Thoughts on The Circle…

The Circle coverThe last book I finished reading in 2013 was The Circle by Dave Eggers. The title refers to a fictional company that is quite obviously an amalgam of Google and Facebook. The book is a dystopian view of a near-future, a nightmarish outcome of current trends like living our lives via social networks, and the resulting monetization of our every share, the loss of privacy, and ultimately, loss of freedom.

While Eggers’ symbolism becomes quite heavy-handed, this is a chilling, sinister book that made me immediately want to disconnect my Facebook account. It was also an exciting book to read, because it depicts the world we are living in right now. This book may quickly become dated, but right now, it feels very current. The issues that it raises are issues we should all be thinking about and debating, and the point The Circle makes is that people have a tendency to accept what is new and exciting and convenient without really questioning the unintended consequences.

At its essence, I think The Circle is about indoctrination into a cult, how people can easily be persuaded that giving up fundamental freedoms is actually a good and necessary thing. Except in this case, the cult is global.

I’m not going to call The Circle great literature. But I think it is a thought-provoking read.

Here’s an excerpt from the book published in the New York Times Magazine.

Freedom from email…

I recently turned off all the email notifications on my mobile devices. Pretty much all of the email I get is non-urgent, so why do I need to be notified right away whenever I get a message? Actually, I don’t. It feels like I cut the electronic umbilical cord. I am only checking email two or three times a day, on my schedule.

Like the telephone, email has become almost useless but still necessary. I still do quite a lot of work on email, and it’s important that people be able to get in touch with me easily that way. But I get so many unnecessary emails each day, so many social-network updates and newsletters and notifications of “deals,” that the noise of it overwhelms me. By turning off that little email notification icon on my phone and tablet, I turn off the perceived urgency of email. Rather than email ruling me, demanding that I read and respond when it comes in, I can now manage it, on my own terms.

So how do people get a hold of me? Surprisingly, Google+ has become the best way. Many of the people who I want and need to talk to on a regular basis use Google+, and there is very little noise (so far). Pretty much every conversation initiated on Google+ is a conversation I want to have. So I have left the Google+ notifications on. A phone call or a text are also effective if a quick response is needed.

Notifications from other social networks or from my blogs are generally non-urgent, so I deal with them when I read my email–once or twice daily. It’s such a simple thing, but turning off non-urgent notifications on the devices I always have with me has removed a big stressor from my life. Would you consider turning off your email or social network notifications, or would you miss not being immediately informed?

A circling strategy for Google+…

I’ve been trying to come up with a way to deal with the firehose on Google+ while discovering new and interesting people to follow. I got myself down to 6 circles, and I think this will work fairly well.

My top 3 circles are Family, Friends and Following. Following is for people I have engaged with or find particularly interesting. (The others are self-explanatory.) I see everything from these circles in my stream and all 3 are fairly small.

Then I have a Circled Me and an Interesting circle. The first one is for people I don’t know who circled me. The second is for people I think might be interesting to follow who didn’t circle me. I’ve turned the volume down on those circles and occasionally, I check them directly. If someone from one of those circles engages with me or posts consistently interesting content, they get moved to Following.

Finally, there’s a circle of people who are relevant to my work, which I can direct certain on-topic posts to.

Simplicity seems to be the way to go in Google+. If you like what I post here, you’ll probably like what I post there as well.

Some thoughts on the crowded field of social networks…

Brief aside: I see Google+ is rolling out a new look today. It might be a good time to check out the network, if you haven’t already. I’m on Google+ here and I follow a lot of interesting people.

I think it’s a false proposition to look for one clear winner among the big-player social networks, the one network that will destroy all the others. Yet this is what many tech and social media bloggers persist in trying to do, as if the social web were a horse race that at some point will clearly be over, instead of a place that is constantly evolving and growing.

There is room for many kinds of networks on the social web because the primary job of these networks is to connect people, and there are many types of people. No one network can be all things to all people, nor should it try to be. For instance, Google+ seems to appeal more to introverted types (like me; full disclosure), while Facebook attracts more extroverts. Pinterest is geared toward people who think visually; Twitter is for those who prefer a rapid-fire flow of information.

