Twitter ye not

Brian Kelly raises the delicate issue of conference wifi etiquette by highlighting complaints made to a live blogger at a recent event with respect to his ‘distracting‘ typing. Kelly supports the use of wifi and laptops, but for ‘purposes relevant to the session’ without suggesting how participants might be policed to ensure that their laptop use is indeed for relevant purposes (or who defines what is ‘relevant’). The notion of strutting, Sally Bowles-like around the conference venue flicking off switches with a riding crop whenever inappropriate use is discovered has a rather alarming appeal, but might not be the best approach to managing the issue.

There’s definitely been a signficant increase in laptop use at events in the time since I joined CETIS, although inevitably there was always a core of laptop users tapping away even in the earliest days. Wifi provision is a significant issue when considering venues, particularly for our annual conference, and people often seem disappointed, or even a bit nonplussed, when we can’t provide it. But why do we set so much store by it? Is that email really so urgent? Will your IRC channel collapse without you there? However did we network before CrowdStatus?

Kelly, Clow and those they cite comment on the value of live blogging, and the invaluable service it provides to people who can’t be at an event. But does it? I’ve followed, and thoroughly enjoyed, Twitter updates on events, but more for the subjective, qualitative impression they give of the event rather than for their information content. Live blogs are useful narratives, but out of context from the event they describe and lacking reflection in the light of the day as a whole and subsequent consideration, how much value do they actually provide beyond slidecasts and podcasts? If everyone’s live blogging and twittering to the world, who’s going to read the blogs – and who’s going to listen to the speakers?

It’s kind of ironic that I learned about Kelly’s post in the backchannel of this year’s Eduserv Foundation Symposium, as I found the live chat system wildly distracting itself. It didn’t help that, owing to a combination of non-Eduserv related factors, I could barely hear what was being said in the live streaming, but I found the activity in the backchannel so ‘loud’ that it completely drowned out what the speakers were trying to say. I’ve found this in the past in – of all things – training webinars where there were no sound problems at all, just a chatbox buzzing with babble and an increasingly demoralised sounding speaker struggling in vain to make his points. Yes, there can be useful information there – such as the alert to Kelly’s post – but it can itself be buried under the rest of the chatter.

Focusing on the technology, however, diverts attention away from the real issue, which is perceptions of courtesy towards presenters and delegates. Only a few people feel it’s appropriate to speak to each other during presentations (and even Paddington’s hardest stare won’t stop the truly dedicated disrupter), yet many people seem to feel that the same standards don’t apply to unspoken communications. Is this because there’s something inherent to these technologies that make their use somehow acceptable, or just because they’re so new that accepted standards of behaviour around their use simply haven’t emerged yet?

Unraveling social networking

Another week, another survey, this time a snapshot of the top ten web applications as voted by around 3,000 participants from around the world.  Most of the entries are little surprise, with the likes of Gmail, Flicker, Twitter and Facebook all appearing as expected, but sitting at number five is an unexpected entry: Ravelry, ‘a knit and crochet community’ that offers a rather impressive user experience underpinned by ‘the usual search and Google map thingies‘, online shopping, project books, displays of finished work, pattern sharing, personal messaging and discussion boards.  Their own stats from Google analytics are supported by those from Alexa showing a rapidly growing user base, with up to a thousand users invited every day and a waiting list of over seven thousand.  Perhaps it’s time to reconsider that Wikipedia: speedy delete decision…. 

What makes this site so interesting, of course, is the thoroughly non-techie nature of its subject matter and the naturalness of computer use implied amongst its user base.  The way in which well designed sites such as this can draw together users from around the world and support their communities should have some very valuable lessons for learning communities.

Birds of a feather

A recent graphic from Le Monde illustrates the geographic variation in popularity of different social networking services across the world.  The graphic, based on data from August 2007, shows that while MySpace and Facebook have an unsurprising stranglehold on the North American market, things are very different in the rest of the world. 

Bebo leads the market in Europe, with the US’s big two being split by French equivalent Skyblog, an enterprise whose growth has been attracting comment for some time and whose parent site, Skyrock, is currently ranked seventeenth in the world by Alexa.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Skyblog also has a relatively strong presence in parts of Africa, although Facebook is the clear leader there.

Friendster may be the wallflower at the west’s web party, but it’s a strong favourite in Asia, while Google baby Orkut dominates South America due largely to its phenomenal popularity in Brazil.  Although a large number of LiveJournal‘s users are American, its position as the social networking site of choice in Russia is evident.

Social networking sites are clearly a large part of many people’s lives, whether they are used to keep in touch with friends, make interminable lists of favourite films/smells/lists or to spoil Christmas.  The playfulness of early Friendster fakesters has given way to misguided attempts at humour and spite, but sites can also be used to raise awareness about more serious issues.  Are such sites just a fad?  Only time, and demographics, will tell.

2020 vision

The third Future of the Internet survey sponsored by Pew Internet will be available online for the next few weeks and is well worth participating in.  Participants are encouraged to express their views on topics such as digital inclusion, DRM, privacy and digital identity, and virtual and mirror worlds in the year 2020, and can remain anonymous or identify themselves as they wish.  It’s a stimulating and thought-provoking exercise, as well as an opportunity to contribute to a significant study on perceptions of our online futures.

You can also check out the results from previous surveys and a range of other internet-related resources; particularly fun are the predictions from the early 90s.  One that stood out for me was Eric Hughes’s 1992 comment, ‘In the world of the future, people will use low-cost Radio Shack equipment to spy on themselves to find out who they are': in the world of FOAF and Facebook fakes, we need to spy on ourselves to find out who we’ve been constructed as.  No comments about tinfoil hats, thank you very much.