Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Half-baked Internet Ideas

There are three internet phenomenon that annoy me, although for different reasons. One is wildly successful even though I hate it. One is moderately successful and I think it has potential, although that potential has been wildly overblown. The third is not successful and probably never will be, mostly because it represents an internet idea that is not successful.

1. Twitter

I don't understand it. Granted, I don't use it, and I don't plan on using it. My boyfriend got a Twitter account expressly to not use it, which I think defeats the purpose, and he caved anyway. He now tweets articles that people send to him, even if he doesn't read them himself. I suppose this means I should send more articles to him. That way I'll have a twitter by proxy.

Mostly, I don't understand it. It's a one-trick facebook application: the status update. Why twitter when you can just update your status, with links to your favorite articles and everything? For personal stuff this makes sense. In fact, twitter did start out as a personal thing, and I once got into a debate with a colleague who believed twitter's main purpose was to disseminate articles for other people to read. Though I don't think that was twitter's main purpose, I have to admit that that is what twitter is now most useful for. After all, you have to be "friends" with someone on facebook to view their status update (or for the status update to show up in your newsfeed). You can follow random strangers on twitter.

But you can also follow random strangers on blogs, so what is the point of twitter when it's a haiku version of a blog (except when you link to a longer blog post)? The only thing I can think of is that twitter is a compiler.

It used to be that we had one of everything. We had one address. We had one phone line. People had one way of getting our attention, and that was face to face communication. We now live in an age where we have multiple (active) emails. Some have multiple facebook pages, or multiple social networking sites (how many people are part of facebook and google+, and maybe myspace and livejournal?). I have multiple blogs and blog accounts and even multiple prezi logins (partially to capitalize on their free space). Plus we have youtube accounts and perhaps subscriptions to the New York Times, New Yorker, New York Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Huffington Post, Harvard Business Review, Science Daily, Wired, Psychology Today, and TED Talks. How to keep track of all of this, besides bookmarks? A compiler, such as twitter. Follow the right people on twitter and they will lead you to a variety of media (blogs, newspapers, youtube clips, and even prezis) all in a series of tweets. That is such bullshit.

Also, I know someone who is very into social media. She has an iphone and constantly checks her email, facebook, and twitter. You still can't get a hold of her. She once proposed teaching students to organize their social media around facebook and twitter instead of email, which I think is a terrible idea. Even though I think it may be good for children to have an internet presence, I still like the privacy and (dare I say it?) relative intimacy that email provides. For one thing, email usually requires more thought than a tweet, especially since its character limit often leads to atrocious abbreviations and a lack of grammar, capitalization, and spelling from people whom I would otherwise consider intelligent. In addition, it's unlimited length offers a chance for more depth than your average sound-byte. Lastly, email has the option of cc'ing and bcc'ing people. If facebook and google+ really want to protect people's privacy, they should jump on that feature.

2. Workflowy

I was led to workflowy by some slideshow on Harvard Business Review. It had such glowing reviews that I decided I had to check it out (especially since the other applications cited as being so revolutionary were things like google calendar. I know how to use that. Maybe not effectively, but I could if I wanted to. I use a google spreadsheet instead to plan my schedule, because it's infinitely more editable.

Workflowy was supposed to be one of the most innovative things to hit schools and the workplace and had an interface that mirrored people's natural thought processes. It's just an outline with collapsible bullet points.

Granted, I started using workflowy and I have found it very useful.

For one thing, it has an intuitive and easy way to indent and un-indent points, unlike, say, powerpoint, word, and many other documents which don't seem to understand the concept of letting be go back to a less indented point.

For another thing, it's ability to collapse certain bullet points makes it easy to put a lot of information on a small page. I have started compiling all of my lists onto workflowy, and so far it's holding up at less than a page because of the power of subcategorization. Also, if it ever gets too cluttered, I can just double click on a particular bullet point, and it will move it and all subpoints to a fresh page. Phenomenal.

Lastly, the ability to cross out/delete completed options gives one a feeling of accomplishment.

That being said, I could outline before, on, well, basically anything. The collapsible feature is nothing new. It can be found on most blogs and websites (this feature was one of the main reasons I moved my writing online). Granted, it's easier to have this nice collapsibility on Workflowy, but it's nothing revolutionary, and I doubt the coding was that difficult.

A third thing. Workflowy was supposed to mirror one's natural thought processes/the natural process of brainstorming that we used to do with pen and paper. That's not really true. My boyfriend used to take notes, and he would do so in a free-form, interactive way with arrows connecting things and doodles in the margins. I feel that one of the computer's advantages over paper notes is the ability to edit and move things around in a way so that it is both organized and non-cluttered. One could argue that we should be able to annotate Workflowy, but why annotate or footnote when you can just sub bullet point?

If I had one major suggestion for Workflowy, it would be to allow users to arrange topics horizontally instead of just vertically. That's one of the reasons I liked using google spreadsheets for keeping lists (as well as my schedules). Workflowy needs to get out of the internet/computer interface box of moving from up to down. We also need to be able to move from left to right. Hell, we need to be able to move like the visual thesaurus or inspiration. The computers may have started out 2D, but now they have the potential to literally make us see things from a different perspective.

3. Google+

I think google+ will fail the way search engines other than google and fashion magazines failed: imitation.

I believe that nowadays reverse engineering and "copying" is so easy that to really distinguish yourself, you need to carve a niche (that or be the first one to do something new and interesting in a big way). For example, when I first took an information studies class, we were warned about the hegemony of google search and encouraged to search for the same thing on different search engines. I did so and got different results. A year later I tutored that same information studies class and the students did the same activity. This time all of the search results were almost identical.

What happened? Everyone copied google's successful algorithm. That was a mistake (sorry yahoo search and bing, more sincere sorry to ask jeeves). If search engines really wanted to be successful, they should have, yes, analyzed google's algorithm, but then deliberately tried to be different. Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm to game the websites trying to game them (websites which are really advertisers but pay people to produce mediocre content with a lot of keywords). A smaller, niche search engine could have figured out an alternative algorithm that could have cut out the crap websites, even if it sacrificed some of the big players (and we don't really need help to find wikipedia).

So I don't think google+ will succeed, not because it didn't have an interesting idea (the different circles for different social groups), but because too many people are already too invested in facebook. Plus facebook quickly and easily copied the circles concept, while at the same time introducing the timeline layout (which I still find confusing, but I find more visually appealing). Google+ responded by coming up with its own snappy layout. Don't like. I knew google+ had sold out when it introduced games. I know they have to make money, but they're pretty good at generating revenue with unobtrusive ads, and lack of games on google+ had been part of the appeal. It made me feel . . . clean, like in the days before zombie bites on facebook.

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