Twitter tools

As in tools for using Twitter, not tools on Twitter (though there are plenty of those!). I may review a few this week. The first one’s easy, useful, and unlike some of the other ones, actually works.

The site is Backtweets. Search for a URL and Backtweets shows you who has linked to it on Twitter, including links that use URL shorterners. It’s a great tool for tracking commentary about your blog.

I’m currently testing out a few Twitter apps that are a lot more complicated and running into some problems. If I get them working I may post about them tomorrow.


On candid camera

Yesterday I spent a few miles driving alongside this truck:

Camera truck

That’s a camera array on top. From what I can tell, it belongs to a company hired by Microsoft to obtain photographs to go along with its mapping software (like Google Street View). Maybe I’ll end up on their site soon.

This may be unrelated, but it sounds like they have some interesting things planned for a program called Geosynth:

The service will take the images and metadata from geotagged imagery supplied by the public to a special database and form them into Streetview-like world view application. Microsoft Virtual Earth expert Johannes Kebeck explained that the system will apparently be moderated somehow, so the “system would take the best images from a location to create a single image of a specific landmark,” when talking to If the scheme takes off and generates enough crowd-sourced images, it’ll eventually be possible to view pretty much anywhere on the planet.

Incidentally, there are worse ways to be spotted in an online mapping program than in a Pontiac Aztek.


David Pogue says I have no life

New York Times tech columnist David Pogue is, surprisingly, new to Twitter. He’s written a column about it that provides a good description of what it’s like to use the potentially bewildering service. It’s worth a look if you’re considering signing up. I liked this bit about how bottom-up spontaneous order turned a very basic application into a wonderful network:

In fact, [founder Evan] Williams said that a huge chunk of Twitter lore, etiquette and even terminology has sprouted up from Twitter users without any input from the company. For example, the people came up with the term “tweets” (what everyone calls the messages). The crowd began referring to fellow Twitterers by name like this: @pogue. Soon, that notation became a standard shorthand that the Twitter software now recognizes. The masses also came up with conventions like “RT,” meaning re-tweet — you’re passing along what someone else said on Twitter.

Pogue also says that I have no life:

Nobody has the time to read all the tweets from more than about 30 people — at least, nobody with a life.

Hey, I follow 149 people and I at least skim all of their updates. On the other hand, I’m terribly underemployed right now and stayed up till 4 am last night reading comic books, so maybe he has a point.

But seriously, scanning through Twitter doesn’t take that long and it’s a key part of my morning routine, which usually goes something like: Check email, brew coffee, scan Twitter, go through my RSS feeds, open news websites, and finally sort my Firefox tabs. Twitter is an effective way to get rapidly up to speed on what my friends are doing and what’s going on in the world.

An interesting side effect of being on the West Coast is how my feed changes throughout the day. It starts out very political with lots of updates from DC friends, who still make up the bulk of my contacts. By early evening here they’re closing down for the night or posting drunken tweets. By late night the politics are gone and it’s just my non-political food and drink friends from Europe and the West Coast posting updates. By morning it’s back to heavy politics from the East Coast crew who’ve been up for hours ahead of me.

I would add one more rule to what Pogue suggests: If you have a blog, don’t link every post in your Twitter feed. An occasional highlight is fine, but anyone tech-savvy enough to be on Twitter has probably mastered RSS. They’ll follow your blog if they want to.

By the way, I am @jacobgrier on Twitter if you’d like to follow for faster, briefer content like what you see on this blog, along with random personal updates.

[Hat tip to Maureen Ogle, who needs to stop writing about Twitter and just join it already! Even if only as an experiment.]

Organizational tweeting
Faking it


Kindled desire

From Caleb I learn that the second generation Kindle is coming out later this month. Yes, I want one, though the $359 price tag would prevent me from buying now even if I didn’t have reservations about it.

And I do have reservations. One is the standard objection that books just feel better. I love my books and don’t really feel at home in a place until I’ve unpacked them. But books take up a lot of space, space that could be devoted instead to things like bourbon and Scotch (no electronic replacements for those on the horizon). I’ve reached the point where storing thousands of books in a device that takes up the volume of one would be very welcome.

