Category: Social Tools

Social tools

Quit your smartphone

Today I have an opinion piece in the Danish national newspaper Politiken. It’s a much shorter rewrite of my blog post about filters in the age of distraction, called “Drop din smartphone.” 

UPDATE: The piece has been posted on the Politiken website. Unfortunately, they’ve changed the title to “The smartphone has taken over our lives”, which is not exactly what I’m saying. But so it goes.

Below, you can find the full, uncut draft of the opinion piece, which goes into a little more detail than the newspaper allowed for.

If you’re curious to read more, you can also read:

Drop din smartphone

Smartphones har fået en stor udbredelse i Danmark. 3 ud af 5 voksne danskere har fået en. Og de ændrer vores måde at være sammen på — men ikke til det bedre. Efter tre år med smartphone valgte jeg at gå tilbage til en gammel Nokia for at genvinde kontrollen over mit digitale liv.

En dag gik det op for mig, at jeg brugte alt for megen tid på at være online. Hver gang jeg tjekkede min e-mail eller Facebook eller Twitter, var det ikke længere, fordi jeg havde et dybere formål med det. Jeg kunne bare ikke lade være. For hver gang jeg så, at der var nye, ulæste e-mails eller nye kommentarer på Facebook, fik jeg et lille kick: Hvad er der sket, siden jeg sidst tjekkede?

For vores hjerne er gearet til at reagere på forandringer. På nyheder: Hver gang vi ser noget nyt – eller forventer at se noget nyt – så udløser det et lille skud dopamin i vores hjerne. Dopamin er et signalstof, som vores hjerne er udviklet til at reagere på: Aktiviteter, der udløser dopamin, er noget som den efterstræber nærmest af sig selv. Kort sagt: Det er vanedannende.

Vi får dopamin af at spise mad, dyrke sex eller motion, men også af alkohol, stoffer og … nyheder.

Umiddelbart er der bestemt ikke noget dårligt ved at reagere på forandringer og få ny viden. Men online nyheder og statusopdateringer minder mest af alt om farvestrålende slik for hjernen: Man kan spise og spise, men man bliver aldrig mæt. Og man spiser uden at tænke over det, bare fordi slikskålen står på bordet.

Og det var det, som var problemet for mig: Med min smartphone i lommen kunne jeg tjekke min email, nyheder eller Facebook hvor-som-helst og når-som-helst jeg havde et par minutter til overs: I bussen. På toilettet. Foran fjernsynet. I en pause i en samtale. Til sidst var det nærmest bare en refleks at tage telefonen frem, når det så ud til, at jeg kunne komme til at kede mig.

Og det smittede af på mit arbejde: Der gik sjældent mere end fem eller ti minutter, før jeg følte trang til at tjekke min e-mail. Og hver gang jeg gjorde det, var det for at finde noget, der kunne distrahere mig fra det, som jeg sad og arbejdede på. Noget lettere. Noget med et umiddelbart og ukompliceret pay-off. Et hurtigt fix.

Men som oftest, så medførte fix’et bare flere ting, som jeg skulle tage stilling til: Nye emails, nye aftaler, nye invitationer til events, flere nyheder, som jeg skulle forholde mig til. Og smartphonen gjorde det kun værre, for når jeg var på farten havde jeg hverken tid eller tålmodighed til at forholde mig fyldestgørende til noget af det.

Der var mange mails, som jeg aldrig fik svaret på, fordi jeg læste dem på telefonen og tænkte over hvad jeg ville svare, men aldrig rent faktisk fik skrevet svaret. Der var flere møder og aftaler, som blev fejlbooket fordi jeg hurtigt satte dem ind i kalenderen uden at dobbelttjekke tidspunktet. Der var en masse invitationer til fester og andet, som jeg aldrig fik meldt til eller fra på. Mentalt var jeg allerede videre til den næste ting i en uendelig strøm af nye indtryk.

