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Clackity

(months pass)

I’m sitting at a Panera, with my shiny new 11″ MacBook Air, waiting for a meeting. I’m caught up on my feeds, [Reddit](http://reddit.com), email, and other distractions, and since I’ve done pretty much all the fidgeting I can on this new machine (which I’ve lusted after for so long at The Perfect Writing Machine(TM)), I figured I should actually, you know, do some writing.

Notably, there is not much [Clackity Noise](http://www.kungfugrippe.com/post/169873399/clackity-noise) from the keyboard. But I love it. It feels great. Same layout as previous MacBooks and the Apple Wireless keyboard that I’ve used and loved for years, so no need to relearn muscle memory. One thing that bothered me about previous MacBooks was the thick front ledge, machined to a nice, sharp aluminum blade, and positioned perfectly to cut into the underside of my wrists while I was writing. It never bothered me that much until I notice its absence on this Air. The front edge is so thin, and close to the table, that I don’t feel it at all. Very nice.

I’m using Yet Another Text Editor, too, but I hope to stay with this one for the long haul. I finally broke down and bought [BBEdit 10](http://www.barebones.com/products/bbedit/). I’d been on the fence while all the supernerds debated BBEdit vs TextMate, and honestly, I was leaning towards TextMate. I would have taken the plunge already if there weren’t such a stench of death and abandonment hanging around it. But BBEdit was $100, and that was a lot of dough to drop on the electronic equivalent of Yet Another Notebook, ostensibly for me to write in, but more likely to be hoarded, empty, and admired on its own. But then BBEdit 10 came out. Besides some nice updates (I’d never really used it before, so I’ll take the nerds’ word for it), like improved [Markdown](http://daringfireball.net/markdown) support, it also got a price drop to $39.99, and appeared on the Mac App Store. I hemmed and hawed for a few weeks, trying the trial version, feeling overwhelmed initially at the interface, but really liking what I saw on the whole. The weight of all that was finally more than the desire to keep $40 in my checking account, so I bought it. I still don’t have it all set up the way, or at least, I don’t think I do. I’ve learned how to turn off the things that annoy me (autocomplete all the freaking time? No, thank you). And [Brett Terpstra’s Marked](http://markedapp.com/) really does make a nice companion app for it.

For all that, though, until a few minutes ago when I sat down to write this, I was still dorking around with the tools, and not actually, you know, writing anything. But now I am. I feels good. The tools feel good. This MacBook Air is quite possibly the nicest computer I’ve ever used. It’s certainly the lightest. Maybe the fastest. I was worried that the eleven inch 1366×768 pixel screen would be too small, but it’s perfect. I love this thing.

Now, to see if I can make myself get out of Tool Dork mode, and actually use it to create something on a regular basis. Clackity clackity clack clack.

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Bit.ly, a new URL shortener, launches, but I’m not going to use it. Yet.

switchAbit, purveyors of wonderful web tools, have launched a new URL shortener called bit.ly. Besides a cute name, bit.ly has some nice developer-centric features that make it stand out among the hordes of these services (TinyURL, is.gd, twurl.nl, etc.). From Dave Winer’s post on the launch:

They asked what it would take for me to use bit.ly, I said: data. I need to know how many clicks each pointer got and where the clicks came from.

They gave me that, and thumbnails, permanent caching of the pages I’m pointing to (goodbye linkrot) and a lot of smart stuff going on behind the scenes that we’re not ready to talk about yet. (Though we told Marshall and he explained.) Here’s the info page for this post.

And, most important, an XML/JSON interface, so I can process all that data with my own programs.

As URL shorteners go, it looks great. I love the caching using Amazon S3/EC2 cloud resources, the stats, the developer features (XML and JSON), and again, the name is cute.

But I won’t be switching my bits (ha!) to use bit.ly. At least, not yet. Why? Because it’s still way too big of a pain in the butt to use these services, without some tools to make it easier.

Even with a bookmarklet (which you can click to shorten the URL of the page you’re on), it costs me way too much to time load the page for the URL I want to shorten, click the bookmarklet, wait for the shortener page to load (and, optionally, tell it “yes, I really want to shorten this”), and then get my shortened URL, which I then have to manually copy for pasting elsewhere.

