Put Things Off: Great Potential; Needs Work

PTO icon

PTO: will be cool someday

To-do apps for the iPhone are a dime a dozen. So when one comes along that goes about things differently, it’s worth a closer look. Put Things Off, by spiffingapps.com is that kind of app.

PTO is a very simple task manager, more suited to the AutoFocus crowd than the GTD folks. (If you’re already lost, try reading this.)  But it goes about things in a rather novel way: rather than emphasizing the need to do things, PTO makes it easy to, well, just put things off. Each task can be deferred by a fixed amount of time with just one tap. The period to which tasks are put off can be changed in the app’s settings.

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Getting Things Done vs AutoFocus: A Preliminary Comparison

tempus fugit

tempus fugit

Getting Things Done (GTD) is  David Allen’s blockbuster time management approach.  AutoFocus (AF) is Mark Forster’s method for staying organized, which is gaining popularity quite quickly.  Though they have they same goal, I’ve not seen two more dissimilar ways of achieving it.  As I try to keep myself organized – and (no surprise) doubtless end up designing my own time management system – researching what’s available is an important part of the process.  And while this is neither an exhaustive nor an authoritative comparison, it has been beneficial in my own thinking.  So I thought I’d share.

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Defying Gravity: a great show on the verge of extinction

A cool show that deserves a chance.

A cool show that deserves a chance.

It really pisses me off when good TV shows don’t get a chance to succeed just because they’re not immediately monster hits. Firefly is the classic example. The new kid on the (chopping) block is Defying Gravity, the new age, sci-fi, high-tech adventure show by the people who brought us Grey’s Anatomy. The show suffers poor ratings and has been teetering at the edge of cancellation for weeks now.  I say: so what?  This is not The Bachelor, or Oprah, or any other of the sad offerings on television these days that qualify fully as opiate for the masses.  This is an intelligent show that requires patience and attention.  It has things to say, and the networks need to give it time to say ’em.

The show was apparently pitched as Grey’s Anatomy In Space. Granted that sounds stunningly dumb, and I can understand how people might run away screaming from that, but this ridiculously trite sound bite hides a lot of pretty great stuff.

Defying Gravity is the story of the eight international astronauts who embark on a six year journey on a very well designed spaceship Antares, to five planets in our solar system. The show takes place about 50 years in the future.  The eight astronauts – four men and four women – are to carry out a variety of scientific experiments – or so we think. Weird stuff is going on. Two of the astronauts are suddenly replaced just before launch because they both develop identical heart defects that disqualify them from the program, defects that usually take decades to develop.  Then there’s something called Beta which seems to be influencing decisions by the administration and the government, urging them in mysterious ways to run the $10 trillion space mission according to its wishes, or needs.

The first eight episodes establish the characters of the astronauts, and of some of the ground crew at Mission Control, while also establishing the societal and technological background of life in the 2050’s.  It becomes quickly clear that this isn’t Star Wars with its classic stereotypical characters, or Battlestar Galactica, with its tainted, comprehensively dysfunctional crew.  This is very strictly a show about clean, intelligent, reasonable, but flawed, people.  Their problems are not of transgalactic significance to anyone but themselves.  This is the key juxtaposition of science fiction: regular folks in irregular situations.  This amplifies the actions and choices of the characters, so that the audience members are made more aware of the nuances of the actions and choices that they themselves take every day.  As such, the more normal the characters, the better – so that the audience can relate to them better, and thus “get into” the show, or film, or book.

This is, of course, not to everyone’s liking.  Many people expect science fiction to involve a lot of fairly typical adventure.  The Stargate franchise is a great example of this.  Neither high art nor cheesy space opera, the Stargate programs finds a nice balance between big space battles, nerdy humour, sundry battles of wits, and the occasional romantic moment.  Not perfect as any one thing, but with enough of each to keep many people happy for many years.

Defying Gravity, on the other hand, is more like – and I’m not sure I believe I’m writing this – Grey’s Anatomy.  It uses a rather specialized and respected situation (doctors working in a hospital) to study how people react to peculiar situations.  The basic change in Defying Gravity is just the use of astronauts instead of doctors.  Some might say it’s not imaginative.  And they’d be wrong.  There’s only so much you can do with one situation; there’s no reason to have just Grey’s Anatomy, when you can have another venue to get some points across better.

