Tag Archives: communication

Year-end Reflections

This post was originally published on the NTEN Blog on December 24th, 2015.

As years go, 2015 was a significant one in my career. The work of a CIO, or IT Director, or whatever title you give the person primarily responsible for IT strategy and implementation, is (ideally) two parts planning and one part doing. So in 2015—my third year at Legal Services Corporation—we did a couple of the big things that we’d been planning in 2013 and 2014.

First and foremost, we (and I do mean we—I play my part, but I get things done with an awesome staff and coworkers) rolled out the first iteration of our “Data Portal.” The vision for the Data Portal is that, as a funder that works primarily with 134 civil legal aid firms across the U.S. and territories, we should be able to access the relevant information about any grantee quickly and easily without worrying about whether we have the latest version of a document or report. To reach this vision, we implemented a custom, merged Salesforce/Box system. This entailed about a year of co-development with our partner, Exponent Partners, and a move from in-house servers to the Cloud. We’ll complete our Cloud “trifecta” in early 2016, when we go to Microsoft’s Office 365.

This was particularly exciting for me, because I have been envisioning and waiting for technology to reach a level of maturity and… collegiality that makes the vision of one place where documents and databases can co-exist a reality. Integration, and one-stop access to information, have always been the holy grails that I’ve sought for the companies that I’ve worked for; but the quests have been Monty Python-esque through the days when even Microsoft products weren’t compatible with each other, much less compatible with anything else. What we’ve rolled out is more of a stump than a tree; but in the next year we’ll grow a custom grants management system on top of that; and then we’ll incorporate everything pertinent to our grantees that currently hides in Access, Excel, and other places.

I’m working on a much more detailed case study of this project for NTEN to publish next year.

Secondly, we revamped our website, doing a massive upgrade from Drupal 7 to… Drupal 7! The website in place when I came to LSC was content-rich, navigation-challenged, and not too good at telling people what it is that we actually do.The four separate websites that made up our entire site weren’t even cross-searchable until we addressed that problem in early 2014. Internal terminology and acronyms existed on the front page and in the menus, making some things incomprehensible to the public, and others misleading. For example, we often refer to the law firms that we fund as “programs.” But, in the funding world, a “program” is a funding category, such as “arts” or “environment.” Using that terminology. along with too buried an explanation that what we actually do is allocate funding, not practice law ourselves, led many people to assume that we were the parent office of a nationwide legal aid firm, which we aren’t.

The new site, designed by some incredibly talented people at Beaconfire-RedEngine (with a particular call out to Eve Simon, who COMPLETELY got the aesthetic that we were going for and pretty much designed the site in about six hours), tells you up front who we are, what we do, and why civil legal aid is so important, in a country where the right to an attorney is only assured in criminal cases. While civil cases include home foreclosures, domestic violence, child custody, and all sorts of things that can devastate the lives of people who can’t afford an attorney to defend them. This new site looks just as good on a phone as on a computer, a requirement for the Twenty-Teens.

My happiness in life directly correlates to my ability to improve the effectiveness of the organizations that I work for, with meaningful missions like equal justice for all, defense against those who pollute the planet, and the opportunity to work, regardless of your situation in life. At my current job, we’re killing it.

Happy 10th Anniversary!

Cyber-cafeJust a quick post to commemorate ten years of blogging here at Techcafeteria.  That’s 268 entries, averaging to 22 posts per year, or damn close to two posts a month, which is not too shabby for a guy with a family and a demanding day job. The most popular stuff all now lives in my Recommended Posts section.

The goal here has never been much more than to share what I hope is useful and insightful knowledge on how nonprofits can make good use of technology, peppered with the occasional political commentary or rant, but I try to restrain myself from posting too many of those. After my recent reformat, I think I’ve made it much easier for visitors to find the content that interests them, so if you’re one of my many RSS subscribers, and you haven’t actually visited the site for some time, you should take a look.

I’m ever thankful to Idealware, NTEN, Techsoup, CommunityIT, and many others in the nptech community for giving me the opportunity to write for their blogs and republish here (about two thirds of the content, I suspect). And I’m happy to be part of this global, giving community.

Here’s to the next ten years!