Not only do different types of networks work better for different types of people, but no one of us fits into a neatly labeled box all of the time. That’s why many of us like to move between networks as our needs dictate, even though we may have one primary place where we hang out most of the time. I definitely prefer Google+ for most sharing, but Twitter is a good place to exchange links or read breaking news, and on Facebook, I can keep up with an extended circle of friends and family.

So I don’t see much point in the endless articles dissecting why Google+ has so many followers as compared to Facebook, or what people think of Twitter or Pinterest. In this space, there is room for multiple winners. Still, blogs don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, and blogs must be filled with content, so I’m sure we’ll continue to be inundated with these meaningless pieces pitting the social networks against one another or lauding the latest newcomer as the giant killer.

As long as a network has a strong idea of its own identity and remembers who its primary user base is — and doesn’t stray too far afield of that by trying to be all possible things to all possible users — it can probably survive and even thrive in this crowded space. Until the social web is supplanted by something utterly new and unpredictable, that is.

Tips for managing your Google+ stream…

Over the past few months, I have moved most of my social networking from Twitter to Google+. I like the longer, more graphical posts provided by the Google+ format, and while people are sharing a lot of links, they are also writing extended commentary on those links that the Twitter character limit doesn’t allow. Because the comments are right underneath the post, it is also possible to have extended conversations about a post. But Google+ doesn’t seem to have the detritus, the meaningless conversations or the commercial flotsam of Facebook (at least not yet). You can follow me on Google+ here.

However, as more people have joined the network, I have noticed how much harder it is to keep up with all the content flowing in. You can add people to circles divided by subjects of interest, but all that content is still pumped into your main stream. If you follow any particularly prolific posters, it can soon become overwhelming.

That’s why I was glad I discovered the Plus Minus extension for Google Chrome. This handy tool lets me control via simple checkboxes which circles contribute content to my main stream. Whenever I log onto Google+, only the posts that come from the people who are most important to me show up on the main page. Another useful tool provided by Plus Minus is the ability to “shrink” posts, so that I can hide what I’ve already read or what I’m not interested in just by clicking an arrow.

Now that I can control the firehose of posts going into my main stream, I found that it was also necessary to control my reading. Otherwise, I’d browse Google+ all day and never do anything else. I created circles around my primary interests, such as news, geeky stuff, cooking, politics and books. I assigned each circle a day of the week, and on that day, I only pick posts from its corresponding circle to read. This helps me focus on the reading rather than feeling like I have to wade through an ocean of content.

As for posting, I try to post one or two public items per day so that potential followers know what kind of content I’m sharing. For the rest, I try to confine posting to that circle of interest. Personal posts typically are limited to friends and family. This takes advantage of Google+’s most powerful feature: circles. If you are in my Geeks circle, you’ll only see my science and tech posts; you won’t be bothered by cooking or political content. Of course, many people occupy multiple circles. Fortunately, when I shrink a post in one circle using the Plus Minus extension, it stays closed across all circles, so I don’t see it multiple times.

With Plus Minus, Google+ has become more fun and more manageable. I definitely prefer the content I’m seeing there to what can be found on Twitter, which isn’t meaty enough, or Facebook, which usually isn’t relevant to me. Of course, if I still want to share on other networks, there is a service for that: Plusist. It automates posting of public Google+ items to either Facebook or Twitter, or both.

Tips for using Google+ smarter…

Every time I play with Google+, I seem to discover another neat new feature. Here are some quick tips for improving your Google+ experience.

Notice the Share button in the upper right corner of some of your (not all) Google apps, like Reader and Gmail. This enables you to post a quick share from other Google windows. Pretty nice! It would be even nicer if it were integrated with Reader and Documents, i.e., if I could share what I was reading or writing right now.

There is also a Notifications button up there that turns red when you receive a new notification (someone comments on your post, tags you or adds you to a circle). Since this is so easy to track, you can turn off sending notifications to your email if you find that annoying (I did). Click the little wheel icon in the upper right corner and choose Google+ Settings to change your notifications-to-email settings.

When you see someone’s name in your stream, you can hover your mouse over the name to quickly see which of your circles they are in or to add them to a circle, and to see who else you have in common in your circles.