Of course, most people lack either the brains, stamina, or character to watch eight episodes of a show intended to just set up a story.

So, by the time episode #9 hit the air, the show was teetering on the edge of oblivion.  There were several articles announcing the show’s cancellation, which were picked up and repeated ad nauseam by other news services, and eventually a few articles (such as this one) about an announcement from ABC, its “home network,” saying that the show had not been cancelled, but just rescheduled.  Episode #9 was the last one shown on ABC (as of this writing).  In the meantime, Space seems to be continuing to show more episodes.

This is so typical of the networks, and reinforces my conviction that Defying Gravity is being targeted for cancellation: ABC put the show on hold just before showing episode #9, one of the most important episodes so far.  If they’d’ve bothered to watch it, they’d’ve realized that #9, “Eve Ate the Apple,” really changed things.

This episode revealed Beta, obviously some kind of alien life, to both the crew of the Antares, and the viewing public.  At the same time, we get answers to a number of key questions that had been hanging in the air virtually since the first episode.  But like any good mystery, each answer just leads to more questions.  These new questions aren’t at all obvious; the writers don’t just bash us about the head and shoulders with them.  Instead, most are just floated casually, almost as if we’re not meant to notice them (yet).  That’s a sign of good writing: set things up now, so that later we go A-ha! cuz all the clues were there, but subtle enough to not spoil the moment (think, The Sixth Sense).

By the time episode #9 was over, it was evident that the reason for having so much character and story background in the first eight episodes was to prepare the audience for episode #9.  The only way their reactions to such a significant discovery (alien life) make sense is if we know them.  And that’s why they needed all the touch-feely emotion stuff in the first eight episodes: we had to get to know the characters.  Now that the secret of Beta is out, all the characters – who’ve been so carefully developed so far – get to go off in their own directions.

And run off in different directions they do.  Every character has a distinct reaction to Beta, and very reaction is entirely reasonable given that character’s background, ranging from Donner‘s suspicious acceptance, to Nadia‘s hedonistic aversion, to Paula‘s religious zealotry.  I found myself really interested in their reactions, because I’d been on the journey with them and gotten used to how they act and think.  And to see them react gave me pause with regards to my own feelings about the “reveal” of Beta.  It’s wonderful, I think, to watch two characters to whom you’ve become accustomed over time, suddenly have diametrically opposed reactions to something new to them.

It’s surprising that a show that is apparently getting such low ratings is also garnering so much attention from the “thinking public.”  For instance, there’s an interesting exchange at the somewhat oddly named feministing.com.  The first post attempts to excoriate the show’s producers for creating a future world in which abortion and even pregnancy tests are illegal.  The arguments put forward are perfectly reasonable, except that they miss the point of the show, as was carefully pointed out in a rebuttal by James Parriott, who writes for and produces the show.  To summarize, the setting of the show is just that – a setting; the real point of the show is how the characters react to the situations in which they find themselves.

This kind of intelligent, clearly thought out dialogue between educated individuals makes clear that the show did it’s job and got people thinking.  Not like what we get from shows like Survivor: Samoa or Jerry Springer.

It certainly doesn’t help that some “critics” have panned Defying Gravity for no reasons I can fathom.  Case in point: the incredibly stupid review by Mark Whittington at examiner.com.  He appears to be affiliated with the Houston Space News Examiner, whatever that is, so one would expect this twit to have some sense of science.  He seems, however, to have a clue neither of science nor of story-telling.  Here’s a few examples:

  • In reference to sending a human crew to explore the planets, Whittington writes: “That straight away tells one of the lengths the series took to ignore science.”  (He’s referring to the very well-known cost-benefit analyses that show the biggest bang for the buck come from sending robots and probes, rather than humans, to explore the solar system.)  First, the series itself did nothing; if something was done, it was the show’s staff.  Whittington could do with some remedial English instruction.  Second, this indicates the kind of stereotypical close-mindedness that only the dullest humans attribute to scientists.  A real scientist would note the discrepancy and say: I do not know why there is such an apparent contradiction between our best information and the show’s premise; hopefully, this will be explained in some subsequent episodes.
  • He also writes: “This usually consisted of soap opera, personal relationship nonsense, coupled with a mystery involving something called ‘Beta’ and the ‘true purpose’ of the mission. Lots of air time was eaten up with pointless flashbacks to the training regime for our intrepid crew.”  Let’s set aside the machismo oozing from his words.  If he’d bothered to let the show develop enough to explain Beta and the real nature of the mission, he’d’ve understood the role of all that emotional stuff.  The flashbacks are pointless to Whittington, and that’s fine.  But in the grander scheme of things, I would strenuously argue that the flashbacks are a perfectly sensible way of pulling memories of the crew up to the surface to make us share their mental states.  Think about it: how often does something happen to you that reminds you of something else that happened in your past?  That is, you only think of the memory because of what’s happening in the moment.  That’s a flashback.  Using the flashbacks as they did, the show’s writers were trying to show you how the characters were thinking.  For me, this works just fine besides reflecting how people think.  One might wonder if Whittington has never noticed this typical human tendency to call up memories based on current context; in which case, he needs to go discover himself – preferably somewhere far, far away.
  • Near the start of his review, he writes: “Since interplanetary voyages tend to be boring, even when things occasionally go wrong, the show’s writers had to invent improbable things to happen for the time the ship was between worlds.”  And later, he adds that to create a proper space show, the producers should “sit down with a lot of scientists, astronauts, and futurists and plan out what the mission is going to look like, who the crew will be, and what they might find at their destination.”  This pair of statements seem contradictory, because his suggestion for a proper space show would result in a story of, in his own words, very boring interplanetary voyages.  So is he advocating that the only proper space show is a boring space show, or is he just stupid?
  • Whittington writes: “do not pull out the hoary old ‘secret conspiracy’ device to try to make things interesting. This too has been done to death.”  Actually, there is no conspiracy in Defying Gravity.  It is apparent that everyone on the ground knew the secret of Beta would get out.  They were only trying to control how the secret got out – for the obvious political reasons: the secret was to be allowed “out” after the election.  And how many times have you heard of important information being withheld before an election?
  • He also writes: “do not rely too much on sex to drive your show.”  Dude, pay attention!  For most of the episodes, the only sex happens in the flashbacks, which cover some five years.  People will have sex.  And most reasonable thinkers understand that if you’re in space for a long time, you’ll need some way to release those natural urges.  In the space-based parts of Defying Gravity, the crew use medicinal patches that dampen the sexual libido.  Ain’t no one gettin’ any aboard the Antares.  Whether the patches work in the long term is anyone’s guess, and, quite frankly, adds a very interesting angle to the show’s potential to explore human behaviour.

So to summarize, Mark Whittington clearly has written a review that is inaccurate and based on some kind of bizarre personal agenda – at least that’s the only explanation I can offer for the stupendous superficiality of his review.

And yet, people read this twaddle.  And then they decide not to watch the show.  Ratings go down.  Another great show risks getting canned.  Everyone suffers.  Thanks for nothin’!

It is possible to find online episodes of Defying Gravity.  I would encourage you to try to watch the first 9 episodes at least, and make up your own mind.

And if you want to do something to try to save the show, you can sign an online petition.  I did, and I hope you do too.

Diigo V4 goes live

Diigo V4 is here!

Diigo V4 is here!

Diigo is a web-based bookmarking and annotation service.  I’ve written about it before.  It’s the service I prefer over all the other free and comparable services because it seems to have just the right mix of functionality and usability for me.

One thing I have complained about in the past was the look and feel of the site, which seemed clumsy, especially when compared to what I think is the most well-designed bookmarking service: Delicious.

Well, someone was listening to me, I guess, because Diigo just announced version 4 of their site.  And the key piece of the upgrade is a new and very much more polished look and feel.  Indeed, the layout of the page is quite similar to Delicious!  That’s okay by me; as far as I know, Delicious hasn’t protected its look and feel.  This is just Diigo’s recognition of a superior aspect of another product.