Right now, I use TinyURL as my URL shortener (mostly for posting links in Twitter, where every character counts). Not because it has better features than any other shortener (in fact, compared to bit.ly, TinyURL comes up lacking in a lot of ways), But I keep using it for one reason: the TinyURL Creator Firefox addon.

TinyURLMenu.jpg

With that addon installed, all I have to do to shorten a URL is right click on any page (OR any URL on the page), choose “Create TinyURL”, wait a second (during which my TinyURL is created and automatically placed on the clipboard for pasting), then click the “Close” button and paste the shortened URL wherever it’s going.

TinyUrl Creator.jpg

Simple and fast, it saves me at least 10 seconds every time I shorten a URL (which I do many times per day, thanks to Twitter).

I WANT to start using bit.ly. But I won’t until there’s a FireFox addon for it. I can’t code worth beans, or I’d do it myself, and I know the developers are busy, having just launched a few hours ago. But having a Firefox extension makes shortening URLs MUCH faster and simpler, and as soon as I can get one for bit.ly, I’ll dump TinyURL like a bad high school romance, and “switch my bits”. (ha! See that? I did it again!) 😉

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Twitter is Old and Busted. FriendFeed is the New Hotness.

(This post started as an email to @verso on Twitter, in response to her question “I’m wondering how much longer #pdx will take it from Twitter. “Come on baby, you know I love you” won’t work forever will it? Alternatives?“) I had been trying to reply via Twitter itself, but it’s been either down or eating my updates – oh, the irony!)

FriendFeed finally sucked me in this week. I finally “got” it. It’s the next logical step up from Twitter, because it is a superset of Twitter – I see my friends tweets, often before I do through Twitter itself, and I can reply to them once, and have it go to both places (FriendFeed and Twitter). Plus there’s so much MORE FriendFeed can do – import and show people’s blogs, shared items, photos, etc. It kicks ass, seriously. I highly recommend you give it a try. Twhirl, the popular Twitter client,  works with it (though I haven’t got that working well yet), and http://fftogo.com is an awesome mobile interface for it for your phone (looks and works great on my iPhone).

The thing that got me to accept it (I’ve been resisting for a while now) was there was finally enough “social gravity” – enough of my network was participating there, and there were conversations happening on FF (a LOT of them) that I was totally missing out on because I was staying completely in Twitter.

It’s not a Twitter-alike, with a few differentiating features (like Jaiku and Pownce). It’s a whole new, better, crack-like way to interact with people. It is the evolution of what Twitter started.

I’m jabancroft on FriendFeed – feel free to subscribe to me. I’m still going to use Twitter as my “micropost” method, until it croaks completely. But in my FriendFeed, you’ll also see my blog posts. photos I upload to Flickr, things I share on Google Reader (with my commentary), and more. And the coolest thing about it all is that there’s CONVERSATION happening around ALL of those things. It’s amazing. I love it.

So come join me. You don’t have to give up Twitter, or Jaiku, or whatever. You can connect them up in FriendFeed. But don’t limit yourself to just one channel of conversation, when you can have so much MORE on FriendFeed. It’s fun, it’s easy, it makes me smarter, and a big part of my network is already there. I’m convinced! :-)

Update: Phil mentioned below that he posted his comment to this on FriendFeed, and that reminded me of something. If you’re not a FriendFeed user, you’d be missing out on the discussion around this post that’s happening there. That’s why I’ve installed Glenn Slavin’s excellent FriendFeed Comments WordPress Plugin. If you are looking at this post on its own page, where you can see the “normal” comments people have left, scroll down, and you’ll also see the “Likes” and comments that people have left for this post on FriendFeed. Post get sucked up into FriendFeed, and great discussion happens there, but this plugin brings the relevant discussion back here, to the original post, so you don’t miss out if you’re not on FriendFeed. I love it.

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Teach Skills and Tools, not Programs and Rules

You probably go to too many meetings. I feel like I do, sometimes. Some are worthwhile, others are a waste of time. Thankfully, for the ones that aren’t that interesting/engaging to me, I can usually pay partial attention, and either let my mind wander and chew on things, or perhaps even do a little reading online to make myself smarter and better informed. The topic of this post materialized in my brain over the course of a couple of these meetings where I was paying partial attention. Specifically, someone asked the question “how do we make our blogs less boring, and less self-referrential?” After some discussion, an answer bubbled up from the group: we need to acquire the skills to be un-boring. And that’s when the little light with the bell went off in my head.