Jeg var fanget i en dårlig vane, der gjorde mig distraheret, ufokuseret, uproduktiv og stresset. Så jeg besluttede mig for at bryde vanen og prøve at genvinde et afbalanceret og produktivt forhold til internettet.

Når vi snakker om internettet, så er det let at skyde skylden på den overflod af information, som vi svømmer i hver dag. Men som internet-tænkeren Clay Shirky har pointeret, så handler det ikke så meget om mængden af information, som om hvordan vi navigerer i den. Grunden til, at jeg følte mig fanget i en vanedannende strøm af hurtig og let information, handlede mere om et nedbrud af mine informationsfiltre, end om mængden af information, som jeg havde til rådighed.

Tidligere var der en masse informationsfiltre, der begrænsede mængden af information, som vi let kunne tilgå. De fleste var økonomiske og teknologiske: Det er dyrt at trykke information på papir og distribuere det, og det er tilsvarende bøvlet at finde, købe og læse. Men der var også sociale filtre: Der var en masse information om folks liv, som vi kun kunne få ved at snakke med hinanden enten i telefonen eller ansigt til ansigt, hvilket var med til at begrænse mængden af information du skulle forholde dig til.

Med internettets nye sociale tjenester er mange af disse informationsfiltre brudt sammen. Vi har mulighed for at følge med i alting hele tiden, og flere og flere af os oplever, at det kan vi ikke rumme. Og derfor har vi brug for at udvikle nye filtre.

Nogle af disse filtre kan udbedres gennem bedre teknologi, men andre kræver, at vi udvikler nye sociale normer omkring den måde, vi omgås information på. En slags digital Emma Gad, om du vil.

Vi har været igennem den samme udvikling med mobiltelefoner. Og vi har efterhånden tillært os nogle normer for, hvornår vi kan tillade os at ringe til folk (omend det er sværere at finde ud af, hvor hurtigt vi kan forvente, at de ringer tilbage). Men forskellen på telefon og email er, at telefonen er passiv: Du bestemmer ikke, hvornår den ringer. Hvorimod email er aktiv: Du bestemmer selv, hvornår og hvor ofte, du vil tjekke den.

Men mobiltelefoner har også et teknologisk filter, der understøtter disse normer: Du kan sætte den på lydløs. Men du kan ikke sætte din email på pause: Hver gang du slår op i din email for at finde en gammel korrespondence, et telefonnummer eller en adresse, så bliver du konfronteret med alle de nye beskeder, der er tikket ind siden sidst.

For at genvinde kontrollen over mit digitale liv besluttede jeg mig for at prøve at lave mine egne informationsfiltre. Og jeg fandt ud hurtigt ud af, at jeg havde brug for at starte på en frisk. Så efter tre år med smartphone gik jeg cold turkey. Jeg solgte min smartphone og gik tilbage til en gammel tryk-knaps-Nokia. For på den måde kunne jeg simpelthen ikke lade mig friste til at gå på nettet hele tiden.

Uden en smartphone kan jeg kun tjekke min e-mail på min computer. Det betyder, at det er meget lettere for mig at besvare e-mails med det samme. Og for at undgå, at email kommer til at fylde for meget i min arbejdsdag, så prøver jeg at nøjes med at behandle min e-mail én gang om dagen. Jeg gør det om morgenen, ligesom gammeldags post.

For at dette kan fungere, så har det krævet, at jeg løbende afstemmer folks forventninger, så de ikke forventer at få et øjeblikkeligt svar fra mig. Derfor  har jeg opsat et e-mail-autosvar, der forklarer, hvor ofte jeg tjekker min e-mail, og hvornår man kan forvente svar. Den korte version er: “Hvis det er presserende, så ring til mig eller send en sms. Ellers får du svar i morgen.” Og til min glædelige overraskelse, så er det meget få ting, der haster så meget, at folk ikke kan vente til dagen efter. Og langt de fleste er godt tilfredse med at få et svar inden for 24 timer.

