Plus ca change

google plusI’ve been using Google+ for a while now and I’m starting to build up a bit of stickability with it. There are already millions of guides and resources building up around it, a bit like the buzz surrounding launch of an Apple product. Including Mashable resources, the Google+ guide and Professors use of Google+ in classrooms to name three I’ve read recently.

The launch of Google+ put me off a little, because it was much like that of Google Wave in that there was a kind of limited public release surrounded by lots of PR and buzz. Luckily they moved quickly to a more open release as I was complaining that the whole concept of circles seems diminished if you can’t share with other Google people who are excluded from the release.

Lets start with Circles…

I enjoy the circle concept for allowing me to place people and share with different groups. I don’t on the whole enjoy categorising people though and I started to try it at the beginning and quickly just moved everyone into my ‘friends’ circle. I have however more recently received some requests from people I don’t know so well and have set up a circle for them. I also move people between circles and so I’m becoming familiar with the paradigm. I do think it’s a bit like Grainne Conole said in her recent keynote at MoodleMOOT about the evolution of people and technology and I’m wondering how much I’m adapting my behaviour to suit the product.

There are ways to do ‘friend’ grouping within Facebook and friends of mine who are adept at Facebooking do set up groups to share specific things with. I’ve always said that I find the cognitive overhead of this a bit much for what are, in effect, just my public outpourings. In general within Google+ I tend to share with everyone but there have been occasions where I’ve selected groups to share with and so the intuitive method Google+ have devised to allow this may well mean that I start doing this more often and therefore the metaphor is more like one of entering different rooms or online forums where you pick the forum you want to post to and go there to do it.

The streams are quite Twitter like, although at the moment more like Facebook because there aren’t too many people posting however I expect as the numbers grow the ‘streams’ will really start flowing and managing that will be like dipping in with twitter. I’m sure that Google have done testing to see that under heavy usage the important stuff does actually surface using the +1 concept and the fact that you can select the groups (circles) to view but I don’t think there’s enough usage yet to really get the impression of how this will pan out.

I like the fact that you can post longer posts than with Twitter. Twitter is good in limiting you to say thing succinctly but there are times when you need more words to express yourself than Twitter allows easily. I’m very verbose though (as you can tell from this post!). The lack of limit though means that there is more scope for pedagogic  application.

What about Hangouts?

I tried using the hangout feature (not sure that I like the name!) but quickly came unstuck as the whole thing crashed on me. I later discovered (thanks to colleagues who investigated further) that the problems arose because of the local firewalls at work that blocked me from hanging-out. I think this may be a problem for Google if they want to get it used more widely as corporate firewalls will simply not allow it. I’m not generally one for social video sharing as I prefer to mong around in scruffy clothes and unkempt hair when using social sites at home and wouldn’t want the effort of having to become presentable to chat to people. Note to Lord Sugar – That’s why the Amstrad video phone never took off.

So how does it shape up overall?

I like the integration with other Google products, this may well be the killer move since so many people use Gmail or Google Docs regularly. I think that Google+ mixed with Google Apps for Education for example will make a very interesting a dynamic suite for constructivist learning.

I think that on a simplistic level Google have done something that could be considered as much of a social experiment as it is a technology breakthrough. Are people evolving to think more overtly about the groupings they share information with or do they just want to be public and open with everything as they can with Twitter?

I’m still unsure about whether I’ll be sticking with Google+ in the long-term as I tend to spend most of my ‘cognitive overhead’ time in Twitter and even then most of that as a consumer rather than a producer of information, I especially like reading the postings by my peers but also like the feeds coming from tech news services etc. This flow is important to me. What Google + allows though is the movement of information easily between social groups and this may become something extremely useful. It will require the evolution of people and product and it will also require a tipping point where organisations start adopting it so that we get a mixture of social space and feeds of useful information.

For me the jury is still out but I’ve stuck with it for over a week and I logged into it before either Twitter or Facebook this morning so perhaps that is a sign of things to come.

I’d like to know what other people think of it.

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Hidden Influence of Social Networks

I’ve been interested for the past few years in the inference that can be done using publicly available information. The web means that people nowadays give quite a bit of information away freely in their public profiles. There are now a number of tools which automatically attempt to link peoples user accounts together based on profile information provided and there is a lot of other information that is picked up through the routes and links that people click through and make determinations about the type of person, sometimes referred to as social graph privacy.

I found the article “Eight Friends Are Enough” from a group of researchers at Cambridge interesting because, using data provided from Facebook, it seems to support the claims that much can be inferred by the information provided by the person and by their peers (friends). I’ve seen various media articles using this research to make bigger claims for example there was an article in last week’s Sunday Times about how governments are using this type of information for political gain, removing dissident factions and controlling populations. Our own government for example is conspicuously scanning email traffic looking for terrorist threats.

It will be interesting to see how things pan out in the future. I already know that for example I have spent money buying things that were brought to my attention through services designed to target advertising to me based on my previous preferences. That’s a small and some would say innocuous example of how information is used. Humans are influenced by others, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ can sometimes mean that large numbers follow a direction because they see ‘trending’ on Twitter or highlighted on Facebook. Is this any different from reading it in print? – I think the difference is that if you think enough of your friends have liked something you may give it extra gravitas. So the more of the social network we engage in the more our individualism may get polluted? – Or perhaps it no different from going to the pub and agreeing with people just to keep them happy?

