Tag Archives: email

Hillary Clinton’s Shadow IT Problem

As you likely know, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she set up a private email server at home and used it for her email communication, passing up a secure government account. This was a bHillary_Clinton_Testimony_to_House_Select_Committee_on_Benghaziad idea, for a number of reasons, primary among them the fact that sensitive information could be leaked on this less secure system, and that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests could be bypassed. But the burning question, at a time when Clinton looks likely to be nominated as the Democratic candidate for President, is what her motivation was for setting up the server in the first place. Was it to bypass the Freedom of Information Act? Was it to easily trade classified materials, as her most critical accusers suspect? Or was it, as she claims, because she had a lot of personal email to send and she didn’t want to manage two accounts? 

This post doesn’t seek to answer those questions. Instead, it pitches yet another theory: that Clinton’s motivations might have had everything to do with technology and little to do with politics. Judicial Watch, a conservative foundation looking for evidence that Clinton broke laws in her handling of the email, received some fascinating information in response to a recent FOIA request. 

Upon joining the State Department in early 2009, Clinton immediately requested a Blackberry smartphone. Having used one extensively during her 2008 Presidential campaign, she, like almost every attorney in that decade, had fallen in love with her Blackberry, hence the request. After all, Condoleezza Rice, her predecessor as Secretary of State, had used one. President Obama had a special secure one that the NSA had developed for him. But they said no. Even after being called to a high level meeting with Clinton’s top aide and five State Department officials, they still said no.The NSA offered Clinton an alternative. But it was based on Windows CE, a dramatically different, less intuitive smartphone operating system. A month later, Clinton started using her own server. Judicial Watch claims that this info proves that Clinton knew that her email was not secure, but I think that she has already admitted that. But it also reveals something much more telling.

As a three plus decade technology Director/CIO (working primarily with Attorneys), I can tell you that people get attached to specific types of technology. I know a few Attorneys who still swear to this day that Wordperfect 5.1 for DOS was the best word processing software ever released. And there are millions who will tell you that their Blackberry was their virtual right arm in the 2000’s.

How devoted are people to their favorite applications and devices? I worked for a VP who was only comfortable using Word, so when she did her quarterly reports to the board, she had her assistant export huge amounts of information from our case management system. Then she modified all of it in Word. Once delivered, she had her assistant manually update the case management system in order to incorporate her changes. Efficient? Not at all. But she loved herself some Word. I’ve seen staff using seven year old laptops because they know them and don’t want to have to learn and set up a new one. And it wasn’t until the bitter end of 2014 that both my boss and my wife finally gave in and traded up their Blackberries for iPhones.

Again, the point here is not that Clinton should have ditched the secure, government system in order to use her phone of choice. In her circumstances, the security concerns should have outweighed her personal comfort. But for many, the desire to stick with tech that they know and love is often counter to logic, efficiency, security and policy. And most of us work in environments where bucking the system isn’t quite as dire as it could be for the nation’s top diplomat.

Shadow IT” is technology that users install without company approval because they prefer it to what’s offered. What I know is that I can’t secure my network if it’s packed with technology that my users hate. Smart people will bypass that security in order to use the tools that work for them. An approach to security that neglects usability and user preference is likely to fail. In most cases, there are compromises that can be made between IT and users that allow secure products to be willingly adopted. In other cases, with proper training, hand-holding, and executive sponsorship,  you can win users over. But when we are talking about Blackberries in the last decade, or the iPhone in this one, we have to acknowledge that the popularity of the product is a serious factor in adoption that technologists can’t ignore. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Hillary Clinton.

Why I’m Intrigued By Google’s Inbox

Google Inbox logoHere we go again! Another communication/info management Google product that is likely doomed to extinction (much like recent social networks I’ve been blogging about), and I can’t help but find it significant and important, just as I did Google Wave, Google Buzz, and the much-loved Google Reader. I snagged an early invite to Google’s new “Inbox” front-end to GMail, and I’ve been agonizing over it for a few weeks now.  This app really appeals to me, but I’m totally on the fence about actually using it, for a few reasons:

  • This is either a product that will disappear in six months, or it’s what Gmail’s standard interface will evolve into.  It is absolutely an evolved version of recent trends, notably the auto-sorting tabs they added about a year ago.
  • The proposition is simple: if you let Google sort your mail for you, you will no longer have to organize your mail.

I’ve blogged before about how expensive an application email is to maintain, time-wise. We get tons of email (I average over a hundred messages a day between work and home), and every message needs to be managed (deleted, archived, labeled, dragged to a folder, etc.), unlike texts and social media, which you can glance at and either reply or ignore. The average email inbox is flooded with a wide assortment of information, some useless and offensive (“Meet Beautiful Russian Women”), some downright urgent (“Your Aunt is in the Hospital!”), and a range of stuff in-between. If you get 21 messages while you’re at an hour-long meeting, and the first of the 21 is time-sensitive and critical, it’s not likely the first one that you are going to read, as it has scrolled below the visible part of your screen. The handful of needles in the crowded haystack can be easily lost forever.

