Category Archives: Internet

A little slice of oral history?

Brian McCullough hosts the rather splendid Internet History Podcast, and a few days ago he asked me to talk about some of the stuff I’d been involved in over the years.

You can find the interview here if you’re curious. You have been warned – it’s just over an hour long, and it’s something of a monologue, for which I apologise, but Brian encourages that; he’s a great listener and many of the episodes have a similar format.

It was great fun – my thanks to Brian for letting me natter away.

Giving in to peer pressure?

Today I was composing a tweet. I hit the 140-character limit and started that editing process with which we’ve all become familiar. You know, where you gradually omit and abbreviate words, one by one, while still hoping to convey the spirit of the original meaning…

And then I thought, “Why bother?”, and just posted to Facebook instead.

I never thought it would come to this. I really dislike so much about Facebook. But it’s a place for discussion, where Twitter, though it occasionally carries occasional useful bits of news, is more a place for sporadic broadcasts and emotional outbursts.

I’ve been tweeting for nearly 8 years, but overall it seems less and less useful to me, and I wonder if I’ll still bother by the end of 2016. We’ll see…

In Google we trust…

Marco Arment writes about why he’s reducing his use of Google products:

…the reason I choose to minimize Google’s access to me is that my balance of utility versus ethical comfort is different. Both companies do have flaws, but they’re different flaws, and I tolerate them differently:

  • Apple is always arrogant, controlling, and inflexible, and sometimes stingy.
  • Google is always creepy, entitled, and overreaching, and sometimes oblivious.

How you feel about these companies depends on how much utility you get out of their respective products and how much you care about their flaws.

Simply put, Apple’s benefits are usually worth their flaws to me, and Google’s usually aren’t.

I’m a fan of both companies, though if I had to choose between them for some reason, I too would pick Apple, both for the quality of the product and the cleanliness of the business plan. (My favourite Google product, though, which nobody else can yet match, is Street View.)

Back when Gmail was the hot new thing, and because it was free(!), I started using it as a backup for my email. I never actually use the web interface, but my other accounts forward incoming messages there, where they get filed immediately into the archive. This guards against losing too much in the event of the complete annihilation of whatever other email provider I’m actually using at the time. (Like Marco, I’m a very happy user of Fastmail.) I set up this system 11 years ago, and really haven’t had to think about it since: it’s probably the most painless backup solution available!

It does mean that Google have over 100,000 of my recent messages with which to analyse everything about me, though, and I wonder whether that trade-off is worthwhile now that my entire email archive – of which they only have half – would fit happily on a small USB stick….

Is your technology getting underfoot?

ConnectedCycle_redbike_650

I think this is great. Not long ago we would have thought internet-connected cars somewhat futuristic. Internet-connected bicycles would surely be next. But how far can you push that idea? Well, how about instrumenting your cycling using a pedal which has its own 3G connection and is self-powered?

More information about Connected Cycle here and on their web site.

Pinpointing things on Google Maps

How to add a marker to a Google Map so that you can tell people, “It’s here!”

The state of the internet

John Naughton, interviewed by Tim Garton-Ash at the European Studies Centre in Oxford.

Geek Joke

Thanks to Jon Green for this:

browsers

Tweet me nice

I still (often) have doubts about whether Twitter is a valuable medium, but I see, looking at my archive, that I’ve now been tweeting for nearly seven years. Gosh. So it is at least a long-lasting one.

I’m far from a heavy user, though: over that period I’ve only averaged 1.3 tweets a day, with an average length of about 89 characters. Mind you, that’s still well over 40,000 words…

“If you’ve got a browser connected to the Internet, I can show you…”

For the sake of posterity, I’ve uploaded the original VNC video that we made back in 1998.

Lots of nostalgia in here – remember the JavaStation? The WebTV? And the days when we made movies in 4:3 ratios?

A great deal has changed in the last 16 years, but VNC goes from strength to strength!

Starring, in order of appearance:

  • Quentin Stafford-Fraser
  • Andy Harter
  • Ken Wood
  • Tristan Richardson
  • Paul Webster
  • Frazer Bennett
  • James Weatherall
  • Daisy Sadleir

Also available on YouTube. Thanks to Andy Fisher for doing the original transfer from VHS to DVD some years ago.

If it doesn’t look like your normal food, that’s because it’s bait.

One of the tragedies of the accelerated ‘internet time’ is the speed at which advertisers can discover our weaknesses. It took several centuries for tabloid newspapers to evolve their attention-grabbing headlines with minimal content and maximum emotion. FURY AT VICAR’S CELEB SEX ROMPS. (‘Fury’ is a word which seems only to be used now on the front pages of tabloids and local papers.)

Of course, gentle reader, you and I would never buy a paper with that headline. Despite the temptation, we know in the end it will be unsatisfying. It’s journalistic pornography, appealing to our baser instincts. Resisting the lure is part of our education, our self-control. We laugh as we pass by, at the poor, less-intelligent souls who succomb to this ultimately unrewarding titillation.

But, in just a couple of decades, the web has allowed this process to be refined to an extreme degree. Techniques such as A/B testing enable publishers to play with content, delivering version A to one group of 10,000 viewers and version B to another 10,000 to see which delivers the most traffic/sales/ad-clicks. This can be repeated, like an iterative fractional distillation, allowing the drug to be purified as never before.

