Monday, September 29, 2008

Five things social networks can’t easily do

You know that a technology is maturing when articles such as these start appearing. First is the infatuation stage, where the iPhone or Facebook or whatever can do everything for everyone. So I thought I would lead the charge and talk about the various limitations of different social networks that I use. You are of course welcome to send in your other frustrations.

Be a truly useful publishing platform. I want something that is better than an email list server that you as my readers have to remember to update your address and opt out when you are tired of hearing from me (I hope that day never comes, but I promise not to take it personally). I want something that I can target what I write to different affinity groups, without having to set up separate sub-lists. I want something that doesn't cost an arm and a leg like iContact to track click-throughs on hot links that I so thoughtfully provide in the body of the message. I want something that the bad guys can't easily compromise and send out spurious messages to my loyal readers. I know, I am asking for a lot.

There are a lot of contenders, including RSS feed-like elements of Plaxo, Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter, and others, but they don't deliver the goods, quite literally, aren't flexible enough to do more than send link notifications (which isn't as effective as email), and not everyone on my mailing list wants to use or even knows about these various technologies. Plus, none of these technologies really works as well as an email list for immediacy and response rates, which is why, when all is said and done, I am still using Mailman as my main distribution mechanism of my Web Informant newsletter and essays. (And hopefully will do a better job of backups, see last week's missive for that tale of woe.)

Workable LinkedIn Groups. With triple opt-in, these are cumbersome at best, and annoying at worst. Ideally, LinkedIn could be my publishing platform, if only they could get their groups act together. But again, these rely on email notifications and only recently did LinkedIn add the ability to do threaded discussions.

Search, I still say that getting search right is the hardest thing about the Web 2.0 stuff, and most of the social networks give it short shrift. They all have some kind of search function, but they are designed for searching for names of people and not much else. LinkedIn has the ability to search for job function and location, and that is probably the one search function that I use more often. Try doing this in other services is more an exercise in frustration. To be truly useful, a social network should be able to create saved searches (you have to pay for this on LinkedIn by installing their spam-tool bar) that you can return to, or search for more recent updates to your network other than the default listing that is provided by the operator of the network. As an example, how about telling me who on my contact list has joined the network since my last login like Plaxo does in its weekly email update? To accomplish this query elsewhere takes many steps and is cumbersome.

Synchronize and update my Gmail contacts. With 9000 contacts, I know that the vast majority of them are outdated, but what can anyone do? Wouldn't it be nice to synchronize all your social network contacts in the one place that you use them, which for me is Gmail? Sorry no can do kemosabe. Yes, Plaxo Pulse can import from Gmail but not the other way around. Cemaphore's Mail Shadow G can synch Gmail and Outlook contacts, but that doesn't really help me out. And while this is probably anecdotal, it seems that those people that update their contact info, the first place that they update it is in LinkedIn because this is the first step towards getting one's job search act together.

Separate my work and personal identities. So much has been written about this warning people about the commingling of your play and work activities, I won't add to it here. But, if you are concerned, you right now have not many choices: don't include any personal information in your social network profile, or set up an alias and be selective about whom you invite to connect with you. Neither really works.

Are these all showstoppers keeping me from doing real productive things on social networks? Nope. But it would be nice to do more. And speaking of doing more, my podcasting partner Paul Gillin has electronic pre-release copies of his book "Secrets of Social Media Marketing" available on his Web site here, and you can pre-order the book as well.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The shoemakers children ...

You know the saying, about how the ones who supposedly should know better, well, don't. I was recently reminded of this after a couple of my own experiences. I was having lunch with a friend of mine who owns so many domains that she did a lookup on what she thought was a great name only to find out that she actually already registered it. So let me also come clean here, and tell you how I can also be like this friend and mess up too. I know it may hurt, but supposedly confession can be good.

So my first tale is about how I almost lost the subscriber list for this newsletter that you are reading in your comfy inbox right now. Yes, I have all sorts of backup routines that I have developed because of what happened many years when my office was above a music store (and a Subway, boy do I miss that convenience). The store had an electrical short that caused a small fire. Just before the fire started, I had ducked out for a few minutes to run an errand, and by the time I came back the fire department had roped off the building. Luckily, nothing was damaged in my office, other than the front door that the firemen broke down to make sure that the fire hadn't spread upstairs. Now, I had been doing my backups on tape. Where were those tapes you might ask? Sitting right next to my server. Since then I have gotten offsite backup religion big time and make sure that one copy of everything is always somewhere other than my office.

