27 October 2007

Social Networking Re-visited

Long-time readers know that part of my motivation for starting this blog was to observe and comment on some trends in blogging and social networking. At the time, "micro-blogging" sites like Twitter and Jaiku were just making their appearance, and others like Facebook and MySpace seemed to suddenly be the focus of a lot of attention, both in the blogosphere and on Wall Street. Things change fast in the techno-world.

When I first wrote about micro-blogging just a few months ago, it was a brand-new phenomenon. After checking out a number of them, I decided a little-known start-up called Jaiku was the best of the bunch, and earlier this month, it was acquired by Google for undisclosed terms (how does a publicly traded company like Google get away with that?).

I've been mostly ignoring the growing hype about MySpace and Facebook, because I've considered them mostly US-centric phenomena. A lot of the tech press is US-based, so they often carry on about what they view as huge technology sensations that are transforming entire societies, such as the Blackberry or the Palm Treo, that are often scarcely known outside of the USA, and at the same time not even notice transformative technologies such as SMS or Skype simply because the USA is one of the few markets they haven't had an impact on. Nonetheless, I thought it was time to have a look at these two social networking megasites, and also a couple of alternatives that haven't received as much attention.

As I've mentioned in earlier postings on technology issues, one of the things that irritates me the most about many US-based sites is their US centricism. For example, use any US-produced software package or web site that requires to specify your time zone and invariably, the default time zone will be San Francisco. Other producers don't suffer from this kind of egocentrism -- Finnish-based Jaiku or Nokia, for example, logically and neutrally default to Greenwich Mean Time. Facebook is unfortunately one of those sites that goes much further in this respect. The default time zone issue is only the beginning. "Social networking" as a web-site genre is a term coined to cover those like Facebook don't fit neatly into other categories. Some use it a business networking tool, à la LinkedIn; others use it for dating, more like Meetic or Match.com. I think the emergence of the category reflects the way in which the sharp dividing lines we once maintained between our personal and professional lives are gradually fading. One result, for Facebook, is that you are asked to answer a question in your profile about your "political views". You answer this question with a drop-down box, which displays a series of linear options, ranging from "very liberal" to "very conservative," reflecting the American belief in the two-party system in which everyone's politics can be plotted along a narrow linear spectrum. There is an option for "other," and presumably the designers of the Facebook web-site see nothing even vaguely inappropriate about lumping the Fascists, Socialists, Marxists, Monarchists, Anarchists, Platonists, Theocrats, Maoists, Greens, Peasant and rural parties, Federalists, Whigs, Tories, Trade Unionists and various other parts of the political continuum into this single catch-all category. This succinctly says more about American political and social attitudes than most PhD thesis dissertations on the topic probably do.

If that was just an irritation, another short-coming of the Facebook site that really inhibits its utility is the designer's decision that members may only belong to a single geographic "network" at a time. I was added by default to the "Sweden" network based on the address I provided when I signed up; if I want to change to the "Qatar" network I must drop my membership in Sweden, and the frequency of change is limited. Again, a decision very reflective of uniquely American prejudices, and not supportive of the increasingly globalised lifestyle most of us at (at least those of us outside of the USA) are now living. As I divide my time between Sweden and Qatar, it would be sensible for me to join both networks, and also to join networks in other countries I visit regularly and where I maintain active social and business networks, such as the UK, the USA, Jordan, Hungary and Poland. Overall, I like MySpace more than FaceBook, but there are two others I think are better than either .

First is LinkedIn, which for reasons of simple utility and effectiveness is a much better business networking tool than either Facebook or MySpace. It much more down to earth, with none of the vapid time-wasting nonsense like gifts, lists, groups, chats, "poking", "writing on someone's wall," etc. It's a well-designed, serious business tool that I have already used to do business networking, find jobs and projects, and share ideas.

But my favourite social networking site of all has been evolving into such a site from very different origins. Plaxo was originally designed as a clever utility that simply allowed members to have their Outlook contact databases automatically updated whenever another member changed their contact info. No need to send out emails when you moved, or to manually update your friends' details when they moved. Later they added synching of all your Outlook data -- calendar, tasks, and notes as well as contacts -- with Plaxo on-line, which enabled you to view this data from anywhere. With the latest version, it's moved much closer to a full social networking site, and has introduced a really cool feature called "Pulse" which is a sort of way of putting all of your friends activities in more than a dozen sites -- Jaiku, Flickr, Twitter, MySpace, Del.icio.us, YouTube, Digg, etc. into a single "Pulse" stream. As a Plaxo member, I can register my accounts with all these other sites into my Pulse, and then any of my contacts can receive a notification when I send out a new Jaiku, post a new video on YouTube, add new photos on Flickr, or make a new post to my blog. That way the connections I already have on Plaxo don't have to become "Friends" on Flickr or MySpace in order to keep up with what I'm doing -- with the proliferation of these services, I'm getting overwhelmed with email request to become "friends" with people I already connect with on two or three other sites.