The bigger problem is DRM. Buying books on the Kindle is taking a gamble that it will remain a viable format for as long as you want to keep your library. It’s an inconvenience for customers that probably does very little to prevent privacy. John Siracusa has a fascinating article at Ars Technica this month about the frustratingly slow progress in e-books, caused in part by publishers’ insistence on crippling their products with DRM:

Nuances aside, the big picture remains the same: DRM for digital media distribution to consumers is a mathematically, technologically, and intellectually bankrupt exercise. It fails utterly to deliver its intended benefit: the prevention of piracy. Its disadvantages, however, are provided in full force: limiting what consumers can legally do with content they have legitimately purchased, under threat of civil penalties or criminal prosecution. […]

“Piracy!” the publishers cry. “This is exactly what happened to the music business!” This is a good place to point out yet another reality not recognized by this panic over digital distribution. Whether or not publishers choose to sell e-books, digital versions of their content are already available online thanks to OCR (etc.) and, in the case of the most popular books, collaborative transcription. (For example, when photographs depicting all 759 pages of the final Harry Potter book were leaked, the entire book was transcribed before the official release date of the printed book.)

To sum up, e-books have an incredible upside for publishers and little to no downside, since all the things publishers fear will happen as a consequence of selling e-books have already happened, and will continue to happen with or without the widespread sale of e-books.

Relatedly, Bobbie Johnson argues at the Guardian that the lack of widespread book piracy is one reason that publishers haven’t been driven to create a viable electronic market.

When the Kindle first came out, I told a friend that I refused to buy electronic books if I couldn’t upload them to my computer, search them, and copy-and-paste the text. This seemed like a strong objection to me, but he had a devastatingly simple reply: “You can’t do that with paper books and you buy those all the time.” Touché.

Even with DRM, the Kindle’s advantages might eventually persuade me to buy one. For now, though, I’m holding out for a DRM-free alternative.

For more on Amazon’s strategy with the new Kindle, see this article in the Wall Street Journal (via Megan).


Tear down these Facebook walls

Via Elizabeth Nolan Brown, a rant about importing Twitter updates to Facebook from early last year:

If there’s one thing that reeeeaaaalllly annoys me on Facebook, it’s when my contacts update their status updates using Twitter.


Seriously, dude, maybe you should start using Facebook status updates in the way in which Mr Zukerburg intended? I follow you on Twitter and we’re friends on Facebook so we’ve obviously got a good relationship going on. But, dude, you’re inundating me with your updates and I’m reading them multiple times.

Like Elizabeth, I’m one of the annoying people who do this. But also like her, the relevant comparison isn’t me updating the two services separately, it’s not updating Facebook at all. In the 3+ years I was using Facebook without Twitter I never once wrote a status update. This was in part because I underestimated how many people pay attention to them. I didn’t, so I assumed no one else did either. But once I started importing Tweets, people I hadn’t talked to in years started commenting on them. I took this as confirmation that it’s worth doing this, despite the fact that it sends along confusing updates like “@XXX Congrats! Has Ryan let you touch the machine yet?”

But that’s not the only reason I don’t update manually. The other is that I’d like to see Facebook fail. Not in the sense of giving way to the next site in the line of Friendster, MySpace (pronounced muh-space), and Orkut, but to get past walled off services entirely. Facebook has become a one-stop shop for all kinds of things that it’s not actually very good at. Its status updates aren’t as good as Twitter. Its messages aren’t as good as email. Its photos, with the possible exception of tagging people, aren’t as good as Flickr. Its notes aren’t as good as blogs and RSS readers. Its zombies aren’t as good as real undead people battering down your door to eat your brains.

When these applications are set free from Facebook’s privacy settings and proprietary data they take on a whole new level of usefulness. Searching strangers’ photos on Flickr helped me decide which of two Vegas hotels to stay in at a wedding a couple of years ago. More recently, searching for “PDX” on Twitter gave me far more reliable information about conditions at Portland’s snowed in airport than the airport’s own webpage did. Those sites have social aspects but they’re additional, not limiting.

Michael Agger wrote in Slate last week about the ongoing battle between Google and Facebook. The internet could be a lot more social than it is, telling us in an integrated way what our friends are doing or what they think about different products and restaurants:

The reason we don’t do these things now is that the “barriers to social are too high.” It’s still too annoying to fill out all of those registration forms, and there’s no universal way to manage your online identity and networks of friends. Google and its partners want to collapse the barriers to social and give each and every one of us an entourage.

