Monday, November 21, 2011

Harold Garfinkel again

In the latest issue of Social Studies of Science, Michael Lynch has a nice review essay (and obituary) of Harold Garfinkel and ethnomethodology and its relationship to STS.  Well worth your time, and the bibliography, I think, is a great resource!

Related post: How to read Garfinkel.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Google Sharing vs. Tumblr? Tumblr!!

Main point of this post: I'm now going to share interesting links that I find with commentary on my Tumblr page.  (RSS feed is here.)  You can stop reading right here!   For more on the reasoning behind this decision, keep reading ahead. 

I wrote a long post on how the disabling of the Google's "Note in Reader" bookmarklet (which went hand-in-hand with disabling Google Reader's sharing features) had taken the wind out of my sails, turning it into a lengthy point about how designed products end up working out for reasons other than what their designers envisioned. 

That was an academic point.  But what next?  I am really confused.  On the one hand, there is the Greasemonkey script that re-installs the sharing features in Google Reader; on the other is Tumblr which I have started to use as a sort of scrapbook of excerpts of interesting articles that I have read.

The Greasemonkey script is great - and it sort of suggests that Google has left the infrastructure for sharing in Reader intact while disabling the outer manifestations of it (the "share" "share with note" buttons, the list of followed people, etc.)***.  But how long will this infrastructure stay the way it is?  Google Buzz is going to be phased out soon and many people used Google Buzz to see the shared items rather than seeing them to Google Reader - so will this feature ever be the way it was?  And on and on - the uncertainty seems too much.

Which is why I've pretty much decided to take the leap into using Tumblr.  Of course, this means that I have to start building my network from scratch - but at least there's no uncertainty.  And one of the great things about Tumblr - as I've discovered from using it over the past few days - is that it really makes you read the piece in question.  That's because Tumblr is set up as a kind of commonplace book which means you need to pick out a paragraph or so from the piece that really really intrigues you; I've found myself reading pieces with that in mind and it's a big help.  Plus the commentary format where you take an extract from the piece and offer commentary on it is great for expressing quick thoughts on the piece in question.  In Google Reader, I would often share a piece without reading it with great care; it only needed to pass a certain minimum standard of "interestingness" and Reader made sharing much easier than Tumblr.  But all in all, there may be some advantages to the Tumblr model.  (Again, the whole thing goes to show how technical systems structure our practice in interesting ways.) 

That is all.  Tumblr link here

*** This seems like a true instance of the "Do no evil" motto that Googlers spout.  Also it's an interesting facet of information systems in general.  You can leave the infrastructure intact while still disabling a feature, thus allowing users to use it for themselves if they are enterprising enough.  Plus only some users need to be enterprising (the guys who wrote the Greasemonkey script in this case); the rest of us can reap benefits if the workaround is shared widely enough (and it seems to be, in this case). 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The unintended consequences of technical tools: the demise of sharing in Google Reader and why I will miss it

One of the first things we learn in fields like STS, HCI or Design Studies is that technologies often get used in ways that their designers have not imagined, and that this is both wonderful and productive, but can also be subversive and frustrating (for different people).  It's particularly trying for a designer: after all, the most important thing about design is to make people behave in a certain way, through certain kinds of artifacts (the button that is the only thing that can be clicked, the door-knob that has to be turned in order to pull the door, etc.) - and yet try as you might, it's never quite possible to get people to behave in exactly the way you want.  However, sometimes, having users do things with your design is a boon; it makes the application more flexible and increases its value.  One of the things about good designers then is that their designs are useful, rigid but not too rigid, and leave just enough room for all those workarounds, tricks and shortcuts that users will come up with.