Why You Should Delete All Facebook Mobile Apps Right Now

fblogoIt’s nice that Facebook is so generous and they give us their service and apps for free. One should never look a gift horse in the mouth, right? Well, if the gift horse is stomping through my bedroom and texting all of my friends while I’m not looking, I think it bears my attention.  And yours. So tell me why Facebook needs these permissions on my Android phone:

  • read calendar events plus confidential information
  • add or modify calendar events and send email to guests without owners’ knowledge
  • read your text messages (SMS or MMS)
  • directly call phone numbers
  • create accounts and set passwords
  • change network connectivity
  • connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi

This is a cut and pasted subset of the list, which you can peruse at the Facebook app page on Google Play. Just scroll down to the “Additional Information” section and click the “View Details” link under the “Permissions” header. Consider:

  • Many of these are invitations for identify theft.  Facebook can place phone calls, send emails, and schedule appointments without your advance knowledge or explicit permission.
  • With full internet access and the ability to create accounts and set passwords, Facebook could theoretically lock you out of your device and set up an account for someone else.

Now, I’m not paranoid — I don’t think that the Facebook app is doing a lot of these things.  But I have no idea why it requires the permissions to do all of this, and the idea that an app might communicate with my contacts without my explicit okay causes me great concern. Sure, I want to be able to set up events on my tablet.  But I want a box to pop up saying that the app will now send the invites to Joe, Mary and Grace; and then ask “Is that okay?” before it actually does it.  I maintain some sensitive business relationships in my contacts.  I don’t think it’s a reasonable thing for Facebook to have the ability to manage them for me.

This is all the more reason to be worried about Facebook’s plan to remove the messaging features from the Facebook app and insist that we all install Facebook Messenger if we want to share mobile pictures or chat with our friends.  Because this means well have two apps with outrageous permissions if we want to use Facebook on the go.

I’ve always considered Facebook’s proposition to be a bit insidious. My family and friends are all on there.  I could announce that I’m moving over to Google Plus, but most of them would not follow me there.  That is the sole reason that I continue to use Facebook.

But it’s clear to me that Facebook is building it’s profit model on sharing a lot of what makes me a unique individual.  I share my thoughts and opinions, likes and dislikes, and relationships on their platform. They, in turn, let their advertisers know that they have far more insight into who I am, what I’ll buy, and what my friends will buy than the average website.  Google’s proposition is quite similar, but Google seems to be more upfront and respectful about it, and the lure I get from Google is “we’ll give you very useful tools in return”.  Google respects me enough to show some constraint: the Google+ app on Play requires none of the permissions listed above. So I don’t consider Facebook to be a company that has much respect for me in the first place.  And that’s all the more reason to not trust  them with my entire reputation on my devices.

Do you agree? Use the hashtag #CloseTheBook to share this message online.

Telecommuting Is About More Than Just The Technology

We’ve hit the golden age of telework, with myriad options to work remotely from a broadband-connected home, a hotel, or a cafe on a mobile device. The explosion of cloud and mobile technologies makes our actual location the least important aspect of connecting with our applications and data. And there are more and more reasons to support working remotely. Per Reuters, the state of commuting is a “virtual horror show”, with the average commute costing the working poor six percent of their income. It’s three percent for more wealthy Americans. And long commutes have negative impacts on health and stress levels. Add to this the potential cost savings if your headquarters doesn’t require an office or cubicle for every employee. For small NPOs, do you even really need an office? Plus, we can now hire people based on their absolute suitability to the job without requiring them to relocate. It’s all good, right?

Well, yes, if it’s done correctly.  And a good remote work culture requires more than seamless technology. Supervisors need to know how to engage with remote employees, management needs to know how to be inclusive, and the workers themselves need to know how to maintain relationships without the day to day exposure to their colleagues.  Moving to a telework culture requires planning and insight.  Here are a few things to consider.

Remote Workers Need To Be Engaged

I do my best to follow the rule of communicating with people in the medium that they prefer. I trade a lot of email with the people who, like me, are always on it; I pick up the phone for the people who aren’t; I text message with the staff that live on their smartphones. But, with a remote employee, I break that rule and communicate, primarily, by voice and video.  Emoticons don’t do much to actually communicate how you feel about what your discussing.  Your voice and mannerisms are much better suited for it.  And having an employee, or teammate, that you don’t see on a regular basis proves the old adage of “out of sight, out of mind”.

