Steve Jobs for Pope?

Last week i found myself wondering whether Apple aren’t the Catholic Church to Microsoft’s C of E. Think about it. Unloved and uninspiring as the Anglican Church may be, people have historically relied on it to do the necessary business of baptising, marrying and burying them. Ditto Microsoft for office work.

The Catholic Church does the same stuff as the C of E but somehow comes across as slicker and more opulent and also – in Britain at any rate – has a certain underdog glamour. The religion of oppressed Irish peasants and all that. Ditto Apple in comparison with Microsoft. Their stuff costs more but is stylish. And somehow – or so it’s implied – choosing Apple means you’re a bit of a maverick, rather than a company bod.

Like the Catholic Church (in the past if not now) and unlike the C of E, Apple succeed in inspiring fanatical loyalty in their believers. Indeed this is where these thoughts of mine originated. In a fit of optimism last week i decided to upgrade the operating system on my iPhone to the latest version, ios4. Not only did i lose my contacts, settings, passwords and data but i also discovered that my backup had been overwritten by another backup, apparently initiated spontaneously by iTunes.

Nightmare, but not especially amazing. I’ve had plenty of IT disasters before. What was amazing were the attitudes on display in answers to the desperate pleas for help that had been posted by people who’d gone down this road before me (and suffered similar data losses). Over and over again these sinners were admonished for having the temerity to suggest that Apple hadn’t tested the upgrade properly for the older 3G iPhone, for daring to suggest that an Apple backup is perhaps not all it should be and for in any way suggesting that Steve Jobs is not the Son of God. OK, i made that last one up.

The more i think about it the more it all makes sense. Linux users, of course, are the Protestants of IT, ranging from Methodists (Ubuntu) to crazy holy rollers (obscure distro of your choice).

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“… oh, no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

There’s an interesting post about social networking over at SpaceCollective* in which a blogger called Venessa discusses the idea of network weaving. The idea is that rather than letting your social networks evolve randomly you actively manage them to make them more productive. Talking about Twitter, she says she’s

... started using the hashtag #networkweaving when I “introduce” new connections I make to connections I already have who share common interests. I’m finding it a lot more valuable to others than doing a general #followfriday.

My instinctive reaction to this was “Ugh!” And i wondered why. Maybe it’s just that i’m just not forward-thinking enough (quite possible); yet somehow that didn’t seem to be the whole explanation. I thought about what a #followfriday actually is. On the face of it it’s a suggestion (plea?) to your followers to follow somebody you yourself are following. However, it’s so ritualistic and so impersonal – always done on the same day of the week, sent to all your followers at the same time – that in truth it’s more like a statement of appreciation or loyalty. It works primarily to affirm your own link with the person you #followfriday. Those receiving the #followfriday may choose to check out suggestion; they may not. In either case it’s unlikely they will feel any actual pressure to do. Retweeting does a similar job.

The #networkingweaving idea is different. It introduces an element of personalisation. You and whoever else is included in the tweet are being specifically targeted, singled out. You are not just being made aware of one another’s presence, you are – as the blogger herself puts it – being “introduced”. An introduction places obligations on those introduced. You can’t just politely** pretend not to notice someone if i introduce you to them, which is something you could do quite easily if i just sent round a group email mentioning that they exist.

It also – and i think this is important – draws attention to the role of the person who is doing the “network weaving” and becomes more about them (their role as connector, their bank of interesting and useful contacts) and less about the people they are supposedly attempting to connect to one another. This is borne out in the title of the post which is “The Importance of Managing Your Online Reputation”. Your reputation. This is about you, not them.

At this point i remembered a passage in the book i’m currently reading, The Death and Life of Great American Cities*** by Jane Jacobs. I don’t know how many people have read this book so i’ll briefly explain: published in 1961 it is a landmark text in the field of urban planning, a blistering critique of the rationalist planning policies of its time. In one of the early chapters she discusses the very issues of the private versus the public which are so beloved of web theorists today. In the city she says “privacy is precious”. This doesn’t mean that people don’t want contact with other human beings, quite the contrary:

A good city neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.

Twitter and social networks like it may not be city neighbourhoods but they have important similarities. Like the big city which people move to both because it offers them opportunities to broaden their horizons but also autonomy, so social networks attract people who want contact with others but contact they can control.