Disse tre informationsfiltre har gjort, at jeg ikke længere behøver at bekymre mig om email eller om at komme til at spilde tid online. Jeg føler ikke længere den tilbagevendende impuls til at tage mit smartphone frem, hver gang jeg er bange for at komme til at kede mig. Det har givet mig mere ro, og jeg føler faktisk, at jeg er blevet mere nærværende og eftertænksom af det.

Jeg ved godt, at dette meget let kan lyde både helligt og teknologi-forskrækket. Og jeg vil på ingen måde benægte, at der bestemt er smartphone-funktioner, som jeg savner af og til, så som touch-skærm, kalender-integration, GPS og et lækkert kamera. Og jeg kan sagtens forstå, hvis du ikke har lyst til at opgive alt det for at gå tilbage til en gammeldags “dum” mobil.

Men det gode ved informationsfiltre er, at du selv bestemmer hvor langt du vil gå. Så lad mig slutte med et par lette forslag, som du kan prøve af. I værste fald har du fundet ud af, at de ikke virker for dig. I bedste fald vil de gøre dit digitale liv lettere at holde styr på, og dermed gøre dig mindre stresset og mere fokuseret:

Afmeld dit data-abonnement. Du vil stadig kunne bruge din smartphone med wifi rundt omkring, men det vil være lige lidt mere bøvlet. Og dermed vil det mindske din tilskyndelse til at tage telefonen frem ved den mindste anledning.

Indgå en smartphone-pagt. Et let socialt filter er at lave en pagt med dine venner: Når I er ude og spise eller til fest, så læg alle jeres telefoner med skærmen nedad i en stabel på bordet. Den første, der tager sin telefon fra stablen skal give en omgang til bordet. Igen en lille ting, men det kan være med til at gøre jer bevidste om, hvor meget I piller med jeres telefoner i løbet af en aften.

Ingen email på telefonen. Lad være med at sætte din email op på din telefon. Hvis du først har email på telefonen, så er det svært at lade være med at tjekke den i tide og utide. I stedet kan du nøjes med at tjekke din email på computeren, hvor du let og hurtigt kan læse og besvare dine mails.

Ingen mails udenfor arbejdstiden. Alternativt kan du foreslå din chef at ændre indstillingerne på jeres mail-servere således, at I kun kan modtage emails i arbejdstiden. Det har de ansatte hos Volkswagen i Tyskland gjort — og ledelsen er gået med på den! På den måde er det blevet muligt for de ansatte rent faktisk at holde fri, når de har fri. Det har betydet mindre stress — ikke mindst fordi, at virksomheden på denne måde har kunnet sætte en fælles norm for hvornår og hvor hurtigt man kan forvente at få svar på en email. Måske I kunne gøre noget tilsvarende på din arbejdsplads?

Hold telefon-fri. Dette begrænser sig sådan set ikke til smartphones, men til alle telefoner: Afsæt et bestemt tidsrum hver dag, hvor du holder telefonfri og i stedet fokuserer på at være til stede her og nu. Hvis du har små børn kunne det f.eks. være de tre-fire timer fra du kommer hjem fra arbejde til børnene er blevet puttet. Når først telefonen er slukket, vil du opdage, at du er meget mere til stede, for du fokuserer ikke længere på telefonen. I stedet kan du lade dig fordybe i øjeblikket og i de sociale relationer, som er vigtige for dig.

For det er i virkeligheden det, som al denne snak om informationsfiltre handler om: At gøre det muligt for os at genvinde kontrollen over vores digitale liv, så vi ikke lader os styre af teknologien, men i stedet selv bestemmer, hvordan og i hvor høj grad, at vi vil lade teknologien forme vores liv.

Distraction filters on the smartphone

Some time ago, I wrote about how I ditched my smartphone and returned to an old Nokia “dumbphone”, started a tight Inbox Zero regime, and began checking my email just once a day. All in an attempt to regain control of my digital life.