The web’s equivalent of the tabloid headline is the link text – the thing that stops you walking past and persuades you to look inside. The process can be applied there too, and we see the results everywhere: links which convey even less information and appeal purely on the gut level. “Three old grannies got up on stage and you’ll never believe what they did next!” “10 things no mother should ever do!” “This one weird tip will transform your sex life!” “The most shocking video you’ll ever see!” They are designed, of course, not to convey information, because if you had any at that point, you could decide whether or not to click. Instead, they just tell you that you really must click, because otherwise you’ll be missing out, and we’ll tell you why once you’ve done so. Because, of course, we get paid by our advertisers if you visit our site, but not if you just read the link.

Now, the tragedy is that, unlike with tabloid newspapers, the content sometimes is worth seeing. The video is amusing, or cute, or whatever, and often was carefully created to be so, because they want you to share a link on Facebook, where, of course, it will be automatically augmented with their carefully-baited title.

A group called Quick Sprout recently published a guide on How to write the perfect headline. I’m not linking to their site directly because the pop-up ads are much too annoying, but you can find it via the site above. Their tips summarise the industry’s discoveries:

  • “A writer should spend half of the entire time it takes to write a piece of persuasive content on the headline…. 8 out of 10 people will read the headline, 2 out of 10 will read the rest.”
  • “The perfect length for a headline is six words.”
  • “Use negative wording: negatives tap into our insecurities.”
  • “Try using this formula: Number or trigger word + adjective + keyword + promise.”

They have some nice examples of this last rule:

  • Before formula: “How to bathe an elephant”
  • After formula: “18 Unbelievable Ways You Can Bathe An Elephant Indoors”

But I’ve noticed a strange thing recently. I’m starting to feel ashamed when I click on links like this, as if I couldn’t resist buying the tabloid; I couldn’t help eating the junk food. I’m actively resisting sites that are linked to in this way, and I have a lower opinion of sites that display the links. Am I alone?

Take the Independent, for example, a once-reasonably-respected UK paper. The bottom of every page now looks like this:

independent_ads

This is a tame set of examples which just happened to be on the first page I looked at, but really! “20 Hot Celebs You Didn’t Know Are Jewish”? We care whether they’re Jewish? They can’t be Jewish because they’re ‘hot’? Come on, Indie…! What are we meant to think of your standards?

So I hope we’ll start to see a backlash against this blatant manipulation. Let’s start educating people that, if someone pops out at you in the street and says, “Come down this alley with me, you’ll never believe what’s at the end of it!’, they may not just be doing it for your benefit.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t tell what they’re selling, it’s because you’re the product. So ask yourself this, the next time you see an irrestible link: Do you feel compelled to click, or are you making the decision?

Because there’s one sure-fire way to know if you’re the product. It’s when you’re the thing being delivered.

Social Commentary

I hadn’t come across Kate Reddy before, but they interviewed Allison Pearson, her creator, on Radio 4 this morning, about her return to the Telegraph. The piece is, I think, quite splendid.

Now I know what I’ve been missing by not being a parent.

Tilly! Tilly! Put that camera down! Drop it! DROP IT!

Doing the TWiT

Almost exactly 15 years ago, a Californian TV channel sent me a webcam. To be precise, they sent me a 3COM camera which came with a PCI frame-capture card. Connecting this up was a bit of a palaver, because I ran Linux on my home machine at the time, and I had to create a new partition and install Windows 95 so that I could run the supplied software. But it was worth it, because this was ZDTV, who were doing an interesting experiment on their Call for Help programme: interviewing people in remote locations using these new-fangled webcams alongside a traditional telephone call.

By the time my segment came, it was well past midnight, and I got a laugh by holding up a clock to prove that I was somewhere in a very different timezone, and by saying that, though they thought they were very advanced in California, they were still in Tuesday, while some of us had already moved on to Wednesday some time ago.

There were other guests on the show, and we made minor history by being the first time ZDTV (and perhaps anyone) had done a three-way call using webcams as part of a live broadcast. The presenter was a very nice chap named Leo Laporte.

Since I seldom saw any American TV, I wasn’t aware at the time of Laporte’s gradually increasing prominence as the host of shows such as The Screen Savers on the same channel (which had by then changed its name to TechTV). But he soon gained more international exposure with the launch in 2005 of the This Week In Tech podcast — affectionately known as TWiT — which grew into the TWiT.tv network, consisting of around 30 different shows. I have been listening to several of them almost since day one.

As the network grew, they built their own studio in Petaluma, California. And it just so happened that I was driving through there on Friday, so I stopped off to have a look.

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I stuck my head inside the door and said hello, and the wonderful Debi Delchini immediately welcomed this stranger from across the seas and gave me a guided tour, despite the fact that I had arrived right at the end of her Friday afternoon.

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The TWiT studio, though not large, is cunningly divided into half a dozen different sets, to allow different moods for different shows.

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The mixing desk in the middle can rotate to face whichever one is in use.

There are cameras everywhere. Unlike traditional studios where large cameras roll about on substantial bases, we are now in a world were adding extra small broadcast-quality cameras is cheap compared to arranging the building around a few bigger ones.

Leo wasn’t there, sadly, but I did get to sit in his chair!

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There was, however, a show being recorded: Fr Robert Ballecer’s This Week in Enterprise Tech.

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I noticed that he was interviewing two people over Skype.

That’s good, I thought: it looks as if the format has caught on after all.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser