January 28, 2009

Putting the "tool" back in "social tool"

The best part about my job is the people. They are smart. Not your everyday "hey that guy is pretty sharp" smart; we're talking "someone could start a research journal entirely consisting of that guy's whiteboard doodles" smart. Anyways, every once in a while, I happen to be around when two of them get caught up in a conversation, and it's like getting thrown into a lake wearing concrete boots. The sheer volume of knowledge that gets funneled through the air is overwhelming. Sometimes it would be nice just to be able to chase down all of those pieces of information and really understand it all.

A couple of days ago, I read a blog post by Cliff Click, a compiler guy famous for the Java HotSpot compiler whom I had the pleasure of meeting a while back. It's one of those conversations. Both Cliff and Dave Moon fall into the "scary smart" category, and while I can keep up with most of the conversation, they clearly have several decades of experience on me, and many of the references they make fly over my head. So I thought to myself, wouldn't it be nice to be able to annotate the discussion with links and references to the things they discuss?

It seems to be something right up the alley of the social computing folks; I want to comment on someone else's web content and share them. I was inspired when google found me dozens of web tools that promised to let me do just that. So I started hunting them down, one by one...
  • Diigo - Seems like the kind of tool I'm looking for, except annotations are only viewable if you're registered with Diigo. There's a "publish-to-blog" feature, but it only applies to bookmarks. I'm just not interested in yet another meaningless web account to keep track of, and I'm especially not fond of mandating that everyone else create one, too.
  • Fleck - The most bizarre of the bunch. Firefox actually blocked me from viewing the homepage, declaring it a "dangerous" site. After a little google work, fleck turns out to have some association with a European identity-mining organization. I think I'll pass.
  • Stickis - Allows you to place small, collapsible text boxes on any web page, but again, the results are only viewable from a stickis account.
  • TrailFire - To be honest? I still don't really know. It's something to do with bookmarks. And webpages filled from top to bottom with random words. Your guess is as good as mine.
  • Reframe It - A browser plug-in that lets you highlight and tag sections of text on a web page. Yes, it requires the same browser plug-in to view these comments. No, I'm still not interested in requiring everyone who visits my page to install some random tool.
  • ShiftSpace -Slightly more featureful than Reframe It, but still mandates you install the plug-in to view any additions.
  • SharedCopy - This one actually let me demo without even giving so much as my name. Great! Except that there's no real annotation. I can highlight text (but not write a note), or I can add a note (except it has no connection to a specific portion of the page). Doesn't look so hot for adding in-line comments to a long discussion.
  • DrawHere - The other site that let me get started right away. I love the interface, and if I were looking to paint moustaches on famous politicians or outrageous hair-dos on celebrities, I'd be all set. They only support MSPaint-style scribbling, no text whatsoever. Swing and a miss.
There may have been more, but I think I've made my point. All of these authors seem to think that simply labelling their software "social" somehow automatically grants them a free ticket on the blog bandwagon (don't look at me like that, I have no qualms about my bandwagon-ing) and garner them big money in the process. The problem is, there's very little "tool" to be had. Most of these applications have a very thin veneer of actual functionality over a large chunk of "please make an account with us, our business model tells us this is important".

It's all well and good to extol the free speech virtues of blogging and the cornucopia of user-created information that is Wikipedia, but let's face it, these are social advances, not technological. The Internet revolution ended a while ago; the whole "web programming" thing just isn't producing a lot of groundbreaking work.

So where does that leave me? Expect an annotated version of Cliff and Dave's conversation at some point....in plain text. Some "tools" just don't go out of style.

January 23, 2009

Reboot 2009

It's been a while since I last visited the land of rambling posts and thrice-shared hyperlinks, but with the passing of another 2^25 seconds or so, it seemed like a good opportunity to reclaim my virtual presence on the Grand Series of Tubes. Thanks to a certain pair of ivory towers, I spent a great deal of time writing about the things I have done, and although I won't say that the paperwork was my favorite activity in recent months, it did force me to sit down and apply a healthy amount of scrutiny to some work that had been lying in cobwebs. There's something cleansing about sharing ideas in public. It's easy to convince yourself of any number of rosy half-truths about some personal project that will never see the light of day, but it's much harder to keep those delusions when faced with the prospect of an audience of millions. Sure, it's vastly more likely that not a single soul will ever stumble across your work, but the fact remains that you've put a piece of yourself out there for everyone to see.

So I suppose that's why I've come back. I found it tremendously useful to be forced to write something coherent that relates an idea to the protean communal eye. It seems only fitting, given the recent climate in the city to the south. I only wish I were so eloquent with my choice of words.

Oh, and I suppose since this is the Internet, let's flesh out the history of those words....