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Breaking Social Networking Interconnections

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Many (most?) people post updates to multiple Social Networks. Rather than hand-picking which networks get which updates, most of the multi-network types (nearly all?) post the identical update to all networks, simultaneously, automatically.

There are many ways to do that, including services specifically meant to accomplish that (Ping.fm, FriendFeed, etc.), or multi-protocol clients (Seesmic, TweetDeck, Digsby, HootSuite, PeopleBrowsr, etc.). In addition, networks like Facebook and Google Buzz can also pull data from various feeds (including blogs, not just other social networks).

It’s totally understandable why people do it. Who wants their incredible update to be missed by a single person. Why not create it once and have it beamed all over the planet with one click?

If your livelihood depends on getting the word out (I follow many musicians for example), then by all means, when you announce something (e.g., a new show), you want to hit every conceivable network so that you don’t miss a soul on the planet.

If you’re telling your friends what you had for lunch, making sure that Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Identi.ca, Buzz, FriendFeed, Friendster, Orkut, LinkedIn, Beebo, Foursquare, Gowalla, etc., all get that update feels a drop like overkill. 😉

Until a few minutes ago, I was guilty of this behavior as well. I have a FriendFeed account which was connected to many of my other accounts. I then connected that FriendFeed account to Facebook. Independently, I had a Blog application connected to my Facebook account which injected an update whenever I published a new post.

That meant that I when I wrote a new post, if I tweeted the link (I know, it’s no longer politically correct to use that word, I don’t care, twittered sounds worse to me), my blog link would show up as three separate Facebook updates: 1) Blog app, 2) FriendFeed injection from my RSS feed, 3) FriendFeed injection from my tweet. Yikes! I certainly didn’t mean to hit my friends over the head with my announcement of a new post.

Ultimately that’s not why I cut the cord. I found that I was responding less and less on Twitter than I wanted to, because I was all too aware that it would end up in my Facebook feed, completely out of context to my friends while simultaneously cluttering my stream there.

I haven’t yet actively participated in Google Buzz, but I did connect it to my Twitter account, so every tweet was also buzzed. That’s no longer the case either. If I use Buzz, I want it to be a choice, not a side-effect.

So, I deleted FriendFeed from my Facebook account. I disconnected Buzz from Twitter. I left the Blog app in Facebook, so when I tweet a post I won’t also send that update to Facebook. That’s the only automatic connection I left.

From now on, I will be more active in Twitter (at least I think/hope I will) and I might give Buzz a real go as well. From my multi-protocol client I will choose which networks to update. Some messages might indeed go to many networks (I actively use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Foursquare at the moment). But, my silly Twitter interactions will most definitely stay exclusively on Twitter.

Feel free to unfollow me on Twitter if the noise level rises too much. Conversely, feel free to pay a bit more attention on Facebook if you previously felt that I was just spewing nonsense. 🙂

Digging Digsby

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I’ve been a very long-time user of Pidgin (previously called Gaim). I’ve also been a very happy user with no particular impetus to look into other IM clients.

In addition to IM, I have accounts with a number of social networking sites. I am not particularly active on any of them (with the exception of Twitter), but I do log on when I get email alerts from any of them. Recently, I’ve been logging on at least daily to Facebook (I used to go weeks between logins).

I was recently friended by someone I went to High School with. Shortly after accepting the invitation, I received a chat invitation from her on the Facebook page. We chatted for a while, through the browser interface. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either, and more importantly, it meant that I had to have the Facebook page in focus in order to chat.

Yesterday I stumbled upon an article that mentioned IM clients that could connect to the Facebook chat system. I searched for “Pidgin Facebook Chat”, and indeed, there was a plugin available that supported this. Cool! However, in the Google search results page, I noticed an article on LifeHacker was in the list. I don’t visit that site often enough, but whenever I do, I find their recommendations spot on.

I clicked through and saw that they (and their readers, via the comments) were in love with an IM client called Digsby. What distinguished Digsby from other IM clients was that in addition to being a multi-protocol IM client (AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo!, Jabber, etc.), it also connected directly to Social Networking sites (currently four, more planned) and email accounts (web-based, like Hotmail, Yahoo!, Gmail, as well as POP and IMAP servers).

It sounded very cool, but from reading the comments, it was clear the Digsby users really loved the program. It started out as Windows only, but has since expanded to have Mac and Linux versions as well. I run Windows, so that’s the version I installed.