Of course there’s more to Diigo V4 than just the look and feel.  The other features are:

  • web page snapshots on demand;
  • improved search;
  • improved annotation features (important for Diigo as a collaboration tool);
  • a new, more streamlined way to share links and follow the links of individuals and groups;
  • highly expanded and refined group-based activities;
  • a new meta page structure for summarizing a user’s overall activities;
  • an iPhone app (pending Apple’s approval); and
  • a variety of other improvements.

You can read further details at the Diigo blog.

This is a good upgrade, besides providing a new and better service, it’s aggressive enough to indicate clearly that Diigo is interested in providing an excellent service, without totally re-inventing the service (which would have alienated some users).  Version 4 a brand new version, so there are probably a few bugs in it, but overall it’s A Good Thing.

“Shouting Fire” will have you seeing red

I recently saw the new documentary “Shouting Fire: stories from the edge of free speech.”  I must say, it’s well-worth watching.  The film is about the First Amendment and free speech in the United States.  More specifically, it’s about the perceived endangerment of free speech in the US.  It consists of a collection of stories, each revolving around the use and abuse of free speech.  There’s even a Facebook page for people to find out more about the film and engage in discussions.  There is a clearly political tone to the piece: it’s makers seem staunchly in favour of the First Amendment as an inviolate tenet of American life, to be sacrificed for no one and nothing.

You may find yourself at once attracted and repulsed by this documentary.  I certainly was.  The story of  Debbie Almontaser, for instance, is a great example of how a thoughtful, caring person – who happens to be Muslim – was torn to shreds by the mass media.  Although Ms. Almontaser always represented herself thoughtfully and intelligently, she was naive enough to speak in ways that were easily twisted by certain news outlets and anti-Muslim racist groups in the US to appear to suggest exactly the opposite of what she actually meant.  Here is a case of good words, utterly in perhaps the wrong context, or with a lack of appreciation for the peculiarities of certain segments of American culture, becoming bad ones.  Perhaps Ms. Almontaser was too naive.  But it appears quite certain that a significant number of New Yorkers displayed ignorance on a cosmological scale, a streak of malice as wide as the Mississippi River, and a nearly clinical lack of empathy.

The documentary also covers the story of Ward Churchill, who was removed from his post as a Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder for “research misconduct.”  Churchill’s writings are intentionally controversial and inflammatory (check out his titles in Google Scholar).  The man is clearly well-educated and has an excellent grasp of English.  It seems, then, that he intentionally chooses to write and say things that piss people off.

This isn’t what professors do.  Once granted the status of professor, one is expected to uphold a certain code of conduct – at least in matters of intellect.  This code includes, among other things, communicating in the most rational and reasonable way possible.  And communication is a vital characteristic of the professoriate: knowledge is useless if it cannot be communicated, and professors are the keepers of knowledge.  They may be passionate, but they must abide by the centuries old rules of good, meticulous research and its communication.  Time and time again over the centuries it has been shown that those who implement slash-and-burn policies of self-expression, writing, and speaking end up being ignored and, often, proved wrong.

It seems evident that Churchill intentionally abdicated this responsibility.  The question in the Churchill case is: does free speech trump a professor’s responsibilities?  It seemed that the makers of the documentary thought it did.  I disagree.  Churchill was granted the right of free speech as an American citizen.  But he chose to be a professor, knowing full well what the professor’s responsibilities were.  (I refuse to believe anyone would subject themselves to the personal suffering needed to achieve a professorship without knowing what they were getting themselves into.)  No one forced him to be a professor.  He could have gained just as much notoriety and disseminated his ideas just as quickly without being a professor.  His ideas would have been no more praised or vilified without his professorial standing as with it.  Because it was his choice, then he also had to accept the responsibilities that require, not a muzzling of his right to free speech, but rather a choice of language, tone, and vocabulary that is designed to not be inflammatory and intentionally confrontational.  He chose instead to abdicate those responsibilities.  This demeans the professoriate.  To maintain the status of the professoriate and the trust that others should have of it, he just had to go.

These are just two examples of the stories that are covered in this documentary.

You might love it, or you might hate it.  But whatever else, you’ll be glad you watched it.

Why I chose Pageflakes over Netvibes

Even though Pageflakes is a little clumsier, it has functionality that Netvibes doesn’t.