The problem is that smartphone is such an incredibly powerful and sophisticated tool, and that we don’t seem to be able to selectively use just some of the functions it offers. If we can check our email and Facebook on it, we will do so. It’s awfully hard not to, because we quickly become accustomed to that little dopamine kick that such news offer us.

The solution, of course, is to develop filters that limit the stress and distraction of such unwarranted information flows. And in that regard, ditching your smartphone is perhaps the most extreme filter short of leaving the Internet altogether.

I’ve had lots of positive responses from people who have been inspired by my approach. But very few people have been willing to take the drastic step of giving up their smartphones. There are simply too many neat features that they’ve come to love and take for granted: The touchscreen, the seamless calendar integration, GPS and maps, the high quality camera, and so on.

So, that raises the question: How can we construct distraction filters on the smartphone itself?

There are already a slew of such distraction filters available for the desktop — like Freedom, which severs your internet connection for a set amount of time, or SelfControl, which allows you to block a certain set of websites for a set amount of time. But as far as I can see, the only thing similar to smartphones is a pretty half-assed app called Self Control for Study available for Android phones.

Right now, we have dumbphones and we have smartphones. But as tech writer John Pavlus notes, the killer app for smartphones would be to make them able to emulate dumbphones.

So, what we need is a third kind of phone. One which combines the simplicity and lack of distraction of the dumb phone with the power and grace of the smartphone.

Introducing: The Zenphone

The zenphone is the smartphone simplified. It is the effortless smartphone, which gives you all the tools you need without distracting you from the tasks at hand.

Technically, it is an android launcher similar to the Home launcher that Facebook released recently.

A launcher is the software that presents the home screen of the smartphone and is responsible for starting other apps and widgets. In practice, it’s just a overlay on top of the smartphone’s own operating system, designed to emphasise or de-emphasise certain features. For instance, the Facebook Home launcher is designed to be a drop-in replacement for the existing home screen on an Android device that turns the whole phone into a big Facebook app.

The zenphone launcher pretty much uses the same technology to do exactly the opposite: It filters the apps and functions available on the phone to a chosen minimum, thus limiting the ways you can use the phone to free your mind to focus on what’s important.

For instance, you can define that your zenphone can use Google Calendar and Google Maps, take photos, receive phone calls and text messages. But that it can’t access the email application, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or Youtube.

Installing and un-installing a Android launcher is easy: It’s just a matter of installing it from the Google Play store, and then rebooting the device to use the new launcher. So, if you need access to one of the filtered apps, it’s just a matter of rebooting your phone. But the point is that the hassle of rebooting means you’re less likely to bother, and thus less likely to be distracted. In short, the zen phone adds a little extra friction that you need to overcome if you want to distract yourself. And just that little bit extra will often be enough.

The beauty of it is that you decide for yourself which apps, widgets and websites that you don’t want to be able to access on the zenphone. It is not an extreme either/or solution. It can be tailored to fit your needs.

Now, I haven’t actually built this launcher. Right now it’s just a concept and an illustration.

I’d love to do more with this, but I don’t have an Android device nor the skills necessary to adapt one of the many open source Android launchers to build a zenphone launcher. So, instead I’ve written this blog post. In the terminology of the Cult of Done, this is a “ghost of done.”

But if there’s anybody out there who’d be interested in making something like this, please get in touch.

A network-based organic food co-op

A month ago, my old colleagues at Socialsquare posted a short video interview with meon how the internet is changing business. The interview was an edited excerpt of a longer interview where I also talked about KBHFF as a concrete example of a networked, open source organisation. To me, that was the most interesting part of the interview.

So I’m very happy to find that they’ve put up another edited excerpt from the interview, focusing on KBHFF:

“How the internet is changing business”

Recently, I went to visit my old colleagues at Socialsquare to catch up. They also did a little interview with me about KBHFF, the Copenhagen food co-op I’m involved in, and how I see that the internet is changing business in general.