When you’re dealing with the online world (and this extrapolates to a lot of offline stuff, as well), it is much more important, productive, and effective to teach and learn skills and tools, rather than focusing on programs and rules. Teach people useful skills and correct principles, and let them govern themselves. Let me give a made up example, to illustrate my point. Try to think of how you could apply this to your job and your life.

Say, for instance, it was part of your job to take your company’s employees, and encourage them to write on a group blog (this is a generic example – this applies to almost anything, I think). You’re a very process oriented individual, in a very process oriented company. You decide to create a “strategy”, outlining the goals and ends you want to achieve by having an active community of bloggers. You could then work backwards from that, and get some milestones and metrics that will help you measure how well you’re doing. Say, a certain number of blog posts from a certain number of contributors per month. This many visits per month, and a growth rate of n percent. And then you could have lots of brainstorming sessions focussed on those milestones – “How do we get more bloggers?” “How do we get the bloggers to write more?” “How do we sound less boring and less self-interested, to get more audience engagement?”

Based on brainstorming sessions like that, you come up with a plan. You’ll have more meetings for everyone involved. Mandatory training. Rules (call them “guidelines” if you wish) for how to write a good blog posts. Rules about what NOT to write about. Rules about who can and cannot be a contributor. Rules about how you count and measure hits and visits and comments and contributions. At long last, you have a “strategy” for your blogging “program”.

You get a few enthusiastic participants – people who seem to be natural bloggers, and take to it with gusto. But on the whole, you end up feeling like you’re having to constantly keep after the bloggers, to get them to post. You’re always encouraging them to write more, to be more engaging and personable (so more people will read the blog, and leave comments). You may go so far as to cook up some bribery/reward schemes to entice them to post more (a carrot instead of a stick). You feel like you’re exerting a lot of effort for diminishing returns, and eventually, you get tired of it, and stop trying so hard (so the whole program starts to fall apart).

Any of that sound familiar?

Now let’s imagine a different approach. Instead of falling into the trap of process and programs and rules (which is easy, because it’s what you’re used to, and besides, everyone else is doing it!), you should think of ways to achieve your objective by teaching skills and tools – actively helping people learn to do new things, or old things in new ways that are more efficient, and more fun. Your goal should be to help people find that “I kick ass!” feeling, and you should trust that doing so will induce them to achieve your “other” goal, be it a vibrant community of bloggers, or more sales, or whatever.

Teach people to find a way to deal with the things they hate most about their job or their life. Show them better spam filters, or how to use a feed reader to bring the web to them and give them more time by reading more efficiently. Show them tips and tricks, and teach them how YOU learned the tips and tricks.

What’s different about the “skills” approach? Do you think it can be just as effective? Which do you prefer? Can you still have a “strategy”, and if so, should you? How you find out what skills are important, and then learn them well enough that you can teach them? Or should you find experts to teach the skills? Is this really better than programs and rules? Let me know what you think. I’ve deliberately held back some of my thoughts on this approach, until they’re a little more developed. I’ll post more on this, soon. Plus, I love kicking ideas back and forth with you. So let me know what you think! :-)

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Advanced Twitter Fu: Become a Master

Everyone talks about Twitter. It’s hard to describe why people like it and use it so much. You have to use it, and connect with some people, to really see why it’s worth it. If you’re looking at it from the outside, like watching the public timeline, it’s going to seem stupid and useless. That’s because, used like that, it is.

BUT.

If you know what you’re doing, Twitter is a REALLY POWERFUL and REALLY COOL way to connect with people. You can find basic, “entry level” explanations about why you should use Twitter everywhere. I even wrote such a post a couple of months ago (which includes the excellent “Twitter in Plain English” video, which you must watch if you haven’t already). The rest of this post is going to assume you have a (very) basic understanding of what Twitter is, and how it works. If not, go read my previous post, watch the video, and come back. I’ll wait. :-)

The Twitter Fu is Strong With This One

What I want to talk about here is some advanced “Twitter Fu” – techniques for “power users” (I hate that term), and people who are ready to start taking advantage of some of the really remarkable things you can accomplish with it. This isn’t comprehensive, of course, but I do speak from experience. What I’m going to write about comes from my daily use and experience with Twitter (which started in July 2006, making me an old timer in the Twitterverse. Most importantly, I want to show some ways you can use Twitter to accomplish something REALLY remarkable – connect up people in a community (or build a new community) with strong ties.