 In Person Appearances Are Required

For the remote worker to truly be a part of the organization, they have to have relationships with their co-workers.  Accordingly, just hiring someone who lives far away and getting them started as a remote worker might be the worst thing that you can do for them.  At a minimum, requiring that they work for two to four weeks at the main office as part of their orientation is quite justified.  For staff who have highly interactive roles, you might require a year at the office before the telework can commence.

Once the position is remote, in-person attendance at company events (such as all staff meetings and retreats) should be required. When on-site isn’t possible, include them via video or phone (preferably video). On-site staff need to remember them, and not forget to include them on invites. Staff should make sure that they’re in virtual attendance once the event occurs.

Technical Literacy Requirements Must Be High

It’s great that the remote access tech is now so prevalent, but the remote worker still needs to be comfortable and adept with technology.  If they need a lot of hand-holding, virtual hands won’t be sufficient.  Alternatively, the company might require (and/or assist with) obtaining local tech support.  But, with nonprofit IT staffing a tight resource, remote technophobes can make for very time-consuming customers. Establishing a computer-literacy test and making it a requirement for remote work is well-advised; it will ease a lot of headaches down the road.

Get The Policies In Place First

Here’s what you don’t want: numerous teleworkers with different arrangements.  Some have a company-supplied computer, some don’t.  The company pays for one person’s broadband account, but not another’s. One person has a company-supplied VOIP phone, the other uses their personal lines. I’ve worked at companies where this was all subject to hiring negotiations, and IT wasn’t consulted. What a nightmare! As with the office technology, IT will be much more productive if the remote setups are consistent, and the remote staff will be happier if they don’t feel like others get special treatment.

Go Forth And Telecommute

Don’t let any of this stop you — the workforce of the future is not nearly as geography bound as we’ve been in the past, and the benefits are compelling.  But understand that company culture is a thing that needs to be managed, and managed all the more actively when the company is more virtual.

Is It Only Spam If The Other Guy Does It?

This was originally posted on the No Nonprofit Spam blog on November 3rd, 2011. Hat tip to Deb Finn, who started that blog.

You work for a great org.  What you do is important and meaningful.  To you, it’s not just a job — it’s a mission.  And it deserves funding and support from the public.  I get that.  But if your next logical step in that progression is to assume that I want to be on your email list, you’ve stepped over a line.  It’s a line that does not markasspaminvalidate your mission, or your devotion to it.  But it doesn’t serve your mission, or your goal of garnering my support for it.  Because I reserve my support for organizations that merit my attention, not ones that abuse it.

We live in a world where most of us wrestle with two common priority-setting challenges:

  1. Most of us are not Bill or Melinda Gates; we can only afford to financially support a handful of the organizations that we would like to support.
  2. Our inboxes are already overflowing.

I spend as little time as possible assessing unsolicited emails before I delete them or mark them as spam. It takes longer if the email is from a nonprofit, because I never assume that an NPO is deliberately spamming me, although it does, sadly, prove true on occasion.  It’s time that would otherwise be spent doing a lot of things, many of them in service of the causes that I work for. Accordingly, the message that a nonprofit sends when they subscribe me to their list (without my approval) is: I am willing to set your priorities for you.

That’s not an appeal — it’s an edict.

It’s not an engagement — it’s invasive.

If their goal is to make it on my short list of organizations that I support, then the way to do that is by being the organization that pops up when I’m looking to add to my list. Those orgs have websites with solid descriptions of their work; metrics and testimonials to back it up; and good ratings with the organizations that assess non-profits.  My friends and family advocate for them. They garner support by being good at what they do, as opposed to being good at getting in my face, or inbox, as the case might be.

I know that it seems like it might be less effective.  And I know that we all want to be effective, because the missions we work for are critical.  But I support organizations that address their missions with good strategies and tactics.  Spam is not a strategy, and it’s an abhorrent tactic. And the fact that what a nonprofit is spamming is important doesn’t change the nature of it.

Is Google+ The Future Of Networking, Social And Otherwise?

This article was originally published on the Idealware Blog in July of 2011.

Google unleashed their latest attempt to grab the focus from Facebook and Twitter with Google+, a Social Network that, at first glance, looks like a Facebook clone, but differentiates itself in at least one significant way: the people you communicate with on Google+, along with the way that you do it and the tools for inviting and connecting people are far superior to the social networking competition and they emulate the way we communicate in real life.  This makes for a very engaging and, once you have a handle on it, comfortable social network right out of the gate.