Here’s how Inbox tries to make your digital life easier and less accident-prone:

  • Inbox assumes (incorrectly) that every email has three basic responses: You want to deal with it soon (keep it in the inbox); you want to deal with it later (“snooze” it with a defined time to return to the inbox); or you want to archive it. They left out delete it, currently buried under a pop-up menu, which annoys me, because I believe that permanently deleting the 25% of my email that can be glanced at (or not even opened) and deleted is a cornerstone of my inbox management strategy. But, that nit aside, I really agree with this premise.
  • Messages fall in categories, and you can keep a lot of the incoming mail a click away from view, leaving the prime inbox real estate to the important messages. Inbox accomplishes this with “Bundles“. which are the equivalent to the presorted tabs in Classic GMail.  Your “Promotions”, Updates” and “Social” bundles (among other pre-defineds) group messages, as opposed to putting each incoming message on it’s own inbox line. I find the in-list behavior more intuitive than the tabs. You can create your own bundles and teach them to auto-sort — I immediately created one for Family, and added in the primary email addresses for my immediate loved ones.  We’ll see what it learns.
  • Mail doesn’t need to be labeled (you can still label messages, but it’s not nearly as simple a task as it is in GMail classic). This is the thing I’m wrestling with most — I use my labels.  I have tons of filters defined that pre-label messages as they come in, and my mailbox cleanup process labels what’s missed. I go to the labels often to narrow searches. I totally get that this might not be necessary — Google’s search might be good enough that my labeling efforts are actually more work than just searching the entire inbox each time. But I’m heavily invested in my process.
  • Highlights” act a bit like Google Now, popping up useful info like flight details and package tracking.

One important note: Inbox does nothing to alter or replace your Gmail application.  It’s an alternative interface. When you archive, delete or label a message in Inbox, it gets archived, deleted or labeled in GMail as well, but Gmail knows nothing about bundles and, therefore, doesn’t reflect them, and not one iota of GMail functionality changes when you start using Inbox.  You do start getting double notifications, and Inbox offered to turn off GMail notifications for me if I wanted to fix that. I turned Inbox down and I’m waiting for GMail to make a similar offer.  😉

So what Inbox boils down to is a streamlined, Get Things Done (GTD) frontend for GMail that removes email clutter, eases email management, and highlights the things that Google thinks are important. If you think Google can do that for you reasonably well, then it might make your email communication experience much saner. You might want to switch to it.  Worse that can happen is it goes away, in which case Gmail will still be there.

I have invites.  Leave a comment or ping me directly if you’d like one.

If you’re using Inbox already, tell me, has it largely replaced GMail’s frontend for you?  If so, why? If not, why not?

 

My Foray Into Personal Fundraising

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

My work planning for, evaluating and deploying technology at nonprofits requires that I have a good understanding of fundraising concepts and practices, and I do.  It’s an area that I’m sufficiently knowledgeable about, but no expert. So my current personal fundraising campaign for Idealware is an amateur effort. It is, happily, a successful one. I did some things right, including, I think, making strategic use of my social networking connections and channels.

I might have done a few things differently, given what I’ve learned.  And much of the success has been instructive.

Setting Up The Campaign

As both a board member and an ardent supporter of Idealware, I give annually and encourage my friends to do the same.  But this year I wanted to step it up, so I suggested that we use Razoo, an online personal fundraising platform, to host campaigns.  It turned out that I was behind the times — fellow board member Steve Bachman had already started a Razoo campaign, and Idealware had registered as a Razoo charity.

I signed up for my Razoo account, and clicked the “Fundraise” link.  Setting up the campaign was pretty akin to setting up a profile on a social network — name, description, graphic upload, etc.  I went for not too fancy with the name and graphic (“The Idealware Research Fund” and the logo, respectively), and set about to write as plain and honest a description/appeal as I could, approaching it as what I would say if I asked you to donate to Idealware and you said “Why?”.

I set a modest goal of $750, and announced my intention to match half of that.  I was a little cagey about the matching requirements, saying that I would match up to $375 when I had already pledged that amount to Idealware.  My expectation, going in, was that I could probably raise $375 and my match would bring me to goal.  So I’m happy that, as of this writing, I’ve raised $750 and added my donation to that, well exceeding the goal.