Here’s the reason I think all of this is so important. My job, and Intel Software Network‘s mission, is to build community. Community grows from connections made between people with a common interest. One way people make connections is through conversation. Real conversation in their natural human voice, with another human. You can’t have a conversation with a corporation. You just can’t. This is why I’m always harping on conversations, conversations, conversations! Twitter (and blogs, and other net tools, too) makes it easy to have more conversations, and thus build more connections, with other humans. You increase your “human surface area” – the ways people can connect with you. If you’re a software person, think of it as exposing a new API endpoint for people to hook into and use. And when you have more and more of these human connections, a really cool thing emerges – community. See how that all ties in?

Enough philosophical background. Let’s get on the the real, practical things you can do to become a high level Twitter Fu Master.

Grow Your Network, Carefully

Twitter is useless without following people. But it’s worse than useless if you follow people you don’t know. The public timeline, while it may be an entertaining peek into what the entire world is saying, isn’t going to do anything to connect you to those other people. Your network is the heart of Twitter. Guard it jealously. Follow people you know (either in real life, or through online interactions, or whatever). Don’t follow people you don’t know, or who you don’t have any reason to follow, other than because they followed you. In other words, don’t follow someone if you have no idea who they are. Reciprocating a “follow” on Twitter is NOT required, and no one is going to get offended if you don’t follow them back just because they followed you.

I did this in the beginning, and I found that it just added noise to my Twitter stream. So I pruned my “following” list down to people I had either met in real life, or knew from some other interaction. Basically, it came down to “do I have to think for more than half a second to know who this person is?” If they don’t pass that test, I don’t follow. You’ve got to keep the signal to noise ratio of your Twitter stream as high as possible. It’s hard enough only following people you DO know.

However, as commenters below have reminded me, it can be fun and useful to add new followees based on who the people in your network are talking with. You’ll naturally get to know new people through Twitter, and your network will grow. This is a good thing. I just think you should be careful, and no go crazy and add everyone and their dog (or cat) without a reason. Or, as @scobleizer says, “You are defined by who you follow.” 😉

Use a Desktop Client and Your Phone

There are two times you’ll want to use Twitter: when you’re at your computer, and when you’re not. For when you’re at your computer, I highly recommend using a desktop client application, which makes your Twitter stream kind of like an IM conversation. It’s always there, you can pay attention to it, or hide it in the background. But having a desktop client has lots of advantages over using the Twitter.com web page to engage with your network.

There are lots of desktop clients to choose from. I personally use and love one called Twitterrific, from Craig Hockenberry and Icon Factory. It’s Mac only, but I love it because a) it’s beautiful, b) it uses Growl for notifications, and c) I’ve been using it since it came out, and I’m used to it (inertia is a powerful thing). If you’re not on a Mac, or for some reason you don’t want to use Twitterrific, there are some awesome clients that use the cross platform Adobe AIR runtime (Windows, Mac, and now Linux). Spaz, Twhirl, and Alert Thingy are worth a look. They all do pretty much the same thing, but some offer features like integration with FriendFeed, Jaiku, Pownce, etc. Try them all and find one you like.

A desktop client is for when you’re sitting at your computer (which, for me, is most of the day). If you’re anything like me, you have a whole bunch of browser windows or tabs open at any given time. It’s worth it to have Twitter outside of that, in its own place. You can see the stream of conversation in your network flow by, hop in and tweet or reply to something, and get alerted when there’s a reply or direct message directed at you. If you need to concentrate, and avoid distraction, just hide or close the app.

When you’re away from your computer, use Twitter on your phone. Any cell phone that can do text messaging is a great Twitter client. Just enable your Twitter account to work via text messages on your phone. You have full control over what alerts/incoming messages you receive (all, direct, etc.). I follow so many people that the volume of tweets is just too much to deal with in text messages (not to mention expensive!), so I only get a text message from Twitter when I receive a Direct (private) message. But, even if you get no text message alerts at all, it’s important to set this up, so you can SEND tweets from your phone. Then, get in the habit of doing it.