Talking about how the balance she describes above is maintained Jacobs gives us as an example a local shopkeeper in her own neighbourhood who is respected and trusted by his clientele to the point where they leave spare keys with him for safekeeping. This shopkeeper lends an umbrella to one customer, provides information about local rents to another and listens to yet another customer’s tale of domestic woe. Yet when asked if he ever introduces his customers to one another he answers:

“No, that would just not be advisable. Sometimes, if i know two customers who are in at the same time have an interest in common, i bring up the subject in conversation and let them carry it on from there if they want to. But oh no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

Jacobs says that this attitude on the part of the shopkeeper shows just how well he understands where the line is drawn between the public and the private. I’m struck by the similarity between the shopkeeper’s tactic of bringing up of a subject in conversation so that his audience – the customers in his shop – have the chance to discover that they may share interests in common, may want to choose to approach one another and the way that retweeting and the #followfriday tradition work on Twitter. And how his rejection of the idea of making introductions parallels my unease about the #networkweaving idea.

Introductions are intrusive. They also formalise where formality is not necessarily the most productive approach. I’m not saying that they’re never appropriate, but if we think about where they work best we realise it’s contexts like parties, meetings, conferences – situations in which people have already consented implicitly to being connected to the other people present – or else spontaneously in contexts where say two people run across a third who is only known to one of them. In that situation, the introduction feels like a courtesy rather than an imposition and serves to reduce rather than create social tension because it resolves a problem – the problem being that the two strangers are already confronted with one another via the third person who is interacting with them both. They no longer have the option to choose to remain unaware of each other. In fact, in this situation an introduction is usually the only appropriate action.

There you have it: my two penn’orth on the subject of “network weaving” and introductions.

* A  website which says it’s a place “where forward-thinking terrestrials exchange ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet, the universe, living the lives of science fiction today.” i confess i’d never heard of the site till James Reilly submitted the link (to this post) to Friendfeed, but it’s very stylish.
** You can ignore them impolitely of course, but this violates social norms and thus is liable to be stressful for many (most?) people.
*** ISBN: 0-679-74195-X. Published by Vintage Books (my edition is anyway).

These are a few of my favourite tweets

What is the point of Twitter? This is a question i’ve heard asked quite a few times over the past month, most recently by one of my colleagues. ‘What is it for?’ he said, ‘What does it do?’ Like most people all he really knew was that each post to Twitter, or tweet, is restricted to a maximum of 140 characters. ‘What’s the point?’

The best answer i could give him is that Twitter is like a cross between a blog, instant messaging (IM) message service and bookmarking service, the balance between these three aspects depending on each user. To get a flavour of how differently Twitter can be used it may be useful to look at the extremes:

THE MICROBLOGGER

There are some users who stick to the original idea behind Twitter: they blog – or rather microblog – and they do nothing else. In particular, they don’t engage in chat with other users. To observe their timelines is to see a long line of statements radiating out into the universe. I’m reminded of radio broadcasts. Often these people tweet only intermittently and make little attempt to join their tweets together or provide context.

THE INSTANT MESSAGER

The timelines of the IM style users look like conversations. Most tweets are prefixed by the @ symbol which indicates a tweet directed to a specific person – although it can also be read by anyone else who follows both the sender and the addressee. Often the user will have lots of different chats going on at the same time.

THE BOOKMARKER

In the timelines of those who use Twitter primarily as a bookmarking service we see a proliferation not of @ symbols, but of links. Some users focus on particular areas of interest while others are far more eclectic, but with all these users there’s a relative absence of personal statements. There are also often quite a few tweets prefixed with “RT”, which stands for “Re-Tweet”. This is a method of recommending and rebroadcasting other users’ tweets.

These are, as i indicated above, extremes. In reality few people use Twitter exclusively in one way – indeed it’s the variation which makes it such a vibrant social network.

And in case you still can’t see the attraction, here are four of my favourite tweets – perhaps they will convince you:

Rebeckyroberts: We washed the guinea pig today and then wrapped her in a white pillowcase. She looked like a furry faced baby Jesus.

Transguys: I watched two big bucks duke it out outside my bedroom window this evening. The doe continued her meal as she watched them fight for her.

BrianPike: Cat appeared this morning with a ’35p’ price ticket stuck to his bottom. Can’t help feeling he’s undervaluing himself.

Rebeckyroberts: Wilma has been delivered. She is a magnificent bone crushing bitch! She has a conveyor belt even, and farts out diesel fumes! I love her!

