Me, Twitter?

Bart & Gabe are determined to see how far they can push the use of twitter at this year's MLA conference.  They want to use my Doe Lecture to seed some of the discussion before and during the meeting, so I just sent Bart some questions that he can use for the "Twitter Tutorial" that they're cooking up later this month.

As I understand it, they'll use the questions as the basis for generating some twitter discussion so that people can get used to re-tweeting and using hashtags and embedding stuff and whatever else it is that people do with twitter.  As someone who is pretty twitter-averse I find my participation in this to be tremendously amusing.

I have an account.  I'm following 65 people and am followed by 61.  But I almost never put anything up, other than a note when I've put up a new blog post (not that there's been much of that lately).   Since June 2008, when I signed up, I have precisely 130 tweets.

I keep an eye on it, but mostly because I find Rosanne Cash to be wonderfully hilarious.   But now, even the president of my university is trying to tweet something every day or so.

Gabe, who I actually don't follow (I probably should) and I have had a number of long talks, particularly as he's been planning for the conference, on how twitter can be used productively.  I remain agnostic about it's potential value to me, but interested.

Last year, I followed the twitter feed for the Doe Lecture from my hotel room. It didn't give me much of a sense of what Ana was actually saying, but it did give me a good feel for the emotional temperature of the room and how well-received the talk was.  (I did watch the video of it later on, which then helped to make sense of some of the tweets).

I know that what Bart & Gabe are after is real conversation -- the feel of taking half a dozen people and putting them in a bar after a good lecture and listening to them talking animatedly about it.  Can you create something like that among a much larger group of people who aren't all in the same place?

I don't know. I don't track twitter discussions enough to have examples of where I think it has really worked well.  But it's worth the experiment.  I might even pitch in.

It May As Well Be On the Front Page of the NYT

There was an article in the Times the other day on the number of clicks it would take to make all of one's personal information on Facebook private.  "To opt out of full disclosure of most information, it is necessary to click through more than 50 privacy buttons, which then require choosing among a total of more than 170 options."   And I'm reading it thinking, But if you want all of that information to be that private, what in the world are you doing on Facebook in the first place?

Lynn, who is very strict about her privacy, has no trouble at all with the Facebook policies.  She doesn't have a Facebook account and, as far as I can tell, has no intentions of getting one.   Problem solved.

A few years ago, I was sitting next to someone at a conference dinner and we got to talking about my blog.  I'd never met her, but she'd been following the blog for some time and asked me, "How does it feel to be revealing all of that personal information for anybody to read?"  I said, "Oh, there is so much more in my life that never gets on the blog.  I'm not revealing very much at all."  My rule of thumb for two decades now has been that you never put anything out into the internet that you're not willing to see on the front page of the New York Times.

I've been trying to decide if I should get a smartphone.   I sort of feel a professional responsibility.  All of the trend pronouncements claim that mobile devices are where it's at and that's what we have to be paying attention to.  But I was in Chicago the other day, standing at a street corner during the evening rush hour.  A bus pulled up in front of me and when I looked in, every single person was looking down into their little screen, thumbs flailing away.  I was watching the rain mist off the tops of the skyscrapers as they pushed up into the low clouds.  I decided I just don't want to be that connected.

I do understand that people feel as if Facebook has pulled a bait and switch.  They believe that they were led to believe that they would have more control over who gets to see their information than they now do -- or at least than they now do unless they go through those 50 buttons and 170 options.  The level of outrage is high.  But seriously, I think it's misplaced.  The whole point of Facebook was to build an application that enabled personal information to be shared with people that you don't know!  So it makes sense to me that the default would be sharing and that you, as the user, would have to do something extra to prevent sharing.   Being outraged that Facebook is developing new ways to share information without asking you first seems to me to be the antithesis of what Facebook is designed to do.

Marian knows someone who was outraged when she discovered that people that she didn't know were reading her blog.  "That's just for my family and friends," she snapped.  I could only shake my head in wonderment.

There is no guarantee of privacy on the internet.  Never has been.   If Facebook is important to you (as it certainly is to many people) then you're faced with making a number of compromises.  Facebook provides tools that give you some control over those compromises.  That's the best you're going to get.

I Might Want One Of Those

I'm really not a gadget guy.  I've never been interested in the new shiny thing for its own sake. 