27 October 2007
Doha, Qatar

04 October 2007

The Smörgåsbord Post

Life in Doha is as stable, boring, predictable and unbloggable as ever. My big excitement for the week was finally finding a way to get around Qatar's offensively paternalistic efforts at protecting me from web content I might not be able to handle through their internet filtering system. I happened across an internet ad for Proxy 1 Arabia, a service that guaranteed unfiltered access to the entire internet for the low, low price of 20 USD/month, or 90 USD for six months. I was a bit sceptical, but decided to risk 20 bucks, and paid for a month using my Google checkout (a competitor to those greedy fascists over at PayPal) account for the first time. To my surprise and delight, it worked like a charm, and one of the first things I did was check out a link to a video about Qatar a friend sent a couple of weeks ago, which I've been unable to view thanks to the censor. I'm not going to tell you anything about the content -- just check it out for yourself -- it's hysterically funny, and at time mark 0:45, there's a nice shot of the building I work in.

I titled this post the "Smörgåsbord Post" not because of my participation in a broad conspiracy to increase the usage of Swedish terms in the English language, but because of the somewhat diverse and disconnected of the subjects I wanted to touch on. Today's post is sort of the linguistic equivalent of my buffet lunches at the Four Seasons here in Doha -- yesterday I returned to my table from the buffet with a platter bearing some tabouleh, some sushi, some macaroni and cheese, some quiche, some aloo wat, and some chicken madras.

A couple of days ago I spoke with my brother, Maggot, in Hawaii. I was curious to know how the new interisland ferry service, the Hawaii Superferry, was faring. I have long found it almost inconceivable that the Hawaiian Islands do not have a ferry service sailing between them -- despite the fact that on a clear day, from a good elevation, you can see just about the entire island chain from the Big Island, the only way to get from one island to another is to fly. I regard the situation as just another manifestation of de Tocqueville's "American Exceptionalism," the phenomenon that dictates that Americans must do everything differently than the rest of world, no matter how immoral or illogical. Hence, the death penalty, 120 volt electricity and the use of the English system of weights and measures. America has very few ferries. If you cannot drive there, you probably have to fly there. Somehow, however, someone managed to sneak some logic into Hawaii whilst nobody was looking, and the state decided to introduce an inter-island service. Two gigantic state of the art ferries were ordered from Incat, in Hobart, Australia, the first of which was delivered to Honolulu in August. It should be understood that prior to the approval of this service, the plan had to survive all manner of legal and environmental challenges from every kind of fruitcake you can imagine. Some said it could injure migrating whales. Others said "invasive species" (I presume they were concerned about species other than environmental alarmists) would hitch-hike from island to island in the bilge water. All of these numerous hurdles were patiently dealt with by the planners of the service. The first of the two ferries arrived for service in Honolulu. The company's website opened for sales, and people began buying tickets. It was a huge success and all the acrimony and concern that marked the planning phase was quickly forgotten! No! Of COURSE not! This is America! Arriving in Kaua'i on 28 August, the ferry was met by a bunch of protesters, who were concerned about "the environment". Here's a video of this event:

No need for me to comment on the intelligence of the people participating in this protest. What really irritates me is that if you were truly were worried about the environment, you'd be out at the AIRPORT, blocking flights from landing out of concern for the massively larger carbon footprint of a flight in comparison with a relatively eco-friendly ferry journey. Beyond the lack of logic, the opponents of the ferry have attempted to slap every socially-charged label they can think of on this initiative -- according to them, it's a race issue, it's a class issue, it's a mainlander versus islander issue, it's a development vs. environmental protection issue, it's an Oahu vs. the other islands issue, it's a North-South issue, it's an East-West issue, it's a Conservative-Liberal issue, it's everything in the world EXCEPT a TRANSPOR*FUCKING*TATION issue! All I want is be able to take the ferry from Honolulu to the Big Island next time I visit my brother -- mostly because sea transport is my favourite mode of transportation, but also because it will mean two fewer encounters with the TSA.

Finally, I think readers should have look at the long and in-depth article the New York Times published today on the Bush torture programme. Although most of us have known for a long time that Bush's public denials of endorsing torture were blatant and obvious lies, now we finally have "smoking gun" proof that when Bush said "We do not torture," he was lying through his teeth. A few years ago, a Republican-controlled congress got its collective knickers in a twist over Clinton's declaration that "I did not have sex with that woman;" consistency demands they respond to Bush's lie the same way: impeachment.

4 October 2007