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Monthly Archives: March, 2013

Facebook Goes Back to Basics

For the vast majority of Facebook users, there is no notion of Facebook without News Feed and its inevitable stream of political polemics, cat photos, and here’s-me-on-Mount-Everest status updates. But Facebook existed for 2.5 seemingly interminable years without it. Plus, its introduction in August 2006 sparked a strong backlash that, in retrospect, looks weird and out of step with the “progress” of social media, but also predicative of the byzantine privacy maze that would ultimately drive numerous Facebook users away to Snapchat, Tumblr, and Instagram (and yes, I know that Instagram “is” Facebook, technically, but all of its value-add was created by the original Instagram team and it would never have succeeded if mobile-addled Facebook had conceived it).

I began using Facebook in the late summer of 2004 on a Dell desktop running Windows XP (almost everyone at my university had a similar machine; if I were to return today, I suspect I would struggle to find any student who had a desktop running any OS). It’s startling to think about what a cesspool consumer Wintel computing was at that time. Microsoft’s blasé attitude toward security meant that your machine could contract a terminal virus anytime you ventured into the wild west of Internet Explorer. Meanwhile, the wide-open, custom-wallpapered world of MySpace was the default “open” (very much so) tool for networking with friends online, and it possessed a similar “enter if you dare” air. In this context, Facebook was startling. A walled garden with a minimalist look, limited to other university students, and safe: it was an oasis. It was a harbinger of the end of Wintel dominance (which incidentally peaked that year) and the rise of newer, more closely controlled platforms.

Opening up pre-News Feed Facebook took you to your profile, when included some oddities as a fully editable “wall,” a laundry list of your attributes (birthday, last update, etc), and a modest “Quick Search” box in the upper left, which let you find your friends or perform general stalking (just kidding). During this time, the careful pruning and customization of one’s profile consumed most of the time that s/he spent on Facebook.

News Feed changed that in 2006. It was perhaps Facebook’s last innovation, the one that made Facebook look like it does now, and it was very forward-looking for a company that would in subsequent years so often find itself playing catchup. Twitter had been launched only a few months earlier, but wouldn’t really take off for several more years. News Feed was, for ~8 million users, the first look at an easily navigable timeline of status updates and posts. Facebook was now as much about reading the brags of others and it was about bragging on one’s own behalf. It was a flood of information, like a mini-Google for one’s own contacts.

But on the back of Facebook’s runaway user growth in the late 00s and its attendant drive toward monetization, News Feed’s value as a way to get, well, news about friends, began to deteriorate. The informally dubbed, completely opaque EdgeRank algorithm began to prioritize certain types of posts and traffic, meaning that you might never see a friend’s post without having to go to her actual profile. Facebook Ads further muddled the News Feed with “targeted” garbage, making AdBlock all but necessary for viewing the site, but even that slight fix didn’t address the eccentricities of EdgeRank.

Basically, Facebook (in its defense) matured at an odd time in computing. Its explosion in growth neatly dovetailed with the rise of the iPhone and Android. Along the way, it clung to the desktop-born paradigm of having a “profile” while also trying to keep up with new mobile app usage paradigms. It’s funny to look back at it now, but Steve Jobs’ demo of something as completely-taken-for-granted-now as a scrollable contacts list (when he showed off the first iPhone) forced Facebook’s hand. It needed better, more scrollable content in a continuous stream, rather than the discrete profiles that has been its original bread and butter.

The obvious solution to this need has been more focus on images and videos, both from a content curator’s perspective (for Facebook) and a user’s perspective (since sharing images/video feels a bit easier than typing out long textual updates on a mobile device). Facebook has been forced to keep up with both Google+ and Tumblr on these fronts, two networks that came of age once mobile was already in full swing and hence had more time to accommodate image sharing and streams/feeds from the ground up.

Facebook is too late in making these changes. At best, they could have implemented them several years ago when Flipboard launched, since Flipboard’s ability to aggregate your Facebook feed is already a far more progressive view of how one’s News Feed and Wall can be translated into a mobile-friendly, images-first format. Of course, the number of Flipboard users is small relative to the number of Facebook users, so Facebook hasn’t been hurt by its dalliance. And that’s part of the issue: Facebook, like the horrible XP cesspool I mentioned at the outset, has so many users that it can almost afford to be lazy or careless with the quality of its product, since critical mass was reached so long ago and the costs of leaving can be painful.

Today’s Google+–inspired updates to the News Feed – which now permits multiple feeds and greater priority for photos and videos has a ton of minuses for users, including louder/more prominent ads (for the sad souls who don’t use AdBlock) and more opacity in terms of EdgeRank algorithms. But it may have a slight plus (no pun intended), too. With the gradual pollution of the News Feed and the concomitant rise of Graph Search (even if overrated), there may be an opportunity for individual profiles to shine again.

Tired of News Feed? Then use Graph Search to get away and find profiles more easily. It’s perhaps ironic that Facebook’s efforts at mobile-centric modernization may take it back to its roots as a profile-based service (with an assist from its Graph Search), but I think it’s a predictable consequence of Facebook’s monetization. It isn’t part of a wider ecosystem like Google+, nor well-defined by a particular demographic (artists) like Tumblr, so it has to be increasingly forward it how it tries to get revenue from its incredibly varied users. With these stabs at making more money from larger photos and larger ads, user fatigue may continue to rise and drive users back to the profile basics, whether they were there in the 2004-2006 ancient history era or not.