There’s a category of web software called “start pages.”  These are sites that let you assemble your own Web pages out of widgets, gadgets, and snippets than each implement some specific function.  One of their most important – and oldest – functions is to gather and display news feeds from the Web.  But you can do much more than that with them: you can add a clock, a description of the weather, stock market quotes, check the traffic through popular web sites, create to-do lists, play games, and access other services like Google Mail, or Facebook, all through little boxes on a Web page.

For some people, these start pages are the cat’s meow.

Years ago, I got an account on Netvibes – which remains the leader of the pack in terms of popularity – and thought it was great.  Below is an image with a sample of some of the kinds of widgets you can get on Netvibes.  On the left is Google Calendar running in a widget.  In the centre column is a news feed constructed of items I’ve tagged with “sustainability” in Google Reader, followed by a dynamically updated graph by Alexa of the number of page views on a few of the popular social bookmarking sites.  On the right is the built-in tool to tag and bookmark sites, above a slideshow of one of my picture albums on Picasa.  Clearly, there’s all sorts of things you can do with Netvibes.

A small sampling of Netvibes widgets

A small sampling of Netvibes widgets

You can set up tabs within your Netvibes page to organize your feeds and widgets; it has a good assortment of themes and customizations; and the software looks good and acts right.  Of course, since Netvibes provides a free service, there are the occasional bugs – like some, but not all, of my Google Calendar appointments render with the wrong time zone in Netvibes’ Icalendar widget.  Or that for several months, the Alexa widget showed only 1 site, no matter how many I had configured in to it.

Still, Netvibes is one very smooth Web app.  I especially like their to-do list widgets, that let you interactively reorder the items and change their colours.  Here’s a shot of some of my Netvibes to-do widgets.

Some of my to-do widgets in Netvibes.

Some of my to-do widgets in Netvibes.

Over time, though, I came to realize that start pages can be so much more.

…I’ll skip all the time I spent trying to find just the right way to benefit from start pages.  Instead I’ll just write that in the end, it wasn’t a matter of figuring out how to use all the widgets, but figuring out how to stitch together a number of tools, of which a start page was only one.

Of course, I’d also heard of the iGoogle start page.  I checked a few others, including MyYahoo, and smaller efforts like Sthrt. MyYahoo and iGoogle both had a serious problem: I couldn’t make my pages there public for the world to see.  Since one of the reasons I wanted a start page was to present an aggregated view of information I’d collected for my students and the public at large, this eliminated both MyYahoo and iGoogle.  The other services all had significant problems of one kind or another.

When the dust settled, there were only two players left: Netvibes and Pageflakes.  Netvibes is clean, efficient, and well-run, and their support is just fine.  Pageflakes feels a little clunkier, and there are occasional service outages that don’t seem to be explained anywhere by their staffers.  They are both very easy to use.  If that were all there was to it, I’d’ve stuck with Netvibes.

But Pageflakes offers a few widgets that Netvibes doesn’t, and these, for me at least, made all the difference in the world.

The Blog and Message Board widgets in PageFlakes

The Blog and Message Board widgets in PageFlakes

The blog widget might seem weird for a site intended to aggregate the content from other blogs, but it’s very useful.  For example, I have a tab (or a pagecast as they like to call it in Pageflakes-speak) devoted to my recent trip to Sweden.  On that tab, among other things, is a blog widget where I write about what the trip meant to me.  Basically, you can set up tabs for any number of topics, and include a mini-blog that covers just that topic right in the tab itself.  And these blogs support pretty broad formatting (via a WYSIWYG editor), commenting, and their own RSS feeds.

Mind you, it’s not a full-blown blog system (like this one), but it’s plenty good enough for many smaller tasks.

Next is the message board widget.  This widget lets anyone post short messages, including nested replies, as you can see in the image to the left. Different from the blog, which is basically just one-way communication, the message board approximates some kind of chat facility.

Again, no matter what you’re doing on a Pageflakes tab, you can add a message board to let people ask you questions or post other thoughts, which you can then reply to.

The AnyFlake widget is the third great idea at Pakeflakes.  It lets you create HTML either in a WYSIWYG editor or in raw text, and will render pretty faithfully whatever you put into it.  This means you can embed other things – like youtube videos – into an AnyFlake.  Or you can create a surprisingly complex document with many features of HTML (headings, lists, embedded images, links, colour changes, etc.) that will live inside a widget on a tab.  You really can put nearly anything into an AnyFlake.