If you have a phone with a web browser (iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, or whatever), you can use the Twitter mobile web interface at http://m.twitter.com. It’s fast, light, and provides an easy way to both read your tweets and post new ones from your phone. Depending on the device you have, there are other options. iPhone owners should check out an amazing web-based Twitter interface for iPhone called Hahlo (and rumor has it there will be an iPhone version of Twitterrific as soon as Apple launches the iPhone App Store – I can’t wait!). For BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices, there are free applications you can install on your phone to use Twitter. I haven’t used any of these, so I can’t really make a specific recommendation, but do some Googling, ask around on your Twitter network, and you can probably find one that you like.

Integrate Twitter With Your Online Life

Remember how I said that the whole point of all of this is to increase your conversational surface area, to make it easier for people to connect to you by conversing with you? To aid in that, you’ll want to include hooks/links to your presence on Twitter from the other places where you interact with people.

At the very least, put a link to your Twitter page on your blog and in your email signature and on your business cards.

Beyond that, there are a ton of great options for integrating your Twitter “microposts” (as I call them) on your blog, from a simple javascript badge to more complicated integrations (like the way I do it on my blog, which I explain “how and why” in this post). You can make this as simple or as complex as you want. Go nuts. But do it.

If you use social networks like Facebook, chances are there’s a way to integrate your Twitter conversations. Facebook lets you connect your tweets with your “Status” updates on Facebook, and vice versa. I haven’t used them, but there are ways to integrate Twitter with your MySpace page and I’m sure there are more. Again, do some Googling, and ask your new most valuable knowledge sharing tool, your Twitter network.

Don’t Miss Any Conversations

Twitter lets you direct a message at a specific person in two ways. First is the direct “D” message, which sends a private message that only the recipient can see. This is kind of like a short email. The second, and far more common way is the @reply. You can indicate that a tweet is for a certain person by typing @theirusername. Twitter turns that into a link to that person on Twitter, and TRIES to bring that message to their attention. But they way they do it is broken. It doesn’t work if the @username part isn’t at the beginning of the tweet. It doesn’t work if they don’t have their Twitter settings configured to show them “All @ replies”. If you want to be a Twitter master, you have to take a couple of extra steps to make sure that you don’t miss any messages directed at you using the @ sign.

This is where third party search tools like TweetScan and Summize come in. I’m assuming you’re using a feed reader/aggregator like Google Reader (you ARE using an aggregator, aren’t you? If not, we need to have a serious talk). If so, you can use TweetScan or Summize to do a search for your username, then subscribe to the feed for those search results. Presto – you’ll know every time someone even mentions your name on Twitter, whether you’re following them or not. At the very least, you need to do this. But search is powerful, and can do some other cool things, too.

For some reason, people often misspell my username on Twitter, or just make up some @username that has parts of my name, but isn’t anywhere near correct. No problem. I just set up search feeds on Summize to look for jabancroft (the correct name), bancroft, jbancroft, and joshbancroft. That way, I hear what people are saying about/to me, no matter how badly they butcher my name. If you know of common misspellings of your username, you should subscribe to search feeds for those, too.

Also, if there’s a specific topic, company, or product name that you want to track on Twitter, to see what people are saying, you can simply create a search feed for that word/phrase and subscribe to it. Twitter has a “track” feature, but it only works if you get updates via text message or IM – it doesn’t work if you use the web or a desktop client app. I have a few search feeds on Twitter – one for “Intel“, for example – that let me see everything people are saying, good and bad. Can you think of something that would be useful for? If you can’t, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

But Wait! There’s More!

Wow, this post got long. But I still have more to say. Specifically, some techniques about building groups and communities of interest on top of Twitter (something it lacks the native ability to do) using some simple tricks, and mashup tools. The online shoe seller Zappos.com has been getting a lot of press lately for their use of Twitter, and I’ve been involved in a couple of really cool mashups in the Portland geek community, like PulseoFPDX.com. How is this useful, rather than just interesting? Besides being a peek into the “stream of collective consciousness” of a particular group of people on Twitter, it’s a great way to find people to connect with. You know, build community by connecting with other people you know and have something in common with.