But will that profile-checking occur on Facebook or elsewhere? A major part of Facebook fatigue is that Facebook has too many opaque mechanisms – byzantine privacy controls, EdgeRank algorithms, inconsistent/unpredictable search results – which get in the way of actually comfortably/safely connecting. For many users, these obstacles can be overcome, in the way that enterprise software users often overcome terrible products and continue being productive, at least at some cost. The relative anonymity of Tumblr, or the clean feeds/profiles of Google+ provide real alternatives, but as much as I’d like to hope that better products will win out, Facebook will sputter on, til at least 2023 or something.

-The ScreenGrab Team

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10 Basic Chrome OS “Apps” to Get You Started

Chrome OS has come on big in 2013, thanks to the proliferation of cheap but reliable machines from Samsung and Acer, as well as the meaningless (for now) glitz of the Chromebook Pixel. While some people may easily embrace Chrome OS’s continuous, Web-based model of computing, others may balk at a platform that has no native apps except for a browser and file manager.

Fortunately, Chrome OS still gives us the illusion of having discrete apps that can be docked and clicked to open their own webpages. Here’s a list of some easy-to-use apps to get started

Evernote

Recent hacks aside, Evernote is a reliable tool for storing or creating just about any type of content (text, photos, quotes, videos, screenshots). The Web-based version is fast and lightweight but still highly functional, making it a great counterpart to the native Evernote apps elsewhere.

New York Times

This “app” takes you the Chrome-optimized version of the NYT sight, which is far less-cluttered than its standard page. It also supports Chrome OS’s desktop notification system, which is handy for keeping track of breaking news.

Gmail Offline

Gmail can sometimes be slow, an issue further compounded by limited resources on many Chromebook models. Gmail Offline solves two main issues for Chromebooks: it lets you manage your email more quickly, and it gives your device some real (and rare) offline functionality.

NPR Infinite Player

Infinite, free, customizable listening to NPR stations.

PicMonkey

I’ve actually gotten GIMP to run (albeit painfully slowly) on my ARM Chromebook, but this is a solution much more suited to Chrome OS’s style. It allows for some light photo editing and sharing, with the option to upgrade for more sophisticated features. It also has a handy extension for detecting, capturing and editing images on the current page.

Google Play Music

This one actually comes bundled with Chrome OS. Its Web app is one of the easiest ways to listen to music online, and a must-have in lieu of a fully functional Spotify Web app. You can listen to any of the songs stored in your Google Play Music locker, or songs purchased from the Google Play Store.

TweetDeck

A Web app that runs in a native app-style standalone window, TweetDeck is the best way to use Twitter on Chrome OS. Luckily, it also seems to be getting even greater attention from Twitter now that the iOS, Android, and AIR version of TweetDeck are being retired.

Write Space

My favorite text editor for Chrome OS. White on black, simple, and fast.

IMO Messenger

No native IM apps? No problem! IMO lets you manage all your major IM accounts (AIM, Skype, Jabber, Google Talk) from its Web app.

Pandora

Perhaps a stretch, since this app is just a link to the usual Pandora website, but it’s free music (or paid, higher-quality music, if you have a subscription) nonetheless.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Twitter’s TweetDeck Tweaks a Validation for Chrome and Chrome OS

Quick entry, since the last one is a bit longer.

Twitter has announced that it will abandon the iPhone, Android, and Adobe AIR versions of TweetDeck, a powerhouse Twitter client that it acquired two years ago. It’ll also cease Facebook integration, which I find unsurprising given Facebook’s gradual decline. It’ll maintain the native Mac and PC apps, but it really wants to use its versions for Web and/or Chrome.

The focus on Chrome is interesting. TweetDeck for Chrome has gotten access to some features (like notifications) more quickly than other versions, and its sleek, almost Holo-esque column layout is seemingly made for Chrome’s aesthetic.  On Chrome OS, TweetDeck is indispensable: it maintains its beautiful Web aesthetic while also running in its own application window, a trait reserved almost exclusively for the Chrome OS Files app, which manages your downloads and Google Drive storage. Other than possibly Falcon Pro for Android, it’s the best Twitter experience I’ve had on any platform.

For Twitter power users and Chrome OS fans, there’s something validating about TweetDeck migrating to a largely Web-based existence. For one, it validates Chrome OS’s approach to software, that is, that software can serve most people’s needs by simply running from within a well-designed browser. But Twitter’s move here also demonstrates the subtle divide between mobile and desktop OSes – Twitter’s statement said:

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a steady trend towards people using TweetDeck on their computers and Twitter on their mobile devices,”

meaning that native remains the way to go for mobile while Web is good enough for desktops. Chrome OS’s subtle blend of a Web Tweetdeck app that runs as in its own window as a pseudo native app really is a perfect distillation of how Chrome OS nimbly straddles the mobile/desktop OS boundary.

In any event, Twitter seems to be emphasizing that it is a platform and not an “app.” It’s been a rough go lately for 3rd-party Twitter apps, thanks to the new API rules that limit those apps to only 100,000 user tokens per version and now this scaling back of TweetDeck. The migration away from app-centric computing bodes well for Chrome OS, although I doubt that the native Twitter apps for iOS/Android are going away anytime soon.

-The ScreenGrab Team