If you want to share with just one person, add their name in the post with @ or + in front. Then remove all circles. To make it completely private, disable resharing by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

Check the Incoming area. This shows you what people are saying if they have added you to their circles, but you haven’t added them. These posts don’t go into your main stream. This is a useful way of keeping up with your followers even if you don’t want to put them in your circles.

(I do wish we could exclude certain circles from posting to our main stream. Some circles definitely produce more noise than others. Seems like an easy enough feature to add.)

And remember:

  •  +1 is the same thing as like.
  • Someone adding you to a circle does not mean you’ve added them.
  • When you post something, you control which circles see it.

I’m still having fun with Google+. I hope to see even more folks there.

Thoughts on Google+…

I was lucky enough to get into Google+ today. Here are my initial thoughts.

My first reaction: Whoa, I like this! Google+ looks a lot like Facebook’s more mature older brother, the one with a real job. It is a clean interface, not cluttered with all the garbage that comes with Facebook, and everything is very easy and intuitive to use. It’s a pleasure to browse.

What I specifically like:

  • Circles are great! Circles are Google’s metaphor for different groups of people you want to network with. It is so easy to drag and drop any contact into a circle. Then, you can choose which circle to share with when you post a link, photo, video or note. For instance, I can share photos of my kid being adorable just with my Friends and Family circles, arrange playgroups with my Neighbors circle, and trade interesting links with my Net Friends circle. Circles are not only intuitive, they mimic the way we interact socially in real life better than any other social network I’ve seen.
  • Hangouts are just cool! Hangouts provide a way to video chat with any circle of contacts. It is so easy to use. I was able to set this up and start chatting in less than a minute. You just open up a hangout and wait for others from your circle to join you. This is a great tool for virtual teams or for far-flung friends and family.

Now, here’s what I want:

  • Google Buzz no longer seems necessary. I want Google+ to replace Buzz and do what Buzz does. Specifically, I want to be able to easily share items from Google Reader to my circles.
  • Since I now use so many Google tools, I would love to make Google+ my hub on the Internet. But I know that not all of my contacts are going to migrate over. So I need an easy way to broadcast what I share on Google+ to Twitter, Facebook and my blogs. (There is an extension for Chrome that allows me to send posts to Twitter and Facebook, but I’d like to see it built in so it’s less awkward.)
  • I’m not yet sure what value Sparks adds. Sparks are items pulled from the web on subjects of interest, but right now, there doesn’t seem to be any good way to refine or customize this list. Maybe I need to play with it more.
  • I’d like more people from Facebook/Twitter to join! Once Google+ opens up to a wider group of users, I’d love it if they’d make it easy for me to invite my contacts from other social networking sites. Right now, you can only easily add your Google Contacts to circles.
  • By default, I think there are too many email notifications, but this is easily remedied. To turn off any of the notifications, click the little wheel in the top right corner and choose Google+ Settings.
  • Oh, one more thing: Real-time updating of my stream would be real, real nice. Come on, Google! (Done!)

All in all, I’m very excited about the possibilities of Google+. So, when can I drop my Facebook account for good?

Google doesn’t seem to be sending out invitations right now for Google+, due to insane demand. If you happen to get on and want to invite your friends, here is a sneaky way to do it (and this is how I got in).

Analysis and thoughtful writing not endangered after all…

I like this take from Clive Thompson on how the blog, once a literal log of Websites, is now becoming a forum for longer, in-depth analysis once reserved for magazines and newspapers. His thesis is that Twitter and similar tools have replaced the quick link-sharing function once served by blogs, and that these social networks also provide a more appropriate place for instant reactions to news and stories — the “short take,” as he calls it. So more thoughtful analysis has moved to the blog. What really suffers, he posits, is the “middle take,” once provided by weekly newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek, but probably unnecessary in our wired world.

I see this at work in my own blogging and online sharing. I tend to confine links and thoughts “of the moment” — such as breaking news and reactions to it, or something that’s momentarily funny — to “short-take” forums like Twitter and StumbleUpon. I reserve more thoughtful pieces for sharing on my blog and preserving in Delicious.

But for truly long-form writing, such as essays, short stories and book-length writing, I return to paper. I still can’t stomach reading anything much longer than a typical blog post on the computer screen. Maybe if I had an iPad?