Campaigning

My campaign targets were my social media contacts.  To that end, I downloaded an Excel spreadsheet of all 530 of my LinkedIn connections and pared it down to the 325 or so that met this criteria: they were either familiar with Idealware and supportive of the work or, maybe unfamiliar, but likely would support it.  I didn’t target my staff and co-workers, and I left out some family and non-professional connections that I didn’t imagine would be all that personally motivated by Idealware’s work.  But I left a bunch of them in, too.

I wanted the appeal to clearly come from me, so I didn’t send the appeal through LinkedIn.  I used my personal email. I wanted to avoid spam filters, so the email was plain text, and I sent it in batches of ten people at a time, cutting and pasting from the spreadsheet to Gmail’s “to” field, which was nice enough to automagically format them with commas between each email address.  The mailing process, from LinkedIn download to final click of the “Send” button, took about four hours.

I made it clear up front in my email that the recipients were LinkedIn contacts of mine.  I’m sensitive to spam, even for worthwhile causes, and I wanted everyone to know that this wasn’t a random email, nor was it a list that would be used again.  Next campaign, I’ll start from scratch again.

With the emails sent, I tweeted, Facebooked, and Google+ed the effort.

Follow-up

I got a healthy response to my email blast, raising $500 in a couple of days.  It was great to also get emails from friends who passed on donating to my campaign because they’d already donated directly, or through another campaign. As donations came in, I tweeted and posted thanks to the donors on my Facebook page. The tweets included a link back to the campaign, of course.  A week and a half in, I posted new tweets and statuses and that, too, got a good response.  At $80 to goal, I tweeted how close we were, and longtime Idealware contributor and advisor Michael Stein jumped in and brought us to $750, at which point I added my $375.

Takeaways

I think my key successes were in keeping it human, relatively low-key (no follow-up emails or persistent nagging, but between the public thank yous and a ten day social media reminder, a fairly consistent broadcast); and having the benefit of supporting a cause that’s pretty unimpeachable.

I’m pretty sure that sending more personalized emails and making phone calls would have yielded more funding.  Next time, I might trim the number of people I reach out to personally, but increase the personal nature of the appeal.

25 of my 26 of my donations came from people who were already familiar with Idealware (one was from someone who works here!). I’m sure all 25 of them have been to one or more NTEN conferences. I had little luck convincing people new to the cause to donate.  Some of my fellow board members are focusing on family and other associates, and it’s a harder sell.  I think that’s somewhat understandable.  We all support causes that are important to us, and Idealware is going to appeal to either sympatico types like myself (I was on board with Idealware’s mission before Laura set up shop) and people who have directly benefitted.

For myself, I regularly support Idealware and orgs like them, my own employer (because the earth really does need a good lawyer!), and a collection of causes that have missions that really resonate with me, as well as reputations that hold up.  But it’s a fraction of the orgs that I would contribute to if I had more to afford. Who we pony up the checks for is a very personal matter.  I’m thrilled that a significant percentage of the people that I appealed to heeded the call, and it speaks to the great work that Idealware does. But I fault no one that I appealed to, as I’m certain that the ones who passed up my cause have worthwhile causes of their own.

All that said, if you want to help out Idealware, you can do so via the red button above, or via my campaign at Razoo, which runs through December 31st.

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.

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.

 

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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.

Things You Might Not Know About…

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2009.

…or you might. I find that, in a 25 year IT career that has always included a percentage of tech support, human nature is to use the features of an application that we know about, and only go looking for new features when a clearly defined need for one arises. In that scenario, some great functionality might be hiding in plain sight. Here are a few of my favorite “not very well-hidden” secrets. Share yours in the comments.

Google Search Filtering

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Have you ever clicked the google options 2.png “Show Options” link on your results page? Do a search for whatever interests you and try it (it’s located right under the Google logo). This will add a left navigation bar with some very useful filtering options. Of note, you can narrow to a trendy real-time search buy clicking on “Latest” under “Any Time”; choose a date range,filter out the pages that you’ve seen, or haven’t seen yet – how useful is that for finding that page that you googled last week but didn’t save? The funny thing is that Google has an “Advanced Search” screen, which, of course, can do many things that this bar can’t (such as searching for public domain media).

Microsoft Outlook Shortcuts

If you use Outlook, you know how simple it is to find your mail and calendar. Other common folders are conveniently placed in your default view. Outlook shortcuts 1.pngBut if you’re the slightest bit of a power user, or you work in an environment where users share mailbox folders or use Exchange’s Public Folders, than keeping track of all of those folders can get a bit tedious. Outlook Shortcuts 2.pngThat’s what the Shortcut view is for. Buried below the Mail, Calendar and Task buttons, you can move it up to the visible button list by right-clicking on the bar area (in the lower-left hand corner of Outlook 2003 or 2007’s screen) and choosing “Navigation Pane Options”. Highlight “Shortcuts” and then click “Move up” enough times to get it in one of the first four positions. Click OK, then click on the “Shortcuts” bar. From here, you can add new shortcuts and, optionally, arrange them in shortcut groups. You can rename the shortcuts with more meaningful titles, so that, if, say, you’re monitoring a norther user’s inbox, you can give it their name instead of having two folders named “Inbox”. One tip: to add shortcuts to a group, right-click on the group title and add from there.