Now, most of my nptech friends are working hard to imagine what kind of applications this new platform will offer for constituent engagement and marketing.  This is a bit of a challenge, because the beta-release is specifically designed for individuals, not organizations; Google plans to open it up to companies later, with some targeted functionality. That’s too speculative for my taste.

Lots of smart nptech people have described Google+ and shared some insightful first impressions — here are some of my favorites:

Beth Kanter’s first impressions

NTEN’s Amy Sample Ward on Google+ privacy and control

Frogloop’s everrything you always wanted to know about Google+

Her’s how I sum up the major difference between Google+ and the social ntworking competition: on Google+, you’re a person.  On Facebook and Twitter, you’re a persona.  This is an easier case to make for Twitter than Facebook — Twitter’s only privacy offering is the option to block your tweets, and only a small percentage of users do that.  Most of us know that we are broadcasting to the world on that medium and act accordingly, being mindful that we are establishing an onliine reputation, not having a fireside chat.  Facebook suffers from an identity crisis: it started out as an intimate, friends only network, but, in recent years, has been re-egineered to default to a Twitter-like public stream.  It can be restricted, but even if you define lists that separate out friends, colleagues and family, targeting messages to them is still a bit of work, particularly when compared to Google+.  Accordingly, most of my friends use the platform to share information broadly, rather than converse.  It is overall more personal information than what you see on Twitter, but it’s not interpersonal.

Google+, by contrast, allows you to easily restrict your post to the circles of contacts that you define and/or individuals that you’re connected to.  If they’re not on Google+, you can include them in your circles anyway and share via email.  This makes it more like an email extended conversation than a separate social network — I’ll be surprised if we don’t see some merging of the Google+ Circles and GMail Contacts soon.  Add to that the Hangouts feature — group video chat — and Google+ isn’t really focused on sharing information as much as it is on conversing.  It can function like Twitter and Facebook, but the default is a little bit richer.  We’ll see what happens when the thrill wears off, but the initial activity seems to well reflect this — we’re finding it to be a very engaging platform.  My friends haven’t abandoned Facebook and Twitter, but I can see that the questions and conversational posts are going straight to G+, while the shared links and cute cat pictures are remaining on Twitter and FB.

Web strategist that I consider myself to be, when I look at these networks, I think about them not as social networks, but as future operating systems.  I firmly believe that Windows, Linux and OSX are all going to become less and less important as feature platforms — they already are.  People are starting to abandon them for IOS and Android, patforms for running mobile apps.  AsHTML5 and Ajax make web apps more sophisticaed — and those apps run well regardless of the operating system — the IOS and Android-specific apps will wane as the cross-platform web apps take precedence.  At that point, the function of a network operating system, regardless of the hardware platform, will be to support communication and sharing, better befitting the name “network”.  Google+, Facebook, and the like will mirror the functionality of business portals like Sharepoint (we already see themadopting the social networking features).

In this near future, where the social network IS the network, who’s going to win?  The ones, like Facebook, that restrict the use of the data and push everything to be public, or the ones like Google+, that make it easy for users to extract, backup and control their information and that have intranet/extranet/internet functionality built in at the core?

Which company is going to get this concept quicker — the one that started as a social network, or the one that has been developing a web-based operating system for years, Google ChromeOS, which already works as a shell for existing Google products, much as Google+ is conceived as an extension of the same?

I don’t think Google+ is simply challenging Facebook.  It’s still Google challengng Microsoft and Apple. Facebook might well be a victim of that battle because, once this network as OS matures, we’ll all have to ask ourselves why we would use the one with Farmville instead of the one with Google Apps.  Or the one that facilitates collaboration and teamwork over branding and sharing cat videos.  I see Google+ as the evolution of the Google operating system, not just another social network.  It will be very interesting to watch it grow.

The Five Best Tools For Quick And Effective Project Management

This article was first published on the NTEN Blog in March of 2011.

The keys to managing a successful project are buy-in and communication. Projects fail when all participants are on different pages. You want to use tools that your project participants can access easily, preferably ones they’re already using.

As an IT Director, co-workers, peers, and consultants frequently ask me, “Do you use Microsoft Project?” The answer to that question is a resounding denial.

