Lilac and Lime

Contrasts in colour, contrasts in life – Mary Bruce

Clues on How to Clear the Clutter

Image
http://www.google.com/buzz

Apart from having a catchy handle, 2010 has been present in our consciousness for some time, not least because of the publicity preceding the FIFA World Cup. The year certainly got off to an auspicious start with a blue moon on New Year’s Eve and has so far held a number of pleasant surprises. Viva 2010!

Of course upsides are balanced by downsides. Traffic problems in Gauteng and the Western Cape are already legendary : from my sheltered perspective anything more than twenty minutes to travel from home to work is a disaster. Traffic problems on the Internet are not as tangible but are just as much a waste of time and annoying. While bandwidth issues are being addressed and will receive a major boost in the months ahead, especially now that the EASSY cable has beached at Mtunzini1, the clutter of information traffic continually bombarding us requires personal intervention.

I am one of the people who has chosen to expose myself to a wide variety of information sources in order to have as big a footprint as possible and then to use various filters to reduce the flow to subject areas within my ambit and interests. Some software tools have become indispensable, with RSS feeds leading the pack. Twitter has surprised me with its usefulness, now that I have had time to tweak it to suit my needs.

As predicted, social networking has entrenched itself as the web development of recent years and its impact is unlikely to decline. Of course, and particularly from the perspective of information management, the deluge of commentary could easily be overwhelming. (Two pieces of trivia gleaned from Twitter in the last three days : (i) social networking traffic increased by 82% in a single year ; (ii) the average age of social networkers is 37 years).

This column briefly reviews two products that claim to clear the clutter.

In the tangle of posts and related comments, conversations and references, following threads and identifying relevant entries quickly became a problem. Google felt that its experience in organising information could be useful in this sphere and in early February launched Buzz2. Buzz is frequently described as Google’s answer to Twitter and Facebook. I don’t think either of these services should be looking over their shoulders at this stage. Facebook is currently its own worst enemy. Twitter has established itself and, due largely to accessibility issues (keep reading), is unlikely to feel threatened ; Tweeters have had time to adapt to the initial shock of condensing thoughts to phrases of 140 characters or less which was the biggest hurdle.

Buzz doesn’t have the same size constraints but it does require a Google Profile and it works inside Gmail. That is why I don’t see it as a threat to other products. Not everyone has access to Gmail as it is one of the services IT administrators tend to have clamped down on. However, on to the positives . . .

Buzz appears as an icon in one’s Gmail folders so everything hereafter assumes that one has, and is comfortably ensconced in, a Gmail account.

Next up, one needs a Google profile, new or used. This can be limited to the minimal first and last names, or extended to include a photo and lists of followers and The Followed. As is now expected in Google products, a lot of effort has been put into giving the user options.

Buzz automatically draws on one’s Gmail contacts and also recommends people to follow based on those your friends find interesting. Each initial post can be tagged for public or private accessibility. Private posts are directed to new or existing groups of people or even an individual. However, comments added to existing posts do not allow one to choose who will see them. Posts and comments can also be submitted by email, logical as this service is aimed very much at mobile users. As in Facebook, comments can be annotated with “Like”, a potentially useful indicator and form of peer review in the context of this column. Unlike Twitter, Buzz allows for the inclusion of images and video clips. A big advantage for those wanting to view the latter is that they run instantly and don’t require another window or application to open.

The feature that I really like, a bit cheeky as a current non-adopter, is the extended search facility. There are specific parameters that allow one to search only Buzz posts within Gmail ; content-specific posts (ie links, images, videos) ; author of post ; and, interestingly, commenter.

David Pogue of NYT is always worth reading. My favourite comment of the week is his “at the moment, it’s not so much Google Buzz as Google “Huh?”s”. Reasons are to be found in his article Buzzing, Tweeting and Carping3. In brief, too many features are currently in flux although the product, unlike so many Google offerings, is not officially in beta. Confusion abounds for those of us who are used to Twitter’s chronological postings as adding comments pushes Buzzes back to the top of the pile. Pogue also refers to the fact that Buzz tries to rank posts by what it thinks will interest one, so some posts one wants to see may be hidden and others from people one doesn’t follow could appear because people who are followed found them interesting.

When accessing Buzz from a mobile a whole range of geographic factors kick in. For example, one will have automatic access to other Buzzers in the immediate vicinity. One potential use of geographic feeds is being able to read reviews of restaurants in the area. That is not a big enough incentive to get me into the service at this stage but I do think it’s too early to write off the product. Google is rightly famous for learning from its users.

The feedback from most people I follow on Twitter is that the service is severely handicapped by being restricted to Gmail contacts. My verdict : the buzz would currently appear to be a whispered hum.

Readability
http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/

The other product is one I came across towards the end of last year and addresses visual rather than content clutter. We’ve all been forced to trawl through webpages that either have way too much information or are badly laid out and the victims of poor choice of font.

This has to be the easiest “installation” I’ve every come across. Visit the URL and drag the Readability icon from the page onto the toolbar at the top of the screen. Choose from five options in each of three areas : Style, Size and Margin. These will dictate how you see selected webpages in future. Columns range from extremely narrow to almost the width of the screen ; font size caters to all, bordering on the ridiculous to be honest ; and layouts include newspaper and ebook. From there on, whenever one visits a cluttered webpage, simply click on the icon and all that is deemed clutter is eliminated.

The big downside here and the only one I really have to comment on, is that the developers need to work on the criteria by which content is deemed irrelevant. One of the electronic publisher’s sites I visited had almost all the content removed and only a banner advertisement at the top of the screen remained.

Although I’ve never had to put my motor where my mouth is, I think I would have absolutely no difficulty riding over bullies and people who hurt animals. So it was with some mortification that I realised this morning that the joy I had in visually deconstructing other people’s websites is in some respects rather synonymous with dissecting live frogs – an abomination of what the creator had in mind.

This is one relatively small and obscure tool that is well worth slipping onto one’s browser’s toolbar. I have used it with success both in Internet Explorer and Chrome. It takes up minimal space but really is worth way more than its installation time when confronted with wodges of text and indecipherables.

Happy twenty-tenning to one and all.

Mary Bruce

Opinions expressed in this column are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.

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