Or so I thought. The one thing – and I hope it is the only thing – that I didn't have a current backup for is the actual list of my subscribers. Well, I had done one in March, but I really didn't want to go through the process of trying to update that.

My mail list server used to be located in a friend of a friend's house. Granted, this person is one of the original Internet Wise Men. But still, even the wisest of wise men have server crashes from time to time, and his server crashed last week, taking my list down for a week. That was all the motivation that I needed to start a new list on a "real" provider (I am using, which offers Mailman hosting for $4 a month for low volume lists. They seem to know what they are doing, they are usually reachable via email queries, and I don't have to learn yet another list server's quirks since I have been using Mailman for several years now.) And it is relatively simple to make backup copies of the entire subscriber list: all it takes is sending a single email command to the server and storing the reply. Which I now will do on a regular basis.

What both of these experiences have taught me was that no matter how I analyze my data backup and procedures, there is always room for improvement. You can't think of everything. And the key to backups is doing them regularly. Sort of like flossing your teeth, which I need to do more often too. But not just relying on the guilt generated from not doing them (in the case of my teeth, by my hygenist) but a regular procedure that can easily and quickly be implemented so that it doesn't get postponed because something else of higher priority comes along.

Next I want to tell you about my new iPhone. Yes, I know, I am a little slow to embrace this baby, no need to abuse me about it. The story is within about an hour of getting the thing, I was on it talking to my daughter for tech support. The shame, I know. She thought it was funny. But then I had another question shortly after that. And this is after spending hours reading all sorts of stuff about all the 57 different analysts and tech bloggers that are in love with their iPhones and have done all sorts of cool stuff with theirs. Welcome to 2008, Strom.

Finally is my thoughts about, my new screencast product reviews site. After putting together the first bunch of videos, I realize that the content sits on four servers: one where the actual videos reside, one that hosts the Web site proper, another one that has the RSS feed, another server back in my office that has the original copies of the videos. And this doesn't count the numerous other servers that repurpose the videos, too.

Do I really need such a complex system to deploy this service? Not really, it just grew into this, because I wanted to use the best tools from a variety of places. Yes, I could eliminate the server that delivers the RSS, but the one that comes with the Web site is pretty lame. I know this is often how many of you end up with unsupported systems, but at least I have documented where all the files are kept and the process by which I post a new one (and this is of course backed up in a few places, too.)

So I hope you have enjoyed these tales of torment. Have a nice weekend, and keep those backups safe.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The 140-character attention span

Call it GenT, the Twitter and texting generation. We are all becoming ADD, to the point where we can't spend large blocks of time concentrating anymore. We are so over-stimulated, what with 10,000 Web sites (or is 10 million, I can't accurately say) a minute being added to the collective cosmos, and updating all of our social network feeds, and whatnot.

Twitter, for those of you stuck back in the old school world where you still use your computer for communication, is the "micro-blogging" service that sends a 140 character line of text to your friends and followers who subscribe to your postings. You can use your mobile phone or a traditional Web page, and the information is sent almost instantaneously, at least when the service is running. I am not yet a fan. Texting I don't think I have to explain anymore.

But with texting and Twitter, what has happened is that we have created the first entirely post-email generation. Look at both of our presidential candidates: one doesn't use it personally, and the other has gone so GenT that he doesn't need email to get the word out to his supporters. (An aside: the current issue of Technology Review has an interesting article about Obama's use of social networks here:)

Those of us that grew up on email back in the quaint text-only, pre-Web days all know the reasons why we went with email: no phone tag, near-time responses, planet-wide connectivity, flattening organizations, micro-targeted responses. Yada yada.

Well, those same reasons are being used by the GenT'ers: in the time it would take me to compose a reasonably simple email message, I could have texted someone and gotten a response, posted it on my Twitter feed and had thousands of my closest "friends" tell me what they think, and moved on to my next activity. Email is so five minutes ago.

And email tag is just as much of a productivity drag – in some cases worse than voice mail hell. We have all gotten those endless threaded messages where we don't even remember what the original question that started the whole shooting match was about. Even exchanging Instant Messages is not fast enough, especially if your correspondents forget to turn on their "Away message" when they by chance get up from their chair for a few moments off-screen. You wonder what has become of them, and why aren't they not answering your IM?

When my daughter was in her early teens, it was IM that kept us connected. Now if I really need to find my kids, it is via text. Email is usually the worse way to try to get their attention None of them have Twitter feeds yet. I consider myself lucky.

Another trendlet: Thanks to all of these GenT services, now having a single monitor attached to your PC isn't enough screen real estate. You need at least two, and sometimes three LCDs to show all your scrolling feeds, IM buddy lists, and up-to-the-moment "tweets" in addition to the normal email and word processing windows. (I keep calling them "twits," that must be a Freudian slip.)