Facebook Friend Lists

Nothing makes Facebook more manageable than Friends Lists, and, with the new security changes, this is more true than ever. If you’re like me, your connections on Facebook span every facet of your life, from family to childhood friends to co-workers. Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to send links and messages to all of your co-workers but not your friends, or vice-versa? Click on “Friends” from the Facebook menu, then all connections. If you’ve become a fan of a page or two, you’ll see that Facebook has already created two lists for you: Friends and Pages. To make more, scroll through your connection list and click to “Add to List” option to the right. You can create new lists from there, and add friends to multiple lists.

facebook friends.png

When you share a link, note, video or whatever, you can choose which list to send it to by clicking on the lock icon next to the “Share” button and choosing “Customize”.

There Are More

Did you know about these features? Are there other ones that you use that make your use of popular applications and web sites much more manageable? Leave a comment and let us know.

Wave Impressions

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.

A few months ago, I blogged a bit about Google Wave, and how it might live up to the hype of being the successor to email.  Now that I’ve had a month or so to play with it, I wanted to share my initial reactions.  Short story: Google Wave is an odd duck, that takes getting used to. As it is today, it is not that revolutionary — in fact, it’s kind of redundant. The jury is still out.

Awkwardness

To put Wave in perspective, I clearly remember my first exposure to email.  I bought my first computer in 1987: a Compaq “portable”. The thing weighed about 60 pounds, sported a tiny green on black screen, and had two 5 and 1/4 inch floppy drives for applications and storage).  Along with the PC, I got a 1200 BPS modem, which allowed me o dial up local bulletin boards.  And, as I poked around, I discovered the 1987 version of email: the line editor.

On those early BBSes, emails were sent by typing one line (80 characters, max) of text and hitting “enter”.  Once “enter” was pressed, that line was sent to the BBS.  No correcting typos, no rewriting the sentence.  It was a lot like early typewriters, before they added the ability to strike out previously submitted text.

But, regardless of the primitive editing capabilities, email was a revelation.  It was a new medium; a form of communication that, while far more awkward than telephone communications, was much more immediate than postal mail.  And it wasn’t long before more sophisticated interfaces and editors made their way to the bulletin boards.

Google Wave is also, at this point, awkward. To use it, you have to be somewhat self-confident right from the start, as others are potentially watching every letter that you type.  And while it’s clear that the ability to co-edit and converse about a document in the same place is powerful, it’s messy.  Even if you get over the sprawling nature of the conversations, which are only minimally better than  what you would get with ten to twenty-five people all conversing in one Word document, the lack of navigational tools within each wave is a real weakness.

Redundant?

I’m particularly aware of these faults because I just installed and began using Confluence, a sophisticated, enterprise Wiki (free for nonprofits) at my organization. While we’ve been told that Wave is the successor to email, Google Docs and, possibly, Sharepoint, I have to say that Confluence does pretty much all of those things and is far more capable.  All wikis, at their heart, offer collaborative editing, but the good ones also allow for conversations, plug-ins and automation, just as Google Wave promises.  But with a wiki, the canvas is large enough and the tools are there to organize and manage the work and conversation.  With Wave, it’s awfully cramped, and somewhat primitive in comparison.

Too early to tell?

Of course, we’re looking at a preview.  The two things that possibly differentiate Wave from a solid wiki are the “inbox” metaphor and the automation capabilities. Waves can come to you, like email, and anyone who has tried to move a group from an email list to a web forum knows how powerful that can be. And Wave’s real potential is in how the “bots”, server-side components that can interact with the people communicating and collaborating, will integrate the development and conversation with existing data sources.  It’s still hard to see all of that in this nascent stage.  Until then, it’s a bit chicken and egg.

Wave starting points

There are lots of good Wave resources popping up, but the best, hands down, is Gina Trapini’s Complete Guide, available online for free and in book form soon. Gina’s blog is a must read for people who find the types of things I write about interesting.

Once you’re on wave, you’ll want to find Waves to join, and exactly how you do that is anything but obvious.  the trick is to search for a term “such as “nonprofit” or “fundraising” and add the phrase “with:public”. A good nonprofit wave to start with is titled, appropriately, “The Nonprofit Technology Wave”.

If you haven’t gotten a Wave invite and want to, now is the time to query your Twitter and Facebook friends, because invites are being offered and we’ve passed the initial “gimme” stage.  In fact, I have ten or more to share (I’m peterscampbell on most social networks and at Google’s email service).