The iPhone: freedom, frustration & fun

I’ve had my iPhone* for about 6 months now. Long enough to get a sense of what I do and don’t like about it.

LIKE

It’s a computer pretending to be a phone! Much better than a phone pretending to be a computer which is what my previous ‘smartphone’ (a Nokia N77) tried to do. In no time at all it has become indispensable as a source of information, general communication aid and office tool: for example I now use it to take notes in meetings, which I can then sync. Saves all that time previously spent laboriously writing them up (made worse by the fact that occasionally even I can’t read my own handwriting). And I love the ease and abundance of connectivity: easy to set up email (I never did figure out how to configure it on the N77), access to my social networks, blogs synced to my phone so I can read them on the way to work… The iPhone has changed the way I interact with the virtual world.

It’s a GPS unit pretending to be a phone. Using an iPhone for navigation makes you realise just how clunky those handheld Garmin units are (never tried Satmap so can’t comment on them). Ridiculously expensive too: units and maps. At the moment all the iPhone apps providing maps (as opposed to access to online maps) are geared to drivers unfortunately, rather than us walkers. Come on app makers – and don’t worry about turn-by-turn: I don’t need a robotic voice accompanying me when i’m out for a stroll.

The App Store! It makes me feel like a kid in a sweet shop. Or at least it did when I first got the iPhone. So many apps to choose from: some practical, some pointless, some fun, some educational. I found an app which allows me to practise Japanese calligraphy (iShodo), an app which helps me to make and keep track of shopping lists (Shopper) – which would be great if I remembered to use it, and my most over-worked app of all: Echofon, my Twitter app.

DISLIKE

It’s a computer pretending to be a phone! The iPhone is the most uncomfortable unit I’ve ever used for the making and receiving of phone calls – the core purpose of a phone. Does that matter? To me, not much: I hate talking to people on the phone.

It’s a phone pretending to be a computer. You can type emails, take notes, theoretically even write a novel on the iPhone – but, dear God, is it painful. The keyboard – which I’m using right now to type this post – is an ordeal to use. The predictive text is bizarre: why did the coders think “Reading”, capitalised as in the name of the town, would be needed more than “reading” as in that thing you’re doing at this moment? Why prioritise “mr” over “me”? You daren’t turn it off however as the keys are just small enough to make mistyping a commonplace and the flat keypad means you won’t notice till it’s too late. Typing is also very very uncomfortable on a keyboard that doesn’t give. Don’t let anyone tell you that it gets easier. After 6 months I can tell you: it doesn’t.

It’s a phone pretending to be a games console. Yes, when you come to play games the iPhone does reveal itself to be a mere phone after all. Actually, it’s worse than that: my previous non-touchscreen phones (especially the Samsung D600) provided a much better game playing experience – for all their more basic graphical capabilities – than does the iPhone. The passion killer is the lack of tactile sensation: I long for the physicality of hammering buttons; but the touchscreen also causes problems at a more practical level: controls for FPS** and RPG*** games are typically awkward and sometimes near-unusable. The only type of game where the screen provides an advantage is strategy, as it allows you to use your finger as a mouse. Even then there’s a frustrating lack of precision and the screen seems often to fail to register when you’ve released a selection: resulting in the item being dropped in the wrong place.

OVERALL?

It looks at first glance as if it’s a 50-50 split, but actually that’s not true. The iPhone has one last trick up its sleeve: the fun factor. It’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s got funky icons and a slick interface. It really does make a difference. Functionality is great, but fun is fab.

* For the record it’s a 3G 8GB, but the model is irrelevant as far as the points above are concerned.
** FPS = first person shooter. In this kind of game you play ‘in the first person’, that is you see the gameworld through the eyes of the character you are playing. Storylines are relatively simple, your character is little more than a person with a weapon and most of the focus of the game is on killing the enemies you meet on your journey.
*** RPG = role playing game. Some of these games have you play ‘in the first person’, as above, and some in the ‘third’, that is you observe your character from the outside (a sort of ‘God’s eye view’). Storylines are usually complex, you will often have a choice of parameters with which to build your character – who will then have strengths, weaknesses, specific attributes, etc which reflect the choices you have made. In addition to the main quest there may be optional side quests. The scope and depth of these games varies according to the capabilities of the technology on which they’re played: a game designed for a modern state-of-the-art desktop computer can afford to be a lot more complicated than one created for the iPhone.