There’s just one hiccup in this plan: Facebook, the place where many of us already have our entourage. The pre-eminent social network announced that it has 150 million active users worldwide…

This is where Google and David Glazer come back in, and why 2009 might see some serious social warfare between Google and Facebook. Last May, the latter announced a service called Facebook Connect, a set of tools that made it easier for Web developers to let people log in to sites with their Facebook ID and share things on their Facebook news feed. (A good place to try this out is the video site Vimeo.) Three days later, Google announced Friend Connect, a set of tools that made it easier for Web developers to do the same sorts of things, except outside the realm of Facebook. A site such as Qloud lets you join and comment with a Gmail or Yahoo account. So far, so good. But Facebook blocked Friend Connect from accessing its data, and now we have two rival social networks.

Obviously I’m rooting for portability here. I don’t want Facebook to fail entirely, but I’d like to see it focus on its core competency of deep networking and let better services take over the other elements. If I never get another message in my Facebook inbox that would be fine with me. (For that matter, I’d like to see Twitter become more open too, but figuring out a business plan seems like a more pressing concern for that company. An option to block chosen updates from Facebook would also be a nice gesture.)

All of which is a really long-winded way of saying I’m sorry if I annoy you on Facebook, but it’s for the good of the internet.

Organizational tweeting
Faking it


NYT exceptionalism

The first item on David Pogue’s list of tech tips every computer user should know on his New York Times weblog:

You can double-click a word to highlight it in any document, e-mail or Web page.

Er, except for on The New York Times website, which still offers the incredibly annoying “feature” of opening a new window with the definition of any double-clicked word. (Not on the blog pages, thankfully.)

I did learn a couple of things though. Somehow I never knew that the space bar scrolls a screen downward or that a double space bar hit punctuates a sentence on the iPhone.

[Via Virginia Postrel.]


Organizational tweeting

Craig Newmark points to Gene Weingarten’s predictable “I’m old and don’t understand the point of this Twitter thing all the kids are doing” column from earlier this month in The Washington Post. Weingarten complains that’s it’s hard to write anything profound in 140 characters or less, which of course misses the point. We’ve talked here before about how Twitter helps create a social sixth sense; I feel far more in touch with the friends I left behind in DC than I would without it. In just the past few weeks I’ve used the service to find a good barbecue joint in Kansas City (thanks, Tim!), locate sources for a paper I’m writing, express things I’d like to say but not write a full blog entry about, join my DC friends at a “virtual bar” as we watched the conventions and debate together, and possibly line up a regular writing gig.

Weingarten does bring up one thing that bugs me too, though:

My problem with Twitter is that it has become so big and so popular that some newspapers, including this one, are stuffing their latest headlines into Twitter alerts. Even the presidential candidates are kowtowing to it, sending out 140-character campaign news updates. (Some of these sound as though they were composed by the authors of product-assembly manuals from Taiwan. Here’s an actual McCain alert: “Hillary turned McCain bloggers shut down by blogger? . . . Doesn’t add up.”)

Lots of organizations are jumping onto the Twitter bandwagon, but I don’t think they really get the medium. I’m bombarded with Twitter accounts from think tanks and magazines whose updates just duplicate information that I’d rather get from RSS feeds, email subscriptions, or by visiting their websites.

The Cato Institute writes one of the better feeds. It includes some information I might not otherwise catch, like scholars’ upcoming media appearances and interesting news stories. Most of it, however, I’d rather get (and probably already do) via more traditional routes. Because the links are shortened to TinyURLs, I don’t know if I’m clicking on an op/ed, a paper, a podcast, a blog post, or a news site. And most of these items, though interesting, are just clutter when they show up on my mobile phone rather than on my computer. So as much as I like Cato, I don’t follow the feed. (All of this goes double for you bloggers who link every single one of your posts to your Twitter feed. An occasional highlight is fine, but let’s have some perspective here: If I’m on Twitter, I’ve probably mastered RSS.)

298 people do follow the feed, so their strategy is certainly working. Even so, I’d like see a better use of the medium. How about more spontaneous, timely tweets alerting me to events or TV and radio appearances? Cato has some witty people in the building; how about 140 word commentaries from them? Snarky remarks from Jerry Taylor or Jim Harper I would tune in for.

The company I’ve seen use Twitter best is Bell’s Beer. I visited their cafe in Kalamazoo, MI last month and updated my feed to say that I was there. Bell’s was following me before I finished dinner. They search for anyone mentioning their beer and add them as a friend, then update their own feed with the latest news about their beers, events, an inside look at what the staff is up to, and answers to questions from their fans. As a result they’ve brought in more than 400 followers in just over two months. (It helps that their beer is awesome too).