All of this is a long way to say: I am bummed because Google Reader has disabled its "Sharing" features. I'm still going to continue to use Reader, I still like its interface and I love its "tagging" feature and its keyboard shortcuts.  I'll miss the "Sharing" aspects because I'd built up a group of like-minded contacts (most of whom, I'd never met or talked to, my Reader buddies, so to speak) whose links I often found most interesting and most relevant to my own interests.  But even more than that, the "Sharing" feature of Google Reader allowed me to do what I'd always wanted to do: have one receptacle for everything on the Web that I found interesting, which I could then search through as and when I wanted to.  I don't think the Reader designers imagined that their "Sharing" feature could have other uses but that's what hurts most right now.  I had a workflow which I thought I had perfected and it was all through Reader - and now I have to start all over again and come up with another workflow.  In a way, this goes to show the danger of overly relying on one particular technology. 

Let me start from the beginning.  The discovery of RSS feeds was the best thing that happened to my web reading habits.  I read randomly back then, and one had to actually go to a website to read - and this was difficult to do, I used bookmarks to remember all these sites I found interesting - yet it never quite worked out.  Then came RSS feeds and suddenly, I didn't have to go to a website anymore, instead the website came to me.  I experimented with a number of desktop RSS readers, then shifted to Bloglines (remember Bloglines??!!!) for a long time, before finally taking the plunge into Google Reader. It was great - I loved it.  I could tag items that I thought were interesting and worth storing and it had an excellent "Search" feature which meant that I could look through all my feeds using keywords.  This is most useful when you are blogging or writing: you can look through all your read-and-tagged articles and find the ones that most relate to the argument you are making.

There was one problem.  But to explain that, I have to talk about my long-standing obsession with information.  One of the things about reading on the Web is that you get access to lots of material that you wouldn't have before.  And you don't actually get to read most of these pieces; some of them you skim, some of them you skim, find interesting and then read deeply; some of them you don't even skim but you think these could be potentially useful at a later time.  Which means that you want to store everything that you think is useful - even remotely.  And the great thing about the internet is that storing things is inexpensive and easy, although there are infinite ways to do it.  I tried a variety of options: Google Bookmarks, Evernote, Delicious - but it never worked.  There were just too many options and working across applications was tiring and inefficient and frankly, not very useful.  Storing links and text is only useful if you re-read them and use them; and I found that I was rarely going back to what I had stored.

This started to change as I started reading more and more through Google Reader, I would tag anything I thought remotely useful (the story of what tags I came to use is something I'll tell another time). Thus I had a nice folder of items that I thought might come in handy for me later.
But there were other articles that I would read outside Reader (usually links that came from the blogs that I read in Reader).  And I wanted to store these too - but there was never a way to put them into Reader.  So for the longest time, I had two places where I stored interesting things I'd read: in Google Reader and in Evernote - and needless to say, it got pretty unwieldy.

And then I discovered sharing on Reader which was pretty cool.  And somewhere in the midst of this, I discovered Google's "Note in Reader" bookmarklet, which was designed so that you could share interesting things with you Reader friends even if what you were reading was not actually through Reader. 

That was the breakthrough.  But not in the way the Google designers imagined.  True, I used the bookmarklet to share more links.  But once I clicked on "Note in Reader," I had the option of not just sharing the article, but also tagging it so that it would be accessible from within Google Reader.  So there were a lot of pieces that I used the bookmarklet to just save and tag, and not necessarily to share with others.  I had my one application to store everything on the Web that I found interesting: it was Google Reader.  At some point, I stopped using Evernote.

Which is why the loss of the Sharing functions in Google Reader is depressing.  Now when I click on "Note in Reader" here is what I get:

So forget sharing, I can't even tag and web-page and move it into my Google Reader folders.  Which means I have to start my search for one storage application all over again - or content myself with two.  I'm hoping that even as Google has disabled Sharing through Reader, they will at least allow us to import web-content into Reader folders.  But we'll see.

As we learn all the time as designers, when  you take away a feature, you take away practices that users have been relying on, practices that may not have been what you intended.  It's a good lesson to learn as a user - hopefully it'll be something I'll remember when I do any kind of design work.