How does Netvibes compete with this?  Not very well.  While it doesn’t really have a widget like Pageflakes’ AnyFlake, Netvibes does have a number of very crisp widgets that can, between them, handle anything that AnyFlake can do.  Unfortunately, Netvibes can match neither the message board nor the blog widgets in Pageflakes.  All Netvibes has to offer is a Wall widget, on which anyone can write up to 1,000 character messages.  Unlike the blog widget, there’s no formatting, or embedding of images or links in the Wall.  It just doesn’t compare.

In fairness, I will also say that the ToDo widget in Pageflakes is really not up to its cousin on Netvibes.  And that irritates me, because I love my to-do lists.

Of course, Pageflakes has many other widgets, some of which are essentially the same as Netvibes widgets, and others that are substantively different.  You’ll have to explore them on your own.  All I can say is that, for me, the extra functionality of the Pageflakes blog and message board widgets really opens up possibilities; and the consistent simplicity of the AnyFlake lets me generate custom widgets pretty quickly.  As a professor, I can easily see a tab for each of my courses, with a list of bookmarked resources specific to the course, a message board for students to ask questions of both me and the rest of the class, a blog for me to make announcements, a picture gallery of interesting images relating to the course….  All kinds of interesting possibilities there.

In the meantime, you can check out all my public Pageflakes tabs at http://www.pageflakes.com/FilSalustri.  And if you’re looking for a start page that offers a lot of good functionality, then you need to take a good look at Pageflakes.

My web presence, IV: Diigo wins by an annotation

I’ve decided to use Diigo as my key bookmarking app.  Here’s why.

There’s a lot of useful stuff on the web, but it’s usually hidden in an awful lot of crap.  As a professor and design researcher, it’s important for me to have access to a wide assortment of good information.  The web can deliver that information only as fast as I can identify it.  So when I do find something particularly useful, I want to make sure I can remember (a) that it exists and (b) where it is.

Enter bookmarking apps.  These are web-based applications that let you bookmark other sites, and then search your bookmarks quickly.  Because the bookmarks are stored on servers elsewhere on the web, there are two immediate and important benefits.  First, you can get at your bookmarks from anywhere (i.e. you don’t have to carry your laptop around with you just for the sake of accessing your bookmarks).  Second, you can share bookmarks with others (this is an interesting and under-utilized method of collaboration these days).

Years ago, I’d pondered the few existent bookmarking services and found them all lacking on one particular front: you can tag a website, but the service won’t index the site too.  I think indexing would be good because the only “best” set of tags is an exhaustive set of descriptors and keywords that describe the item, which no one really wants to type in.  Most keywords are already in the item’s content, so why should one have to type them in again?  By indexing items, one can use fewer tags, which also makes tagging easier and more consistent.

So, since I couldn’t find what I needed, I decided to roll my own.  It’s quite buggy still, but SERF does work, sort of.  I call it “anti-social bookmarking” because I’m the only user who can add/edit items.  That’s mostly because (a) the software is still, as they say, pre-alpha, and (b) it’s only for storing the links that I care about for my teaching and research.  I’d love to develop it further, but I can’t get the funding I need to develop it as a research project, and I can’t find programmers I trust to work on it for me a-la FOSS.  (Though I’m always open to opportunities.)

But the web waits for no man, and while SERF is good for some things, there are more items that I want to track than I can possibly add to SERF – partly because many of them don’t have that much to do with my work.

So I needed something else, something I could use to pitch items into as temporary storage, but still functional enough that I can use it to quickly look things up when I need them – and make them available to my students and colleagues.

I’d had a Delicious account for ages, but never really used it.  By the time I realized that I really needed a bookmarking app, there were competitors.  So for the past couple of months, I’ve been playing with Delicious, StumbleUpon, Diigo, and Twine.  And I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Diigo is what I need.  I decided this based on five criteria: bookmarking functionality, look and feel, extra functionality, shareability, and performance.