A newspaper column isn’t a blog post isn’t a Twitter update. As more organizations are tempted by this new medium, I hope they’ll put in the effort to make their updates truly worthwhile.

Update 9/28/08: Twitter fun fact: “In Dell’s case, the company says it’s made ‘well over’ $500,000 in sales from sending special offers from its Dell Outlet store to its Twitter group, which it began in June 2007. The group has almost 1,500 ‘followers’ who receive its messages on a regular basis.”

Faking it
These kids and their Facebook


Down the memory hole

Eugene Volokh started an interesting thread last week about whether or not one should consider deleting someone’s name from old blog posts if he requests you to because, for example, he doesn’t want acquaintances or prospective employers finding it by Googling his name. Volokh’s example regarded a person’s past misconduct. I’ve just received a similar request regarding commentary on a person’s previously published opinion. There’s no question that it was appropriate to comment on at the time. The question is whether there’s still any value in leaving his name attached to the post and if I should honor the request. There’s nothing egregiously objectionable in this person’s opinion, nor has he necessarily renounced it.

Like Volokh, I’m of two minds about this, so I’ll open the matter up to comments. Under what conditions, if any, should past blog posts be edited for the convenience of the people they reference?


Chrome comic

The Scott McCloud comic Google commissioned to explain the thinking behind its new browser is very well done. It does a great job explaining why Chrome is different and why you should try it. See that guy on page 6 yelling at his browser to “Hurry up, dammit!” while his girlfriend tells him to close some tabs? That’s pretty much me. Er, minus the girlfriend.

Now to try the browser itself…


Note to Google

Dear Google,

I’m sure your new Chrome browser’s great, but can we get some progress on your immensely popular feed reader too? Like, say, offering a direct way of alphabetizing subscriptions? I know putting things in alphabetical order is tricky, but if anyone has the computing resources, the brilliant programmers, and the billions of dollars needed to find a way, I’m sure it’s you guys.



(BTW, Google has been “working on fixing” this problem since April.)


Faking it

From Kottke:

This is a little bit genius. One of the new features of FriendFeed (a Twitter-like thingie) is “fake following”. That means you can friend someone but you don’t see their updates. That way, it appears that you’re paying attention to them when you’re really not. Just like everyone does all the time in real life to maintain their sanity. Rex calls it “most important feature in the history of social networks” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s one of the few new social features I’ve seen that makes being online buddies with someone manageable and doesn’t just make being social a game or competition.

I was actually just wishing for a feature like this for Twitter. Twitter works now because it’s popular but not that popular. The list of people I follow is manageable, has room to grow, and is populated mostly by people I’m genuinely interested in getting updates from. But what happens if the service achieves Facebook levels of popularity? Then I’m stuck with either rejecting people or letting the signal get lost in the noise. Fake following is a way out.

But is it a good way out? I’m not so sure. For one thing, as Merlin Mann says, “the whole idea’s pathetic on a number of levels.” For another, the very existence of the option imposes costs on all users, whether they use it or not. If a friend realizes you missed one of his updates on Twitter, for now he knows it’s an honest mistake. If fake following becomes an option, your friends will have to wonder if perhaps you’re using it on them. The option breeds distrust.

A feature like this should come with a way to signal honesty. Let users declare on their profiles that they haven’t enabled the option. Or if they have, let the world know that they may be fake followers. One group of people you can trust, another that’s a little more dubious.

Twitter is perhaps even more susceptible than Facebook to “boyd’s law” as stated by Cory Doctorow: “Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” Facebook is great for deep networking, for keeping track of who I know where and what they’re generally doing with their lives; I don’t care how big my friend list gets. Twitter’s more like a live conversation, creating a social sixth sense of what my friends and other interesting people are thinking and doing. I’ll have to be selective about who I follow to keep it valuable.

I’m with Mann on this one: if you’re going to be a publisher of updates, have a thick skin. Don’t be offended by friends who don’t follow you and be ruthlessly selective about who you follow. Don’t waste your time on updates you don’t care about.

And if you hurt someone’s feelings, it’s not the end of the world. You can still be Facebook friends, after all.

[Via Tyler Cowen.]


