Monthly Archives: April 2009

Saturday promises to be CREATE-ive

Saturday is the second annual CREATE South conference in Myrtle Beach. The free one-day conference focuses on self-expression through new media, and puts a huge emphasis on teaching and learning. CREATE is for everybody with an interest in new media or self-expression using technology, regardless of skill level. Everybody stands to benefit. It’s not too late to get registered — and it’s free!

There are four tracks — writing, making media, art, and creating community. I’ll be leading a discussion at 2:20 in the community track about the viral nature of social networks and how you can leverage it for newsgathering, organizing events, and just plain making jokes. Afterward, I’ll be sitting on a panel along with Dan Tennant, Heather Solos, and Raymond Owens from WCBD about how we’re able to intersect technology with gatherings in “real life” (so to speak).

I’m looking forward to CREATE and hope to see many of you there!

An Ode to GeoCities

An era from the early days of the Web is ending, as Yahoo! has announced its intent to close GeoCities, its free Web hosting service targeted to novices, later this year.

I can’t have a legitimate discussion about my career in Web without starting it at GeoCities. I started a site at GeoCities in 1998 as a starry-eyed 8th grader, staking out turf for a little Windows tips site I would call “The Ultimate Windows Launchpad” in a little suburb of the SiliconValley neighborhood known as Haven. (GeoCities, up until about a year after the Yahoo acquisition, used “neighborhoods” to group Web pages together by interest. For example, tech-related pages lived in SiliconValley; there was MadisonAvenue for advertising-related pages, and so on. Looking back, this was fairly brilliant — cutesy, sure, but smart. Eventually, as Yahoo! merged more and more of GeoCities into its operation, this convention was eventually dropped in favor of shorter URLs using the Yahoo! ID.)

Between the lime background, scrolling marquee for a title, and animated GIFs, “The Ultimate Windows Launchpad” was exactly what you would expect from a novice’s first attempt at publishing a Web page. Even worse, I didn’t know HTML then — I had thrown the page together in FrontPage Express, which came along for the ride in the Internet Explorer 4.0 package. Yes, I got started by being a prototypical “n00b” that most experienced Web developers make fun of today.

And thus we run into one of the few regrets in my life — namely not keeping a copy of this old page intact. Who would have guessed its impact it would have on my journey? The earliest copy of the site on archive.org is from early 1999, after I had shortened the name to “The Windows Launchpad” and given it a more sophisticated table-based layout in a bid to impress the ladies. (Here’s all archive.org has for The Windows Launchpad on GeoCities.)

Of course, I eventually outgrew GeoCities as I started looking for more power user features. During the summer of 2000 I moved the site off GeoCities and onto a rather sophisticated free hosting service from Freedom2Surf (which they managed to run ad-free for a year), where I would eventually begin transforming the site into a message board, which actually did well for a couple years before my interest faded.

As the Web evolved, GeoCities fell from prominence and just became another Yahoo! property and the butt of many jokes from experienced Web developers who, more likely than not, got started on GeoCities or similar services with the “n00b” stigma attached (such as Angelfire and Tripod). Ultimately, more evolved Web services like WordPress and Tumblr, which come prepackaged with great designs, were the downfall of GeoCities and similar services. As ReadWriteWeb notes, people want a professional-looking Web presence, even at the novice level. GeoCities just couldn’t keep up.

Sure, we now have Tumblr, WordPress, and the like roaming the ‘net — but I have to tell you, there was something endearing about Web rings, lousy HTML, and the learning experience of it all that today’s starry-eyed 8th graders are more than likely going to miss out on. It’s a bummer. GeoCities’ hosting of “The Ultimate Windows Launchpad” ultimately proved to serve as the launchpad to a career, and for that it receives my deepest appreciation.

Fires Near Myrtle Beach

Volumetric analysis of KILX radar over Myrtle Beach. Note small smoke plumes.

Volumetric analysis of KILX radar over Myrtle Beach. Note small smoke plumes.

It’s never good when a fire registers on a weather radar, and well enough to show up in a vertical cross-section to boot. My thoughts are with those who are under siege from wildfires near Myrtle Beach. As a San Diego native whose family has been under repeated threat from wildfires over the last several years, I’m very sensitive to such situations.

More on Twitter authenticity (or: backing up and punting)

First, a note to myself to step away from WordPress when in an emotional moment regarding social media topics (such as, say, trust on Twitter).

After careful consideration and a good conversation with Patrick earlier, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are some flaws in how I’d implement the authentication of Twitter accounts.

The biggest flaw which came out is that if big companies and celebrities were given the option to “certify” their accounts, would that make “normal folks” such as myself automatically invalid? Because, if you think about it, authenticated accounts — one that have been verified by Twitter as “legit” — could unintentionally create a class of “better” users than the standard accounts. The credibility lent those accounts could potentially diminish greatly from a standard account — and after all, there’s a strong sentiment for Twitter to remain a level playing field (all it takes is a search for the Suggested Users feature to see the passion on both sides of that argument).

The second biggest flaw? How in the world would Twitter implement such a system to authenticate users when it can’t keep its system stable? When the basic functionality of Twitter, including updating and following, is more often than not a crapshoot, those required fixes take priority. Period. Twitter doesn’t have the capacity to properly serve up tweets at times, much less authenticate users.