Bookmarking

Delicious, Diigo, and Twine all have comparable basic bookmarking functionality, including appropriate bookmarklets and toolbars.  Basically, you navigate to the page you want to bookmark, click the right icon and you get some sort of popup that lets you tag the item, add a description, and, depending on the service, do various other things.  Twine has the most web-2.0-ish facility, but that doesn’t necessary impress me.  All but StumbleUpon recommend tags based on others who tagged the same resource.  But since I have my own tagging scheme that I find is significantly different from those of most other users, this doesn’t really matter to me.

As far as basic bookmarking goes, all four systems are pretty evenly matched.

Look and feel

Look and feel is, for me, extremely important, partly because I do appreciate an aesthetically pleasing web site, but also because I’ve found that look and feel ties very closely to usability.

Here, Delicious really shines.  It has an absolutely brilliant look and feel.  The screen is laid out in very carefully chunked areas that have consistent structure and content no matter what part of the site you access.  Every little design feature of the page serves a very clear purpose, and everything is there only once – there’s no redundancy.  Everything is visible: no strange icons or bits of text magically appear when you mouse over something.  (That really annoys me.)  I’m sure people who specialize more in web usability could go into much more detail, but suffice it to say that the Delicious look and feel is, for me, like a breath of fresh air.

Diigo comes in second.  It has a good layout with just a little redundancy.  Everything is visible.  I don’t like Diigo’s rendering of the tag cloud; it’s not as elegant as that in Delicious.  Indeed, the entire site is just not as elegant as Delicious – it looks slightly rough and seems to not use screen space quite as well as does Delicious.  (This might be because Delicious has been around for so much longer that its developers have had the time to carefully tweak the look and feel much more.)

StumbleUpon is next.  It’s interface is interesting, but not flexible enough for me.  I wish there were other ways of arranging things; I don’t mean just skins or themes here, I mean the arrangement of the actual items.  It has an ugly tag cloud.  I wish there was an easy way to get rid of the screenshot thumbnails for each entry; I can understand that some people might like them, but I find them useless.  And I was never able to get rid of them.  I don’t like how they string tags and the URL on one line, because if you have more than a few tags, the URL is truncated.  Indeed, showing the URL is of limited use anyways.  The other systems expect you to mouse over the item’s title and look at the address bar of your browser.  Put all these things together, and you get an app that I just don’t feel comfortable using, compared to the others.

Twine, unfortunately, comes up last here.  I tried real hard to understand the Twinerly way of doing things, but I just couldn’t get it.  I keep loosing track of which part of the screen I should be looking at, and what all the boxes were for.  The problem isn’t exactly the layout, but it’s the content.  For instance, under My Items, you can filter the list of your bookmarked items in lots of different ways – too many ways, if you ask me – including by “related people,” the meaning of which I’ve not yet deciphered.  Lists of items also seem to include all manner of items including individual bookmarks, twines (socially-constructed feeds of items on particular topics), comments you may have posted on individual items, and other things too.  I find this confusing, and I wish they were somehow compartmentalized.

Long story short, every time I use Twine is like the first time.  Which is not good.

Extra functionality

Each of these services provides extra functionality of one type or another.  Caveat lector: this category is very subjective, because the functionality I value is the functionality I need – which might not be what you need.

All four services offer alternative ways to establish groups around specific topics or subjects.  Each site has it’s own particular way of doing it, but they all really amount to the same thing.  They also all offer RSS feeds for virtually any list of items you can generate.

StumbleUpon has a very interesting service: you specify what kinds of websites you like (about, say, science fiction, or AJAX programming, or Labrador Retrievers) , and then when you hit the Stumble button, you are taken to a random site of that kind.  You then rate it with a simple thumbs up or down.  StumbleUpon’s recommendation engine uses your ratings continually fine tunes it’s recommendations.  I really like this approach – it’s clean and simple – but it works for people who aren’t looking for anything in particular, which is a category that doesn’t include me most of the time.

Twine’s unique contribution is it’s AI-ish tagging engine that is supposed to help you tag things and organize them into feeds (twines).  The problem for me is that my personal tagging style is informed by years of study on classification systems and taxonomies, which means I’m not your average tagger.  So Twine’s recommended tags rarely line up with what works for me.