I’ve been using it for just under one day now, but I am definitely not going back. That’s not a knock on Pidgin, which is excellent as a multi-protocol IM client. It’s just that Digsby is that too, and a whole lot more!

I have Digsby connected to all four social networks that it supports: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn. I have it connected to my Gmail account, and to my main Jabber account (and through that, to my AIM and ICQ accounts). In addition to connecting to Facebook for the feed, I separately have it connected to the Facebook chat system as another IM protocol.

It all works flawlessly, is extremely attractive in the default skin (though there are more to choose from, that I haven’t bothered looking at). I tested the Facebook chat with a friend of mine who has complained about the Facebook chat system. I told him that from my side (the Digsby side), it was no different that any other chat. I believe he will be installing Digsby today. 😉

It means that I am now available to any of my Facebook friends for a chat, whenever I am logged on to my computer, even if I haven’t opened the Facebook web page. It also means that as my friends update their status on any of the four social networks, I see a popup letting me know that instantly.

In addition to that, I can hover my mouse over any of the social network icons, and get a wonderful time-line summary of the news feeds from each site. It’s an instantaneous way to see what you missed and what people are up to. Clicking on any link takes you directly to the correct page (a person’s profile, for example) from that summary, so even logging on to each network is now a click away.

Even the IM client has some nice touches (I want to say innovations, but for all I know, this exists in other multi-protocol clients). One of my favorites is collapsing multiple instances of the same contact from different networks into one icon. Here’s a specific example.

I have three separate contacts for Rob Page, the CEO of Zope Corporation. My primary connection with him is through my own Jabber server. We use an encrypted channel, on a private server, so that all of our jokes are top secret. 😉

We are also connected via AIM and ICQ. Now that Rob has a shiny new iPhone, his AIM account is also linked via SMS to his iPhone, so that he appears available at all times.

In Pidgin, all three took separate rows in the client. I never expected it to be different, so it didn’t bother me, but it made for long contact lists, since whenever Rob was logged on, all three were available. It also meant that I could accidentally IM him on ICQ when I meant to use Jabber.

In Digsby, I drag the AIM and ICQ contacts and drop them on the Jabber one (my default). Now I only see one Rob contact (I can call it whatever I want). If he’s logged on to any of the three services, I see a green icon, indicating that Rob is available. If I double-click to send him an IM, it will go to the first available service. So, if he’s logged in to Jabber (my first choice), the IM will always go there. If he’s not, it will go to the next one that is available. Since he’s always available via SMS (through AIM) to his iPhone, I always see a green icon for Rob.

Still, it only takes one row in my contact list, and I can’t ever send an IM to a secondary service (by accident) if he’s logged in to Jabber. By hovering on his icon, I can select any of the specific services that he’s logged in to, so I haven’t lost the ability to target a specific service, I’ve just gained space, and an automated priority hierarchy. Simple awesome!

Anyway, if you are interested in other features of Digsby, there are many places to learn more about it than I have articulated above. The point of this article is just to declare myself to be their newest fan, and very vocal one at that! 🙂

Getting Very Tired of AlertThingy

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I’ve been using AlertThingy for a while now. I like the concept a lot. It started out as an Adobe Air front-end to FriendFeed.

Let’s begin (briefly, at least brief by my normal standards) 😉 with FriendFeed itself. At a minimum, FriendFeed is a social media aggregator. You can have it create a feed for you, with many (currently 35!) different services (e.g., Twitter, blogs, Google Reader, iLike, Facebook, etc.). Now, if someone wants to truly follow you, they can become your friend in one place, and not have to have accounts and joint friendship with you on all of the different services that you belong to (or will in the future!).

Great idea, and for my limited use so far, pretty darn good execution as well. I’m definitely a FriendFeed fan.

There are a number of ways to consume FriendFeed, including just by visiting their website only when you want to see what your friends are up to. You can also get updates via email. Because FriendFeed is part of the wonderful trend of services that provide full APIs, you can also use other clients to access FriendFeed.

AlertThingy started out as one such client. While it has a nice UI (at least a reasonable one), one instant quibble is that I can’t find a way to quit the program (perhaps I’m just dense). I have to go to the tray, right click on it, and select “Exit AlertThingy”. Yuck. Also, on the settings page, I have checked off the Launch at Startup box, and yet, it continues to launch every time I start up Windows. 🙁

So, let’s start with the good. Instead of having to log on to the FriendFeed website, and refresh every once in a while, AlertThingy will instantly alert me to anything that the people I’m following have to say on any of their services. Cool. Perfect? No.