Yesterday, they posted this little video of some of the main points from the interview:

I must admit I find talking about “how the internet is changing business” in general to be rather diffuse subject matter. Business is such a broad field that it’s pretty difficult to claim that all of these trends are equally applicable to all sectors. I prefer very concrete examples and stories that can elucidate these new trends in a manner that’s easier to grasp. I did talk a lot about the food co-op in the interview. But as Kim writes in his blog post, they used that part in relation to a project with Aarstiderne. Who knows, maybe they’ll share it later on…

Evolution of a blog

Defining the topic for this blog has been an on-going challenge for me since I started blogging in December 2004. And that is reflected in the way my blog has evolved over the years.

Starting out as a simple way of sharing my experiences as an exchange student in Manchester in 2005, the blog evolved into a more solid online presence, eventually hosting the observations and ideas gathered throughout my fieldwork and thesis writing.

Following my graduation, I redefined my blog as my outboard brain, borrowing an expression from Cory Doctorow, a random stream of whatever caught my interest or my fancy at any given time.

Once I began working at Socialsquare, much of my blogging was diverted to their blog, and my own blog saw only sporadic posting.

Now that I’ve started out on my own, I find it is time to define the topic of this blog anew, and much more clearly this time. Inspired by Josh Porter’s advice on small-company blogs I’ll focus on the fields in which I work, and on how the developments in these fields can make a difference.

I work at the intersection of two fields: social software and people-centred design.

Social software is the fuzzy field sometimes known as social media, social tools, or lately even social business. Fundamentally, it is software tools and services on computers or mobile devices that support social relations, sharing, collaboration and collective action.

People-centered design is a strain within another fuzzy field often called user experience design, design research, user-centered design or even user-driven innovation. But all of these strains still draw upon the same mother lode: The notion that it is vital to understand understand the practices, motivations and needs of the potential users in order to design new products and services that can offer lasting value.

What both of these fields have in common is the fact that they are opening up new avenues of user involvement in their own way:

Social software facilitates involvement by offering people tools to share, discuss and solve issues – either directly among one another or indirectly by engaging with an organisation dedicated to solving those issues.

People-centred design creates involvement by engaging with people in their everyday lives, exploring and analysing the issues they face and building on those experiences in design solutions.

So, to sum up: I write about user involvement through people-centered design and social software. Stay tuned for more.

A Primer for a sustainable future

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how we need to reinvent something like The Whole Earth Catalog.

The Whole Earth Catalog is an ancient thing. Initiated by Stewart Brand in 1968 as a response to the communard movement that followed the summer of love. During the autumn and winter of 1967/1968, more than 30.000 hippies sought to make true on the idealistic promises of the 1960s counter culture, and moved back-to-the-land and into communes throughout the US southwest.

The first Whole Earth Catalog was a 64-page catalog that provided “access to tools” with which to build the new and better world envisioned by the communards. In addition to providing information on how to order material goods (mostly books), the Catalog, and to an even greater extent, the Whole Earth Supplement that subscribers would receive in-between new versions of the catalog, provided a forum where the communards could share information and reach out to one another. As Stewart Brand explains:

If [the commune dwellers] were going to go back to basics, they needed to know where the basics were. And I didn’t either. But I set a thing in motion a thing by which by purveying the stuff, and being a node of a network of people purveying it to each other… I would get to learn whatever the network was learning.

The Catalog and the supplement became looking glasses through which to peer down and see a reflection of an emerging world and, at the same time, spot doorways through which newcomers could enter that world.

Inspired by his own experiences of environmental biology and the works of Buckminster Fuller, Brand sought to develop this fledgling network into what he hoped would become a self-sustaining system. As he put it,

What you’re trying to do is nourish and design an organism which can learn and stay alive while it’s learning. Once that process has its stride, don’t tinker with it, let it work for you.