When was the last time you sat down for a couple of hours and got into a book? You know, those funny things that you buy from Amazon that don't have any electronic interface that you actually have to turn pages, and read every word? Talk about quaint, grandpaw. Back in my day, we used to walk five miles in deep snow to school, carrying these objects, too.

Nicholas Carr talks about this in his article in Atlantic this month entitled, "Is Google making us stupid?" Don't be misled by the hed. He talks about how his concentration wanes after reading a few pages, and "deep reading has become a struggle. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing." Indeed, I was fighting just getting to the end of his story, and that was only 4,000 words. Try tweeting all of that!

But we aren't stupider, I mean less smart, because of Google or all the GenT tech: we are just more impatient. One network manager at a small college told me how he deals with peer file stealing: rather than turn it off, he just adds a few seconds delay into the connection during the work day, so that the students bail out of the connection and come back at night when he turns off the delays. If he just shut it off, they would be motivated to figure out a way around the block, but most of the students are too ADD to abide by the delays and move on to something else, knowing they can come back at night to grab their files.

This post-email GenT stuff is ironic for me to say the least, especially to someone who wrote a book on Internet email, let alone reads lot of them still. Years from now we will look back on this period much like we examine other accidents of history, like the Truman Doctrine and the Dred Scott decision: things that seemed important at the time, but now are mostly the subjects of junior high research papers. Yes, email is still around for us old fogies that insist on using all of our hard-learned touch-typing fingers to communicate, but it won't be long now. In the meantime, you can subscribe to my feed here and keep up with all the important moments in my life:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Yeah, but is it art?

Many of you know that I am a big museumgoer. And this weekend was no exception: I managed to visit three excellent ones. One of them, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, had a flyer about their upcoming video programming and that got me thinking about how we consume works of art in today's online world.

First off, I should tell you that I am not a very possessive and materialistic kind of guy. I don't like to have lots of things, other than books, and for the most part enjoy art for art's sake, for the opportunity to look at something unusual, beautiful, provocative, whatever. I haven't owned a lot of art works either: most of the time I enjoy seeing a picture or sculpture in a museum or gallery that I have seen a reproduction or read about, sort of like coming across an old friend that you haven't seen in a long time.

The museum's flyer mentioned a few works of art that are rather intriguing because they combine data visualization, virtual reality, 3D gaming environments and the Web into a new medium that leverages all of these but goes in a completely new direction. Most of the Web-based art that I have seen over the years is very static, drawing pretty pictures or using computer code to generate a series of images.

One show that I went to at New York's PS1 five years ago had some interesting uses of physics with art, but wasn't really about online works:

But when it comes to art that can only be viewed online, what is our role as art consumers? Should we want to "own" a copy, whatever that means? It is enough to have a URL that we can link to it, and hope that the link doesn't break over time? Should an artist maintain a server of his works, or encourage visitors to freely copy them? What happens when the software that supports the work becomes obsolete, or the hardware platform is no longer being manufactured? Should an artist attempt to use open source tools and methods so that others can modify, mashup, or extract his works? And what is really art, anyway? Dada dot com, here we go again.

As you can see, I had lots of questions, and not many answers. The notion about what are these new art forms started me to do some Web research about how visual artists are using the Internet today. Some of the early efforts involved using video games as a medium: the art form, as it were, was the artist as a director for the games' characters and creating new situations that were captured digitally.

But the really interesting stuff happens when you get an artist who knows how to program. An example of this is Sheldon Brown's Scalable City, which was shown earlier this year at San Francisco's Exploratorium (a truly wonderful place in its own right) and can be seen in this video online:

Jon Phillips, who is another artist-cum-programmer, talks about using the Creative Commons license to allow the public to freely modify his works. You gotta love an artist that on his blog ( publishes code to tweak his memory registers. He has begun an effort called, which sadly doesn't allow one to preview the clips very easily.

Not everything is about the visual arts either. John Keston's posts a new sound clip every day that will "inspire you, give you an idea or simply entertain" and the material is also CC licensed.

If you are in Kansas City on September 26, check out the evening lectures (Phillips will be there) at the Nelson-Atkins. I think you will find them interesting.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Announcing, sponsored screencast reviews

Web Informant Announcing, sponsored screencast reviews

We have officially crossed over from the TV generation to the Internet generation: a recent study from Doubleclick Performics shows that more teens now spend more time in front of their PCs than their TVs. Call it the YouTube generation, blame it on last fall’s writer’s strike or too many channels and Nothing Is On, but let’s face it, the days of watching TV on our TVs seem so quaint now. And Google just came out with a new browser optimized for videos today.