Then I elaborate with my true opinion of Project: it’s a great tool if you’re building a bridge or a luxury hotel. But my Project rule of thumb is, if the budget doesn’t justify a full-time employee to manage the Project plan (e.g., keep the plan updated, not manage the project, necessarily), then MS Project is overkill. Real world projects require far more agile and accessible tools.

The keys to managing a successful project are buy-in and communication. The people who run the organization need to support it and the people the project is being planned for need to be expecting and anticipating the end result. Projects fail when all participants are on different pages: vague or different ideas of what the goals are; different levels of commitment; poor understanding of the deadlines; and poorly set expectations. GANTT charts are great marketing tools — senior executives never fail to be impressed by them — but they don’t tell the Facilities Coordinator in clear language that you need the facility booked by March 10th, or the designer that the web page has to be up by April 2nd.

You want to use tools that your project participants can access easily, preferably ones they’re already using. Here are five tools that are either free or you’ve already obtained, which, used together, will be far more effective than MS Project for the typical project at a small to mid-sized organization:

  • GanttProject. GanttProject is an open source, cross-platform project management tool. Think of it as MS Project lite. While the feature set includes identifying project resources, allocating time, and tracking completion, etc., it excels at creating GANTT charts, which can then be used to promote and communicate about the project. People appreciate visual aids, and GANTT charts visually identify the key tasks, milestones and timeframes. I don’t recommend diving into the resource allocations and the like, as I think that’s the point where managing the project plan starts becoming more work than managing the project.
  • Your email app. It’s all about communication: setting expectations, managing expectations, reminding and checking on key contributors so that deadlines are met. Everyone already lives in their email, so you want to visit them where they live. Related tool: the telephone.
  • MeetingWizard, Doodle, etc. We might gripe about meetings, but email alone does not cut it. If you want people to understand what you’re trying to accomplish — and care –they need to see your face and here the inflections in your voice when you tell them about it. By the same token, status updates and working out schedules where one person’s work depends on others completing theirs benefit greatly from face-to-face planning.
  • Excel (or any spreadsheet). Budgets, check off lists, inventory — a spreadsheet is a great tool for storing the project data. Worthy alternatives (and superior, because they’re multi-user): Sharepoint or Open Atrium.
  • Socialcast (or Yammer). Socialcast is Facebook for organizations. Share status, links, and files in a microblogging client. You can create categories and assign posts to them. The reasoning is the same as for the email, and email might be your fallback if your co-workers won’t take to microblogging, but if they’re open to it, it’s a great way to keep a group of people easily informed.

It’s not that there aren’t other good ways to manage projects. Basecamp, or one of the many similar web apps might be a better fit, particularly if the project team is widely dispersed geographically. Sharepoint can replace a number of the tools listed here. But you don’t really have to spend a penny. You do need to plan, promote, and communicate.

Projects don’t fail because you’re not using capital “P” Project. They fail when there isn’t buy-in, shared understanding, and lots of interaction.

Peter Campbell is currently the Director of Information Technology at Earthjustice, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending the earth. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Peter spent seven years serving as IT Director at Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo & Marin Counties, Inc. Peter has been managing technology for non-profits and law firms for over 20 years, and has a broad knowledge of systems, email and the web. In 2003, he won a “Top Technology Innovator” award from InfoWorld for developing a retail reporting system for Goodwill thrift. Peter’s focus is on advancing communication, collaboration and efficiency through creative use of the web and other technology platforms.

Do Nonprofits Spam?

This article was first published on the Idealware Blog in March of 2011.

Supporters at the gates

NPTech maven Deborah Elizabeth Finn started a blog last week called “No Nonprofit Spam“.  As a well-known NPTech consultant, Deborah is far from alone in finding herself regularly subscribed to nonprofit email lists that she has never opted into.  But, as opposed to just complaining about what is, in anyone’s definition (except possibly the sender’s) unsolicited commercial email; Deborah took the opportunity to try and educate.  It’s a controversial undertaking. Nobody likes spam.  Many of us like nonprofits, and aren’t going to hold them to the same level of criticism as we will that anonymous meds or mortgages dealer; and the measures that we take against the seamy spammers are pretty harsh.  Even if nonprofits are guilty of the spamming crime, should they be subject to the same punishments?

