Build your house, then call me home(page)

21 February 2008

Our lives are increasingly mobile. For example, I wrote this post (and many of the previous ones) on the train. It’s not nearly as exciting as it sounds; I don’t have a laptop, a PDA or a web-enabled phone. I’m not even typing bestsellers with my thumbs like the famous Japanese cell phone authors.

No, I’ve gone truly retrograde. I’m writing my posts in pen on paper.

And I love it.

But what about those of us who want to use technology in more than one place? People without laptops, or people who travel?

This time last week I was in New Zealand, having a fantastic holiday and generally steering clear of the Web for the sake of rest, eyestrain, and my unfortunate tendency to read work email while I’m on vacation. But one thing I could have done from an airport kiosk or internet cafe was upload my holiday snaps to Flickr, Picasa, Facebook or any number of image-sharing websites. Why? Because all of these services are web-based, so they can follow (or haunt) me everywhere.

As I’m a really long way behind in the 23 Things schedule, some of my colleagues are beginning to post their final comments on the program. A particularly interesting point made by several bloggers was that many staff use more than one PC, sometimes even on multiple campuses. Naturally this makes the idea of a permanent desktop very appealing.

The 23 Things tasks reflect the trend towards ‘going mobile’. We’ve looked at Google Docs, for example, which offers a free hosting and editing service for office documents, and Flickr, a centralised space for storing images. But how can we take our desktops with us?

Firstly, we need to extract as much data as possible from internal network drives and make it available online. In the case of Swinburne Library staff, confidential information can be added to the staff wiki, since this is protected by password. The added advantage here is that a wiki is a collaborative tool; you might find your colleagues respond to your work with helpful comments and additions. Swinburne staff should also never underestimate the power of their email inboxes. Email is hardly the best content management service, especially given its relatively poor search abilities. However, since our email client can be accessed remotely, at least it’s always available.

Of course, this doesn’t solve everything. Swinburne 23 Things Task 16 encourages us to try iGoogle, a customised Web start page that can be accessed anywhere users have an internet connection.

iGoogle is certainly very visually versatile. Users can choose from a directory of over 150 themes, or even design their own using XML. I chose the ready-made City Scape theme, which changes gradually during the day to reflect the sun’s position in the sky. iGoogle, like many of the other Google products, makes use of ‘gadgets’ (called ‘widgets’ in Blogger) to add external content to pages. Like Facebook’s applications, many of these are created by weekend developers. As suggested when I activated the software, I added the Wikipedia, Gmail, Google Reader and ToDo gadgets.

Although it’s easy to search Wikipedia in Firefox (I just type ‘wp’ then the search query in the address bar), the ability to search Wikipedia from a portable desktop is useful when chasing PCs or using Internet Explorer. The option to preview my latest emails and feeds through iGoogle is also very handy. I don’t use my Gmail account very often (mainly just for Blogger comment alerts and Facebook ‘bacn‘) so I often forget to check for new emails. And with the number of unread feeds in my Google Reader rapidly approaching 1500 (again), it can be daunting even to take a peek at my aggregator. Much better just to be presented with a few new feeds each time I refresh my homepage.

Since I like the way iGoogle works, I may consider using it more regularly in the future, and I’ll definitely explore the gadget directory in more detail. However, for those who like the concept of a web-based desktop but aren’t inspired by Google’s offering, there are plenty of alternatives. Like all Web 2.0 products, their continued existence is subject to the fickleness of the web-using public — the safety of Google and any of its services lies in monstrous size and wealth. I am always hesitant to save my data to little-known Web 2.0 services without a backup, since they are frequently here today and gone tomorrow.

With that dire warning out of the way, here are some rival start pages I investigated:

PageOnce is designed for users with a number of web email and social networking accounts. It feeds all new email or friend update data into one start page, negating the need to remember a multitude of passwords. However, I think it’s important to bear privacy and security in mind; iGoogle only recycles data through the Gmail and Google Reader gadgets that is already available from my Google account. How much new information would I have to provide PageOnce for the same functionality?