The first problem is that not everyone that I follow has a FriendFeed account (or I haven’t bothered to look for them there, etc.). So, in addition to following some people on FriendFeed, I still have to check (in any number of ways) Twitter (for example), for those people whose tweets I’m interested in. Of course, if I launch a Twitter client (Twhirl is fantastic, also written in Adobe Air), I’ll see the tweets I’m interested in. But, I’ll also get an alert in AlertThingy as well, for the same tweet, if the person is also connected to me on FriendFeed as well.

That’s not the end of the world, but it’s not pretty (or conducive to managing interruptions) either. Now multiply the problem for every service you check (beyond the one Twitter example above), and you can see that it could get out of hand quickly.

Of course, this is not an AlertThingy problem, just a social media proliferation one, where the FriendFeed aggregation is getting in the way, by duplicating things. Of course, in this particular instance, if everyone was on FriendFeed (well, at least everyone that I cared about), that one part of the problem wouldn’t exist.

Now on to my real complaint, and why I’m getting tired of AlertThingy. AlertThingy was not satisfied in solely being a front end to FriendFeed. Since other services have APIs too, they started (a while ago) offering direct Twitter integration (Flickr too, and probably more coming).

Sounds great at first. I don’t have to launch Twhirl any longer (for example), since now I can see tweets from non-FriendFeed people directly in AlertThingy. Of course, when you think about it, it’s not a great idea, because it becomes it’s own sort of FriendFeed, while still providing FriendFeed… Ah, so there will be duplicates for people who are on FriendFeed, no? No! AlertThingy cleverly (yes, italics are there for sarcasm) removes duplicates (at your request).

No, they do not do it cleverly. They do a few things wrong, including alerting you multiple times. First, you get an alert when the real tweet comes through. Then, you get another alert when the FriendFeed broadcast of the same tweet comes in, even though AlertThingy only shows it once. But, that’s not the real problem at all. When they de-dupe, they totally screw up the timestamp. One or the other message gets timestamped with Greenwich Mean Time rather than local time.

For me, that means that these alerts get sorted to the top. Then, a new alert comes in on FriendFeed only (say a Google Reader share), which never gets duped, so it has the correct timestamp. That will be sorted below the de-duped stuff. Possibly, even pages below, since I’m five hours behind GMT!

This one super-annoyance is maddeningly easy to fix, and I sent feedback to the author on his site (and never heard back). All one needs to do is never accept a timestamp in the future (dupe or otherwise). If a message is about to get timestamped (and sorted), it should be the lesser of now and whatever timestamp the message claims it is. Simple.

So, what happens to me is that AlertThingy makes a noise and flashes, and then I have to look through a very long list of alerts to see which one is new, and it might be 20 down from the top. I can’t stand it any longer…

What makes it really bad for me is that I follow one particular person who is a prolific social media person (it’s part of his job, so I’m not blaming him). Today alone, he has created 43 separate alerts that are still visible in AlertThingy (others have already scrolled off the bottom and have been archived). It’s not only 43 new things. When he blogs, I get a blog alert, a tweet pointing to his blog, a Tumblr alert, etc. That’s a FriendFeed problem, as he needs to ensure that people see his stuff no matter where he posts it, and he too can’t be sure those people know about his FriendFeed.

He’s not uninteresting, and he’s one of the nicest people I know. That said, I’m dying to unsubscribe from him, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Since he’ll likely read this (and know who he is), perhaps I can get away with unsubscribing now. Especially today, since he started using Digg beyond belief, and his FriendFeed automatically picks them up. His acceleration of alerts is killing me.

So, I’ll probably both ubsubscribe from him, and also stop using AlertThingy, and start checking FriendFeed on the web (less frequently) or via a once a day email. I’ll hear about things later than I would have (other than tweets, which I’ll likely still follow via Twhirl), but my sanity will return…

Friend Requests

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Social Networks have been around for a relatively long time (in Internet years). They continue to mushroom. One of the reasons is the constant Friend Requests (invitations) one receives when anyone they know discovers a new network/site.

I see the utility of some of these sites, but in the end, unless they are used sparingly, and with a specific goal in mind (LinkedIn for example), they can very quickly become time sucks, geometrically if you end up feeling the need to keep up on multiple sites.