Spam, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So, for the purposes of this conversation, let’s agree on a definition of nonprofit spam. Sending one email to someone that you have identified as a potential constituent, either by engaging them in other media or purchasing their name from a list provider, is, at worst, borderline spam, and not something that I would join a campaign to complain about.  If I delete the message and don’t hear from the NPO again, no big deal.  But subscribing me to a recurring list without my express buy-in is what I consider spamming.  And that’s the focus of Deborah’s blog (which is naming names) and the action that goes from email engagement to email abuse, for the purposes of this post.

In my post to the No Nonprofit Spam website, I made the point that we’re all inundated with email and we can only support so many orgs, so NPOs would do better to build their web site and their Charity Navigator rating than to push their messages, uninvited, into our inboxes. It’s a matter of being respectful of constituent priorities.

There are two motivations for overdoing it on the emails. One is the mildly understandable, but not really forgiveable mistake of overenthusiasm for one’s mission.  Believing that the work you do is so important that subscribing people who have expressed no interest to your list is warranted.  That’s a mistake of naivety more than anything else.

The less forgivable excuse is the typical spam calculation: no matter how many people you offend, enough people will click on it to justify the excess.  After all, it’s cost-justified by the response rate, right?

The downside in both cases is that, if you only count the constituents you gained, then you’re missing something of great important to nonprofits and little import to viagra salesman.  The people you offended might have otherwise been supporters. The viagra spammer isn’t going to pitch their product through other avenues.  It’s a low investment, so any yeild is great gain.  But you likely have people devoting their full hearts to your cause.  You’re in the business of building relationships, not burning them.  And you will never know how many consttuents that you might have gained through more respectful avenues if you treat them callously with your email initiatives.

Worse, the standard ways that individuals deal with spam could be very challenging for an NPO to deal with.  In the comments to my No Nonprofit Spam post, some people advocated doing more than just marking the messages as spam, but also reporting the offending orgs to Spamcop, who then list them with Spamhaus, the organization that maintains block lists of known spammers that large ISPs subscribe to.  By overstepping the bounds of net courtesy, you could not only alienate individuals, but wreak havoc with your ability to reach people by email at all.  My take is that reporting NPOs — even the ones who, by my above definition, spam — is unusually cruel to organizations who do good in the world.  But I’m a nonprofit professional. Many of the people that we might be offending aren’t going to be so sympathetic.

So, what do you think? Is spam from a nonprofit any different from spam from a commercial vendor?  Should nonprofits be held to the same level of accountability as viagra spammers? Are even single unsolicited emails spam, or are they permissable? I searched for some nonprofit-focused best practices before completing this article, and didn’t come up with anything that differentiated our industry from the commercial ones, but I think there’s a difference. Just as nonprofits are exempt from the Do Not Call lists, I think we deserve some exemptions in email.  But I could be wrong, and what would serve us all well is a clear community policy on email engagement.  Does anyone have any to recommend?

Cartoon borrowed from Rob Cottingham’s Noise To Signal collection.

How Google Can Kick Facebook’s Butt

This article was first published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2010.

infrastructures.png

(XKCD Cartoon by Randall Munroe)

Facebook really annoyed a lot of people with their recent, heavy-handed moves.  You can read about this all over the place, here are some good links about what they’ve done, what you should do and why it bothers some of us:

Facebook’s Announcement (from their Blog)

Understanding the Open Graph from Chris Messina

Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that internet privacy is “over” from Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb

Three Ways Facebook Will Dramatically Change Your Nonprofit (from John Hayden)

Why I Don’t “Like” Facebook and Void Rage: Unable To Muster Facebook Anger from Techcafeteria

Why You Shouldn’t Delete Your Facebook Account by Janet Fouts

Facebook and “Radical Transparency” (A Rant) by Danah Boyd

Long story short, though, Facebook wants us all to open up, and they want the web to be a place where you do things and report back to Facebook about them.  My take on this is that Im in favor of an open web that offers a rich, social experience with lots of referred information.  I don’t consider Facebook an acceptable platform or steward of that function.

Why Google?

As my colleague Johanna pointed out, there’s already an effort underway to develop a purely open alternative to Facebook. The Diaspora project has received significant funding and seems to be run by some very thoughtful, intelligent people.  But I look at this as a kind of David and Goliath proposition, with the rider that this Goliath won’t even blink if David hurls a rock at him.  If someone is going to displace Facebook, it’s not likely going to be a tiny startup with a couple of $100k.  It’s going to be Google.