Bring on the PNS registry

While I’m once again going through the hassles of moving, this seems like a good time to link back to my post from the last time I moved about why we should make mail more like email. Switching postal addresses is a pain, but:

Contrast this with moving a website or email address to a new server. When I switch servers, I don’t have to notify everyone who emails me, reads my site, or links to my content that I’m moving. They use the address they’ve always used and the Domain Name System (DNS) automatically associates the domain name that people remember with the numerical IP address that computers use to communicate. I just have to tell one entity about the move (the DNS registry) and it takes care of the problem for everyone else.

It seems like computing technology is cheap enough now that our postal system should work the same way. Why should we have to remember cumbersome physical addresses and update all our contacts when we move? It would be a lot easier to simply use the equivalent of a domain name address and associate it in a database with a physical mailing location. Call it a Postal Name System (PNS). Everyone could have their own, easily memorized address to use for life. When people move, they just notify the PNS of the change and their postal name keeps functioning seamlessly, associating their postal address with their new physical location.

In other words, there’s no longer any reason why the physical locations where we live and work should have anything to do with the postal addresses people use to send us stuff.

Read the whole thing here. I’m always hesitant to think I know how a business should be run better than do the people with money on the line, but since the US Postal Service is a giant, government-protected monopoly I’m willing to make an exception this time. This seems like a workable idea.


Save Flash for the kitchen

There’s a new restaurant opening up in DC. It sounds intriguing and like something I might want to write about, so I clicked over to the website to find out more. And that’s where I stopped. It’s no Jared Allen’s Sports Grill,* but… damn. All Flash, annoying music, terrible sound effects, and confusing navigation. So screw it.

I’m not going to name the place, because it’s just the latest example in a long line of bad restaurant websites and I don’t want to reward them with a link. But more generally, what is it about restaurants and bars that makes them so prone to unnavigable, unlinkable, incredibly annoying Flash designs? Do owners just not use the internet?

Flash websites may look good, but that’s all they do. And that lack of usefulness cuts down on a restaurant’s web presence. The page can take a long time to load. If a reviewer wants to write about his meal at a place, he can’t copy the text or even link to the menu. Search engines can’t pick up key phrases people may be looking for. Potential customers can’t even cut and paste the address into a map search to find out where it is. The only person who benefits is the designer, who collects a nice check and hands off a complicated but worthless relic that no one will ever visit more than once.

If I ever open a restaurant, I can’t promise you yet that it will have wonderful food, reasonable prices, or appealing decor. But I will promise you this: it will offer permanent links, text that you can copy and paste, and no annoying music.

For the comments, what restaurant sites do you hate? Who has a site that works? I nominate Rustico as an example of good design: lots of text, working links, and frequent updates, all while giving a good feel for the place’s look and tone. Throw in an RSS feed and event archives and they’re golden.

*The website’s broken now, sadly, which might actually be an improvement. It was a thing to behold.



According to Twitter I was “packing for NYC this weekend” for nearly a year. Now that I have an iPhone and the wonderfully easy to use Twitterific installed, I’ll be using it more often. On Twitter too? I’m username jacobgrier.

I’ve also added this blog to Facebook using the Blog Networks application, accessible here. I’m not sure how useful this will prove to be, but there’s a drink on me for the first person to take it above zero fans.

Update: The drink goes to Tom, who lucky for me is too far away to collect. Thanks man, we’ll have a brew in Bama someday!


Urban camping for the iPhone

Last night found me walking home and passing the Clarendon Apple store, where I dropped by to see if a crowd of insane people had gathered yet to spend the night waiting for the new 3G iPhone. No crowd yet, just a few people — including my own intern. He’d brought beer, so before long I’d joined him in hiding a bottle from passing cops and getting to know the other eager customers. The arrival of the amazingly well-equipped Megan McArdle and Peter Suderman sealed the deal for me, and by midnight I’d come back with a camping pad, a blanket, a baseball glove to rest my head on, a light-up frisbee, and more drinks. I became one of those insane people.

And good thing, too. By the time of the store’s opening the line stretched well beyond 200. By enjoying a night of urban camping my friends and I were in the first group admitted in. Megan and Peter blogged about it here, here, here, and here (with video!). Around 3:30 in the morning reporter Neal Augenstein came by to do interviews on the scene and I ended up in this segment from WTOP. Not surprisingly, I’m the guy talking about beer.

I’d like to write more about how awesome the new phone is, but thanks to the hard sleep surface, the loud teenager hyped on caffeine, and the over-achieving snorer on the other side of me, I am wiped out. More later, nap time now.