After hearing the buzz about Facebook for years, I succumbed and joined in August 2007. I had two purposes:

  1. See if the experience was interesting and/or useful
  2. See how long it would take to get invites

To test #2, I decided to not invite anyone to be a friend of mine, even those people who introduced me to Facebook. I’ve been a member now for six months, and I have still not invited anyone. I only have 26 friends, so I haven’t been overwhelmed with Friend requests either.

The requests can be divided into four categories:

  1. Bulk uploads
  2. Word of mouth
  3. Friends of friends
  4. Strangers

After I joined Facebook, I started getting a few invitations from people I hadn’t heard from in years. In a few cases, the last contact might have even been a bit strained. It took me a bit to realize that in likely all of those cases, those people joined Facebook after I did, and they uploaded their contact data (from Outlook, Yahoo, etc.) to Facebook, and permitted the site to match any members it had the same email address for.

While I applaud the ease with which these sites make these connections possible, ultimately, I find it extremely lazy (and intrusive) on the part of the uploader, who is building a (phony) network quickly, rather than a quality network, more slowly or painfully. That’s one of the reasons that I have never taken advantage of this (not just on Facebook, but on the dozen or so other sites that I could have), even though my Outlook contact database is reasonably large.

Word of mouth has made for high quality connections (for me). This will usually come in the form of some casual conversation where someone will mention something about Facebook (or another network), and ask if I’m a member. After admitting that I am, I will often get a friend request the next day. Those have typically amounted to more real interaction/sharing after the initial connection than the bulk upload ones.

Friends of friends has also been reasonably satisfying (to me, personally). One of the nice touches in Facebook is the concept of a social graph, understanding how you are connected to others. When one word of mouth friend connects with me, often other people in our circle are already connected to my friend, and they instantly discover (in their feed) that I too am on Facebook, and they friend me. Once that happens, we all see our overlapping friends on each other’s profile.

Finally, strangers. Here is one extreme example. I am a member of Last.fm (which I’ve written about in the past). I have three friends there. A month or so ago, I received a friend request from a name I didn’t recognize. I looked at their profile, and it was (supposedly) from a 17-year-old female. Uh huh, I am exactly who she is looking to friend to share musical tastes.

After declining, I mentioned it jokingly to one of my three real friends on Last.fm, and he too got an invitation from the same person. Oh well, I guess I wasn’t really all that special after all… 😉

But, it’s not always spam, just because it comes from a stranger!

This past Sunday, I received my first friend request on Facebook, from someone I never heard of. His name is Scott Dale. Before declining (which was my first instinct), I decided to Google him. I found this link, and was pretty sure that it was the same person who had invited me. OK, so he’s a musician, and maybe I somehow know him, and have just lost my mind.

So, instead of accepting or declining, I send him a message through Facebook. I ask him (apologetically) whether I know him. Even this form of contact made me hesitate and think before I acted. When you send a message to someone who isn’t your friend on Facebook, you are explicitly granting them access to view your profile for 30 days! Yes, Facebook makes it reasonably clear before you hit send (good!) and it makes sense, or they too would likely ignore your unsolicited message.

I decided to do it. I also hoped that he would only have limited access to my profile (which would exclude things like my IM, etc.), but I really wasn’t sure.

I ended up having a nice email-like conversation with Scott (eight messages between us). He wasn’t sure how he originally got my contact information, but he had just joined Facebook, so I got the invitation as part of the bulk upload. I mentioned that I blog about music quite a bit, and perhaps he picked it up there, but neither of us was sure.

I then asked him whether he was using Facebook just to network with friends (in which case I would graciously decline his invitation), or whether he was using it to promote his music, in which case I would willingly accept his invitation, because I had listened to his music on Fuzz.com (at the link above), and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was the latter, and we’re now officially friends.

I had also never heard of Fuzz.com before, so my new friend taught me a new trick as well. 🙂

Anyway, I am not all that active on Facebook, though I do find that I log on more frequently than I thought I would. Ironically, a while ago I added a blog application called My Blogs, which is an RSS feed which injects links to my blogs into my Facebook feed. I have been surprised by the number of clicks I get through Facebook on this blog, so my friends are definitely logged on to Facebook enough to notice new posts from me in my feed, and they then click on them to see what I’m up to. Cool!

Finally, these bulk uploads work to identify up-and-coming new networks. Lately, I have gotten quite a number of invitations for the new Pulse service by Plaxo. Plaxo has been around for years, as an online contact manager. Pulse feels like a hybrid between LinkedIn and Facebook. It’s actually remarkably similar looking to Facebook, with a touch more business orientation. There too I haven’t invited anyone, but my network is growing nonetheless…