You might ask me, isn;t this just trading one corporate overseer for another? And the answer is yes.  But Google’s guiding principle is “Don’t be Evil“. Facebook’s, apparently, is “milk your users for every penny their personal data can net you“.  If someone’s going to capitalize on my interactions with friends, family and the world, I’d rather it be the corporation that has demonstrated some ethics in their business decisions to the one that has almost blatantly said that they don’t care about their users.

Supplementing Buzz

So, how can Google play Indiana Jones to the rolling boulder that is Facebook? Not by just pushing Buzz.  I’ll get to Buzz in a minute, because I’m a fanboy of the platform.  But Buzz alone isn’t a Facebook killer, and Google won’t have a foothold unless they take a couple of their afterthought properties and push them front and center.

Big Google Product: GMail. Afterthought that supports it: Contacts.

Google needs to do some heavy re-imagining of their contact management app if they want to gain a foothold against Facebook. Facebook’s contact management is simple and elegant; Google’s looks like a web app that I might have developed.  They need to get some of the good UI people lurking among the geeks to do an overhaul, stat, adding features like social media site integration (ala Rapportive or Gist) and more ajaxy, seamless ways to create and manage people and groups.

Big Google Product: Buzz. Afterthought that supports it: Google Profiles.

Social networking is all about the profile; why doesn’t Google get that?  Buzz isn’t the home page; the profile is, and what Google has provided for us is cute, simplistic, and far too limited to meet our needs.  But the customization options for the current profile are limited, and the whole thing just feels lazy on Google’s part, as if they spent a half hour designing it and then dumped it on us.

Why Buzz Rocks

I’ve written about Buzz before; more to this point on my other blog.  Google Buzz supports about 90% of the basic features of a full-fledged blogging platform like WordPress or Blogger:

  • I can write a post with images.
  • Commenting, with some commenting moderation, is in place.
  • You can subscribe to my Buzz feed as an individual RSS feed, or just visit it on my profile.
  • But, unlike this blog, my Buzz posts are also subscribable in the Buzz news feed interface, like Twitter or Facebook, making it all the richer in terms of how people can reply and interact.  That’s pretty powerful.
  • Buzz supports groups (via Contacts) and private posts.
  • Google just announced (like, yesterday) an API that will allow people to develop apps that interact with and run on the Buzz platform.
  • And, of course, Buzz integrates right into my email, keeping it front and center, and convenient.

Tying It All Together

Google could make this a powerful alternative to Facebook by doing a few simple things:

  • Almost everyone I know who gave Buzz a try instantly ported in their Twitter feed and then forgot about it, leaving those of us who like Buzz left to sift through all of that stuff that, hey, we’ve already read, because we haven’t left Twitter. So, Google should lose the universal feed feature. Keep it about the value of the conversation, not the volume level.
  • But keep the Google Reader integration, along with link, picture and video posts.  A good blog comments on other web content, not other web feeds, and the integration of Google Reader as a content source works.  One reason it works is because you can post the Google Reader items with comments.
  • Make the profile page more configurable and dynamic, allowing users to add tabs and link them to RSS sources, much the way we add content to the sidebars of our blogs.  This is how my twitter feed should be integrated, not interspersed with my Buzz posts.
  • Make Contacts a tab on the profile page.
  • Add theming to the profile page.  Emulate the Blogger theming options.
  • I own a domain with my name on it, and I would point that domain to my profile page and make Buzz my blog if I had the ability to make that profile a page that I could call my own.

Conclusion

As much as I’d appreciate an open web, not a corporate owned one, I’m just not idealistic enough to believe that it’s still a possibility. If i have a choice of corporate overlords, I want the one that open sources most of their software; maintains high ethical standards for how their ads are displayed; has a track record of corporate philanthropy; and is relatively respectful of the fact that my friends and information belongs to me. That’s not Facebook. Please do weigh in on whether I’m too cynical or too trusting of the alternative, because this is an important topic. The future of the web depends on who we trust to steward our interactions.

The Buzz Factor

This post was first published on the Idealware Blog in February of 2010.

 

buzz.png
buzz.png

Long time readers of my ramblings here are aware that I drink the Google kool-aid. And they also know that I’ve been caught tweeting, on occasion. And, despite my disappointment in Google’s last big thing (Wave), I am so appreciative of other work of theirs — GMail, Android, Picasa — that I couldn’t pass up a go with their answer to Facebook and Twitter, Buzz.