On the other hand, I switched from a desktop to a laptop long ago, long before they were common,  because it made sense for the way that I work (as far back as 1989 I would travel with a "portable" computer -- it used 5 1/4 inch floppies (no internal hard drive)  and the modem weighed five pounds by itself). 

I've got five iPods (although that includes my beloved U2 model which sits quietly displayed on a shelf after I fried it out in the west Texas desert a few years ago), and I never go anywhere without my inMotion speakers. 

But I watch Lynn with her blackberry and Marian with her iPhone and I think they're damned interesting devices, but I can't think of a reason why I would want one.  I'm intrigued by the plethora of iPhone aps, but I haven't seen more than a few that I think I'd want to bother spending my time on.  My own phone is a decidedly unsmart Motorola i670, which I use strictly for the archaic purpose of making phone calls.  I think I can get my email on it, but I've never bothered to set it up.  I've exchanged not more than half a dozen text messages in my life.  I'm on twitter & facebook, but I can almost never think of anything I want to say there.  I think the Kindle is a solution in search of a problem.

So I was surprised at myself, watching the NYT live-blogging of the iPad announcement, to find myself thinking, "I might need to get one of those."

The commentator on NPR and at least one other journalist that I've read referred to it as essentially a big iPhone, which seems like the wrong comparison to me, since it lacks the one essential feature that makes the iPhone a phone.  It's more a big iPod Touch.  But since the phone is my least favorite way of communicating these days, that's not a big deficit for my purposes.

I'm sure that ninety-five percent of what I do with my laptop is wordprocessing, email, & web.  With the keyboard dock accessory, it looks like the iPad would let me do all of that pretty well.   And at a fraction of the weight of my laptop.

My lack of interest in the Kindle has caused me just a slight twinge of professional guilt.  I feel like I ought to become proficient with it just so I can better assess what the impact might be on books, reading, publishing, libraries, etc. -- the world of my supposed expertise.  The iPad could help me assuage a bit of that guilt as well.

I've got two months to think about it.  The geek reviews that I've seen in the first flush of the announcement are pretty negative.  I can see why somebody with a desktop machine, a high-end laptop, a smartphone and an iPod or two would have a hard time figuring out what the point of the iPad would be.  But I don't think that Apple designed this one for the geeks.

Catalog Shopping; Buying Online

Many years ago, my beloved wife explained to me the difference between "shopping" and "buying".  As is the case with many men, I suppose, I'd always assumed they were pretty much the same thing.  I've learned.

Over the years, I've worked up a pretty good system for handling Christmas.  Since I've done most of my buying online for years, I get lots and lots of catalogs.  I pile them up.  As fall drifts into winter I'll find times to sit down and go through them, looking for gift ideas.  As I come across things that I think the people I'm buying for might like, I put them into a spreadsheet -- item, vendor, cost.  This is the shopping part.

Once I've worked my way through all of the catalogs, I go back to the spreadsheet and, depending on what my budget is for each person, I figure out what I actually want to get, and then go online and put in the orders.  That's the buying part.  I always have more ideas than funds, so if I find that something is out of stock or if some website's interface is too annoying to be bothered with, I've always got a backup plan.

The vendors I buy from regularly email me relentlessly, particularly at this time of year, but I'm very glad that they also send their catalogs.   Even the best websites are a poor substitute for a printed catalog when it comes to the shopping part.   Flipping through a printed catalog and skimming the contents is a far more efficient process than trying to go through a store's entire stock on their website.  If one knows exactly what one is looking for, then the web is a great way to do comparison shopping; but when one is just browsing, looking for gift ideas, the printed catalogs are far superior.

The technophiles are likely to say that it's just a matter of time until the online systems are just as browsable as the printed catalogs.  I suppose that may be true, although I'm a little sceptical.  More importantly, I wonder what the point is?  It's another facet of the "future of books" discussion -- if we think that we can replicate every important feature of a printed book, then we think we should.  But why?  Print remains a great technology, wonderfully suited for many purposes.  Everything doesn't have to be done online.

The final part of my Christmas routine, by the way, occurs somewhere around the 21st to the 23rd of the month, when I take a day to go out to the stores.  By that time I've already done all of my major shopping, so I'm not really looking for anything specific, just hoping to run across that one additional cool item that'll light Lynn's eyes up.  But I like the experience (in a moderate dose) of being out among the crowds and seeing how the stores are decorated and even listening to the cheesy Christmas music coming out of the bushes.  It's another part of the total experience that can't be replicated online.