Indeed, the Whole Earth Catalog inspired a whole generation of communards, free-thinkers, activists and dreamers to think of computers, cybernetics, ecology, Buckminster Fuller, geodesic domes, and lots more.
One of the key design principles of this information eco-system was juxtaposition. Brand juxtaposed radically different topics in order to help the reader to win new perspectives. As he put it,

How you get energy is, you take polarities and slap them next to one another. If you get into Cybernetics and your head is just a minute ago full of organic gardening and ecology, then cybernetics starts to come alive for you in a different way.

Little wonder that the Whole Earth Catalog inspired long-haired computer programmers as they imagined how a computer would handle and juxtapose information. As Alan Kay (the man who first envisioned the laptop computer) said, “We thought of the Whole Earth Catalog as a print version of what the Internet was going to be.”

And that is what the Internet – and especially the World Wide Web – has become. It is the ultimate information eco-system – the ultimate juxtaposition of human knowledge. Everything is just a click a way. But that also means that it is too big to know. With Google, you can find anything that you know to seek, but you rarely come across that which you did not expect to find. You tend skim along, never focusing, never allowing the energy of the juxtapositions to hit home.

I find myself lacking the carefully curated, annotated and juxtaposed mix of inspiration, ideas, and tools that the Whole Earth Catalog offered. Tools gathered with a specific purpose and audience in mind. Just like the Whole Earth Catalog was a primer for the hippies, the communards, and the computer geeks, we need a primer for young people today.

Such a primer should provide tools and inspire conversations and everyday action towards the sustainable, open, free and shared future we know we need to build.

If you know of something like that that already exists, or if you want to help make one, get in touch.

(PS: All of the quotes above are taken from Fred Turner’s excellent book “From Counter Culture to Cyberculture and the related panel discussion at Stanford University)

The musketeer rule

Just trawled my way through a ridiculously long slide deck by David Gillespie called “Digital Strangelove – or how I learned to stop worrying and love the internet“.

It has a lot of good points, and describes among other things:

  • How it doesn’t make sense to talk of digital anymore. It is a qualifier that is losing meaning as our physical and digital lives melt together.
  • How all media technology has always been enabling new forms of human expression – and how the Internet has enabled everybody to express themselves in all sorts of new ways. And we don’t know where we might end up.
  • How it doesn’t make sense to talk of social media, since with the internet, all media are social. We might just as well talk of the internet.
  • How the internet is changing the way we perceive media. On the internet, we have to design for the users’ intent and ability to express themselves rather than count upon their passive attention.
  • But the point that stuck with me occured around slide number 190 (!) was the “musketeer rule”, which sort of sums it all up:

    Your intent is framed by the way you deliver value.

    I call this The Three Musketeers rule.

    All for One or One for All

    All For One is 20th century value creation. It is driven by self-interest & excelled in the silos.

    One For All is how businesses thrive today. When they create value for themselves, they create value for an eco-system.

    It is called the ??Good Enough Revolution?, and it is not a conversation about features.

    It is a conversation about benefits.

    Good stuff!

On social objects

Working at Socialsquare, I’ve been introduced to some very practical thinkers in the realm of digital sociality. These are the people who are concerned with connecting the technical ‘how’ with the social ‘how’ to build new web services that help redefine digital sociality. One of the more thoughtful of these thinkers is Jyri Engeström.

Jyri is a Finnish entrepreneur with a Ph.D in sociology, and in his work, he combines his social science background with experience developing applications for web and mobile platforms. The most prominent result of this is Jaiku, a micro-blogging service very similar to Twitter. But with much more balanced design focused on conversation.

One of the main reasons why Jaiku comes across as a much more well-defined web service compared to Twitter is the way it was conceived. As Engeströmi explains in this interview with Brian Oberkirch, when Web 2.0 developers sought to define the functionality of their service, they thought of the social network they were building in the terms of traditional social network theory that claims that networks consist of nodes (people) connected by lines (relations).