Certainly the web opens opportunities for social influence marketing, and consequently for other uses of that information.

Here’s an interesting video on YouTube by Nicholas Christakis: The hidden influence of social networks

Hmm. Ripples in the pond.

My failing memory and fear of going outside

I have just started to use Remember the Milk which is set up to do all those things that you always mean to do but never actually get around to doing. It’s got a good range of web 2.0 type integrators with twitter and phones and google calendar etc. My problem is currently that I’ve not had the time to remember to put reminders into RTM to remind myself to do stuff. I’m now having to put a reminder into RTM to remind me to use RTM to put stuff in! – It must be my age.

Actually one of the developers in my team (Nick) is using RTM and the RTM API to provide some elements of the Social:learn project. I think Social:learn is a fantastic concept in that it’s exploring methods of learning that are much less intitutionally (provider) focused and much more learner focused which is exactly how it should be. The investment is relatively lightweight at this stage as it’s largely glueing, adapting and sharing data across a series of existing tools and architectures but the potential is huge if even one of these applications takes off and I think it’s exactly the right approach to explore in the ‘post VLE’ era where people are less concerned about where they get information from than they are about what the data is and how it will help them.

In the same vein colleagues of mine are discussing moving wholesale away from using the institutional systems to provide them with email, scheduling, document sharing and many other business functions but instead moving over to using external providers for this (e.g. Google) and the arguments against doing this are now being outweighed by the arguments for it. I still have some reservations though and so a group of us are going to explore this and work alongside the central services provider at the OU to see how well these things work to meet staff needs.

Here are some of the argument against (in my opinion)

1. Stuff less secure and more open to attack

2. External providers can disappear or have services out of action when they’re needed.

3. External providers have no responsibility to maintain the (free) services for users.

4. The amount of space you get may not be adequate for your needs

5. There is no “institutional branding” on emails etc. coming from external engines.

6. What happens if things go missing, there’s no backup or retrieval mechanism.

7. There is no (institutional) support for dealing with configuring external clients or services.

8. Stuff coming through external providers may be prone to interception or blocking.

9. It doesn’t integrate with other instituional services.

Here are my responses…

1. The security on services externally is now as good as security internally. The bigger more established players have invested much more time and money into methods of ringfencing and securing data than anything that a public sector institution could do.

2. The datacentres used by most external hosting providers have levels of redundancy which again outstrip anything that could be provided by a single institution. Their businesses rely on keeping the services up 100% of the time, they have massive contingency and failover options in place to ensure that individual parts can be removed without the service failing (there is a good talk that I went to last year as part of the Future of web apps conference by Matt Mullenweg the guy who developed Wordpress about this very topic).

3. This is true although advertising revenue helps to ensure that they have a need to try to maintain free services and these are also the methods people use to get ‘hooked in’ to the next teir of services so not providing these would be catastrophic. Also the big players rely on the number of users they attract, so having a failing free service would soon stop them from operating.

4. This is no longer true, in fact external providers can generally provide more space than any instituional service provider can meet. Email is an example of this with Gmail being vast in size compared to the meagre limit set by the institution (50Mb?).

5. This can be got around. You can do work on the headers to allow them to show that it’s from another account and you can add the instituional signature to emails etc. I think this is problematic though and the header stuff can mean that your mails get trapped. I would suggest though that it may not be the most terrible thing in the world if emails come out from an account which doesn’t have the institutional domain. There have been occasions for example when local email has been down and the IT people here have all switched to Gmail and other mail providers and external IM systems in order to keep in touch and keep exchanges of information running.

6. There can be backup and retrieval. I think it’s to do with how you manage your account. You can for example get POP mail to keep a copy on the server and also download so you can have versions stored by your local mail client periodically. You can set up routines to do this automatically.

7. I think empowering users to help themselves is always a good thing and takes burden off IT support. External systems tend to be very easy to use and configure in order to attract customers. I see that as a good thing for organisations.

8. There is some truth in this however it’s a manageable issue. I’ve heard of people not receiving mail that they should have and others being blocked or blacklisted because the mail server they use is on some blacklist. It’s manageable because if you find it happening then you can do things about it. You can switch to another mail server, you can reduce the likelihood of your email being used by spam bots and you can watch what filters are being applied to incoming or outgoing mail.

9. I would say that the opposite is true. Institutional services tend to be siloed. Internet provided services tend to have open API’s and talk happily to many other tools and services. If they don’t then you can build the integrators yourself.

Finally the reasons FOR going outside..

1. cross browser, cross platform, cross system, cross organisational access to services.

2. No issues or barriers to use.

3. More space to use and store data.

4. Better for sharing.

5. Doesn’t require a complex infrastructure to use (similar to 1 but slightly different in that I’m talking about the dependancies and platform requirements, for example having to use VPN from home and having the Office 200x suite installed on top of Windows)

6. Always available!