The solution? If you’re a company conducting business on Twitter, or perhaps a celebrity, make sure your Twitter account is referenced somewhere on your website, so we at least know it’s really you rather than an imposter like the false Jerry Rice or the guy who was pretending to be LeVar Burton (which eventually caused the real LeVar Burton to join the service). With this in mind, it’s utterly mind-boggling that Comcast doesn’t reference their Twitter contacts on their Contact Us page — or, for that matter, anywhere on comcast.com. Again, Comcast’s efforts are well-documented in the media, but what if I’m a user completely green to Twitter, who logs on for the first time, mentions Comcast, and is reached out to by one of the agents? The Comcast site doesn’t give me the option of making sure the Comcast Twitter agent is who he says he is. Users are increasingly becoming smarter, and they may be more resistant to outreach efforts if the company’s Twitter presence isn’t noted on their website.

Oh, and I was wrong on @cnnbrk too. Apparently CNN has been working with that account, just in a consulting capacity, over the last couple years, and only recently acquired the account. I still think it’s odd that the account acquisition was just this week, considering it’s been around for a long time, but the fact that CNN was aware and working with the account makes me feel better. I have far less of a problem with something done in good faith than something done to intentionally defraud people.

Clearly, it’s time for a break from WordPress already, and I’ve only been back to writing regularly over the last few days. Jeez. :P

The good ol’ days are over

We can’t trust social media anymore.

How is it that the most-followed Twitter account, @cnnbrk, wasn’t even run by CNN until a recent acquisition? Seriously — how many of you out there thought CNN ran it? I know I did. Some folks have claimed to have known the truth behind @cnnbrk for a while, but I consider myself up on social media news and this comes as a saddening shock to me.

Why saddening? Because the trust factor that endears us to social media has been shattered.

Twitter needs a mechanism to authenticate a true identity now. Not in six months, not in a year, but post-haste. Otherwise, how can we truly know that accounts performing customer service over Twitter, such as Zappos or Comcast, are legitimate? When we DM account information to a representative of a company, can we really be sure they are a representative? Are we giving our information to Comcast, or are we giving it to a phisher? It’s well-documented that the Comcast representatives on Twitter are indeed authorized agents of the company, but how can someone new to Twitter know this for sure just by looking at the Twitter site? This CNN thing really hurts any company that wants to perform customer service online, because it underscores the fact that tomorrow, I or anybody else could start an account like “@AcmeCares” and phish Wile E. Coyote for his credit card information over DM after reaching out to his reports on Twitter that his shipment of dynamite didn’t catch the Roadrunner.

We are very fortunate that @cnnbrk was not abused, and that’s likely why James Cox, the person who started the account, is not on the other end of a landmark trademark infringement lawsuit. (Because this is, in every sense of the world, a textbook case of trademark infringement. Also, I’m willing to bet that CNN’s failure to act on this sooner could be interpreted as failure to defend their trademark in a reasonable time, which could have serious legal repercussions down the road.) But this whole ordeal underscores the critically urgent need for an authentication system to be implemented. Otherwise, I will now have serious concerns over any company wishing to engage over Twitter, because there is no way to be sure that they are who they say they are — and that’s sad, because as Comcast has proven, Twitter is phenomenal for customer outreach.

#amazonfail demonstrated the new rules of crisis communication

Almost three years ago (it’s been that long?), I went to a seminar on crisis communication put on by College of Charleston’s Communication Advisory Council. During the seminar, we broke into groups and acted like we were PR for Firestone, charged with cleaning up the mess brought about by the tire blowouts that caused several high-profile Explorer accidents some years ago. The key takeaway? Present a united front, and get it right the first time.

Now, keep in mind that all this happened in the age before social media came about. While the fundamentals we learned that day are the same, Amazon’s current #amazonfail plight is demonstrating that the rules of crisis communication have changed.

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Brief thoughts on the new FriendFeed

After a week and a lot of tweaking by the FriendFeed team, I’m finding that the new FriendFeed beta is pretty great. Its landmark front-and-center feature is its default real-time stream. At first, it was entirely too fast and made me reach for my filters (which, by the way, have been ridiculously enhanced in this new FF) and the Pause button, which stops the real-time stream. However, the FF team made some changes to how the real-time system works and now my stream is a bit easier to keep up with. I subscribe to 283 folks, which makes for a fairly active stream at times (but certainly nothing like Robert Scoble’s 14,000+).

It’s taken some time, but the new FF’s really grown on me. I’m getting more and more comfortable in it, and have just scratched the surface of the filtering functionality, which really cements FF’s reputation as a power-user social media tool. I see a lot of concern that FF can’t break into the mainstream and all that because it’s “too hard.” You know, I’m okay with it not doing that. Perhaps there are some additional things that FriendFeed can do to make it a bit more accessible, but it absolutely should not compromise its power user features for the sake of gaining more folks. FriendFeed does beautifully at what it does and astounds me at how it adds features to cut through the noise to the signal. Plus, its basic features are simple enough — you already use them on Facebook, after all. I encourage you to give the beta a shot and subscribe to my feed if you dare.

Back on the set and covering all bets

Hope everyone is having a great Easter holiday. I’m trying to get back in the swing of things after a week out in Salt Lake City for training. Check out my Flickr photos from the trip, and check out places I visited on Brightkite. Expect the blog to slowly regain steam in the next couple days as I attempt to reestablish a routine; have some stuff about mainstream vs. niche and other passively related items percolating in the brain. For now, though, it’s time to dine — Easter dinner, that is.