Engeström found this theoretical framework to be lacking. Inspired by sociologists of science such as Karina Knorr Cetina and Bruno Latour, he argues that people are always connected by objects, and by focusing on the role of objects in social relationships, we can see how these objects often provide context in which these relationships come to make sense. This makes sense for us in our daily lives where we the contexts of situations to be self-evident. We’re very good at figuring out what the centre of attention is – depending on whether we’re attending a birthday party, a funeral, a baby shower, or a barn raising.

Engeström’s point is that these centres of attention are social objects that we use to connect with one another. Social objects offer us a vital context to make sense of how we ought to behave in a given situation. This is even more important in an online setting, where there is much less social context to draw upon. As human beings, we tend to adjust our behaviour according to the people around us, but if we can’t see how others act and interpret a given online social space, how can we make sense of it?

As Engeström argues, we can do this by defining a clear social object for a social web site. Consider the difference between how you’d present yourself and who you’d connect with through a web site offering to help you find jobs, and a web site offering to help you find dates. In both cases, the social object shapes how you will interact with it – and indeed, whether you will interact with it. Engeström argues that social services with an ill-defined social object tend to not do so well.

In this presentation, Engeström offers some tentative explanations of the power of social objects:

When you begin to examine social web services and look for social objects, they’re often easy to find: Delicious focuses on bookmarks. LinkedIn focuses on jobs. Dogster focuses on dogs. Upcoming focuses on events. Flickr focuses on photos. Youtube focuses on videos. Amazon focuses on books. eBay focuses on auctions. Craigslists focuses on classifieds. Myspace tends to focus on music. And so on. The real magic of Facebook, according to Engeström, is that they’ve opened it up to allow users and developers to create their own social objects, providing for unlimited number of objects – events, photos, status messages, what have you.

So how did Engeström use this notion of social objects in building his own social web service, Jaiku? Well, the social object of Jaiku is status messages – or jaikus as they’re called (a neologism similar to tweets, I suppose). Engeström was inspired by Instant Messaging status messages, which people already used to a great extent to tell their network what they were up to (whether on Microsoft Messenger, AIM, Gtalk or elsewhere). But these IM statuses weren’t sharable (outside that specific Instant Messaging network) or savable (no web history). He wanted to turn these status messages into a fully fledged social object, which users could share, discuss, and socialise through. Having worked for Nokia, he also sought to combine the service with SMS updates.

In short, Jaiku was conceived from the beginning with a specific centre of attention, which all use of the service would revolve around. Twitter didn’t come with all these features for socialising, and users had to invent them for themselves. In that way, it’s somewhat unfortunate that Twitter took off, and Jaiku did not. When asked about what the next big thing in the field of online social objects might be, he suggests locations, which Jaiku also experimented with. But being able to digitally bookmark a location as a social object depends on a much more widespread adoption of GPS-enabled phones. Just like Flickr depended on widespread adoption of digital cameras, and Youtube depended on widespread adoption of webcams and digital camcorders.

Summing up his experiences with building Jaiku, Engeström names 5 key design principles in using social objects as a design parameter:

1) Define your object. (users should be able to identify a site’s social object within 10 seconds of entering the site)
2) Define your verbs. (what actions can users actually perform on the site in relation to the social object? – a brilliant example is eBay’s Buy and Sell buttons)
3) Make it sharable. Make it easy and quick to share. What is the particular way to share this kind of object?
4) Make it viral. You need to turn each invitation into a gift. Make receivers feel like that they are getting a gift. Youtube does this well. Sending a video is often just like sending a smile.
5) Don’t charge the spectators, charge the publishers. Make it free and easy to see, use and share the social object. Those who have a keen interest in using the social object for more specialised purposes will also be willing to pay for that privilege.