And I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve, too, so stay tuned! :-)

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How and Why I Added Daily “Microposts from Twitter” Posts

I’ve had a dilemma for a long time. it started when i began using Twitter a lot, which has been over a year now. For anyone who doesn’t know, Twitter is a service that lets you post 140 character updates on “what you’re doing”, which are read only by people who “follow” you, and you see only “tweets” (updates) from people that you follow. Sort of like a chat room where you get to decide who you hear.

Twitter is awesome, and I use it heavily. I’ve carefully cultivated a list of about 325 people that I follow. I know who all of them are, and I care about what they say. Most of the time.;-) (BTW, if you want me to follow you, just follow me, and introduce yourself – I’m friendly!) And there are almost 1000 people who follow me, which I find amazing. How can that many people be interested in what I say?

Anyway. Many people have noticed and pointed out the fact that I haven’t been posting here on my blog as much since I started using Twitter. This is true. This is what happened:

I quickly came to think of the stuff I wrote on Twitter as “microposts” – short little notes about what I was doing, or something I found interesting, or asking a question. The kind of stuff I would normally post here on my blog, until I had a better place for it. Whenever I had a “bigger” idea that I wanted to share, or something with a lot of pictures, or that otherwise didn’t work well within the 140 character micropost way of doing things, it became a blog post here.

Twitter became a kind of low-pass noise filter for my writing.

Lots of people who read this blog also follow me on Twitter. You’re my network. My friends. My connections. And since you were using Twitter too, there wasn’t a problem.

But I know there are lots of you who read my blog, but don’t know about or don’t want to use Twitter. I’ve tried to bring attention to my frequent microposts by putting them over in the sidebar, but I wasn’t really satisfied with that. I mean, who looks at the sidebar? Most people just probably tune it out. I know I do.

I know lots of people that use services like LoudTwitter, or tools like Alex King’s TwitterTools plugin for WordPress to do a “daily digest” post on their blog – to round up everything they tweeted that day, and put it into an automatic blog post.

The problem with this comes for people who subscribe to both the blog feed, and follow that person on Twitter. They’re getting the same stuff twice. It’s redundant and annoying, and I really didn’t want to make myself any more redundant and annoying and redundant than I already am.:-)

So, after kicking the idea around a bit (on Twitter, of course), i think I’ve found an elegant solution. Using TwitterTools, I’ve set up that “daily digest” post. But, using some cleverness built into WordPress (the software that powers this blog), I’ve excluded those Twitter digest posts from the blog’s feed. They show up on the site, so people who visit the site regularly to see what I’ve been writing will see my latest microposts, along with the regular big old blog posts. But the microposts won’t show up in my feed. That way, no overlap for people who subscribe to my feed AND follow me on Twitter.

If you subscribe to my blog feed, and you WANT to get my microposts, I heartily recommend you set yourself up an account on Twitter (it’s free and easy), and follow me there. I’m jabancroft. And don’t worry. Everyone thinks Twitter is stupid at first. And then they fall in love. So give it a chance, and don’t blame me for your future Twitter addiction.;-)

If you don’t want to use Twitter, but still want “the full Josh” firehose, let me direct you to my life stream site, www.joshbancroft.com. On that site, and its accompanying feed, you’ll get my blog posts, my Twitter microposts, my photos from Flickr, any videos i post on the web, and pretty much everything I write or create.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out my “linkblog” at linkblog.joshbancroft.com (and it’s accompanying feed), which is stuff I share from the hundreds of things I read every day in Google Reader and elsewhere on the web. Think of me as a news filter, your personal clipping service. I sift through all the posts, and pluck out the ones that I think are interesting. No more than a few per day. You can also add me as a friend/contact in Google Talk and Google Reader and get the same thing, if you know what that means. If you don’t, just use linkblog.joshbancroft.com. I try really hard to make it interesting and useful.

Does that work for everyone? Drop me a comment below if you like it. Or hate it. Or know of a better way to do it. Or think it’s the best idea ever, and want to do the same thing on your blog. I’m always happy to share!:-)

Update: A few weeks ago, I switched my theme (K2) to three column mode, and moved my “Microposts from Twitter” posts into one of the sidebars, using the “Asides” functionality of K2. It’s a LOT less cluttered, and doesn’t bury my “regular” posts under the piles of Twitter posts that I generate. :-)

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