Pageflakes is one of iGoogle’s most successful competitors. It has the ability to accomodate a wider audience than a personalised webpage like iGoogle. As an example, Dublin City Public Libraries use a customised Pageflakes page as the default homepage on all public access PCs. Unfortunately the page is very cluttered and ugly, and I worry about such heavy reliance on Web 2.0 tools. As Andrew Finegan notes, public libraries deserve to be ‘free but not cheap’.

As you can see from the comparison links below, many people favour Netvibes. Like Pageflakes, it was able to pinpoint my location (albeit Canberra, but close enough) and provide me with a demo page containing geographically-relevant modules like Herald Sun news and local weather. However like Pageflakes, the layout is messy and overcrowded; iGoogle’s sparse layout, in keeping with other Google products, definitely counts in its favour.

Despite iGoogle’s rapid rise in popularity in 2007, MyYahoo! is still the most popular start page by miles, but while it has the benefit of using the same login details as Flickr, it suffers from a strong UK bias. Let’s just say I wouldn’t use it.

Symbaloo is different from the other start pages I viewed because it uses a customisable array of symbols to represent frequently-used websites and services. Unlike iGoogle, which federates a number of services into a single space, Symbaloo acts as a launching pad for the Web. I think it’s one to watch, but it’s still in beta outside the United States.

Smplr has generated some interest in the online press, mostly because it’s unusual and much prettier than most of the start pages on the market. However, it requires users to learn a whole new language of codes to navigate the Web — something users are perfectly capable of doing without Simplr. Such a complicated process for a service that is meant to make users’ lives easier seems truly oxymoronic.

Further information:

Compare startpages:

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    Does anyone really want to talk to a librarian?

    23 January 2008

    This might sound like a desperate plea from my dwindling social life, but it’s actually part of a wider professional question: does social software belong in libraries?

    I have a Facebook profile. I’ve had it for about 12 months now. It’s a novel idea for me—I didn’t get involved in any of the preceding ventures like Friendster or MySpace—but a friend of mine travelling overseas recommended it … and of course I bowed neatly to peer pressure.

    2007 was a big year for Facebook, which began modestly at Harvard University as a means for freshmen to keep track of people they met in classes or dorms. In September 2007, Facebook recorded the third highest hit ranking on the Web, increasing not only in membership but also in user engagement and stealing some of the market share from arch rival MySpace. Facebook actually eclipsed MySpace in the UK, and the startup made steady progress to increase its presence in the rest of Europe in the second half of the year. In the United States, Stanford University began to offer Facebook development classes.

    One of my fellow 23 Things bloggers found Facebook a great tool for keeping in touch with old work colleagues and getting to know new ones. I started at Swinburne in November 2006, and while only two of my old colleagues were on Facebook, I agree that it was good to share a little of my personality with my new colleagues to see how well we clicked (if you’ll pardon the pun). However, parading your personal life in front of work colleagues, particularly older and/or supervisory ones, is always going to be fraught with danger. Like Jane suggests, I try to be cautious about how openly I communicate on Facebook for fear of how my silly offhand remarks might be (mis)interpreted.

    I don’t think it’s a bad idea for any of us to regard our online presence as though Big Brother (the Orwellian version, not Gretel Killeen … creepy) might be watching us. Dana, who declares that she has had more experience with social software than I, notes that Facebook has the most flexible privacy settings of any on the market. Yet there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case; the Beacon debacle, which attempted to use profile data to generate targeted ads, confirmed this fear. Tom and Dana both delved sensibly into the topic of privacy early on in the 23 Things program, because they recognised the potential for inexperienced users to divulge too much information about themselves when creating online content. But I’d like to take a different tack.