It’s striking how well these design principles fit with what successful free software projects are doing. The Ubuntu community is an excellent example of how a whole community of hackers are brought to gather by a social object, an operating system, which they have a common interest in. I really like the idea of social objects as points of focus and gravity for social interactions. I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about how such objects may create social coherence by providing a context that allows people with shared interests to relate one another in new and meaningful ways.

Making sense of twitter

Following my last post, where I likened Twitter to shouting out the window of a moving truck, I’ve been giving the matter some more thought and dug up some different perspectives on Twitter. Web 2.0 entrepreneur Ross Mayfield even asked his Twitter followers how they would describe Twitter to new-comers.

It’s public but focused on individuals. It’s both asynchronous and real-time. It’s searchable and cumulative. It’s not necessarily shouting.

As this presentation by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams illustrates, Twitter is also quite a lot like passing notes or whispering in a classroom. The difference being that the presenter can check out all the comments afterwards:

Williams’ main point is that Twitter has proven to be much more versatile than they expected, and they’ve been working hard to keep up with the cognitive surplus being invested in defining the etiquette and uses of twitter. David Pogue makes a similar point in his insightful write-up of Twitter in the New York Times:Twitter can be whatever you want it to be: An ego boost, a discussion tool, a research tool, a waste of time, a running dialogue during a presentation. It is the openness of the tool that creates the magic. It is still a complete mess, fragmented and incoherent precisely because all of the users are still in the process of figuring out how best to use it.

I can’t help comparing it to IRC, which I used a lot as part of my fieldwork. IRC is real-time chat channels focused on topics rather than on individuals. It requires you to be online through an IRC client in order to follow the conversation (though some IRC channels do log the conversations), but it can also be asynchronous. People can direct comments to specific individuals or just ask an open question to everybody present. It has many of the same features as Twitter – an allows for much better conversation. But it is limited to channels. You need to get all of your friends together in the same few channels in order to be able to talk with them.

Twitter has a much, much lower barrier to entry: It’s on the web. Sign-up is easy. You don’t have to decide which topics you’re interested in, or try to get your friends involved – you immediately connect with your friends already on Twitter. You can use it on your mobile phone. And perhaps most importantly: You’re limited to 140 characters.

But all of this comes at a high price: There is a massive loss of context: It is much more difficult to make sense of the conversation once you’re there. People are trying to help this by using acronyms.

I find Twitter to be a fascinating example of a technology that has been shaped by use rather than by design. Its greatest advantage is the fact that so many people are using it – not any inherent quality of the design itself. The result is a fairly unaesthetic mess, but it makes it clear just how much potential there is for such easy discussion and access to expert knowledge. Twitter has begun to tap this potential in form a Web 2.0 service. But there is a long way to go, still.

Twitter is drive-by shouting

So, I finally succumbed and created a Twitter account. Despite my initial impression of it being fucking retarded. But now, having begun to follow some people and reading their “tweets” (what an awful word), I’ve been able to see how it works.

Imagine a large group of rednecks, each of them cruising down a broad highway in their pickup trucks. They’re in constant flow, constantly on the move. All of the rednecks are shouting out the window as they go. Typically letting the world know what they’re doing, but often also pointing out things that they’re passing by. At times, two cars are side by side, and the rednecks can holler at each other as they drive by. Such shout-versations rarely lasts longer than a few exchanges.

Now, the really odd thing is that each pickup truck has a microphone installed. But it only records the exclamations of the driver inside the car, not what the other drivers are saying. That means that you find a driver whose yelling seems exceptionally poignant to you, you will still have a hard time figuring out exactly what they’re going on about when they’re shouting replies to others. Your best chance is to listen in on a lot of people to get both sides of the conversation.

Twitter is sort of the redneck version of weblogs. It’s drive-by shouting online. It’s short and fast and furious and fragmented and mostly incoherent. I don’t doubt that it works. It’s obviously quite an effective way to let people know what you think. But it’s still shouting.