Delicious offers little in the way of extra functionality except for being able to search the entire tag cloud of all entries, which can be amusing, but no where near as much fun as StumbleUpon.  But Delicious is the purist’s bookmarking site and extra functionality is just not what it’s about.  Which is fine by me.

Then there’s Diigo.  Diigo allows you to highlight and annotate sections of a web page, and share those annotations with other users.  Installing the Diigo toolbar gets you a collapsible sidebar in which all these annotations can be read side-by-side with the corresponding source material.  This means that groups of people can collaboratively analyze documents online and asynchronously.  It also means I can note specific passages that are important to me, so that when I come back to them later, when I’ve forgotten why I bothered to bookmark the site, I can just read my own annotations and remember what all the fuss was about.  Absolutely brilliant, especially for scatter-brained eggheads like me.

In terms of extra functionality, Diigo runs away with the prize.

Shareability

By shareability, I mean the ease with which bookmarks can be shared with others.  Here, again, Diigo pulls out in front – just by a tad – by providing synchronization of Diigo bookmarks with some other services, including Delicious.  I haven’t seen comparable services from the others.

All four systems support RSS feeds, and sharing via other mechanisms like email, or the formation of groups or other structures like them.

Performance

In terms of access speed, page load speed, and general zippiness, the only site that I found quite slow indeed was Twine.  Not only did the pages take long to load, but there are often quite dramatic pauses between clicking on a link and getting any response.  I know it’s not my ISP, because everything is behaving properly.  Perhaps Twine’s AI features combined with its recent and sudden increase in popularity is putting a bit of pressure on their servers.  I hope that’s all it is.

Still, speed is everything these days.  Web 2.0 apps were originally conceived especially to improve (perceived) performance on the client side.  So a slow Web 2.0 app, such as Twine, is really a contradiction in terms.

Summary

StumbleUpon has the fun factor, and Delicious has the brilliant look and feel.  These are important.  But to me, nothing can beat the raw functionality of Diigo’s annotation system.  Twine, unfortunately, just didn’t make the grade.

So, while your mileage may vary, I’m convinced Diigo is the cream of the crop for me.  And since I sync my Diigo bookmarks to Delicious, I also have an excellent “Plan B.”

I also continue to check updates on both Twine and StumbleUpon, because they’re different from what Diigo offers, and I occasionally find some really cool sites that way.

Other things

Sometimes, strange things happen on the Internet.  One of these things is Compete.com’s graph of unique visitors to Delicious, Twine, and Diigo.  The sudden spike in activity for Delicious relates, I think, to their offering connectivity with Twitter.  Twine’s increased activity, however, is different; it’s more gradual and shows all the marks of classic exponential growth (i.e. “going viral”) that mark word-of-mouth transmission.  The dip in the past month could be an anomaly – after all, some people just get caught up in things when they go viral, and eventually come the other side saying: What was I thinking? – or it could be something else; we’ll just have to wait and see.

It’s the exponential growth that gets me.  What in the world got into people?  I’ve been experimenting with Twine since long before October 2008 when the growth started, and I noticed nothing.  Sure, there were some changes to Twine’s user interface a few months ago, but they seemed pretty minor to me.

And then there’s the Alexa rank data for all four bookmarking sites, which you can see at the top left of my Computers tab on Pageflakes.  Since it’s rank that’s displayed, the low number is best.  Notice that Twine is the lowest rank, and StumbleUpon is first.  Also notice that something happened just before April.  This tells a different story than does Compete.com.  And I can’t find any explanations anywhere.

So much data; so little information.

Wrap-up

Lesson: I didn’t know what I really needed till I played with these systems.  You can rarely solve a real problem just by thinking about it – no matter what they taught you in high school.  To solve real-world problems, you have to act, to do things that poke at the problem.  This sets up a feedback loop between the problem and your brain that let’s your brain work both consciously and unconsciously on the problem.  This means you’ll solve the problem faster.

So when you’re looking for any kind of system, take the time to play with the alternatives and take the time to reflect on the good and bad points of each.  Make notes.  Then weigh the pros and cons of each and make an informed decision.  It’s harder and takes longer than just choosing something, but the upfront cost will more than pay off in increased productivity (and fun too!) later on.


Also see my last post about my web presence: A First Attempt.