will we leave any mark at all?

Maybe in a way that we don’t want. It maybe deleted from the web, but I’m sure I will always exist in Google’s database somewhere. That, for me, is even more worrying.

What will we leave behind? Everything? Anything?

Will my grandchildren be able to find my Last.fm profile, and see what my most listened-to artist for the week ending Feb 14th is Matthew Sweet? Will they even find this blog? What will they even do with that information?

What happens after we die? That questions seems to get bigger every day.

Digital Death Day – http://digitaldeathday.com/

Interview with the authors of “Your Digital Life” (http://www.npr.org/2011/01/10/132617124/after-death-protecting-your-digital-afterlife)

Evan Carroll’s blog – http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/

BBC article about the Facebook “Memorialisation” feature – http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8691238.stm

Wk6: Reading Up on Digital Text

His lyrics make more sense when read from the end anyway

The digital age has changed the way we perceive the world on all levels – especially the small ones. In recent years, the rise of live updating (or live-blogging) using tech like Twitter has become the fashion. But isn’t it all a little, um, upside down?

Take Gizmodo’s recent Verizon iPhone live blogging event (link). It works well when you follow it at the time, but an odd thing occurs when you read them after the fact. You have to start at the last page, and work backwards – and upwards – back to the front page.

In short, the timeline of events moves in the opposite direction to what we’ve been used to for centuries.

If I want to read about that Verizon launch as it unfolds, I’d have to start from the finish. Even if I take a break and come back, I have to start again on page 3 or something, and work my way back to page 1.

Does anyone else find this odd? Or have we already adapted to a new way of reading?

In modern English, text flows in a pre-defined, accepted way. Along the right, then down. To follow the text along time, you simply follow this flow.

Live updates (like this one) don’t. It flows right, then down a line or two, then UP. We have broken that flow.

Once you notice this, you will see it everywhere. My Facebook wall and Twitter updates also read “backwards”. Yes, those events are less connected.

And then blogging as a whole. New articles are at the top of the page, pushing everything down. People who discover list blogs like Stuff White People Like (link) will start at #132, not #1.

Comments can also work this way (although some don’t). But when you start wading into comments on some sites, you’ve started midway through a conversation, like at 9to5mac (link). And of course, Forums are built on this format.

The UK newspaper The Guardian does handles live blogging the same way – new posts jump to the top – but then flip them when the event is over. Check out the recent One Day International coverage (link) and see how easy it reads. They’ve spotted the problem and have tried to solve it.

Of course, we write this off as just kind of how it works. HTML (and all other web languages) loads from the top. It reads the code and unfolds it down the page. When you load any site, the default is you start at the top. And it’s taken as given that we want to see the newest info first.

But there is an alternative. One that most people are familiar with. One that works differently to webpages, and reads well both during-the-event and after-the-event. And it’s not an obscure thing – it’s ubiquitous.

It’s every chat program.

Let’s look at the popular Facebook chat function. It pushes old text UP. New messages are slotted in BELOW what’s been said before. It causes no confusion. It really is just a scrolling issue.

Another idea, perhaps more feasible, is a simple sort function for micro-blogging. Sort-recent and sort-date? Or perhaps someone will make an app that natively scrolls up as part of it’s environment. There are some ideas out there.

The latest version of Safari has an excellent “reader” function. With one click, any page that looks like an article can be altered. The main article pops up in a light-box (with easy to read black text on white), every side bar and banner ad fades to the background. Better still, articles split over several pages are one easy-to-read scroll. Safari can identify text and put it in order and make it look readable. So we are almost there.

Your computer screen is not a page – it’s a window. And you can move that window in any direction. Sure, there are technical limitations. They probably have to rewrite HTML from scratch. But the internet wasn’t built by bolting on new ideas to the old. It’s about visions that smash the old to bits.

Is it even a problem though?

It seems we are coping with this change without to much trouble. References to old articles for new readers can be easily linked. Personally, I find it easy to ignore and scroll past recent articles if I want to read from the start.

I don’t think technology itself can kill off any form of expression. But take something like serialised fiction. Or daily comic strips – those legendary Calvin & Hobbes adventures that would last for days. We either find a new way to sort, or their creators find a new way to express.

Either way, this low level dissonance can’t last. The note will have to resolve itself.

The way we are reading has changed over the centuries. And the fundamental way we read, and the text flow, is evolving right now. Question is – do we let technology dictate how we read, or do we come up with a better way?

Examples of “broken flow” articles – http://live.gizmodo.com/http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-1353734/Wolves-v-Manchester-United-live.html

Corrected “broken flow – http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2011/feb/02/australia-england-odi-live

The wonderful Stuff White People Like blog – http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/

The excellent 9to5mac blog, with it’s silly complicated comments system – http://www.9to5mac.com