Google, perhaps because their revenue model is based on giving people ad-displaying products, as opposed to selling applications, takes more design risks than their software-developing competitors. Freed of legacy design concepts like “the computer is a file cabinet” or “A phone needs a “start” menu“, they often come up with superior information management and communication tools.

What is Buzz?

Buzz, like Twitter and Facebook, and very much like the lesser used Friendfeed, lets you tell people what you’re up to; share links, photos and other content; and respond to other people’s posts and comments. Like Facebook, Friendfeed and Twitter (if you use a third party service like Twitterfeed), you can import streams from other services, like Google Reader, Flicker, and Twitter itself, into your Buzz timeline.

Unlike Twitter, there is no character limit on your posts. And the comment threading works more like Facebook, so it’s easy to keep track of conversations.

How is Buzz Different?

The big distinguishing factor is that Buzz is not an independent service, but an adjunct of GMail. You don’t need a GMail account to use it, but, if you have one, Buzz shows up right below your inbox in the folder list, and, when a comment is posted on a Buzz that you either started or contributed to, the entire Buzz shows up in your inbox with the reply text box included, so that continuing the conversation is almost exactly like replying to an email.

The Gmail integration also feeds into your network on Buzz. Instead of actively seeking out people to follow, Buzz loads you up from day one with people who you communicate regularly with via GMail.

Privacy Concerns

Buzz’s release on Tuesday spawned a Facebook-like privacy invasion meme the day that it was released — valid concerns were raised about the list of these contacts showing up on Buzz-enabled Google Profile pages. A good “get rid of Buzz” tutorial is linked here. To Google’s credit, they responded quickly, with security updates being rolled out two days later. I’m giving Google more of a pass on this than some of my associates, because, while it was a little sloppy, I don’t think it compares to the Facebook “Beacon” scandal. Google didn’t think through the consequences, or the likely reaction to what looked like a worse privacy violation than it actually was (contact lists were only public on your profiles if you had marked your profile “public”, and there was a link to turn the lists off, it just wasn’t prominently placed or obvious that it was necessary). Beacon, in comparison, started telling the world about every purchase you made (whether it was a surprise gift for your significant other or a naughty magazine) and there was no option for the user to turn it off. And it took Facebook two years to start saying “mea culpa”, not two days.

Social Media Interactions for Grownups

Twitter’s “gimmick” — the 140 character limit — defines its personality, and those of us who enjoy Twitter also enjoy the challenge of making that meaningful comment, with links, hashtags, and @ replies, in small, 140 character bursts. It’s understood now that continuing a tweet is cheating.

Facebook doesn’t have such stringent limits, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that to glance at it. It hasn’t shaken it’s dorm room roots; it’s still burdened by all of the childish quizzes and applications; and, maybe more to the point, cursed by a superficiality imposed by everyone having an audience composed of high school buds that they haven’t seen for a decade or two, and who might now be on the other side of the political fence.

But Buzz can sustain a real conversation — I’ve seen this in my day and a half of use. Partially because it doesn’t have Twitters self-imposed limit or Facebooks playful distractions; and largely because you reply in your email, a milieu where actual conversation is the norm. This is significant for NPOs that want to know what’s being said about them in public on the web. I noted from a Twitter post this week that the Tactical Philosophy blog had a few entries discussing the pros and cons of Idealistshandling of a funding crisis. But Twitter wasn’t a good vehicle for a nuanced conversation on that, and I can’t see that type of dialogue setting in on Facebook. Buzz would be ideal for it.

The Best is Yet to Come

This week, Google rolled out Buzz to GMail. Down the road, they’ll add it to Google Apps for Domains. The day that happens, we’ll see something even more powerful. Enterprise microblogging isn’t a new idea — apps like Yammer and Socialcast have had a lot of success with it. I’m actually a big fan of Socialcast, which has a lot in common with Buzz, but I was stumped as to how I could introduce a new application at my workplace that I believe would be insanely useful, but most of the staff can’t envision a need for at all. What would have sold it, I have no doubt, is the level of email integration that Buzz sports. By making social conversations so seamlessly entwined with the direct communication, Google sells the concept. How many of you are trying hard to explain to your co-workers that Twitter isn’t a meaningless fad, and that there’s business value in casual communication? Buzz will put it in their faces, and, daunting as it might be at first, I think it will win them over.