    A recent study from the United States indicated that almost 50 percent of the University of Michigan students surveyed would not want to contact a librarian via Facebook or MySpace for help with research. 14 percent believed it was ‘inappropriate’. One respondent even commented that ‘it’d be weird to contact a librarian that way‘. (That gave me a chuckle; it’s not everyone, after all, who would choose to ‘poke’ a librarian—only about 80,000 ‘poke’ at all).

    Libraries have always been reluctant to openly market themselves; perhaps part of the students’ resistance is that, as Doug suggests, libraries appearing in Facebook and MySpace look like advertising. It’s certainly true that library services need to be proactive rather than reactive; the literature talks extensively of our collections moving from a ‘just in case’ to a ‘just in time’ model. But the truth is that these new collections, while not taking up space on the shelves, still require planning. Our staff and students might now have instant access to articles from a vast range of journals across a variety of disciplines, but this is no happy accident. Careful managing, budgeting and negotiation goes into providing such a magnificent suite of online serials.

    Similarly, involving libraries in the social software phenomenon will also require careful consideration. We can’t just go out lobbying for users to join our spaces; they’ll feel harassed and resentful, like I do when someone tries to sell me something I don’t want to buy. We need our users to come to us willingly. Libraries have enough trouble appealing to the younger generation, without being accused of attempting to spy on their online lives.

    Early last year, I attended a seminar with danah boyd, a leading researcher in the use of social software. Many of the attendees were secondary school teachers wondering, after seeing students post potentially compromising material online, how much it was safe or indeed appropriate to engage with their online activities. danah boyd cautiously recommended that concerned teachers build a simple Facebook or MySpace profile, then sit back and wait for students to add them as friends. She emphasised that teachers should definitely not attempt to ‘friend’ students themselves.

    In an earlier post, I discussed my belief that mandatory installation of internet filters has the potential to irrevocably damage the bond of trust between parent and child. I acknowledge that parents and teachers have a vital role to play in the nurture of children’s values so I can see why they might be concerned about the ease of access to harmful content on the Web. However, teachers expect to maintain some level of privacy from their students outside school hours (I’ve been told that once you become a parent, there is no such thing as privacy, so I’ve left parents out of this debate), and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for students to expect the same courtesy. Students have no right to burst into teachers’ private residences uninvited, so surely teachers have no right to invade students’ online spaces outside school hours and attempt to moderate their behaviour?

    It is questionable that librarians are obligated to play any role in the moral development of children. I think our role is chiefly to assist in the pursuit of knowledge (regardless of the perceived morality or immorality of that knowledge) and help break down barriers in access to information. We’re straying into dangerous territory if we try to assume any other kind of moral responsibility.

    This puts us in a perilous position in online social environments. We look ridiculous if we try to make friends with students on their own terms, but we’re not interested in attacking their right to say and do what they like in their own online spaces. Librarians may want to use Facebook at a social level, but I don’t see why we should feel obligated to use it at a professional level too. By the same token, if I’m asked to struggle with the terrible interfaces of MySpace for the benefit of my users, I’ll do it, but I have no desire to risk having my intellectual property appropriated by posting my innermost thoughts online in a personal context. Librarians in an online social environment flounder somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, and I think we’d be better just to swim away.

    Alternatively I suppose we could start to desperately flog the profession as: Become a librarian and get paid to play on Facebook!

    (‘No Facebook – Blessington St, St Kilda’, from avlxyz’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons License)

    Other links:

    • 13 predictions for Facebook in 2008: read these at the end of the year and see how accurate they were, or whether in fact Facebook made it through the year at all
    • Facebook Easter eggs?  Facebook developers hide little bits of entertainment in their code
    • Building a social networking environment at the library: If you insist on getting involved, you should probably read this
    • Facebook and rapport: Some suggestions on how to involve libraries in social networking without compromising professionalism
    • 360Gadget: a Facebook application that allows you to subscribe to RSS feeds, access your POP mail account, search the web and watch YouTube, all from inside Facebook (assuming you want to spend even more time there)