I have decided to join the You Tube generation myself, and this summer I have begun to create a new kind of content for you, my beloved and loyal audience. Let me take a moment to indulge in some shameless self promotion, and also tell you a bit more about what you can see on my new venture called

Most of my professional life has been spent explaining technologies that I use to various corporate IT audiences: first writing reports for the US government and then Megalopolis Insurance in their early attempts at supporting end-user computing. Later on I worked for Ziff, CMP, IDG, JupiterMedia and TechTarget in various capacities – starting magazines and editing Web sites and writing thousands of magazine articles and two books. It is a body of work that I am proud of, and still enjoy freelance work for all five of the major tech publishers. As cartoonist Lynda Barry said in a lecture last week, “A friend told me: You have managed to make a pretty decent living by just being yourself -- well, I have tried and failed at everything else." I know exactly how she feels.

For several years I have been saying that missing from this corpus is video tutorials that show IT people how technology is actually being used, putting it through the typical paces that they would want and being able to see the screens and the logic flow of the product. I try to do this in all of my product reviews, and one of the reasons why I feel I have been successful is that I can capture this ethic and point of view very accurately in my articles.

So what is this new venture? is a series of sponsored video screencast product reviews. Sponsored means that the product’s vendor pays me to produce them. Right now it is just a one-person operation: I do everything from pick the products to write the scripts to produce the videos and promote and post them online. While this is a lot of work, it is very invigorating and thrilling too. I am looking at licensing, if that is the right word, this operation with other tech journalists whose work I respect, but ultimately this is my show. The vendors get simple up or down script approval, so the words you hear on these videos are really my own thoughts and opinions. Each video is about five minutes, and has things that I liked and didn’t like about each product.

The word screencast has been used by TechSmith’s Camtasia to describe PC screen recordings – what you are watching is not a movie of my mug, but as if the video camera was focused on the PC’s monitor and watching what I was doing with my mouse and menu clicks. You hear my voice narrating the video and giving context to what you are watching. I try to pack a lot of information into the five minutes, so you get a feel for the product and why you would or wouldn’t want to use it.

I am not the first person to do screencasts in a big way – Jon Udell was doing them for several years when he worked at Infoworld, and I appreciate his skills and leadership here. And there are other products that do this – Screenflow for the Mac and Adobe's Captivate are just two of them. There are free services also at, and too. (You see, I just can't help myself, have to go and compare tech.) I like Camtasia and have figured out most of its quirks to make it work for me.

The products that I review lend themselves to visual explanations: the first series that I have produced include SkyRecon’s StormShield and eEye’s Blink – both of which are endpoint security products that protect a Windows desktop from a series of attacks. There is also Secure Computing’s service, where you can look up the reputation of a particular domain and see what email servers have been sending messages on that domain’s behalf. And the products range from the free appointment scheduling service to ones that cost several thousand dollars.

There are also very complex products that I have posted reviews: Servoy Developer is useful for building rapid Java applications that can run unchanged on both desktop and inside a Web browser. Altiris Workflow Solution from Symantec is great for automating just about any computing task and can leverage some very powerful data mining techniques.

One of the interesting things that I am doing with is turning the model of content creation on its head. In the past, I wrote articles that were copyrighted by the publishers and posted on their Web sites only. With the screencasts, I want to distribute the content as widely as possible, as long as my branding and message remains intact. Once the video is posted on my site, it is also cross-posted on many other video sharing sites, including You Tube, Google Video, and others that specialize in how-to information. The vendors get their own copy that they can distribute as well as part of their marketing materials, or to augment their own Web sites, or whatever. Some of the vendors that I have begun to work with have created their own screencasts, so they clearly understand the power of this brave new world. By the way, the site does a nice job of cross-posting videos, definitely worth a closer look.

There are other reviews in the works, and I hope to be able to continue to enrich the site with new products for a long time to come, and grow my own video “channel” into a more vibrant place. And don't worry: I'll still be writing and editing, blogging and podcasting, and speaking around the world as always. This is just another arrow in my quiver, another way to enhance my brand, and something new to keep it fun.

Those of you that work or do PR for a vendor and want to sponsor me to review your products, send me a quick note and I can provide more specifics. And I welcome your feedback as always on how to improve the videos and make them more useful for your own situation. Enjoy watching! If you want to subscribe via RSS to keep updated when I add new ones, add this URL to your reader:

About Me

My photo
David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.