Read: Clive Thompson on How Tweets and Texts Nurture In-Depth Analysis | Magazine.

Is there any point to blogging anymore?

I enjoy blogging so much that I maintain several of them, but I have to wonder if there is a point. To be honest, it often feels like I am shouting into the void only for the privilege of hearing my own voice.

Many web tools have arisen that do certain jobs better that I originally used a blog for since I started blogging. For instance, the purpose of the first blog I started was to keep notes and recipes while I taught myself to cook. Now I use Cookbooker to organize my cookbooks and to make notes on the recipes I have tried. Not only does Cookbooker maintain a searchable database of cookbooks and recipes, but it allows me to connect to other people who own the same cookbooks I do and see what they think of recipes I haven’t tried yet. I can’t do this with my blog.

I also originally started a book journaling blog to keep track of what I had been reading and post book reviews. Now I belong to LibraryThing, which maintains a searchable database of all the books in my library with my book reviews plus lots of other useful information. And it makes recommendations for other books I might like based on what I read. My blog can’t do that.

An original purpose of blogs was to share links, and I often do that on all my blogs, especially this one. But let’s be honest: There are more effective ways to share and organize links, such as Twitter, StumbleUpon and Delicious, all of which I use heavily.

So why do I keep up my blogs? I will admit I don’t post as frequently as I used to, but I try to post something on each blog at least once a week. The blog is still best for long-form writing, especially the kind of writing I’m doing now, when I’m just spewing random thoughts onto the blank page to help me sort them and reflect on them. And the blog really excels at functioning as a kind of electronic notebook, organizing everything in one place: links, random thoughts, longer essays, even media like photos and videos.

So I probably will keep posting to my blogs, even if it feels a little like masturbation from time to time. But I will keep on using those other tools, too, where I do feel like I more genuinely connect to other people, because — let’s face it — more people are on those sites than are visiting my humble little blogs. My blogs will probably continue to be my catch-alls from those other sites as well as a handy place to post my original thoughts that can’t really go anywhere else.

And that’s really what the blog is best at: a place for original thoughts. I need a place like that.

Why I’m not following you on Twitter…

The Twitter fail whale error message.
Image via Wikipedia

I recently tried an experiment on Twitter. I tried following back everyone who followed me — well, almost everyone, as I’ll explain. The results were very interesting. Within a few days, I had gained more than 100 followers,  and they weren’t dropping off like they used to. I also found that my Twitter feed wasn’t overwhelming me. If anything, the tweets in my feed were even more interesting and varied than before, and there was always something new, every time I tuned in.

Even though I was following back (mostly) everyone who followed me, I didn’t want my Twitter feed to become overloaded with spam. I quickly formulated some rules to weed out those folks who were worth my time and attention from those who weren’t. The rules are really quite simple. I won’t follow you if:

  • You have no avatar. These are generally spam accounts, I’ve found. (If you have a pornographic avatar, I’m going to block you.)
  • Your Twitter name ends in several numbers. Again, this shouts “spammer!”
  • You have the words “social media expert” or “SEO” in your profile description. Or you have no profile description. I like to know a little something real about you before I’ll follow back.
  • Your Twitter username has that “make money at home” vibe or includes phrases like “DebtFree.” Ditto your tweets.
  • Your tweets are too hard sell or look like a series of spammy links.
  • The links you post all point to the same domain name.
  • You use hashtags like #acai #berry. Come on.
  • You just repeat the same tweet over and over.
  • You dominate my feed with your tweets. Or you don’t ever tweet.
  • You don’t speak my language. Nothing personal, but there’s no point in seeing tweets I can’t understand.
  • You abuse your direct message privileges. Actually, that’s a sure way to get me to block you.

I know a lot of people use Twitter for business-related reasons, such as public relations or networking. I don’t see anything wrong with this, as long as you keep in mind that Twitter is made up of people who are primarily interested in the conversation. You have to provide something of value. Share what’s going on in your community or post some interesting links that aren’t all self-serving. If it’s not a conversation — if all you’re doing is trumpeting yourself, your business or your service — then your followers will tune out. So if that’s all you intend to do, you might as well just shut up.

But if you’re interested in having a conversation with me, you’re welcome to follow me. I’m on Twitter as sturlington.